Last week, Fred Reiss ran out of time. The long-time Santa Cruz-based writer, comedian, and radio personality finally died of cancer, with which he was involved in a ferocious years-long battle. Cancer took his life at the age of 66. Wallace Baine shares his fond memories of Fred.
My friend Fred didn’t much like crossword puzzles. He didn’t go for mystery novels or game shows either. He disliked such things the way a starving man has no use for chewing gum.
“Why would I want to kill time?” he used to say. “I want to get something out of it.”
Last week, Fred Reiss ran out of time. The long-time Santa Cruz-based writer, comedian, and radio personality finally died of cancer, with which he was involved in a ferocious years-long battle. Cancer took his life at the age of 66, sure. It brought him unimaginable pain and frustration. It cost him almost everything.
It’s difficult, at least for me, to overstate the cruelty with which this thing came after him, time and time again. But it also shaped his life in at least one significant way and it was the hard stone against which he carved out his personality and, in his final years, his spirit as well.
I knew Fred for more than a decade, and at some level, I’ve always known that this day would come. But now that it’s here, and my world is suddenly Fred-less, it’s up to me and all the other people who knew him and whose lives he touched to figure out just how much of him we will all carry with us in our remaining years.
I’m not quite ready to renounce crossword puzzles, but from now on, when I contemplate what to do with this magnificent gift of life that I have remaining, I’m going to hear Fred’s voice. In his rapid-fire, assertive, bull-in-a-china-shop way, he’ll be there in my times of doubt and apathy to harangue me: Why are you wasting time?
Fred was one of those big outspoken East Coast personalities; in fact, he was originally from the same New Jersey town that gave the world Bruce Springsteen.
In a direct way, cancer delivered him to Santa Cruz. He was 27, back in the early 1980s, when he was first diagnosed with testicular cancer. That was a wake-up call that drove him to quit his job and bolt for California, to follow twin dreams that he had nurtured since he was a teen: to become a stand-up comic, and to learn to surf.
And he did those things too — though his career as a stand-up was always tenuous. One of his lowest points occurred a few years ago, after his cancer had returned to stay. Somewhere along the rollercoaster of “beating” cancer before it recurred in a different form, he was doing an open-mic comedy night at The Poet & Patriot in Santa Cruz.
That night, he noticed, he was decades older than anyone else performing. He didn’t get the other comics’ approach or style. He felt impossibly old. His mood darkened and his normally impervious confidence slipped. Abruptly, he took his name off the list, left the club, sat in his car in the parking lot, and wept.
Here I was back with the beginners. Here I am, going through cancer, making a living on fumes. And I’m sitting in this one-nighter?
“I just kept thinking,” he told me of that night, “after all the time I had put in, here I was back with the beginners. Here I am, going through cancer, making a living on fumes. And I’m sitting in this one-nighter?”
It was a turning point, not necessarily in his comedy career, but in his approach to living. He told himself, “you gotta muscle up and do this. There’s only one way to do it and that’s to go into the salt mines.”
He never attained anything that could even charitably be called stardom. But he never gave up either. He wrote and performed his material on hundreds of stages. He earned a living as a radio personality. He authored and published books, a couple of madcap satirical novels and an account of his health battles titled “Today Cancer, Tomorrow the World.”
And he kept working the salt mines, hawking his books, working to filter his experience with cancer, as well as the insane state of the world today, into his comedy.
Over the course of the last couple of years, Fred’s life sank deeper into pain and loss, reminding me of Bob Dylan’s line from “Trying to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door” (a very Fred Reiss kind of song): When you think that you’ve lost everything/You find out you can always lose a little more.
His primary sustaining relationship ended acrimoniously, and with that, he lost his home as well. His spouse, facing health calamities of her own, died earlier this year. Family and friends died or drifted away, loss stacked on top of loss. And still, cancer continued to stalk him.
Yet, Fred was always able to find some high spot from which to look back at his experience with some degree of gratitude and satisfaction, proof enough for me that if you build a strong and durable soul, you can withstand even the most crippling losses.
My relationship with Fred for the last few years was built on a foundation of books. He was not a religious person, and he often spoke contemptuously of cheesy metaphysics and fatuous, pain-free “spirituality” as a way to make sense of the world. But the man found meaning, even salvation in books.
Fred had a thirst for great literature. When his world was crumbling, books kept him afloat. The man was on fire for reading. Our conversations were never able to escape the centrifugal force of books.
He loved not only the great novels of the Western canon — since we were both middle-aged men navigating a world that often conflicted with our carefully constructed delusions, “Don Quixote” was a topic we returned to again and again. But he was also consumed with biography and non-fiction. He called Robert Caro’s towering multi-volume Lyndon B. Johnson biography “a giant Girl Scout cookie that you can dip into the milk of your mind.”
Fred would hate this, but reading was, in a real sense, his spiritual practice. Though he was a comedian, he did not read for entertainment or amusement. He read to burnish his soul. It was hard work for him. “Intellectual curiosity is something you have to work at,” he told me. “It’s a discipline just like everything else you do in life. Whether you’re a plumber or a doctor or a comedian, you really have to work hard to get to a level of competency or precision. You have to be willing to devote the time to it.”
It’s a discipline just like everything else you do in life. Whether you’re a plumber or a doctor or a comedian, you really have to work hard to get to a level of competency or precision. You have to be willing to devote the time to it.
Though death was always present in Fred’s life, like the neighbor’s yip dog barking at all hours, Fred claimed to never think about it. “It’s just never occurred to me to think about what’s on the other side at all.”
Still, he was able to feel something beyond his own consciousness. In his deepest throes of pain, he could sometimes feel the presence of his long-dead parents. “I can feel their presence inside that they are visiting me. Sure, you can dispute that. But I know what I’m feeling. I know this is my mom, coming down from wherever, like some radio signal trying to save me. And it just breaks me apart.”
Fred is now gone. But “Don Quixote,” as well as Twain and Dostoyevsky and all the other great writers he revered are all still there, and available to me anytime I want to access them. And through them and others, Fred has shown me a way forward for the rest of my days. Life can take away everything it gives you.
It can strip you naked, and even then insist on peeling away your skin. But if you can leave this world with a cultivated mind, a stout heart, and an honest spirit, no matter how much sorrow devours you, your story will ultimately be a joyous one.
Thanks Fred, for showing me that.