“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. It 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.
There was something about being a kid and riding double on a bike. I can still feel the other kid between my legs as I grip with my thighs and try to decide where to put my hands. Shoulders? Behind me under the seat? Certainly never around the belly.
Likewise, I will never forget the feeling of having a kid behind me. Knowing he is trying to decide where to put his hands (seldom her hands, sadly). Hoping he is paying attention.
Two kids, you had to move as one. Whether you were the rider or the passenger, you couldn’t do your own thing. You couldn’t get too distracted or you would both go down. No one teaches you how to be a passenger on a bicycle, like they teach you to ride it. But you learn anyway, on your own.
As we got older and still rode double, the passenger moved to the handlebars. Less body contact, important to teenage boys, although it was harder to steer or see. Smoking Marlboros, riding buzzed.
Riding double, it stops eventually. I did it with my kids later, but it was different. I was in charge. Back then it was adventure, trust, teamwork, and danger, all in one trip to 7-Eleven.
I’m not convinced a dishwasher saves people much, if any, time. The household dishwasher’s chief function seems to be temporary dirty dish storage more than anything (which I have to admit is not nothing). But leaving dirty dish storage aside, and also disregarding potential water and energy savings – which can go either way depending on efficiency of certain dishwasher models and water costs – I’d like to run an experiment comparing the total time spent doing dishes from an average meal for a family of four: dishwasher vs. hand-washing. This experiment will not be done in the course of this blog post – we’ll need to wait for Part II – but I speculate three major factors would affect the outcome:
Meticulousness of pre-dishwasher rinsing
Post-hand-washing routine: Drying and putting away vs. leaving in rack to air dry
Pots and pans: hand-wash or dishwasher?
Meticulousness of pre-dishwasher rinsing
Dishwashers become less time-saving the more rigorously one rinses the dishes beforehand. My father was a judicious dish rinser; his dishes were spotless when he placed them in the dishwasher. My mom, on the other hand, would put half-eaten plates of food straight into the appliance. “It all ends up in the garbage disposal, you don’t even need to rinse them!” she would proudly proclaim. I don’t know how they handled all this when they were married, since they split when I was about six. My guess is they did it Mom’s way, since she likely both cooked the meals and did the dishes (or had my older sisters do them). I only got to know Mom’s and Dad’s dishwashing habits later, and separately.
If you rinse dishes to spotlessness before placing them in the dishwasher, I find it hard to believe the dishwasher is saving you any time at all. The only part you are skipping is the soap, which isn’t too time consuming. Scrubbing every dish before dishwasher placement is a maddening prospect, and it’s why Dad would never let anyone help with dishes when he’d have us over for dinner. Fine with us, but it seems pure lunacy to handle every single dish, spend several seconds rinsing every last speck of food off it, then bending down to place it in the dishwasher. The thing is 96% clean at this point; you can almost just put it away!
(This seems like a good time for an aside on dishwasher placement. Dishwashers in the home are generally at ground level, which is entirely the wrong place for them. If you don’t use a dishwasher, the dish’s journey – from cupboard to table to sink to counter and back to cupboard – takes place entirely at easy-to-reach levels. But with a dishwasher, the materials must be moved almost to FLOOR LEVEL before being eventually returned to the cupboard at head level. This is a lot of wear and tear on the back, and a totally unnecessary step.)
If you barely rinse dishes at all before putting them in the dishwasher, you do help make the case for using the appliance. Also, the mechanical dishwasher is a bit of an equalizer: if every family member puts his or her own dishes in, there is less work for one person to do. It’s a bit weird for each diner to hand-wash his or her own dishes; in fact, it’s a practice I’ve never really heard of – and I’ve heard about a lot of weird shit.
But let’s split the difference and presume the average family using a dishwasher rinses the plates, glasses and flatware a modest amount: enough to get most solids off, but we’ll leave them plenty dirty for the dishwasher.
The next factor we need to consider is:
Post-hand-washing routine: Drying and putting away vs. leaving in rack to air dry.
This is huge, and the factor that can assuredly give dishwashing the clear edge versus hand-washing. The reason is clear: If you use a dishwasher, you don’t ever really manually dry the dishes. By the time you put them away several hours later – or most likely the next day – the dishes are bone dry. You’re still bending down to floor level to put the dishes in the dishwasher, and returning to floor level the next day to retrieve them, but cutting out the towel-drying process is huge.
I’ve done years of hand-washing, and I’ve never towel-dried dishes (except maybe pots and pans, simply to get them out of the way). The old adage “you wash, I’ll dry” is a bit ridiculous. Being the dryer is like playing Scrabble with a child: After your turn, go grab a book, because you’re going to have some time to kill until you’re next called upon to do something.
My first regular dishwashing responsibility was when I was eight years old and living in Los Angeles with my mother and new stepfather and stepbrother. My initial task in this new union was simply to keep my stepbrother Mark company while he hand-washed and rinsed the dishes, leaving them to drip dry in a rack. He was fourteen and I was eight, and I was unaccustomed to doing chores of any kind. But before long, Mark would wash while I rinsed and put dishes in the drying rack. And not long after that we began alternating the washer and rinser job. This is a more equitable distribution of labor than a washer/rinser and a drier, as each task – washing and rinsing – takes more or less the same amount of time. But making one person wash and rinse, while the other dries and puts away? The first person gets the shit end of that stick.
(Another aside: The purpose of drying dishes and putting them away immediately is mainly to avoid leaving dishes in limbo. It is the efficient person’s dream to simply use a thing and put it away forthwith. There is no pile of dishes in a drying rack to stare at until the next morning, and no dishwasher full of dirty dishes. It’s not a bad way to handle dishes if a) there is no mechanical dishwasher, b) there isn’t much counter space to leave dishes out to dry, and c) there are always two people around to do the job.)
The final factor to consider in the dishwasher vs. hand-washing discussion is
Pots and pans: hand-wash or dishwasher?
This is another thing I’ve done both ways. I should add that I don’t much know what should or shouldn’t be put in the dishwasher. I tend to want to put everything in unless Amy tells me not to, or unless I see on the bottom of the item that it’s “Not Dishwasher Safe.” These things: the special knives, the small Teflon pans, and the fancy commuter mugs are a pain in my ass.
If you live alone or with just one other person, you can probably throw the pots and pans in the dishwasher, but keep in mind these tend to be the dirtiest items, with the most baked in (by definition) dirty food material. If I lived alone and I ran the dishwasher every night like clockwork, I might be tempted to put the pots and pans in. But mix in another, and another, and another diner in your household, and Pal, you need to give up on the idea of throwing the skillet and the saucepan in with the plates and bowls. There just isn’t going to be room. And if you don’t run the machine immediately, that stuff is going to get caked on. There is no worse feeling than going through the trouble of running the dishwasher, then at the end having to hand-wash a bunch of it anyway. It’s a chore that really makes you question the choices you’ve made in your life.
But we all seem to drink the dishwashing Kool-Aid. They tell us this machine saves us time and energy and we believe them, but I’m not sure it’s true. I once had a rental house that didn’t have a dishwasher. The owner provided me with a portable dishwasher. A portable fucking dishwasher that you had to store in some other part of the kitchen, roll over to the sink when you were ready to use it, attach one hose to the sink’s faucet and another outlet to the drain, then go through the usual hassle of the pre-rinse and bending down to floor level, then put the clean dishes away later, then finally disconnect and store the stupid beast until the next time. I used it a half dozen times before I realized it was the world’s biggest hassle, and I never used it again. (But not before it broke early on and my cousin and I spent no small amount of time repairing it. Idiots!)
Dad once told me he had a colleague, a respected attorney, who lived alone and simply kept all his dishes in the dishwasher full-time. He would take out and use what he needed each night, replace it when dirty, then run the dishwasher every night regardless. He washed mostly clean dishes every single night! This is a particular form of laziness. Gentlemen, you are never going to find a woman if you live this way. This is a stone’s throw from the guys who pee in jars because they’re too lazy to walk to the bathroom. (Ladies, it happens more often than you think. But here at Police Horse, this is not a practice we’ve ever undertaken, except in dire emergencies, like in the back of our minivan due to a lot of coffee and locked restrooms at our nephew’s Little League game.)
So, in summary, if you have not too many people to worry about, and you have ample counter space for a drying rack (placing dishes on which can be its own Byzantine game of Jenga and Pick-Up Sticks), and if you would normally give a dish a decent pre-rinse, I say forego the mechanical dishwasher altogether. Put on a podcast, NPR, or some good hip hop from the 80’s or 90’s, Zen out and wash those dishes by hand!
I moved to Sacramento from Los Angeles when I was twenty, in 1989, leaving behind a girlfriend and great friends. My plan was to live rent-free with my dad and go to community college until I qualified for a four-year university. I was realistic enough to know those goals weren’t going to happen on my own in L.A. I needed a fresh start.
The first few months after the move were a lonely time. I eventually made some acquaintances at Sacramento City College, but when you don’t drink – like I didn’t at the time – the social stuff comes a bit harder. One weekend, several weeks into the semester, I was invited to a get-together by some classmates. I badly wanted to go, but my old friend Barry – who lived in Lake Tahoe at the time – had invited me up the mountain to hang out on the same weekend. Barry had some adventures planned for us, including attending a Tahoe A.A. meeting at which he was a regular. (I had been sober about three years at this time.) I hadn’t been to a meeting in several weeks, as I hadn’t yet found the courage to walk into one of the dozens of Sacramento meetings by myself.
Strange as it sounds, I was correct in sensing this could be a crossroads in my life: The get-together versus Tahoe. On one hand, the get-together could be a step toward more meaningful friendships, perhaps a date, and a real life in Northern California. On the other hand, Barry was a close friend, and I really needed an A.A. meeting – even one as far away as Lake Tahoe. It was a tough call.
I chose Tahoe.
A.A. meetings can be as cliquish as any other gathering of humans, so it was comforting to walk into a meeting with Barry and a mutual friend Nick, as they introduced me to other folks. I was called on to share at the meeting, and I spoke honestly about my ridiculous shyness in avoiding Sacramento meetings because I didn’t have any sober friends in town with whom to attend. After the meeting a guy introduced himself; I don’t remember his name, but he changed my life forever. He told me “Oh, man, Sacramento has great meetings! Here’s the phone number of my friend Stephanie, she’s plugged in down there.” I secured the scrap of paper, tucking it into my pocket like Jimmy Olson with a lead on a corrupt union boss.
Back in Sacramento the next week I screwed up my courage and called Stephanie, who was very kind, and recommended a meeting called Primary Purpose Group that met Thursdays at the Sierra 2 Center. It was at PPG that I met friends who became life-long. Stephanie was not necessarily one of those people, nor was the man in Tahoe, but they gave me the push I needed at that time in my life. I ended up having incredible adventures over the years, even decades, with some of these folks. PPG led me to the relationship that gave me my first child, and then in a roundabout way to my nineteen-years-and-counting marriage to Amy that of course led to my second and third children. My three kids literally owe their existence to my decision to go to Tahoe that weekend, and to the unknown man who gave me Stephanie’s phone number. (Barry, who invited me to Tahoe, tragically died of sudden cardiac arrest in his late twenties, a newlywed to a wonderful wife who wrote a memoir about the experience.)
When you don’t drink, you have to be a bit more creative about what you’re going to do for fun. I heard about a movie theater downtown called The Crest, and they were scheduled to show Taxi Driver at a midnight show Friday night. This sounded amazing to me! I loved the movie Taxi Driver, although at that time I had only seen it once or twice. I got a group of my new friends to come along, and having never been to The Crest before, I walked inside and was floored.
Built in 1912 as The Empress, later rehabbed and rechristened The Crest, the theater was like nothing I had ever seen. I had never been to L.A.’s old theaters, so this was a brand new experience for me. From the vintage ticket booth; to the foyer advertising upcoming concerts and classic films; to the ornate, carpeted lobby with its welcoming admonition: “WHEN YOU PASS THRU THIS PORTAL YOU LEAVE ALL CARES BEHIND;” to the sunken bar; and finally to the incredible 975-seat theater with its wide proscenium; gilded flourishes; huge, fringed curtain and massive sconces; the theater was truly awe-inspiring. To top it off I was about to see a classic Martin Scorcese/Robert DeNiro film, and I was surrounded by great new friends, guys and girls alike. I sat back and took it all in, feeling on top of the world, but in a humble, grateful way. I thought about my loneliness of the previous several months, and about all the good friends I left behind in L.A. Finally, I thought, Sacramento felt like home.
We saw several midnight movies at The Crest over the years, notably David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (this didn’t go over great; I was a bigger Bowiehead than any of my new friends, and it’s essentially just a concert film). I’ve seen several concerts at The Crest over the years as well: Concrete Blonde, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and They Might Be Giants among others. I’ve seen Ira Glass lecture there, as well as Terry Gross, Frank McCourt, and John Irving. In 1992 I got a part-time job working at The Crest for the Mellow Madness Animation Festival. Though not actually employed by The Crest, I worked there weekend nights for a couple of months. My job was to sell tickets in that vintage booth, hawk merchandise, occasionally announce shows from the stage to packed houses, and run the end-of-tour raffle. (John McCrae of CAKE won, and he claimed he knewhe would win!) I learned not to stack merch boxes on top of the trap door in the storage closet, because for the guy who lived in Sacramento’s underground tunnels, this was his only access to the outside world, and I had inadvertently imprisoned him down there one night. I wish I could remember his name. Thick glasses, dark hair… anyone?
My best memory working at The Crest for the Animation Festival was after each show ended. I would put the merch away, organize things for the next show, and then I had some time to kill while a manager squared the cash with the tickets. I got friendly with the theater’s projectionist, and he agreed to play a CD of mine over the state-of-the-art sound system, while I hung out in Row N of the balcony, audience right, smoking cigarettes.
What is the correct album for listening to by yourself in a 975-seat, hundred-year-old, painstakingly restored theater at two a.m. on a Saturday night? I really want you to think about this. What is that album? Which band’s disc, from start to finish, would be the ideal soundtrack for this exquisite scene? Are you done thinking? There is no right answer, of course. For as many people as there are in the world, there may be that many choices. My choice: The Trinity Session by Cowboy Junkies.
To me, The Trinity Session is the perfect album. It is slow, ethereal, and gently powerful. It whispers its beauty with Margo Timmins’ haunting vocals and the band’s restrained rock and roll take on blues and country. The nascent band learned to play quietly because every time they rehearsed a neighbor complained, so they learned to tone it down. Necessity was truly the mother of invention, because that sonic discipline became Cowboy Junkies’ signature. Margo originally didn’t want to be in the band. She was not a musician or performer, but a college student studying social work in Toronto when her brother Michael convinced her to sing for them, at least in the garage. Their first several shows she had such stage fright she sang with her back to the audience.
The Trinity Session was recorded in a Toronto church, and if I remember the liner notes correctly, the band recorded the album live, playing at the church’s apse, while a single microphone was placed in the back of the nave. This is not how albums are recorded, but it gives The Trinity Session its singular, spare sound. Along with Bowie’s Hunky Dory, Pixies’ Doolittle, Led Zeppelin II and others, it’s absolutely one of the ten records I would take to that proverbial desert island. To Zen out and listen to The Trinity Session in row N of The Crest’s balcony was pure heaven on earth.
Walking this earth and keeping my peace I do what I want but the price is steep. It don’t seem right, it don’t seem right.
My mama she told me, one step at a time and sooner or later you’ll walk that line. I don’t want to, I don’t want to.
Taking my time to live and die I wanna find a way to do it right and I ease on, and I ease on.
They say one thing always leads to another. I open my mind, I don’t get it.
Breaking away to the other side I wanna make sense of why we live and die. I don’t get it, I don’t get it. I don’t get it, I don’t get it.
Except back then, in 1992, I got it. I am not a spiritual person, but listening to Cowboy Junkies by myself in The Crest was perfect peace. I could breathe in, and feel all life flowing through me in stillness and beauty. I was in a new town, with new friends, a job, and for the first time since third grade I was enjoying school and doing well. If I had died one of those nights, it would have been a good life.
The following year, my stepfather, Richard E. Springer, got sick and died at the age of fifty-two. Herbal tea, cigarettes, candlelight, and Cowboy Junkies’ The Caution Horses, got me through that time. “You Will Be Loved Again,” Margo sang, and I tried to believe it. As complicated as my stepfather’s and my relationship was, he really, truly, loved me and cared about me. And by the end I knew it, and he knew I knew it. I wrote him a letter when he was dying. I sealed it, and after he died I intended to place it in his coffin with him as I said my final goodbye. At the last minute, standing at the casket, looking down at him, I kept it in my jacket pocket. He was gone, I realized, and I thought maybe someday I would want to reread that letter. (I still have it; it’s still sealed.) He had been my stepfather from when I was eight years old until he died when I was twenty-four. I lived with him and Mom full-time in Los Angeles (although I always visited Dad in Sacramento on holidays and in the summer). Richard’s loss was unthinkable; it left a gaping hole in my life. I’ll always think of him, and the pain I felt losing him, when I play The Caution Horses, and especially You Will Be Loved Again.
Twenty-eight years after falling in love with Cowboy Junkies, twenty-five years after listening to The Trinity Session by myself in Row N of The Crest’s balcony, and twenty-three years after my stepfather died, I still had never seen Cowboy Junkies live. I claimed they were my bucket list band. The musical group that I loved the most, who were still intact, still performed, but that I had never seen. Finally in February of 2017 I was in Las Vegas, fresh off of winning a cool one hundred-dollar bill. I was in my room in the MGM Grand checking emails on my phone, and I opened one from one of the many concert promoters who spam me. It said Cowboy Junkies were coming to Sacramento for the first time, in April, to…you know.
Two tickets were $140, but I had just won $100, so I called it a wash. I bought two in the third row and texted Amy. I couldn’t contain myself; it was finally going to happen, and at the best possible place! When the day came, Amy and I had drinks and a wonderful meal at the Empress Tavern (Empress being the original name of the theater, of course), which is literally underneath The Crest, so deep you can’t even get cell service for God’s sake! We didn’t have a reservation, but the manager decided that another couple who was twenty minutes late didn’t deserve a table, so he gave us theirs. We agreed with that line of thinking.
Margo came out with her ubiquitous mug of tea. She was beautiful and charming, her hair let go to a luminous, natural white. They didn’t play Misguided Angel, or You Will Be Loved Again, or If You Were The Woman And I Was The Man. But they played ‘Cause Cheap Is How I Feel, and Murder Tonight In The Trailer Park, and they encored with a cover of Five Years by DAVID BOWIE!!! Margo talked to the crowd about how they’ve been doing this for thirty years. So have I, I thought.
Amy and I had an amazing time, although admittedly I’m a bigger fan of this particular band than she, with my strange, serendipitous history with both them and the venue. We ran into a few good friends at the show: Justin, Mike B and Nicole, and Renee, whom I hadn’t seen in fifteen years. Having given up my sobriety in 2016, I had a mild buzz going and I couldn’t help but think back twenty-five years to 1992, when The Crest represented everything good about where my life went, after risking moving from a city where I had friends to one where I had none.
“I’m Margo Timmins and we’re Cowboy Junkies,” were words I’d waited to hear for nearly thirty years, if not quite Thirty Summers. And although we had great seats in The Crest’s third row, I found myself more than once peeking over my right shoulder to Row N in the balcony.
My first real job was as a telemarketer for the Los Angeles Times. A couple of friends worked there first, so I glommed on. This was 1985 when I was sixteen, and it was every weekday from four o’clock to nine. I was a pretty diligent worker; I needed that $3.35 an hour. The eighty bucks or so each week was weed money, and it was just about enough to keep me high full-time as long as I didn’t share too much on the weekends.
I was a shit telemarketer; I think most of us stoners were. I’m not sure why they kept us around. Our job was to sell home delivery subscriptions to the newspaper via cold phone calls, and for every sale we’d get a ten dollar commission. I think I averaged about one sale a week, tops, for 25 hours of work. Seems unproductive, but consider that one customer could turn into a lifetime subscriber, so eighty bucks a week to a stoner from North Hollywood was probably a small price to pay for the bosses.
We’d drink wine out of juice bottles while we made our calls, and smoked pot on our dinner breaks. We were allowed to smoke cigarettes in this boiler room on Victory Boulevard in Van Nuys, the next neighborhood over from where I lived in North Hollywood. It was at the L.A. Times that I switched from Marlboro Reds to Marlboro 100’s, because 100’s lasted longer. Cigarettes seemed to be over in a flash when you were stoned, drinking wine, and cold-calling people on the telephone. Before you worry about the nonsmokers in that telemarketing office, you’ll be happy to know that the two rows of desks on the very western-most side of the building were for nonsmokers. The other five rows were for us smokers.
The star of the office was an older redhead named Rita, but when she called folks she introduced herself as Fern. She absolutely killed it! She was cranky as all hell off the phone, and she smoked like a chimney, but she was so charming to these customers she was swimming in commissions. We figured the fake name was the key – rather than her professional attitude and natural ease with people – so we started using different names too: Mike, Steve, Jason. Then we tried to think of funnier names to make each other laugh, names like Stu, Lawrence, Jimmy, or Floyd. I don’t know what made those names so funny, but they were. One day Scott outdid us all and introduced himself to a customer as BONGO, and it was all over after that. I laughed so hard I hung up on a customer. Scott won! He was the king of all fake names! But no, I don’t think any of it helped with sales.
Today computers do all this, but in 1985 the calls were generated by us telemarkerters ourselves, via a wire mesh basket in the back of the room that had sheets with the first five digits of local phone numbers. You would dig in the basket for 765 or 762 prefixes, as those numbers were likely to be Studio City, or Burbank, and you had a fair chance of getting English speakers. If you called 504 you would likely be greeted with “Bueno?” Not knowing Spanish, we were unequipped to sell newspapers to our Latino brothers and sisters. I’m not proud of this, but if they said “Bueno,” we hung up.
Our supervisor was a cool, curly-haired, mustachioed cat named Mark, who seemed adult and worldly, but might have been only twenty-five. He was more a motivator than a boss; he was the guy who let a forty-person room know that we were having fun selling newspapers to innocent victims whose dinners we were interrupting. He’d walk around swinging his arms, always in a cheerful mood: “Smilin’ and dialin’ in Van Nuys!” was Mark’s catchphrase. When you’d make a sale, it was called “writing,” because he’d write your name on the big markerboard in the front of the office. “Chip writes!” and “Sean writes!” and “Scott writes!” were things we didn’t hear often, but it was always a thrill to write. Rita/Fern wrote more than anyone, of course.
Somewhere along the way this turned into dead celebrities writing. I don’t know how it happened, but around the time I was working there Donna Reed died, so there was a lot of talk about how “Donna Reed writes.” Yul Brynner and Phil Silvers all wrote while I worked there too. Rita/Fern would write, and Mark would put her name on the board, and we’d become indignant: “No, no! Donna Reed writes!” we’d shout. We didn’t want to see Rita’s name, we wanted to see Donna Reed’s name. I can’t explain why this was so funny to us. Rita/Fern would shake her head at our idiocy. Sometimes Mark would write Donna Reed alongside Rita’s name, other times he’d use it as a motivator. “Chip, if you write you can give it to Donna Reed.” I would try desperately to make a sale so Mark would write Donna Reed instead of Chip on the board. I would still get the commission, of course. To this day I will post on my old friend Sean’s Facebook wall that “Prince writes” or “Gene Wilder writes.” He’s still in touch with that dude Mark, and he says Mark always gets a chuckle out of us still carrying on with this little joke thirty years later.
We also formed a fake gang called The Skulls, and we would draw and write SKULLS all over everything, practicing our gangland script. We’d draw pictures of skulls on the dialing sheets, we’d etch them into the desks with pocket knives, we’d ink them onto our hands with Bics. If we’d get our names on the board, we’d sneak up and draw little skulls next to them. Donna Reed with a skull next to her name was the granddaddy of all great days at work. Mark would either notice or not notice, and he’d either erase our handiwork or he’d sigh and leave it up there. Eventually we started introducing ourselves to customers as Scully, as in SKULLy. The hard part was keeping your voice from breaking while your buzzed friends cracked up while you talked to a customer. Why the bosses kept us around, I can’t say.
Once during dinner break we got into Scott’s Datsun 510 to get some food after smoking some weed. He turned down an unfamiliar street that ended in a “T.” For some reason – maybe the marijuana, who can say? – he thought the street kept going and he drove at 30 miles per hour into a concrete, vertical curb. The car slammed to a stop, and it pretty well tore the front axle off. We had to walk to a pay phone, call the office, and tell Mark we had a car crash and couldn’t make it back for the rest of the shift. I guess we were too far away to walk back to work, or we felt a duty to stay with Scott until he got his car dealt with. The Times wasn’t happy with us.
It was a good job. I took the bus there after school, as by that time I had been expelled from North Hollywood High School and was going to Grant High, not far from the Times telemarketing office. Sometimes my mom would pick me up afterwards, sometimes this older, bushy-haired, bespectacled, stoner named Al would drive me home in his Chevy Nova. Al once described in great detail how he had sex in the back seat of this tiny car with a quite unattractive woman he met one night. Al was no prize himself, he admitted, but I never forgot that salacious story. It’s still all I think of when I think “Chevy Nova.”
I had the job until I overdosed on formaldehyde-soaked marijuana in January of 1986 and went into rehab. My next real paying job was almost two years later. I didn’t smoke marijuana or drink alcohol for the next thirty years, until 2016, about the time Muhammad Ali was writing.
Recently I heard that everyone is shy to some degree. I’m somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, not overly shy nor overly confident. As I’ve gotten older I’ve certainly become more confident than shy, but no one relishes going to a party where they are bound to know no one. No one except Other Chip, but more on him later.
The most embarrassing situation I ever found myself in due to shyness was at a conference in San Francisco in the late ’90s. At this early-ish point in my I.T. career I hadn’t yet been to many technical conferences. From a content standpoint I got a lot out of them: attending workshops and keynote sessions by experts in my field. Of course I also took advantage of the free meals, as being a new homeowner and raising a young family was sapping every nickel Amy and I could earn. The problem – for me – was that some of these free meals were planned for conference attendees to gather, “network,” and swap ideas and email addresses. You know, the stuff you’re supposedto do at an industry conference, and truthfully one of the key things that make these events worthwhile.
But these forced gatherings filled me with dread. I didn’t know anyone at the conference; I felt too young, too inexperienced, and I didn’t drink back then. (And let’s be honest, alcohol is the great defeater of shyness.) I felt the “I’m a fraud” feelings that most of us have at some point or another, especially early in our careers. I had a habit of grabbing the free food and scurrying back to my hotel room to eat it, like a squirrel with a nut up an oak. These meals were typically continental breakfasts of croissants and fruit, or box lunches: easily portable items, tailor-made for stealing away with. Sometimes I saw fellow shy folk, clutching their own plates on the way back to their rooms instead of sitting in the designated eating sections. It was never clear if you were supposed to do this or not. Were we stealing food, or dishes?
One day at this conference they had a “regional lunch,” where we were supposed to line up, serve ourselves from the buffet, and sit in assigned areas that corresponded with our regions, like West Coast, East Coast, International, etc. I waited in line, feeling lonely and out of place as the older, seemingly smarter and more sociable people in line were chit-chatting with each other. I loaded up a plate of food, made a conspicuous beeline away from the West Coast seating area, got in the elevator, and slinked back to my room. I was starving, but as I was ready to dig in I made a horrifying discovery.
I had no silverware.
I couldn’t face returning to the lunch area – a good ten minute walk – for a knife and fork. I felt I would be noticed barging in to grab a cloth napkin and silverware set just to turn around to head back to the elevator. It didn’t seem like a reasonable thing to do, and time was a factor before the next workshop started. So I did the next best thing: I went for my trusty Leatherman multitool that I used to take everywhere until it was confiscated at the Sacramento airport fifteen years later. This was not the kind of multitool that had a fork and spoon on it, though. It had a deadly sharp, serrated knife, a file, a can opener, some pliers, scissors, and a bunch of other stuff that wasn’t too helpful for eating a plate of pasta, chicken, and salad. Nevertheless, the Leatherman was all I had, so I used some combination of file and sharp knife to eat this meal. I laughed at myself the whole time, fully aware that my ridiculous shyness had led me to this strange fate. I didn’t feel sorry for myself, though. I wasn’t a misanthrope; I seemed to like most people and vice versa when we got to know each other. Sitting in that hotel room balancing pasta on a pair of pliers may have been a turning point because I don’t remember shyness being much of a problem after that. At dinner that night – not provided by the conference – I ate at a 50’s diner and stole some silverware to ensure the problem wouldn’t recur.
Fifteen years later I found myself running the regional chapter of the Avaya users group, I have presented workshop sessions at this same conference, have moderated forums there, and have had a part in planning this three-thousand-person event. Attending this conference is now the highlight of my year, as I see great friends at every meal, every event, and every bar at 11:00 p.m. Colleagues that I adore are gathered there from all over the U.S., Africa, New Zealand, Europe…it’s a blast! From a technical and professional perspective I get a tremendous amount out of it, and seeing these colleagues, making memories, and having great times is the icing on the cake. This is the difference between four years in the industry and twenty, at least for me.
But no matter how much fun I have at my conference every year, I always remember that early conference when I felt so alone. I think most people have a story of feeling out of place and insecure at a point in their lives. Some have stories much sadder than eating pasta with a Leatherman multitool in a San Francisco hotel room. But there is one person in this world who has never had those feelings: Other Chip. He is not my alter ego, he is another guy named Chip.
When I was ten years old I had a friend named Glen, whose mom seemed younger, prettier, and singler than the other moms. I was to spend the night at Glen’s house one Saturday night, but then his mom wanted to go to a party, so we had to go with her. In order to go to the party, Glen’s mom had to ask my mom if it was alright if we went with her. My mom said OK, but asked for the phone number of the party house. This was the 1970s, thus a routine request, but still – so embarrassing!
Later, Glen and I were doing kid stuff at the party while adults were drinking, laughing, and dancing. Suddenly the front door opens, and in walk a couple of people followed by a third man whom I’ll never forget. This third man was white, bearded, with sandy blonde hair, Gabardine shirt, probably in his late twenties, and he loudly announced to the entire party as he entered – and I swear the music screeched to a stop: “Hey everyone, I’m Chip, and I don’t know anybody here!” Other Chip was immediately offered a beer, and within moments became the life of the party. He was drinking, he was dancing, he was whispering into ladies’ ears, he was hootin’ and hollerin’ and high-fiving people. The guy knew no one there (who even invited him?), proudly proclaimed his social disadvantage as an opening salvo, and proceeded to rule that party until the end of the night.
Other Chip fascinated me. I didn’t know a human being could possess this level of confidence, especially someone who shared my strange boy-name. I had until this point never heard of another human being named Chip. It was a strange feeling to grow up with a name that, as far as I knew, was assigned solely to me of all the billions of people who had ever lived. Until that night.
I watched Other Chip for hours. I just didn’t understand how another person could have my name, nor could I grasp how a person – regardless of name – could walk into a room not knowing anyone and become the life of the party. Despite my youth, I knew I was witnessing something rare in nature.
Another reason I remember Other Chip is because of what happened when my mom called the party house. I can’t remember why she was calling – maybe to tell me to come home at a certain time in the morning. So Mom calls the party house and asks for Chip.
You see where this is going.
Mom certainly knew I was not the only Chip who had ever lived, but she also understood it was an uncommon name. When she called the party house she felt she did not need to specify a brown-haired, green-eyed, smallish boy. She just asked for Chip, and said it was his mother calling. Whoever answered the phone immediately corralled the life of the party and dragged him to the phone.
“Hello?” Other Chip said.
“Hello?” Mom replied.
“Who is this?” asked Other Chip.
“I’m looking for Chip, this is his mother.”
(Confused) “This isChip, who is this?”
(Annoyed) “His mother, my name is Gloria!”
Other Chip’s face screwed up, trying to emerge from a beer-soaked haze. He blinked his eyes and tried to wrap his brain around what was happening. Finally he said,
“My mom’s name is Betty!”
Well, that settled it! Other Chip’s mom’s name was Betty, and this woman’s name was Gloria, so the facts didn’t add up: Gloria was not Chip’s mom.
I caught this because I heard the rumblings through the party: “Chip…” and “Mom…” and “Phone…” My face flushed because I knew exactly what was happening, and as I quietly made my way through the grown-ups I saw Other Chip becoming increasingly bewildered as he argued with this strange woman.
Somehow the phone got to me, and Mom told me whatever she needed to tell me. The next day she relayed to me the story of her conversation with the rude man; Mom thought Other Chip was pulling her leg. She was worried and getting angry during the call because this man was obviously drunk and her little boy was in a strange place. I felt it my duty to inform her that the inebriated, confident man was indeed named Chip, and was likely legitimately confused by the phone call.
I did not meet Other Chip that night, and I never saw him again. I received no high-five from this older, cooler guy in solidarity with a ten-year-old with the same ridiculous nickname. The course of my life may have changed if that supremely confident partygoer from the seventies had shared a handshake or a witty aside with a small kid who shared his odd, boyish name. “Hey kid, Chip is a cool name. Go ahead and eat lunch with the industry nerds at the conference, it’s fine. Tell ’em Chip said so.”