wife, un­cle, daddy, friend, men­tor, part­ner, leader, punk ass, red­neck, lover, fighter, chef, com­mu­nity builder, per­son of the year

GA Voice - - Front Page - By DYANA BAGBY

We have suf­fered a loss that for me is un­fath­omable. I have yet to fully com­pre­hend the enor­mity of what this will mean go­ing for­ward. I be­lieve to un­der­stand fully what is gone from our lives, we have to un­der­stand where we are and what we and by proxy Ria was.

We are At­lanta.

— Prof. Jas M. Stacy, a eu­logy for Ria Pell

Ben Cheeves was at his bar, Mary’s in East At­lanta, dec­o­rat­ing for Christ­mas when he heard about Ria Pell’s death.

“A lot of peo­ple went to her house be­cause we didn’t know where else to go,” he says. “We built a bon­fire in her back­yard. She loved to do that.”

Pell died un­ex­pect­edly Nov. 24 and the news rocked the en­tire city of At­lanta and re­ver­ber­a­tions could be felt through­out the coun­try where peo­ple who loved her flooded so­cial me­dia to share their mem­o­ries, pho­tos and seek com­fort from oth­ers.

“She just has a kind soul and spirit,” Cheeves says, still un­fa­mil­iar with past tense.

Cheeves, who co-owns Mary’s, and Pell’s iconic Ria’s Blue­bird as well as her for­mer Sauced restau­rant were places cre­ated to en­sure there were safe spa­ces for the “queer mis­fits of At­lanta.”

“She al­ways wanted to queer the en­tire spec­trum and make sure ev­ery­one was treated equally, not just the pic­ture per­fect ones who made the news,” Cheeves says.

Pell was equally loved and feared, Cheeves says, wip­ing away tears. And if you knew her, you knew where you stood with her. “She meant so much to so many. There’s a big hole to be filled now and peo­ple are go­ing to have to step it up.”

For ev­ery­thing At­lanta gets wrong, its com­mu­ni­ties get right.

From the tightly knit neigh­bor­hoods that slowly re­vi­tal­ize lost pock­ets of com­mu­ni­ties with­out the ex­clu­sion of long term orig­i­nal res­i­dents as a re­sult of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, to the small busi­nesses will­ing to pi­o­neer for­got­ten en­claves, there is strong magic in this city. There was strong magic in The Pell. Strong in­deed.

Cow­boy took the stage at the Va­ri­ety Play­house on Dec. 13 at a trib­ute to her friend and a fundraiser for the Pell fam­ily and shared the story of her first meet­ing with the woman she cred­its with help­ing change her life.

She was only 17, hav­ing moved out of her house and was couch surf­ing, di­rec­tion­less ex­cept want­ing to skate, when the large woman in over­alls ap­proached her while she was try­ing to fi­nesse a tail slide on the benches in the Lit­tle Five Points square. “What are you do­ing?” “I’m try­ing to nail this tail slide,” Cow­boy an­swered.

“No, re­ally, what are you do­ing?” Pell asked again.

Cow­boy said again she was work­ing on her tail slide.

Pell shrugged and walked away, but re­turned 15 min­utes later.

“So, what’s your story?” Pell asked Cow­boy this time. “Do you like girls?” “Yeah,” Cow­boy re­sponded. “Do you want to get laid?” Of course, said Cow­boy.

“You know what girls like?” “What?” “Peo­ple with jobs,” Pell told her. And Pell helped this young, lost dyke get her first job de­liv­er­ing Chi­nese and Mex­i­can food eight years ago and put her on a path to suc­cess. And to get­ting laid.

Sto­ries like this — where Pell took the time to help in­di­vid­u­als — are com­mon. As the “gay mayor” of At­lanta, Pell was the “benev­o­lent dic­ta­tor” who al­ways was help­ing those in need but was never afraid to ask for help when she needed it. The night be­fore she died, she was at a me­mo­rial and fundraiser she helped or­ga­nize for another fallen friend, Don­nie Rei­der, who worked with Pell on At­lanta’s al­ter­na­tive queer arts fes­ti­val, Mondo Homo.

Like she did for so many in need, she pro­vided the food she be­came renowned for in At­lanta’s re­spected culi­nary scene and even went on a year ago to win $10,000 on the Food Net­work’s na­tional com­pet­i­tive cook­ing show, “Chopped.”

Her de­ci­sion 13 years ago with co-owner Alex Stal­icky to build Ria’s Blue­bird in a burned out aban­doned liquor store on Me­mo­rial Drive across the street from Oakland Ceme­tery al­lowed other restau­rants and bars to move into a now thriv­ing neigh­bor­hood. Pell’s pan­cakes were made fa­mous by the New York Times and her kitchen skills were praised by lo­cal and na­tional food crit­ics, restau­ra­teurs and those who loved good food and cock­tails. She cooked for count­less ben­e­fits and for peo­ple who were sick. She pro­vided a ser­vice, many ser­vices, to the city she loved.

“I met her when I got a job in my early 20s at the Blue­bird,” says Ge­or­gia Perry. “I had a lot of per­son­al­ity flaws when I first started … and she helped me be­come an adult. She made me a bet­ter per­son. She was big on for­give­ness, thank God. She was al­ways quick with ad­vice and al­ways there with a hug.”

Perry says she’s heart­bro­ken and has a huge hole in her heart. “She was an icon in At­lanta, for all dif­fer­ent peo­ple.”

Pell didn’t just fit in with the city’s chefs or ac­tivists, but also the punks, the red­necks, the DJs, lo­cal mu­si­cians, vinyl al­bum lovers — the diver­sity of peo­ple whose lives she touched is truly unique.

For John Paul Martin, Pell filled a broth­erly role.

“She was some­one dif­fer­ent to ev­ery­one,” he says. “She filled so many roles for so many peo­ple — I was just fas­ci­nated by that. I re­mem­ber she was cook­ing a beau­ti­ful din­ner at her home for me and The Cramps were play­ing in the back­ground. I mean, how cool is that?”

Anne Barr, founder of the De­catur Women’s Sports League, never met Pell but when she learned her friends needed help to or­ga­nize the long, long fu­neral pro­ces­sion, she stepped for­ward to as­sist.

“When any­one in the com­mu­nity is fallen we need to gather as com­mu­nity to lift up those who are griev­ing and pull to­gether,” she says. The over­whelm­ing sup­port and loy­alty of Pell’s friends and fam­ily

makes Barr proud to be an At­lantan, she adds.

This is a city varied in it’s peo­ple as any in the world. All cul­tures, races, creeds and back­grounds, na­tion­al­i­ties and eco­nomic sit­u­a­tions call this place home. It is where Ria made her im­pact. Her ac­tivism. Her heart. Her loves. It is a city rich with his­tory, though we al­low that his­tory to be bull­dozed daily, as the ma­chine that de­sires the old to dis­ap­pear is some­how too pow­er­ful to fight. And yet some his­tory sur­vives and re­mains to teach. To keep strong and sa­cred, that which has gone be­fore. This is our At­lanta. Ria’s At­lanta.

Kiki Carr met Pell at the Aurora Cof­fee shop more than a decade ago while she was driv­ing in an RV filled with drag queens on the way from San Fran­cisco to Dol­ly­wood.

“My San Fran­cisco friends said, ‘You’ve got to meet the mayor of At­lanta — she’s a big ol’ tat­tooed dyke, and she has cof­fee there ev­ery morn­ing.’ And sure enough she was there — this big ol’ tat­tooed dyke. You couldn’t miss her. She helped us find places to stay and took us out drink­ing and to the Elmyr Christ­mas party,” Carr says. It was dur­ing a visit in New York when sparks flew and the two fell in love, later mar­ry­ing each other in a punk rock wed­ding in Oakland Ceme­tery.

Carr was in Cal­i­for­nia last month help­ing her best friend start up a new or­ganic chicken wing busi­ness when she got the call her Pell had died. She caught a red eye back to At­lanta and has been un­able to stay at their home, where Pell was found by a friend.

“The first cou­ple weeks I was in a daze and I could try to keep the re­al­ity out as long as could, hold that door back. But the door’s kind of open­ing now,” Carr says. “I know what it’s like to be sui­ci­dal and I know what its like to be de­pressed and this does not feel like this at all. It’s so weird. At times when I’ve been sui­ci­dal, you want the world to go away. And this feels re­ally dif­fer­ent — I feel like I want to hold onto as much of it as I can.”

Carr was good friends with Pell’s part­ner, Karen Por­ta­leo, and made sure the two rode to­gether to the fu­neral, of­fer­ing each other sup­port. The sup­port Carr has re­ceived from her friends and fam­ily has been im­mense and she counts her­self very for­tu­nate.

“I have a fuck­ing amaz­ing com­mu­nity. I am so, so for­tu­nate. I think of so many peo­ple, es­pe­cially so many queers, who didn’t have this,” Carr says.

Carr knows her wife lived large and was bois­ter­ous and made an im­pres­sion on ev­ery­one she met. But she wants peo­ple to re­mem­ber the soft, sen­si­tive, artis­tic side of her more than any­thing.

“I feel like every­body talks like she beat them up or stole their girl­friend and that she was this big tough char­ac­ter, which is true, but more than that she was a su­per sen­si­tive, su­per artis­tic per­son — I think that’s the part I want re­mem­bered more,” she says tear­fully, and with a big sigh.

The stages of grief are un­avoid­able and Carr has been an­gry plenty of times at Pell. “I mean, who kicks it at 45? No­body does that,” she says. But she also is writ­ing down as many mem­o­ries as pos­si­ble, in­clud­ing the last time they were to­gether when Pell vis­ited Carr in Cal­i­for­nia just weeks be­fore she died.

They took a “50s road trip” and stopped at a hippy nud­ist re­sort (“She hated hip­pies so that was a true tes­ta­ment of her love for me!” Carr says with a laugh), a mini pet­ri­fied for­est and a mini Old Faith­ful geyser.

“We would fight and had this huge, dif­fi­cult and strong re­la­tion­ship and big cap­i­tal L love ... I said we were so lucky we have the big L, we can’t let that go, be­cause so many don’t get that their whole lives,” Carr says.

The last time they spoke, Pell was cry­ing on the phone. She told Carr the adop­tion agency had found her daugh­ter. The two had ex­changed let­ters and were go­ing to meet. They both cried tears of joy. Plans were to meet her daugh­ter, now 24 and liv­ing with two moms, in the near fu­ture.

The daugh­ter called Ria’s Blue­bird on Nov. 24 and asked for Pell. Pell’s cell­phone was on the fritz, so her close friend left the restau­rant to tell her about the call. That’s when she found Pell.

“She was so happy. Ev­ery­one who talked to her that weekend said she was so happy,” Carr says.

“I think my big­gest fear is things will be nor­mal, peo­ple will go along and do their shit. But it’s never go­ing to be like that.”

Tell the per­sons close, that you love them, that you trea­sure them and that life is bet­ter be­cause of them. That is our At­lanta. That is your heart and mine. Our town and hearts bro­ken. That is our love and com­mu­nity. That is our Ria. Our Ria for­ever. Now get some sleep you big jerk.

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