S.M. Park

Risen Apes: Stranger in Town

S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Stranger in Town,” Park talks about life as a prototypical bum. 


I know how highly my mother thinks of me, because when we’re in company she’ll often say: “Check this one out. Never had a job in his life.”

Even though I’ve had fifty of them, most of which she knew about. I’d blame it on her advanced age except she’s been describing me that way for years. Always with the same caveat:

“And just think … he could have worked for Walt Disney.”

Back in 1957, when Disneyland was newly opened, old Walt used to wander the grounds. My mom corralled him on our visit to the park (I was nine at the time) and told him I was a talented cartoonist myself.

“Well,” he said, shaking my hand, “maybe you can work for me someday, Wilson.”

“Thanks, Mr. Disney,” I said, “but I’m going to be a bum.”

It was prescient of me but who knows where it came from? I can’t remember thinking like that beforehand, and there was little indication I was headed that way. I know it crossed my mind twelve years later, when I was living in a room next to a bar. It must have been used for storage once, as there were no windows, the walls were concrete and the only light was a dim bulb overhead. Diego, the owner of The Pool Lounge, had installed a bed in there for emergencies only.

Which certainly made me a candidate. I’d returned from a 4th of July celebration in the Bay Area so hungover that I passed out driving a bulldozer. It might not have mattered, except I was the middle of three D-7 Caterpillars dragging a rice check. We were connected by chains and when I fell asleep my Cat climbed the back of the one in front of me. It was driven by an older woman whose piercing scream startled me awake.

I braked in time but it wasn’t quick enough to save my job, not when the ranch foreman was on the ’dozer behind us. He fired me on the spot and it was, to be fair, the last of a series of drug and alcohol-related incidents: I liked to drink beer, smoke pot and take psychedelics while driving farm equipment. This meant I lost my bunkhouse cot, too, and I was detailing my woes to Diego later when he motioned me to follow him. We passed through a door next to the toilets, stepped into a room I hadn’t noticed before.

It was stifling hot. This was Meridian, California, after all, where the summer temperatures regularly exceeded one hundred degrees. The room was maybe ten by ten, with no door, a semen-stained mattress and peeling, puke-colored paint on the walls.

A jail cell, basically. I asked Diego if I could rent it and he looked over at the toilet stalls (where we heard a drunk grunting out a good one), then back at me.

“You really think I’d charge someone to live here, High?” he laughed. “If you can stand it, you can have it.”

I moved in immediately, as my earthly goods consisted of a 1960 Corvair (the model Ralph Nader profiled in Unsafe at Any Speed), a portable typer and a bag of T-shirts, socks and underwear. I hadn’t thought of it before, but living in a bar suited me. (Not only was the booze down the hall, but so were the microwave burritos I lived on.)


I know how highly my mother thinks of me, because when we’re in company she’ll often say: “Check this one out. Never had a job in his life.”


And conveniences mattered in Hell. I’d hooked on with the outfit my brother Ben worked for, swamping straw and hay bales onto trucks. They weighed from sixty to eighty pounds and you had to secure them on either end with hay hooks, then lift them onto your knee and toss them overhead. Ten to twelve hours a day, seven days a week, in blistering summer heat. With horseflies sucking your blood and black widows tumbling from the straw.

At least once a shift I told whoever I was working with that this was my last day. They ignored me because we all talked like that: we were smug college kids who’d bagged groceries in high school and thought we knew what work was.

Our boss was Buzzy Jerome. He was a university graduate himself, so he had a soft spot for students. He was thirty-five and his real name was something like Charles; he got the “Buzzy” handle for being so volatile. He’d go from intense to psychotic in the blink of an eye, and the first time he did it around me I burst out laughing.

“Holy shit, Buzzy!” I said, “I thought I had a temper! You’re a fuckin’ whacko!”

“Nothing in life is good or easy, High,” he muttered. “You remember that.”

I did. I even scrawled it on my dorm wall later, a vague rebuke to Evergreen’s political correctness. In the interim, however, it served as our Yuba Straw motto (I know I muttered it often enough, lunging for another bale). The whole farm/swamper experience was so torturous, in fact, that my co-workers and I referred to it as “our Viet Nam”:

“Did you serve somewhere, son?”

“Oh yeah. Meridian, California, Summer of ’71.”

Only my brother Ben liked it there. He had that workaholic gambler thing going, so the miserable life of a farmer appealed to him; the problem was finding a woman who shared his affliction.

Then several years later, when he was tending to his tomatoes, a blonde, petite Scandinavian girl strolled up the driveway.

“Are you Ben?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said.

“My name is Eva and I’m here from Denmark on an exchange program. I’m a groom at the Miller farm up the road but they only work ten-hour days. I hear you do sixteen, so I was hoping to catch on with you.”

It was a match made in heaven and forty years later they’re still together. In the meanwhile Suba Straw was enough for the rest of us. At night we’d drink and play poker at The Pool bar. Marvel at how fanning or shuffling those cards, or even picking up our chips, would be impossible the next morning. Using hay hooks all day was so hard on the hands that when you woke they were clenched into claws: if you wanted coffee you had to balance the cup between your knuckles. We worked for two months before earning a day off, which we squandered on a Jethro Tull concert in Sacramento. (I ate so much MDA that the opening bars of “Thick as a Brick” still make me flinch.)



In the meanwhile I loved that little room. I guess Diego expected I’d leave once I got a paycheck, but I was in my element there … I put a fan in the corner and let my books and clothes lay where they fell.

It wasn’t like I had visitors. Sometimes, after the right combination of drugs and alcohol, or maybe a guy with diarrhea next door, I’d look around and think, This is it, loser! You’ve hit rock bottom now!

But I’d pass out quickly afterwards. (There was no sense overthinking things.) I returned to that area recently for my mother’s hundredth birthday. She lives in a Yuba City rest home and I was thrilled when my cousin Jan attended the party. It had been twenty years since we’d seen each other, and in the course of our lunchtime conversation I discovered that her middle son, Wade, was a tall, thin, drug-addled cartoonist who lived in his car.

“You’re kidding!” I said. “That’s fantastic!”

I turned to my nephew and niece, still in their prime breeding years.

“Take heed,” I said. “I could be a prototype.”


S.M. Park is the author and illustrator of his memoirs High & Dry and The Grass Is Greener, both published by University of Hell Press.


S.M. Park

S.M. Park lives two blocks from the Salish Sea in Port Townsend, Washington. His passions include walking, wondering and weed. Park, in his guise as Wilson High, has written and illustrated two memoirs, High & Dry and The Grass Is Greener, both published by University of Hell Press.

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