Portland lost one of its best-known–and best-loved–street musicians on March 11. The Multnomah County Medical Examiner's office confirmed the death of street musician and retired ironworker Richard Gismondi, better known to both friends and passersby as "Lefty." Lefty was found in the morning by his friend, musician Dan Eccles, when Eccles checked in on Lefty after he'd not been seen for a few days.
Lefty was a familiar sight to Portland's downtown crowd—a regular at Old Town dives from Captain Ankeny's to Ash Street Saloon to Dante's—instantly recognizable by his long white hair and beard, ebullient growl of a voice and, of course, his missing right arm.
After an accident at a Seattle YMCA at the end of the '90s, Lefty lost his right arm at the elbow. This didn't stop him from playing guitar daily on Portland's sidewalks. He manufactured his own prosthesis using a two-liter bottle, a lot of tape, and an oil funnel he used to strum on the guitar. His left hand worked the frets.
WW named him one of Portland's best people in 2009, and described a day and evening of his life in 2010:
Putting the more occasional, usually transient buskers to shame, Lefty is a westside fixture; he plays the sidewalks daily, but especially on First Thursdays and at Saturday Markets, not to mention open-mic nights at the Ash Street Saloon and Yamhill Pub.
"I play so much I've got scabs under here," he says, gesturing to his makeshift prosthesis. Pretty much everybody in the neighborhood knows him by name and vice versa; his songs are punctuated by shout-outs to passersby... Lefty is one of the more popular street musicians in town, which means he pulls in enough earnings for a small apartment and a much-more-than-healthy drinking budget.
"I'm pretty spaced out," he tells me. "If you were going to spend a day the way I do, you would've showed up to Ash Street at 11 when they opened. I'm there every morning."
"He hadn't been in the best of health lately," wrote Portland musician Lewi Longmire after Gismondi's death Tuesday. "He had emphysema pretty badly, had been dependent on an oxygen tank for some time, and lately had been using one of those rolling walker things to help get around. I just assumed he finally couldn't breathe or that his heart gave out. He lived hard, smoked a lot, and had seen much in his years on the sphere.
"But he still was rocking it on the floor at the Dead Moon reunion the other month," Longmire adds. "Unstoppable until he stopped."
Though Lefty's body bore the scars of a rough life, his most salient personality trait was his unceasing cheeriness. "Lefty was a huge lover of life, and people love him," says Eccles. "He definitely made my life a better place."
On the night WW visited in 2010, Lefty had to stop playing his streetside set after breaking an E-string—a difficult proposition to replace one-handed.
"It's going to be great night," he said while walking back to his apartment for a replacement. "I'm telling you, things keep getting better every day."