2. WHAT TO DO?
3. FREEDOM OF CHOICE
5. THE ORANGE OFFICE
7. BENTON PARK
8. THE WEIRD FLU
9. TWO-BIT RUSH
11. CALIFORNIA HERE I COME
13. SHORT STAY
14. LONELY BY THE BAY
15. ST. LOUIS – AGAIN
16. RAW FOOD AND THE ORDER OF THELEMA
18. A DAY IN THE PARK
19. THE LONGEST FALL
23. LA POSADA
27. BAKER HOUSE
30. SOCIAL SECURITY & AVOIDING WEST SIDE
31. HUNTER’S POINT & A RUBBER IN THE SHOWER
The first three hours of hell.
My sister Jan called me in St. Louis. “Daddy is holding Joyce at gunpoint. He’s on his way over here. You’re the only one with a key to his house. Can you come?”
My father was teetering on the edge. His third wife, Joyce, wanted to leave him. He had told me she had agreed to stay while he finished his article for the Model Railroader magazine and he did not know what would happen after that.
I did not expect gunpoint. I drove the three hours to Evansville wondering what I would find.
Jan had explained that Dad had dropped Joyce at her mother’s to do laundry while he came to Jan’s house to see her and the girls. Joyce was too afraid to call the police. Instead she called Jan and said Dad was going to kill her because she had had an affair.
Dad and Joyce had developed some bizarre energy between them in the six years they had been married, but this was way beyond the norm.
My heart ripped with each pounding beat as I drove along I-70 across southern Illinois. The fields were bare. Thanksgiving was four days away.
When I got to Dad’s house I drove by it terrorized he would come out the door, then noticed his car was not in the driveway. I called Jan from a pay phone. Dad had just left her house to get Joyce and the laundry. I had maybe fifteen minutes to go into his house and get his old hunting rifle so he would not kill my step-mother.
What would I say if he drove up when I was coming out of the door with the gun?
The old rifle was just inside the junkroom door. I picked it up by its flat-sided barrel, wrapped it in a towel and half ran out the door. I had gone through this door so many time before, often glad to get out of the house, but never as glad as that Sunday evening.
I drove away without seeing his Mustang in my rear view mirror.
An endless hour later I saw lights on in the house and his car in the driveway as I drove up the hill. I pulled over to the curb and shut-off my engine. I have never been good at confronting my father. He never learned to manage his anger. I suppressed mine. When my anger did come out, my mind froze up and I could not reason. When the pressure living with him became unbearable I became very angry for a short moment, then cowed under his even stronger anger.
I walked in the front door and took off my hat. Joyce was sitting on the couch. Dad was walking into the living room. He looked at me. “Bob, what a surprise. Did not expect you to be here until Thursday. Want to watch Billy Graham with us?”
“No Dad, I need to talk to you.”
In a blur, Joyce zipped around us and disappeared down the hall. If I was there to save her, why did she hide? If he was about to kill her, I expected her to run to me and pull me out the door so I could take her to safety.
Facing my father, watching the cigarette in his hand, I set down my hat on the little white chest which was new and said, “I’ve heard you are holding Joyce at gunpoint, Dad. What’s going on.” My heart was in my mouth and wild.
He looked down at the floor, then up again quickly. He had changed in the six years I had been living away from home. His hair was a little more grey, he was as little heavier and he had newer clothes. He energy was also heavy.
“This is between Joyce and me Bob. I’ve got to ask you to let it stay our business.”
I felt like I was chewing steel. “I can’t do that, Dad.”
He looked grim. I did not breathe or let my heart beat. He exhaled long and hard. Anger leaping from his eyes, he said, “Well come out side then and I will tell you what about it.”
I followed him out the door. He turned to face me a few steps down the sidewalk. “It’s true, I was planning to kill Joyce and then myself. She has committed adultery and as an adulteress she cannot be admitted into heaven. I was waiting for her to repent, then I would kill her before she could do anything else to get in her way.” His gestures were sharp-edged. “But there has been a miracle, Bob. Just like Abraham and his son Isiah. I no longer need to kill Joyce. I just had to be willing to kill her.”
My father threw his cigarette on the sidewalk and ground it out.
He had found religion soon after marrying Joyce. Since shocking his religious mother when he was twenty-one by telling her that Jesus was just like Santa Claus, he had been an agnostic. Now he was clearly over the edge.
I had his gun, so Joyce seemed to be out of imminent danger, and she had not run to me as her rescuer. I saw nothing more I could do.
“I left my hat inside,” I said. A few quick steps back into the empty living room, out again and I walked toward my father, deeply angry with him.
“You act like you wish I had done it,” he said as I passed him.
“No,” was all I could say.
He had been threatening to kill himself for years. When I was in high school, he told me several times, “Bob, if anything happens to you, I will kill myself, because you are all I have going for me.”
As I walked away from him, I was emotionally exhausted by the years of pouring energy into him, giving him all the love I could in the hope he would be happier. The love he gave me was trapped in his intense swirl of needs. Loving my father was like hugging a fan. I got cut up a lot.
I loved him desperately, no matter how much it hurt. In my twenties, though, I had grown weary of his weight on me. This night I knew I had helped him as much him as I could. I suspected he knew this. His next step would have to be entirely his own.
I drove away, my “No,” echoing in my ear.
WHAT TO DO?
I spent the night at a friend’s house, sleeping little, reading Penthouse to escape.
The next day, Monday, my sister and I wondered what we could do in hushed tones. She did not want her daughters to know what was happening.
Joyce had called Jan from work. She told my sister that Dad had awakened her before dawn, angry that he could not find his rifle, saying that if he decided to kill himself, he wanted to do it with that rifle. Joyce had gone to work at the hospital and called her attorney. She was filing for divorce.
Joyce also told my sister that before she had left the house, to calm down my father, she had given him several sample packets of anti-depressants and said, “Billy, you can take these and they won’t ulcerate in your stomach.”
Jan made mounds of mashed potatoes in between her calls to the police, the sheriff and the psychiatrist she had seen as a teenager, who knew Dad. We had two options: 1) Have the police arrest Dad, book him for assault and possibly take him to the state hospital; or 2) do nothing. Since I would rather shoot him myself than have him arrested, and since Joyce was safe at work and not going back to the house, we decided to wait.
We did not hear from Dad that day, but this was not unusual. A jazz musician in the ’40s and 50s, he had stayed up to dawn, usually working, ever since then. Throughout my high school days I came home at three in the afternoon to find him shaving or just getting up. For the past few years he had troubling sleeping. Calling him any time before dark was risky.
Jan and her husband stopped by his house at seven that evening, while I stayed with the girls. I was amazed at her courage. They went with him to have dinner at a nearby cafeteria.
“He was tired, Bob, but he said he was fine. I told him we were worried that he was planning to kill himself. But he said he was not, that he was just glad it was over and wanted to go to sleep,” Jan told me when she got home. We were both relieved, though I did not look forward to facing him on Thanksgiving.
The next morning I drove back to St. Louis. We had not heard from Dad, but we had not expected to either.
FREEDOM OF CHOICE
The phone was ringing as I walked into my apartment. I answered it. Jan said, “Daddy’s line has been busy all day.” It was nine o’clock in the evening. I had gone directly to my studio before coming home and lost track of time working on a piece of sculpture.
“Have you gone over there?”
“I’m afraid to. I have this horrible feeling.”
“He could be still asleep. Or maybe he took the phone off the hook and forgot about it. You know how he is when he gets into his music.”
“I called Joyce, but she’s at a class tonight. Her mother said she would have her call me when she gets home.” She had a brittle edge in her voice, which I knew as her reaction to stress. The fear underlying it was new, though.
We talked for a few more minutes, then she promised to call me when she heard from Joyce. I wandered around my studio apartment. Vegetables lay on the drain board by the sink. Bugs swarmed around a package of stew beef in the sink. I had been making beef stew for a dinner date Sunday when I heard from Jan about Daddy and the gun.
The apartment looked different. It was just as I left it on Sunday, but the two days had spread an invisible film over everything. Whenever I had left before, I consciously left my things in whatever state they were in. Now the Sunday paper, the clothes on the floor, the uncapped toothpaste joined the food in the kitchen to paint the picture of my sudden trip across southern Illinois.
I threw away the food and straightened up a little until my fears overcame me. Sinking into the sling chair I stared out my window at the trees across the street. Steam hissed softly in the radiators.
Was my father alive? Or had he died? Neither thought was uplifting.
Sometime later the phone rang. Jan and her husband were meeting Joyce at Dad’s house. She would call me. I settled back into the chair. I felt myself rise above my body, then Tremont Street appeared below me. The moon was out, but not full. I looked down at the twin pines trees standing tall on either side of the sidewalk leading to my father’s door. A neighbor boy’s bicycle lay on its side in our yard. Few lights were on in any of the homes. My father’s house was dark. His Mustang sat in the driveway. Headlights shined up the street.
Then I was walking with Dad. Neither of us were talking, but our love bond was strong. People were nearby, but no one came up to us. Time stretched out. I felt the pain he carried with him, but now the pain was on the surface and fluid, unlike his usual buried, seething torment.
The ringing phone woke me. I had no idea how long I had slept. I picked it up. My sister’s voice cried out, “He’s dead, Bob. Daddy’s dead. He killed himself.”
My heart broke. Jan and I sobbed on the phone together, my hurt welling over, hers pushing through a jagged tear in her armour.
The story spilled out over the next few days. Joyce and his weird energy continued. Jan talked to Joyce more than I. She told me about the police locking up the house as a possible crime scene, but not before a policeman Joyce had called let her clean out all her sample prescription pills from the hospital which lay around the bathroom and bedroom. Jan talked about finding a large kitchen knife by his bedside wiped clean. Toilet paper pieces used to wipe it were in the bathroom wastebasket.
Dad had been found laying on his face with his pants around his ankles. He had a lot of pills in his stomach, but had bled to death. The police and coroner decided he had taken the pills, undressed and gotten into bed. Before he could pass-out, though, the pills hurt his stomach so much that he got up and cut his wrist. On his way back to bed, dripping blood, the pills finally hit him and he collapsed. The pills prevented the cut on his wrist from coagulating. His life slowly seeped out of his body as he lay unconscious, then his corpse lay undetected for about 24 hours. Who wiped off the knife was a mystery.
While we slept Monday night, while my sister called his house and I drove back to St. Louis, while we all worried about him, he lay dead.
The next day, the police and the corner ruled his death a suicide.
I spent Thanksgiving day in the funeral home explaining to his friends why he had killed himself, why I thought he had exercised the ultimate freedom of choice. The next day we buried my father next to his parents in his–and my–boyhood hometown, of Mt. Carmel. I did not feel the November chill.
Mother flew in from Minnesota and stayed with the girls during the funeral.
Jan and I struggled to shake the warped black energy surrounding his death.
A week later I awoke and began writing down numbers. A minute late I was amazed to see that on the day I was born my father was twenty eight years, seven months and eleven days old. The day we buried him I was the exact same age.
No one in my family was especially good at making money except my Great Uncle Roy, who was miserly. He was the accountant for the family furniture store until he died in 1958. He made three million dollars in oil, leaving most of it to his wife, who died soon after him. She left the money to her side of the family which did not need it.
When my father died in 1978, the bulk of his estate–about one hundred thousand dollars–was tied up in his stamp inventory, which he had bought as a would-be dealer in 1963 and 1964. He caught the top of an unusual spike in stamp price increases and had not been able to sell off as planned when prices fell soon afterwards.
Because he had feuded with Jan for years over various disagreements, he had changed his will leaving everything to me. Periodically he told me how much or how little he wanted her to have–another burden I disliked.
When he died, Joyce said she did not want anything from his estate. A short while later her attorney informed our attorney she had changed her mind. In Indiana, as a surviving spouse, she was entitled to one-third of his estate. Noise was made about her suing for more.
To settle the issue quickly, our attorney proposed to not challenge Joyce’s one-third interest and for Jan to waive any rights she may have to challenge the will. Jan and Joyce agreed and signed the agreement.
Jan and I ate and drank and shopped our way through the holidays, enjoying our freedom from Dad as we passed through the awful blackness of his death. Christmas was not fun.
In January we began going through Dad’s things. A friend cut out the section of purple carpet in the bedroom which Dad had bled onto and I gave the rest of the carpet to the nice old couple across the street.
By February Jan and I had made little progress. We spent most of our time driving around, eating lunch and enjoying being together. We did not want to be in Dad’s house. In the evening I went out drinking with friends.
Before the end of the month, over lunch, Jan told me she could no longer go “out there.” She ask if I could possibly finish it myself. I have never had an easy time saying “no” to my sister. During the same meal, she also told she wanted nothing to do with the money. The trips to the attorney’s office and to the stamp appraiser’s home and to the bank safe depositories had worn through her bravado, piercing old wounds. She had a much different and not very pleasant history with men, money, power and my father than did I.
My heart ached to see her withdraw in her slightly brittle, “I’m OK, I just can’t do this” way. I promised to keep careful track of her share of the money coming in fromthe sale of stamps, in case she changed her mind.
Going to the house the next day was devastating, but I slowly began to get some work done.
In April tensions in Jan’s home, where I had been staying since Dad’s death, erupted. My relationship with her husband was fragile and their marriage was often stormy. She asked me to move out.
What’s worse than devastated? That what I was and mortally afraid to sleep in Dad’s house. A few days before my twenty-ninth birthday, though, I moved back into Tremont, the home I had left seven years earlier.
THE ORANGE OFFICE
More than a year later I sat in my newly painted office in St. Louis. Dad’s music and extra furniture was stacked in back room of the gutted, two-room former apartment. His green, Herman Miller chests stood across one wall. I had my feet on the black Eames table I used as a desk.
Most of his furniture was in my new apartment in the Saum Hotel, a mile away.
On the third floor above me sat my studio, used little in the past eighteen months. The Soulard Farmer’s Market across the street was busy. I leaned back in my father’s leather and moulded-plywood desk chair.
The walls were a soft orange, with a slight reddish undertone. The color was a little stronger than I had guessed from the paint chip, but it still went well with the orange and brown carpet pieces I had cut into alternating foot-wide strips and duck-taped together.
I had a mailing list of more than five hundred college and high school jazz band directors who had bought music from my father, or expressed interest; an inventory of fifteen hundred music charts of his fifty-three jazz compositions; and some money in the bank. His money in my bank.
I had spent nine months in Evansville cleaning out the piles of things left from his life, remodeling the home and then selling it to buy Joyce out of the estate. It had been an emotionally trying time, but a healing had taken place. Had I not been slowed down by my pain, I could have finished the job in two months.
Glad to be away from Evansville, glad to be in my world, glad to no longer need to work as a handyman, glad to have the chance to succeed at what my father had failed–doing what I chose, living life on my terms–I turned in my chair and went back to work.
Later I met Chris, my sculptor buddy with whom I had worked before my father died, for lunch at a nearby pub. We drank dark beer and played pinball until he had to go home late in the afternoon.
I stumbled up the steps to my office, feeling blurry. The old four-plex was empty except for a very old woman living downstairs. Many buildings in this old section of St. Louis stunk of unclean bodies and years of neglected, welfare living. The smell got into the plaster. My building was not an exception, except for my studio loft which smelled of machine oil and sawdust and my office with its fresh paint.
I unlocked the door to the back room, walked the rows of stacked music and into an inferno of light in the front room. Hanging across one wall and down from the ceiling shone my abstracted stainless steel dinosaur skeleton. Its brushed steel swirls glowed as though molten.
I looked around stunned. The afternoon sun shining low, direct and yellow-orange into my office had turned my soft orange walls into a blaze of red-orange.
Sitting in the desk-chair, I wondered how I could have picked such a color. My coat still on, I left, wondering what I had created.
I drove across the Mississippi into Illinois toward an evening at the Joker’s Wild, where the girls danced naked and I could escape my loneliness in more beer and lust.
I stood looking at my landlord. I could not belive what he had just said. After working for six months to clean out, insulate, wire and drywall the loft–a 30 by 30 foot space which had been used only as attic storage space–he had just told me he wanted me to move out.
The very old lady downstairs had died. His excuse for me moving out was that now he and his partner wanted to rehab the first two floors of the building for his law practice, so I had to move out of my second floor office.
“And while you are at it, you might as well move out of the loft, too. We will probably put the library up there.” He was an attorney and one owner in the property, so I felt ill-equipped to challenge him.
But I felt betrayed. He had said nothing about his plans all the while I had worked on the space, while I was in Evansville or since I had been back. Suspecting he just wanted to get a higher rent for the loft, I sighed and trudged back up the rickety stairs.
A feeling of uncertainty had long been with me. So often in my life, just when I highly valued someone or something in my life, they or it was whisked away from me.
Ready to finally begin building sculpture again, ready to send out the music mailing, ready to live life on my terms I now had to postpone what I was doing because someone who had control over me said, “Jump.”
I would jump this time, but I wanted it to be my last. The next day I began looking for a building to buy.
The search took a while, but I finally closed on a narrow three story building half a mile west of Anheuser-Busch Brewery. Sitting at the corner of Arsenal and Jefferson, I saw my building as the future gateway to resurgent Benton Park, a small community with a growing number of artists. The western most boundary of the park and the neighborhood began across Arsenal the building.
The upper two floors of the building were separate apartments, each about the same size as my loft, but narrow. The plaster stunk worse than my Soulard building. Needing a home for my studio and Dad’s music, I ask the two tenants to leave, bothering me not nearly as much as when I was evicted.
Downstairs was a barren neighborhood bar, a tiny old barber shop and an added-on room in which an old man lived amid piles of junk and a filthy bed. The rent I collected paid part of my mortgage, a debt I owed the seller.
I spent a month gutting the upper floors, chiseling and grinding the stinking plaster off the brick walls and coughing through clouds of dust. My old landlord was pressuring me to move, but I told him I had to get the new building ready first. He could rot as far as I was concerned.
Moving took three friends, four loads with the largest rental truck I could find and a thirty-five foot power lift. I had too much heavy machinery, a couple tons of music and an equal amount of assorted tools, parts, furniture, and stuff to face the unsteady stairs. We loaded the lift through second and third floor windows and moved into the new building the same way. I was glad I did not have to move my apartment, too.
By fall, nearly two years after Dad had died, I was close to settled in the building. The third floor sat empty, waiting for me to turn it into a living area.
I often have difficulty doing anything if I am not settled. My sculpture, Dad’s music mail, and handyman work offers had been pushed aside while for a long time.
The second floor of the building had a separate room over the barber shop below. I made this into my new office, glad to leave the orange walls to my former landlord. With strong shelves built for the music and Dad’s tapes organized, I sent out a mailing to his list of high school and college jazz band directors, including a notice of his death with his music literature. “Detonation Orange,” “Vesuvious,” “Nicole,” “Rock Monterey,” “Kinky Queen Cleo,”–the titles of his charts hung down under each pile of printed music on the shelving.
Through the winter I worked on and in the partially heated second floor studio, completing one piece of sculpture, a couple fabrication jobs, and picked away at the endless renovation work.
I was happy, feeling full of myself and sure I could live life my way, though loneliness and cash flow concerns nagged at me. To fend off being lonely, I looked for women, usually in bars. I liked the bars in which women took off their clothes best, but had to ration myself to keep from overdosing on lust. I did not do much except worry about my cash flow. I could have repaired homes with Chris part of the time to pay the bills, but I preferred to work on passionately, counting on something to work out.
THE WEIRD FLU
A week into 1980, I came down with a weird flu. Soon my throat was sore and I went to the doctor in a clinic next to my apartment. The M.D. did not know what I had, but gave me antibiotics.
Two weeks later the sore throat was gone, but I was still in bed. After a month of being ill, I went back to see the doctor, but he could find nothing wrong with me.
Not until late March did I finally get back to work at the building. For nearly three months I had driven there to look at the work which waited for me, which I wanted to do, but could not.
By mid-April I was working hard and beginning to go out in the evenings.
In August I got the weird flu again. The sore throat return also, then receded as I took another round of antibiotics, but I was unable to work again for three more months.
This illness pattern repeated itself eleven times in three years. I kept going to doctors, they kept saying there was nothing wrong with me, then giving me antibiotics. Over these three years I was ill and unable to work nearly half the time.
The barber shop in my building closed in mid-1981 and I decided to turn the added-on room into a pinball arcade and pizza place. My market research began over chips and beer at a bar with Chris and Arthur, a poet who helped me work on the building.
“Sure, that would be great for the kids around your place, BC. The market across the street has two machines and they’re always busy,” Chris said.
Arthur nodded his agreement. “And everybody loves pizza. What are going to call it, man. A name says what it is.”
“Two-Bit Rush,” I said.
They laughed and Chris said, “Great name. You’ll make lots of money.” The market research was over.
I went through an $8,000 loan from a bank in Mt. Carmel and eight months of work to turn a twenty foot square storefront into a pizza kitchen with pinball and video games. My health was only part of the reason I took so long. I was discovering that I was a pretty good businessman for an artist. What I learned the hard way was that artists are usually terrible business people.
The sales manager who put the machines in on a 50-50 split predicted a strong cash flow. The bank made the loan because they knew I had a large safety deposit box full of valuable stamps in their vault, but they did not attached the stamps. The vice-president said he was making me a “character loan.” I thanked him for his confidence. My father’s family had been strong members of the small town’s community for a hundred years.
Two-Bit Rush opened the same month President Reagan’s welfare cuts hit the neighborhood. The quarter supply dried before I caught my share of it. Nine months later I closed the arcade, in debt, most of the stamps gone and my health failing.
In March of 1982, during the early evening in the basement laundry room of the Saum I met Susan. She was bright and cute. I said something meaningless to her, then took the elevator back up to the eighth floor. Without getting off I rode back dawn to the basement and ask her if she would like to have a glass of wine sometime. I was shaking inside.
Susan accepted my invitation with a wonderful smile. After the laundry was done, we spent the rest of the evening in my apartment talking and drinking. She was staying in a small room on the sixth floor, having just broken away from a possessive drug dealer with herpes. They had lived together in rural Missouri for the past seven years, growing and selling marijuana. The always-paranoid lifestyle had made her crazy, she said, adding with a shy smile that she was careful to not get herpes from him.
We lived together for the next eight days, inseparable except when we were working. On the ninth day her ex-boyfriend and a friend of his showed up as previously planned for a visit. I was in agony. Then, three days later she was in my arms again, saying she had told him about us. A month later we decide to marry at the end of the summer.
Discomforts soon began surfacing. She could not understand my need to look inside myself, pulling and tugging at my grief like taffy. She ridiculed me for filing my toenails. Reading Penthouse Forum one day, sitting on the toilet while I showered, she ask me if I ever fantasized about other women when we made love. Talking loudly over the shower curtain, I said I sometimes ran movies in my head, but the women were strangers. I told her it was a habit from being afraid of not performing well.
Susan was so offended by my confession, she almost moved out. She said she was fully there with me when we made love and she now felt betrayed that I was not fully with her. I was speechless and guilt ridden. Over a few days the issue subsided, but it rocked both of us.
I met her Mother who seemed nice and her father, whom she had told me had ridiculed her for much of her childhood. He had mellowed she said. Susan adored him now, but I found no harmony with him. I had difficulty getting past their history as I knew it.
We had intertwining silver rings made by a friend of mine. We scouted the arboretum for a good site for our wedding. We talked about who to ask. We planned our invitations.
Then I told Susan I could not marry her. She cried and I felt tight and awful inside. I had crossed a personal line, one that I did not understand, but having crossed it I knew I could not go back.
Susan and I came together because our attractions and our needs matched. We became intimate so quickly we did not give ourselves time and room to know each other before making a commitment. This was her first experience being so close to a man. I had gone through this needy love before, because I habitually roused my needs to such an extent, I drove myself into a frenzy to satisfy them.
Susan was deeply hurt. I was three years away from learning about my behavior pattern. Twelve years later I still wrestle with my impulses to merge with a woman to escape from my pain. Today’s awareness of what I am doing and learning from experience that escaping pain only produces more pain help me make better choices.
CALIFORNIA HERE I COME
Susan lived with me for another month before finding an apartment she liked. Soon after she left I decided to move to California. My mother and step-father once again lived in the San Francisco Bay area and I had no reason to stay in the Midwest.
I quit my waiter job, which Susan had helped me get, and began to organize the studio for a huge moving sale. My tools, machines, supplies and some of Dad’s furniture were not hard to sell. But what could I do with his music, the trophies from our kart racing days and his model trains and buildings?
My father did nothing casually. In 1957 he began manufacturing racing karts. Through 1961 we raced first locally, then nationally. I still had a room full of trophies, the biggest nearly five feet tall.
During several periods of his life, my father was an active model railroader. He left behind several published articles, including his last article about his custom 300 car freight boxcar fleet, published after this death. Dad’s goal was to make a building an inch or two tall look real in a photograph. By carefully shaving balsa woods strip down to 1/32 and 1/64 inch thick and hand cutting, stain and planking these little buildings, he produced amazingly detailed models. His eighteen building “Sin Strip” inspired many comments. Why he wanted to have miniature strip joints–with unabashed names and marquees–for his Southern Illinois train layout was a mystery to many.
Much of Dad’s furniture which I had was made by Herman Miller in the late 1940s. These pieces were collectors items and I did not want to sell them for garage-sale prices. I also did not want to take them to California.
I found a man in Seattle who paid $3,000 for Dad’s freight car fleet. I found another man in Illinois who paid far less for all the trophies I had in big cardboard boxes. I was happy to keep from dumping them. I had sold very little music, so I stored all Dad’s self-published charts. My father’s brother, Uncle Bob, loved the Herman Miller furniture as much as Dad did, so he bought a few pieces of it and I gave it to my cousin John to keep for him.
The two-month sale over, I rented two storage lockers in a three story building which had access ramps so I could drive to the storage lockers to unload. I again rented the largest truck I could find, but needed only one trip. Fully loaded, the truck rolled smoothly up the ramp of the storage building. On the way back down, empty, the truck sat higher by several inches and I rammed the top of the it into the concrete overhead beam.
Traumatized from my shaky health, selling so many things I was attached to–or were my father’s–and money running very low, I left the damaged rental truck at the lot during the night.
Susan and I had gotten close again for the month before I left. The last two weeks I lived with her in her apartment. I loved her dearly, but she did not want to leave her family in St. Louis, and I did not press too hard, sensing our goals and directions were too different to build a life together.
Maybe my high school girlfriend, Andi, was right when said she broke up with me because she would never find security with me.
Susan and I made love the last morning we were together, both climaxing just as the alarm went off. I dropped her at work two hours later. She turned as she walked to the back door of the restaurant where she worked. Tears streaming down her cheeks, she yelled, “I love you,” and turned, her long, black quilted coat swirling around her.
Early December snow flurries falling lightly, I drove my loaded Saab slowly out of St. Louis. My tears ran like Susan’s, my heart ached as did hers. I was leaving my father, buried 150 miles away, turning west to add another 2,000+ miles to our distance.
I was nearly broke. My building was on the market, but would never sell. I had lost all the money Dad had left me. I had lost Jan’s share which she said she did not want and which I said I would protect for her and her girls. I had lost at my attempt to live life on my terms and to succeed where my father had failed. I was going through hard times which would get much worse before I realized there is always something in life to make us jump. Hardship comes from our resistance.
Both of my mother’s husbands were named Bill. Dad brought home his young trombone player in 1951, to make sure Bill was nearby for the next practice or gig. Dad was happy my mother and Bill talked easily. She wanted to talk about Kahil Gibran’s writing. Dad wanted to go to the basement in their Springfield home to work on his model trains.
Like attracted like and through a series of unplanned family events Mother and Bill found themselves in San Francisco just as my grandfather died in Menlo Park. My sister and I were sent to Mt. Carmel stay with Dad’s parents.
What was intended to be temporary became permanent. Mother and Bill married and lived in San Francisco. Dad stayed in Springfield for a while, then moved to Evansville. Jan and I stayed in Mt. Carmel, were cared for, but shaken to be suddenly away from our parents. I was two, Jan was five. Dad stopped by for visits.
Money and Dad’s lingering bitterness prevented any west coast visits. I remember receiving birthday and Christmas presents for a few years–then cards with money. I talked to my mother on the phone once when I was nine, then again when I was in college.
I knew her name and address. I knew I had two more sisters. I often fantasized about running away to California, but I did not “meet” her again until she moved to Minneapolis seventeen years after she left on her fateful trip to California.
Mother’s parents had divorced when she was young and she endured many childhood upheavals. Bill had awakened one night to find his very large mother running around in the back yard on fire, very painfully killing herself. Not much later he started his adult life at sixteen playing jazz and living in the red light district of Chicago.
In the ’50s and 60’s drinking was mostly considered recreation, like bowling, as it had been for many years. Both mother and Bill became trapped in an emotionally-charged martini merry-go-round. They had sufficient buried pain to find comfort in an altered state and rode the highs and lows of the unstable emotions common with their lifestyle.
I rolled into their small San Mateo apartment a bundle of unmet needs. I ached for Susan. I was broke. I craved my freedom. I was scared about my failing health. Mother and I enjoyed our time together during the day while Bill was at work, but my condition rattled her, too. During one Saturday afternoon, Bill opened up to me, then closed off, retreating back into his world of uncertain feelings.
We had one major storm, in which he order me to my room. At thirty-two this was humiliating.
I hung onto to Susan over the phone. Since I left her, it was an unkind thing to do. In March she told me she could no longer talk to me. Our conversations were keeping her heartbroken and she had to move on.
I found some free lance handyman work on the Peninsula and more 20 miles north in San Francisco. I went out as many nights as possible, wearing an extra layer of clothing. The California winter was balmy compared to St. Louis, but many places were not heated. I often wore a pair of cotton long johns, an extra shirt and light jacket.
One evening in the City I cruised several Broadway dance clubs looking for women. I left my hat and jacket in the car and walked a lot in a chilly San Francisco wind. The next morning I woke up shivering and could not get warm. I read about fasting and radical diets. My mother found my condition and diet experiments unsettling. She had more than enough to handle with Bill and their constant challenges.
After a few days of shivering, I improved to my normal state, such as it was. Hungering for my own world again–whatever that was–I moved into the Sunset District to live with a new-found roommate on April Fools’ Day of 1983.
As grateful as I was to be on my again, there was little harmony in my new home. My roommate was a fanatic about keeping the house clean, insisting I wipe down the shower and basin after every use. Her boyfriend, a county sheriff, lived downstairs. He often complained about San Francisco being full of “losers.” I wondered if he had a difficult time looking in the mirror.
I cut and stained boards for shelving, using the basement below the boyfriend’s part of the house as a workshop. Used to having a studio, I did not think about the fumes from the oil-based stain. After I finished late in the afternoon, I closed the door to the work area and went out to continue exploring the City.
The next morning my roommate woke me by pounding on my door. Complaining shrilly about poisoning them with toxins, she ordered me to move. I was not eager to move again, but realized the situation was beyond repair. My handling of the staining was inconsiderate, but I smiled softly at the discomfort these unlikable people went through.
Tim was a pleasant man, thrilled to have bought a nice little home on Potrero Hill. I answered his ad in the paper and met him at his Noe valley apartment as he was beginning to move. We quickly established that he was gay and not pushy about it and that I was straight and not curious. Falling into an easy harmony, I helped him load boxes. After the first load, he said he would be happy to have me for a roommate and showed me the upstairs room which could be mine for $300 a month. The room had a raised area in the back where my water bed would fit nicely and a sunny window overlooking the backyard. I accepted with relief.
As I was about to leave, Tim rummaged through the glove box in his car. He tossed me a pack of rubbers. “These are too small for me, maybe you can find a use for them.” Laughing I stuffed them in my glove compartment, searching his words for hidden meanings. I found none.
LONELY BY THE BAY
Living in San Francisco was exhilarating at first. Once I settled in with Tim, though, and did not soon find new friends, my loneliness rose to the surface of my evenings. I found enough handyman work to keep me busy during the day, but I struggled with what to do the rest of the time.
I visited Mother, Bill and now Kris–my youngest sister who had moved up from San Diego–occasionally but they were family, not where my vitality lay. I went to movies at the repertory film theater on Market Street. I explored Haight-Ashbury and the Richmond. I mostly stayed away from North Beach and the clubs on Broadway. After years of feeling claustrophobic in the Midwest’s sea of sleepy normality, I craved a more vibrant energy. San Francisco is full of vibrancy and I sought harmony with an unknown force.
My health improved some with a change in diet. I shopped at Rainbow Grocery and General Store, ate more fresh foods and ask many questions. I went on a colon cleansing program, which gave me a lighter feeling and helped lessen my weakness. I was still sensitive to the chilly winds and struggled to dress warmly enough and yet not be embarrassed by wearing too many clothes.
May turned into June and my life brightened slowly. I still had not found friends or whatever I was searching for, but I was slowly stabilizing my life.
The building did not sell in St. Louis and the former owner foreclosed. My cousin, John, suggested I file bankruptcy. I did not want to, but it seemed the only way to buy more time to sell the building. I had enough equity in the property to pay off the note on it, payoff my note to the bank in Mt. Carmel and hopefully get a little cash out of the deal. After several sleepless nights, I ask John to file the bankruptcy for me.
During John’s law school graduation dinner, I had drunk too much wine, as usual, and made several toasts to “free legal service.” The first toast was funny, the rest were tacky. Being the kind-heart fellow he always has been, John made my words prophetic. I was deeply shamed to have put myself in the positions that I could not pay my bills and had to depend on his kindness and expertise to see me through it.
The initial shock passed and life went on. I became busy with work, had jobs lined up, became still stronger physically and took a step or two away form the lonely abyss I felt inside. Then the bad news came.
ST. LOUIS – AGAIN
“You have to come back for the hearing.”
“Isn’t there some way to avoid that. I would rather not come back just now.”
“I can appreciate your feelings, but unless you appear, the BK will just sit, and your building will be auctioned off at foreclosure.”
A week later I landed in St. Louis. John met me. When we walked out of the airport into the June mugginess, I gasped. Six months in California and I had forgotten how oppressive the humidity is in the Midwest. The really bad days of August were six weeks away.
John handled the hearing smoothly. I did not. My botched financially life was being laid bare.
I stayed with John and he was kind and gracious. I was in town just seven days, but emotionally it felt years. I relived my father’s death, my days in St. Louis, the guilt I felt for losing his money. I had dreams that he came back and wanted his money back. I could not face how I had blown my sister’s share. She had gotten his lot in Evansville and sold it, but I still owed her. I did not call Susan.
I boarded the plane feeling weak and troubled.
When I got back to San Francisco, my momentum and bright outlook of a week earlier had vanished. Jobs I had scheduled had been done by somebody else. One property management company that had promised me steady work had hired a new handyman because I was not available when they needed me. I became depressed and felt worse physically.