Thursday, May 28, 2009

Jerry: Seattle 1987

When I got to Seattle, Brock and Matt talked about Jerry, or at least mentioned him now and then. They were not too impressed by him, I gathered. But when I met him, I liked him--liked him in a kind of strange way because he was so strange. Later I found out why he was the way he was.
Jerry was from Sparks, Nevada--but his grandmother lived in Seattle, in Queen Anne, and so Jerry lived with her off and on. Jerry had been in the Navy--was discharged--and had boxed as an amateur while in the service. He was a small man--about the same age as us--and I think he boxed as a lightweight. He had a big head and black hair and a weird grin. He had gone to a state school, Central Washington, in Ellensburg--not sure what he studied--and was into woodworking. (He told me a story about his calling a professor at the professor's house, and the man told Jerry never to call him again--which seemed odd at the time.) Jerry was not an easy person to get along with. Besides his constant grin, he made inappropriate comments, had a poor sense of humor and stepped on people's toes. Maybe that's why I kind of liked him. And for some reason, I began to hang around with him some. Brock and Matt were a bit mystified. I was, too.
It was one day when we were walking down First Avenue West, Jerry and I, when he vaguely mention taking pills. A day or so later, while we talked, I just came out and said, "What are you, bipolar or something?"
And, why yes, he was.
(Actually, I think he was schizophrenic.)
This was what cemented his friendship to me. He thought I was astute and had discovered his big secret and he attached himself to me. But, as I said, I liked him and enjoyed it when he talked about the Navy (he was dismissed, honorably, due to his mental illness and received a monthly disability payment and had his schooling paid for by the government) and especially about boxing. I like boxing. Anyway, Jerry confided in me, telling me of his family history of mental illness, of his sister's schizophrenia, and other stuff. So, I got a picture of his life--not an easy one--and family, down to his contractor dad in Nevada who--not ill--had to deal with all of this tragedy. So, I had empathy for Jerry (still do, if I knew where he was). I even took him over to the University of Washington so we could look up information about his disease (this was before Google and the internet, understand). This also endeared me to him.
After I left Seattle, we stayed in touch. Usually letters, sometimes he'd call me. In many ways I didn't take our friendship that seriously--he was one of many people I stayed in touch with in those days. He was a character. But I didn't see him again until Fru and I lived in Missoula, Montana.
This was after Fru and I had moved to town from the cabin in Stevensville and, one day, I got a phone call from Jerry. He told me that he was in the Salt Lake City airport and was on his way to Missoula. He'd been living back in Sparks for quite a while and had bought the ticket and was on his way but had never told me about the plan--until then. So, I suddenly had Jerry coming to visit and Fru and I lived in this little one bedroom cottage--a miniature house, really, with low ceilings and small rooms--on Rollins Street. I had to quickly explain to Fru where he was and that he was going to stay with us and that I had to go to the airport and get him. She knew of Jerry, but did not know Jerry.
So, I did. I collected Jerry and brought him to our home and he was as strange as ever. Stranger, really. He was enamored with Fru--but in inappropriate ways--and she went along with it as best she could. Laughed about it. I had to work in the evening and she took him to the movies where he held her hand and made comments, then during the movie he disappeared. She had to go out to the lobby and look for him--an usher finally saying that he had gone into the bathroom and had not come out for almost an hour.
I think Jerry was off his meds.
That night, Jerry stayed up in the living room--where we'd made a bed on the couch--and smoked all night. Fru and I were occasional smokers, but Jerry was a chain-smoker and, as said, the house was tiny and low and it filled up with his smoke and he stood out in the living room naked and talked to himself. We also worried he'd set the bed on fire.
I don't recall if it was the second night--or a third night--that I told him he'd have to leave. I--Fru and I--put up with his behavior, but it was a final straw incident that made me kick him out. Because he was up all night, naked, smoking, talking to himself, that night he came into the kitchen--where our one bedroom was attached and door open--and clicked on the too-bright overhead light which shone into our room and I immediately became angry (a culmination of it all) (I remember now, he'd clicked on our big bedroom light by mistake, the switch was with the the kitchen light). I'd had enough and he could see it. He was frightened and I was glad that he was scared of me . . . Jerry was just too plain weird to have in my house. If it had just been me--okay, maybe. Maybe I would have stayed up all night too, smoking with him and talking to myself (but not in the nude--I draw some lines in even my own craziness). But, I had Fru and it was not okay. So, I got angry and told him that this was it and I'd be taking him to the airport in the morning. He told me he'd actually figured this would happen and had a ticket that was good for any date to fly out.
I stayed up with him that night--it must have been around 3am when he flipped the light on--and he started telling me all sorts of things. Like the game board game he'd invented. He'd actually paid to make some game, a prototype board game, based on psychological ideas. He'd actually had cards and the board and the playing pieces manufactured--a single set--and showed it to me and it made no sense. He told me how he'd watch presidential speeches on TV and thought that the president was speaking directly to him and Jerry would put needles between his own toes and watch himself bleed. And I remember--now, as I write this--how he'd made me a candlestick out of wood once, mailed it to me, and it could not even stand up, let alone safely hold a candle. And then there was his garden tool invention: the Toe-Hoe. The Toe-Hoe was a metal device you strapped to your foot to dig a garden. He'd had it manufactured, too, and had even put an ad on late night TV to sell it (I bought one, to support him, and he'd sent me a tape of the ad, this was when Fru and I lived in Champaign, and Fru and I couldn't help but to laugh at the Toe-Hoe [we still laugh]). But I guess I never told Fru how bad Jerry was--I guess I didn't quite realize it myself.
So, as we waited for dawn and the first flight out of Missoula, it went back and forth between us. I talked, yelled, sat and listened to Jerry as he smoked and ranted. Then he began to write things down on little slips of paper--things like, Love, Intelligence, Sanity, single words--and then he'd eat the paper with a positive word on it, burn the slip of paper with a negative . . . Okay . . . I knew I was doing the necessary thing. Matt and Brock had been right to steer clear of him. I needed to kick him out and send him home. He'd shown up out of the blue and never given me the chance to say no or to prepare for his visit.
And so, around dawn, I got him into my truck and drove him to the airport and made sure he got on his flight to Nevada. Yes, I felt sympathy, but also relief. Yes, I tried to contact him later on, but never heard from him again.
Poor Jerry. But I understood the professor, who told him never to call him again. And Fru, for quite a while afterwards when I said a friend was going to visit, would ask me if my friend was crazy. Sure, we laughed about it--at Jerry's expense, I guess--and still do. And I--and Fru--felt bad about it all. But what are you going to do? How far does friendship extend? Maybe to Jerry, I was his best friend in the world. Maybe I let him down in a long line of people letting him down. But he seemed to know what would happen, that the friendship would not survive his visit. Yet, he was compelled to come visit anyway, probably knew he had to do it without notice so that I could not refuse him. Jerry perhaps saw it as a test, knowing that by visiting so surreptitiously he would find out if I was his best friend or not.
I wasn't.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I Was Once A Bouncer: Santa Fe 1984

I didn't have a car in Santa Fe. When I first got a job down in town, waiting tables at The Forge, I rode Joel's bicycle to work. But--and I don't remember exactly why--I didn't much care for that mode of transportation. What I cared for--in Santa Fe--was walking. I walked everywhere. Luxuriated in my walking everywhere--the slowing down of time, the ability to observe everything, to put together long trains of thought, feel the day, the weather, hear and see the birds, people, adobe homes tucked behind adobe walls and thick wooden gates, smell the sickly-sweet Russian Olive trees, step among the snowflake-feathers of the cottonwoods when they bloomed. Stuff like that. And Santa Fe was--is--over seven thousand feet up, and the house I stayed in on Camino de la Luz was at least a mile, maybe two, from the Plaza and the places I worked. So, I walked a lot and I was in great shape--skinny as I had ever been, since maybe as a pre-teen--and generally happy.
It was summertime, after I'd been in town for months, when I got a second job as a bouncer at Club West. And it was because I walked all the time that I was offered the job. Because, one day, I was walking and I think I had my shirt off and then this guy drives by in his car and then he pulls over and he asks if I wanted to work at Club West. Out of the almost literal blue, he asks me this. I said I didn't know, so he said his name was Ziggy and all I had to do was stop by the club. And it turned out Ziggy had seen me walk many times along that route and that Ziggy was the head security guy at Club West and the manager at Club West was Alex's girlfriend and Alex was a working friend of mine. Ziggy knew a lot of people. Ziggy was also gay, I found out later--which may have had something to do with him stopping me in the street, maybe, maybe not--but that was never an issue. He was a good guy and I took the job.
Now, I'm not a small person. When I was young I was big and strong (though very skinny in Santa Fe) and I had a bit of a physical streak in me. I liked physical jobs and playing football and such. But, overall, I wasn't--am not--an aggressive person. I don't like violence much, certainly wouldn't want to inflict it on anyone. But life as a bouncer was usually just a matter of unlocking windows and doors (and locking them back up), of manning the front door to check IDs and such, of manning the floors looking for trouble-makers. The club was the biggest night club in Santa Fe at the time and even the state politicians would come in. I didn't know them, really, but recognized some (a lot of them ate breakfast at The Forge (Inn of the Governors) due to its proximity to the Capitol). I know I didn't let one State Senator in the door one night because he had a drink with him. He seemed surprised, but didn't argue. He left, finished his drink, then came back. But, he made a point to tell me it "was medicine". Right. I like my medicine, too.
Then there was the day--maybe it was the 4th of July--when it was crowded and we had a guy going through girls' purses. He was a big crazy guy and he wasn't going to leave. That was about the only fight that I got in on and--to be honest--I didn't enjoy it much. And then there was the time I kicked someone out and Ziggy told me to keep an eye out, because the guy had been known, before, to come back with a gun. And I was working the front door. That was enough, then.
Oh, I kept working at Club West. I quit my waiters job, but my heart wasn't into being a bouncer. The idea of getting shot for a five dollar and hour job (or whatever it was in 1984) plus tips didn't appeal to me. I quit eventually, then didn't work, then left town.
But as a bouncer, I often got off work at 3am and I'd make that long walk back to Camino de la Luz in the dead of night. Sometimes cops would shine their spot on me from the park along Alameda, along the trickling Santa Fe River. One time I had a pack of dogs gather around me and I balled my fist into my coat, ready to fight (there were a lot of loose dogs in Santa Fe, I usually kept rocks in my pockets--the dogs were often aggressive (they would have made good bouncers)) but a cop drove up, saw my situation, and backed his patrol car into the gang of dogs so that they ran off.
Being a bouncer was okay. But I prefer walking.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Snow Fort: Sioux Falls 1961

It was winter and I was getting over the mumps. There had been a lot of snow in South Dakota and Sioux Falls was no exception. I was a little kid and the snow dropped outside--where I could not go--was monumental. Brother's and sister and neighbors went out into the remnant of the blizzard and played and I could only watch from the window. In fact, it often took my father to hold me up so that I had the best view.
Post storm and snow, my father shoveled the walks and drive (we lived in a corner house in the Hilltop neighborhood, so the yard was big and had sidewalks on two sides) and piled the snow high. And then--I don't know why and I can not ask him why--he built a snow fort. It wasn't just any snow fort, but a childhood dream snow fort. It was massive--taking up most of the yard. It had huge embankments/walls with columns of snow. It had arched entries and exits. Those entries and exits were not ground-level, but a few feet high and were made into crawl-overs and slides.
Of course, I could not play in it at first. I had to watch my brothers, sister, strange and known kids play in it at first. And my father would lift me up at the big front "Family Circus" window to watch. He held me, the middle child of five, in his arms.
It was a cold winter and things did not melt much and then I was deemed cured of the mumps and released to play in the fort. And out I went in my parka and stringed-mittens and hat and galoshes and boots (oh, the sartorial accoutrements of childhood in a cold climate!) and I ran around with everyone, slipping and sliding and fighting for the sovereignty of our snow fort. It was great fun . . . I honestly don't recall all that we did: snowball fights, war games, dollhouse/adventure fantasies? But it was fun. (Though I also recall a dog had shit upon one of the slides and I was repulsed: I am a dog owner, but I had a long period of being repulsed--and disliking dogs--because of such events with shit.)
And that's it. That's the memory. Just a little pointless tale . . . But: If you are as old as me, whose father has been dead for eight years, then those small memories of him carry much more weight. Gravity. Significance. Old joy. That is why I remember it so, why I write about it.
I was not present at my father's death. I had gone to visit him when he was sick and still lucid. I went to his funeral. I live somewhat far away from Des Moines--and from that hospice in Johnston where he died--and I had to make practical decisions about when I should come. In his last days he could hardly talk and was prone to cancer/morphine delusions. So I saw him when I could tell him that I loved him. When I could lay him to rest. And--knowing my father--he would appreciate such practicality. All he would want to know was that I loved him and missed him and wished that I could talk to him. That's the reality, the most practical, most important idea of it all. That, and memories like the snow fort.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Suckerfish: Johnson City 1969

When I went to Cherokee Elementary School--which was a county school, not a city one--sometimes I'd walk to a friend's house or part way home after classes were out. We lived more than a few miles from the school and I usually got a ride to and back, though sporadically we took the bus (I hated the bus). But along the road away from school there was a stream and in the stream there were always fish. The stream ran along the road like a ditch, in a way (though it was not a ditch), and there were "bridges" where streets or driveways intersected with the main road. I recall one mild winter I was walking home or maybe to Kyle's house or somewhere for some reason after school, and I stopped along the stream and there were the fish down in the clear water.
The fish were suckerfish and suckerfish were like slim carp that clung with their mouths to the sides of rocks or the smooth concrete abutments where the small bridges were. No one ate them that I knew of. But if you tried to reach in and grab them, they'd take off. Well, being a kid, a boy, I still felt that it was only a matter of quickness, or outsmarting them, to catch one, despite the many failures to do so before. So, I stopped, put my books down in the brown weeds along the road and bent over the stream.
The stream was deep--maybe three or four feet--at this bridge and there were three or four fat green-gray-black suckerfish clinging to the concrete. I studied them for a spell, took off my coat, rolled up my sleeve and put my hand in the water. I think, perhaps, that my idea was to go slow this time, that since quickness had not worked in the past, this time I'd slowly creep up on them and grab it. So, that water was very cold. My hand, arm went pretty numb as I reached into the wet, inching, inching closer to the clinging fish. And my plan was working. Those fish--none of them--made a move. I was excited. I reached further, getting my bunched sleeve wet, dipping my face closer to the surface. the cold was no trouble because I was so close to grabbing a live fish. And then . . . I struck.
And I grabbed it.
And I pulled it up.
And it was slimy and disgusting-feeling in my cold hand.
And the suckerfish did not move.
It was as if the fish were frozen. Or dead. Or playing a game with me. I was both excited and repulsed--and disappointed--as I held that grotesque dead-frozen fish in my hand. And it was the feeling of disappointment that won out over the others.
I mean, I had caught it. Held it. But, there was no challenge. It had been easy. It had not been fair. The fish was as good as dead and I had grabbed it and it smelled and felt horrible and now, what the heck should I do with it? I didn't think it was really dead, but was in suspension--like hibernation--due to the cold season. Still, what to do?
I tossed it back in the water and watched it--seemingly lifeless--float away with the current.
And even today it's hard for me to make anything out of the little event. I guess, as I said, it was the utter disappointment of it all. The desire to catch something--or, metaphorically, to possess it or to kill it--and it turned out to be only disgusting and pointless. Maybe that's why I still recall it.