S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Better Lucky Than Good,” Park ponders his ongoing good fortune.
One of the things these columns (like my memoirs generally) have underscored for me is the preponderance of good fortune in my life. It’s a strange thing to consider because … where do you put it? I’d like to believe that “fortune favors the prepared mind,” except if it did I wouldn’t have been so lucky. And attributing it to a spiritual source doesn’t go anywhere: why would an omniscient entity care about my ass, much less intervene in my daily existence? What a universe that would be.
And I’m not talking about “lucky” in a general sense. I don’t get the girl or the long straw or the cards I need in poker: if anything it’s the opposite. I’m such a loser I have to visualize life as a scale, with the daily setbacks balanced by the luck that matters.
Because when it counts, when my life hangs in the balance, the dice roll my way. (I’m superstitious enough that I wouldn’t have written that as a younger man, but who cares now.) It’s one of the things, in fact, that makes my stories so unlikely, as luck is always saving the day.
Take the liver disease that should have killed me. It was laid out for me by my doctor, a young guy named Emery, as I lay in Kaiser’s intensive care ward in the Spring of ’78. I’d been in and out of comas for a week and—according to him—I was pretty much a goner: my liver had succumbed to cirrhosis and a vicious Hepatitis A (foodborne) virus.
To illustrate the point he held up an x-ray of my dyed liver. It looked like a pink watermelon.
“You’re too young for damage this acute, Wilson,” he said. “You must be a very heavy drinker.”
“I was,” I croaked. “Nothing in a couple years, though. I … I’m a Scientologist now.”
“Really?” he said. “So you went from bad to worse?”
I’m dying and he’s cracking jokes … that’s what I liked about the Kaiser in L.A. At the time, though, I slid back into the void, thinking that—here at the end, when all was said and done—it came down to a shit-stained burrito.
The doctor called my wife and parents later that night, explained that I was failing and would likely be dead by morning.
The doctor called my wife and parents later that night, explained that I was failing and would likely be dead by morning. (With interesting results he told me later: “Your mother scoffed and your wife seemed pleased.”)
It didn’t matter. I woke the next morning and, not only was the fever gone, but I was hungry for the first time in a week. Emery stopped short of calling it a miracle, but he did nickname me “Aces” afterwards. He also did a liver biopsy (well, two of them, actually, he botched the first one) and it so confounded him that he sent the results to liver experts across the U.S.
Every few months he’d call me at my word processing job. (I had no phone in the room where I lived.) I was always surprised to hear from him. Recovering from the virus had taken a year but I didn’t think about it much anymore; something was always trying to kill me and none of it was as bad as the d.t.’s (My motto in my thirties.) So a call from Dr. Emery would shock me back to reality, remind me my liver slides were being studied somewhere.
We’d exchange small talk about my general health and stamina, then he’d pop the Big Reveal:
“Well, Aces,” he’d say, “I wanted you to know I heard from more of the experts.”
“Oh yeah? What’s the word?”
“Zip. They can’t figure it out, either.”
Was this guy bullshitting me? Was he covering his own ass? Had he actually sent the slides anywhere? It became our little Groundhog Day. And somewhere in there I started acquainting liver science with voodoo; I refused another biopsy and the last time Emery called I was about to leave L.A. I’m not sure what the “experts” had told him, but he claimed my liver was full of granulomas and had the working circumference of a golf ball.
I thought about it, and it wasn’t much different than what I’d heard before.
“So Doc,” I said, “what do I do with that? How long have I got?”
“I’m not sure, Aces,” he replied. “Best guess, if you stay off the booze … maybe five to ten years.”
That was forty years ago and here I sit. It was the same thing with the meningitis and encephalitis as a kid: the doctors would tell my parents I was a goner and the next day I’d pop up like a Jack-in-the-box. Even if it’s simply great genes, and I’m nothing but the product of a hundred-year-old woman … well, that’s pretty fortunate, too. Who knows they’re being raised by an immortal?
And none of this takes into account the more delicious aspect of chance, i.e. serendipity. I was pondering this as I watched a pot documentary the other night. For someone who devoted most of his adult life to the plant it’s astonishing to see what botanists, engineers, chefs and geneticists are doing with it now. It’s the difference between a hoe and a tractor, and it makes my pioneer heart proud.
But how did I get into the business? Being a pot grower took capital or property and I had neither. I tried hooking on with a friend’s operation in the Spring of ’81 but that didn’t last long. I was back in the Bay Area, crashing on a buddy’s couch and doing temporary word processing jobs, when I remembered my old girlfriend Pat lived in Lake Tahoe.
We worked together in the slot department at Harvey’s Casino in ’76. And calling her my girlfriend is something of a stretch: fuck buddies was more like it. She was a cashier and I was a keyman in the slot department, and I liked how she left her glasses on during sex. (I think everyone on the planet would look better in glasses, but getting the women I’ve known to wear them—much less during sex—had eluded me.) We were compatible in a number of ways actually, including the fact she was a tall, thin artist who loved to read. I don’t know what the problem was (well, other than my general unsuitability as a mate); certainly she wanted more, but for me it was a situation where, if I didn’t see her for a few days I’d miss her, then when I would I’d think, Nahhhh … won’t work.
It was frustrating but many of my actions at the time were suspect: it was the end of my drinking days and adjusting to life without booze had proven difficult. Now it was five years later and I was, as usual, horny and alone with nowhere to go. Except this time relief was only five hours away. Pat and I had exchanged letters over the years, so I knew she still worked in the casino. I drove to Lake Tahoe, found her cashier booth and she looked so good (well, except for contact lenses) and seemed so happy to see me that, after we agreed to get together that evening, I cruised my old haunts and thought, Hell, I’ve always liked Tahoe … I could live here again. I’d been blackballed by the gaming industry, so there’d be no casino work (after I left Harvey’s they gave lie detector tests to my coworkers, asking if they’d shared Maui Wowie/Thai joints with me in the parking lot, and of course they all had), but Lake Tahoe was a resort area: it was full of service jobs and it didn’t much matter to me what I did.
Particularly if I had a loving woman around. I took Pat to dinner and we hurried back to her apartment afterwards. We were panting like teenagers and had our hands down each other’s pants when the phone rang.
“Just ignore it,” I gasped.
She started to, then pulled away. “I can’t,” she said. “My father’s the only one who calls me here, and it might be important. I’ll just be a second.”
I sat down, watched her from behind as she picked up the receiver. Began unbuttoning my jeans.
“Hi, Dad,” she said. Then, “WHAT!? Oh my God nooooo! No! It can’t be!”
They spoke a little longer, then she hung up the phone and broke into sobs. “It’s terrible!” she wailed. “My stepmom died suddenly!”
What!? I buttoned my pants back up. Had the grace not to curse out loud, then thought, Hey! It’s her stepmom, not her real one, maybe there’s still a shot …
But no, the woman had raised her and Pat was inconsolable. I tried, of course, but I was an Awkward American Male: she would have been better off with a dog. After a long, emotional night she headed to the airport while I drove back to the Bay Area. I returned earlier than planned so I stopped at a deli in San Francisco for lunch. There was a bookstore next to it and when I stepped inside I ran into my old buddy Pete Gervais, who I hadn’t seen or heard from in ten years. One thing led to another and, as noted in an earlier column (“High Hopes”), he introduced me to Karen in Bolinas the following week. She had the pot crop that jump started the rest (and best) of my life.
All because of a simple twist of Fate. Did I think God had struck down Pat’s stepmother so I could be a career criminal? Hardly.
But He may as well have.