S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Hard Headed,” Park talks about his pal Carl Sampson.
I only thought I was alone until my dog died. I had a cat before him, but she spent most of her life outdoors and was more like a visitor. Hobo, on the other hand, rarely left my side in the twelve years we spent together. I even moved to Port Townsend so he could spend the end of his life near a beach.
But now it’s just me again and that’s fine, it took me about an hour to revert to form. It’s seemed starker than usual lately—unless I shop for food I can go days without seeing or speaking to anyone—but that’s by choice and the very thing I wish for kids, i.e. the ability to enjoy your own company.
It gets a bit dicey with old age, however. You’ve no wife, girlfriend, kids or money (and little family), so you are, in effect, just taking up space. What’s the point in that? (And where are the Millennials with pitchforks, moving us boomers along)?
But I’ve missed the point all my life, so another few years won’t matter much. At least I could commiserate with Carl Sampson back in the day. He was my existential sidekick; we met as freshmen in high school and bonded immediately. When I returned to the Bay Area in 1966 we rekindled the friendship and became roommates in Berkeley later (we’d drink and drug all day, then sneak into strangers’ garages to sleep). You had to be fucked up to pass out on cold, greasy concrete floors, but fortunately we were both early risers and rarely encountered the homeowners themselves. (Their dogs were a different matter.)
Finally we rented a place of our own, a one-car garage on Dwight Street. It cost us twenty a month and we could even use the bathroom in the house (well, if we climbed in through a window, anyway).
Unfortunately we had no heat or electricity. For money we rode a County Jail bus to Union City and picked beans. How much I made depended on how much I drank, so an average day’s pay was maybe five bucks. At night I wrote by candlelight (setting my portable typer on a milk crate), while Sampson fucked a series of hippie girls on the mattress behind me. They were runaways he’d meet on Telegraph Avenue and bring home, and I bet some of them still remember their tryst with Carnal Carl: the man rutted like a wild animal.
I’d offer to leave, of course, but he barely knew I was there, anyway. The girls? Hard to tell. I was a six-six, 250-pound alkie who lived in a garage; they probably thought I was there to make Carl look better or, perhaps (like we told them if they asked), that I was taking notes for a romance novel.
I wasn’t getting much myself. The only thing admirable about my alcoholism, in fact, was the way I left women out of it. I was, however, in awe of Sampson’s outsized appetites, and finally nicknamed him “Elemental Man.”
It was also during this period that he introduced me to his mother. She had an apartment with a pool in Burlingame and was a hardcore, unrepentant rummy herself. She liked company when she drank and I was available, so I’d visit her when I came to town. If I arrived at noon she’d be pouring martinis at the kiki bar, and we’d chase gin-soaked delirium all day.
I heard later she drowned in that pool, which sounds about right. In the meanwhile I’d moved on from our Berkeley garage, bouncing from a gardener’s cottage in Burlingame to a basement in Arcata to a halfway house in the Northwest to a kitchen floor in Portland, all in a six-month period. When I returned to Berkeley the following Spring I ended up in a mental ward with severe alcohol psychosis. Carl was living with a girlfriend named Elsa by then, and they’d visit me once a week.
Sampson was an alkie, too, but I’m not sure Elsa knew it yet. He was a binger, disappearing into a drunk for thirty, sixty, even ninety days at a time. (He’d played rugby at Cal and was a fearsome brawler.) Bukowski said you could tell your friends by how they treated you when you got out of jail, but he never tried mental wards. When you’re discharged from those you wonder about the friends who don’t scatter, yet Carl was always there for me.
Bukowski said you could tell your friends by how they treated you when you got out of jail, but he never tried mental wards. When you’re discharged from those you wonder about the friends who don’t scatter.
Then I drifted north and it was twenty years before I saw him again. One or the other of us was usually without a phone, but we kept up as best we could. He’d turned to sales work by then and also become, oddly enough, a malt liquor drunk. (I asked him about it once, and he said it was “easier, faster and cheaper” than other booze … never mind the taste.)
Then in the winter of ’91 he closed down a bar in Oakland and decided that, even though he’d fallen twice while searching for his Volkswagen Bug, he was sober enough to drive home. He claimed to be going ten miles an hour when he stopped to pick up a hitchhiker. It was, as best he remembers, a Mexican guy. Also a serial killer apparently, because a block later he reached over and smashed Carl in the head with a crow bar. It was the first of six such blows, the last couple to the back of Sampson’s head as he rolled out the door and onto the street.
After which his assailant drove off in his car. (The Bug was later found outside a police station.) It seemed the guy bludgeoned five other locals that year, all of whom died on the spot. Carl? He straggled to his feet, stumbled three miles to the nearest hospital. A more prudent fellow might have hailed a cab or police car, but Sampson was allergic to cops and a defiant, stubborn son-of-a-bitch on top of it.
So he caused quite a sensation when he finally walked into the emergency room: his face, shirt and pants were caked with blood and, after he told the doctors what had happened and how far he’d walked, they started searching for brain matter, too. (Turns out rugby players are hard to kill.)
When I saw him a year later I ran my hand over his scalp: it had divots like a golf ball. We were at a party hosted by Ned Gumbo at a Browns Valley, California hotel, and Carl hooked up with the only single woman on hand. Her name was Sandy, a friendly divorcee who lived in Oakland, and she and Carl made a date for the following Friday evening.
Except he never showed up or called. Then two days later there’s a knock at her door. She opens it to see Sampson on the steps. He has a black eye, a fat lip, deep bruises on his face and arms and a ripped, blood-smeared T-shirt.
Their conversation, as Sandy described it to Gumbo’s wife later, went something like this:
Sandy: “Oh my God, Carl … what happened? Were you in an accident!?”
Sampson: “You could call it that. I planned to be here Friday night, but I started drinking at Maxie’s at noon [a black bar in the worst part of town; most white men won’t even walk past it], and I picked up a sweet piece and followed her back to her place. We were going at it good until her husband came home. Next thing I know we’re brawling in the bedroom and he goes through the window. The cops tossed me in jail and I’ve been there ever since.
“But hey! As soon as they released me … I came straight here.”
Sampson: “So … we still on for dinner?”
By the end of the Nineties the cracks were beginning to show. Sampson went to a dead junkie’s memorial and picked up his widow, moving to Hawaii with her to smoke crank.
It lasted longer than I thought it would, but eventually he was back in Berkeley and I looked him up when I could. This was easier said than done, because though he claimed to have a roof over his head he’d only meet me on street corners. He was doing telemarketer jobs by then, and in between binges he’d work on his book-length essay comparing Castaneda’s Mescalito dialogues to the I Ching.
The eccentricities were increasing with age, too. My favorite was his Spirulina habit. Remember that supplement? The grisly seaweed granules that are supposed to be dissolved in liquid, then drank? Carl poured them straight into his mouth and chewed them, staining his teeth, lips and chin with black juice.
Then he’d head out for his daily stroll and, because it was Berkeley, no one gave him a second glance. In the Fall of 2009 he called me in Portland. He was living in a Vegas basement at the time, selling burglar alarms door-to-door in gated communities.
“Jesus,” I said, “it’s a little hot there, isn’t it?”
“Over a hundred most days,” he said. “But all these houses have pools. You make sure no one’s home first, then climb the fence and jump in the water fully clothed.”
If it were anyone but Carl I wouldn’t have believed it.
“It’s great,” he said. “You’re dry a block later.”
It seemed he was having dental problems, though, and correcting them would exhaust his savings. If he had the work done, could he stay with me in Portland afterwards?
I told him sure, he was welcome wherever I lived. He looked for transient labor once he arrived, but employers were reluctant to hire a lumpy-headed old man in blackface, so Tony DeBola called and offered him good paying work in Sisters, Boregon. Carl could lay tile while living rent free at our hunter’s cabin in the woods. It was over a hundred years old, with no heat or electricity or running water, but we didn’t burden Sampson with the details (he’d survived worse places).
And he did okay this time, too, at least until he woke to a kangaroo rat on his chest. By then he’d made it a month and that was pretty much his limit, anyway. The cabin had a compost toilet, and DeBola had warned him several times to empty and refill the shavings tray, otherwise the waste wouldn’t break down. Sampson ignored this directive (which matters when a guy lives on baked beans) and filled the bowl to the brim before leaving.
There was a heavy snowfall later, so the road to the cabin became impassable. When Tony finally made it out there (after an unusually warm April), he smelled something awful the moment he stepped inside.
He walked down the hall to the compost toilet, only to find it had exploded in the Spring thaw, blasting Carl’s feces across the floor and walls.
“Well, Tony,” I told him later, “if you’re Elemental Man … you leave a shit storm behind.”
Easy for me to say … I didn’t have to clean it up.