I came to know the late Don Simmons in my early 20’s. He loved to frequent the Big Steer bar and was a fixture there almost every night. There were times where Don’s three string, out of tune guitar was more than we could take, and the night would end in shouting.
If you knew Don, you knew he was a “prop man”. He never went anywhere without something – a cane, guitar, whiffle ball bat, action figures, clocks and on occasion, an accordion. Thus began the Accordion War of 2005. I’d open the coffee shop and he’d stroll in with the accordion. I’d tolerate about 15 minutes of the infernal racket and then kick him out. This didn’t faze him. He’d return day after day with the stupid accordion only for me to kick him out, until his attention moved to another prop.
During this same time Don befriended a local artist named Robert England. Robert was fascinated by Don’s antics and met him almost every day for breakfast. The two became fast friends and Don became the subject of many drawings and comics. With Robert’s help, Don’s first run for Mayor of Patagonia wasn’t exactly victorious but it did yield great posters and t-shirts.
We spent many birthdays with Don, toured his house and once, when he was complaining about money, I suggested he nail a few chairs to the ceiling and put out a sign that says, “Vortex $5.” If you’d ever been in his house this needs no explaining.
Years later when I worked at Red Mountain Foods, Don would walk over and frequently buy corn flakes. I mentioned to him that he needed to eat more than cereal and he replied,
“They’re not for me they’re for my g*d damned rooster.” Sure enough, I followed him over and watched as he fed a $5 box of organic corn flakes to a ratty old rooster.
Don liked “stuff” but not just any stuff. Don was a sentimental guy. Everything he owned – on the walls, on the table, stacked up in the corner had a story and a memory. He archived great music and great times in his life with weird old ashtrays and broken instruments. A person could point to any pile or poster pinned on the wall and he could tell you where he was and when he got it. Once you got past the initial lecture, you’d also know how it made him feel.
Don did something for me that I will never forget. One day as I worked at the coffee shop Don walked in with an old brick and clunked it down on the counter. “Happy Birthday! This is for you.” At first, I was “…Gee thanks” and then it dawned on me what it was.
You see, someone had recently bought the Big Steer Bar, which had been owned by my family for many years. In conversations with Don, I had expressed my sadness in seeing it remodeled and how so many memories were in those walls. Don went over and dug out a perfect brick from the pile of junk. Don knew how much that place meant to me and I’ll love him forever for that. I have lugged that brick around for 15 years and will continue to do so for the rest of my life.
Don was the best part of Patagonia—weird, awkward and sentimental. He was the keeper of our memories and of our good times. He danced when no one else would.
Many of you picked Don up hitchhiking on the way to or from Sonoita. Usually he wore his best “going to town clothes” and most likely he complained about something along the way. You picked him up because he was one of us. He belonged to Patagonia and many will feel his absence.
The man known affectionately as Lonesome Don had a standing room only crowd at his memorial held at the Gathering Grounds on July 20, a testament to how many lives he had touched and the life he had made here in Patagonia.
Old characters never die. Stories of them are passed on for many generations. Don may be gone from that old, broken down house on Sonoita Ave. but he lives because we remember him.