- Photo by Rob Bartlett
It's hard to believe we've been in a world without Billy Manes for 10 days now.
It doesn't seem like a possibility, but for those who don't already know: Billy Manes, writer, activist and longtime columnist for Orlando Weekly, passed away just after 4 p.m. on Friday, July 21, at the age of 45.
Manes' impact on Orlando Weekly – and Orlando – is difficult to overstate. Though he started in classified ad sales, Manes made a rare leap into editorial. His prescient "B-List" column took on minor celebrities in a way now universal throughout the web; it segued into the nightlife column "Blister," which in turn gave way to his cutting front-of-the-book local political column, "Happytown."
When Billy ran for mayor of Orlando during a special election in 2005, he became the first openly gay mayoral candidate in Orlando history. Though the special election was canceled, "Billy Manes for Mayor" bumper stickers and T-shirts are still a prized commodity for many an Orlandoan. Two of the searing cover stories (among so many) that he produced are, in his inimitable style, very personal ones: "Mantrimony," his 2007 chronicle on assembling all the legal paperwork that would add up to a marriage for himself and his partner Alan in Florida pre-Obergefell, and "'Til death do us part," in which he detailed Alan's suicide and the ways in which the lack of marriage equality complicate gay lives after a partner's death.
Manes left Orlando Weekly to take on the role of editor-in-chief of the LGBT-focused Watermark on June 22, 2015. After the mass shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse on June 12, 2016, Manes became the voice of a grieving community, appearing on MSNBC and NPR. On the one-year mark of the tragedy, Manes reflected in a Watermark column that Orlando achieved the remarkable feat of pulling different people in the city together after Pulse.
"This was no time to hide behind your couch cushions and cry at the television broadcasts," he wrote. "This was a time of people connecting – arm and arm, blood to blood – in the manner that societies do when tragedy strikes."
- Photo courtesy Tony Mauss
- Billy and Jessica
Now I'm left without my oldest friend in Orlando. When I started at Orlando Weekly as copy editor in 2003, Billy was already ensconced here as a fabulous columnist. As I despaired over untangling his sentences and deciphering his trademark verbings, he got curious about just who this Chicagoan messing with his words was. So he invited me to brunch. At that brunch I met Billy, Dave Plotkin (my other longest-term friend here) and my boyfriend of 13 years. So I owe Billy plenty – not just for my happiness, but for all the things he taught me. How to honor the author's voice while smoothing out their grammar. All sorts of British pop-music magazine slang ("graft?") and Southernisms I'd never heard ("bow up?"). How to make yourself get off the couch and go even when you don't want to. How to defeat the haters by hiding absolutely nothing. And never to leave the house without putting on one fabulous piece.
After Billy parted ways with Watermark last month, I hatched a plot to get him to come back to Orlando Weekly, in some capacity. I couldn't believe we might be so lucky as to work together again. But I never got to discuss it with him in real detail; he went into the hospital before we had a chance to talk about it, and he never came out. For that I will be eternally sorry, but I'm so very grateful I spoke to him twice in the days before he stopped being able to talk. His voice echoes in my head.
- illustration by Andrew Spear
As I put the final touches on this piece, the news is full of two things: the defeat of the "skinny repeal" (oh how Billy would have loved that moniker) and the upcoming total solar eclipse. Maybe it's a common impulse in the wake of loss to see connections everywhere to the one you've lost, but I can't help seeing both of these as emblematic of Billy. Health care? Justice is served, for the moment, but we'll have to keep fighting hard. And the eclipse? A star has been blotted out, but only briefly – the light lives on and will shine on us again.
There's not enough paper and ink in the world to print remembrances, tributes and words of love from everyone who loves Billy. So, because Orlando Weekly was his work home for almost two decades, here are some memories from people who worked with him. If you'd like to make a gesture in memoriam, his husband asks that contributions be made to the causes closest to his heart: the Pride Fund to End Gun Violence, Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, and Organize Florida.
Remain in light.
Jessica Bryce Young is editor in chief of Orlando Weekly.
- Photo by Stephanie Porta
- Tony & Billy
Billy Manes died just after 4 p.m. on Friday, July 21, at the age of 45, due to complications of severe pneumonia. His husband, Anthony Mauss, made a statement to Orlando Weekly regarding his partner’s death on Sunday, July 23.
"My husband, Billy Manes, passed away peacefully on Friday afternoon surrounded by his family of friends. He had been ill for a couple of weeks with what turned out to be pneumonia, and by the time we sought medical attention, it was too far advanced. He died due to complications of his condition leading to organ failure.
"Billy Manes was a walking fucking miracle, a man who fought ferociously to create a world where justice, equality and respect were the cornerstones of his community. He loved Orlando. He knew what was possible here in this sprawling mass of ex-pats, misfits, introverts, seekers, party people, bookworms, performers, makers, artists and friends. His driving force was love. He loved you, Orlando, and he knew of your love for him. He fed off it; it sustained him. He would have fought proudly for each and every one of you forever. Unfortunately, his body had other plans.
"So ... grieve, Orlando, grieve, but don't forget to laugh, create joy, and love each other wildly. That would honor him."
Manes and Mauss were married Feb. 14, 2015, and had been close friends for 17 years. Here he tells us the story of their meeting.
"Have some cock soup."
Those are the first words Billy Manes spoke to me on what, in hindsight, might be deemed our first date. But it wasn't. Billy was with Alan and I was with my first husband. From the moment our friend Taylor made us stand next to each other, Billy and I were friends. There was an instantaneous connection, an openness, a tangible raw power to our friendship. These were the hallmarks of Billy's relationship to almost everyone he knew. It was empowering just being near him. I remember thinking I was devoting a lot of time to getting ready for what Billy himself described as "goofing around downtown." I chalked it up to the fact that he was already kinda famous and I knew walking into a room with him meant that people would be looking at me as well. So I made an effort. Billy always demanded you make an effort – he believed that if you didn't, what was the point? Why make a scene if there was nothing to look at; why all the going out if there wasn't something fun or interesting or challenging? Billy loathed mediocrity.
So I was nervous, that first time. Sliding into his car through the passenger-side window, I was nervous that I might disappoint this man whose car door wouldn't even open. (And there was a packet of powdered "cock soup" on the seat, a joke gift from his co-worker Jessica.) "You look cute," he bubbled enthusiastically. "And you look like Luke Duke," I responded flatly. He laughed.
He laughed at my obvious joke authentically, he laughed in a way that told me that he knew I knew I had just made a lame joke, he laughed because I had made an effort. I was hooked. I knew I was going to need more of that laughter. I knew I was going to have to make an effort with him for a very long time.
I don't remember what exactly we did that night. I could look it up – no doubt it's on file somewhere in the Weekly archives of his "Blister" column, but that was unimportant. Maybe it was a bar opening with male strippers, maybe it was a dive somewhere in Bithlo, maybe it was some club event ... I don't remember. What I do remember was that I had never felt so alive, so excited to be out in the world, to be open to the endless possibilities of the night. I remember the electricity that surrounded him.
We got home late. Probably later than someone who was in a relationship with someone else should. As I extricated myself from his car like some existential rebirth, he said, "That was fun, what are we doing for my column next week?"
Next week!? I get to do this again next week! I just stood there giggling in my delight. "I'll call you tomorrow."
He leaned out the passenger-side window and reached out to me.
"Don't forget your cock soup!"
- Photo by Rob Bartlett
- Billy & Erin
The time when we first met.
The time when we met again, and you barely looked up at me from behind your Macbook screen. You had applied for the job. I got it. I wasn't sure what you'd think about me, a stranger coming to your town to take over the paper you'd dedicated years of your life to. We chatted, and it turned out we had some things in common. A few days later, you called me and invited me to your birthday party, and I knew it was going to be OK.
That time when we went out to meet for a drink for the first time, so we could talk about Orlando and you could help me get familiar with the terrain. One drink at the Peacock Room turned into an hours-long soul-baring session where we plotted our futures and planned to take over everything. Then we hit Will's Pub, Parliament House and Bar-BQ-Bar before ending up dancing like fools to '80s music at I-Bar.
That first time we struggled with editing one of your stories – you had a voice, you had an opinion, you had a vision. We argued some, but it was OK because we made it a better story.
That time we realized that we made a pretty kickass team.
That time you learned that after a lifetime of being a Duran Duran fangirl, I had never gone to a concert. You vowed to take me to see them – and you did. Twice. Both times we screamed like teenagers until we could hardly talk.
All of those times when we would go back to your house after work or a night out and play concert videos as loud as we could and sing along to them until we were exhausted. All of those times.
That one Easter Sunday, late at night, when I got a phone call telling me something was wrong – you were OK, but Alan wasn't. I didn't know what happened, but I flew downtown to find you sitting on the sidewalk, crumpled in grief. Alan had shot himself in the backyard. He was gone.
All of the times we sat in your house after that. How do you ever recover from that? It would not be easy. But you did.
That time you bought a house of your own.
That time you fell in love again.
That time you married the most wonderful man in the universe. He loved you so deeply. You deserved to be loved like that. You deserved to be happy.
That time you were afraid to tell me that you had accepted a job as editor of Watermark. You were afraid that I'd be mad. I wasn't mad – I was excited for you. Of course you would be the editor of Watermark. Of course.
That time when you called me before dawn to tell me that there had been a shooting at Pulse. I thought that maybe it was a bar fight or something we could talk about more tomorrow, at a more reasonable hour. But you knew it wasn't just a bar fight. You knew that the world as we knew it was going to change forever.
You wept. You covered it. You became part of the story, and then they covered you. No, nothing was the same for you after that. It couldn't be.
That time you were let go. You felt like a failure. I wanted you to know that you were anything but. I was proud of you. I was excited for your future. You could take some time to think, plot your next move. I knew there were bigger things ahead for you. You told me you'd been feeling unwell, but you'd figure something out when you'd had some time to rest.
That time you were in the hospital, just a few days later, and the nurse on duty played "Barbie Girl" on his phone. You were weak and exhausted, but you sang along anyway. We laughed. I told you I'd see you tomorrow.
Then, somehow, you were gone.
How did we not know each other all of our lives? How did we not meet sooner? I rage at the unfairness of the world that would grant us such a rare and wonderful friendship, only to take it away on a whim.
I wonder how much more rich my life would have been if we'd met when we were young.
There are different versions of this world where we did have more time, but they aren't the same.
In one of those worlds, we were in high school together. You were friends with the cheerleaders, and I was just a townie stoner, so we didn't talk much because your friends didn't like my friends and we only saw one another a couple of times after high school, then again at a reunion, and we never kept in touch except for a few likes on Facebook.
In another, we were college roommates, and I decided to abandon tradition and asked you to be my best man at my wedding. But then I had kids, and you were working on a book and traveling, and we drifted apart. We had some fond memories, but we went in different directions.
In yet another version of our alternate lives, we were introduced by mutual friends, but it was loud and we all drank too much and went home underwhelmed with our evening. We never saw each other again.
In those other worlds, maybe we were happier, or more successful. Or maybe we weren't. But we never saw Duran Duran in any of those worlds, and we never visited divey hotels in St. Augustine with musty carpets. We never snuck into the pool in the middle of the night and took so many trips down the icy-cold waterslide on a dark, windy night that I was afraid you might develop hypothermia. We never danced at I-Bar or wept for 49 people killed in a senseless shooting at a nightclub. Those other worlds could never be as rich as the world we shared. In those worlds, I never wept for you.
Erin Sullivan has been the public relations administrator for the Orange County Library System since March 2016. She came from Baltimore in 2010 to take over as editor of Orlando Weekly, while Billy Manes was senior staff writer. She and Billy were regular contributors to WMFE 90.7 News, where they launched the "From the Pages of Orlando Weekly" segment that still airs twice a week. Erin and Billy became very close friends during their time working together, and their friendship may have become even stronger after they both left Orlando Weekly for other pursuits.
- Photo by Erin Sullivan
- Billy and Tony flanking Adri and Jeff Billman
The funny thing is, Billy wasn't supposed to run for mayor. In retrospect, he was the obvious choice, but at the time, he wasn't our plan A.
The idea that germinated in the Weekly's newsroom was to illustrate absurdity – the snap special election following Buddy Dyer's indictment in 2005, and the city's elites rallying behind former Mayor Bill Frederick – by being absurd. And we wanted to do that by running Ian Monroe, then the Weekly's know-it-all IT guy, against Frederick, to make the once and future mayor have to debate our smug, ponytailed candidate. Only Ian didn't meet the city's residency requirements. Neither did the other names atop our list.
So we circled back to Billy Manes. Wouldn't it be hilarious, we thought, to see our flamboyant, profane nightlife columnist put on a stage with uptight suits? No one told Billy this was all supposed to be a joke.
I mention this because, for the first three or four years that I knew Billy, I knew him only in the shallowest sense, and I suspect that's how much of Orlando knew him, too. To me, he was the life of the annual Best Of party, the debauched host of the 2001 Orlando Music Awards, the platinum-haired, brittlely skinny libertine who always had a drink in one hand and cigarette in the other, who knew way more about boy bands and Duran Duran than any grown man should and who had a bizarre fondness for turning proper nouns into verbs. (A representative sample from a "Blister" column, quoting me: "'I hate you guys!' Billman Cartmans.)
But I came to learn that was only a character he played, a public persona, someone he referred to in private as Billy Fucking Manes (as in, "I'm Billy Fucking Manes, don't you know who I am?!"). It wasn't an act, nor was it disingenuous. It was certainly part of who he was. But it was also only a piece of a much more complex, much more beautiful whole.
Billy threw himself into that campaign in a way none of us expected. He studied issues and boned up on the intricacies of city government. He spoke out, even though he hated public speaking. He raised money. He cared. It didn't matter that he wasn't going to win or that the Sentinel's editorial board condescended to him or that the haut monde rolled their eyes when he entered the room; he wanted to do this thing and do it right, to represent people like him who were all too often overlooked in the political sphere.
It changed his life.
In the story he wrote about that campaign, Billy painted this evolution as an Eliza Doolittle transformation, but I don't think that was exactly right. Billy always cared about these issues, about Orlando, about people; he was always smart and engaged. But now he had a platform, and he used it.
The election never happened, of course. But Billy parlayed the campaign into a staff writer gig at the Weekly, where we worked side-by-side for three years and became close; then in 2015 he parlayed that into his editor's gig at Watermark, where he became one of the most influential LGBT voices in the state. And as he grew into these roles, I – and Orlando – got to see more of the complete Billy: the resilient fighter who turned his partner's suicide into a poignant push for marriage equality; a champion of the marginalized; a plugged-in political animal; a community leader who wore the pain of Pulse on his sleeve; and a prolific and articulate proponent of progressive values.
He was all of these things, and also Billy Fucking Manes: witty, droll, brimming with love and life and light, beloved everywhere he went. That's not to say Billy didn't have his demons, or that there wasn't sadness behind that endearing smile. I was with him in some of his darkest and most despondent moments, especially after Alan died, and I saw him at his most vulnerable.
But I also got to see him rise out of despondency after an unspeakable tragedy. I saw him fight for years in the courts for what was rightfully his. I watched him find love and happiness again in Tony Mauss, his wonderful husband. I watched St. Elmo's Fire with him the night before his wedding, just the two of us and his dogs, which he joked passed as an old-men bachelor party. I saw him buy a new house and settle into an almost-contented middle age, surrounded by friends who adored him and would walk through fire for him.
That campaign changed his life. And, in a way, it changed mine. Because really getting to know Billy, as that campaign and Billy's years as my Weekly partner in crime allowed, meant growing to love Billy. He became one of my closest friends, like my own brother. Billy, for all the tragedy and strife he endured, had an irrepressible light and an intractable commitment to making the world – or at least his corner of it – a little more compassionate, a little more loving, a little more joyful. His life was a reminder to me that I need to be those things – compassionate, loving, joyful – no matter what was going on around me.
I'll miss him every day. Orlando will miss him. The world will miss him.
Goodnight, Billy, you sweet, sweet man.
Jeffrey Billman is the editor in chief of INDY Week in Raleigh-Durham. Previously, he's been editor of Folio Weekly in Jacksonville, senior editor and writer-at-large at Philadelphia Magazine, news editor at the late, great Philadelphia City Paper, and a staff writer at the Orlando Weekly.
- Photo by Rob Bartlett
- Dave & Billy
Most people know Billy Manes ran for mayor of Orlando in 2005, but few remember how much this altered Orlando's political history and the direction of Billy's career.
On March 10, 2005, Mayor Buddy Dyer was indicted by a grand jury on arcane ballot-handling charges. He and three others were accused of breaking a law that had never before been enforced. Gov. Jeb Bush immediately removed him from office, triggering a special election to replace the mayor until he was convicted or exonerated. Whoever was elected "temporary mayor" could possibly serve for weeks, or even just a few days. If Dyer were convicted, another election would then be needed to replace him permanently.
This wacky, seven-week election attracted the attention of Orlando Weekly editor Bob Whitby and writer Jeff Billman, who urged Billy to consider running. Billy's husband, Alan, supported the idea, and I was recruited to serve as the campaign manager.
One week later, Billy was filing papers at City Hall and, in his own words, "trying to notarize affidavits that prove my legitimacy, even though I've not been on a lease for the past 10 years." With that, Orlando's best-known humorist and nightlife columnist entered the race for mayor. While nearly everyone predicted a joke campaign, Billy began preparing in earnest to run and win.
He had name recognition (as he approached Orlando Sentinel reporter Rich McKay for an interview at a downtown restaurant, a shirtless passerby screamed, "Billy Fucking Manes for fucking mayor!"), but he also had a mind for politics and a years-long list of civic grievances. Most of his writing had focused on pop music, celebrities and after-hours culture. But as he became more comfortable being a candidate, another side of him began to emerge.
Always political, always passionate to call out the routine injustices that cause suffering and inequality, Billy had been named "most likely to run for political office" by his classmates at Boca Raton High School, though openly gay public officials were rare in the early 1990s. He was also a functioning alcoholic with a past history of drug abuse, which he put out in the open, keeping very few secrets from his devoted readers. When a mysterious caller threatened to reveal his past driving citations to the media, Billy laughed nervously and published the details first.
Running for office gave Billy a platform, and a new confidence through which he could advocate for Orlando's most vulnerable residents. He began winning over crowds.
"Again, I'm at the podium. Again, I'm nervous. But this time, I actually know and believe what I'm talking about," Billy later wrote in a chronicle of the race in Orlando Weekly called "Citizen Manes."
"The feeling in the room is that I could actually win this. And I'm actually happy about it."
Two weeks before the special election was to take place, the charges against Dyer were dropped, ending the election. The celebration of Dyer's return to office was held in the very same hotel ballroom where Billy had done so well that morning. At the party, Dyer complimented Billy on his race, and his own campaign manager told Billy she would have voted for him.
The roller-coaster experience gained Mayor Dyer national attention and reignited his own career. He became noticeably healthier, and more open and accessible to the public. Once considered to be contentious with his critics, Dyer also befriended the blond-waif journalist who ran for his seat.
"Billy always tried to kiss me," Dyer told a gathering after Billy's death. It was true, and many officials tried to kiss him back. He was inexplicably loved by the very politicians he broiled alive with his words. U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson summarized Billy's career change in the 2014 Congressional Record, noting that the one-time "pop-cultural raconteur and nightlife columnist ... ran for Mayor of Orlando in a special election which was later cancelled. Nonetheless, Manes caught the political bug, and soon became a full-time news reporter for Orlando Weekly."
"Billy broke barriers," said U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy after his death. In a speech where she honored "the first openly gay mayoral candidate in Orlando's history," Murphy said "our nation lost a committed, passionate, and fierce advocate for equality."
For the rest of his too-brief life, Billy would write almost exclusively about local and state politics, gaining national attention for his insightful coverage of how public policy affects people's lives and health care.
"He wrote about PrEP, the disproportionate risk of syphilis among gay men, and health insurance," the Sentinel's Naseem S. Miller remembered. "One of his well-known pieces told the story of a 32-year-old mom with a heart condition who died because she didn't have access to medical care."
That is how, without a single ballot being cast, Orlando got to know the real Billy Manes and how much he loved the city that loved him back.
Dave Plotkin is the CEO of You Should Run, a progressive political communications strategy and media company. He has served members of Congress, the Florida Legislature, local governments, and more than 140 campaigns, though none as exciting as Billy Manes for Mayor. A former legislative aide in the Florida House of Representatives, Plotkin was Orlando Weekly's art director from 2011 to 2012, where he also wrote about politics and journalism.
- Photo Courtesy Stephanie Porta
- Stephanie & Billy
Billy was my best friend. But it wasn't until he passed that I realized that he was everyone's best friend.
I feel like I always knew Billy because of his coverage of community organizing for years but we became close after each of us took on our own struggles: his tragically losing Alan, my fight against cancer, my mom's lost battle to cancer, and the fight for earned sick time and the subsequent scandal led by Mayor Teresa Jacobs that prevented workers in Orange County from having access to paid sick days. We bonded through these battles. And those nights of sobbing, loss and consoling were the ones I treasure most. He felt emotions so deeply and rawly and displayed them so nakedly like no one I have ever known.
I don't think Billy ever heard of a fight for the people that he didn't jump on board for, and fight for, and write for. He used every ounce of his teeny body and his giant heart to make our state better for children, families, workers and lovers. As Billie Jean said in the movie, "Fair is fair," and these people haven't had fairness for quite some time.
He didn't back down and didn't let anything slide. Because not holding people in power accountable for what they had done meant they would do it again and probably worse. And that wasn't the community that Billy wanted to live in.
And it wasn't just the public fights. It was his private support and cheerleading for others challenged by loss, or inequality, or injustice.
I've heard from so many people who didn't know Billy reaching out to him on messenger apps and Billy coaching them through heartache and the fight to make themselves whole again. How he changed those lives, and how many, will never be fully known because he wasn't in it for bragging rights. He was in it for love, equality and justice.
Stephanie Porta is Executive Director & Co-Founder of Organize Florida, an organization working for the needs of Florida's low and moderate income communities. She has worked to raise Florida's minimum wage, pass police accountability reforms in Orange County, win foreclosure prevention and affordable utility programs, and on other campaigns for environmental justice, community safety, health care and public education. More recently, Porta led the effort to pass Earned Sick Time in Orange County. She has been recognized by the Orlando Weekly, Orlando Sentinel and Orlando Magazine for her leadership around government transparency and issues facing the working poor.
- Photo by erin Sullivan
- Billy & Brendan
Take note, Orlando; we lost someone special today.
Billy's heart was too big for his fragile body. Not that he'd let on. You'd hug him tight when you'd see him and his hips would dig into you, as if warning, "Don't love me too hard, you could bruise me." Not that he'd push you away. Waif-thin with hair you could see across the room before you spotted his flailing arms or heard his laugh. This precious man with a twinkle in his eye. Letting you know he was in on a joke that you might figure out later if you paid attention and stayed close.
Billy was always real. In his writing, in his relationships with people and co-workers. His work was blunt and lyrical, and to the point.
I cut my teeth in the print world with Billy at Orlando Weekly. I fell into a job there as Calendar Editor after getting laid off by the City of Winter Park. The editorial staff had drunk some sort of Kool-Aid, making them believe I could learn quickly and join their team of alt-paper cool kids. They let me sit at their table for a whole year, grooming me with endless patience. Billy was one of the ones that took me under his wing and made me realize I had a voice that people could listen to. A voice that could, if refined, hold some weight. He encouraged me and coddled me, and massaged my little editor brain into something that would produce a legible (if grammatically incorrect) thought now and then.
When I was offered a job at Bungalower he was one of the first to put down his saltine crackers, clap his hands, and push me on my way.
Billy Manes was more than a shock of white hair in a crowd, or a Warhol-like character pulling strings and slyly offering social commentary. He was a cheerleader. A friend. A man I was proud to know and learn from.
Billy spoke up for social justice. He shared his shortcomings and made it OK for us to do the same. He was raw, he was funny, and sometimes a mess. And I loved him for it.
Billy Manes died on Friday, July 21, surrounded by dear friends and his charming husband, Tony. A family he had curated over the years. Their loss is echoed in our city and carried on countless shoulders as we face a world that is less colorful and less truthful than it was before.
Today we cry, but tomorrow we'll cherish.
Brendan O'Connor is a multi-disciplinary artist and editor of Bungalower.com, where this essay was first posted July 21. He worked as Orlando Weekly's calendar editor from 2013 to 2015.
- Photo courtesy Erin Sullivan
- Jason Ferguson, Will Walker, Billy Manes
Like everyone, I've got lots of Billy stories. Many of them happen in bars, and most of them involve some sort of awkward laughter. Again, nothing unusual. But one of them is my favorite, and I kept flashing back to it over the past few days, mainly because it involved that weird combination of supportive love and total embarrassment that Billy specialized in.
So, here we are, in the early 2000s. 2002, maybe? The exact year is unclear so far along, but what I do remember is this: It's an Orlando Weekly holiday party, one of the first that I attended as an editor at the paper. It's at some awful, now-defunct dance club downtown (I'm sure the paper got a deal), and my wife Eve and I are huddled into a sticky booth with Billy and Alan, unsure of exactly what to make of the situation happening all around us. I was still figuring out what to make of Billy as a person, as his written persona was so ... overwhelming.
But here we are, making small talk, being a little bitchy, and trying to make sure our conversation didn't get so work-oriented that it excluded our significant others.
In the course of the significant-other-inclusive conversation, Alan said ... something. All these years later, I don't remember what exactly it was, but what I do remember was that it was ludicrous and weird and about raising goats and eating them. And Eve replied, "Really?" because she's a vegetarian and was not cool with goats getting eaten. I laughed. Alan laughed. Eve (who instantly realized he was joking) laughed. Billy did not laugh. He knew it was a joke. But he was mortified. Angry, even.
Now, to be clear, Alan was making a joke. And to be further clear, Eve isn't dumb. But what Billy saw was two guys making fun of someone for not being in on something.
Billy apologized for this incident nearly every single time he saw Eve. I am pretty sure he apologized for it in a column. I am pretty sure he apologized for it as recently as last year. He wasn't apologizing for Alan; he was apologizing – for a decade and a half – that he could have, in some way, been responsible for someone feeling bad through no fault of their own.
Again, this is just one small, dumb story. There are lots of others, but whether they center around sadness, joy, debauchery, celebration, support, agony or any of the other emotions Billy wore on his sleeve, they all seem to come back to the same idea: Everyone is struggling in their own way, and it's our job as humans to make sure we help each other, not make the struggle harder.
If the fictional quote about newspaper journalism's purpose – "comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable" – is true, then Billy was born to be a newspaper journalist. Although a lot of what he wrote (OK, most of what he wrote) (OK, nearly all of what he wrote) was refracted through his own personal prism, his overriding ethos was to comfort the afflicted and afflict, if not the comfortable, then those who were comfortable enough to ignore the afflicted. By putting his own afflictions – from the very very major to the very very minor – on display, he made it easier for others to process their own challenges. By calling out injustice where he saw it and giving it a human face, he made it harder for others to ignore.
I loved him and I'll miss him. May we all be little, yellow, and different in our own way.
Jason Ferguson is a writer, editor, traveler, husband and father who's been writing about music, movies, books and travel since the early '90s. He was Orlando Weekly's music editor from 2002 to 2007, and continues to write for us as well as countless other media outlets.