"You're pretty," Carlos De Avila told me when I was hired at Portfolio, having begun to drudge through those strife-filled post-graduate years of existence—and he deeply made me forget that I was struggling on any level.
"The slow arrow of beauty," I replied.
"Let's talk Nietzsche later," he said without skipping a moment, not even hesitating in his knowledge of my reference. "More importantly, do you know who I am?"
I was new to the Portfolio family—and Carlos was embedded in it like an adopted grandfather, which is precisely what Portfolio owner Kerstin Kansteiner believed him to be in her own life—so I obliged this insanely intelligent, adorable old man, who was confident enough to walk up to any male specimen without the bat of an eye and tell them the things he would enjoy doing with them.
"I," he proudly proclaimed, "am the Fabulous Faggot of Funky Fourth Street."
Alliteration spot on, he dropped "faggot" with a casual dryness that superseded simple inappropriateness: it's what he was and he unabashedly used the term as a form of subversion, a prototype for Dan Savage. He wanted to remind you, albeit bluntly, that prejudice can be overridden if you simply own the terms for yourself. The discomfort it would cause in those who weren't a faggot brought forth, at least in the views of Carlos, a moment of contemplation about those who are marginalized. And he would drop this slur alongside his usual order of a drip coffee with half cold water—or what his dear friend Charles Tentindo would call "an oftentimes horrifying situation."
"A new friend would meet Carlos and introduce themselves, 'Nice to meet you,'" Charles explained, having began to chuckle uncontrollably. "And Carlos... Carlos would say, 'Y'know, if I say anything inappropriate or unsettling, it's just because I am a fuckin' faggot.'"
Ownership was certainly one of Carlos' perfected traits. He owned himself on a level that many only dream of: casual bouts of nudity while walking around the house, even in front of some 50 roommates that have spanned the 25 years that his loft has been in existence; political diatribes; discussions with many at the coffee counter about a sexcapade he had... And of course, un-minced conversations about why he was a faggot, including his proclamation, "Write 'FAGGOT' on my tombstone when I die."
For me, I laughed as I always did with Carlos—and not because I didn't take him seriously (quite the contrary: "cerebral" understates his position) but because he was so adept at putting himself second. As with all those that are great, Carlos—despite his staunch opinions, despite his lack of biting his tongue under any circumstance—could care less about his résumé.
He didn't need to be recognized as the co-founder and first Executive Director of The Center when it found its headquarters on Fourth. He didn't need to be recognized as an essential cog in the making of the Democratic Lambda Club. He didn't need the recognition in having birthed the downtown Art Walk. He even refused the moniker of the Godfather of Fourth Street—of which he helped hone into Retro Row with Kerstin during the 90s—but that is probably because he preferred what he really was: a faggot and an artist, not a godfather or a saint or some larger-than-life entity—even though those that knew him felt he was probably precisely those things.
"Art is the fallout of who we are," he once said in an artist's statement. "It is simply how we do what we do."
And like so many—I would venture to say most—I knew nothing of these incredible feats that have unquestionably altered the landscape of Long Beach. In other words: so many don't know how Carlos did what he did. He wasn't interested in the small, though briefly pleasurable state of advertising one's self.
He was far more interested in sharing his chain-smoking, liberal ideology with a chain-smoking, on-sabbatical Chinese monk, with discussions that even Charles admitted he could "never intellectually comprehend."
He was the artist-in-residence that stayed in his space for so long, endlessly creating photography and pottery to expand Long Beach's own art scene, that his status almost became lost after business neighbors attempted to argue he couldn't live in his business (gotta love his research skills).
He was the man who could somehow get away with showcasing a 45 minute slideshow of his photography in front of a born-again Christian, who had initially mistaken his close-up shots of testicles, penises, and asses for sweeping desert and mountain terrains.
He was the man who wouldn't hand someone a dollar because one was broke but would certainly hand someone a job since it devastated him more than anything that one's last possession—a camera—might have to be sold in order to make it by.
He held the quick draw of witticisms like a poetic Doc Holiday: "You ain't no spring chicken, Carlos." "Yeah, but I still spring."
He was an iconoclast, through and through: unafraid of anything, including death. "I'm not afraid of death—it's gonna be a good trip," he once told Charles.
And while we mourn the loss of someone so indelibly cemented into our city, if someone you know needs some funk and fabulousness in their lives, just tell them to go visit Carlos. Directions are easy: he's the one with the tombstone that says, "Faggot."
A public memorial for Carlos is scheduled for this Saturday, February 16 from 10:00AM to 11:30AM at the Art Theatre Long Beach, located at 2023 E. 4th Street. A reception will follow at The Center, located at 2017 E. 4th. In lieu of flowers, attendees are asked to please forward any donations to The Center in Carlos’ name. For more information, click here.