S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Back Story,” Park is stymied by the identity of whoever delivered him a sweet gift, and more tales involving Ned Gumbo.
I came home from a dental appointment last week to find a paper bag taped to my door. There was a short message scrawled on it:
TO MR. HIGH:
FROM: REDNECK GEEK
P.S. NOT QUITE DRY.
I assumed “Bubblegum” referred to a marijuana variety. I opened the bag and sure enough, there was a half ounce of fragrant buds inside. I was thrilled; I might have spent thirty years growing and selling pot, but finding it on my front door was a first. I went inside, dried a couple grams in front of the heater and rolled a bomber.
It was excellent. I used to hang out at The Gray Area in Amsterdam in the Nineties, the only coffeeshop owned by an American. As I recall they had Bubblegum bragging rights; it was a hybrid that originated in Indiana in 1993 and found its way to The Gray Area a couple years later. (Or so went the story: the only thing more unreliable than stoner history is that of drunks.) It was an Indica crossed with an early Blueberry plant and smelled and tasted like bubblegum. I hadn’t smoked it directly in a while, but enjoyed a series of tokes as I peered out at the forest and thought: Who the fuck is the “Redneck Geek”?
I had no idea. I spent days scrolling through friends and acquaintances in my head, searching for a “redneck,” a “geek,” or a rough facsimile thereof. Because whoever it was had to be an indoor grower, too.
But the search produced nothing. I’ve given nicknames to many of my friends but “Redneck Geek”? That wasn’t happening. If I had to guess I’d point to Thad, a character who shows up at my readings and rides around on motorcycles with his girlfriend. I know he’s grown before, and he’s a Green Bay Packer fan from Wisconsin, so maybe there’s a “redneck” connection there, but I didn’t get the “geek” part. I finally decided that whoever left it made up a name to fuck with me:
So you’re not home, High? Well, you like nicknames … figure this one out. Then every time you smoke this shit you’ll wonder who I am!
And I do. Well played, Mystery Man, I wish I’d thought of it myself.
If he lived nearby I would have suspected my old buddy Ned Gumbo (no stunt is beneath that Schadenfreude). He once became so tired of my snoring that he reached over the couch I was passed out on and punched me in the face, then ducked down as my friend Canby walked through the door. Thinking he was the one who’d hit me I leaped up, buried a fist in his gut.
Or there was the time I had an earache on LSD and Ned poured a whole bottle of novocaine in my ear, then dragged me to Valley of the Dolls, a movie about people killing themselves with pills. My head felt like concrete for a week afterwards and even that was better than the next incident, when I was so drunk and stoned after a Niners game that he wedged me into a shopping cart, pushed it a couple blocks, then shoved me down one of the steepest hills in San Francisco.
I must have been going twenty miles an hour when I hit a curb, flew across the sidewalk and smashed headfirst into a wall, knocking myself out. I’ve retaliated as best I can over time (mostly by still being here), but now the once invulnerable Gumbo is laid up in a Yuba City, California hospital himself. He survived untold car wrecks over the decades, including driving off a cliff in Pescadero, California in a Morris Minor convertible, then plummeting a hundred feet to the beach below. He only lived to tell about it because the car landed upright.
But catastrophic incidents take their toll physically and now his vertebrae are dust. He limps around and came home last week to a pounding “atmospheric river” near his home. Stepped out of the car, slogged up the concrete walkway with groceries beneath his arms and tripped.
He blamed it on being sober (said his body wasn’t used to it) and shattered the upper right ulna near his hip.
The ghosts of all the characters he’s flimflammed over the years would have delighted in the scene that followed, as the storm masked Gumbo’s howls of agony. It was a half hour before his wife opened the front door. She was checking on the mail but saw her apoplectic husband instead, sprawled on the concrete in a sea of soggy groceries.
She rushed Ned to the emergency room where the surgeon put three screws in his leg before sending him to another hospital to recover. It’s part of the complex where my hundred-year-old mother lives, and when I told her Gumbo was nearby she paused for a moment, searched through her memories for my stories about him:
“Well,” she said finally, “should I hide?”
I assured her he wasn’t mobile.
Back in 2000, when his back ailments first surfaced, I visited him at another hospital. He told me he was on the fourth floor so I took the elevator up, stepped out and walked to the nurse’s station.
There was a matronly nurse behind the desk.
“Hi,” I said. “Could you tell me what room Ned Gumbo is in? I’m here to visit him.”
Her mouth dropped open: she was incredulous.
“You must be kidding,” she said. “Why?”
Apparently he’d treated the nurse alarm like a doorbell, clamoring for more and stronger opiates. When I reached his room I found him trussed up and immobilized in a special bed.
He groaned when he spotted me.
“I apologize, High!” he said. “I take back every word of it!”
I missed the reference at first, then realized he was talking about a quarter century earlier, when we’d both worked at that Half Moon Bay ranch. (Or rather I worked and he screwed cowgirls.) I wrenched my back shoveling shit and laid on my horse stall cot for a week. Every morning Ned would drop by to “check on my progress” as he put it.
“Get up you faker!” he’d say. (Doing my chores had cut into his action.) “I’ve read all about back pain, High, and it’s nothing but psychosomatic bullshit!”
Then he’d give the cot a good whack with his boot, gauge my recovery by how white my face got.
“You know, Gumbo,” I said, starting across the room, “thanks for the reminder. You accused me of faking my pain back then, claimed it was … how did you put it? Oh yeah, ‘psychosomatic bullshit.’”
“I was joking, High!”
“Uh huh. And do you remember what else you did?”
“What?” He thought about it, then his face blanched in recognition. “Oh shit … you mean kicking the cot to test you!? Don’t do it, High, this is waaaay more serious! I just got out of surgery and the slightest movement is excruciating!”
“So your back ache is real, eh?” I reached his bed, banged my knee into the bars.
“AAAGGGGHHH!” he howled. “Stop! Stop or I’ll call the nurse!”
“I’ve met her, Ned, and if she were here she’d join me.”
I gave the bars another whack.
What a ham. I sidled along the bed until I stood directly above him. Noticed he was clutching a piece of paper in his hand.
“Writing your memoirs?” I asked.
“Oh no,” he said. “This is a note to the kitchen staff.”
He showed it to me:
You knuckle dragging morons! I
asked for iced tea, not dishwater!
It’s bad enough you can’t cook …
at least learn to follow instructions!
—Ned Gumbo, Room 412
Fuckin’ Gumbo. For a guy who’d been left on a doorstep he had a mighty high opinion of himself.
And zero common sense.
“Are you insane, man!?” I asked. “You’ll be lucky if they only spit in your food.”
“Come on, High,” he scoffed. “You don’t think I eat that slop, do you? I’m here for the drugs.”
Then, as if on cue, the nurse trudged in with a tray of meds. She filled a water glass on Ned’s nightstand, handed it to him, then lifted one of the pill cups.
He opened his hand and she tipped a single Percocet into it.
“Hey what the hell!” he said. “Where’s the other one? I’m supposed to get two!”
She turned towards me with an ear-to-ear, shit-eating grin on her face. This was as good as it got on that job.
“Sorry, Mister Gumbo,” she said. “The doctor instructed us to cut your pain meds in half.”
Now twenty years have passed and my old buddy’s laid up again, unable to put weight on his leg and hobbling around with a walker. Being a hospital vet myself I always think of the grisly grub first. (I flushed it down the toilet as a kid, even if I had to crawl to the bathroom.)
But Gumbo’s a gourmand … institutional food is harder on him. When we lived in that Burlingame gardener’s cottage in the Sixties, for instance, without five bucks to our names, he couldn’t make a baloney sandwich with air bread like I did. Oh no, he had to have Russian rye, an exotic cheese from Europe and Dijon mustard, dill pickles, lettuce, tomato and onions as garnish. (Even if that meant stealing them from the Safeway up the street.)
Fast food? I’ve known the guy fifty years and never seen it in his mouth, which is admirable until you’re stuck in a hospital with no experience eating garbage. He called me yesterday as I was leaving for my afternoon walk.
“I may have fucked up,” he said.
“I know, Ned,” I replied. “That’s what we’re putting on your tombstone.”
“No no, really. This woman came by just now with a clipboard, asked me a bunch of questions about the food here.”
“I’ve been pounding the Percocets, of course, so I got a little worked up, told her it was such vile gruel that they oughta grease the cook with it, then set him or her on fire.”
“Don’t tell me,” I said. “Turns out she’s the cook.”
“How’d you know?”
I hung up, stepped outside and began my daily stroll. Walked past a house two blocks east that’s owned by Wang from Viet Nam. If he has a wife he keeps her hidden but he’s usually out front himself, tending to his neatly manicured garden.
I’ve taken a liking to the guy over the years because, not only is he painfully straight-looking, with his buttoned-up shirts and khaki pants, but he has Trump stickers on his car and windows. That takes guts in this town, where he may be the only non-snowflake for miles. (The first thing a neighbor asked recently, when a doctor told her she needed brain surgery, was: “Will I wake up a Republican?”)
So half in jest (figuring he’d appreciate the gesture, anyway), I gave him a copy of High & Dry last year.
I do that often, as one of the best parts about memoir writing is that—instead of explaining yourself to people—you can just give them the book.
They often avoid me afterwards, of course, but that’s a plus, too. I figured Wang for one of those guys but I couldn’t be sure, as he’d never been too chatty, anyway.
So I’m walking past his place and he glances up from a rose bush, motions to me with his garden shears.
“Hey, Stretch!” he said. “How you like my Bubblegum?”
What!? I was so stunned I stopped dead in my tracks.
“You grew that?” I said. “You’re the Redneck Geek!?”
“No, no!” he replied. “Gook! Redneck Gook!”
Seventy-two and life keeps sweetening the pot.