I first met Eddie Elson over a decade ago, in the hallway in front of the Memorial Union Rathskeller. I was standing there talking to someone, and suddenly---wham---I was confronted with what I can only describe as the widest grin on the continent.
It is that grin, that overwhelming, refulgent smile ear to ear, past the two ears, engulfing the whole room-that I remember most about Eddie. Above the grin were a pair of glasses over eyes that sparkled like electric arcs, and a curling thatch of brown hair; below it a deceptively sawed-off body that I already knew (from legend -- Eddie was a legendary character from the beginning) belonged to one of the deadliest fighters in Madison. Eddie was known as someone who would dash out on the street whenever he spotted some local yokel or would-be redneck bullying or thrashing some hippie, and, with one punch, two at the most, blast the yokel to kingdom come.
So here was the legendary Eddie Elson, right in front of me, that radiant, sunny grin all over his face. And despite my initial qualms at standing toe to toe with one of Madison's famous tough guys, my first impression was what a truly scintillating character he was. Eddie could take the stage like no one I've met before or since; he was theatrical in the best sense of the word. But his physical presence was nothing compared to what happened when he talked. Off his tongue rolled a torrent of sarcasm, exaggeration, jokes, invective, affection, praise, concern. He would launch into some inspired, truly entrancing rap - always amusing, always loaded with little needles and shots.
On this particular occasion he won me immediately-praising extravagantly (too extravagantly) my acting and my writing in the Daily Cardinal, and then suggesting that the two of us collaborate on an idea he had for a Marat-Sade sort of play which would be set partially at Mendota and would express his detestation of modern psychiatry. Eddie sketched out this idea with real wizardry, deftly, swiftly, his tongue and brain moving in the same rhythm as his jabs and footwork-although, as I quickly discovered, Eddie's reputation as a tough guy was somewhat exaggerated. He was, when you knew him better, gentle, generous and almost childlike in the universal warm flood of his sympathies.
But those raps! Incredible! I'd try to reproduce one here, but there are too many people in Madison who knew Eddie's verbal pyrotechnics and would spot anything I wrote here as a pale imitation-too many people who knew that slightly nasal, sometimes whining voice; those rapid similes, metaphors and flights of fancy; the way he'd make a conversation crackle, and then top it off by bursting into laughter. His vocabulary was uncommonly rich and full of a kind of vast, cross-pollinated mixture of jargons, like Lord Buckley's or George Carlin's. He'd toss off some complex techno-legal descriptions, or the most scabrous gutter invective, then dip into some soft, lyrical piece of poetry, and finally snap you back to reality with another sarcastic jibe. A truly dazzling performance. I always thought Eddie was one of the few writers in Madison who was really touched by genius, but his truest genius was in his conversation.
So after a while I just relaxed, realized that the project he had been outlining was probably far in the future (or, more likely, just a ploy to begin the talk, to draw me into his web) and followed him as he took off. Through the years Eddie proposed a number of projects to me, but at first I was too lethargic to take him up. And besides, he was a cornucopia of ideas and schemes and clever designs, a well that would never run dry. There'd always be the chance to take him up on one when the time was right, when my mood matched his bounding, leaping energy. He'd always be there, always laughing, launching another terrific rap, always ready to pounce on some great new project or scam or lark.
Eddie was best known as the rebel lawyer who took on the psychiatric establishment, the judicial candidate who announced nude from the stage of the Dangle, the audacious scam artist who sold tickets on the comet Kohoutek, the all-around iconoclast and jiver and jester. And I think because of this many people (certainly a lot of what pathetically passes for a Madison "establishment") thought he was some kind of irresponsible clown--funny, perhaps, but lightweight, self-aggrandizing, a publicity hound.
A publicity hound he certainly was, but not in the ordinary sense. He was a better writer than the people who wrote about him, but he was a godsend for them. Most news writers probably offered up a regular little prayer of thanks that someone like Eddie existed to write about. He was a showman, and he calculated most of his moves, but he was also a brilliant improviser and, I think, a truly honest man.
What he was doing, often, was parodying the media, parodying the sleazy side of his own profession, parodying all the excesses of local and national government, all the hypocrisies, the flatulence, the dullness and stupidity that afflict any body politic. His credo might have been an extension of Bernard Shaw's crack: "If you want to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh or they'll kill you."
Now, after Eddie's death-after a memorial service at Temple Beth El that I would have given a lot to attend, that I'm told was crammed to the rafters with mourners, with friends, with admirers-all the contradictions in his character come out a little more forcefully. I've mentioned how often Eddie used to talk to me, but I'm leading you astray if I imply that we were special friends. Rather, Eddie treated a multitude of people as if they were special friends, which is why so many were so stricken when he died. He was one of nature's true democrats, talking to everybody and anybody-more important, listening to them-and he had a way of getting beneath the skin of almost anyone he talked to. I don't think he drew any class or racial or sexual or social distinctions at all, which may be why dogmatists of any stripe were always the first to hate him. He was too much of a genuine libertarian for the hardest-core leftists, too genuinely concerned with human suffering and its remedies for the hardest-assed right.
And so, with all that, I think people wonder: with all that talent, all that generosity, all that brilliance, what could have happened? Why did someone who made so many people laugh, who had such a dead-level fix on all the absurdities and potential of the world, descend into such misery? And where were we all when it came time to pay him back, when he needed some kind of help in return? These questions haunt me, and I think they may haunt a lot of people.
The last time I saw him was several months ago, on a visit to Madison. I'd appeared on a radio talk show, and afterwards there was a phone message from Eddie. I didn't call back, because I felt bedraggled and down, and I thought from the tone of the message that he was going to needle me about something.
So I let the moment slide, and then, several days before I left, I was standing on Park Street with my mother when I heard this unmistakable voice booming at me from across the street. Soon Eddie came bounding up, just as he had all those years ago in the Rathskeller. And, just as he had on that first occasion, he began excitedly running down another project. It was an idea for a film script about a huge intergalactic space war fought over Middle Eastern oil. He wanted to work out a treatment, but somehow, as he outlined it, a lot of the old gusto was missing. We went over it, but I was getting nervous, because I'd promised a phone call to someone. Finally he suggested we all jump into his frankfurter-vending Mad Dog buggy and he'd drop us off on the way to Camp Randall.
I've gone over this last talk endlessly in my mind the past week-castigating myself for not being more forthcoming or encouraging-because, at about Park and Regent, something rather strange and sad began happening. Eddie dropped the space war treatment entirely-as if he sensed I wasn't interested, and was a little hurt by it-and began to talk about his troubles with the city over his Mad Dog buggies, about some hassle over licensing, something or someone he felt was squeezing him out.
Then he began to moan. I'd heard him moan before-it was part of his standard act, an inflection that usually meant, "Oooooh, the shit is really going to hit the fan." But now it seemed more serious. He began to talk about something terrible that was going to happen, and when I asked him, he wouldn't tell me what it was. He seemed somehow to have slipped into the wrong traffic lane, too; he was taking us further and further away from where we were headed, as if the traffic were a current that he just couldn't stem, that was carrying him off.
This was Eddie, remember-who was one of Madison's few genuine heroes, who always gave the impression that he did whatever he wanted, whatever came into his head whether it was slipping bills into the pocket of a hard-luck friend or just suddenly going "Boogie, boogie, boogie!" in a bar. The traffic was carrying him off, or maybe he just wanted to keep talking -- about his projects, about the city screwing him on the vending ordinances, about whatever terrible thing was brewing.
Finally he let us off. And I wish now that I'd forgotten about that stupid telephone call and stayed with him, although I didn't particularly worry about leaving him there, because I knew he'd always be around to pick up the conversation exactly where we left it, no matter how many years came in between.
Eddie Elson was a prince of this city. He gave us all more than we could ever give him back: comedy and drama and courage and deviltry and pizzazz and hope. He's the only guy I ever met who exactly lived up to the swashbuckling essence of those opening lines in Sabatini's Scaramouche: "He was born with a gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad." People will grow old and gray relating Eddie Elson anecdotes (of which there are hundreds, most of them true), but I guess we'll have to wait a while before we can tell them with the same relish-and never, of course, with the old certainty that someday soon he would top himself again.
I hope the day comes soon when we can remember him-all he was and all he did, everyone he savagely put down or whimsically put on, all that he spritzed about and reveled over and goofed on and dreamed-and he can make us smile again. The way he always did.