Leonard McKay 1921-2006
The most revered member of Celtic society in ancient Ireland was the seanchaí, or “storyteller”—the man who carried the sum total of tribal knowledge in his memory and recited variations of colorful legends created by the ancestors to carry kernels of truth and information from one generation to the next. Leonard McKay was our seanchaí. History, lore and legend—and the “creative elaboration” thereof—were his stock in trade, having learned the craft from his acknowledged predecessor, Clyde Arbuckle, in the old-fashioned way.
Leonard knew that history was a lot more than a list of “big happenings.” For him, a true populist, it was the stuff of everyman’s everyday existence. All knowledge worth knowing was stored away in the stories of those billions of lives lived by ordinary people all over the world—not kings and queens, dictators and presidents, or celebrities and heroes. Like the Hindus, he saw all life and history as part of an infinite flowing continuum, a sacred river of endless depths to immerse himself in and explore. That’s where I like to think of him now; he has just moved on ahead to a different part of the river and we’ll catch up with him later.
Leonard touched my life as few have. I come from a family of storytellers, mostly of the tall tale variety, so I felt an immediate connection to him when we introduced ourselves to each other at the San Jose Athletic Club one morning nearly seven years ago, right after I moved here. The first thing he told me was his story of the downtown fireman whose manhood was cut short by a jealous wife a la John Wayne Bobbitt. That was it; I was hooked. Since then, I have spent hundreds of pleasurable hours listening to him tell his stories, hearing some of them many times but never the same way twice.
Nobody was happier than me when Leonard agreed to contribute a weekly column to our rapidly growing website, San Jose Inside.com. Suddenly, we all felt we really had something worthwhile going, and Leonard’s following on our site was enormous. I have been a professional publisher, writer and editor for a long time, but I have never had more fun than I had working with Leonard on his pieces every week. Lately, we have been talking about finally getting his book, “The Seamy Side of San Jose,” up and running; he would write it and I would edit it. I thought we could do it in no time. And, even though I make my living doing that kind of work, I was going to do it just for the fun of it because I figured the stories and the comradeship with my remarkable friend was worth more than any amount of coins and paper with pictures of dead presidents. I don’t know what Leonard left behind of this project, but I still hope it can be done. In the meantime, his archive of stories on San Jose Inside will be there for his legion of fans to read and comment on any time, any day.
Leonard was not high tech. His home was his hard drive and he lived amongst his database of files, books, documents, scraps of paper, photographs and paintings. He did his research the old-fashioned way, and he had everything he needed to supplement the encyclopedia he had packed away in is head. I was always trying to trip him up on something just for the fun of it and never could, though I did come close.
One day several months ago, I’m editing one of Leonard’s columns for San Jose Inside where there is a passing reference to a man with a common name, but the spelling is odd.
“Aha!” I think in my evil Snidely Whiplash editor’s voice, “I have really caught Dudley Do-Right McKay out this time and have him in my clutches, nyah ah ahhhh.”
So, I gleefully call up Leonard and I read the sentence and say, “Are you sure you spelled the name right? I have never seen such a spelling.”
“I think it’s right, but hold on and I’ll check it,” says Leonard. He puts the phone down and, for a couple of minutes—while I sit snickering like a bad schoolboy smugly convinced that I have stumped the master—I hear faint humming, mumbling, cursing, and then the thud of a book landing next to the phone receiver, the flick of pages and, I swear, the sound of a finger tracing a straight line down a page and then stopping in its tracks. Leonard picks up the receiver and says, “Yep, it’s OK, Jack, I just found it.”
“Found it? Found it where?” I ask.
“In the 1928 San Jose phone book,” he says.
“Jesus, Leonard, how many old phone books do you have?”
Oh, I got ‘em all—all the way back to Alexander Graham Bell,” he tells me.
“But . . . I don’t understand. Why did you look in 1928?”
“Well,” he says, “I’ll tell ya; that fella went broke in ’29—lost everything—and by 1930 he didn’t even have a pot to piss in.”
“I am sorry to hear that,” I say, “the poor guy.”
“Aw, hell, Jack, don’t feel too sorry for him. Last time anybody saw him was in ’31 down on Post Street, comin’ outta Big Tit Mary’s place with a cat-eatin’-shit smile on his face, so he must’ve picked up a coupl’a bucks somewhere.”
While I was trying to stop laughing and crying at the same time, he never skipped a beat and said the one thing that I have heard him say hundreds of times—the one phrase that I will always remember him for as long as I live, a personalized variation of his favorite words in his own unique voice, the voice of our seanchaí:
“Hey, Jack! That reminds me—did I ever tell you the story about . . . ?”