The day had finally arrived: July 20, 2016. I didn’t know what the actual date would be, but I had just knocked the last two people off my list, drove home from San Francisco, and figured it would happen now. Amy knew it was going to happen, was understandably nervous about it, and if I didn’t quite have her blessing, per se, I had her understanding. I unpacked from my trip, hung out with the family a little, and eventually grabbed a Sierra Nevada Nooner out of the fridge, opened it, walked outside to our back porch to enjoy the California sunset as the sky went from dusky to dark over the next half hour. I took a sip of the beer, sat down in the patio chair and looked at the Crape Myrtles, blooming a vibrant pink. The early evening was still and perfect as I slowly savored the beer, contemplating this turning point my life had irrevocably taken.
The Sierra Nevada was the first beer – the first alcohol of any kind – I had consumed since I was sixteen years old, over thirty years prior to that night. I started to feel a little buzz, a nice warm glow settling over me. Amy came out and said “Wait, are you doing this right now? I don’t know if I’m ready for this!” I understood; it wasn’t really fair. When we met in our late twenties I had already been clean and sober for over a decade. Amy was more than ready to settle down with a guy whose wild oats had already been sown, about whom she didn’t have to worry how he was getting home, or if he was getting home. If she would have fought me on it, my decision to give up my sobriety after all that time, I might have rethought the project. But she’s the kind of person who has always allowed me to make my own mistakes, not wanting to control what I do or don’t do, and it’s one of the countless things about her that I love and appreciate.
Amy was the first person I talked to about my plan to attempt to drink alcohol moderately, like a “normal” person, for the first time in my adult life. (That Sierra Nevada was my first legal drink, at forty-six years old.) The other people I talked to in advance were all three of my kids: fourteen, seventeen, and twenty-one at that time, one of my older sisters, and my closest sober friends. Being in Alcoholics Anonymous – sorry, I’m not anonymous anymore – for as long as I had been, I had known an uncountable number of sober people who had “relapsed” in one way or another. Many of them snuck off into the weeds to start drinking again, hiding it from their friends and family, keeping up the premise of sobriety on the outside, but really living a lie until the lie could no longer be hidden. Others quietly drifted away from The Program and started drinking and using drugs again, while still others went out with a huge bang, sometimes crawling back into the rooms of A.A. a few days or weeks later, sometimes not. Some of these folks got a handle on their drinking, and it ended up not being an issue for them anymore. Some went over the deep end and were dead before long. In all my years hanging around sober people I had seen every possible version of this play out. From one extreme to the other and everything in-between.
But how would it be for me, and why do it at all? I was confident drinking again wasn’t going to be a problem, but it was still a big deal. Although I hadn’t been to an A.A. meeting in close to a decade, being clean and sober for thirty years was a big part of who I was, how I saw myself, and maybe how some others saw me too. After that Sierra Nevada on 7/20/16 it had all changed. I was no longer clean and sober; I was a guy who drinks, hopefully not too much. But time would tell. The first couple of months were hard. I dealt with some sadness and grief, as if I had lost a crucial part of myself. I imagine it felt a bit like a Christian who gives up his faith, or like leaving a marriage or a long-time job. Same me, now, but different. What comes next?
My story about Camp Fox outlined the type of teenager I was. My main problem when I was young was that I was just plain bad. My sisters and the few adults who are left who knew me when I was a kid might disagree, but the truth is I was a shitty person who was often mean to people, bullied other kids, smoked pot, drank beer, dropped acid, and destroyed things without regard for consequence. I was expelled from my high school for marijuana use, arrested, chased by cops and con men who ripped me off, joined other con men to rip other people off, stole, cheated, and broke my poor parents’ hearts on a regular basis. I had good parents, but was a child of divorce like half of us are, so no excuse there. My folks splitting up, and then my mom’s and my move from Sacramento – the only place I had ever lived – to Los Angeles after third grade was probably the worst thing that could have happened to me.
I look at my eight-year-old self in this picture, at the wedding of my mother to Richard Springer, and I see a very unhappy child. Everyone else is smiling: My mom not quite forty; Richard three years younger with a new, beautiful, wife; my new stepbrother Mark, a great guy who was one of the only bright spots during those first years in L.A: they all seemed to be willing to give this new family a go. But I wasn’t having it. I wasn’t getting married. I didn’t fall in love. I was leaving Pony Express elementary school and all my friends, older sisters, and my own dad, to move to a new city. I was pissed! I’m sure it wasn’t easy for Mom to leave Sacramento either, but she was marrying the love of her life, apparently, and Richard and Mark got to stay in the house in North Hollywood in which they were already living. The way I saw it, I was the one getting a raw deal here!
It was during these first years in L.A., fourth through sixth grade, where I first remember actively looking for trouble. I wasn’t like that in Sacramento before the move. It all might have started as harmless boys-will-be-boys pranks of childhood, but such antics had previously been out of character for me. Ding dong ditching, mercilessly bullying kids at school (this remains the biggest source of shame for me), vandalism, shoplifting: I shudder to think about the things my new L.A. friends and I got into. And this was before I ever even tried beer or pot.
One story, and not the worst of them: Charlie was the maintenance man at our elementary school. He was a cool guy, probably in his early forties, with wicked curly hair heading to gray with the hairline starting to creep back, work shirts opened a couple of buttons like they did in the seventies, and a jovial East Coast demeanor. He always had kind words for the kids, knew our names, and actually whistled as he worked. He’d pitch to us in kickball after school. I was the fifth-best kickball player in the fifth grade – or at least tied for fifth (we were very serious about these rankings) – and I was going through a “slow and rolly” phase, in respect to the kinds of kickball pitches I would request. Charlie would pitch for both teams when he could, and once when I was at the plate I sent his pitch back to him, requesting slow and rolly. He replied, loudly, “If I pitched it any slower it’d be going backward!” This got a big laugh from both teams, and if I’m being honest, from me too. It was a great line, despite the gibe at me. I respected him for it. Charlie was one of the few adults that kids actually liked. He hung with us at our level.
But one day a couple of guys and me jumped a short wall at the edge of campus to find ourselves in a small maintenance yard. There were a bunch of garden tools in there, hand trucks, bags of soil, paint cans, a wooden cart, and the like. Now, we would have been in trouble just for being in Charlie’s area, but the punishment probably wouldn’t have been too harsh as long as we didn’t cause any trouble. Wanting to explore by climbing walls (and trees, and onto rooftops, and into drainage tunnels) was probably a natural and even wholesome recreation for kids, especially boys. But we took a look at that rickety wooden cart, and we started to kick the shit out of it.
It was an old cart, and the boards snapped satisfyingly with our clumsy karate kicks. We destroyed that wagon, hopped the wall, and went back to start the kickball game or to play on the monkey bars. Well, after school the next day Charlie called a dozen of us boys into the auditorium. He made us all sit in seats in the first row while he lamented the loss of his cart. “I use that cart every day!” he yelled. “And I use it to do work for this school! For your school! And now I don’t have a cart! I don’t have a way to carry the things around that I need to make your school a great place to be.” He was pacing back and forth, breathing heavy, face red, pate glistening. He was furious and distraught at the same time. That’s what I remember most: Charlie was heartbroken. He had been betrayed by the very kids he loved so much.
But he knew it wasn’t all of us; it couldn’t have been. He demanded to know who it was. We all kept our mouths shut. I was ashamed to the very core of my being – and still am – but I wasn’t going to cop to the crime. Eventually, dejected, he set us all loose and we went back to our usual after-school activities. I don’t have many memories of Charlie after that; it was a long time ago. I can’t imagine things were ever quite the same.
That’s the kind of kid I was. And it got worse.
About six years and endless trouble later, an accidental overdose of formeldehyde-laced marijuana (I thought it was regular marijuana) sent me to the hospital, then a drug rehab, and ultimately things turned around for me. I started going to therapy, and A.A., Narcotics Anonymous, and various chemical dependency recovery programs that specialized in treating adolescents. My sobriety birthday was January 24th, 1986. I was sixteen years old. That was the day after I finished my “superdope.” That was the day I smoked no more marijuana, drank no more alcohol, and did no other kinds of illicit substances until July 20, 2016. Thirty years later.
Those thirty years were a journey, one that maybe will be chronicled another time in another place. The first three or four years I was sober were honestly a magical time. I made dozens of – if not a hundred – great, close, new sober friends. Good, fun people from all walks of life, and we all had this bond in common: we were teenagers and clean and sober. I had a handful of girlfriends during this period, so that natural part of the adolescent process was fantastic (i.e. I was getting laid finally). We had incredible adventures in Southern California, all of it drug and alcohol-free, much of it dangerous or at least ill-advised: racing down Mulholland Drive with our headlights off; bringing caravans of teens into deserted campgrounds in the Malibu hills to spend the weekend; sleeping on Zuma Beach overnight, or at least until the cops told us to scram; playing poker for sixteen hours straight, until people were literally crying with poverty or windfalls; camping out for tickets then going to rock concerts in giant stadiums (U2, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd); descending en masse on the home of whichever teenager had parents dumb enough to leave them alone for the weekend; and of course, getting laid.
I moved to Sacramento in the summer of 1989, when I had been sober about three and a half years. Once I finally made some new friends, sober friends, many similar adventures continued. But by now we were in our twenties, and college and jobs and serious things began happening. My oldest son, Vincent, was born in 1995, when I had been sober nine years. Vincent’s mom and I split up after a couple of years, but we both always lived in town, and he basically hopped back and forth, living with both of us. Amy and I married in 1998, Henry came in 1999, and Josie in 2001. I was a homeowner, a college grad, and employed with a good job by the time Josie came along, and had been clean and sober fifteen years.
But where I used to enjoy going to A.A. meetings, my attendance eventually slowed down to infrequent appearances, to rare appearances, to never appearances. I had gone regularly for about ten years, and made countless friends; I experienced a world of personal growth there. My sponsor at the time, the inimitable David C., warned me when my first kid came along that I needed to keep my meetings up. He had seen a lot of folks drop out of the program after starting a family, and I assured him such would not be the case with me. But it was exactly the case: I never went to meetings as much as I did before I had children.
A.A. and N.A. meetings all have different flavors and styles, but they more or less follow a pattern: some ritualistic reading of materials, a personal story by an invited speaker (who is often just a regular attendee of that same meeting), and then people share, meaning they give a little three-to-five minute talk about what they’ve been going through lately, and how that relates to their recovery from alcohol or drug addiction.
Meetings are good places.
However, I stopped feeling like I belonged, and it wasn’t anyone’s fault. In A.A., as anywhere, people are more or less as nice to you as you are to them. Members are typically good at reaching out to new members who are just beginning to get sober, and to out-of-town visitors, and really to anyone who extends a hand. I’ve sat in meetings (especially in L.A.) with rock stars and famous actors, respected professionals, and bottom-of-the-barrel drunks and dope fiends, sometimes homeless, sometimes not. We had one thing in common: a desire to stop doing the things that had been hurting us and those around us.
By the time I was about twenty-one years old, old enough to finally take a legal drink, I had already been sober about as long as I had spent drinking and doing drugs. After five more years, then ten, and fifteen, and twenty, my previous life – from the first time I smoked pot near the end of sixth grade with Ronnie and David in East L.A., to the last time in my bedroom with the formaldehyde-laced weed – seemed so far away it was as if it had happened to someone else. I went several years without attending a meeting, and the inevitable thought began to creep into my head: “Man, that was a long time ago. I could probably just enjoy one beer or a glass of wine without it being a problem.” Back in A.A., people would talk about having these thoughts, and they were chalked up to “your disease talking.” We’d chuckle about it: “That’s how messed up I am. I think I can have just one drink! Ha ha!” But by the time I was thirty years past my last drink, a drink that was taken by a sixteen-year-old boy, I stopped feeling like a person with a disease or an affliction. I felt like a normal, happy, productive member of society.
And I felt like I was missing out on something. Not necessarily the alcohol itself, but the sociality that comes with it. I had gotten deeply involved in a technology user association, attending annual conferences, sporting events, and various other social gatherings with an ever-expanding network of great people, almost none of them sober. It’s not that they were getting shitfaced, but alcohol flowed freely at these events, and I always felt a little apart from. There was some experience, some conviviality, that these people were having that I wasn’t. I was comfortable with these and other people. I liked people, I wanted to talk to and hang out with people. But when you’re the only one not drinking it can feel a little off. In A.A. they would say to avoid or limit these situations. But I didn’t want to limit these situations; these were the exact situations I wanted to be in.
Back when I had been sober only about six years, and still fully engaged in A.A., I went on a date with a woman who was about eight years older than me: thirty to my twenty-two. We went to a comedy club one night; she ordered a beer, and I ordered a non-alcoholic beer. It was the first time I had tried such a thing. (These practices are not strictly forbidden in A.A. – the program doesn’t have a lot of rules – but they are considered risky behavior.) Why did I order that O’Doul’s? Because I wanted to belong. I was in a dark, smoky, comedy club with an attractive, older woman and I wanted to do the things I felt one was supposed to do in such situations. I didn’t want to give up my sobriety, but I did want to have an “adult” drink. I didn’t immediately crave more O’Doul’s, or real beer. But I did drink non-alcoholic beer with impunity for the next couple of decades. Never to excess (there was no point), and I’d sometimes go months without it. But at a pool party, or a barbecue, or a dinner out, or unwinding in the hotel bar after a business meeting, I just wanted that adult beverage. Occasionally I’d order a grapefruit-and-soda from a bartender, so I could join friends after work at some new spot downtown. But I felt like a boy play-acting, pretending I was a grown up. Since the entire history of my drinking and drug use literally happened when I was a boy, I subconsciously, I think, wanted to move past it. Look at me, I can drink a (fake) beer at the club. I can drink a (phony) cocktail at the bar. It was ridiculous! Either you care about being sober or you don’t, and somewhere along the way I had stopped caring. That’s the truth of it.
My biggest problem when I was younger was pot. After being introduced to it a few times, by the time seventh grade rolled around it was my and my stoner friends’ obsession. We pooled our money for it, stole for it, grifted, and cajoled others to buy it to share with us. We tried not to get caught by the authorities or our parents, but when your lives revolve 24/7/365 around buying and consuming an illegal (back then) substance, trouble is going to follow. Eventually I was buying and smoking weed alone, as I was on January 23, 1986 when I finished my unbeknownst-to-me formaldehyde-laced marijuana in my bedroom, and David Letterman, his guest Danny DeVito, and the entire TV set, began throbbing and pulsating like it was a living organ with veins and a heartbeat: a hallucination that continued in one form or another for several weeks, and directly led to my rehabilitation – once I recovered my senses – and sobriety.
But alcohol I didn’t care so much about. I would drink it when it was around, but rarely-if-ever alone. Of course when it was around the point was to get drunk, and I would often drink too much, too fast, and get sick. I look back on this now and realize that’s kind of the whole point of being a teenager (not that it’s healthy, or desirable, but it’s common), and the kind of drinking I did then did not necessarily require a lifetime of sobriety to recover from. It just seemed normal.
The pot smoking, however, concerned me then and concerns me now. I loved smoking weed, knew I was addicted to it (to whatever extent marijuana is addictive, psychologically or otherwise), and had no desire to change my behavior. I really didn’t understand that I could perhaps NOT smoke weed the way I did. I thought “Well, I’ve got this bug, and that’s just the way it is.” So getting sober was a good thing: the overdose, hallucinations, and rehab stay were all blessings in disguise. And when I finally started drinking again thirty years later, I felt like the best thing to do would be to avoid smoking marijuana altogether.
Of course, in the last two years that I’ve been on this non-sober adventure, I have smoked pot a handful of times when someone around me had it, and I realize that I don’t care for it at this stage of my life. I get cotton mouth, I get quiet, and I kind of retreat inside my head. This is an uncomfortable place for me to be. I don’t want to put my brain in that position. So I haven’t sworn it off forever, but I don’t really want it, and I have no problem saying no to it on the rare occasion it’s around.
Alcohol, on the other hand, I have learned to love, and this concerns me somewhat. When I began this journey on July 20, 2016, I figured I would have a beer, a glass of wine, or a cocktail if the situation presented itself: a business dinner, a night out, a friend’s barbecue. But the reality is I really, really, like it. I don’t like being drunk, and the handful of times I’ve been in that state have not been fun. Well, at least the next day hasn’t been fun. I think, like most drinkers, the ideal is the twilight between sober and buzzed: that little comfort zone when you’re just feeling quite good. This payoff is what I didn’t expect, but it shouldn’t surprise me. People don’t drink alcohol purely for the taste (although, with my grown-up taste buds now, it tastes great!); they’re getting something out of it.
These are all lessons many people learn much earlier in life. I learned them later, and I am still learning them. Amy, the love of my life, has been understandably nervous at times. I don’t blame her, and I do my best to try to embody the values of a responsible adult, that thing that I had claimed to be before beginning this project: moderation, discretion, self-control.
But like feeding gremlins after midnight, adding alcohol to a somewhat socially-repressed individual who had been sober for decades has had interesting results. It has released my inner extrovert. As much as I love spending a quiet night – like tonight, sitting in my cozy home, surrounded by my awesome wife and the last two kids who still live here, grown and getting grown – I also absolutely love to go out. I love checking out new bars, night clubs, seeing bands, meeting people, and having adventures. I almost immediately befriended – or was befriended by – Jeff (formerly Young Jeff) from work, twenty years my junior and truly one of the finest people I know. It was with Jeff, at Harlow’s in Midtown at a Jonathan Richman gig that I had my first drink at a bar, about nine days after that Sierra Nevada on my back patio. Jeff is a music nut, a talented musician, and a genuinely good and kind and interesting person, and always down for any adventure. I took to that dude like a duck to water, and we’ve been pretty tight ever since. Along with Jeff came scores of other younger friends from work, all really cool, fun, smart people who are into having a good time as well, some as young as twenty-two, some in their mid-thirties. They are so gracious to let an old man like me hang around with them. I don’t make a big deal about hand-crank car windows and four channels of television; I just try to be myself and they seem to like me OK, or at least they humor me. I love people my own age too, and older, but many of them have different energy levels than I do right now. Understandably, they went through what I’m going through in their twenties; they aren’t necessarily entranced by new bars downtown, live music on a Saturday night, or road trips to the Bay Area to see bands they’ve never heard of. Honestly, I tend to hit my limits with my younger friends quite often. I do love my family more than anything, my home, and a good night’s sleep when work beckons in the morning.
But it has been an interesting ride. Not many in their late forties get to relive their misspent (or unspent) twenties with willing confidants, at least not without becoming embarrassing anachronisms. I feel like I do OK. I stay in my lane, and I don’t try to be anyone I’m not.
So as I sit on the same back porch I sat on that day almost two years ago, 7/20/16, about halfway through a citrusy IPA, feeling the beginnings of a buzz coming on, thinking about a bottle of Bonny Doon Grenache I’m going to crack open later, I also reflect on those thirty years I spent sober, without a single sip of alcohol, without one hit of pot. I have no regrets about those years. The way I lived as a teenager, I needed some time sober: how long I don’t exactly know, but my path got much easier once I got clean back in 1986. I went to college, got a degree, made amazing friends, had a child, got married, had more children, bought this house I sit in right now, and I wouldn’t trade any of it. I would be a different person today had I not been sober all those years, and I’m good with the person I am today. Those thirty years were amazing, full of meaning and adventure.
When I began this journey, as I spoke to family and friends about my plan to give up my sobriety, a common observation was, “Well, if things get bad, you know where to go for help.” I nodded my head, but inside I knew things wouldn’t get bad. At least I hoped. If there was any part of me that thought giving up my sobriety was going to be a bad idea, I wouldn’t have come to the decision I did. It took many years to get to this point. But I knew, I knew, I would never go back to A.A. I would never get sober again. This journey has had a lot of surprises for me – it hasn’t been as rosy and carefree as I thought it would be – but I cannot imagine starting over. Raising my hand in a meeting, getting a 30-day chip, 60 days, 90 days, a year. Getting a sponsor, working the steps. I can’t even imagine it now. A.A. is a good program, it has helped millions of people. But to demand of a sixteen-year-old that he must put down alcohol for the remainder of his days (I know, it’s one day at a time; they don’t speak of forever. But still, it’s one day at time forever) because of a semi-shitty home life and an undeveloped prefrontal cortex. Sorry, I think there’s a different way.
Andre and I looked down from the basketball court, high on the hill near the staff quarters, looking down at the rest of Camp Fox in the meadow below, teenagers dancing their hearts out at the Wednesday night all-Camp dance. We had been busted for smoking cigarettes out in The Cave: a hole in the rocks a few hundred yards down the Catalina Island shore from the villas, where the Pacific crashed onto a few rocky outcrops, shielded from the rest of camp by the cave door – tiny islands perfect for a few stoners to smoke cigarettes, drink, and take drugs in privacy. Until the day Smitty, the assistant camp director, crawled through the cave door and caught Andre and me, fortuitously only smoking cigarettes, and only the two of us. The marijuana, cocaine, and alcohol had been gone since the third day of camp, and with their absence most of our friends as well.
From our banishment zone we awaited the decision on our fate; would we be kicked out of camp, as Nick had been the year before, sent home on a boat for the twenty-three mile journey, hanging our heads, having to explain to our parents why we were home several days early, with NO REFUNDS provided? If this was our last night, we decided to make the best of it. We danced ourselves, just two dudes, bopping around to Billie Jean and Manhunter. We had copped to our crime, even though we had tossed our cigarettes into the sea as soon as we saw Smitty’s face peer through the cave door. There was no real evidence, but we confessed our sins anyway, and somehow we thought we might have a chance at dodging expulsion. We apologized up and down. We were bringing old habits from the mainland to Camp, we explained. We knew we were not living up to the Ragger’s Creed. So as we waited, we danced, we high-fived each other, and we knew that whatever happened, we were having a genuine experience, come what may.
I attended Camp Fox for three consecutive summers; the cigarette bust happened my second year there. It wasn’t a full-summer camp, just one week in July during the years I turned thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen respectively. I can’t imagine – but kind of wish I had attended – the all-summer camps such as This American Life examines in their classic episode Notes on Camp. (I guarantee this is the best hour of radio you will ever experience.) Although Camp Fox was only a week, each day felt like a month, and the long year between camp felt like decades, only then to seem like – upon return – we had just left a couple of weeks ago.
Camp Fox on Catalina Island was run by the La Cañada YMCA, and it was a Capital ‘C’ Christian summer camp. My family was not religious at all, but I had heard about the camp from my friend John in seventh grade at Walter Reed Junior High in North Hollywood where I grew up. I asked my mom and stepdad if they’d let me go with John, and they agreed to spend the hundred and ten dollars to send me. That first year, after the twenty-three mile boat ride to the island, I grumbled that we had to carry bags from the ship to the shore, a two hundred yard journey, to the central meadow area to be picked up by their owners. “Don’t look for your own bags!” Smitty shouted when we docked. “Just grab as many as you can carry and bring them to the meadow!” I grabbed two random, quite heavy, bags, feeling emboldened, and immediately regretted it. “A hundred and ten dollars, and we have to carry the bags?” I protested.
That first year at camp, the year before the cigarette bust, seventh grade had just ended, and it was possibly the worst year of my life, being the period when I truly went over the deep end. A year before that, at the end of sixth grade and the summer before seventh, the year I turned twelve, I started smoking weed and drinking. Not much, just a handful of times. But once seventh grade started, life started revolving around getting high and drinking, and where I once was considered a “gifted” student enrolled in honors classes, I quickly drank and drugged my way into failing grades and constant trouble at school. I received the first “F” in my life in music class, ten weeks into seventh grade: a course that required not much more than showing up. Mom couldn’t comprehend the grade (“An F?”), nor that my report card listed twenty-two absences in the first quarter of the year alone. But these were natural consequences to my new behavioral model. Most of what I did was cut school, go to the Rain Forest (the base of the Santa Monica mountains, entered from the end of Fryman Canyon in Studio City), and steal cigarettes and beer from Dale’s Jr. market around the corner from the junior high.
But nearing the end of seventh grade, when I was still twelve, John convinced me and another friend to come to Camp Fox with him, since he had been the year before, and insisted it was a good time. My mom and stepdad agreed and paid the money, so we took the boat to Catalina, carried the bags to the meadow, and I honestly didn’t know what to expect. The boys were sorted into villas, open-air cabins on the shore of the island, while the girls had real, four-walled cabins up the hill toward the amphitheater near the water tower. I only knew John and a mutual friend Mike, but these other kids seemed quite well-heeled. This was Southern California in the 1980’s, where the ultimate was to be tan, muscled, bangs dyed, and extremely athletic. If your parents didn’t drop you off at the La Cañada YMCA in a Mercedes or a BMW, you maybe didn’t belong. Camp had a tanning contest: you would stick a piece of duct tape on your shoulder, and at the end of week they’d peel the tape off to see whose skin had darkened the most noticeably. The winner got a prize. Melanoma be damned, this was LA in the 80’s, and if your tan didn’t get you confused with a black kid – or at least a Northern Mexican – well, maybe you didn’t belong at Camp Fox, or in Southern California in general.
We were eleven to a villa, plus our counselor: a cool, decent, gentle soul named Dana. He was a nice guy, and not a typical SoCal douchebag. We did have some fun one night, when a villa-mate named Jimmy, a sound sleeper, was hoisted aloft in his bed, tied by four strong ropes to the cross beams of the cabin, and gently swayed back and forth until he woke up, wondering just how in the hell he was rocking as if at sea, suspended two feet above the floor. Jimmy freaked a little bit, but saw he was in no real danger, and laughed like a loon. (We had heard tales of previous years’ campers’ beds being set afloat into the lagoon with sleeping campers tucked in tightly. I never witnessed these hijinks, and maybe they were merely apocryphal, but Dana’s villa would never risk drowning a kid, no matter the lulz.)
There was no hot water in the bathrooms, so showers were cold. Rather than suffer that indignity too often, we helped wash each others hair daily in the villa sink, dumping Big Gulp cups of cold water on each others hair, the most crucial part of the body that needed daily washing, whether you were a long-hair like me, or a short-hair with dyed bangs like Jimmy. The toilet stalls had no doors; we learned to hang large beach towels just so to do our business. I found out later John didn’t go number two for the whole week that first year. The horror!
We were taught about Jesus, and His love for us, each and every one. We attended workshops during the day, helping us to learn how to resist Satan’s call back on the mainland when we returned home the following week. Smitty, Tim, Don, and the rest of the camp leaders played beautiful renditions on acoustic guitars of Christian folk classics like “I Want To Praise You Lord” and “It’s a Happy Day” at our nightly campfire gatherings in the amphitheater, which were always filled with fun and music, and always ended with admonishments to give our hearts over to Jesus and seek The Lord’s path in all ways, at all times.
In the day, we jumped off the pier into the ocean, a height no shorter than fifteen feet, terrifying and thrilling, but we landed safely, soundly, into the Pacific before turning around to swim to the ladder and back up onto the dock. We went spear fishing and kayaking and hiking up to the Cross on the Mountain. At night we’d play Capture the Flag, and go to dances, and attend Campfire (Jesus time), and hike back again – in the dark this time – to the Cross on the Mountain, but this time it was lit, its sudden luminescence timed perfectly tuned to the counsellors’ sermons. “Whoa! Look at the Cross!” from a hundred and fifty teenagers, excitedly. It was something to behold, that lit “T” against Catalina Island’s perfect blue-purple night sky. Did God Himself light it up? One couldn’t be sure.
That first year was more fun that I’d had in a long time, maybe ever. Even though it was the summer I was still only twelve years old, but pushing thirteen, between seventh and eighth grades, it was at that point the longest I had gone without a cigarette, alcohol, or marijuana in about a year (Andre’s and my bust by Smitty coming the following summer). I returned to North Hollywood that first year feeling exhilarated. We were encouraged to get our Rags: colored bandanas, earned by various commitments to the YMCA, to Jesus, and to our fellow Campers. I earned my Blue Rag that year. The Blue Rag was the easiest Rag to earn: an entry-level Rag, like a white belt in martial arts. It says “I’m a beginner, but I’ve heard of what you do, and I showed up a couple of times.” Fair enough. Higher level Rags required real commitment, essays, quizzes, and Bible knowledge. I obtained a Silver Rag the following year, but never beyond that. I was too much of a fuck up.
Returning to North Hollywood after that first year, and eighth grade at Walter Reed Junior High, I could never quite shake Camp Fox from my memory. As I sunk even deeper into a world of marijuana, alcohol, speed, cocaine, mushrooms, cigarettes, and awkward relationships with girls, Tim, Don, Smitty, Dana, and the other counselors and friends and the Cross on the Mountain were never far from my mind. It was as if I had been let in on a secret that none of my mainland friends knew about. Jesus was real. God was real. Don, Tim, Smitty, and Dana were real. There was a better, purer, more spiritual and satisfying way to life one’s life. One didn’t need to smoke weed, pop pills, and drink Olde English every day in order to find meaning in one’s life. I knew these things, but I did not heed them. I partied may way into surer and deeper destruction, having a lot of fun, but ultimately realizing I was doing perhaps permanent damage to my body as well as my soul, as I waited for eighth grade to end so I could return to Camp Fox, and maybe get my head and my spirit straight. Maybe this year it would stick.
I would begin the summer between my eighth and ninth grades, just weeks before my second trip to Camp Fox, literally the first day of summer vacation, at Santa Monica beach, three RTD buses away from North Hollywood. We started the journey with Mike trying to buy beer for us at the Laurel Canyon and Burbank Blvd liquor store, without success, despite his old-guy disguise of Rayban sunglasses and an unlit Marlboro hanging out of his mouth (Mike didn’t smoke). But the ploy worked when we finally arrived, three buses later, in Santa Monica. Mike was bigger and more confident than the rest of us, and he was able to score us a six-pack of Mickey’s Big Mouth, although he was only fourteen years old. We drank our lagers with imagined impunity on the beach, that is, until the Santa Monica bicycle cops yelled at us. I moseyed beyond the restroom, not comprehending who the guys on the bicycles were, wanting to finish my beer in peace. Ten seconds later a uniformed police officer chased my best friend Chad around the edifice and tackled him to the ground. Before I knew it, I was next, laying face down on the beach, desperately trying to bury the beer bottle in the sand beneath me, and then being handcuffed and led off the shore, back up to Vincente Terrace, where we waited for the police cruiser to take me, Chad, and John to jail. Mike and other friends had escaped somehow, or had already finished their beers, or never drank any in the first place. A girl named Robin kept my slip-on Vans and wallet where I had left them at lifeguard station 17, and I picked them up from her apartment a couple of days later. But while sitting on that curb, hands behind my back, the cuffs felt fairly loose. I was successfully wriggling my way – surreptitiously, I thought – out of the handcuffs; ten more seconds and they would be off, and I would bolt away from the cops while they weren’t looking, and I’d jump on a bus and be free. But the cop saw me trying to worm my way out, walked over, and clamped the manacles down so tightly that the blood flow came to an almost full stop. I knew then I was good and truly fucked.
It was an unpleasant day in Santa Monica City Jail, but I got out several hours later with essentially a slap on the blood-starved wrist. I got in terrible trouble with my parents, and had some lightweight punishment by the court to fulfill, but Camp Fox was looming later in the summer and I was looking forward to it like nothing else. When John, Mike and I finally got there I was overjoyed to see Andre, Steve and other friends from the year before. We sang the Christian songs, hiked up to the cross, did the Jesus workshops, put the duct tape on our shoulders, and also snuck out to the cave, and up to the water tower, to snort coke, drink tequila, and smoke marijuana and cigarettes.
But during Campfire, in the evenings, when the cross would alight atop the mountain, I would feel guilty. What was I doing? Why am I smoking and drinking and taking drugs, when really what seemed to speak to my soul was none of those things? What seemed more real and pure was Smitty, and Tim and Don, and their guitars, and the Cross, and Andre, Steve, John, Mike, and a fourteen-year-old girl named Kris who had beautiful eyes and curly hair, and was sweet and kind.
After the drugs and alcohol were gone, we were left with cigarettes, and that’s when Andre and I got busted by Smitty at the cave. (I wasn’t having a good summer, in terms of getting away with stuff.) It felt like justice though. We crawled back out the mouth of the cave after Smitty, admitted to smoking the cigarettes, honestly relieved to have our true selves revealed, to cop to our crimes (well, only the cigarette crimes), and face justice before the Lord God himself, or to Smitty, the next best thing.
So Andre and I were banished from the dance, but we danced. We had fun. We hoped we wouldn’t get kicked out of camp, but if we did, oh well, we were living. Steve was the King of the Stoners, down below at the dance, and he would shout and wave at us. Andre and I became kind of celebrities, not sitting and moping and bemoaning our fates, but dancing, loving the island, each other, God, and life itself. We became rock stars of a sort that night, with the rest of the well-heeled kids as well as the few stoners, looking up at us under the lights at the basketball courts by the staff quarters.
Smitty told us to go back to our villas that night, get some sleep, and meet him before breakfast the next morning. I walked out to the beach that night, and looked up at the full moon, illuminating what seemed the entirety of Catalina Island. I looked the cross, still lit, on the mountain, and thought to myself – prayed, maybe – I need to turn my life around. I was routinely failing classes at school, smoking weed daily at this point, and heading down a terrible, seemingly irrevocable, path. But here, at the shore of crystal clear waters on the island, with the moon, the cross, and my friends all nearby, I really and truly wanted to make a change in my life.
I slept soundly, if not for long, until the wakeup bell. Andre and I went to see Smitty, and were elated to learn that our crimes were absolved, and we would be allowed to stay the two final days at Camp. Word spread around the campers that the white kid and the black kid from up on the basketball courts the night before were given a reprieve, and would be staying at camp. The rumor mill spread tales of cocaine, LSD, blackout drinking binges, none of which was too far from the truth, but paled against our actual crime of lighting a couple of Marlboros.
It was an emotional week. Kris was beautiful and flirtatious, and we became even closer after my acquittal. Steve – King of the Stoners – was strong, tan, long-haired, and slowly turning his way toward the spiritual path, as I was. That night at Campfire, the final Campfire, the counsellors asked us to lower our heads and really consider our commitment to Jesus. With our heads bowed they asked us to close our eyes and raise a hand in the air if we truly were willing to let Jesus into our hearts. They did this routine the year before at the last Campfire, and my and my friends’ hands had stayed down. But now I peeked across the amphitheater at Steve, where he was sitting with his villa-mates. He looked me square in the eyes and slowly nodded his head. Yes, he said with that nod, we’re doing this. I bowed my head, squeezed my eyes tight, and put my hand up into the air. It was one of the singular moments of my life, even now, thirty-five years later. All my bullshit, all my partying, and drugs, and drinking, and screwing over my parents and my school, came down to this. I found a better path that night.
After Campfire there was much talking and weeping. (I don’t mean this cynically, but to Camp Fox’s credit, they had this trip down to a science.) Tim, the camp director and Smitty’s cohort, asked those who raised their hands to take a quick hike up to the water tower after Campfire, yes, despite the late hour. There were only about ten or fifteen of us: Me, Steve, Andre, Mike, John, and many of us stoners. Tim talked to us earnestly about the commitment we had made. We had pure love in our hearts now; Jesus would always be with us. Tim and the staff at Camp Fox would do everything they could to help prepare us for our journey back to the mainland the next day, like where we could go to church, and how we could resist temptation and become better citizens all around. I was a hundred percent in on this plan. I knew I hadn’t been going anywhere good, and that my life was sinking into a spiral. I felt this new love, and I was ready to live it.
Two days later, on the boat on the way home, Kris and I talked the whole way. We wrote letters to each other for the next few months, but I never saw her again. As close as we got that week, we never even kissed. I came back to the mainland and called my stoner friends, the ones who didn’t go to camp. We got together and I tried to explain to them about the love of Jesus, and about the virtues of following a spiritual path, while they smoked bongloads and drank Olde English forties. They chuckled and said “whatever, dude,” and within a couple of days I was smoking and drinking right along with them, and did so for the next year until it was time to back to Camp. I never went to church. I felt guilty, but I slipped easily back into my old ways.
The next year, ninth grade, wasn’t good. I continued to smoke and drink myself into a stupor, failed most of my classes, and was banned from attending graduation ceremonies from Walter Reed Junior High. (At that time, junior high was seventh through ninth grades, and high school was tenth through twelfth.) By some miracle I was passed on to the tenth grade at North Hollywood High, but I was not permitted to walk the stage as a junior high grad at Reed with my fellow ninth-graders, including my girlfriend at the time. At Camp that summer it was as if the previous year never happened. Steve and I never spoke of our conversion to Christianity, which we had both seemed to abandon within days of returning to the mainland. Andre wasn’t there that following year, and neither was Mike, nor Kris. Although I had earned my Silver Rag the year before, I didn’t even try for the Red. We snuck off to the water tower, and the hill on the back side of camp (we had learned the cave wasn’t safe) and we smoked and drank as normal. I found a girlfriend at camp that year, a fifteen-year-old like me with a unique name. She was gorgeous, and we made out all week long. I looked her up on Facebook recently, and because of her unique name she was easily found, but I decided not to make contact. She’s pushing fifty now, like me, and still beautiful, and she’s having a life like the rest of us, with all the ups and downs and kids and jobs that happen. I spent about three minutes on her page and moved on. I don’t feel a need to reach out; we have no people in common. I wish her the best, she was a sweet kid.
That was my last year at Camp Fox. I didn’t go between tenth and eleventh grades. By then I was way too enmeshed in my love of marijuana to be able to consider going a week without, or sneaking around like a criminal when I was there. By that time, I was working, and smoking pot with impunity – for the most part – in my own home. Jesus was long gone, and I had no desire to seek Him out again. The following year, when I was in eleventh grade, I knew I was going to die. My drug and alcohol use became even more intense, and I prayed one night that if God kept me alive, I would return to Camp Fox the following summer, and find the righteous path again. I never returned to Camp Fox, but a day after reciting this prayer, I overdosed on formaldehyde-laced marijuana. The overdose led me to the hospital, then eventually to a substance-abuse treatment center, and an outpatient counseling program with lots of other teenagers who were trying to kick alcohol and drug problems. Many of us, me included, did kick these problems. I didn’t drink alcohol or smoke pot for decades after that. And for a few years I tried to go back down that spiritual path I had first experienced at Camp Fox, the night at Campfire when Steve nodded to me that, yes, we were going to raise our hands.
(Once, a few months before my rehab, I had a bad LSD trip. I ended up cowering in the weeds in the back area behind my house, and clear as day, I hallucinated Tim, from Camp Fox, telling me that I needed to change my life. “I know,” I cried, “I know, Tim.” In the hallucination though, Tim was God Himself. I took acid maybe one more time after that, but never again. I was clean and sober in my outpatient program a few months later.)
But the spiritual path didn’t stick, although I stayed clean and sober for more than thirty years, until I was in my mid-forties. The emotional pull of changing one’s life is powerful indeed, but ultimately I found it hard to believe in something for which there was no real evidence, despite the strong, real, feelings I had once had. I figured it was worth being a good person for goodness’ own sake, but an omniscient overseer seemed, and still seems, far-fetched. I can still find love in my heart, can still breathe deep and soak in the glory of the sun and the wind and my family and my friends and I can revere the miracle of my existence, but I don’t believe there is someone out there watching and listening. Maybe I’m wrong. Wouldn’t it be great if I was?
I’m not sober anymore, but I’m nothing like the substance abuser I was when I was a teenager. Although I never went back to Camp Fox, I never forgot it. I grew up, got married, had kids, and my wife Amy and I took them to Camp Sacramento for eleven straight years when we were in our thirties and early forties. Camp Sac was an absolute blast, and there was no religious element to it whatsoever; Amy and I were mainly there to provide a fun experience for the kids. I loved going to Camp Sac, but it bore not much similarity to being a teenager at Camp Fox, in respect to the emotional roller-coaster that annually ensued. But we’ll see what our kids have to say about it eventually.
I go to a technology conference every year, and it’s beginning to feel like summer camp too, with much of the partying and none of the Jesus. A friend and I were talking about this, and we decided that Conference’s new name was #CampIAUG. This is my new summer camp: a place where you see incredible friends once a year, but typically not in-between. A place where some heavy shit goes down sometimes, but your Camp friends are by each other’s side every step of the way. I love it! There are fewer drugs (zero for me, but maybe some people smoke a little weed, I don’t know), more alcohol (occasionally too much), and good grown-up business stuff too. So this is my new summer camp.
Camp Fox was literally a lifetime ago, thirty-five years ago. I don’t remember Andre’s or Steve’s or Kris’s last names. John’s not on social media. Mike, I think, was for a while but seems not to be anymore. Camp Fox has a web and social media presence, but diving too deep there is somewhat painful to me. My times at Camp were some of the most emotional and serious of my life. It was more than fun: it was good, and it hurt, and it was intense, and it was amazing, and it was terrifying all at the same time. Ultimately, it was a place that offered me a way out of a dark period of my life, but that I chose to cast aside. Although I have done many bad things in my life, I choose not to wallow in regret. Today, at forty-eight, I am probably the happiest and most fulfilled that I’ve ever been, though not without some bumps in the road. Every idiotic and brilliant thing I’ve ever done got me here, so although there are things in my past I might change if I could, I’m not sure I would, given the chance.
Sometimes this trope goes around: What would you say to your teenage self? It’s a question I can’t answer. I don’t know what I would say. I think nothing. I think I’d walk on past that teenaged kid, a middle-aged man with a salt-and-pepper beard, pretending I didn’t know him, because he certainly wouldn’t know me. He’s gotta do what he’s gotta do, I would think, because he’s going to become me.
“For how many of you, is this your New Year’s Eve?” Dean asked from the Old Ironsides stage to the crowd of a couple hundred enthusiastic, middle-aged rock and roll fans. A unanimous roar of confirmation erupted, as I think a great many of my fellow forty- and fifty-somethings were veryhappy to be celebrating New Year’s Eve on December 30, on a beautiful, cold, Sacramento Saturday evening.
Dean is a friend from work, a really good guy with an encyclopedic knowledge of rock and roll, a DIY attitude, and an appreciation for old-school things in all flavors: cars, cities, music, beer, flip phones. None of it is pretentious though; he’s just a genuinely cool and authentic person, who sees modern trends and styles and says “Nah, I’m good.”
He was in some bands that would play around Sacramento back in the 80’s and 90’s, but I never caught any of them back then. When he told me the Decibels were reuniting and playing at Old Ironsides on December 30 I was all in, and I knew it would serve double duty as my New Year’s Eve celebration.
Through Facebook, I saw that a number of friends and acquaintances were going to be there, from various corners of my life: work, youth baseball, McClatchy High, Punk Rock Movie Night, and other friends of friends. It was shaping up to be my favorite kind of night: loud rock and roll, booze, and random cool people popping in and out. I’ve come to accept the fact that I’m an extrovert, despite many periods of intense shyness in my life. My return to drinking after decades of sobriety has apparently acted as an adrenaline shot to my inner, hidden extrovert: a most unexpected side effect of giving up years of abstention.
The night started at our brother and sister-in-law’s house, where a small gathering of couples and families and killer food and drinks set the stage for what was to be a memorable evening. After a few hours I bid adieu to Amy and the kids and the other partygoers to Lyft over to Jacob’s house, where Joey and I were to meet before Old Ironsides. Jacob and his family live in a beautiful old home in Midtown, to which I’d never been, and my eyes popped when he led us to his back house, where his in-laws from Alaska live downstairs in the winter, but where upstairs is a huge, incredible space for playing and recording music. Sofas, beds, record players, lounge chairs, books, CDs, vinyl records and killer custom artwork littered this space, and Jacob said he had a surprise for us.
He had found a vinyl version of …For the Whole World to See, the only real album – released decades after the songs were recorded – from the proto-punk band Death from the 1970’s. The Punk Rock Movie Night gang had watched the film a few weeks prior over at Joey’s house, and we all fell in love with the Hackney brothers and were itching to get our hands on a copy. It sounded great on vinyl, and I vowed to get my own copy.
Joey agreed to be designated driver, and we showed up to a packed Old Ironsides about a half hour before the Decibles’ set. The Decibles had been slated to be the second of three bands – playing after The Ogres but before Th’ Losin’ Streaks – but they volunteered to be the opening act, being fellow old-timers who wanted to play the set and get the hell out of there. It turned out not too many of my work friends showed up, except Keith and Karen, but there were plenty of other folks from various sectors of my life. The bar was packed, but Jacob, being about six foot four had a better shot of weaseling his way in to place an order than I did (although I am not completely unskilled at this, despite my lack of height). Because I really only started drinking beer a couple of years ago, and found I had a taste for IPA’s, I have developed a perverse aversion to essentially every other kind of beer. I’m not proud of this. I don’t want to be a beer snob, but as Jacob went in for the order I told him to get me any IPA, but if they don’t have one, get me a gin and tonic. He returned a few minutes later with a Lagunitas. Good enough.
I ran into Keith, two Karens, Curtis, Judd and Justin and met some new people too. I ran into Dean in his gray and black striped suit jacket, with red shirt and tie, matching his bandmates. I wished him a great show, and weaseled my way up front. The Decibels absolutely killed it, playing a bunch of songs I didn’t know but immediately got into my head. They’re an interesting band: a throwback to kind of a Kinksian, semi-moddish era of short, simple songs with infectious hooks blasted at maximum volume, with all band members taking turns on lead vocals. There were jokes from the band about the drummer, Brian – who seemed a bit older than the rest of the band – playing in a suit jacket for the first time. Sounds like a nightmare, but you do what you gotta do for rock and roll. Brian’s jacket came off before long, but he hung in there with the shirt and tie. It was obviously hot under the lights in that packed club, but to me it was no worse than any other crowded small venue. Dean, nice guy that he is, apologized to the crowd for the heat, but I think it was ten times worse for the band, outfitted the way they were, than for the audience. Dean didn’t look any worse for wear than any other rocker I’ve seen, but I think he was feeling it. At one point he said something – to the crowd, to himself, to the band – to the effect of “We’re dying up here,” to which I yelled “You’re not dying, you’re living!” which got a laugh. I believe it with all my heart, but it’s also easy for me to say from the crowd in a thin, comfortable T-shirt.
Although it must have been hot as hell on that stage, the Decibels were truly living up there. Every so often at a rock and roll show I get emotional and have to fight back tears. It’s not always about particular songs or sentiment from the band, but when the planets align just right, and I’m front and center in a rock and roll club, watching a band I really dig up on stage, it becomes a religious experience for me. I think about being a little kid, five or six years old and loving The Beach Boys and Elvis Presley, simply because my sisters did. And then being ten and obsessed with KISS, then 14 and the Metal Years, and 17 when it was all U2 and Talking Heads, then the folk years, the garage years, discovering people like Neil Young and Leonard Cohen way too late, Bowie, White Stripes, Cowboy Junkies, sneaking into Andrew Jackson Jihad a couple weeks ago. I’m pushing fifty years old and I love rock and roll music more every year. I feel grateful to be alive at this moment in history, on this night at Old Ironsides, surrounded by friends and strangers alike, listening to a friend’s band play songs I don’t even know (except the Pictures of Matchstick Men cover), experiencing a perfect, priceless moment.
A guy across the club looked very familiar, but that’s how it is in Sacramento. When The Ogres were playing I ended up on the other side of the room, close to this gentleman, and I realized it was Jerry Perry, local Sacramento rock and roll promoter, club owner, and all around legend. I don’t know him – I hung out with him on a single occasion back in the day, with a group of others – but I was feeling the rock and roll love (and, admittedly, also the booze) so strongly that night I decided to say something to him. “Hey, you’re Jerry Perry, right?” He confirmed, so I told him that I just wanted to shake his hand and thank him for The Cattle Club all those years ago. I believe he was the head promoter for the club, and he was the personality who would come out on stage to introduce the bands. Some of my favorite rock and roll memories came from The Cattle Club in the early ’90’s, seeing bands like Cake, Urge Overkill, KMFDM, Tool, Mark Curry, Mary’s Danish, and a million more at that rad little club on Folsom Boulevard. Jerry seemed to appreciate the gesture, and we chatted for just a minute before I wandered away, not wanting to be more of a weirdo than I already am.
The Ogres came on next, and they were a fun surf-rock-dressed-as-cavemen outfit from San Francisco, but the crowd had thinned a touch by then. By the time Th’ Losin’ Streaks came on as headliners, I had had enough. The bar was not nearly as crowded now, and some of my friends were hanging out there, so I decided to sit and drink and talk rather than jump back into the crowd for my third band of the night. The combination of booze and rock and roll is a true fountain of youth for me, but it only lasts so long, about two bands worth, seemingly.
God bless Joey, still sober, who drove us home. After dropping Jacob off, as we made our way down J Street to River Park, Joey suddenly swerves over to the side of the rode in front of Chargin’s Bar & Grill. He didn’t need a sudden drink, but he saw a couple of gentlemen stumbling around out front and rolled down the window to ask them if they needed a ride. These were a couple of white guys, older, but within spitting distance of my age I’m guessing, and profoundly hammered. Joey leaned across me to speak to them through the passenger window, “Hey, is Nick in there?” (The owner, I think? A friend of Joey’s anyway.) The drunks didn’t know how to respond to that; I think they thought we were an Uber. “Get in, where do you guys live?” Joey didn’t even ask how far away they lived, that’s the kind of guy Joey is. Part of his altruism may have been to look out for his friend, the bar owner, not wanting a couple of his customers to get mugged or flattened by a car on J Street after just patronizing the establishment. But Joey is truly one of the world’s good people, and he is always willing to help someone, stranger or not.
The Less-Blitzed Gentleman said he lived on a street not far from mine, so we saw this as perfect serendipity; it wouldn’t put us out of our way at all. The LBG tried tossing some cash into the front seat, but Joey wouldn’t take it. I think they eventually settled on five dollars. “Heyyy mannn… I gottta pay you somethin’,” to which Joey, who is sneakily quick-witted replied “Oh, you’re going to pay tomorrow, that’s for sure.” The More-Blitzed Gentleman was nearly comatose: eyes open, trying and failing to participate in the conversation, just kind of bobbing his head and moving his limbs around slowly. Joey had the Beatles channel on his SiriusXM station, and we were singing along – badly, we thought – until the drunks tried to chime in incoherently. We got them home, and LBG was all hugs and kisses for Joey and me, what awesome people we were. I can’t take credit; I’m not that good of a person, but once Joey made the decision to pull over I played the part as best I could. MBG couldn’t quite navigate getting his legs from the inside of the car to the outside of the car, so it took a lot of handling to get him into the arms of LBG as they staggered up to the front porch of what I hope was their house. There was absolutely no chance either of them, even LBG, would remember how they got home.
On actual New Year’s Eve Amy and I stayed in like we always do. She’s the only one I want to be with on that night, and she’s less of a goer-outer these days than I am, so the 31st was just mom and dad time, with the kids all scattered over various places and activities: Josie at her friend’s, Henry in Munich, Vincent at his own place while Anya worked an event. We’ve always done mellow New Years’ at home with the family, but as the kids get older and fan out on their own, I’m happy to settle in my cozy house by the fire, hanging out with Amy and watching movies. When the clock struck midnight Amy was asleep and I was midway through Batman Vs. Superman (“Whoever Wins, We Lose” as Josie calls it). Asleep by 12:30, thinking about last night’s craziness and wondering if I’ll ever feel too old for that kind of thing. For now, at forty-eight, I’m glad to be home on real New Year’s Eve though, as the year ticks over to 2018, which seems a very long way from 1969.
A few years ago, I came across a column by Henry Rollins, entitled Be Thankful Every Day, Not Just on Thanksgiving. I’m a big Henry Rollins fan, although I’ve noticed true punk rockers seem to bemoan his celebrity status since he left Black Flag in the mid 80’s. I’ve read his books, his columns, watched his videos, heard him speak live (at The Crest, of course), and what I like most about him is that I find him to be a truly authentic individual. I don’t ever want to be anyone but me, warts and all, but there are a handful of people who possess qualities that I loosely aim for. Henry Rollins is one of them.
Rollins is a much darker cat than I am, and our lives are vastly dissimilar, but I admire him just the same. His Thanksgiving column strikes at the heart of me, although where he doesn’t seem to care for the holidays (When people ask him what he’s doing for Thanksgiving, he replies “Putting something frozen in the microwave and cursing the darkness”) I enjoy them just fine. They are a time to be with family. Not long-lost relatives from across the country – I don’t have any of those – but local folks we see several times a year anyway, plus of course my own children. Rollins – to my knowledge – has never been married and has no children, so the holidays can take on a different edge for someone like him. Just the same, his admonition to be thankful every day, not just on Thanksgiving, hits home.
This past Thanksgiving marked my forty-eighth, and Amy’s forty-sixth. In all those years neither of us had hosted Thanksgiving. We didn’t meet until we were in our twenties, but our stories are similar, like many of yours: Thanksgiving starts out when you’re a kid and you just go where your parents take you. Typically grandparents or other relatives. Eventually your parents take over, or there’s a back and forth with hosts some years. Amy and I married in 1998, and since that time we have always gone to some family member’s for Thanksgiving. First to Amy’s grandma and grandpa’s, then to her mom’s, and once in a blue moon to my side of the family’s.
But this year, for the first time in our combined ninety-four years, we decided to host our very own Thanksgiving for ourselves, our three kids, and Vincent’s girlfriend Anya. Amy is the cook in the family, but neither of us had ever cooked a turkey, so we thought why start on a day where there’s so much pressure? So we outsourced to Sellands for a very reasonable price. Amy still had a good amount of cooking and prep to do, and the whole thing ended up beyond delicious. Vincent, who moved with us into this house when he was three years old, is now twenty-two and driving over in his own car, with his girlfriend, from his own place, bringing a dish of sweet potatoes that he cooked. Just a few feet from where we used to tuck him into bed as a toddler and read him Goodnight Moon, he’s a man grown, coming over to his folks’ for Thanksgiving. Henry was up from college at Santa Barbara, and Josie – the last one living at home, for now – was her usual fabulous self. I stumbled through a few words, we ate, drank, and eventually went over to Amy’s mom and stepdad’s house where we got to see lots of other family, some of whom we see a lot, others we rarely see. It was the best of both worlds.
The title of Henry Rollins’s column struck me, because it’s how I’ve tried to live my life. I’ve attempted to be base-level thankful every day since I was a teenager. If you have a roof over your head, food on the table, and your kids are healthy, there’s really no good reason not to live in an underlying state of gratitude. So my thankfulness doesn’t really spike on the fourth Thursday of every November, because in some form or another it’s always there.
But Rollins’s Thanksgiving in 1980 fascinated me. In 1980, I was an eleven year old kid, and we probably had Thanksgiving at my Grandpa Mel’s house in Irvine, making the sixty mile trip from North Hollywood. Mel was my stepgrandfather, and his wife Harriet was my stepfather’s stepmother. A complex family, but family all the same. Rollins would have been nineteen in 1980, and working at Haagen-Daaz ice cream in the Washington D.C. area. In his column he says this about that Thanksgiving:
The best Thanksgiving I ever had was in 1980. I told my boss at the ice cream store I worked at that I wanted to open the store for a few hours on that day, just in case anyone wanted vanilla ice cream for their desserts. This was my big idea; I thought it was a winner. If we were not moving much product, I would clean in hard-to-get-to places, polish the copper piping and prep the freezers for the weekend.
He attempted to convince me to take the day off, but I just wouldn’t do it. So he gave me the green light. I don’t think it was a matter of him being so impressed at my will to work as much as him not finding it worthwhile to argue further.
I am happy to report that we actually had a pretty good day, sales-wise. But the best part was when the restaurant across the street brought me over a plate of food on orders from my boss. I ate it alone, standing up.
These three paragraphs hit me. I read them over and over, and eventually printed them out and pinned them above my desk at home. I have a lot of feelings about Rollins’s 1980 Thanksgiving, and it speaks to a lot of things: What I admire about Rollins, how different from him I was at nineteen, and how good the world could be if we all had the right attitude, like the players in Rollins’ tale. Let’s start at the beginning:
The best Thanksgiving I ever had…
This story, from a man in his mid-fifties, describes the BEST Thanksgiving he ever had. Not the worst one, which it well could have been (“Man, when I was nineteen I had to work in this stupid ice cream shop on Thanksgiving.”) Not an average Thanksgiving, or even a good one. But the very BEST one. The sad little tale that follows was the highlight of Rollins’ fifty-something Thanksgivings on earth.
…was in 1980. I told my boss at the ice cream store I worked at that I wanted to open the store for a few hours on that day, just in case anyone wanted vanilla ice cream for their desserts. This was my big idea; I thought it was a winner.
So he’s working a shit-job at an ice cream shop (there’s much more about these formative times in his excellent memoir Get in the Van: On the Road With Black Flag) but he WANTS to work on Thanksgiving. It’s not even so much that he wants to work, he seems to have a sincere desire to serve people vanilla ice cream for their Thanksgiving desserts. (We all know Thanksgiving is not a time for weird ice cream flavors, so he stresses vanilla.) He wanted to help people, after a fashion. Rollins had complicated relationships with his divorced parents, and no siblings. It makes sense that on Thanksgiving, he’d rather be serving others than doing some family bullshit that he didn’t want to do.
It’s also an early example of Rollins’ out-of-the-box ideas. We’ll open the ice cream shop on Thanksgiving. I’ll join Black Flag. I’ll leave Black Flag. I’ll start a new band. I’ll write books. I’ll give spoken word concerts. I’ll start acting in movies and on TV. I’ll travel the world with just a camera and a backpack. I’ll start a podcast. Rollins always has big ideas; he’s always doing something interesting. I admire this youthful big idea of his, and especially the fact that he calls it his “big idea.” He also has the confidence in his big idea to think it was a winner. When I was nineteen and forced to work on Thanksgiving and other holidays (I worked at a hospital that was by definition always open) I was pissed off and decidedly ungrateful. Although I always wound up making the best of it, I was devoid of big ideas.
If we were not moving much product, I would clean in hard-to-get-to places, polish the copper piping and prep the freezers for the weekend.
Here Rollins demonstrates his industriousness. In his book, he describes earlier youthful jobs where he did nothing but mess around (such as with Ian MacKaye at a pet store). But by nineteen, his industrious won’t allow him to clown around on Thanksgiving. If he’s not busy, he’ll not only clean, but he’ll scour the hard-to-reach places. Forty years later, he’s travelling the globe, still looking for hard-to-reach places. Hey kids, the values you learn at nineteen can last a lifetime.
He attempted to convince me to take the day off, but I just wouldn’t do it.
Rollins’s boss is clearly a good guy. “C’mon, Henry, take the day off and be with your family!” But Henry won’t do it. Not can’t do it, not doesn’t want to do it. Won’t take the day off. We all know stubborn assholes like this, who just plain won’t do something. Rollins freely admits he’s like this, but he’s turned his asshole powers to good, at least in this case.
So he gave me the green light. I don’t think it was a matter of him being so impressed at my will to work as much as him not finding it worthwhile to argue further.
In other words, the boss should have been impressed with Rollins’s will to work; anyone would be, Rollins assures us. He has a lot of showboat in him, but he tends to back it up. What follows is an early example of this. But mainly the boss understands that Rollins is a huge pain in the ass, and is not likely to let go of something he wants to do. But, who gets the last laugh? Why, Rollins of course.
I am happy to report…
Rollins is the most disciplined, militaristic entertainer I know. “I’m happy to report, Sergeant, that the southern riverbank has been cleared of enemy combatants.” We are waiting with bated breath for young Rollins, the ice cream boy’s, report.
…that we actually had a pretty good day, sales-wise.
Well, look at that! It all worked out. There’s no other way this tale could end, although we’re not at the epilogue yet. Rollins backs up his showmanship and bravado. He would tell you he’s the most insecure, under-confident, anxious, stress-filled person on the planet, and he would be right. When I saw him speak at The Crest last year he came out on stage with no introduction. The lights hadn’t even dimmed yet. He wore his trademark black t-shirt (I think he wears gray at home and black on the road), snug against his muscular torso, snatched the microphone from its stand, and proceeded to talk for two straight hours. Never looking away, never sitting down, never pausing, never having a drink of water. The man is intense. Toward the end of the show he told us he does it this way because he’s terrified that if he stops for a moment, turns his back to the audience for a single second, we’ll all go away. And you can tell he means it. There is no part of him that really believes he’s hot shit, but he understands that we want him to be the superhero Henry Rollins, so that’s the part he’s going to play for us, while being honest and authentic at the same time. It’s quite an impressive thing to witness.
So of course the ice cream shop had a good day sales-wise. This was a Henry Rollins idea, and his ideas seem to go pretty well. Although he is free with missteps and self-criticism in his writing and speaking, one can’t help but notice his major moves have also gone pretty well. He joined Black Flag as practically a teenager, that went well. He left Black Flag, that went better. He formed another band, ramped up his spoken word game, acted in Hollywood, wrote books and traveled and took pictures and he seems to be doing pretty darned OK. Without too much braggadocio, he acknowledges that staying true to himself and his beliefs have led him on a pretty decent course in life, and it’s not a bad lesson for the rest of us.
But here’s the epilogue. This is the real kicker that makes the whole piece worthwhile. Without it, it’s a meaningless story from childhood, like bragging that you volunteered to wipe down the chalkboards after school one day, and you did a good job and the teacher gave you a gold star. The story may be true, but it’s boring. But for Rollins, that Thanksgiving at the ice cream shop ended like this:
But the best part was when the restaurant across the street brought me over a plate of food on orders from my boss. I ate it alone, standing up.
Again, the BEST part of the entire day, this day where a nineteen-year-old worked a Washington D.C. Haagen-Daaz by himself, was when the restaurant across the street sent him a plate of food (on orders from his unimpressed boss, by the way) which Rollins ate standing up.
I understand. I’ve found myself extremely happy in weird situations, as I’m sure many of us have. Alone at the baseball field raking the dirt and putting the equipment back in the shed. The kids I coached long done with their snowcones and gone home. Whether we won or lost, it was a good day. These days I run events as an extracurricular activity for communications technology professionals, and often I’m the last one in the room, packing up my rental car with the signage, leftover candy, and other accoutrements, happy and satisfied, suspecting I did a good job. Someone got something out of what I did today (like Rollins’s customers and boss), and here I am alone to reflect on it. If someone sent me a plate of food during one of these moments, damn, I would have thought that was the best part too.
Ultimately we’re on this planet to please ourselves, but I don’t mean that in a selfish way. It’s my face I have to look at in the mirror every morning. It’s my head that hits the pillow every night. It’s my brain jabbering at me as I stumble through both the beautiful and the prosaic parts of my life. What kind of person do I want to be? There are some obvious answers, like I want to be a good husband, and a good father and provider. I want my friends, family, and also those I work for to have a good opinion of me. But it all comes back to “What kind of person am I?” That’s where it starts. We shouldn’t act good to be regarded as good in order to feel good. That’s a losing game. We should just try to be the person we are, to own that, and hopefully that person is a good person. When the foundation is strong, everything else seems to mostly fall into place. If you try to come at this backward, as many do, it backfires.
That’s what Rollins’s Thanksgiving story says to me, and it’s why I have it tacked on the wall next to my coaching photos and other personal mementos. The story says This is the kind of person I am. It’s weird, it’s sometimes lonely, it’s unconventional, but it works. I get ideas. I try them. Although I’m not much similar to Henry Rollins, like him I’m not only OK with who I am, I can’t be any other way. It’s not worthwhile to argue further.
The letter from the Social Security Administration sat on the table waiting for me when I got home from school. I ripped it open and inside was my pale blue Social Security card, with my perfect nickname legally emblazoned across the center, in all caps: CHIP POWELL, no middle name, initial, or suffix. I couldn’t believe it! I was legal and legitimate. I carried that little card in my wallet for years, until I realized you don’t really need the card, you just need to know the number. Better to stash it away for safe keeping than carry it around with you.
I began writing Chip Powell on all forms and records from then on out. But because I had been officially Tracy Powell in school, that name followed me to college. I didn’t have many issues with it: professors called you what you wanted (or more typically, at least in my case, didn’t call you anything at all), and fellow students didn’t snicker and tease the way my elementary school friends had done. But when I got my diploma from the University of California at Davis, it said Tracy Powell on it. It seems irrational, I know, because although I am proud to be a college graduate, and got a great education, that piece of paper with the official university and state seals on it was meaningless to me. I know you don’t go framing a bachelor’s degree or anything, but I jammed that piece of paper in a drawer and forgot about it. I couldn’t stand to look at the name on that piece of paper signifying my achievement. Tracy Powell didn’t work his ass off to graduate from UC Davis, Chip Powell did. Don’t you people remember? I don’t even know where the diploma is anymore, and I’m not sure I could prove I’m a college graduate. UC Davis would have a record of Tracy Powell graduating from there in 1995 (yeah, it took me a while), but no record of Chip Powell. If push came to shove, I’m not sure I could prove Chip and Tracy Powell are the same people.
My driver licenses have always said Chip; my home mortgage, insurance, and all official documents say Chip. Amy’s and my marriage certificate and our kids’ birth certificates all say simply Chip Powell. When I got a passport about ten years ago I was nervous. There’s a part in the application where they ask you if you’ve ever gone by any other name. I took a chance and said no. I sent in my paperwork, and a few weeks later I got the passport with my preferred name on it as well. My birth certificate is now the only documentation I have that says Tracy on it, and there is no proof that person is me. There is no court order allowing me to change my name, no marriage or divorce that resulted in a name change, it’s just me being stubborn and unwilling to go by a name I didn’t like. And also, to be fair, too cheap and lazy to get the name changed legally.
I have to say again, I’ve always felt a little guilty about this in respect to my dad, after whom I am named. He knew the sagas I went through around our name. I don’t honestly know if his feelings were truly hurt, or if he thought much about it at all. (He wasn’t so much with the “feelings.”) I do find it ironic that for someone who hated having a nickname himself, Dad saddled me with one. How often I wished my name was something normal like Steven or David or Michael. Or even more contemporary names for kids my age, like Jason or Scott or Eric. So now I’m a 48-year-old man, and I still have a little boy’s name. It’s either a boy’s name or an asshole’s name. I’m not wild about my name, but it’s who I am. I can’t fight it. I can’t change it. (Actually, I suppose I could change it. I swear half the people I knew in my teens and twenties have changed their names. Men, women, first names, last names, both names, and this excludes women changing their last names to their husbands’. But I’m not here to judge. People have reasons for doing things.)
My mom was unfailingly positive. When I was a kid she told me, “People really like your name. When you tell people your name, it makes them happy. They say ‘Chip’ and they always smile.” I don’t know if that’s true or not, but Mom had a way of saying things were true and having them be true. (I only wish she could have talked herself out of having cancer.) It still feels funny, pushing fifty years old, introducing myself to people in the business world. “Chip, like potato chip” is what I’ve been saying lately. They always laugh a little bit, which bears out my mom’s prophecy. But I have to clarify the name. Maybe I don’t enunciate well enough, but if it’s a crowded, halfway-noisy place where I introduce myself, no one ever catches my name. “Jeff?” they say, or “Jim?” Or Chet, Chiff, Jiff, Jet…I’ve heard it all. So that’s why I say “Chip like potato chip.” They understand instantly, and according to my mom, they like me better than someone with a boring name like I wish I had.
When I had kids of my own, I was adamant that A) none would be named Tracy, and B) that they wouldn’t have nicknames of any kind. What was on their birth certificates would be what we called them. Neither exactly happened. My ex and I gave our oldest son one of the top names that people like to nickname: Vincent. Vincent is a great name, we thought, and still do, but it absolutely screams to be shortened to Vince, Vin, or Vinnie, none of which we wanted the boy to be called. The family always called him Vincent, and he always introduced himself as such. The name the teacher called on the first day of school caused no embarrassment, I hope; it was his actual name.
He had a baseball coach when he was about ten years old who called him Vince. I was an assistant coach on the team, and it was the year that I decided that I would never be an assistant coach again. (Henceforth I decided I would be either the head coach or simply an uninvolved parent. It’s too hard to be chief deputy to a complete and total flake.) This coach always called my son Vince. I told him one day, “He goes by Vincent.” The coach was a jovial fellow, and didn’t seem to take me seriously. He replied, “That’s fine, if he tells me he wants to be called Vincent I’ll call him Vincent.” I got it. The message was “I don’t give a shit what Dad says, what does the kid have to say?” Fair enough, although for the many years I coached after that, I wasn’t such an asshole about what I called kids. I told Vincent (whom honestly it didn’t seem to bother) “If you want him to call you Vincent, you have to tell him.” After practice one day I prompted him, after coach said “See ya, Vince!” Vincent kind of yelled to Coach with his back turned “My name is VIN-CENT!” Coach didn’t act like he heard, but he laughed a little, and he always called him Vincent after that. But the man simply had to hear it from the nine-year-old himself. Ugh! This is what I was trying to avoid. If I could go back, I wouldn’t interfere. If a kid wants to be called a certain name, the kid can either express that or talk to his or her parents about the issue. The problem was that I brought all my childhood baggage to this experience and made it MY issue. I see it now; I didn’t see it then. (Well, I kind of saw it.)
The next kid was Henry. No one ever called him Hank, and his name was his name was his name. Amy and I loved the name, still do, and we stand by it. It was a classic that hadn’t made any kind of comeback. I never personally knew – and still don’t know – a Henry my own age. Of course within a few years of Henry being born in 1999 we realized there were a zillion other Henrys from white upper-middle class families toddling around at the same time. He was the only one in his elementary school, but by the time he got to high school with Land Park kids there were lots. At one point there were three Henry’s within about five years of age separated by our back fence where two other houses joined ours. But nicknames were never an issue for Henry.
Finally, with our last kid, we broke both rules A) and B). Josephine Tracy Powell was born in 2001, and she was Josie from the very start. Amy – another name that’s impossible to nickname – convinced me that it would be fine, and it has been. We were both in love with both names: the longer Josephine and the shorter Josie. Although we quickly noticed that some pronounced it “Jo-See” while others said “Jo-Zee.” But we never corrected anyone, and it doesn’t bother Josie. She manages her name just fine all by herself. It’s OK when teachers call her Josephine, but it’s known that she goes by Josie. (I’ve heard her herself say both Jo-See and Jo-Zee at times.) The Tracy in the middle of her name: that was an homage to my dad, who would never have a Tracy O. Powell IV in his line – at least not from me – but a sweet girl with his gender-neutral name in the middle of hers would have to suffice. He loved Josie, and I think he was happy about her middle name. It may have made up for my lifelong battle against the name I inherited from him.
In 2020, the Real ID laws kick in for the state of California, and I’ll have to get a new driver license with the special gold star that proves I’m a “real American” and not some kind of terrorist if I want to board a domestic flight without a passport. I did a little freak out when I read I’d have to bring my birth certificate to the DMV to get my Real ID, but as I read further, it seemed a passport would work just as well. Check! That says Chip, as does the Social Security card I’ll need to provide. At 48 years old I’m finally settled into my name. My dad is gone, and the original Tracy before him is long gone. My sister Tracy/Sissy is still around, but the name is mostly died out in my line, except for my girl, Josephine Tracy. That’s good enough I think.
“Hey, are you the drummer?” I said to Clementine, whose name I had forgotten. “Yes,” she replied, busy looking over the guest list, talking to the woman at the merch table, doing her double duty as drummer and founder of the all-woman Led Zeppelin tribute band, Zepparella. “You guys are so great,” I told her, for lack of anything cooler to say. “Well, I hope we are tonight.” Clementine doesn’t assume every show is going to be stellar. Musicians who perform a lot know when they’re on and when they’re off. Fans don’t always notice though. “You will be, you always are!” I encouraged, not wanting to hold her captive any longer, knowing she was busy with the business end of things while at the same time preparing to pound on her drum kit for two hours.
I am too young to have really seen Led Zeppelin live. Theoretically I could have seen them in the summer of 1977 when I was seven years old, if I had known who they were, cared, and someone would have taken me. I eventually saw Robert Plant play solo, the first time he toured the U.S. after Zeppelin’s breakup, and much later I saw a Plant and Page show, but neither of those seemed like I was seeing Led Zeppelin. Although Jimmy Page and Robert Plant put on a great show, playing so many Led Zeppelin crowd pleasers, it was during a time in my life I was a little more reserved, anxious, and not completely able to let loose at a live gig and lose myself in the music. By far, the best live Led Zeppelin experience I’ve ever had was seeing Clementine’s Zepparella at Harlow’s in Sacramento, a venue that holds three hundred people at most.
My first Led Zeppelin memory is from sixth grade in 1981, when our teacher had us all write Mothers Day cards the week before the holiday. My best friend Tony, a talented artist even at that young age, showed me his card. On the front it said, “Hey, Mom!” and on the inside he drew a picture of some guys in a rock band and wrote above it, “Thanks for letting me listen to LED ZEP!” Led Zep, not Zeppelin. Although we were only eleven, “Zep” was the cool-guy nickname for this hard rocking band. Sadly, I did not give my mom a Led Zeppelin-themed Mothers Day card, but a regular card. Honestly, I can’t remember what kind of card I gave my mom, but thirty-six years later I remember Tony’s card very well. I wasn’t really versed in Zeppelin’s music yet. I’d heard some here and there, but Tony made the statement right on his Mothers Day card. He planted his flag in the ground, proclaiming to the class, and his mom, that Led Zep was truly his favorite band. I had some catching up to do.
Led Zeppelin had broken up just a few months before Mothers Day, 1981, upon the death of drummer John Bonham the previous September, but I have no memory of that event. Sometime in sixth grade I began listening to hard rock in earnest, and no band encapsulated my love of loud guitars, thumping drums, devilish bass, and screaming vocals than Led Zeppelin. Getting into a band immediately after their run – Led Zeppelin made eight studio albums and one live album during their active years, 1968 to 1980 – means you can approach the discography a number of different ways. These days, I try to figure out what a band’s signature album is, eschewing greatest hits compilations as cheating. If I like that “best” album enough, I’ll dig deeper into their catalog, maybe even starting from the beginning and working my way all the way through chronologically. That’s rare though, honestly. It is great to follow and love a band in real-time, where each album is hotly anticipated, and you listen as the offerings are released. But that wasn’t possible for me with Led Zeppelin in 1981. All nine of their albums (Coda had not yet been released) were out there available to be discovered by then.
I went to the record store one day – Auditory Odyssey on Laurel Canyon Blvd in North Hollywood – a ten-dollar bill in hand, which would have been two weeks worth of allowance and plenty enough to buy a single vinyl LP, which would cost about $6.99 at that time. I ignored the pipes and bongs section to the rear of the store (I would not ignore this part of the store for much longer), and cut right into the record room and found the “L” section. I didn’t know which Led Zeppelin album to buy. I didn’t know the names of the songs, and not all of Zeppelin’s albums had the songs listed on the back. I wasn’t necessarily looking for “Stairway to Heaven,” I just knew I needed a Led Zeppelin album. Even by that young age, I had already begun my journey as a rock music fan, having some records from the Beatles by now, also KISS, Devo, Gary Numan, The Beach Boys, the Grease soundtrack, and I might have had a couple of records by The Who and The Doors by then, but I knew I was missing a vital piece of the puzzle: Zeppelin. It’s like building a house without a foundation, amassing a rock record collection without Zep.
But which album to buy? I settled on In Through The Out Door for the sole reason that it was sold with a brown paper wrapper over the album cover, but under the shrink wrap. I wanted to know what was under there. Naked people, like John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Two Virgins? No, I found out when I got home and ripped off the shrink wrap and carefully pulled the album out of the paper sleeve. It was a scene of a man at a bar, burning a letter, presumably a Dear John letter, while the bartender and other patrons looked on. I learned later it was one of several possible album covers, each shot from the perspective of a different patron of the bar.
In Through The Out Door is not considered one of Led Zeppelin’s best albums, but it was nevertheless the first I owned by the band, and I’ve always loved it. “All Of My Love,” “Fool In The Rain,” “In The Evening,” these were great songs, so I was not disappointed. Imagine how my head exploded when I eventually found Led Zeppelin II, IV, Houses Of The Holy, and Physical Graffiti. (Not to spite I, III, or Presence. Well, to be fair, despite the great “Achilles’ Last Stand” and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” I never listened to Presence too much.)
Within a year or so, I had purchased all nine Led Zeppelin albums, including the brilliant – to me – live album, The Song Remains The Same, and I was a confirmed obsessive. To this day, I can recite the titles and tracks on these nine albums like I can the nine planets orbiting the sun. They are like my nine brothers and sisters, or my nine children, if I had so many siblings or kids. They each have their brilliance and idiosyncracies, from the bluesy, hard-rocking I, to the bluesier and harder-rocking II (probably my favorite, closely followed by IV or Houses Of The Holy) to the acoustically-flavored III, the iconic IV, chock full of hits, to the poppier – but still incredibly rocky – Houses, the insanely bombastic Physical Graffiti, the seldom-listened (by me) Presence, to the double live Song, and finally, to my inaugural – but their final – album, In Through the Out Door. I listened to these albums so much, at one time I thought to myself that although I liked a lot of different music, it wouldn’t be so bad to listen to ONLY these nine Led Zeppelin albums for the rest of my life. I’d miss The Doors, Iron Maiden, and Black Sabbath, but with my nine little babies I’d be just fine.
But the band was gone. Disbanded upon the alcohol-related death of their thunderous, unparalleled drummer, John Bonham. Finally, in 1983, the year I turned fourteen, Robert Plant toured the U.S. for his second solo album, The Principle of Moments. Besides Tony, my other best friend was Chad, and he and I went to that concert together, my first big rock and roll show. We smoked some weed before the show, but Chad became paranoid that his little metal pot pipe would be discovered by security at the door, although this was long before the era of metal detectors at big public events. So he threw it in a giant patch of ivy that ringed The Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, home of the L.A. Lakers and a million great concerts over the years. I thought he was nuts, but I also didn’t offer to hold the pipe for him. He threw it about forty feet into the ivy patch, and said “I heard it hit a can or something! We can find it after the show!” I thought the pipe was a goner, but that was a problem for later.
Robert Plant put on a great show. Phil Collins played drums for him, as I recall, and we saw David Coverdale of Deep Purple and Whitesnake fame walk past our floor seats at the Forum. Plant didn’t sing any Zeppelin songs on those early tours, but we were proud to see his very first show in California since the Zeppelin breakup. There’s something about being fourteen at your first big rock and roll concert that stays with you for the rest of your life. All those fans, all those musicians, bigger than us, older than us, way more rocking than us, but we were a part of it. Rock and roll welcomes all, even us little scrubs.
After the concert, Chad and I went out front with seventeen thousand other concertgoers to wait for our ride. While we waited, Chad jumped in the ivy, rooted around the spot where he threw his pipe for about fifteen minutes, and right as we saw his sister roll up to the pickup area he proudly hoisted the pipe aloft, grinning from ear to ear.
We were obsessed with Led Zeppelin during those teenage years. Our rooms were plastered with their posters, we played Stairway to Heaven backwards on our vinyl turntables to hear the Satanic messages (which were iffy at best), and we delighted in losing ourselves in Page’s incredible licks, Plant’s wailing, John Paul Jones’s thundering bass and mystical keyboards, and Bonham’s savage drumming. I don’t think I ever met a rock and roll loving teenager in North Hollywood, where I grew up, who didn’t love Led Zeppelin best of all. They were it, the Alpha and the Omega, the Oracle, the top of the mountain. We all loved Black Sabbath – before and after Ozzy – and of course Ozzy on his own, and we were variously enamoured of certain British and European heavy metal bands of the era, like Judas Priest, Scorpions, or Iron Maiden. Many of us liked rock bands with a different vibe, not quite as hard, but terrific all the same: The Doors, Jethro Tull, The Who, The Rolling Stones. Harder heavy metal, speed metal, thrash metal was around the corner, but hadn’t quite arrived yet, like Metallica and Megadeth. But nothing touched Zeppelin, and everyone agreed.
Eventually I branched out, and found an incredible new world of music with bands that bore almost no resemblance to Zeppelin: Talking Heads, The Cure, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Love and Rockets, Run DMC, Public Enemy, Pixies. But that came a little later, at sixteen or seventeen. For the previous five years or so, it was only Zeppelin. Everything else was just extra flavor.
Thirty years later, I had heard about this all-woman Led Zeppelin tribute band called Zepparella. I watched their videos online, and decided I had to check them out sometime. They sounded incredible in those videos, clearly endlessly-talented and obviously even more obsessed with Zeppelin than me. I got my friends Chris and Mark to join me at Harlow’s earlier this year, and we caught these incredible ladies up close and personal.
I was stunned! It felt like a Led Zeppelin show, but I was front row center, and there were only a few hundred people in the room. The band was beautiful as well as talented, and I honestly couldn’t believe my luck. When you find a band you love, and can see them in a club setting, up close and personal, that’s gold. I’ve seen the Stones, The Who, Scorpions, Maiden, Priest, Ozzy, Paul Simon, U2, and Pink Floyd headline giant arenas, but I’ve always prefered the smaller venues. Urge Overkill at The Cattle Club, Pixies at Ace of Spades, White Stripes at The Warfield, Kristen Hersh at The Palms, The Jesus and Mary Chain at The Crest, these have been my favorite shows. And then Zepparrela came to Harlow’s, and then they returned a few months later.
I decided I had to see them again. I couldn’t find anyone to come with me, so I figured, fuck it, I’ll go by myself if I have to. These women absolutely ownLed Zeppelin, and it’s the closest a fan like me can get in 2017. Although I’ve seen Robert Plant both with and without Jimmy Page, it didn’t compare to Zepparella, as weird as that sounds. I was having drinks with work friends at Pizza Rock earlier in the evening, and my buddy Arty and his girlfriend Ann-Margaret decided to come with. They weren’t Zeppelin fans, but they were looking for something different to do on a Friday night, so I was happy to have company. (Before that I had only been to two concerts alone: White Stripes at The Warfield, and They Might Be Giants at The Crest. I had a great time at both, but of course you’d rather go with friends.)
Then my friend Michael texted and said he’d join me. I had talked up Zepparella to him the night before, when I ran into him at The Crest where my wife Amy and I saw an incredible Billy Bragg concert. He was on his second concert in two nights, his fourth in ten days (he had taken his fourteen year old son to Imagine Dragons at Golden 1 Center the night before). I said “Go for the trifecta!” and by God, he did! Finally, my old buddy Dylan showed up and I was enjoying Zepparella in the company of four great friends. I bought a biker a shot of vodka to smooth over his perception that I was not being a gracious floor-sharer with his woman (I was), but it was all good. I drank too much, screamed too loud, danced too hard, and absolutely let myself go at the altar of the great ones. The crowd didn’t seem to mind; they were doing the same. The band didn’t seem to mind – why be in a rock band but to watch fans lose their shit at your every move?
The band recruited their former lead singer, Anna Kristina, to fill in for their current lead singer: a female Robert Plant lookalike with amazing pipes named Noelle Doughty. Anna was great, while fans wished Noelle a speedy recovery from a sudden illness. (Anna’s the one singing in the Levee video, above.) There are supposedly amazing male Led Zeppelin tribute bands out there, but I’m almost completely uninterested in that. I know what four guys playing Led Zeppelin sounds like: that’s Led Zeppelin! Zepparella is a completely different deal, although they play the timeless music faithfully, earnestly, and joyously.
The band was heavy on Physical Graffiti and II, which I was 100% great with. The closest things to Zeppelin “hits” the women played were “Whole Lotta Love” and “Immigrant Song,” which are pretty solid Zeppelin staples. But no “Stairway to Heaven,” “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll,” some of Zep’s supposed hits, and nothing from the first album, sadly, and only one apiece from III, IV, and Houses. You wouldn’t expect to hear anything from Presence or In Through the Out Door, but the thing is this: Zeppelin never recorded a bad song. Some you may like more than others. And if you stripped the four best songs off every one of their albums, would you have heard of the band? Maybe not, but they still never made a bad song. “The Crunge,” “Four Sticks,” “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper,” “Hot Dog.” If these were Zeppelin’s best songs, you and I would not be having this conversation. Without “Stairway” and “Ramble On,” and “No Quarter” to prop them up, Zeppelin never would have made it out of the Miscellaneous L section of the used record bin. But those former are still great songs.
I can’t lie, when I don’t have Led Zeppelin the brain, like I do when Zepparella rolls through my town, I don’t listen to them too much anymore. I’m listening to Fantastic Negrito and Josh Ritter and Spoon and Lafayette Gilchrist. I often travel back to bands of yesteryear, like The Grateful Dead and Santana and Leonard Cohen and Sonic Youth. And sometimes Led Zeppelin, too…sometimes.
Standing there at Harlow’s, front of the stage, leaning on Angeline Saris’s monitor, losing my mind to those songs that I listened to for thousands of hours as a young teenager, I was very happy to have my new Northern California friends with me. I didn’t end up going to the show by myself. But if Tony of the Mothers Day card, and Chad of the ivy pot pipe had been there with me, instead of four hundred miles away in Southern California, well, that would have been a sublime experience. Thirty-five years since I discovered Led Zeppelin in Auditory Odyssey, and all new players – women players – later, The Songs Remain the Same.
In the late 1990’s, I and my friends Mathieu and Randy befriended an elderly gentleman named Richard Gale Kelley, also known as Irish Rich, Wild Red Kelley, or more simply, Old Richard. Mathieu, Randy and I all worked in downtown Sacramento, where there was a kind of run-down coffee house called Espresso Metro on the corner of 11th and K Streets. The cafe was staffed with great people and it had good service, but they didn’t have the heart to kick out winos, they let people smoke cigarettes on the patio, and they didn’t care if cheap-ass state workers like us brought sack lunches from home to eat at their outdoor tables. We ate, smoked cigarettes, soaked up Northern California’s amazing weather, and watched people go by for an hour a day. Eventually we became acquainted with an elderly patron of the coffee house who also came each day to have a cup, smoke a pipe, and watch the world go by.
Rich was about five foot six or seven and had a very decent head of hair for a seventy-something-year-old. It must have been red at some point, but now it was a kind of bronzed silver, combed back sharply with Brylcream. He wore Dickies pants and tucked, short-sleeved, button-up shirts of solid colors. His clothes were none too clean, but they didn’t smell, and neither were they tattered like a homeless person’s. He seemed to be rather barrel-chested, but we found out later he wore a kind of old man girdle: a soft back brace that had the effect of sucking in one’s gut. He looked like a short, retired wrestler, and that was not far from the truth.
We first noticed Rich passing time at the coffee house with some punk rock guys. He would sit there quietly while the punk rock guys would smoke cigarettes and have their own conversations. Eventually the punk rock guys stopped coming around so much, but Rich Kelley remained, sitting at the same table, drinking his coffee, smoking his pipe and watching the seasons change. I don’t remember how we first started talking to him. Maybe someone needed a light, maybe something in the always-interesting Cathedral Plaza required comment, such as Happy the Child Molester wandering by to grin at us, or crazy Orlando with his crown of laurels and toga shouting to the heavens with his Pep Boys calendar, or Buff Betty strutting by, or the Raining Men.
Or maybe we, or he, were just being friendly. Our light conversation with Rich became a ritual. One day one of us was bold enough to ask Rich if he would like to join us at our table, since we ended up shouting across the cafe patio at one another anyway. Rich said “Sure,” and after that we had a daily lunch date with “Wild Red” Kelley: a moniker, he informed us, that came from his showmanship wrestling days. He had the cauliflower ears to prove it.
We asked him once where the punk rock guys went off to, and he said “Who?” The guys with the funny hair and the leather jackets with the little silver spikes on them, we reminded him. “Oh, those guys. I have no idea, I never knew their names,” he replied dismissively. What do you mean you didn’t know their names? You used to hang out with them every single day. “Well, I don’t know, fellas, they just started sitting with me. It’s not like we were friends or anything.” Oh, well, do you know our names? Do we meet your high-falutin’ friendship criteria, or do you want us to go back our own table? We don’t want to impose on your highness like those commoners did. “Oh, fellas, you’re funnin’ with me. That’s what I love about you guys,” as he rattled off our names, proving he knew them. Rich was really fun to fuck with, because we always did it very gently and he got a big kick out of it.
(Although once, years later, I was teasing Rich about the state of his underpants, having just done a couple loads of his laundry when he was unwell. Rich was outraged that I’d disparage his smallclothes, and began to disrobe right there at Espresso Metro to prove that his nether garments were in good repair. Rich! Rich! we screamed, knock it off! Buckle your belt and keep your pants on…literally! It was the only time I saw him truly angry, and I was quite ashamed of myself. He was offended. It wasn’t the first or last time I took a joke too far, but it was the last time I did with Rich.)
He didn’t dominate conversations, but he wasn’t shy about putting his two cents in. When we talked about the Sacramento Kings, Rich would chime in with one of the few things he knew about basketball. “The thing about Michael Jordan is he makes it look so easy!” Yes, Rich, yes he does. Anyway, any thoughts on who the Kings should draft? “What’s that?” You know, where they try to pick the best player coming out of college or high school? “Aw, fellas, I don’t know about any of that. I’ll tell you though, that Michael Jordan, my goodness, what a talent. He makes it look so easy!”
If we discussed literature, Rich would never fail to contribute. “Fellas, you know what book I like? The Carpetbaggers, by Harold Robbins.” All I knew about Harold Robbins was that his books seemed to be beach reading, according to the song Pulling Mussels (From The Shell) by Squeeze. Likewise, Rich’s favorite film was Up The Creek, an 80’s comedy that looked truly horrible, but the title song was a minor hit by Cheap Trick, so it had that going for it. None of us had ever read Harold Robbins or seen Up The Creek, but that didn’t stop Rich from talking endlessly about them.
We had a friend at work named Alison, a mildly butch-looking lesbian, who stopped by to chat with the four of us at the cafe one day. After she left Rich said “What was his name again?” We said Alison. “Alan?” No, Al-i-son! “Alison…Alison…that’s a funny name for a man.” That’s not a man, we said, that was a woman. “What? You fellas are foolin’ me again. Seriously, what was his name?” Alison! That was a woman, Rich. Alison wasn’t even all that butch, she just had short spiky hair and didn’t wear dresses or makeup. Rich couldn’t get over it, and he never really believed we weren’t pulling his leg. “Alison,” he said, shaking his head. “Hummph!”
It got to where we started to worry about Rich if we skipped a couple of days at Espresso Metro, such as if we were on vacation or otherwise tied up. If we missed some time at the coffee house, I wanted him to know we were not abandoning him like the punk rock guys did. Irish Rich Kelley was not among the world’s great intellects. He did not have cultured tastes or nuanced views of complex issues. He had not lived a grand – or really even a good – life. But he showed us these things by example, sometimes his, sometimes ours: friendship, commitment, how to find a measure of happiness in this world despite circumstances where others might feel broken and alone. These are not minor lessons.
Capitol Park Cafe
You could set your watch by Rich’s schedule. If you asked him how he spent his days he’d say “Well, fellas, right about ten o’clock or so I walk down to La Bo* and get my morning coffee. After a while I head down to see Mindy to get my dinner.** After that I walk over here [to Espresso Metro] to have my afternoon coffee and smoke my pipe. Eventually I make my way back home to watch a little TV or a movie, or listen to some music, make some supper and go to bed.
* He pronounced La Bou “La Bo,” and to this day, I can’t but refer to the chain the same way.
So dinner meant lunch, and Mindy worked at the Capitol Park Cafe in downtown Sacramento. Rich talked about Mindy all the time, her comings and goings, how her daughter was doing, and what she’d been up to – which never seemed to be too much. You could tell he loved this waitress with all of his heart. One time we decided to join him for “dinner” at the cafe, so we could meet Mindy and see what all the fuss was about.
The cafe remains a bit of a Sacramento institution. If you look on Yelp you will see dozens of glowing reviews, which surprises me somewhat. To me, the Capitol Park Cafe epitomized a 60’s or 70’s diner, with none of the quirk and all of the mediocre food. When we walked in, a woman in her mid-forties with long dark hair just starting to give over to gray broke out in a huge smile and said “Well, Small Milky, you brought some friends today!” Mindy was an extremely kind, patient, competent waitress. She was pretty, though she seemed like she might have spent a few years on the back of a motorcycle. She wore blue jeans, an apron, a handful of tattoos, and seemed to approach each task with a “Let’s get this shit done” attitude. No one grows up dreaming of being a waitress at the Capitol Park Cafe, but I got the sense this was maybe the most secure Mindy’s life had ever been.
Small Milky? we replied. “Yeah, Milky,” Mindy said, “Why don’t you let your friends know why we call you that!” Rich stammered and claimed he had no idea, while Mindy gave him an accusing look, hands on her hips. Rich confessed, “Oh, well, fellas, I guess one time I ordered a small milk…” “He ALWAYS orders a small milk!” Mindy interrupted. “…And, well, she thought I said ‘milky‘ instead of milk.” Rich was flustered and embarrassed, while Mindy cracked up. “He did, he did! He ordered a ‘small milky,’ so that’s been his name ever since!” Rich wasn’t really upset. He loved Mindy, and didn’t mind a little fun getting poked as his expense.
The cafe adjoined a dive bar called Henry’s. Every downtown down-and-outer I’d ever seen was sitting in that bar drinking at eleven in the morning. As we sat down to a cheap and somewhat unmemorable meal at the cafe, Mindy leaned in and said “I’ve heard a lot about you guys,” which sidelined me for a minute. It was then, several months into our friendship with Rich, that I realized we were his entire world: Mindy and us.
And Jesse. There was another old timer we’d see around Espresso Metro and Capitol Park Cafe, not quite as old as Rich, and in better shape. Rich always called him Jesse or Jess, but the man introduced himself to us as James. Oh, is Jesse a nickname? we asked him. “No, I don’t know why Rich calls me that.” So we always addressed James as James, while Rich continued to refer to him as Jesse. Rich, why do you call him Jesse? He says his name is James. “No, it’s Jesse.” No, Rich, it’s James. “Wait, Jesse James, you say, like the outlaw?” Yeah, Rich, that’s what it is (sigh).
Rich had no family, no children, and no siblings. He had only been married once, well over a half century distant. “Fellas, she run off after six months, left me with a broken-down Plymouth and a case of the clap.” He had had no romance in his life for many years. “Now I don’t want to go into too much detail, but that business downstairs doesn’t really work anymore, if you know what I mean.” His mother had been killed in a car crash when he was a boy, and although his estranged father took him in briefly, soon afterwards his stepmother kicked him right back out. Rich never had much in the way of people. We had heard so much about Mindy, and when I learned how much she in turn had heard about us, it hit me that although we had wives, kids, in-laws, friends, and jobs, Rich had only us: Mathieu, Randy, me, and Mindy at the Capitol Park Cafe. Maybe a couple of baristas at Espresso Metro who would come and go, maybe Jesse James, sometimes our friends Joel and Angus would come around, but that was it. Now that I look over the list, it’s not a bad group, or even too small a number; one could do worse. Nevertheless, Richard had no family to speak of.
I had never been in an everyday relationship with an older person before. At one time I had grandparents who were fond of me, but the relationship was never very close, due to the geographies of space or time. It became clear we were important to Rich, though, and that was a pretty heavy responsibility. You couldn’t just drift away from a guy like Rich like you could people your own age if they started to wear on you. You couldn’t just bail out like the punk rockers did.
Fortunately, Rich was likable and easy to get along with. Mindy knew it, and we knew it, and before long we had a true, bosom friend. We also became regulars at the Capitol Park Cafe. Not every day, like Rich, but once every two or three weeks we’d stop in and surprise Small Milky and Mindy, take a long lunch break, and enjoy their company. Mindy had a teenage daughter she worried about. A few months later, the daughter also started waiting tables at the cafe, and a few months after that Mindy told us the girl was expecting. Unmarried, pregnant, and waiting tables in a diner. The circle continues.
Rich hailed from Denver, Colorado. He wore a Broncos Back-to-Back Super Bowl Champs cap in the summer to keep the sun out of his face. All we really knew about him was he had spent his life drifting around the western United States. Besides his supposed fame as the showmanship wrestler “Wild Red” Kelley, he also said he rode rails, worked dude ranches, and washed dishes. He was a drunk and a fighter, but by the time he turned sixty-five and made his way to Sacramento he became a reformed man. Did he find religion, or Alcoholics Anonymous? No, he simply started getting his minimal federal benefit payments, a meager few hundred dollars a month. But it was more, steadier, income than Rich had ever received in his life. It was like he had won the lottery. According to Rich he quit drinking the day he received his first check, determined not to guzzle his newfound fortune away. He never touched a drop afterward.
We knew Rich had cancer, but as far as we knew it was in check, and apparently not moving too quickly. Rich didn’t seem to be declining, but when you’re seventy-something with cancer, and a lifetime of hard living behind you, one knows one is not immortal. One day Rich told us “Fellas, I’ve been all over this land [not really] but one thing I wish I had seen was the ocean.” Really? we replied. You’ve never seen the ocean? “No sirs, not with my own two eyes. That must really be a sight.” Well, Rich, the ocean is about two hours from here. Why don’t we go take a look at it one of these weekends?
It was a big moment. It was the first time, after a couple years of hanging out, that we proposed seeing each other outside of our normal routine. Kind of like that work friend you think is really cool, and with whom you get along famously, but neither of you ever quite pulls the trigger on getting together after hours. But finally the shore was breached. We made a plan for Mathieu, Randy, and I – and another friend Angus, who sometimes joined us for lunch and knew Rich a bit – to drive down to Santa Cruz in my van and spend the day showing Irish Rich Kelley the ocean.
I told Rich to meet me in front of his apartment on 14th and E Streets at 9:00 a.m. on Saturday. From there we planned to pick up the others, then make our way down to Santa Cruz. When I pulled up in front of Rich’s apartment he was on his hands and knees on the sidewalk. I ran out of my car to see what was going on. “Oh, Chip, I’m so stupid. I was waiting here for you [I was on time] and I saw this fancy little black car, and I thought I’d go take a closer look at it, and durnit, I stumbled on the curb and fell down like an old fool. Oh boy, I sure feel like a dope.” He had a hole in his Dickies pants, a bloody knee, and raw, red scrapes and torn skin on his hands and forearms. I didn’t panic, but I also didn’t really know what the hell to do. Although I had young kids and have cleaned up plenty of scrapes, I wasn’t quite sure how to deal with the same scenario for an old man.
Um, do you have any, like, first aid stuff in your apartment? “Sure, I might.” Well, let’s go take a look. I admit I was freaked by Rich’s fall; you hear so many horror stories about elderly people breaking their hips and that being the beginning of the end. He seemed mostly OK, more embarrassed than anything, but I knew I at least had to clean him up.
His apartment was a sight. We would get to know it extremely well later on, but at first I didn’t know how to react to the sixth floor, one-bedroom flat with the million dollar view, through filthy windows, of the tree-lined Midtown streets and the Sierra Nevada mountains off to the east. The place was semi-tidy, but a thick layer of dust blanketed almost everything. There was the paint set and model train parts that hadn’t been used in years, neatly arrayed at one of the chairs around his small Formica kitchen table. He had given up the hobby years ago, but couldn’t seem to part with the paints or the models, so they gathered dust around a section of the table where literally no human being had sat in years. The chair and place where Rich ate breakfast lacked dust, but was none too clean. The apartment stank of must and old man and not enough fresh air. His toilet didn’t have anything nasty in it, but it had perhaps never been scrubbed. The second-hand plaid sofa was dusty and a bit greasy, like old furniture gets.
He had lived in this place for about fifteen years, and when something would break, like a TV, video cassette player, or a tape recorder on which he listened to music, he would buy a new one and stack it atop the old, then let the previous device gather dust. When we eventually cleaned out his apartment years later, we couldn’t count the number of TVs and VCRs left behind like artifacts from an ancient civilization. The tape recorder from the 80’s was stacked beneath the tape recorder from the 90’s, which was slightly less dusty, and was stacked beneath the working tape recorder from the 2000’s, on which he’d play his Marty Robbins or Patsy Cline cassettes. The windows had seemingly never been cleaned on the inside, and he kept the curtains shut most of the time. It was an incredible view for $187 a month in subsidized rent in the county apartment complex for the infirm, yet the place was dark as a tomb. If it were me I’d have those curtains removed altogether, but what did I know as a thirty year old?
Rich had some meager first aid supplies, so I cleaned him up from his fall the best I could, but he still looked like a crime victim. I finagled Rich into a seat belt – which was harder to accomplish than you’d think – and we picked up Mathieu and Angus, then Randy, and I explained to them the situation. I hadn’t actually attacked Rich Kelley; he’d done it to himself.
But I learned something valuable about Rich that morning, and it was a lesson we never stopped having to learn. Rich lived and died by his routine. He went to La Bo, Capitol Park Cafe, and Espresso Metro, then came back. That was it. That was all he did. He didn’t own a phone, he didn’t have any other friends, he didn’t socialize, he wasn’t invited places – especially to the ocean – he simply went to his three restaurants every day and was content with that. Truly content.
He confessed that he had been extremely worried about meeting me on the sidewalk that Saturday at 9:00 a.m. He was sure he would forget. His county-managed apartment complex was a secure facility; we had no way of contacting him to let him know we had arrived. He didn’t have a phone for the front gate buzzer to ring, so it was imperative that he meet me on the street. (We would become very familiar with the apartment’s security in the coming years, including how to slip in the front gate when someone else was coming or going, and how to charm your way past the guard, then up to the sixth floor where Rich’s apartment was.) Rich said he had hardly slept the night before our trip to Santa Cruz, and had set a special alarm clock that he knew would remind him he’d have to break his routine on that fateful Saturday. When he ended up standing on the sidewalk, rather than shuffling off to the west down E Street per his routine, he was compelled to simply stand around and wait for me (even though, I must repeat, I was dead-on time). During this standing around he didn’t know what to do. His routine was broken, so his attention was distracted by a fancy car, and in wandering over to look at it he tripped on the curb. I felt directly responsible. We later realized Rich would have suffered a thousand bumps, bruises, and indignities for our friendship. It was worth it for him, and although it was hard, it was worth it for us too.
We arrived in Santa Cruz, parked, and walked through the Boardwalk to the beach. If we expected a momentous, spiritual moment when the lifelong Westerner finally set his pale blue eyes on the magnificence of the Pacific Ocean, we were disappointed. He saw the ocean, turned around, and said “Well, it’s almost time for dinner, fellas.” We spent some time at the Boardwalk, then found a cheap Mexican lunch spot across the street, ordered a few burritos, and watched an NBA game while we ate. In all the times we lunched with Rich at the Capitol Park Cafe, and drank coffee with him at Espresso Metro, there was never an issue about who paid for what. At the cafe, Rich always had his own tab going, knowing exactly how much his supper and small milky cost, and coffee at Espresso Metro was order-on-your-own. But at that diner in Santa Cruz we all ordered together, for the first time ever. We told Rich: Hey, we got this. We bought his lunch, a six dollar burrito, and he was flabbergasted. “Well, fellas, that is very kind of you. I’ll tell you what, I’ll spring for supper tonight. In fact, let’s have a steak supper, my treat!” It wasn’t exactly a fair return on his end, but he seemed determined.
Later, long after the burritos, after we were finally beached out, we were getting hungry for supper. I suggested we head south four miles to Capitola Village, where my family vacationed frequently, and hit one of the fun restaurants on the Esplanade. Rich insisted again this would be his treat. Traffic was terrible getting down Highway 1 to Capitola, and even worse when we got off the highway and headed into the village. When we finally parked and made our way to Restaurant Row, it had been a good ninety minutes since we made the decision to leave Santa Cruz, only four miles behind us. We were pretty hungry, but the Esplanade was jam-packed on a summer Saturday night, and the only restaurant that would give us the time of day said it would be an hour and a half wait. Hell no, we were not down for that. Also, Rich said he wanted steak anyway, not Margaritaville. So I suggested, foolishly in retrospect, The Shadowbrook. After a half hour of searching for, finding, utilizing, then ultimately abandoning parking in Capitola Village, we left and headed up the hill.
The Shadowbrook is a very nice restaurant on Soquel Creek. The parking lot at that time was dirt, and on a slant, and Rich in his cowboy boots and old age was pretty shaky making his way with us across the street to the main entrance. To get to the restaurant proper you needed to walk down about three hundred stairs or take the funicular…yes, the restaurant’s funicular. But before we got that far we studied the posted menu. Although Rich had been talking for hours about how he was going to buy us dinner, when push came to shove, and the Shadowbrook’s menu revealed twenty to forty dollar entrees, Rich balked. “Oh, my goodness, fellas! That’s way too much to pay for a steak. Why, in Cheyenne you could get a steak at Sal’s for a dollar fifty!” OK, Rich, we understand, let’s get out of here. My stomach grumbled, but sometimes you need to suck it up.
We jumped on the freeway and kept our eyes peeled for somewhere else to eat, but after you’re done with Capitola and Santa Cruz, there’s not much until you hit San Jose. (This is pre-iPhone, remember. You couldn’t just Yelp “good, inexpensive restaurants near me.”) So that’s how we ended up at Coco’s in San Jose at 9:45 in the evening, so many hours past when I normally eat dinner I was about to go postal, regardless of who was paying for it. Coco’s is either a step up or a step down from Denny’s, depending on your perspective. Although we told Rich it was not necessary for him to pay the bill, he did anyway, and we thanked him. I got some kind of shitty, overdone hamburger, but it was fuel, and within an hour we were finished and heading back to Sacramento after a VERY long day, showing an old man the ocean for the first time, which, honestly, he hadn’t seemed to care too much about.
In the van on the way back, Randy, Mathieu and I got to singing (Angus, God bless him, did not fancy himself a singer): Tracy Chapman, The Smiths, The Cure, lots of great 80’s bands to choose from, being the era in which we youngsters came of age. Rich was incredibly impressed by our singing – too impressed. But we knew all the words to all the songs, and we were having a fine time. Rich piped up and said “You fellas should start a singing group. You’re really good, I tell ya, you’re really good! You could call yourselves the…the…the three…the three…” He racked his brain trying to think of what we all had in common. What brought us together. What made us tick. All he knew was that we met him because we worked nearby Espresso Metro, and he vaguely understood that we all had something to do with computers. “You could call yourselves…THE THREE COMPUTERS!”
I imagined Mathieu, Randy, and myself, circa 1962, gray suits, skinny ties, crew cuts, singing on American Bandstand as “The Three Computers.” If there was a lamer name for a singing group, I don’t know what it was. But it worked. Irish Rich Kelley and The Three Computers. That was us.
The only other out-of-town adventure we had with Wild Red Kelley was the time we took him camping. One day, sitting around Espresso Metro, smoking our cigarettes while Rich smoked his pipe, we asked him if he’d like to come camping with us some time. He said “Oh, sure, fellas. I’ve got a sleeping bag and all the camping gear. Why, I used to camp all over the west. One time I was in the Moab Desert sleeping out under the stars, and…” he went into a somewhat uninteresting tale – sleeping under the stars being the climax – but we loved his conversation anyway. We decided the camping trip was a go.
We planned to stay at Wench Creek, up Ice House Road in the Sierra Nevada range, and we figured it would be a hoot to bring Rich with us. Since he assured us he was an experienced outdoorsman with all the appropriate gear, we assumed he would be an easy and unobtrusive guest. Wrong!
Thankfully, when I went to pick Rich up the morning of the camping trip, I did not find him face down on the sidewalk. I somehow got through the front gate, past the security guard and up to his sixth floor apartment, knocked on his door, and found that he had absolutely zero in the way of camping gear. The sleeping bag he once had was in tatters, just a pile of Holofill fiber and shredded fabric, completely unusable. His tent was nowhere to be found, but he assured us he preferred sleeping under the stars anyway, as he had in the Moab Desert and other places in his murky past. I had planned somewhat for this, and told him he could borrow one of my sleeping bags, and that I had a tent for him as well. I didn’t let this little fantasy of his – the hallucination that he was fully equipped with operable camping gear – hold up our trip.
After we arrived at Wench Creek and set up camp we decided to go fishing. It was a bit of a hike to get down to the river, but Rich made it admirably. He set up his camp chair, his tackle box, and his two fishing poles as he cast a couple lines and settled in. Randy, Mathieu, Angus and I, and our children (My oldest, Vincent, at five, was the senior child of several little ones on the trip) brought our poles and started wandering down the river looking for good spots to cast. Eventually the kids started complaining about mosquito bites, and as the sun dropped I thought it best to get my little guy back to the campsite.
The sun was down, dusky light filled the campground, and Vincent and I were prepping dinner and getting into nighttime clothes when Randy, Mathieu, and their mosquito-devoured children, along with Angus, all wandered wearily back into camp. I looked around and said, Where’s Rich?
Time stopped. Everyone looked around, did a mental count of his own loved ones, and realized the seventy-something year old man was unaccounted for. Where’s Rich? I started yelling at these fuckers. Where’s Rich? WHERE’S RICH? I left an hour ago…who was looking after Rich?
Angus broke into a run, and covered several miles as dusk turned to twilight turned to night. Randy and Mathieu ran back down to the creek where we last saw Rich fishing with his two poles. I stayed at the campsite with all the kids, to hold down the fort and meet Rich if he found his way back to us. These words could possibly have been screamed: YOU go look for him! YOU left him down there as YOU moved farther and farther away from him down the creek in search of better fishing spots, while YOUR kids were getting eaten alive by mosquitos! I’m not going to say who screamed this, but it could have been me.
By now the sky had barely enough light to see by without a flashlight, and I was certain I’d be driving to the ranger station in about five minutes, to tell them we’d lost an elderly gentleman, and could they please send helicopters, and a search and rescue crew, and a SWAT team, and the National Guard to help us find Irish Rich Kelley. I was frantic. I was so angry at my friends I could hardly see straight. I was scared shitless. I had left an old man to wander, lose himself, and die in the woods, because my buddies and I were too self-absorbed to appoint someone, anyone, to stay with him and take care of him.
Randy came back. “Nothing, no sign.” Mathieu came back. “Nada.” Finally, in the pitch black, after an eternity, Angus (not one of the Three Computers, remember) marched back into the campsite with Wild Red Kelley hobbling behind him, wheezing and limping. “Oh, fellas, I’m about as dumb as a box of rocks. I was done fishing about sunset, and I could’ve sworn the campsite was just yonder through that grove of trees.” (It wasn’t, it was the exact opposite direction.) Angus, God bless him again, had found Rich. He was the only childless one of us. He ran top speed through hill and dale, covering miles of landscape in the surrounding foothills and mountains, shouting Rich’s name, until he found the old man, just as the last light of day winked out. Angus found Rich huffing and puffing, struggling with his camp chair, two fishing rods, and tackle box, staggering in the entirely wrong direction, a mile from our campsite.
Rich, thank God you’re OK! Come sit down, have some food, drink some water. He did, and although he wheezed and suffered for the next couple hours, he was safe, and whole, and found. I had never been, and have still never been, all these years later, so scared – so absolutely terrified. It was the stuff of nightmares, but this was real life, and thankfully the nightmare had a happy ending. Not everyone in this world is so lucky.
I had brought an extra tent, but Rich insisted on sleeping under the stars, as he had in the Moab Desert and other times during his life as a Westerner. In the morning when we asked how he had slept, Rich admitted “Well, I guess OK, but it was pretty durn cold, fellas.” No shit, Sherlock, you’re up in the mountains. This trip was seriously starting to feel like a bad idea. It’s hard enough to bring little kids camping, as I’d done since Vincent was a baby, but throw in a half-demented, crotchety old man who thinks he’s thirty again? The next night I set up my spare tent for him and he didn’t fight me on it. He admitted he was warmer and slept a little better. He was achy and slow-moving the entire weekend, but he never got lost again, and we made it home safely on Sunday. But never again, I said to myself, never again.
The Christmas Card
Slowly, sparingly, we began to bring Rich into our lives with our families, but it was always a little awkward. I thought Rich might like to come watch my oldest son’s baseball game. Vincent was eight years old by this time, and played in a picturesque ballpark in Sacramento called Ciavarella Field. It had green, shaded, wooden bleachers for spectators, a snack shack with snow cones and hot dogs, and cute little kids in white pants running around the diamond emulating Albert Pujols, Randy Johnson, and Derek Jeter. I asked Rich if he wanted to come to a game, he agreed, and I thought it would be a memorable day full of apple pie and Americana. But Rich looked bored, and he was uncomfortable on the bleachers. After fifteen minutes he asked if he could just wait in my car.
He went over to Mathieu’s house for a couple of Thanksgivings and Christmases. These were mostly uneventful events, Rich not having much in the way of commonality with other adults. He did get along swimmingly, however, with a woman with Down Syndrome cared for by Mathieu’s wife at the time. Rich and Sharon became fast friends, talking and laughing together all night, being maybe not too far apart in the intellectual ability department.
We gave Rich a birthday card once, an inappropriate card full of ribald comments. We were horrified to discover that he stuck it to his refrigerator with a magnet for all the world to see. But before long we realized, sadly, that no one else was ever going to see the inside of his apartment besides us. Not Mindy, not the baristas as Espresso Metro, not Jesse James, just us.
The jokes on our card stemmed from a “dream” Rich made the great mistake of telling us about. “Fellas, I probably shouldn’t mention it, but I had the strangest dream yesterday. Well, it wasn’t so much a dream, but did you ever drift off in the middle of the day, where you’re not really asleep, but you’re not really awake either?” Sure, Rich, like a daydream. “No, not a daydream! Oh shoot, I don’t know what you call it. Anyway, I dreamed that the three of you fellas were trying to, well, have your way with me, if you know what I mean. Everyone except Mathieu, that is.” Rich, what are you talking about? “Ol’ Mathieu here, well, he couldn’t get it up!” We laughed ourselves silly. We applauded him for coming out to us. “Oh, come on fellas, quit teasing me. I’m not one of those…” he made a fruity gesture with a limp wrist and his head thrown back. But Rich, why do you think we would do that to you? Do you feel like we’re trying to take advantage of you in real life? “No, of course not.” Well, then why are you fantasizing about us having sex with you? It’s OK to be gay, Rich. If you were half awake, that’s not a dream, that’s what they call a fantasy. “Oh, shucks, I knew I shouldn’t have told you about my dream.” We didn’t let Rich forget about that, and we reminded him when we got him that birthday card.
But on his refrigerator was another card, a Christmas card, and we also found the strange envelope it had arrived in. The envelope had been sent about five years previously, addressed tosomeone named Emile Loumibos in Sacramento, and the return address was Richard E. Kelley at his E Street apartment. So Rich had sent Ms. Loumibos a Christmas card, apparently. Very nice, but why would he be in possession of the envelope that he himself had mailed? Then we noticed that someone, presumably Ms. Loumibos, had crossed out her own address on the envelope and written Rich’s full name and address again in the tosection. No new stamp, no return to sender note. But it got weirder. The card was a standard, cheapy, Rite-Aid card that must have been forty for a dollar. The inside of the card was printed, blandly, with “Sending you wishes for a wonderful Holiday Season & a very Happy New Year!” It was signed, simply, Richard. Lovely, you might say, and you might think Ms. Loumibos would say so too. But here’s what she did instead.
She wrote at the bottom of his card, the card hehad sent to her: “I went to heaven. I had the last Rites on Thanksgiving Day at 10:20 A.M. I missed dinner. I died on that time. Hope I see you there.”
I missed dinner.
I MISSED DINNER!!!
This apparently is the chief concern of the afterlife. She kicked the bucket at 10:20 in the morning, too early to even have some deviled eggs and baby pickles, not to mention turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. She died before that and missed dinner. Oh the humanity!
This spirit then placed the card back in the same envelope, crossed out her own name and wrote Rich’s in, and used her powers from beyond to get the post office to send the card back to Rich at the E Street apartment without even a new stamp. And Rich dutifully hung it on his fridge without comment.
What the fuck?
Eventually Rich started telling us about his health troubles. He had prostate cancer at some point, but for now it was in check. He had come down with shingles recently, recovered, and over the years before and during the time we knew him, numerous other issues and maladies too. He didn’t complain, and he was never down, but we soon began to realize he needed to be taking better care of himself in terms of seeing the doctor and managing medication. We knew his diet and exercise habits weren’t going to change.
One concerning issue was our utter inability to contact him. It was always a challenge getting into his apartment. The high rise on E Street between 13th and 14th was nothing to look at architecturally, and most folks just walk on by, sensing maybe that hundreds of destitute souls lived inside the county-built and county-run complex, all with stories too sad to consider. (They performed a major remodel on the building a few years ago. It looks much better now.) You had to be elderly or disabled to live there, and the entire place just smelled plain bad. Sometimes there was a security guard, but when county funds ran low the security guard would vanish for weeks at a time. There was no way of contacting Rich from the front gate buzzer, so we would wait until someone else was coming in or out and then slide on in behind them. Eventually, with Rich’s permission, we got his key copied by a locksmith who didn’t seem to mind the “Do Not Duplicate” stamp, and that helped to relieve the stress of feeling like a criminal just to help an old man out. Once we had the key we were golden. We’d strut right in, check Rich’s mail, say hi to the guard and head on up to the sixth floor. But before the key it was rough.
These years were also tough on our families. We all had young marriages and kids. Money was tight for all of us, and time was precious. While our wives were home taking care of small children, babies even, we were taking care of an old man who was essentially a stranger. Many of our responsibilities for Richard happened during the work day, so our bosses had to forgive us as much as our wives. It was not an ideal situation. Is it ever? Although we loved Rich and considered him a good friend, we felt somewhat trapped; we couldn’t abandon him now. Maybe the mistake was inviting him over to our table at Espresso Metro that first time, all those years ago. But it didn’t feel like a mistake then, and it doesn’t now, years later. Not by a longshot.
One day, before we had the key to his apartment’s front gate, Rich was absent from Espresso Metro for a couple days. We went to the Capitol Park Cafe to talk to Mindy, but she hadn’t seen him either. Mathieu decided we needed to go to his apartment and check on him. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t want to do it. I don’t who I thought would help Rich if he needed it, but Mathieu is the type of person who rises to the occasion when something difficult has to be done. Mathieu called us that night to say he had found Rich in very bad shape, having extreme difficulty breathing, and that he had called an ambulance for the old man.
The details of the medical part of Rich’s story, which was the key feature of the last couple years that we – or anyone – knew him, are fuzzy to me now, almost fifteen years later. We realized then that we were living in a fantasy world where this old man, with no family, a faltering memory, and a slavish daily routine would be able to navigate his own personal health management. So I, having some small measure of organizational skills, started managing his drugs, his health insurance, his doctor’s appointments, and his treatment plans. This was one of the most difficult projects I’ve undertaken in my life, and anyone who’s taken care of a sick or elderly person can relate. We lost my mom to cancer in her fifties, and it was hard, but she went quickly. My dad didn’t go quickly, but he was in his seventies, and he had a much younger wife who did a remarkable job taking care of him. But I’ve never had to take care of a sick person like we had to take care of Rich.
He had several medications: some twice daily, some once daily, in different denominations. Since we didn’t live with Rich, we had no way of making sure he was taking his meds. We bought him a weekly pill case and staged all his meds for him, but he couldn’t keep track of what day it was, and he’d either take several days at once or skip many days altogether. So we bought him a calendar and stuck it to his fridge with magnets, and told him every night when he went to bed, to please cross off a day, but he couldn’t remember to do that. We tried to get him a landline telephone, but Pacific Bell wouldn’t give him one because he had no credit, no financial history of any kind. I fought with them for a long time, and eventually they gave him a phone line, but Rich unplugged the phone when he got a telemarketing call one day. “Fellas, that thing rang so loud it nearly knocked me down [we had set the ring volume on the lowest setting], and some strange person was asking me about solar panels so I unplugged the durn thing and put it in the closet.” Maddeningly, I had fought with the phone company for weeks, only for Rich to get one call and then put the phone in his closet. We knew one of those cell phones for the elderly was absolutely out of the question. It would be like trying to teach Esperanto to your cat.
Rich had an incredible health plan: MediCal, courtesy of the state of California. He never paid so much as a nickel for a co-pay, not even for prescriptions or ER visits. I picked up his medications every couple weeks, and we tried our best to make sure he took them, but we knew it was mostly a losing battle. We set him up with a local senior services program, where a nurse would come to his house every single day to check in on him, give him a sandwich, and make sure he took his medication. But the first day the nurse came he threatened her with a stun gun, and that was the end of that. There was another service that would pick him up in a van every day and take him to a senior center to do arts and crafts and by-the-way give him his medicine. Rich grudgingly agreed to visit the facility with us, and he didn’t have much to say about it after the tour, but the first day they came to pick him up he did not meet them at the curb, and they had no way of contacting him inside his apartment. He was dropped from the program before he ever went a single time.
Rich’s monthly bills were about four hundred dollars, and he received about seven hundred dollars in monthly benefits. The extra three hundred remained in his bank account each month. It didn’t take long for this to pile up, so he got in trouble with the government for having too much money in the bank, and he was threatened with losing his benefits altogether. We made an appointment with the proper authorities, accompanied Rich to his interview, and we assured the caseworker the problem would be solved that very day. His bank would no longer show an excess of the maximum allowable two thousand dollars.
I suppose we should have told the case worker he didn’t need seven hundred dollars a month, that he only needed four hundred. But it doesn’t work that way. Although seven hundred dollars was the minimum they’d even pay for someone like Rich, you are simply not allowed to save money. You get in trouble, and are threatened with being cut off completely. Even if they would have agreed to give him four hundred dollars each month, who knew what Rich would need in the future? We Three Computers were all gainfully employed, but also with young families and we weren’t rolling in dough. We wanted to make sure Rich had his own meager nest egg if it might be needed someday.
So I became a frequent user of Rich’s ATM card, and we socked his spare cash away in an envelope. We’d eventually use it for things like paying certain bills of Rich’s, buying him clothes, nutrition drinks, bedding, taxi rides, and the few medical necessities his health plan didn’t cover. Sometimes when we’d take him to the doctor, we took ourselves to Blimpie’s Sandwiches on his dime while we waited for his appointment. Nothing makes you feel more like an elder abuser than taking money out of an old man’s ATM and sticking it in an envelope. Having the cash around made Rich nervous. He didn’t understand why it was there. So eventually we kept it for him, which then made me nervous. If the cops followed me from his ATM to an envelope stuffed with money, how on earth could I prove we weren’t ripping Rich off? Rich had given me power of attorney, but still.
I know it sounds like horrible false modesty, but one of the most difficult things for me was the praise some people would give us about how “wonderful” we were for taking care of this old man, and what “good people” we were for taking him to his appointments and whatnot. One old woman in the waiting room at his doctor’s office called us “angels.” A man in his apartment complex told us Rich was lucky, and asked if we’d take care of him too. These compliments stung; I couldn’t accept them. It’s hard to explain why, but here’s the best I can do:
Rich was a friend, that’s what he was. He was a good friend. Rich wasn’t lucky to have us, we were lucky to have each other. He wasn’t especially kind, or wise, or clever, but he was our friend. We enjoyed his company, and he enjoyed ours. We spent hundreds, maybe thousands of hours together. We sacrificed our work and our families to take care of him, but it was because we loved him, and that’s what you do for people you love. I can’t claim to be a good person, or kind, or generous, or loving, but we took care of our friend because it needed doing, and no one else would have done it. And yes, I literally step over destitute souls downtown every single day who could use my help, but they are not my friends. Rich was.
It only got worse. Rich eventually had triple bypass heart surgery. They sent him home from Sutter Memorial Hospital in a taxi two days later to his apartment with no family and no one to care for him. This is when we started visiting him at his apartment once or twice a day. He would just lie in bed, doing nothing, too wiped out and fatigued from one of the most invasive medical procedures you can have. He couldn’t eat, he could barely get to the toilet, and we figured he would be dead in three days if we weren’t around. He was eighty years old at this point. We came by all the time to pour Ensure down his throat, to do his laundry, to get him to drink a glass of water, to use the can. He hated the attention. He hated feeling helpless. He would start to cry, he felt so miserable and weak. We told him it was OK. We told him we were here for him. He would cry harder, “Fellas, I don’t know what I ever did to deserve friends like you.” We’d tell him Rich, you didn’t do anything to deserve us, and we’re very far from perfect, but you have us, and we care about you.
But it became too much. Despite our daily care, his health deteriorated. He went back to the ER, stayed several days in the hospital, and eventually moved into a skilled nursing facility. That place was the fucking worst. The staff was fine, but it was by nature an ugly place. The oldest, the sickest, the loneliest people – that’s where they ended up. We visited him there every day, and I’m ashamed to say as soon as I got there to visit I couldn’t wait to leave again.
He made it out of that facility, miraculously, and back to his E Street apartment for a while. He shuffled down to Capitol Park Cafe and Espresso Metro once in a while, but not often. Things were not getting any better and we knew it. What part of it was cancer, what part was the heart surgery, and what part was being eighty years of a life not taking care of oneself, I don’t know. But eventually Rich took his last trip, to an even more intense old folks facility in the south area. This place I only visited a couple times. It was so sad, and Rich was by now out of it most of the time. One of the only times when I was there, they had to weigh Rich. Why they had to weigh him was beyond me, and if I had more balls, or if I knew then what I know now about patients’ rights I would have told them to fuck off. He was about 120 pounds at this point, but who gave a shit? He was obviously on his way out. But they clumsily fitted him into a man-sized sling, hoisted him into the air, accidentally bonked him on the head with a piece of this torturous apparatus, took his measurements and changed his sheets while they were at it, and then lowered him back down. Rich looked like a confused zoo animal, completely out of his element and having no clue why he was suspended in midair and getting conked on the head at eighty years of age. I comforted him as best I could, tried to joke about it, but it didn’t seem to help.
A couple days after that, Mathieu called at about six in the morning. When the phone rang I knew what the news would be, and I answered with trepidation. Mathieu told me Rich had died that morning. I breathed a big sigh, stunned, heartbroken, and relieved all at once. Mathieu said he was on his way down to the facility, and did I want to meet him there. No, I said, I didn’t. I’m not one for dead bodies. My stepmom asked me last year what I wanted to do when my dad finally died, as we knew was imminent. No, I said then, too. I don’t need to see the body. I saw him a lot in life. I saw him a lot when he was near death (both my dad and Rich, and my stepdad – also a Richard, hence my oldest son’s middle name – and my mom.) I saw them all in their last days. I don’t want to see an empty, lifeless shell who someone I loved used to be. Maybe I’m a coward, I don’t know. I just makes me sad and sick, and I know the person is not there, and the act is mainly for me. And if it’s really for me, then fuck it, I don’t want to do it.
We went to Rich’s apartment and took what we wanted. We took his little color TV, his only working tape recorder, his Denver Broncos Back-to-Back Super Bowl Champs cap. We took his pipe, his Zippo lighter, his wallet, and his ubiquitous sunglasses. That was it. There was nothing else in that apartment we needed. We used his money that we had socked away for an obituary and a cremation. At the crematorium, Mathieu earnestly asked the proprietor of this one-man show if the work was hard sometimes. I knew what Mathieu meant: is it hard to literally turn a human body, who had roamed the lengths and breadths of the land, experiencing all the loves and losses of human life, the full existential experience, to cinder and ash? “Sometimes,” the man replied, without a hint of humor or empathy, “When they’re really big. Like reallybig fat people. That’s hard.”
The hardworking gentleman asked where we were going to dispose of Rich’s ashes, for the official paperwork. Rich had told us that when he went, burn him up and dump his ashes off the I Street Bridge downtown. We told him sure. Sure thing Rich. This was long before his death was imminent. But we knew it was a big no-no, dumping human remains from a public roadway into the urban river that divided Sacramento and Yolo counties.
Santa Cruz, we replied. We’re going to take him out on a boat [none of us had a boat] and scatter him into the Pacific Ocean, several miles off shore. “OK,” said the sensitive crematorium proprietor, “Sounds good,” as he completed the paperwork.
Although we had the money, Rich’s money, for a nice little urn for the cremains, we figured we’d be scattering the ashes somewhere in the next few days, so the standard plastic, rectangular receptacle that came with the ashes was fine with us. There was a plastic pouch with Rich’s paperwork affixed to it. We figured we’d have some kind of little ceremony with Mindy, her daughter – the new mommy – who also worked at the cafe, maybe Joel and Angus, Jesse James, and a couple of the baristas at Espresso Metro. But it never happened. We just plain never fucking got around to it. Memorial services are for the living, not the dead, and we – the living – had had our fill of Rich Kelley. It sounds crass, I know. We loved him, we took care of him, we drove him to his doctor’s appointments and snuck into his apartment to feed him. We knew he was gone. We had our closure. Everyone else in his life, those few people who no doubt had fond feelings for him, well, they weren’t around when he needed them. And I don’t blame them. They were clerks and service workers. They very much liked some of their customers, and we appreciated that, and Rich loved them too. But in the shellshocked weeks following his death, as we dealt with his belongings, and the government benefits people, and the county who rented him his apartment, and the phone company, we had all the goddamn closure we needed. The waitresses and baristas could plan a memorial service if they wanted (they didn’t) but we had said goodbye to Rich. For fuck sake, I had his hat, pipe, and sunglasses propped up on a shelf at my house. Squint your eyes and you could see him right there, complaining about Happy the Child Molester or the City Guides in their yellow jackets who thought they were such hot shit, or waxing about the greatness of Harold Robbins, or Up The Creek, or Michael Jordan.
So no memorial service, and Rich’s ashes are in Mathieu’s closet to this day in that shitty plastic receptacle, although Mathieu has moved several times since then. After all the expenses were paid there was about $1,500 left over. We split it three ways, and I bought an iPod and a pair of Doc Martens. I don’t know what Randy and Mathieu did with their shares of the “inheritance.” I wrote Rich’s obituary, and after it was published in the Sacramento Bee a reporter called and left me a message. He was sorry for our loss, and Mr. Kelley sounded like an interesting character. He thought Rich’s story would make a good short feature for the paper’s Metro section. It took me a day or two to get back to the reporter, and I left him a voice mail of my own, but that was the end of it. Time had passed and I never heard back from him. Maybe that was for the best. There were only a handful of people in the world who cared about Rich Kelley, so to craft a folksy tale for strangers about a ramblin’ man seemed self-serving. Like what you’re reading right now. And who knew how much of Rich’s story was even true?
As a child of divorce and of stepparents, I had a number of grandfathers and grandfatherly figures over the course of my life, but they were all long gone even back in 2004 when we lost Rich. They were good men, but with none did I have any kind of special bond. I think I would have especially loved my mom’s father, Howard Taylor, who died when I was a toddler, whom I don’t remember at all, and about whom the only thing I really know is he much preferred strumming his guitar and writing memoirs of his wayward youth than working for a living. I get it.
But Rich was different. He wasn’t quite a grandfather, although that’s how I referred to him in a pinch to make it easy for people to understand the relationship. He was an old man who was also a friend. We hung out with Rich. Rich cared about us and we cared about him. We shot the breeze with Rich, just passed the day, drank coffee, smoked, and watched the world go by from the outdoor tables at 11th and K Streets in downtown Sacramento.
Several years into our friendship he told us that he had spent many years in jail. Decades, in fact. Oh, wow, we said, well that sucks. He was accused of something when he was very young, something he said he didn’t do. Once he was in the can, fighting and being generally incorrigible led to more and more jail time. This threw us, but not much more was said about it.
Rich had a past, being born in 1924, and we had a future. If we live to his age we’ll die around the late 2040’s. His past and our future will never meet, but there was an acknowledgement, a brief, few-year period in the 1990’s and 2000’s where our lives intersected. We were there for him. Maybe someone will be there for me someday, maybe not. I hope so; I have a family, and children whom I cherish. But regardless, it’s OK. Rich’s life had meaning. And my life will have had meaning. Taking care of Rich wasn’t our attempt to do something good; he was simply a friend. He wasn’t wise, or clever, but he was a friend, and we were lucky to have each other. We honored that to the end as best we could. That’s the right thing to do, isn’t it? Not for him, necessarily. I mean, for him too, of course. But for us. Love doesn’t come around for you every day. When it does, it’s worth doing something about.