THERE'S AN impromptu memorial to Ray Collins on one of the places he loved best: a public bench.
Two photos of Collins, a votive candle, orchids and messages adorn the metal bench on the southeast corner of Second and Yale in downtown Claremont, just outside the Village Grille diner.
One poetic message reads: "Come a day, any day, sit on this bench, Ray's Bench, speak a while with him, then leave, you have not wasted your day, just lived it better."
The other reads, more simply, "RIP, ya Mother!" with a heart sign.
Collins, a Pomona native, was the original singer of the Mothers of Invention, the band that launched Frank Zappa to renown. In recent years Collins was a fixture in the Claremont Village.
He spent his days there, walking around, relaxing on benches, chatting with friends. He was a sort of town greeter, the unofficial mayor of the Village. It was less known that he was homeless and lived out of a van.
He died Dec. 24 at age 75 after a heart attack six days earlier. Collins is survived by a brother in Upland, two half-brothers, a grandson and numerous nieces and nephews. He's been cremated, although a memorial service remains a possibility.
I've already written about my own encounters with Collins. But he was such a presence in the Village, I thought that was worth a tribute in itself.
As I expected, nearly everyone knew him.
"We regularly greeted one another.
Collins, a morning person, came into Some Crust Bakery promptly at 6:30 a.m. each day for a dark-roasted coffee and sometimes a pastry or muffin.
"Everybody knew him, knew his history," manager Jack Housen said of his staff. "We knew he was living out of his car. That's the music business for you."
Plans are in the works for a window display at the bakery in Collins' memory.
At the Folk Music Center, employee Henry Barnes took me out to the sidewalk to point out a different bench, one shaded by a tree, where he often saw Collins.
He said the grandfatherly Collins, with his chest-length white beard, was always an object of fascination for children.
"He loved little babies. Babies loved him," Barnes said.
For some, Collins had a role in the Village similar to that of Charles Chase, the white-bearded owner of the Folk Music Center, who died in 2004.
The two represented a certain dignity, bohemian spirit and uncompromising nature in a downtown increasingly populated by boutiques and flashy vehicles.
"It's hard to imagine the Village with first Mr. Chase and now him gone," said Dennis Callaci, general manager of Rhino Records.
Aaron Kenyon, the manager of Video Paradiso, struck a similar note.
"He was such a presence. It's what people want Claremont and Pomona to be about, a living representation of that," Kenyon said.
"Mr. Chase was like that too. A link to the old school. It was grounding."
Kenyon knew Collins as well as anyone, interviewing him on KSPC-FM a decade ago, keeping in close touch and persuading him once to come over for dinner.
Kenyon, 42, treated Collins as a respected elder. He saw him in all his contradictions. Notably, there was Collins' love-hate relationship with Zappa, whom he had invited into the band in Pomona in 1964 and who gradually took it over.
Collins could be bitter about the lack of recognition and money. Other times, he was proud of the band's legacy and his contributions.
"Sometimes he'd get in the mood when he wanted to share and he'd pop off with a story, and other times he'd say 'That was just a phase of my life,"' Kenyon said. "He could be kind of surly in his way."
What would he have made of getting a lengthy obituary in the New York Times? "He wouldn't have understood," Kenyon said.
I heard from Tim Corvin, who is hoping to make a documentary about Zappa's time in this area. He introduced himself to Collins last September and was surprised that Collins gladly spent an afternoon with him, showing him around Pomona's old bar district on East Holt Avenue and promising to grant an on-camera interview whenever Corvin was ready.
Corvin phoned him the next time he was in town. Collins said brusquely, "I don't feel like talking Zappa history. Goodbye," and hung up.
"It was quite the emotional rollercoaster," Corvin admitted. "I just didn't have my camera with me on the right day."
Collins was prone to doing that. He would often agree to things, such as offers of singing engagements, and then change his mind after a couple of days' reflection, Kenyon said.
I've wondered why Collins seemed unable or unwilling to pursue music in his later years, despite occasional comments that he was still writing songs. Kenyon didn't know either.
Collins at times would seem to be trying to get a band together but wouldn't move beyond talk. He turned down invitations to join the Grandmothers, a band made up of his aging Mothers of Invention bandmates.
"He loved music," Ernie Arutunian, a childhood friend from Pomona, told me. "He didn't like commercializing it."
Yet Collins could have used the money. Kenyon was among those who had tried to help Collins, but even such simple offerings as store gift certificates or a blanket were rebuffed.
"He was a proud, self-sufficient dude," Kenyon said. "The extra money never motivated him, even back in the day."
The Mothers might be the valley's greatest cultural success story, Kenyon said, because they started in Pomona clubs and really gelled when Zappa, a Cucamonga friend of Collins', joined in 1964.
Collins had begun singing at Emerson Junior High. "He had a beautiful falsetto voice," said Arutunian, a classmate.
He began as a doo-wop singer with Little Julian Herrera and the Tigers, singing on "I Remember Linda" in 1957, and with Zappa co-wrote 1963's "Memories of El Monte" for the Penguins, a fond look at the Legion hall where mixed-race dances were held.
Yet he also made the transition to the satirical Mothers and its avant-garde experimentation, even if the satire grew too much for his tastes and led to his 1968 exit.
Some knew Collins less as his legend and more as a familiar face.
"At first it was 'hi, how are you.' Then we started having conversations about movies, or what's going on in the Village," said Nicole Ennis of Claremont Photo and Video.
Collins frequented the Laemmle 5 theater and would steer Ennis to movies he liked or away from ones he said he walked out of.
She saw him spend hours on yet another bench, outside the Claremont Library, across the street from the business, where he would snack on apples or oranges.
"I can't really picture him as a singer," she admitted.
Anthony Brooks, the shop's owner, said his last conversation with Collins came when he returned to work after a few days off for illness. Collins asked him, deadpan, "Is it terminal?"
They saw the commotion Dec. 18 around Collins' van, which was parked across the street. He had had a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital by paramedics. He never regained consciousness.
But back to the Village Grille. The bench decorated in tribute to Collins is a few steps from the diner's door. Many customers knew him, as did the staff.
How did he spend his time?
"I never saw him with a book or newspaper," waitress Gina Rodriguez said. "I think he just watched life, watched people. He was a people-watcher. That was his entertainment."
The bench's decorations came about spontaneously from Grille customers.
One man who often chatted with Collins placed his photo on the bench on Dec. 27 as word spread about his death. A woman left two leis: one for hello, one for goodbye. Two siblings brought flowers.
The girl, Kyra, who's about 6, told Rodriguez sadly: "He was my best friend in the whole wide world."
Children liked Collins because he wasn't mean or angry. "He was a man who sat on a bench who gave you a conversation if you were open to it," Rodriguez said. "He just had that calm spirit. I think most children sense that."
Customers are still talking about him.
"He was a staple of the town," waitress Mary Silva said. "It's amazing how many people knew him."
Homeless he may have been, but on the streets and sidewalks of Claremont, Ray Collins did find a home.