S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Grudge Match,” Park talks about his brother Joe. Joe passed away a decade ago and S.M. gave him a fitting eulogy.
It’s been ten years since my brother Joe dropped dead at sixty. It was a shock to everyone who knew him, as he was the picture of health and a very active man. He owned a successful bar and restaurant in Lake Tahoe, California (so knew his way around food and drink), but his true passion was golf. Lots and lots of golf … like our father and youngest brother he’d have played every day if he could. He even owned a second home in Scottsdale, Arizona, for just that purpose: a two-bedroom ranch house with nothing inside but a television, a futon, and golf clubs.
As brothers we were similar in all ways but the crucial ones. We were both proud, stubborn characters who were comfortable with solitude and swore off marriage early. In 2008, when I drove to Tahoe for his memorial, I stayed at his A-frame home. He’d bought it years before but I’d never been there, so I was surprised at how familiar it felt. There was nothing in the refrigerator but a bottle of Gatorade, and overhead was a large array of copper pots and pans that, like the rest of the kitchen, looked like they’d never been used. I might have expected that from a guy who ate at his restaurant, except the living room was just as bare and functional. There were no pictures of family or friends around, no souvenirs from his colorful life, no personal touches that would distinguish the place from a motel room.
I was impressed: I admire anyone who sticks to the basics. Then I walked into Joe’s bedroom and the shock of recognition was so strong I staggered a little. He had all his T-shirts and underwear and socks flung in piles against the wall, and his books and magazines were spread across the floor, which is exactly how my bedroom looked.
The more I explored the house the more it seemed I’d stumbled upon a spiritual twin, a guy who thought drawers and shelves and cooking were too much bother. It shouldn’t have surprised me as it did, except I’d visited our parents years earlier and, in the course of our conversation, thanked them for giving me my own room as a child.
“That solitude was crucial to me,” I told them.
They shook their heads, looked at me like I was crazy. (Just as they always had, I suppose.)
“You’re kidding, right?” said my mother.
“Well no,” I responded. “Why?”
“Wilson, you and Joe shared the same room from the time he was born until you were sixteen.”
You could have heard a pin drop in there. I realized, when I concentrated on it, that there was a vague, fuzzy form on the bed beside mine as a kid. It wouldn’t have been either of my other brothers, so that left Joe.
Wow! I thought, that’s embarrassing. Still worse is I couldn’t remember us ever interacting in that room.
And I have an excellent memory. There’s plenty of Joe from other venues, particularly as we aged, so I was obviously a worse “bubble boy” than I thought, a kid whose sphere of solitude was so dense he made his own brother vanish.
And vice versa perhaps. I never asked Joe, but he probably thought he’d grown up by himself, too: this was part of the disconnect between us, a void we never really bridged. There were the surface differences, of course, like my exaggerated height and his normal one, or the fact I was a cartoonist (with all that entails) while he was a jock, or my abiding passion for the written word even as Joe read a single book before his thirties (Bob Cousy’s Basketball Is My Life).
Not to mention I’ve lived seventy-two years without once swinging a golf club. All that pales, though, beside our disparate senses of humor. Put simply, Joe was a Mel Brooks kind of guy and I was a Sam Kinison devotee, which wouldn’t have mattered except we were both born storytellers.
We got the Irish in the family, and Joe took his to the bar. He was twenty the first time he walked behind one, and when he discovered he could make a living doing what he did all day, anyway—which was talking sports and giving people shit—his career search was over. I know because I was staying in his Portland apartment in 1969 when he separated his shoulder skiing. He came through the door late in the afternoon with his right arm in a sling and a wide grin on his face.
“Hey, what happened?” I asked. (I was laying on the kitchen floor with my head against the oven, balancing a jug of wine on my beer gut.)
“I tore up my shoulder!” he exclaimed. “I’m out of the draft!”
I lifted the bottle to salute him.
“Well done, brother,” I said. “I’m proud of you.”
He scoffed. “As I am of you, Wilson,” he said, pointing at the wine. “Guess you sold your blood for money again, eh?”
“Yeah. It’s kinda like a job now.”
“Uh huh. Well, be warned: you’ll be seeing more of me, as I just dropped out of school myself.”
What!? That couldn’t be right. I knew he was only in college because of the draft, but he’d put in three-and-a-half years by then.
“Jesus, Joe,” I said. “You graduate from Portland State in six weeks! You can’t stick it out that long?”
“Why bother?” he laughed. “What good’s a degree to me … I’m gonna own a bar.”
And he did. It was the part of Joe I admired most, his unshakable belief in himself. (Though the same could be said of all four of the High boys: our parents must have done something right.)
Joe’s confidence and command were obvious from a young age. We were on the same high school basketball team, for instance, and he was the best point guard I ever played with: if I were open for an instant he’d get me the ball. That same certainty led him to buy a dilapidated bar at thirty and turn it into the most successful saloon in North Tahoe (even as he coached the local high school team to a championship).
But my six-week stay in his apartment that winter doomed us. The fault was mine, of course, as I was a broke, hapless wino who slept on his floor, had no clothes but the ones on my back, insulted him and his fiancée in blackouts (to hear them tell it, anyway), and stole beers in the bar he managed. Joe wasn’t the forgiving type, and he never got over events I could barely remember. He finally dumped me beside the highway on a snowy Christmas Eve (with nothing to my name but a portable typer and the twenty bucks he’d given me). Told me to hit the road and never return.
I thought that was a bit harsh but what the hell … I was a drunk, I’d heard it before. And even those moments had an inevitability to them, a sense of otherness best evoked by our last vacation as teenagers. We were staying in a Lake Tahoe motel with my parents and little brother when a fire broke out on the property. My mother burst into our room at midnight, and after assuring her I hadn’t started the blaze myself (I was a notorious firebug as a kid), she told me to wake the sleeping Joe, get dressed and hurry outside.
A few minutes later, as I stood with my parents and youngest brother beneath a streetlamp, reading a paperback (the mesmerizing King Rat) while firemen fought the blaze, my mother turned to me suddenly.
“Where’s your brother, Wilson?” she exclaimed. “Where’s Joe!? You did wake him, didn’t you!?”
Uh oh, I thought.
So yeah, it’s something of a strained relationship when you can’t remember the other guy is there, except that disconnect extended to my family in general, I suppose. There had long been an underlying tension between us; it wasn’t simply my height, or the fact I was the only artist in the group, or even the way I started smoking at seven and was always in the doghouse for something.
It was more an attitude thing. All my brothers were fiercely independent, but I took that part of our natures to extremes. So instead of poking at societal norms like they did I simply ran them over. Plus my friends and classmates seemed as puzzled by the things I said and did as they were, so why single my family out? (I’ve always felt that, everything considered, they were remarkably patient with me.)
It was just that Joe took me personally, which is hardly surprising in brothers a year apart. Certainly most of the resentments were his, and not all personalities mesh, anyway, particularly two kids as headstrong as we were. I know he held grudges, and that he never—our entire adult lives—visited a place I lived.
“What good’s a degree to me … I’m gonna own a bar.”
Even in 1976, when he lived on one side of Lake Tahoe and I the other, we had but a single meeting. At a neutral site no less, a park beside the lake. There were benches there but we never sat down, as if that would suggest too much familiarity.
Which seems sad now, given that I deeply respected Joe. Like my other brothers he was a successful, self-made, all-American guy, even as I—“Most Likely to Succeed” when we were kids—was a drunken drifter.
I’d had no booze that day, though, and that eased the atmosphere somewhat. Instead I brought along one of my Maui Wowie/Thai Stick joints and, though he didn’t normally smoke dope, Joe conceded to a couple hits.
That was enough to leave most people cross-eyed and he was no exception. He probably thought I’d sabotaged him again (at least when he tried to drive home), but in the meanwhile the pot loosened him up a bit. In the middle of our conversation he blurted out that he’d been diagnosed with an enlarged heart.
“Damn!” I said.
“Yeah,” replied Joe. “The cardiologist says it’s a miracle I didn’t drop dead in high school.”
“And there’s nothing they can do about an enlarged heart is there?”
“I’m truly sorry, Joe,” I said.
“Ah, fuck it, Wilson! Life is hard and then you die.”
He seemed embarrassed he’d even mentioned it and left shortly thereafter. Apparently he never told anyone else in the family so I didn’t either. I hoped it would bring us closer, sharing a confidence like that, but it was just the Maui Wowie talking: he lived another thirty years without either of us broaching the subject again.
So I was less shocked than most when he keeled over at sixty. (It was amazing he’d lived that long.) His memorial, a huge affair beneath a circus tent, drew hundreds of mourners from up and down the coast. My brother was a unique, generous, irreverent man, but you’d never know it from the first few speakers, who read from prepared notes and made the crowd glummer than they were already.
I was horrified: I’ve always felt memorials should be celebrations of life. When my turn came I reminded everyone that this was a wake, not a dirge.
“Feeling bad for my brother is beyond absurd,” I told them. “He was an authentic character and every guy here wishes he’d had a life like Joe’s. He had sex with more women, drank more booze, played more golf and laughed louder and longer than any of us. Then at sixty, when our vices turn on us, he hits the bar after eighteen holes, parties with friends ’til midnight, takes a twenty-year-old home to sleep with, then walks to the can for a good crap in the morning and bang! he’s dead before he hits the floor. We should all be so lucky!”
It wasn’t a hard sell, not to a crowd of bar rats. They exploded in applause and I felt I’d done right by my brother, the way I’d always tried to do.
Well, at least when sober, anyway. And maybe I’d labored to amend my transgressions since those Portland days. I know I was at the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam in ’95, burning one in the Paradox Coffeeshop, when a kid I’d met at the Cup sat down at my table. We ended up eating omelets and sharing a joint for dessert. Somehow Lake Tahoe came up (I might have been wearing a T-shirt Joe had given me), and I mentioned that my brother owned a bar and restaurant there.
“He’s also the high school basketball coach,” I added.
“No way!” exclaimed Kyle. “That’s the high school I go to! You’re telling me Coach Joe, the guy who’s so hard on stoners, is your brother!?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
“That’s fantastic!” he crowed. “Wait’ll I tell everyone the coach’s brother was a judge at the Cannabis Cup! Oh man, oh man!”
I chuckled to myself, happy to give Joe some cred with the kids.
Kyle paused, took another hit on the joint.
“Say!” he said suddenly. “You’re not a fag, too, are ya? That’d be really great!”