A genteel Southerner stands in the living room of local artist David Gray Turner, waving a glass of bourbon while he speaks affectionately of a man who, he says, once pitched a Molotov cocktail at a banner commemorating Robert E. Lee.
It's uncommon in this town to hear self-described sons of the Confederacy commemorating a man who would tear a Confederate flag sticker from a pickup truck he was borrowing, or fly a sign on Belvidere proclaiming “Bush is Hitler,” or torch Lee's mural hanging on the floodwall. But John Mahoney, frequently referred to as “Hippie John,” wasn't exactly common.
In an adjoining room, a stylized portrait of Mahoney, painted by Turner, hangs on a wall opposite a cork board displaying what few photographs could be gathered of the man. The Fulton Hill house is populated by a bizarre mix of friends and family on Dec. 20 — regulars from Poe's Pub, anti-war activists, and men with gray hair and expensive suits.
Mahoney was found a few days earlier in a warehouse where he'd lived, still in his sleeping bag. He'd died of coronary disease, according to the medical examiner's office. It wasn't the stuff of a lonely fate, and he wasn't abandoned and sad and left to perish at the hands of a cruel and indifferent world. Mahoney was endowed with the rare capacity to live a life according to his philosophical inclinations, one who refused to superfluously contribute to what he saw as the sinister machinery of capitalism. He also refused to drink American beer or brown liquor, but the motivations behind that life choice were more closely related to his theories on hangover avoidance than political disposition.
“Hippie John” was emblematic of this city, Richmond's strange inversion of New York's naked cowboy, a fixture of major intersections and peace marches, bar stools and squats, perpetually verbose and impossibly devoted to espousing his perspective on the way things are. But he wasn't all anomaly and spectacle. The aging Southerners speak affectionately of him because he was passionately dedicated to maintaining his own version of integrity. He borrowed often but left no debts. He lived the way he believed he should, unapologetically. If Richmond is the intersection of Northern progressivism and Southern tradition, Mahoney was the man standing on the median, holding up a sign reminding us to get angry, asking, but never begging, for change.
Correction: In earlier print and online versions of this story, we incorrectly reported Mahoney's cause of death. He died of coronary disease. We regret the error.