S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “A Friend Indeed,” Park talks about friends over the years who have extended goodwill to him.
In November of ’75 I was fired from my job as a groom on a Half Moon Bay horse ranch. I was twenty-eight at the time, and as was often the case in those days I was left with no money or direction in mind. This rarely bothered me for long because: (1) wherever I was I was confident I’d rather be someplace else, anyway; and (2) there was always a friend who’d put me up.
I’m not sure why the latter was true, but suspect it had something to do with genetics. In 2011 I visited Monterrey, California with my friend Felice, and we were on a trail outside of town when we ran into a woman walking her dog. I bent over to pet him and noticed she was wearing a shirt from my late brother’s bar. I commented on it, and in the course of our conservation revealed that Joe was my brother.
“Oh, my God!” she gasped. “You’re Joe High’s brother!?”
“Well, I like to think he was mine,” I replied.
She dropped the dog’s leash, stepped forward and wrapped her arms around me. Began a muffled sobbing in my chest.
“Oh, you poor, poor guy!” she gasped. “He was such an incredible person … you must really miss him!”
I looked at Felice and shrugged. Joe had been dead for years, and this stranger knew him only as the guy who owned the bar, yet she was acting like she’d lost a loved one.
I wasn’t too surprised. My brother Ray is five years older than I am and none of the places we lived as kids were big enough for all the friends he’d drag home. Even now the family joke is you can’t call him—anytime day or night—without the buzz of buddies in the background.
I’ve written about my brother Ben’s popularity before, and his friends are as puzzled as Ray and Joe’s when they meet me, as if—6’6” or otherwise—I don’t measure up. (They can’t ask my brothers about it … they’re mystified, too.) Suffice to say that the one thing we share is a knack for friendship, a facility so effortless it has to be a birthright.
It’s one reason I loved moving from house to house and state to state as a kid: wherever we landed I made lifelong friends immediately. So as an adult, leaning against the horse stall that had been my home the past six months (“What kind of person lives in a horse stall?” the owner’s wife had spat when they fired me. “It’s disgusting!”), was I a penniless, irresponsible drifter by nature, or was it just too easy to impose on friends?
Mostly the former, I suppose, because when I had money in my pocket I’d head for places where I didn’t know anyone. This, however, would not be one of those times, so I ran through possible landing spots in my head.
Sam and Cindy kept bobbing to the top. They were renting a cabin in June Lake, California and he was a buddy from my Evergreen State days. He wasn’t a student as I recall (though I barely qualified as one myself), more an itinerant Jew from Wisconsin who’d been hitching around the country.
It didn’t matter where you put a guy like me as long as there was a roof.
We shared a checkered job history and his moxie and self-reliance impressed me (particularly given that he looked like Rodney Dangerfield). We became good friends and he proved, over a period of months, to be someone I could trust.
Then I went down the road and a year later he showed up in Half Moon Bay with Cindy. She was a comely cowgirl who’d been the cook at his last job, shoeing horses at a ranch in eastern Boregon. They hung out with me and Gumbo for a few days, then loaded Sam’s truck for the drive to June Lake.
“Why there?” I asked.
“I’ve gone through that area before,” said Sam, “and June Lake is right next to the Mammoth Mountain ski resort. Plenty of jobs there in the winter.”
“Well, good luck, guys,” I said. “I’ll see you down the road.”
“Make it soon,” said Cindy. “We’ll be renting a cabin and we’d love for you to visit.”
“Jesus!” said Gumbo. “Don’t tell him that! He’s hard enough to get rid of when you don’t invite him!”
He’d know. Now it was a couple months later and I took a last look around (it’d been interesting, but I didn’t plan on living in a horse stall again), packed up my typer, manuscript and underwear and headed down to the main house to call Sam. He seemed glad to hear from me, said they’d rented a cabin with a spare bedroom and I was welcome to stay.
“There’s no work at the moment,” he said, “so I was lucky to find a short order cook job. Things’ll pick up once it snows, though.”
I thanked him, told him he’d see me soon, then had to figure out how to get there. (I rarely owned a car in those days and if I had it wouldn’t have made it over the mountains.) I couldn’t afford the bus, and being as big and ragged as I was had experienced less and less luck hitchhiking, so that meant seeking out a friend who: (a) had some free time; (b) owned a vehicle that would make it the three hundred miles to June Lake; and (c) had nothing better to do.
The fact there was always someone like that around still amazes me. I mean it’s not like I was down on my luck, or life had steered me wrong … I’d driven off that road willingly, even gleefully. Yet whenever I drank or drugged myself into trouble I had this army of buddies behind me. (I’d have been there for them, too, but that’s easy to say when you’re the bum in the bunch.)
My benefactor this time around was Ted Grantham. He lived in a little house in Burlingame and when I showed up and explained the situation he said we could leave for June Lake the next morning. I’d known him since junior high and he was a bright, cheery, gnomic character who’d partnered with me on a suicide mission the summer before.
We’d flown his single engine plane to Columbia, California one Saturday afternoon. It was a two-hour flight and not only were both of us drinking, but we flew low over a herd of cows, threw cans of Schlitz at them while the rancher fired a shotgun at us.
I know because I saw the pellets on the underside of the chassis the next morning. Hard to say what we’d done the night before, or how Ted had landed without killing us (shame to risk your life on something you couldn’t remember), but we were sprawled beneath the plane now, empty cans and bottles all around. He, at least, had had the good sense to pass out against a tire, while I was sprawled face down on the tarmac.
“Jesus, High,” he said, “I can’t believe I drank and flew! That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever done!”
“And where we come from,” I moaned, rolling over to pick pebbles from my beard, “that’s saying something.”
We were sober on the long drive to June Lake that day, though, as I’d quit drinking months before. Our destination was south of Yosemite and took nearly seven hours. I distinctly remember the absence of snow, even on Mammoth Mountain itself. This seemed vaguely ominous, given that it was late November, and I was reminded of the winter of ’72 – ’73 in Lake Tahoe, when the snow never arrived.
Most of my casino co-workers, who were only there to ski, were royally pissed. No chance of that happening again, I thought, that was a once-in-a-generation deal.
Ted was still alert when we arrived, so instead of coming in, or even staying overnight, he dropped me off and headed back. It would be years before I saw him again, but at the moment it was time to reacquaint myself with Sam and Cindy. The cabin had a large front room and a pair of “bedrooms” in back, and after catching up Sam took me to see mine.
It was a shed attached to the back of the house and you had to go through their bedroom to reach it. There was a wood burning stove, a cord of firewood and a cot in there, and it was so cold I could see my breath in the air.
I felt like I had six months before, when Gumbo showed me the horse stall for the first time. As if it didn’t matter where you put a guy like me as long as there was a roof.
“Gee, thanks, Sam,” I said, tossing my typer on the cot. “I don’t suppose there’s any, eh … electricity in here.”
“Well, no,” he said. “But if you get a fire goin’ in the stove you can read by that.”
I told myself what I always did, that beggars can’t be choosers. I smoked as much of Sam’s weed as possible that night, then curled up beneath a blanket on the cot. Woke at dawn to the groaning of the bed springs in the next room. Sam was fucking Cindy and they weren’t shy about it:
“Oh, baby!” he gasped. “You’re so wet!”
“Fuck me, Sammie,” she moaned. “Fuck me hard!”
The walls were thin enough that: (1) I might as well have been in the room with them, and (2) I couldn’t remember ever being so cold. It felt like I was sleeping outside.
I staggered to my feet, picked up a hand axe and began chopping kindling for the stove. Out of deference to the lovers I made as little noise as possible, but I needn’t have bothered: when they realized I was awake they jacked the volume, anyway.
This established the pattern for the rest of my stay: wake to frenzied humping in the next room, realize I was freezing, build a fire while Sam and Cindy finished up. Maybe they liked an audience, maybe that’s what I was there for. If so I was good with it; I didn’t mind listening (Sam was a real horn dog and Cindy matched him grunt for grunt), and it paid to keep things in perspective: I’d had horses for roommates at my last stop, and Acid Mac and Nick the Nihilist before that.
But none of us ever broached the subject, as that would have tarnished our hippie bonafides. I’d wait until they were in the kitchen in the morning, making coffee, before I rose myself. (It had taken that long to warm up the shed, anyway.) Sam had his chef stint to go to, and Cindy was a waitress at a different restaurant.
I think. Their jobs were bad enough that they didn’t bring them home with them, and I never went to town myself. (In retrospect I’m not sure there even was one.) When I wasn’t working on my novel I was writing letters or reading the sixty volumes of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books on the shelves.
Because it never did snow that winter and no one in the local area was hiring. I pretended to be disappointed, of course, but failed to fool anyone: like the voyeurism we all knew the score, that to me there was no such thing as a good job, anyway.
So Sam and Cindy ate where they worked and brought leftovers home for me. Scraps, mostly, but that was fine … I’ve never been partial to food. What’s important is they kept the pot coffers full.
In the meanwhile we got along swimmingly, as well as I ever had with roommates: how they could fold a bum into their lives so readily was beyond me.
We got along swimmingly, as well as I ever had with roommates: how they could fold a bum into their lives so readily was beyond me.
The constant reading helped, I suppose. There was no television in the cabin, and we played Scrabble or other word games occasionally, but most nights the three of us were glued to books.
This suited me perfectly, as I was still recovering from a decade of drunkenness. I think of that June Lake stint, with the freedom to write and reflect that Sam and Cindy afforded me, as the moment the healing began.
And yeah, I felt guilty about my lack of contributions, but Sam scoffed when I’d bring it up:
“We feed you scraps and you sleep in the woodshed,” he’d say. “You might as well be a dog.”
Which proved prophetic in its way, because it’s how they finally got rid of me. Gumbo called the first week of March, said he had an eight-week-old Deerhound puppy.
“Why are you telling me?” I asked.
“It’s yours, High!” he said. “You told me you wanted a pup from Keisha’s litter!”
“Well, you had eaten a lot of ’shrooms. But he’s yours now, buddy … the rest of the litter’s been sold.”
“Let me guess: you saved me the runt.”
“I can’t have a dog here, Ned. I can’t even feed myself.”
“Tell you what. I’m driving to Seattle in a few days. Get your ass over here and I’ll take you and your dog with me. You must know somebody who’ll put you up there.”
“A totally broke guy with a puppy in tow!? Are you nuts?”
“Come on, High … you’ll figure it out.”
And I did. After I hung up I flipped through my phone book. Found the number and called Ballard, Washington (a neighborhood in northwest Seattle).
A voice answered on the second ring:
“Hey!” I said. “Is this Nearly Normal Jimmy?”