S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Snow Job,” Park talks about coming of age in the Sixties, drugs, and suicidal tendencies.
I just heard that my old buddy Gabby Hayes (such a perfect nickname that I can’t remember his real one) drove to a beach in Half Moon Bay, California last month, parked his truck, set up a lawn chair and shot himself.
Few that knew him were surprised … the only mystery was why it had taken so long. Gabby had driven to that same spot every morning for a decade. He liked to sit in the cab, stare out at the ocean (maybe remembering his surfer days) while he stroked his forty-five, snorted coke, pounded Budweisers and smoked hash. Then he’d return home, pass out until late afternoon and begin anew. He called this his “retirement,” but it was pretty much what he’d always done.
Then last year the skin on his upper body turned itchy and scale-like from liver disease. Stoner, drunk, Gabby Hayes the Lizard Man … it was all too much finally. I called Ned Gumbo with the news and, though he pretended to be saddened, he was mostly glad he was still around himself. Both of us should have died long ago, and there we were reminiscing about ghosts.
In this case guys who (like Ned and Gabby) snorted, shot or smoked large quantities of cocaine. Every organ in Tom Canby’s body was mush at the end; Nick Mason’s sinuses were eaten away by tumors, our old roommate Faubert was found in a room so dark and wet there were mushrooms growing on the rug and Hugh “Powder” Duff, a junior high buddy of mine? He died in a drainpipe, still clutching a baggie in one hand and a bottle of Listerine in the other.
A “Most Wasted” list that’ll gladly welcome Gabby Hayes aboard.
Which sounds harsh, I suppose, but there was never much hope for those characters, as they were very determined death dogs. In eighth grade I watched Canby play barefooted in the outfield, for instance. Why? There was clover out there and he loved bee stings … couldn’t get enough of them.
“Ooooh!” he’d gasp. “Oooh ahhh yeah!”
So I’m watching him stick a needle in his arm twenty years later and thinking what? Where’d this come from?
First came alcoholism, though, a legacy of his mother Darlene. I was with him at Russian River, the summer of our fifteenth year, when she became so delirious on vodka and Librium that we had to tie her to the bed until the cops came. It was messy (she was heavier than Tom and I combined and was essentially nude, wearing only a tiny bikini), and the incident was my first real brush with madness.
I felt comfortable with it. Canby? He was just embarrassed, at least until the ambulance pulled away. Then he reached for an open bottle of vodka, took a long slug and offered it to me.
“No thanks,” I said. “I hate the taste.”
As if that mattered (except for tequila, I rarely drank anything I liked). And it wasn’t just booze his mother subjected him to: she also attempted suicide fourteen times before succeeding.
So though Tom had been my best friend since seventh grade I didn’t see much of a future for him. This helped when we lived together in ’67, sharing a Foster City townhouse with three other guys. Not only was I the only one with a job (I worked as a data control clerk in Belmont) but I was the only regular tenant, too. The others rarely used their rooms, and I knew as little about where they lived as I did their incomes.
It always surprised me, in fact, when I’d rise at dawn and the other bedrooms were empty: it seemed too good to be true.
Then I’d walk downstairs and find strangers, in various stages of undress (or even still coupled together), passed out in the living room. The place was my roomies’ party house and it’s amazing, in retrospect, that it took four months to evict us … there were psychedelic keggers nightly.
Well, for me, anyway, at least where the mind benders were concerned. I became a fan of LSD on my first trip: there I’d been, thinking alcohol was as good as it got, and now this?
Suddenly my future looked as dim as Canby’s. He’d always been a brooder, but given the circumstances, and the fact I was pretty moody myself (particularly with hangovers), I mostly just ignored it. We were living in the Bay Area after all, on the cusp of the Summer of Love, and even a blind guy could see it was a prime time for hedonists.
Tom most of all, as he had the whole “laconic Ricky Nelson” thing going, sleeping with more girls than the rest of us combined. If I was talking up a prospect at a party, for instance, I’d sidle close enough that she had to keep her eyes on me, instead of scanning the crowd for “Ricky.”
I did okay but didn’t begrudge Canby his prowess, not when he seemed so unhappy otherwise. He took to disappearing (often for days at a time) and was rumored to be frequenting the same “sanitarium” as his mother.
It must have been true, because he gave me his meds afterwards. (I preferred the Valium to the anti-psychotics.) I treated his mental roller coaster the same way I did my own, in fact, as simply part of the package.
Because again … if you weren’t raised in the Bay Area in the Fifties it’s hard to appreciate what wackos all my buddies were. I took it for granted at the time, thought it was like that everywhere. (What a country that would be.) Then I’d move to cities in other states and before long I’m wondering, Where’s the weirdos, where’s the audacity? Why do I feel like the Lone Stranger here?
Plus me giving Canby advice, when I lived the way I did, was beyond absurd. I had the biggest room in the apartment, for instance, but there was never a stick of furniture in it. I slept on the carpet between hundreds of empty bottles and cans and it was, I believe, the beginning of my “Irish Pajamas” period (i.e. waking fully clothed in the morning).
Or wait … maybe that was the winter before, when I slept in that Los Angeles kiddie park. I didn’t, in any case, compare relative levels of sanity with Tom, not when so many people were questioning mine. I still have mental Polaroids of wide-eyed, earnest faces—most of them female—mere inches from my own. They were obviously concerned for me, and I guess I nodded along, but who knows? When I wasn’t in a blackout I was on the verge of one (which wasn’t easy on psychedelics).
So I was more irritated than alarmed when I woke one morning to Canby lifting my arm. There was a .22 rifle between us, with the barrel against his chest and the butt pressing on mine.
“I want you to shoot me, Wilson,” he said. “I can’t reach the trigger myself.”
That’s a lot to ask, I thought, and jerked my arm away. Sat up to reassure him, decided he couldn’t be serious and fell back on my Lonesome Louie training instead. Told him to remember Hemingway.
“He pulled the trigger with his toe,” I said.
“Really? Gee, thanks, Wilson,” said Tom, striding off with the gun. “I knew I could count on you.”
Did I detect a hint of sarcasm there? I had a second to think about it before I passed out again.
Only to be reawakened by Tom a half hour later. This time there were sirens and red lights outside the window.
He had a bloody handkerchief to his shoulder. Claimed he’d shot himself there, instead of his heart, because the rifle jerked.
“That toe shit didn’t work, High!” he spat. “Fuck Hemingway!”
Then four cops burst through the door, and in the confusion that followed it was hard to say what concerned them more: Canby shooting himself or the state of my room.
Then four cops burst through the door, and in the confusion that followed it was hard to say what concerned them more: Canby shooting himself or the state of my room. They checked my Oregon driver’s license, saw I was twenty and wondered how I bought that much booze, much less drank it. (And did I know what an ashtray or garbage can was?)
But Tom, who was twenty-one, claimed the room and alcohol were his.
“Ignore that loser,” he said, pointing at me. “We picked him up hitchhiking.”
Then he was strapped to a stretcher and whisked away. I caught flack from the other roommates afterwards—particularly Miltown, the one who’d called the police—but I argued that Canby asking me for advice proved he had issues.
Plus I’d known him longer than they had and thought this “suicide” stuff was a thinly veiled cry for help. I’d certainly been hardened by my Louie experience, and his demise (leaping under a bus) set the bar pretty high, but I didn’t sense the same conviction in Canby’s woe. He seemed more like his mother, just trying suicide out.
Which only hardened my roomies’ conviction that I was cavalier about the subject. I preferred “ambivalent” myself; I’d thought about suicide a lot in the past year (in my own defense as much as anything else) because friends felt I was self-destructive, too.
Well … yeah. And that rendered the rest of the equation moot to me, i.e. if someone was determined to end his or her life, who was I to talk them out of it?
Canby proved as resilient as his mother anyway, returning to the townhouse with his bad boy image intact. (He was a genuine survivor now.) He was definitely more buoyant than usual, an indication he’d finally been prescribed something that worked. (I know because he didn’t share it with me.)
He’d be called bipolar now; back then the term was “manic depressive.” So a crash was inevitable and it took maybe two weeks this time. That’s when I got a midnight call from “Chili,” his stripper squeeze. They were at Tom’s mother’s house, and not only was he in the garage, mutilating himself with a razor blade, but he insisted on speaking to me.
Really? I thought. When I’m shitfaced on Darvon and trying to bed a redhead? Driving to Hillsborough was the last thing I wanted to do.
But Canby wouldn’t come to the phone, said he didn’t want to drip blood in the house. So I climbed into my ’56 Ford (the back doors wouldn’t open, the front ones wouldn’t close and the steering wheel shook violently at speeds in excess of thirty) and headed up the highway. I drove slowly, telling myself that the longer it took me the likelier it was that Tom would come to his senses. Plus I needed a strategy this time: the rifle episode had caught me unawares.
When I finally arrived Chili was standing in the driveway in her negligee. She dragged me from the Ford, hustled me through the side door of the garage. Tom and I spent many an hour in there as kids, smoking his mother’s nasty Newports, but now my old buddy was hunched against the far wall, bloody slashes on his arms and chest.
So much for strategy: that scene needed a laugh track. It was so absurd, in fact, that Tom and I never spoke of it afterwards. (Even when I chronicled the event in High & Dry, my first memoir, and he called to tell me how much he’d enjoyed the book.)
No one who really wanted to kill himself would stage a stunt like that: this was alcoholism gone awry. We shared the six-pack I’d brought and finally, after a bit of coaxing, Chili and I led him to my car. We were headed to the police station—where he’d be transported by ambulance to a looney bin—and we hadn’t gone five steps when a hand seized my ankle.
What the fuck!? I tumbled to the asphalt, dragging Tom and Chili with me. (It was harder on them, with Chili in her negligee and Tom re-opening his wounds … but being drunk helped.)
I picked Canby up, saw his mother crawl from the shrubbery next to us. She was dragging a pint of brandy.
“Where ya’ takin’ my boy?” she slurred.
“Back to the ‘sanitarium,’ Darlene,” I sighed, helping her to her feet, too.
“Well, bring me along!”
It wasn’t their first rodeo: the desk sergeant treated them like family.
Then the years passed and Tom and I saw less of each other (he’d married while I put jails, mental wards and college behind me). I heard he’d discovered cocaine in the meanwhile and assumed (rightly) that given his general impatience and proclivity for stings he’d be shooting instead of snorting.
This saddened me more than the suicide attempts, as I wasn’t much of a coke fan. (Not that I ever turned it down, of course, just that it was the drug I most regretted in the morning.)
So in the Spring of ’78, fresh from a stint in Los Angeles, I attended a party at the Half Moon Bay ranch. (I’d lived in a horse stall there three years before.) As the night wore on I needed to piss so I left the groom’s shack, headed down the fence line searching for a suitable spot.
I stopped at the first bush I came to. Looked around, pulled down my zipper and shot a hot stream into the leaves.
Damn! I thought, you’d think I was still drinking! I was gasping with relief when I heard a familiar voice.
“Canby?” I said, glancing around. “Is that you?”
“Damn right it is!” he sputtered, poking his head through the branches. “Stop pissing on us, High!”
Jesus! I stepped back, directed my stream towards the dirt as Canby swung his head back and forth, sniffing the air like a feral animal. (He had the washing machine jaw and dilated pupils going, too.)
I finished up and sighed. “Well, old buddy,” I said, “it’s great to see you again.”
“Yeah yeah,” he replied. “Ditto.”
“And I hear you’re a coke junkie now.”
“‘Junkie’s’ a little strong, man … I only do it most days. And it cuts down on the drinking.”
“I bet. But—if you don’t mind my asking—what’re you doing in a fuckin’ bush?”
“We’re hiding here.”
There was a loud rustling, then a girl’s head appeared. She was as jittery as Canby and definitely not his wife.
“Chili!?” I exclaimed, bending down for a closer look. “Is that you?”
“No no!” scoffed Tom. “Chili was a stripper, not a shooter! This is Worm!”
Had I been gone too long … or not long enough?