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Archive for the category “Memoir”

Terry, on the outside

If I’m out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.

― Saul BellowHerzog

Saul Bellow, Miami Book Fair International, 19

Saul Bellow  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1965, television carried the sights and sounds of the bloody march on Selma, Alabama into living rooms across the country. Agitation over the Vietnam War was breaking out on campuses and in city streets, in both small towns and big cities. But the Stonewall riots were a few years away, and gay liberation was not yet on our collective radar screen. So it really isn’t odd that my first gay friend never came out to me and likely never even realized I knew he was gay.

Terry was medium-tall, about 25 pounds overweight, ruddy-skinned, with close-cropped dark, curly hair. He wore black horn-rimmed glasses that gave him, alternately, the look of a scholar or of a mad scientist. He lived in a wealthy suburb with his adoptive parents. The woman who gave birth to him was a distant relative of theirs. She lived in an apartment above a downtown department store, where Terry used to visit her. He seemed ambivalent about all three of these people.

I was attending college, but Terry wasn’t a student. He was part of the local theater scene, of which I was a hanger-on by virtue of being friends with some student actors. We were a loose-knit group of about a dozen kids with mixed economic and ethnic backgrounds.

Terry was energetic, sardonic, funny, and engaging. He amused and entertained everyone, often making himself the butt of his own jokes. But he could participate with equal aplomb in the deep, philosophical inquiries of the undergrad set. I found him more comfortable and easier to be with than most people I’d known all my life. We also found each other reasonably attractive and indulged in some innocent—although not harmless—necking. (I once contracted a serious case of mono from him that that required three days of hospitalization and a month of recuperation.)

Unless you’re completely exploded, there’s always something to be grateful for.

 ― Saul Bellow, Herzog

During most of this time, I had a stuttering romance going with David, a thin, intense, brooding young actor/student who appeared to survive on caffeine, aspirin, cigarettes, vitamins, and cereal. David, Terry, and I hung out together, often occupying booths or counter space in one of the all-night restaurants that were so much more common back then. We talked constantly, logging thousands of hours of conversation in person or over the telephone. We were into the novels of John Updike and Saul Bellow, so I imagine we discussed Rabbit Angstrom, George Caldwell (The Centaur), and Moses Herzog.

Some people, if they didn’t make it hard for themselves, might fall asleep.

 ― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

One night in the middle of winter, Terry and I were driving around in a car I had borrowed. I forget why, but it was suddenly imperative to him to lay his hands on some money. He knew the combination to the safe in his father’s business office, so he decided to break into it. But first I had to return the car, which meant we were on foot more than 25 miles from his father’s office.

We slogged several miles across icy streets and sidewalks, growing increasingly numb from the cold, to the home of Marian-the-Librarian. Marian was the head of the Children’s Department of the public library, where I had once worked, and we were still friends. But she was in her 60s and lived alone, so I’m surprised she even opened her door. But she let us in, gave us something hot to drink, and agreed to lend us cab fare.

The cab dropped us off at a restaurant, where we ordered coffee. Terry downed his quickly and set off to try to find another car. Hours passed, though, as the waitress kept refilling my cup and giving me sympathetic looks. I realized Terry wasn’t going to return, but I didn’t have enough money to pay for the two coffees.

Eventually it got to be morning, and I called a friend to come pick me up and pay for the coffee. I never learned the outcome of that particular escapade, but it was adventures like that that often earned Terry time alone for reflection behind one set of locked doors or another.

He had several stints in the state mental hospital, from which he wrote me regularly. One weekend, David and I drove halfway across the state to see him. It was a warm, sunny, summer day, and David and I were both in a good mood. We made up names for fictional characters by combining place names from a roadmap: Crystallia Goodheart (heroine), Joppa Scott (villain), Sagola Volney (possible pen name for me). We fantasized about starting a business to provide characters (names and descriptions) to lazy novelists.

It seems, after all that there are no nonpeculiar people.

― Saul Bellow, Humboldt’s Gift

Terry was delighted to see us, garrulous and clowning around as usual: jovial tour guide of the nut house. Once he was released, the three of us picked up where we’d left off.

A few years later, he started talking about moving to Boston and making oblique references to a “marriage of convenience.” I assumed he never elaborated because he thought I didn’t know what he was talking about. It didn’t occur to me that he might have enjoyed being mysterious. In any case, he wanted me to move to Boston, too, and I considered the idea. But I ended up going to California instead, and we lost track of each other after that.

Out of the blue, during the winter of 1977, I started thinking about Terry quite a bit. I felt a strong urge to find out where he was and what he was up to, but I didn’t follow up on it for several months. His adoptive parents were no longer listed in the phone book, for one thing, and I was out of touch with everyone else who’d known him. But the urge persisted, and eventually I located the name and address of a possible relative. I wrote to him asking for Terry’s current address.

The man turned out to be Terry’s uncle. He called me as soon as he got my letter to tell me Terry had committed suicide in Boston six months earlier—right around the time I’d started thinking about him again.

I don’t delude myself that if I’d found a way to get in touch with Terry earlier he wouldn’t have killed himself. That would be presumptuous. There’s no way for me to know what was actually going on with him. But when I found out what had happened, I felt like a member of a mountain-climbing expedition who got distracted and looked away. And in that moment of looking away, I failed to see another member of the party lose his footing and fall, fatally, to earth.

We are funny creatures. We don’t see the stars as they are, so why do we love them? They are not small gold objects, but endless fire.

― Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King

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sweet dreams

Guitar player at Section 3

Guitar player at Section 3 (Photo credit: Dennisworld)

Some got clean, and even though you knew the blood, sweat, commitment, and years that had taken, it still felt like a fall-down-on-your-knees miracle every time. Some died (overdose, accident, murder, disease).

Mark did both.

He walked into his first detox group at the methadone clinic wearing a grey fedora cocked at a jaunty angle—swaggering but humble, willing but stubborn, in-your-face but respectful—giving off sparks that hinted he could accomplish the next-to-impossible. He could get clean. I began to wonder, how can I prove to myself that I am real and a part of this mad world I had been watching through blurry rain-soaked glass?

He got into the methadone maintenance program and I was assigned as his counselor. He defied everyone else’s expectations, but not his and not mine. Happy Valentine’s Day. You gave me (didn’t you?) hope.

Mark was in and out of jail while he was on methadone and wrote me long letters from his cell. I wonder if anyone knows how much or how useless this place really is for someone like me.

Otherwise, he lived in his car, an older model orange BMW he cherished. He was a heat-seeking missile bent on getting laid, so he had to keep up appearances. Almost got some today. My friend Kelly was being awful affectionate.

When his guitars weren’t in hock, he played bass, so he had that musician cachet going for him. And at one point, he owned two vehicles: the BMW he drove and a green Volvo he slept and stored his belongings in. I’m sitting here in my Volvo and my alarm starts sounding, but I can’t find my clock, right? So I’m digging all around and I’m finding all kinds of stuff I’ve been looking for, but the clock is still beeping, and I can’t tell where from. I finally find it in the back under some clothes, and what does it say—“Group Men’s 5:30 pm.” Whoops. Late again.

Mark’s openness was sometimes unnerving. Baring all doesn’t bother me because that’s how you will know who I am.

My expectations for him were relentlessly high. He attended two groups and two individual counseling sessions each week. I get a lot of encouragement from you, and seeing you keeps my commitment to you to stay clean fresh in my mind. I know I will have to be able to do that on my own, but isn’t that what recovery is about—support while you learn how to be strong without drugs?

We pushed each other’s buttons and challenged each other to dig deeper, to try again—try harder, try something else, something new—to push through it (whatever “it” was), to extend ourselves further, both within our respective roles and outside of them. I became a better counselor because Mark forced me to get real with him. All I can do is tell you how I feel about it and hope you see that it is as important to hear what you’ve been through as it is to tell you my story or feelings.

He got off dope. I was thinking about how dumb it was when I used to get depressed, and I would go out and use depressants to try and not be depressed, and they just made me more depressed. Duh!

After a community service gig revealed his talent for working with computers and he started earning money, he rented an apartment and got a cat. When he tapered off the methadone program after two years, clean (but not entirely sober), it was unusual enough that everyone on staff signed a congratulations card for him. Maybe my situation is almost the same, but the way I see the world and the way I make decisions and the way I feel about myself is all different. Cool, huh? Well, I think so, anyway.

Of course, Mark’s road had more rough patches, but he was never homeless again. I’m at a point where I’m just glad to be here, no matter why I’m here or what I’m doing.

And when he got together with Leslie, it was as if the last star in his personal constellation had finally fallen into alignment. Someday I’ll meet someone that I can be with who is what I’m longing for, and I can be for them the same. Not to try and make someone happy, but to augment their life and them mine.

Mark never relapsed to heroin. Haven’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t, didn’t, won’t, can’t and shouldn’t use.

It was alcohol that did him in. He was a maintenance drinker, and in spite or because of health problems, including Hepatitis C, from years of drug abuse and poor medical care, he wouldn’t, couldn’t, didn’t completely give up beer. He was 56 when his liver failed, 15 years after he came to the clinic. Well, I’m beat. I’ll see you tomorrow. Sweet dreams. Love, Mark.

I don’t know how many of my former clients are still clean (too few!) or how many are now dead (too many!). The others who I know have died—Jim, Dylan, Scott, Ray, Mark S, Alex, Rocky, and Russ—were all luminous and maddening souls. Each one fought hard—with humor and determination. Each one lifted me up, pissed me off, made me proud, and broke my heart. Each one infused me with enough hope to try again with someone else. Their passing has left holes in the world, openings you can sometimes glimpse when you look up into the night sky.

Sweet dreams, you guys. I’ll see you tomorrow. Love, Joycelyn.

what i’ve lost

RC Jones

RC Jones

Losing someone who has been an integral part of your life for years or even decades is an enormous loss, of course. But that enormous loss is really an accumulation of many smaller losses you only begin to recognize over time.

In the year after my partner of 30 years died, when I began to notice those small losses accumulating, I completed a long-list journal writing exercise to enumerate them. To acknowledge them. To help me understand.

Chances are you’ve lost someone as important to you as he was to me, and you have your own list of what that looks and feels like.

what i’ve lost

Someone to:

  • Come home to
  • Complain to
  • Hang out, watch TV, and read the Sunday papers with
  • Make scones for
  • Pick me up from work
  • Share my life
  • Share my time
  • Get grumpy with
  • Walk with & hike with
  • Shop with
  • Be indignant with (and about)
  • Share the sunset with
  • Remember 30 years with
  • Do projects with
  • Learn and grow with
  • Care for
  • Talk to
  • Share space with
  • Complain about
  • Figure things out with
  • Make plans with
  • Discover things with
  • Have holidays with
  • Share food with
  • Take care of the car
  • Return my books to the library and take my clothes to the cleaners
  • Make meal plans and grocery lists with
  • Watch DVDs with
  • Watch football games with
  • Have quirky habits with
  • Laugh with
  • Hope for
  • Nag
  • Have serious discussions with
  • Make me birthday cards
  • Play Scrabble with
  • Take for granted
  • Look out the window and watch for
  • Do the messy chores
  • Worry about
  • Buy Valentine’s Day cards for
  • Remember my birthday
  • Watch a fire in the fireplace with

Someone who:

  • Was always there
  • Knew me for better and worse and still stuck around
  • Wanted me to listen to his music
  • Took care of all the plants
  • Supported me 100%
  • Could fix almost anything
  • Would read my writing and give me GOOD feedback
  • Was smarter than me
  • Liked to cook (and was great at it)
  • Was willing to clean up the kitchen, do the dishes, and take out the trash
  • Listened to me, almost anytime
  • I could tell about my day
  • Always told me about his day
  • Was interested in what I was interested in
  • Got along with my mother (!)
  • Moved to Albuquerque with me
  • Offered to tell me bedtime stories
  • Used headphones for TV at night so he wouldn’t disturb me
  • Made the best of the situation
  • Forgave me
  • Always gave me his full attention
  • I could buy little surprises for
  • Remembered more of our past together than I do
  • Loved me unconditionally
  • Missed me when I went away
  • Picked me up at the airport, no matter what time
  • Filled the patio with blooming cactus plants
  • Accepted my shortcomings
  • Subscribed to interesting magazines
  • Was the one to go out to pick up our take-out food
  • Was nice to my friends
  • Made sure my coffee was ground exactly the way I liked it
  • Called me “babe”
  • Grilled the chicken, sliced the avocados, sharpened the knives
  • Apologized after an argument
  • Gave me my space
  • Noticed butterflies
  • Introduced me to so many different things
  • Cast his lot in with mine
  • Put up with my periodic insanity
  • Saved things
  • Was more sentimental than I am
  • Gave more than he got
  • Needed me
  • Trimmed my bangs
  • Took the cat to the vet
  • Worried about how I would get along without him
  • Supported me financially when I needed it
  • Drank way too much Diet Coke
  • Could be really silly
  • Had an eye for beauty
  • Was always writing letters to the editor in his head and then “reading” them to me
  • Watched the 10:00 news religiously
  • Hung all the pictures on the walls
  • Liked to talk…and talk…and talk
  • Tried to tell me jokes disguised as anecdotes because I hate jokes
  • Never liked to take the last of anything
  • Could never purchase just one apple, orange, or head of garlic
  • Loved the smell of roasting chiles in the fall
  • Still appreciated the bathrobe I got for him after wearing it for seven years
  • Said he liked hanging out with me
  • Made really good banana bread
  • Lived with a lot of physical pain but tried not to let it get in the way
  • Wore a hat I crocheted for him back in the 80s
  • Loved to look at the changing light across the Sandias
  • Could see into the center of things
  • Was proud of me
  • Was enchanted by snow and luminarias
  • Had a sparkle in his eye
  • Laughed with abandon
  • Had an amazing book and record collection

He was:

  • A poet
  • A writer
  • An artist
  • A gardener
  • A musician
  • A spiritual companion
  • A partner in life
  • My best friend
  • My heart

And I still miss him.

diaries, journals, and revelations

Diary

Diary (Photo credit: Barnaby)

I filled numerous diaries during elementary and high school, divulging my deepest secrets alongside the mundane details of everyday life. I had one-year diaries and five-year diaries. Some were gilt-edged, while others were plain. But no matter how simple or ornate, they all had locks.

When I was 11 or 12, one of my younger brothers rummaged through my dresser drawers and managed to find, unlock, and read my diary. When I complained to my mother, she told me to put it somewhere he couldn’t find it. I thought this unfair and unreasonable, so I consulted a higher authority: Ann Landers. Ann did not publish my letter, but she did write back agreeing with me and suggesting how I might approach this issue with my mother. I showed the letter to Mom, but she was not moved to alter her position. At least I felt vindicated.

Those old diaries are long gone. I switched to college-ruled spiral-bound notebooks somewhere along the way and started referring to them as journals rather than diaries.

My mother used to read excerpts to me from the five-year diary she’d filled between the ages of 16 and 21, which I think was the only diary she ever kept. The passages she read revealed a rebellious streak it may have been unwise of her to share with me, given her ongoing attempts to get me to conform to various social standards.

After she died, I got custody of her diary and read all of it in the course of a week. I’m so grateful to have it for the glimpses it provides of the young girl and young woman she was before becoming a wife and a mother. She missed writing only two or three days in the entire five years, filling every narrow line with both facts and impressions in her tiny, precise handwriting.

My own journals have been much less devoted to facts than to speculating, imagining, complaining, whining, planning, philosophizing, analyzing, rationalizing, and wishful thinking. Although I wrote in my notebooks regularly for years, it was in a very undisciplined manner. Some entries are so self-indulgent they make me cringe to read them. I’m mortified at the thought anyone else might see them. Twice I’ve ritually destroyed all the journals in my possession (once melodramatically and once thoughtfully). Even so, those journals were my faithful companions, and I derived much benefit from them.

After I encountered Ira Progoff’s book At a Journal Workshop, I began using journal writing in a deeper and more creative manner. I’ve subsequently gotten inspiration and direction from many other books and courses. When I worked as a substance abuse counselor, I realized that the practice of writing might be beneficial for my clients. We experimented with writing first in one group and then in another. Initially, some people were skeptical of the process and diffident about their writing ability, but journal writing doesn’t require talent, only willingness and honesty. Almost everyone responded positively to the writing exercises, and a few began keeping their own private journals. Sometimes the results were absolutely breathtaking, surprising both the writer and me.

When I returned home to California after my mother’s funeral, I wrote to her in my journal every night for several weeks. It helped me say good-by to her, which I had not had the opportunity to do before she died. It made me aware of the connection that will always exist between us. I did the same thing after my partner of nearly 30 years died. Journal writing has helped me get through the most difficult losses of my life.

I’m still writing in college-lined, spiral-bound notebooks. Still using my journals as a way to sort things out, understand myself and my world better, and gain perspective on whatever issues I’m dealing with. I’ve cut down on the whining, complaining, and rationalizing, but I haven’t eliminated them completely. My journals are still my faithful companions—a little reproachful from time to time, but generally nonjudgmental.

how i misspent my youth

This is the second guest post from Rich Jones, who previously shared some ramblings on his place of employment, an antique store (what’s the big deal with Charles Bukowski?). Here he offers a few brief episodes from his aimlessly misspent youth in San Francisco in the late 60s/early 70s—which back then was probably the best city in the world in which to aimlessly misspend one’s youth. They may remind you of the old adage God watches out for drunks and fools.

Looking east down Geary Boulevard from 36th Av...

Looking east down Geary Boulevard from 36th Avenue. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

will work for weed

When I was thirteen, I got my first job delivering the morning paper with a couple of school chums, brothers who dealt marijuana on the side and paid me a lid per month instead of cash to help them with the route. I’d get up at 3:00am and bike to the corner where the distributor dumped the papers; then the three of us would sit around inserting adverts and folding and loading the papers into a canvas shoulder bag while smoking dope. We’d hit the pavement by around 4:00am.

We delivered papers in one of the tonier neighborhoods in San Franciso—Presidio Heights—which includes a gated cul-de-sac, Presidio Terrace, on Arguello Boulevard. Among others, it was home to then Mayor Joseph Alioto and then Supervisor, now Senator, Diane Feinstein. We had to go door-to-door once a month to collect the subscription fees. Oddly enough, the greatest concentration of deadbeat accounts, those who “paid by mail,” but in fact didn’t pay at all, was within the Terrace.

Eventually, the brothers got tired of the paper route, so I took it over as a sort of sub-contractor, still working for marijuana. I really enjoyed that job; I liked the deserted streets, the cool morning air, the walking around, and of course, the dope smoking. Unfortunately, I lost it after about a year when the paper consolidated routes and began requiring car ownership for delivery people. But it was fun while it lasted.

boots in the sand (stoner version)

When I was still in junior high, I cut school a lot to hang out with an older group of stoners. They liked to hang out in Lincoln Park, near the southwest corner of China Beach, a place called Eagle Point. It was near a contemporary style wood-sided house occupied at the time by members of a local rock group known as “The Jefferson Airplane.”

One evening, some of my friends and I were out there drinking beer and smoking pot, when I felt the call of nature, got up, and staggered downhill. Coming around a bush, I suddenly found myself treading air and plummeting down the cliff face, too drunk to be scared until I was well on my way. I was wearing a three-quarter-length leather jacket I’d scored at a thrift store only weeks before, which kept me from shredding my back against the rocky shale as I slid down.

As luck would have it, the tide was coming in, and I landed up to my knees in partially liquefied beach sand. The sand was like glue, and the only way I could move was to step out of the pair of knee-high suede cowboy boots I’d spent several months of odd job wages on (earned in the underground economy of the time) at a surplus store on Market Street. Totally shaken and scared witless, I half crawled, half waded through frigid, knee-deep water to China Beach, weighed down by my wet clothes and the leather jacket. From there, I managed to walk from 28th Avenue to 10th Avenue and Anza Street in wet woolen boot socks, raising a set of blisters the size of Kennedy half-dollars on the soles of my feet. Thanks to the cold sea water, adrenaline pumped into me during the fall, and the long walk home, I was stone cold sober when I got to the front door; thus, I managed to sneak to my room, avoiding embarrassing parental inquiries.

When I saw my friends at school the next day, they all swore they’d been completely unaware that I was missing.

fade to blue

While nominally attending high school, my wiseacre friends and I spent much of our time hanging out in an area known as “the Pit,” which was located under the western side of the concrete stands of the football stadium. The Pit had restrooms that were kept locked except for game days and a windowless utility/storage room where the groundskeeper, whom we all called “Jack T. Gardener,” kept his equipment. Jack was pretty cool. He would unlock the restroom when we had a quorum and didn’t report us when we smoked cigarettes or drank beer there. He even kept some softball equipment for the impromptu games we held in the early afternoons when we were buzzed and mellow. In exchange, we kept the Pit cleaned up and carried our empties off campus so he wouldn’t get into trouble when the boys’ dean, who shared a last name with Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, came snooping around.

My best friend, Ed Chung, was part of this group. One day while the two of us were wandering stoned and happy down Clement Street, we found a box of plastic sunglasses in the trash outside the now long gone Owl Drugstore. Their frames were of various styles but all of the same rather unattractive shade of blue (probably why they were being thrown out). We took them over to the Old Man Shack where seniors played checkers and smoked themselves to their graves in Mountain Lake Park and sorted them out. In the process, I discovered I could wear two pairs at once, with the second pair resting atop the first so I looked like I had four eyes. Ed tried on two pair as well, and we both laughed till our sides ached. Then Ed thought up a stunt we could pull, which he organized and we carried out that very evening.

Around 8:00pm, Ed, his older brother, Ray, our friend Chris, and I all met at a tennis court off 25th Avenue and smoked a joint. We then walked out to four bus stops westbound along the 1 California Electric Line and spaced ourselves one stop apart, between 25th and 32nd Avenues, where the line turns south at Lincoln Park to loop back towards downtown. Each of us was wearing two pairs of blue framed sunglasses, one pair atop the other. The bus, with only a few passengers, stopped for each of us. We got on, paid our fares, and seated ourselves from front to rear. When the bus arrived at the 33rd Avenue turn-around, we all got off. The driver didn’t say a word, but he definitely gave us the fish eye.

We managed to get through this stunt without cracking up on the bus. Afterward, we headed to Eagle Point to smoke more dope.

ice sledding in San Francisco

There used to be an ice vending machine at a Union 76 service station located on Geary Boulevard at Stanyan Street. For, as I recall, a dollar you could get either large bags of crushed ice or solid 12×12 ice blocks.

The doors through which the ice was dispensed were large enough for a slender teenager to crawl through. So we’d climb in and steal blocks of ice and then haul them the six blocks over to the Presidio Golf Course via Arguello. Along the way, we’d scrounge copies of the throw-away newspaper The San Francisco Progress which typically accumulated unread on front porches and in the vestibules of flats and apartment buildings.

The Presidio Golf Course had a hill to the west, just past the clubhouse near the Arguello Street Gate, that sloped steeply and dramatically down towards Mountain Lake Park. We’d take the ice blocks up to the crest of the green, put the pilfered newspapers on top of them, and then ride them down the manicured hill—typically stoned out of our minds.

When pursued by the MPs, which was frequently, we’d escape by crossing a deep, concrete culvert that ran parallel to the hill and was choked with blackberry bushes. After crawling under a chain-link fence and scarpering for the nearby park exit at 6th Avenue, we escaped onto Lake Street, scratched and bleeding, but free. We never once got caught.

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