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