S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Signposts,” Park sifts through old boxes of ephemera and reflects on characters from his life.
I wrote in my last column about ridding myself of possessions before I die. First came the photo albums, and now I’m pouring through boxes of mementos. Old newspaper clippings, souvenirs, cards, letters, programs, quotes, etc. that’ll be of less interest to those picking up after me than the albums.
Some of what I found moved me, though. The first was a yellowed obituary of Dr. William Proppe, my high school principal. A very esteemed and scholarly fellow who made mentoring me his personal project. I had no idea why, any more than I did with the other teachers and administrators (see “Teacher’s Pet”) who guided me over the years. So when Proppe summoned me to his office once a month for “chats” or sent weekly inspirational quotes to my home room, it was flattering but not unusual.
Well, to me, anyway. The other students, particularly the ones in that first period Honors English class? Merit Scholars consumed with their applications to prestigious universities, who’d do anything for a recommendation from Proppe, much less a spot on his personal mailing list? What’d they think of the class clown getting all that attention?
I know our teacher, Mr. Warner, relished the irony. Proppe’s secretary would give him the note card the day before, but he liked to wait until class began, then act surprised to see it on his desk.
“Oh, what’s this?” he’d say, scooping it up. “Why, it’s another message from the Principal, class. Who could it be for?”
And they’d respond (with various levels of enthusiasm): “Wilson Kiss Ass!”
I didn’t mind. Not only was I class president, so I could pretend Proppe was advising me on student activities, but I was the school cartoonist: I got away with everything.
Plus Proppe’s interest intrigued me. Did he know something I didn’t? Was I really more than the wiseass I appeared to be? And if so … would all that positive messaging have an impact?
Apparently not. He kept it coming, anyway, even as the only quote I remember is from Captain Newman, M.D., the novel by Leo Rosten:
The purpose of life is to matter, to count, to stand
for something, to have it make some difference that
we lived at all.
I did okay with that one. I was reminded of this when Mungo Jerry called yesterday. I gave a copy of my second memoir, The Grass Is Greener, to his neighbors (Green Bay Packer fans, but good people nonetheless), and the husband told him he knows when his wife’s reading it because he can hear her laughing in the next room.
That’s all I asked of life. (Well, other than being as high as possible as often as possible.) It brings to mind Minnie, the Los Angeles attorney I dated in the Seventies. She dumped me after I told her that my sole ambition was “to make people laugh.”
And not verbally, either (which is difficult enough), but with the written word. Like Proppe she mistook me for someone with ambition, and I found a Polaroid of her, coincidentally, in the same box.
It’s been forty years and I was still stirred by her beauty. What a face; what a body; what a package … her hair and skin were so lustrous it was hard to breathe around the woman. I could have lied when she asked about my hopes and dreams but figured, Fuck it! better to clear the air now.
I knew “out of my league” when I saw it. (I’m a better novelty act than mate, and rarely overestimate my value in that regard.) I’ve a local friend, for instance, who told me recently that she wanted to set me up with a friend of hers.
I was incredulous.
“Why?” I asked. “I’m an old stoner with no hair, money or prospects, whose sole interests are writing, drawing, reading and pot. She’d be better off as a convict’s pen pal.”
I found a Spalding Gray theater program in another of the boxes. It was from 1995, when he came to Portland to do a reading from his Gray’s Anatomy book. I’m not sure why I attended (as I knew next to nothing about Gray and his work at the time), but I went with my girlfriend Lois and sat in an aisle seat.
Which was helpful when I fell out of it later, convulsed with laughter. Who the hell was this guy? He couched his neuroticism in such ironic, muted tones that I laughed at everything he said. (Even as, when I read the text later, I didn’t find it funny at all.)
Halfway through the reading, when I could finally catch my breath, I thought, That’s me up there, that’s what I should be doing!
When I was in junior high school we had a substitute teacher named Miss Jameson. We called her “the storyteller” and treated her like our personal secret, as surely the administration wouldn’t ask her back if they knew how little she did. She’d arrive with a giant red journal under her arm, have us busy ourselves until the afternoon, then draw up a chair, open that journal and begin reading stories she’d written aloud.
It was better than a snow day to me: I found her yarns mesmerizing. It was the same sense of familiarity I experienced with Spalding Gray that night, as if my destiny lay as a monologist.
Then I promptly forgot about it, probably because it didn’t seem like a real thing to me. I fancied myself a “writer” instead, a tiny semantic shift that cost me decades of work.
I wouldn’t make that mistake again. After Gray’s performance I came home, deleted all the writing on my desktop. Taped up the message that’s still in front of me today:
IT’S THE STORY, STUPID!
In another box I found the paw print of Hindsight, my longtime Portland cat; the vet made it for me when she put her down. She was an extraordinary animal and lived to be eighteen. She and her sister Ditto were given to me by my friend Tony DeBola, part of a litter of six-toed cats his wife found in the woods. I named them after a couple of Mad Magazine characters, the sportscasters “Mel Hindsight and Charlie Ditto.”
Ditto was the bigger, sleeker, more attractive of the two and, as if in acknowledgement of that, Hindsight disappeared the first day I had them. I thought she’d return but when she didn’t I searched the neighborhood without success.
Then I was in the backyard a couple days later, retrieving fallen Chinese Pears from the lawn, when I heard a meow and there was Hindsight, crouched in the neighbor’s yard. When I approached the fence she bolted into the open storm shelter behind her.
The house was a rickety old place and in my six months there I hadn’t seen the couple who owned it (purportedly in their nineties), just their strange, middle-aged daughter “Frenchie.” (This was a nickname she’d earned by claiming to be the reincarnation of a 17th century French nun.) She dressed accordingly, in a black and white habit and long wool skirt (even though the family was Jewish), and it was rumored she had numerous cats of her own.
The house was a rickety old place and in my six months there I hadn’t seen the couple who owned it (purportedly in their nineties), just their strange, middle-aged daughter “Frenchie.”
I saw more of her than them, though. Would often spot her digging in the garden when I stepped out back for a joint.
“Hey, Frenchie!” I’d yell. “Wanna get high?”
She’d curse, fire whatever was handy in my direction (a rock, a carrot, etc.). Characters like her were rare in Boregon and I was actually quite fond of her. The idea of going over there, though, asking to search under their house for a cat … that didn’t appeal to me much.
Fortunately I’d eaten some Cubensis mushrooms earlier (I grew a couple batches a year), so was in a better mood than usual. I also felt responsible for Hindsight and dreaded telling DeBola I’d lost her so quickly.
So I walked out front, crossed to the neighbors’ porch. Their door was open and I leaned in, called their names a couple times.
I finally heard a strained, “Come in!” from the back of the house.
I stepped inside, walked through the foyer and living room. The smell of old people was so strong I felt like I’d snorted Gold Bond. I reeled at first, then pretended I was back in Granny Alice’s house as a kid. Even stopped to take a few deep breaths.
Then I heard that same weak voice again, remembered what I was there for. Walked to the kitchen to find the old couple at a table. They looked like cadavers: only their mouths moved—well, the wife’s, anyway—and their skin was very gray and waxy.
“Uh, hi,” I said. “I’m your neighbor and I just saw my kitten run into your storm shelter. Would you mind if I went down and looked for her?”
Turns out the old guy’s mouth moved after all. He and the wife curled their lips around a couple “Huh huh huh’s.”
“Good luck with that one, Stretch,” she cackled finally.
I took that as a go ahead, slipped out the back door to the yard. Fortunately Frenchie was nowhere in sight so I walked to the storm shelter and started down the steps. The smell of cat piss was so overpowering I had to cover my face with my hand, and when I reached the bottom I realized there was no electricity down there.
It was pitch black and staring back at me were what? Fifteen, maybe twenty pairs of cat eyes? They hovered on either side of my head, like they were floating in air.
Fuckin’ shrooms! I thought. I pulled out my BIC and lit it. Saw the cats were actually lined up on shelves.
They were a lean, mean, nasty-looking bunch, yowling low in their throats. How would I find Hindsight in a craven menagerie like that, and would she know me if I did? I’d only had her a few hours and had barely given her a name when she disappeared.
I decided to do what I’ve always done in tight spots, i.e. light a joint. If there was anything Hindsight would associate with me it’d be the smell of weed.
And to my amazement it worked! I fired up a fatty, took a few puffs and heard a distinct thump, followed by a long meow. Spotted Hindsight creeping up the aisle towards me. I bent over, scooped her up, spun around and banged into Frenchie.
“Jesus!” I gasped stumbling backward. “Where the hell’d you come from!?”
“DOPE ADDICT!” she screeched. “BLASPHEMER! GIVE ME BACK MY LULU!”
She’d already named her. We began tussling in the dark, and I was wondering how much force to use when Hindsight solved the problem for me, clawing Frenchie on her cheek.
She gasped and spun away as I broke free, racing up the steps and across the yard. I vaulted the old fence that separated the properties, turned around to see her shaking her fist at me.
“A PLAGUE ON YOU AND YOUR HOUSE!” she screamed. “I CURSE YOU WITH PESTILENCE!”
There was still a State mental ward then, and the boys in white came for Frenchie a month later.
I never saw her again, but blamed more than a few bad crops on her.