I first met Richard Kopperdahl when he was no longer crazy. It was the late 1980s, and he was the Village Voice’s designated driver, which — for anyone who knew he’d spent years as a drugged-out, drunken Bowery bum — was both humorous and a tad unsettling. But he’d driven cabs and parked cars in previous chapters of his life, and he drove with a rangy élan, his left elbow jutting out the window, his right hand smoothly bringing a cigarette to his mouth at regular intervals. Around 3 a.m. on Tuesday mornings, after we’d put yet another edition of the paper to bed, roughly a dozen of us — mostly production staffers and a couple of diehard editors — would pile into one of those big vans that small churches use to gather congregants, and Richard would bounce us over potholed bridges to the outer boroughs, which, even then, were the only parts of the city most of us could afford. Like a number of writers at this venerable paper (myself included), Richard started out in a utilitarian job and eventually ended up with a byline on the cover.
Richard passed away on Sunday, August 21. In thinking of him, I remembered an amazing feature he wrote for the Voice in 1995, an unsparing, laugh-out-loud funny tale of his mad years in the mid-1970s, when he did six spells in Bellevue’s psychiatric warrens. He writes about clocks on the walls with no hands, of bending soda straws in such a way that he could transcend gravity, and of his certainty that God had put him on Earth to guide all of us down a more harmonious path.
Richard’s divinity never came to pass, but at heart his basic idea was sound: Everyone deserves a hand when they are down, an uplift that doesn’t defy gravity but does define our humanity.
That said, he was adamantly opposed to giving change to panhandlers, impatient with stupidity, and angered by arrogance. Once, as mobile phones were making their first intrusive forays into our lives, he was annoyed by two Masters of the Universe sitting at an outdoor café table and barking into their bulky handsets, oblivious (or not) to how much they were disturbing other diners. Richard picked up the heavy glass sugar dispenser on his own table and started yelling into it about the inconsiderate people sitting nearby. The pair looked at all six-feet-five of him and decided that they could make their calls at another time. Richard was sober and sane, but they prudently assumed otherwise.
By then he’d been working at the Voice for more than a decade, driving the company van all over Gotham and writing reviews of stereo components for our “Fast Forward” section, as well as the occasional feature about his former lives on the Bowery and inside Bellevue.
A couple of years ago I was visiting another Voice writer who had landed in Bellevue’s psych wards. We had a far-ranging chat in the visitors’ room, and as I was leaving I noticed that a picture had been removed, the void made obvious because the wall had been repainted while the piece still hung there. In a serendipitous touch, the label remained: “ ‘Changing Hearts,’ watercolor and pastel.”
I thought of Richard at that moment, knowing how much time he had spent inside those walls, surrounded by clocks with no hands.
A viewing will be held at the Peter Jarema Funeral Home, 129 East 7th Street, on Friday, August 26, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Richard Kopperdahl’s “Bettervue Hospital: A Lucid Story About Being Out There” appeared in the October 3, 1995, issue of the Village Voice.