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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Remembering Billy Carr

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Photo by Caroline Gallay

Billy Carr gets airborne during the 1984 Houston Saint Patrick's Day parade. 


Remembering Billy Carr: Wordsmith, unwitting family counselor and murder mystery master

09.11.11 | 04:10 pm

Death has gotten weirder in the digital age. Maybe it's the instantaneous nature of contemporary communication, but losing someone today and coming to grips with the sudden reality that they will no longer answer their cell phone or reply to your emails makes it all the more hard to process. 

When Billy Carr died three weeks ago at the age of 63, he and I were in the midst of planning one of his famous mystery pub crawls. These crawls are famous for the attention to detail that goes into them — think floor plans, character profiles and extensive timelines — but especially for Billy's inimitable style of narration. He would at once guide guests along while chiding them for being so thick as to need guidance. It was sort of his way; if he teased you, he must have thought you were alright.

The last email he sent me, which was also our final exchange, made reference to one of his characteristic terms: OFFs, or "Old Fucking Farts."

"Some of our group are what I call OFFs. Bars are too loud, too new, too old, the music is awful (anything after 1979), the crowd is too young, the drinks cost too much and are not made right — in short, they only like what they know. We want to show them something they don't know."

OFF may have been a term that Billy coined, but it certainly wasn't one that applied, and he showed me much I didn't know. 

To understand Billy Carr you must also have some familiarity with another Billie — his mother, the liberal Texas Democrat who spent more than 40 years as an organizer and activist known for her bluntness and no-BS attitude. (Her obituary, written by her dear friend and contemporary Molly Ivins, sheds some light on the sort of sons she raised.)

But this is about the Billy I knew. It's been a privilege.

It's been a privilege to parade with him and his brothers when they were honored as the Grand Marshals of the 2010 Saint Patrick's Day Parade, to man their booth these last few years at the Rory Miggins Memorial Irish Stew Cook-Off, to learn to play the bones along with them at Blaggards shows, and to ring in the last two new years with them at Brian O'Neills — new years that, thanks to their touch, appeared brighter than any I'd embarked on before.

It's been an honor to know these three brothers, who seem to have an endless supply of stories, of jokes, of limericks, and also, it seems, of pint glasses, which they're known to keep on their persons and generously distribute to fellow imbibers.

But the Carrs have probably meant more to me than they know, and their influence in my life stretches far beyond our immediate interaction.

I met Billy through my father, who met him through his brothers, who he met, as he meets most people he doesn't meet in pubs, on the golf course.

News_Caroline_Billy Carr obit_September 2011

The author with her father and Billy Carr when the brothers were honored as grand marshals of the 2010 Saint Patrick's Day Parade. 

The many Wednesday evenings I spent on a barstool between Billy and my Dad did more for our once-strained relationship than any amount of counseling or cajoling possibly could have.

You see, Billy was the ultimate arbiter. He didn't like everybody, and he felt no obligation to pretend otherwise. If he did like someone, it meant something, like a wizened, Irish Anna Wintour nodding curt approval at an outfit. 

And so when he reintroduced my father and I with an obvious fondness for each of us individually, he did it with a kind of authority — a command to camaraderie. 

If he liked us, we must be alright, after all. And if he wanted us to get along, there was no question that we'd fall in line.

It's been through our shared responsibility to Billy and his brothers, who obviously take family and friendship very seriously, that we came to reevaluate our responsibilities to each other. We call more now, reserve time for one another and swap old stories even as we make new memories. 

On Oct. 10, 2010, the youngest Carr brother, Mike, made a hole-in-one at Clear Creek Golf Club on hole 14 — David Carr had accomplished the same feat, on the same hole, on Sept. 4, 2007, and Billy Carr on July 13, 2003.

It's something of a miracle — certainly statistical anomaly — and it was a fitting site for Mike and David Carr to spread the first of their brother's ashes. (Other bits of Billy's remains will be distributed to his most privileged Houston pubs.)

Although my missing of him is not likely to dull, Billy lives on in the terrific responsibility he's bestowed on me. I'm resolved to keep the weekly communions with my father, but I've also been charged with another mission. 

At the Saint Patrick's Day Parade in March, I'll be on the Carr's annual float as in other years, this time responsible, along with my boyfriend, for bringing to life one of Billy's last grand visions: An enormous paper mache hand, holding a pair of bones and waving goodbye at passersby. 

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Billy Carr offers Mayor Annise Parker a commemorative Saint Patrick's Day T-Shirt, and, probably, a limerick. 


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