I just found out tonight that a friend of mine has passed away. Mike Ritter was editorial cartoonist for a newspaper in Scottsdale, Arizona when I first met him. I wanted his job and that’s probably why I started talking to him. I figured he’d move on to something bigger and I could snag his gig. That never happened but what happened was even better. I made a great friend.
In 1997 I was working for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and Mike and I talked most everyday. I even set him up on a blind date. I knew a really nice girl in Phoenix and I just knew her and Mike would hit it off. Little did I know Mike was gay. Obviously that date did not work out and a few years later Mike came out. In fact, Mike told me I was the first he was coming out to. I was in Virginia by that point and was working for The Free Lance-Star. I thought Mike was pulling my leg. I had hung out at many conventions with him and shared a lot of conversations. During my divorce Mike was one of the few people I could talk to, whine to, and he’d stomach and tolerate all my pathetic inner turmoil and talk me through it. In exchange, I got to listen to his stories of dating in the Phoenix gay scene for a newly outed homosexual. Of course I had to burden him with all my dating stories for a newly divorced guy on the dating scene. I’m pretty sure we revolted each other equally. I think, at the same age, we were both embarking on a new, separate, adventure simultaneously. I discovered through Mike that being single and dating as a straight guy wasn’t that different for a gay dude.
I remember hanging with Mike at a cartoonist convention in Chattanooga and really hating how incredible his artwork was. The man was an artist with talent greater than most. I was afraid he was better than me in a time I was very competitive. To make matters worse, Mike was charming, funny, could tell a story and seemed to have more friends and garner more respect than most and to make matters worse, he was better looking than I. When he came out I thought “thank God we’ll never compete for a girl.”
After Mike told me he was gay, he told me he wanted me to tell everyone. I felt I was given a mission to out him. I did not want that mission. Mike told me it was OK. He wanted to be outed and he didn’t want to do it himself. I refused the request because I didn’t want people down the line to say “well Clay Jones told me this story.” Maybe Mike told me because he thought I had a big mouth. I made it a point not to out him and then I went and inadvertently outed him.
I was visiting Los Angeles and I was in the offices of The Los Angeles Times visiting Michael Ramirez. We were in the midst of a conversation when Mike Ritter’s name came up and somewhere in there I related how Ritter wanted me to out him (I assumed by this point everyone knew). This was several months after Mike had confided in me (don’t know if “confided” is the right word since he wanted to be out, but didn’t want to do it himself). Ramirez was in shock and immediately picked up his phone and called Ritter. I’m screaming no but Ramirez gets on the phone and asks Ritter, “are you gay? Clay just told me this.” Ritter laughed and said yes and then the three of us, on a speaker phone had a 20 minute conversation.
A few years later we’re all in D.C. at a convention and Ritter being gay isn’t just public knowledge, it’s a “who gives a shit?” He was our friend. At a cartoonists convention liberals and conservatives aren’t just friends, they’re the best of friends (I’ve actually seen more animosity from liberals to liberals and conservatives to conservatives). Mike, as usual, is the center of attention in any room he’s in. To say I was his friend isn’t a bragging point. He was a friend to everyone. Everyone loved Mike. But my favorite story started that evening.
Mike, myself, and a few other cartoonist went to Georgetown. There were about 12 of us. Mike insisted I have an Apple Martini. Mike wasn’t just “out.” Mike was proud. That Apple Martini was delicious, but I digress. After Mike bought me that drink, we hit several bars with the straight single guys hitting on every girl with a pulse. Eventually Mike said that he wanted to go to a gay bar. D.C. apparently is big on gay bars. I did not know this, nor care. I thought Mike went along with us going to straight bars, so why not? Let’s go to a gay bar. I tell the rest of our crew we’re going to Dupont Circle with Mike to visit a gay bar. Our group of 12 diminished to about five. Along the way Mike would stick his head in a bar and come out and say “no, not this one.” Eventually we landed on one Mike liked. The bar was packed three deep, it was sweaty hot and the women were amazingly beautiful. I think I got about 48 rejections. Apparently “straight” is written on my forehead. When the bar closed we overcrowded a cab and I was actually laying on laps with my feet out the window and my head in Mike’s lap (who told me I had nice hair). Mike had made a friend and went back to his hotel room. The rest of us hit the hospitality suite for more drinks.
The next morning the hospitality suite was chain locked from the inside and housekeeping could see someone’s feet and that they were either dead or passed out. Turns out he was just passed out. Thank God. We renamed the hospitality suite in honor of the passed out cartoonist for the last night of our convention and Mike went on to regale all of us in his nightly adventure with the new friend he brought home. I won’t go into details but “lifts and separates” has been stuck in my head ever since.
Mike was 48. A year younger than I and way too young to die. He died during heart surgery on an operating table. Mike left Arizona years ago. He told me beforehand that he needed a place that suited his lifestyle better. I don’t recall who I heard it from, but I was told he would show up at work here and there and when he didn’t show, there was no warning and that eventually he was just taken off the payroll. I don’t know how accurate that information is.
He wound up in Atlanta. I didn’t talk to him for a very long time after he arrived in Atlanta but the funny thing is, he contacted me two weeks ago. He congratulated me on my self syndication and work and invited me to visit him in Atlanta. Like so many invitations I said I would love to do that while not having any immediate intention of doing so.
Mike was a great friend. A great guy. He was there for me during a difficult period of my life. He always made me laugh. He was witty, charming, handsome, talented. He was the kind of guy you would think would stay forever young. He’s not the person you would ever think would be dead at 48. While being incredibly jealous of Mike, I was incredibly awed by his personality.
Mike, I miss you. I miss our conversations about nothing. I miss the substance. I miss your advice and support. I miss knowing if I talked to you I would end up laughing hysterically. I’m sorry this is the best tribute I can give to a friend who deserves so much more. Rest in peace knowing at this very moment your readers, friends and fellow cartoonists are thinking about you and missing you. I hope that you’re somewhere, continuing to laugh at us. We’re all at a loss without you and without you this world isn’t as bright.
I love you, Mike. You were a star on Earth and somewhere you’re still shining.