In living memory

Clayton Bahr may not long for this world, but his presence remains larger than life.

To donate to Clayton Bahr’s medical bills and end of life care, please visit his GoFundMe page.

The heat clung to the final summer Sunday of the year as dozen after dozen poured into the Tower Theatre to mourn a man still amongst them.

Those hundreds gathered for “A Toast to the Good Life — A Celebration of the Life and Community of Clayton Bahr” were there to pay their respects to a man who’s lived just beyond a half-century. A man who has left an indelible impression on: Oklahoma’s service industry as one of the finest wine, spirit, and cigar connoisseurs; on the Oklahoma City metro area’s homeless people and volunteer community; on the Okie music scene as host of The Spy FM’s “B Sides” and “Tasting Notes.”

click to enlarge In living memory
Photo provided
Tower Theatre lit up its sign in honor of Clayton.

On that deceitfully luminous Sunday, the overbearing gloom typical of such events was slight, shunted by an off-kilter carnival atmosphere tempered with a hue of shared anxiety because Bahr chose to throw — and attend — his own wake.

The man himself looked into our thousand eyes and hugged us, caroused with us and gave us and himself the chance to visit together in a grand manner before his time comes to a premature end because of cancer. Fuck cancer.

Though the occasion was dire, he wasn’t stingy with his resonant gut laugh. He never is.

“It just got to the point, I have to drop this on everyone. Mostly because I want to do this event,” Bahr said. “I’m now at the point where I’m like, ‘All right, this is what’s happening. Let’s do it.’ We had no clue what was going to happen. No idea.”

A public Facebook post extending an open invitation to the celebration set the notion in stone, then it spread far and wide.

“A lot of people have told me since, ‘We just didn’t know what to expect walking in,’ yet they walked in anyway. Afraid. Probably having to feel feelings they don’t want to feel. To walk through those doors, not knowing… I’m asking you to come into the public eye and share your emotions,” Bahr recalled weeks afterward.

“I had three friends die during the pandemic. One suicide. One had cancer but COVID got him, one of my mentors. And a best friend died of diabetes. I didn’t find out about his death until a month later. I didn’t even get the opportunity to try to grieve for him. Going through those three experiences during the darkness of those times… I want others to have the opportunity I wish I’d had with those three people. There was nowhere to put the grief,” he said.

So he turned our death process on its ear. The Tower piled close and hummed loudly that day as Clayton’s son Landon — Ludivine bartender and creator of the celebration’s heady cocktails — began lubing up the crowd alongside his colleagues. Things started to swing.

Great and small knots of folk coalesced, broke apart, reformed, with a steady stream of attendees making their way outside the venue, splaying down the sidewalk and smoking both right- and left-handed, then rejoining the impassioned fray of the funeral party.

“It was like being in a flood,” Bahr said. “I’d go upstairs every now and again to take a break, then come back down and get mauled by people in the hallway as I told myself, ‘I gotta go dive back into this pool.’ I would see somebody and say, ‘Holy fuck, I haven’t seen that guy in ten years,’ make eye contact, then never see them again. So that sucked. It happened a lot. It was a lot. A lot of people. I took Monday off. On Tuesday my boss said, ‘Man, you know if you’d talked to every person there, it would’ve taken 48 hours, and you had four.”

Another gut laugh.

click to enlarge In living memory
Photo provided
Clayton Bahr stands in front of Paloma.

Early on, Clayton spoke to us from the stage, backed by a cohort of family and friends as he took great pains to thank all involved, all present, and all whom he loved which, at this contributor’s last count, included pretty much everyone. The guy’s a giver.

Then, mid-speech, a wrinkle to validate that giving. Dan Straughan and Kinsey Crocker of the Homeless Alliance took the stage with an enigmatic poster board, coyly turned away from all.

“I don’t know what’s happening,” Clayton hazarded into the mic.

The Turkey Tango Thanksgiving dinner serving hundreds annually at the Homeless Alliance and across the metro was co-founded by Clayton 15 years ago and is in essence his baby, brought to life through his force of will, manifold contacts made over the years throughout the Oklahoma culinary industry and days upon days of volunteer time. It has only grown.

When their posterboard flipped to reveal the annual volunteer effort had been rechristened Clayton’s Turkey Tango, if there was a dry eye in the house, I’d be damned if I saw it.

“I want the food scene and the wine scene here to just be amazing. I think we have the ability to do that. I would love to see us continue to fight homelessness, fight for justice. My belief with the homeless community is that it’s a really solvable problem. It shouldn’t be happening. We have the resources to do it. It’s a lot of work, but I’d love to see this community strive to treat them like people, and stop creating the conditions that put them on the street,” Bahr said.

The swirl of memory and feeling at the Tower was, to use the oft-heard term since used, overwhelming. The darkness of the American funeral tradition, gone. The brightness of the whole thing left us stunned. The 90-degree Oklahoma sunshine couldn’t compete.

I lost track of the faces, so many so close in thought yet unseen for years. Fake hugs were absent. Some bowed out, others stayed on, but all were buffeted by the swirl — most let it sweep them up. Many swam headlong with that current. The phenomenon was palpable and often itself dominated conversation, the thing ratcheting ever higher under its own power, seemingly independent of all of us. It just kept happening.

click to enlarge In living memory
Photo provided
The sign welcoming guests to Clayton Bahr's celebration of life.

Around sundown, the action spilled from the Tower into the event space above and the adjacent Ponyboy. That’s when true partying soared. Few held back. Raucous guffaws and brazenly cheered voices caromed throughout the barspace. No one gave a single damn. Clayton was there. We had him, for a time, and he us.

“I stayed until two. I don’t remember the last couple of hours very well. I know I made another speech at some point but I don’t remember what I said. I remember ‘Hip! Hip! Hooray!’ Everyone was really drunk by that point. One of my favorite moments I was told about… I was kind of using the wall to help me get to the bathroom, and my son Landon stood on the bar and said, ‘Hey everybody, I just want to let you know I drink with my dad all the time, and for my dad to be this drunk, that is a feat in and of itself,’” Bahr said.

Another gut laugh, followed by a second.

“In the service industry you go to a lot of funerals, and not good ones. They’re not good. Usually something horribly tragic has happened. After the event, people were saying, ‘Thank you for doing this.’ But I was just thinking in terms of let’s all have a good time, a last hurrah. If you want to say something to me, say it. If you want to make peace with me, make it. Before I try to go aggressively enjoy life,” he said.

“They were talking about a gift I was giving them. But I’m not giving them a gift, they’re giving me one by coming to this function, right? I didn’t understand it until afterwards. They were right, that’s what it was, just having that opportunity to… One last hug or one last whatever. Hang out one last time. I’ve never felt anything like it in my life. It was just pure joy and love, the whole time. It was sweet.”

The first interview took place at Guyute’s in early autumn and was interrupted by people dropping by the table to shake Clayton’s hand and say a few words, something that was repeated during the second interview the last week of fall at Ponyboy.

This time, Bahr was recovering from an acute illness. Since his cancer has now spread to his lungs, waking up ill has become a guessing game. Is it a seasonal ailment or is the ravenous growth finally winning the battle? The thing about cancer, Bahr said, is that you can seem mostly normal but eventually, your health goes off a ledge and never recovers. In light of that, his doctors have given him two pieces of advice: eat heartily and stay busy.

“I’m fighting cancer by working and eating steak,” he said.

A gut laugh, this time interrupted by a few coughs.

“I brought the family down to reality last week, and I said, ‘Hey, I want to do these things because this may be our last Christmas together. I have no idea,” Bahr said.

Bahr’s doctors gave him six months to a year to live after his diagnosis in April, but to date, he outwardly shows no signs of slowing down, but either the cancer or the treatments he’s taking take a toll behind closed doors.

“Before, if I hit the wall, I would just go past the wall and just keep going. And now when I hit the wall, I have to stop. There is no going past the wall. I’ve got to stop and shut down and sleep for a day or whatever,” he said.

And in some ways, he can’t slow down, and is still working as a wine rep for Premium Brands.

“We live in a country that does not tie insurance to the person. They tie it to the job. And so if I want insurance and I want to continue to get any kind of treatment, or be seen by anybody, I have to work or I don’t have insurance and I gotta pay COBRA, and COBRA is $7,000 a month. There’s no retirement. I’m 50 years old, so I may have been starting on retirement or had a small retirement I was working on, but retirement is for when you’re in your 70s, not for when you’re in your 50s, so there’s none of that. So that’s just the shitty country we live in. As long as insurance is tied to work, how the hell do I not work up until a point? Up until the time that it does the drop off and then I’m just like, ‘Okay, I’m out. I don’t need insurance.’ But I still do for hospice care. It’s insane… That’s just the way America is. It’s fucked up. It’s really, really fucked up,” he said.

Bahr has been experimenting with psilocybin and will escape the first wave of frigid winter temperatures by leaving for Mexico for 10 days just after the beginning of the new year. He doesn’t know how many days he has left, but he still has plans to skydive in March.

Whatever comes his way, Clayton Bahr intends to face it head on until his final day.

“I love talking about this. I can’t change anything. I know what’s coming. I’d rather deal with the reality of what is happening … We’ve all experienced it in different forms or fashions in our life, and we all have different ways we approach it based upon those experiences. It is the one of the most unique, all encompassing things in the world that we encounter, and so to be able to experience it, for a person who is in the realm of the dying, with everyone else, it’s fascinating. It’s a study in humanity. I would say psychology, I don’t even know if it’s that. It’s more of just about being a human being.”

To donate to Clayton Bahr’s medical bills and end of life care, please visit his GoFundMe page.

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