S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Expiration Date,” Park talks about quitting booze and depending on friends (and his dog) to get by.
I wrote a few months ago (“A Friend Indeed”) about living in June Lake, California in the Winter of ’75-’76. It was the most peaceful stretch of my twenties, a chance to regroup after a decade of drunkenness. Even the weather cooperated, as the dearth of snow meant there was no jobs locally.
That suited my purposes perfectly: I finally had an excuse for not working. My friends Sam and Cindy weren’t as fortunate, however, toiling at restaurants all day while I typed letters to friends, worked on my novel and read dozens of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. It wasn’t what I’d planned on: I’d hoped to be deep in an existential reckoning with my drinking by then, but soon realized (as I had in the mental wards), that I’d already done that. It happened at nineteen, when I recognized the rummy in me and waved him through the door.
You don’t scrutinize decisions like that later … hell, you’re lucky to just survive them. More pertinent is how quitting booze was a fate accompli, anyway: I didn’t know I lacked the enzyme that metabolizes alcohol then, but there was something wrong with a guy who’d suffered the d.t.’s as early and often as I had.
So the jig was up and it was time to move on. This seemed grossly unfair at twenty-nine, but I knew I’d appreciate it someday, that it was easier than the regrets, recriminations and public wretchedness that most alkies endure.
I’d had my share of those, of course, but they didn’t affect me much. (It’s not like I had any standing to protect, or that once I’d embraced being a drunk the results surprised me.) If anything, in fact, I marveled at the stories of what I’d done in blackouts.
No, even as I sat there, alone in that cabin in the middle of nowhere, trying to put boozing behind me, the reason for it remained intact, i.e. my horror of sobriety in general. I’ve always been amazed by people (usually girlfriends) who say to me:
“You mean … you have to get high to have a good time?”
Well … yeah. (I considered this less a character deficit than carpe diem.) I’d simply be working from a smaller menu in the future, have to squeeze more from pot and psychedelics. I was surviving on the ragweed Sam brought home when Gumbo called, said he’d saved me a deerhound puppy.
I couldn’t recall wanting one but it made sense somehow; maybe adding a dependent would spur me to get a job. (Uh huh.) When Ned offered a ride to Seattle, too, I searched for a benefactor there and settled on Nearly Normal Jimmy.
We’d lived together in the Spring and Summer of 1974, sharing an old house with Rick Silverdale and two other guys in Olympia, Washington. He and Rick had started a downtown furniture refinishing shop called Bozo Enterprises, but after Silverdale hooked on with Seattle’s professional soccer team it was left to Jimmy and me to run the place.
Which didn’t go well, given that he shared my boundless affection for booze and drugs. Instead of finding new business, or even taking care of the little we had, we’d do our version of that egg in the frying pan ad (“This is your brain on drugs”).
One Saturday, for instance, we went to a celebration at a hippie commune in the woods. We’d been looking forward to it for days and took a hit of Windowpane acid on the way there.
It was a great party, but we decided it needed further enhancement. This meant more Windowpane and, for some reason, we went to the chicken coop to take it, a low-ceilinged ten-by-ten shack with straw on the floor.
Nearly Normal squatted down across from me, unfolded the piece of foil with the acid in it. It looked like he was being careful, but when he lifted the flap the last hits popped out and landed in the straw. This would have been bad enough on a regular floor, given that they were tiny, nearly transparent squares … but straw? Full of chicken shit and bugs?
We could have searched for years and not found them; instead we proved how little we needed them by picking through that bedding (one stem at a time) for the next eight hours.
When we finally crawled outside the party was over. Months later we were at our house, working our way through a gallon of wine, when we decided (at two in the morning) that we needed to add psychedelics to the mix.
So we drove to the apartment of a local dealer named Zippo. There was no phone at our place, so I knew Jimmy hadn’t called ahead, but when we got there he pushed through the front door without knocking.
We drove to the apartment of a local dealer named Zippo. There was no phone at our place, so I knew Jimmy hadn’t called ahead, but when we got there he pushed through the front door without knocking.
Only to find that—not only was Zippo still awake—he was dancing to Rod Stewart’s “You Wear It Well” in the middle of the living room. Nearly Normal and I formed a conga line behind him, slowly circling the room as the track played over and over. Finally Zippo reached back, dropped a glassine bag of mescaline into Jimmy’s palm.
At which point we danced out of there without a word being spoken (I left a ten on the table I’d earned selling blood earlier that day). Piled in Nearly Normal’s fire red 1940s truck, took a couple tabs each, then drove three hours north to Mt. Rainier.
Why? To climb it, of course … it was only ten thousand feet and we’d be getting an early start. It was one of Jimmy’s best features, how he was a font of bad ideas but they were big bad ideas and saved me coming up with my own. (Even as I was crazy enough to go along with them, making us a lethal team.)
We failed to scale Rainier, though. There was still snow on the ground, it was twenty degrees outside and we were wearing light jackets and tennis shoes with only tobacco for gear. A less intrepid pair would have turned around the moment they stepped from the truck but oh no, we headed up the steep incline in the dark.
The ground was slick with ice, so for every three steps we took we slid back two. When we finally reached a tree we wrapped our arms around it, held on for dear life.
By then we’d climbed maybe three hundred feet. As the absurdity of the moment set in I threw Jimmy a bone.
“Hey!” I said, teeth clenched against the cold. “We can save this expedition yet! Let’s slide back down!”
When I’d nicknamed him “Nearly Normal” (taken from a character in Tom Robbins’ book, Another Roadside Attraction), even Jimmy thought it was perfect. He went first that morning and it was a tossup who was hurt worse on the descent, as I had to pop his shoulder back in and he helped me limp to the truck with a sprained knee and ankle.
It was mid-March when I said good-bye to Sam and Cindy and drove to Seattle with Gumbo. He had a camper on the back of his Dodge Power Wagon and that’s where he stashed the puppy and me. (I’d named him “Buk”—short for “Bukowski”—because he was the ugliest deerhound I’d ever seen.) We huddled together as Ned and his girlfriend yukked it up in the cab, eating hash brownies, listening to John Prine and—when she leaned over to give him blowjobs—weaving all over the highway.
Fortunately I’d had a few of those brownies myself and lay there thinking that, if we crashed, that sweet dog would be better off. There I was, broke and unemployed, going to stay with a buddy who was the same (living in a house his parents paid for), and not extending my feckless existence to others was how I justified it.
But like my later, short-lived marriages—and pretty much everything else I encountered in those early years—I couldn’t resist trying it. (I thought dogs were the best part of being human, so shouldn’t I have one?) When we reached Seattle we stayed with Silverdale for a day, then Nearly Normal picked Buk and I up in his van. (He’d wrapped his truck around a telephone pole the month before.)
He lived in a fashionable ranch house in the Bellevue section of town. It could have used some furniture, of course, but what the hell … it would have been nice if Jimmy and I were working, too. We talked about it, and did the occasional odd job or sold our blood, but for the life of me I can’t remember how we fed ourselves, much less Buk.
Maybe his parents kicked in. They were paying the rent, so they probably gave him a per diem, too. He was their only child, and just like anyone they could hear his babble, see his wild eyes and Bozo the Clown hair, and know further heirs weren’t likely.
Instead he was sheltering a weirdo with an even stranger-looking dog, the same clown who’d stuck their boy with the “Nearly Normal” moniker. Their scorn only doubled when Sam forwarded my IRS tax refund. It was for a hundred and ten dollars, more money than I’d seen at one time in months. Did I sign it over to Jimmy, or buy food or better pot or psychedelics with it, or even a collar for my dog? No, I blew every penny on a set of weights.
Even Nearly Normal was irked by that, but I swore I knew what I was doing, that this was me confronting the future. I’d been thinking about it since June Lake, how the end of the booze cruise meant turning the ship around. It wouldn’t be easy, and for all the delirium, madhouses, jails and wino hotels I knew the fun part of my life was over.
But how to approach “real” life again? I decided it was important to look the part first: tone up the muscles, lose the beer gut, get a haircut, start using razors and Visine again.
How to approach “real” life again? I decided it was important to look the part first: tone up the muscles, lose the beer gut, get a haircut, start using razors and Visine again.
Hence the weights. There was a poignant absurdity to lifting them as the sun streamed through a window and the sweat coursed down my flab, but I kept after it and—in conjunction with my restricted diet (Buk ate better than I did)—the fat melted away quickly.
Adjusting my attitude was another matter, so it helped that Jimmy and I were crowding thirty. I had the d.t.’s for motivation, while he’d nearly killed himself in that truck wreck, and we were both lucky to be alive.
It was either change the script or perish. We even convinced ourselves unemployment was part of that, as it was much easier avoiding drugs and alcohol when you couldn’t afford them.
Our relationship, though? We were better as booze buddies, so we mostly just avoided each other. Jimmy’d go off and do what he did all day (stalking, maybe?) while I read, filled wastebaskets with writing I couldn’t stand, pumped the weights and took Buk on long walks.
This was the part I forgot when I adopted Hobo, how I love dogs but don’t enjoy walking them. I’ve no excuse for it really, it’s just selfishness on my part, but I resent anything that intrudes on my solitude.
I’m an ambulator by nature: I do my best thinking on the move and the presence of a dog impedes that. (It wasn’t that I couldn’t concentrate with him there, simply that his needs superseded mine.) Plus Buk, particularly as a puppy, was such a weird-looking bastard that passers-by felt compelled to mention it:
“Excuse me … is that a dog?”
Most of them had never seen a deerhound before, the very reason Gumbo coveted the breed. He’d position his pair in the open bed of his truck, then park in hip Marin towns, wait for young women to comment on them.
They were his honey trap. They were also regal, elegant animals, the reason only Scottish lords owned them back in the day. Buk, on the other hand, looked like their goofy country cousin. I loved him for that, but he wasn’t particularly bright, either.
At least to hear Nearly Normal tell it. I didn’t intentionally leave Buk’s training to him, but I’ve written before how I’m the “observer” type when it comes to pets, i.e. a lazy bastard who leaves them to figure things out on their own. It worked well with Hobo (who was whip smart and obedient) but Buk? The simplest tasks perplexed him, including doing his business outside.
Which was another facet of turning my life around, how it was fine to tell myself I’d left others unscathed with my drinking when, in truth, I’d imposed on way too many friends over the years.
Now it was happening sober. It was time to find a job, even as I hadn’t had a real one in a year. (Well, if that’s what you call sitting on the back of a water truck on mescaline every day.) This would be a bigger shock to my sensibilities than the weightlifting, so I hoped to transition to the workaday world gradually.
Which brought to mind the South Lake Tahoe casino, the only place I’d ever enjoyed working. The pay was lousy and the hours worse, but you could do them stoned and there’d be plenty of openings as summer approached.
I even looked the part now, having lost forty pounds in seven weeks. I connected with an old college buddy who was headed south, loading Buk and the weights in the back of his van the last week of May. (Jimmy, to his credit, was sorry to see the dog go.)
I left him at my brother Ben’s farm (he’d always coveted a deerhound), but a week later he called Gumbo, said Buk was the laziest, most useless animal he’d ever seen and if he didn’t reclaim him he’d be shot.
Ned was there the next morning. He returned Buk to Half Moon Bay, where he lived out his life in pastoral splendor, proving (according to breed publications at the time) to be the “World’s Oldest Living Deerhound” at thirteen.
Nearly Normal Jimmy? I doubt he’s lasted this long (though if he is around he’s thinking the same about me).
But he’s still in my heart. That’s him on the bookmark for my second memoir: