Anna Deavere Smith has referred to this as having presence, and stated the qualifier for having presence is being completely and utterly authentic. How many people have you encountered in your life who you’d describe as completely authentic? Probably not enough but, if you’ve been lucky, there’s been someone who fit that descriptor.
Let me tell you about my friend Wanda, rock star extraordinaire. She had serious presence.
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I ONLY EVER knew her as Wanda but, as it turned out, she’d adopted that name after she’d moved to Pittsburgh. She was originally Jamie Ricker from Massillon, Ohio, and had lived a well-travelled life by the time we met. She’d been involved in the local rock music scene for a while, and on weekends you could be sure to catch her among the crowds at local haunts like Excuses on the South Side or The Thunderbird Café in Lawrenceville or the late-great 31st Street Pub toward the Strip District. In the mid 2000s I was just starting to make the rounds at these places. I was a late-bloomer, still living with family and trying to carve out something of a social life with friends. When some of those friends started-up a band and gigged around town, I went out to see them. That’s how it got started for me and it was fun.
The bands were lively, and there was always something to talk about in the days that followed. The Forbidden Five, The Motorpsychos, The Cheats, The Science Fiction Idols and many others bounced around from venue to venue, and we all followed along like kids dancing to the Pied Piper. You’d get to know people just by virtue of seeing them out in the world so much and, to be frank, I stood out a bit. I was one of just a few Black people at these shows, and I also wasn’t aesthetically into any particular scene. I wasn’t punk or goth or glam or rockabilly or metal… I’m a child of Michael Jackson more than anything else, so the music and vibe never fully enveloped me as it did many others. I did appreciate when a band was on their game though, and the crowds were always fun, which was a big part of the appeal. Over time, it’s all drifted away from what I remember it being, but it was fun then. Some nights, it was downright magical.
Among the throngs of attractive ladies, Wanda literally stood head and shoulders over everyone else. She was tall and emanated cool confidence. She was like an Amazon in the rock scene. Before I learned her name, she was often described by many as “the girl who looks like Joan Jett.” Whether she ever knew of or appreciated the comparison as a compliment, who knows, but it was apt in a lot of respects. Like Jett, she was dark-haired, her eyes were striking, and there was something immediate about her aura. She stood out. I don’t just say that out of retrospective fondness, I’d have said the same thing then: Wanda stood out. No one ever had a bad thing to say about her. And on top of everything, she had the most devastating 1000-gigawatt smile I’d ever seen.
Wanda also performed under the stage name Lydia Lithium in a band of her own called This Wicked, which even furthered the Jett comparison. I never got to see them perform, but judging from her taste for the theatrical, they probably would have been fun to check out live. There’s no doubt they likely fit into the local music scene like a hand in a bloodied velvet glove.
I never spoke directly to Wanda at first, which was rare. If you left me alone with an attractive gal for a second we’d probably have ended up talking. And aside from the usual dramatics that an overlapping scene like that will have, everyone generally got along. The vibe was usually mellow and friendly, and by all indications, Wanda seemed totally approachable. Still, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. She intimidated me. There’s a part of me that thinks I’d have been able to approach Joan Jett with more confidence than Wanda. It can’t be overstated, but the gal had presence to burn.
One night, as the bands finished and last call was shouted from the bar at Excuses, I decided to break the ice and speak to her. I’d just had enough of my own reluctance, which had been silly. So, I walked into the back toward the stage, and saw her engaged in a conversation with someone else. There was a moment when I thought about turning tail and skipping out, but instead I stepped forward and waited until she was done. Almost instantly, Wanda turned to me and burned that 1000-gigawatt smiled permanently into my retinas. We exchanged introductions and I remember feeling extra foolish afterwards for having been so nervous around her. She had been impossibly sweet and charming, just a nice down-to-earth person. She fit perfectly into the circle of friends who communed at these clubs. She was a good soul.
I didn’t see her a lot after that, but when I did there was now familiarity. We were on a first name basis and would hug when we’d cross paths. She was just adorable. Every time we parted, I would laugh at myself for having previously been so intimidated. The lady was every bit as impressive as before, but she’d climbed down from the pedestal in my mind (at least a little – she was fine as Hell) to become a human being. Even better, she was now a friend.
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We hugged and when I told her it was my birthday, she embraced me again and enthusiastically wished me well. Then we sat at the bar and talked for a good long while. I couldn’t tell you anything else about what we specifically chatted about, but I remember being flattered that she’d spend that time with me. I felt special. By the time she left, I remember thinking that there was something bigger at work that night. In Pittsburgh, it’s not uncommon to run into people you know in the most random places. But the fact that Wanda was wearing a Thriller jacket on my birthday? That felt predestined. I was meant to see that girl. There was no way I’d have missed her. And even if it was just dumb chance that allowed it to occur, I accept it for the blessing it was.
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EXACTLY TEN YEARS ago today, some friends of mine saw Wanda while out on a typical weekend night, enjoying bands and the camaraderie of friends. I don’t recall if I’d gotten stuck at work that night, or I’d been out doing something else, or had elected to stay home, but I wasn’t with them. I knew at some point I’d get an update on whatever I’d missed, and under normal circumstances I’d have never given it another thought.
The following morning, I got a phone call from one of those friends, who I also happened to work with. After a brief greeting, I presumed he was calling to either ask a work-related question, or it would be about something interesting that had happened the night before. It was the latter.
“Hey, do you know that girl Wanda?” he asked. “The one who looks like Joan Jett?”
“Oh yeah,” I replied. “She’s gorgeous. I just saw her on my birthday.”
Then just like that, he told me she was dead. The details came later. After everyone had said their goodbyes, hugged, and gone their separate ways, Wanda was driving home when her car was hit by another at the corner of Centre and South Negley Avenues. From what I recall, the other driver had been drunk, and she was killed instantly. Ten years later, I still shake my head over it and the suddenness with which it occurred.
To be clear, I didn’t know Wanda that well, not really. We weren’t buddies who went out specifically to see each other, and I didn’t have her phone number. As mentioned before, I doubt if I even knew her real name then. But she had always been so warm it felt like I knew her better than I did. She was also the first person in my life who I knew and lost in that way, out of nowhere for no good reason. For many people, it comes much sooner, but it was a harsh wake up call to the fact that none of us are guaranteed another day, ever. Even the best and brightest and most towering of us all are still incredibly fragile.
It’s stupefying to think of what she might have accomplished if she hadn’t been taken away. She was only 30 years old. Think about that. Think of all the things she didn’t get to see, both good and bad, during this past decade. Think of the music she didn’t get to hear or create, the bands that have played in our city. Think of the earthquakes and hurricanes of nature and of everyday life we’ve lived through. We’ve got superheroes ruling the box office now, and same-sex marriage is legal. KISS and Alice Cooper are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She'd have probably liked the Struts! We’ve had two popes and a Black president, the latter for two terms! And unfortunately, there’s no Wanda to share it all with.
There are also things I’m glad she never had to see. Gun violence that almost feels casual now, and natural disasters that have killed thousands. The stock market meltdown and rise in unemployment that saw thousands of people fearful for their jobs. The country full of a general distrust now that has in recent days led to the election of an inauthentic demagogue who attained the position by spewing hatred. Fortunately, Wanda doesn’t have to see this. Or maybe she does, and she feels worse for us. At least she doesn't have to deal with this nonsense.
I can tell you this much: Losing Wanda has made me cling all the more tightly to the people I do still have in my life. There were no comparable losses among my friends and loved ones over the following decade, and I’m grateful. It’s a delicate calm that can’t last forever, but I’ll enjoy it while it does. Still, every now and again, my mind drifts back to her and there’s a pang of longing. When I see photos of her, I can’t help but remember how beautiful she was.
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IT WOULD BE nice on cloudy days in Pittsburgh to be shuffling along and be dazzled by a chance encounter with a glamorous presence. As it is, when the landscape is bleak and I’m in need of a burst of sunshine, I remember the night I worked up the nerve to introduce myself, and the night she wished me Happy Birthday and spent time perched next to me on a barstool. I’m glad that I got to wish her goodbye in a personal, specific way. I’m glad I have memories of her, and I’m glad she’s taught me the value of my loved ones.
Wanda still burns bright in a lot of people’s memories. And while these 3640 days and nights have zipped past in a dizzying blur, there are those of us who still have that 1000-gigawatt smile burned into our eyes. In the haziness of memories, that much remains clear.
In times like these, it’s helpful to stay focused on light like hers. So thanks for your authentic energy, Wanda.
We still feel your presence.