You can be seven feet tall and known all over town, but if you die alone and nobody pays the San Francisco newspaper for an obituary even your mother won't know that you're gone.
It took almost three weeks for the news of the death of Charles Davis to get back to his mother, and another week to reach Boonville where he'd spent his happiest days.
Long before he was found dead of liver failure in his spartan Ellis Street room only days after his 50th birthday, Charles had cut himself off from everyone who'd ever cared about him. For reasons known only to himself he'd given up.
Charles was always called Charles. The racially freighted alternative was “Chuck” which, for a black man, was hardly a viable alternative to the regal “Charles,” and Charles he remained, and regal he was at his great height and graceful athletic bearing.
His premature death has shocked and saddened large numbers of people from San Francisco to Marin County to the Anderson Valley. Charles came to Boonville in 1972 when he was 12. He'd just turned 12, but he was already 6'4,” growing so fast he'd be walking along and he'd suddenly collapse, like a marionette whose strings had gone slack, his long legs independent of his command and control center. He wouldn't cry but he'd make a lot of noise. You always knew when Charles was around.
Five years later, as a senior at Boonville High School, Charles was seven feet tall and still not quite in control of his distant limbs. But he was strong and getting stronger, a small boy rattling around in a great big body, almost a basketball player.
Abandoned by her husband, Charles' mother had done the best she could with her outsized son, but every time Charles went outside into a San Francisco neighborhood where kids grew up fighting, the little tough guys would work him over just for the sport of beating up on a child twice their size. So mom kept Charles inside except for school, but when Charles went to school he'd have different kinds of trouble. A custodian once threatened to kill him, a threat the man memorialized in a written statement to the principal. “Either you get this kid out of here or I'm going to kill him.”
He could be irritating, highly irritating. When I first knew Charles, I thought of him as a kind of giant mosquito — omnipresent and as comprehensively annoying as a child could be. And he kept getting bigger and, for a while there, more annoying. I came to understand the custodian's frustration.
The inflexible jargon of the helping professionals had described Charles as “unsocialized.” He wasn't exactly that. I'd seen unsocialized children. They were feral, sometimes dangerous. Nobody had taught them anything. They just got bigger and crazier. Charles wasn't crazy. His mother had taught him to care for himself and the basics of polite behavior. It was a combination of defeating circumstances that overwhelmed her. A big kid in a small apartment in a bad neighborhood and mom at work all day was too much for mom and the kid.
Charles always had an appealing side. He was never mean and he liked people. He soon learned in Boonville that to be around people he would have to behave in a more “age appropriate” manner, as the social workers said.
I took one look at him and saw basketball, maybe football, but for sure basketball. You can be age inappropriate all your days if you're good at sports.
“I don't wanna play basketball. It hurts,” Charles would say.
“You're playing basketball whether you like it or not,” I'd say.
If you're 6'6" as a fourteen-year-old and anatomy is destiny, your destiny is the wonderful world of competitive athletics. It was this kid's best shot, maybe his only shot.
There were days when I would have to stand outside the gym to make sure Charles stayed inside the gym.
In 1972, when Charles came to Boonville, the authorities were still sorting out the rolling social collapse that began in the middle 1960s. The Collapse instantly produced large numbers of dependent children, many of them crippled in whole new ways.
Until the middle 1950s there were orphanages and foster homes to accommodate normal young people whose parents were unable to care for them or had abandoned them. The crazy kids went to state hospitals, the dangerous ones to the California Youth Authority. There weren't that many of either category through the 1950s, but by the end of the 1960s there were thousands in the Bay Area alone and millions of unsupervised federal dollars were quickly made available to put them somewhere, and here came the free enterprise scramble to get that money. The disturbed and the delinquent, right up to the magic age of 18, became portable money machines.
Among the Mendocino County entrepreneurs who'd converted troubled kids to cash was Jim Jones, but most of the rest of the wild child population passed alive through Mendocino's ramshackle array of hurry-up “children's facilities.”
Small fortunes were made.
The walking gold mines who produced the fortunes? A few got better, but for most it was too late.
Charles did pretty well for himself.
He played basketball for Boonville. All through his high school years Charles was growing into his strength. There were moments when he was unstoppable on the basketball court. He'd briefly catch fire and be way too much for high school players. Mostly, though, he could care less about sports. They were something other people wanted from him.
In the middle 1970s there was a famously anticipated high school match-up between Charles Davis, Boonville's seven-footer, and Mendocino's great all-round athlete, Dan Doubiago. Doubiago would go on to play Division One football and even some pro football. He was a very good high school basketball player. Big Charles Davis was the only kid in the county who might be able to stop Big Dan Doubiago. But Big Dan out-quicked Charles and out-stronged him — schooled Charles, as they say in sports world. Mendocino won going away.
Not that Charles cared. During time-outs he would be chatting with the cheerleaders or waving to the girls in the packed stands, paying no attention whatsoever to the game. His high school coach, Gene Waggoner, wouldn't be the first coach frustrated with the big man.
And Charles got bigger and stronger, and he could run and he was as agile as a gymnast, he was as spectacular a natural athlete as any of the big man prodigies you pay $50 to see play at the Oakland Coliseum. Put a jock's head on that body and the guy would have gone straight to the NBA. But Charles had no interest in basketball or any other sport. If everyone else was watching a ball game on television he'd demand, “I wanna watch Love Boat. Put on Days Of Our Lives.”
He never cared at all for basketball, but Charles loved Boonville. For years he came back for holidays and went around town looking up his old classmates.
After he left high school, Charles reluctantly joined the jock circuit. A junior college coach flew out from Mississippi and took Charles back with him to play basketball. Charles didn't like Mississippi and, he complained, “The coach yells at me all the time.”
The basketball coach from Marin JC came to see Charles.
“Come down to Marin, Charles, and you can play for me.”
Charles played at Marin and the coach yelled at him non-stop.
From Marin, still not caring in the least for the game and, at age 21, never having shot so much as a single hoop on his own or in any other way worked on his game or lifted a single weight to make that big machine of a body even stronger, the coach at Cal Poly Pomona took Charles down to Cal Poly, one league down from big time college basketball. Room, board a phony campus job, basketball four hours a day.
The basketball coaches at Cal Poly yelled at Charles for a couple of years until Charles ran out of eligibility and came back to Northern California.
Someone was always feeding and housing the young man who hated to play basketball, feeding him and housing him so he could play basketball. The Chavez family took him in. Marin County's famous basketball family made Charles their center in the Bay Area's thriving, hyper-competitive basketball sub-culture, so competitive that many of its players have gone directly from the streets to the pros. They got Charles basketball jobs in the Philippines and in Mexico. In Mexico Charles said he got mugged by a dwarf. “He was small but he had a knife,” Charles explained. Charles earned his way into his middle twenties playing basketball.
And then he got a real job, a very good job with Levi Straus at Straus Plaza on the Embarcadero in San Francisco where he held down the shipping department and hugely benefited from the company's profit-sharing plan. He didn't have to play basketball anymore.
Charles worked with Levi Straus for nearly 15 years before the city began to pull him down. Or he pulled the city down on his own head. He'd always needed an anchor and here he was without an anchor in a city where anything goes, and Charles went straight for it and it killed him.
Charles didn't come to Boonville as often as he had; we'd hear rumors that he wasn't well, that he'd lost his job with Levi Straus, that he'd spent all his retirement savings in a month, that he was drinking heavily, that he had AIDS, that he beat AIDS but had ignored the doctors who told him his liver could no longer handle all the alcohol Charles was flushing through it, that he would die if he didn't get sober and stay sober.
The last three years of his life, Charles had no fixed address. He didn't call. He'd always called. We couldn't find him. Someone said they'd seen him “standing in line at Tony's,” meaning he'd been seen standing in the free lunch line at St. Anthony's on Golden Gate. Charles still had friends, he still had his Boonville people. He still had his mother, now 80 and always a church lady. No sinner got past her door. But he didn't call her, and he didn't call Boonville. A niece, who Charles had never met, called Mrs. Davis to tell her that her son was dead, and Mrs. Davis called Boonville to tell us that he was dead. (Bruce Anderson)