John Ross’s life was split between the two places he loved; the Mission and Mexico. In the end, when he was dying, he chose to leave his friends here to die peacefully and privately in Michoacán, on the shore of Lake Pátzcuaro. But first, he said goodbye to the Mission.
Diamond Dave Whitaker, a local poet and a friend of Ross’s for 40-some years, said Ross phoned in to KPOO radio from Mexico to read a poem called “Comadre.” “It was about a death, and it was really touching because as you were listening, he was dying.”
Ross, an author, journalist and activist who died on Monday from liver cancer at age 72, wrote the poem in 1993 to describe the passing of a friend’s mother, Doña Marta, surrounded by family at Lake Pátzcuaro. “It was the most beautiful death he’d ever seen,” said Ross’s longtime friend, Elizabeth Bell. Because of that, “he decided he wanted to go back to Pátzcuaro to die,” she said, in the same family home. He left San Francisco for the last time on December 14.
Over the past two decades, Ross primarily lived in Mexico, but frequently returned to the Mission, staying with Bell, an editor and translator, at her home near 24th and Mission Street. “He hated the U.S.,” said Bell. “He called it ‘gringolandia.’ The Mission was the only place in the U.S. where he felt comfortable.”
Neither Bell nor Whitaker can recall when they first met their friend. “We were in similar circles in the 1970s,” said Whitaker. “The spoken word, beat generation. We had many common threads.”
After traveling from New York to Mexico City as a beatnik and then living in Michoacán for seven years, Ross came to the Mission in 1964, penniless and looking for work, according to an article he wrote for Shaping San Francisco.
Here, the activist, journalist and poet quickly became known, friends recalled. He was the first person to do jail time for tearing up his draft card during the Vietnam War, and was an organizer for the Mission Tenants Union. “He was always right there with us,” Whitaker said. “Even when we were getting arrested.”
He also worked abroad, spending 27 years as a Latin America correspondent for the Bay Guardian and other news organizations, and acting as a wartime “human shield” in 2003 in Iraq.
Ross is best remembered by his friends here for leading the Mission Tenants Union to City Hall to open a “giant jar of cockroaches” inside the health department to protest the city’s inattention to the district, saying, “If you won’t come to the Mission, we thought we’d bring a little of the Mission to you,” said Bell. Ross and his co-organizers paid local children in pennies to collect the cockroaches from apartment buildings.
In his later years, even as he struggled with cancer, Ross always woke at 7:30 a.m., according to his friends. He continued with a U.S. tour for his last book, El Monstruo. When here, he was known for walking around the Mission with his distinctive cane and black and white scarf, and going to Café La Boheme on 24th Street each morning for a double short latté, according to the café. “He was almost deaf in one ear, and had one eye gone,” said Bell. “He had an imitation eye that sometimes popped out.”
That eye was allegedly harmed in a fight with San Francisco police in 1967. The fight, Bay Guardian Executive Editor Tim Redmond said, broke out when Ross tried running for a spot on the Board of Supervisors. Afterward, he was removed from the ballot because of his felony conviction for resisting the draft. Later on, The Guardian, his employer, held a fundraiser and poetry reading at Café La Boheme to purchase the glass eye for Ross.
“He was one of the most amazing writers I ever worked with,” said Redmond. Ross walked into the Bay Guardian looking for a job in 1984 after “the campaign against marijuana planting raided his house [in Arcata] and destroyed all his stuff,” he said. All Ross had were his “clothes and a few bags of marijuana in his backpack.”
“Everyone knew he smoked marijuana morning, noon and night,” said Bell. “He totally disproved that pot ruins your memory, because he was razor sharp. He could tell you the middle name of a lawyer who worked on some random case in 1971,” she said.
Ross’s most recent political act was to reject an award from the Board of Supervisors in 2009, citing how he’d been mistreated by the San Francisco government 40 years before. He read aloud a poem decrying how they allowed the Mission to become gentrified. “He fought to keep the Mission the diverse place it is,” said Redmond, recalling Ross’s rent control advocacy. “He was a thorn in the side of authority everywhere until his dying day.”