Dr. Hackenbush (Groucho Marx): [examining Stuffy (Harpo) with an auriscope] I haven't seen anything like this in years. The last time I saw a head like that was in a bottle of formaldehyde.
Tony (Chico): Told you he was sick.
Dr. Hackenbush: [pointing to Stuffy's neck] That's all pure desecration along there. He's got about a 15% metabolism, with an overactive thyroid and a glandular affectation of about 3%.
Tony: That's bad.
Dr. Hackenbush: With a 1% mentality.
Dr. Hackenbush: He's what we designate as the crummy moronic type. All in all, this is the most gruesome looking piece of blubber I've ever peered at.
Tony: Hey doc. Hey doc!
Dr. Hackenbush: Huh?
Tony: You gotta the looking glass turned around, you're looking at yourself.
November 1977, Rockport, Massachusetts and there’s a knock on the door to my sister and brother-in-law’s place. You asked if they were in and I believe they had gone into Boston. I didn’t know when they’d be back and you asked if you could leave some stuff while you strolled into town and did some shopping. Naturally! You’re Rich’s sister and that’s plenty of bona fide right there. You left, and I returned to the Marx Brothers.
You came back. I vaguely recall we chatted for a bit and decided we were hungry. This would be the first of many meals over many years where we’d chat until we couldn’t. What did we talk about? Hell, if I remember, but it was good and true and I hope funny, if not witty. I saw you again before I left New England. I think by then I’d pretty much figured out you were in my life for good. You asked me in one of your first letters, if not your very first, if I thought men and women could just be friends. I said yes, though not that succinctly. My first letter to you was 18 pages long. You found that remarkable. Trust me, it was logorrhea inspired by love.
I made a special trip up the following summer for three or four days. I don’t remember where we met up or what we did, though I’ll lay odds it involved eating. And talking. I want to say we met at the Harvard Bookstore Café when that was open on Newbury Street; it would make some kind of sense since we spent more than our share of time and money in bookstores and cafes. I was gobsmacked, I know that. I had a crush on you but couldn’t quite figure out the nature of it. Not all crushes are created equal. But holy shit, I enjoyed your company; I determined I’d have to figure something out to get back up here.
Not for the first time, though, my hormones got the better of me and I wound up in love and living with an older French woman back in Houston. I was a horrible thing to inflict on someone. I really was; but hey, I thought turning 21 should have its perks and if falling in love and living with a French woman was a perk, I might as well seize the moment. Poor her. Man, I was a self-absorbed shit. We lasted, what, five months? All I remember is that I was coming back up in January of 1979. I took a train from Houston to Chicago and from there to New York and then, Boston.
I took a room on Newbury Street for $33 a week. I hung out in the city for a bit before heading up to Rockport to bother Tina and Jim and made frequent trips back to Boston. I’d come into town and we’d do lunch or hang out at your place on Comm Ave. I recall feeling extremely at ease and at the same time, trying to figure out if I wanted to live in Boston or what. It was fun meeting artists and trying to get a sense of what the city held. I even tried to decide if maybe I wanted to go to college. I visited UMass Amherst, hung around BU for a few days and decided that my educated peers were twats.
It wasn’t even that I thought myself superior to them – I didn’t – I just didn’t want to be a member of that club. If anything, I felt then, as I do now, that education would have been wasted on me. I’m slow, and utter crap at exams; everyone I met was far more educated than I and I could never understand why anyone ever thought I’d attended college. It occurred to me that my contemporaries, at least, had decided that it’s what you’re supposed to do. I had it in my mind that you should only attend college if you were really interested in a subject and wanted to learn it. I wasn’t. I was an artist and had been for much of my life. It didn’t make any sense to me to go to school for something I was already doing. Not that I’d have done at all well, but in my naiveté I figured I’d just continue learning by doing and hanging out with my artist friends.
Then there was the sense, too, that there was a degree of self-delusion or a bit of a con that kids fell who decided that college would make them into adults or more grown-up or what you will. I kind of had the sense that almost everyone I’d met who was going to college was somehow conning themselves; that the world was prepping them for a lifetime of soulless drudgery and stunted aspiration. But not you. Emphatically not. I had the sense I was in the presence of someone who was utterly unafraid and well aware of what the next step was. I was never more certain of anyone’s direction than yours. Lord knows, I had none!
Do you remember seeing Offenbach’s “La Gaité Parisienne” at the Opera House? I can’t remember how that came about. You had tickets, I know that and Offenbach, while not one of my faves, was okay, and the show itself turned out to be really well done. Why didn’t I drag you to Roxy Music at the Orpheum? Oh, yeah, because I believe you’d already begun your cross-country journey.
I got back to Houston in time to find your letter asking me if I had anyone you could stay with. Your roommate Lisa had a place to stay in Conroe, I believe. I got you squared away with Jon and Paul and a splendid time was had. To a point. That one night we went to the Galleria to see “The Killing Fields” and were so shell-shocked we thought going ice-skating would take the edge off. Unfortunately, they were closing the rink by the time we got there. Well, if you can’t ice skate, you can get ice cream and it was off to Udder Delight on Westheimer to grab a cone and sit outside. Except that I had to lick my cone and watch my scoops plummet to the sidewalk. Bummer.
I remember duing the course of the film – one of the most heart-rending ever – there was the scene where Walken’s character is asked what his name is in the sanatorium and he doesn’t respond. I made the mistake of looking over at you and seeing a tear streaking down your right cheek. Mistake for me because I blubber like an idiot easily. I think I managed to keep the sniveling and sniffling down, but I don’t know if I was more wrecked by the movie than by seeing you tearing up. In any case, ice cream on the sidewalk on a warm, damp Houston night seemed appropriate.
The only thing that could possibly improve the night would be to have one of my best friends start groping at you in my presence back at his place. Jesus Christ on toast, this is when I hate being a guy. We were sitting on the couch under a blanket going over the flick (and for anyone who might be reading this, yes, fully clothed, you) when Paul came in and positioned himself to start in on you! I popped him pretty hard and you were pretty shocked. Not appalled, though; as you said, Paul was charming and as he explained to me afterward and I never told you this, he thought you and I had already had a – ahem, tryst – and he thought maybe we’d want to, um, er, do it again with him in for a third. Kind of like bridge but different.
He was shocked and I explained to him later that his attentions weren’t welcomed by you (or me). After all, this was a young woman who had written me that “sex without love is a barren activity”. I don’t know how much you revised that later in life; but I know that at the time, it made sense and that the idea of a random sportfuck with two guys probably wasn’t on your list of sites to visit in the Space City. However, that whole incident and the conversation and kisses we shared outside Paul’s apartment had me wondering what dating you would be like.
Fortunately for both of us, I thought far too highly of you to pursue that. I think the two of us had established something quite a bit deeper than most relationships and that became pretty sacred territory for us later.
San Francisco didn’t quite do it for you as I recall and you and I both wound up back in Boston. You to live, I to work (and not untypically stay). You returned to the Christian Science Publishing Society and discouraged me from pursuing a job there, saying that I’d have to be dedicated to the place and that it couldn’t just be another job. That didn’t square with the tales I’d heard about what went on around the center among the workers and I wound up working for the Harvard Coop at MIT’s student union building.
I fell for a woman with a masters in English lit and a great voice and you and I would chat every so often. Reagan had assumed office and you were pretty adamant about leaving the states. Which, go figure, you did. I stuck around till May of 81 and returned to Houston, to continue art and running bookstores and oh, getting married. That was fucking nuts. I won’t totally slag it, but it was fucking nuts.
For six years, we wrote letters off and on. You had begun your first forays into Latin America, learning Spanish in Guatemala, if I recall. You shared a couple of your “byzantine tales” with me later and this only served to reinforce that your balls were much, much bigger and brassier than mine would ever be.
After separating from my wife and re-establishing bachelor status, I held tight in Houston as the economy began to tank, thanks to the lack of regulation and oversight in savings and loan banking, real estate, and petroleum industry backroom planning. Well, thanks, Ronnie, I owe you a solid because your policies led to me leaving Texas for the most part for good. After a summer of teaching, I got the call that a bed and breakfast in Rockport needed a manager.
You came back to the states to visit for the holidays and you called and said you were coming up to Rockport; would I meet you for lunch? In a word, duh. I introduced you to my girlfriend who took off to work and you rather intimated that’s as it should be. I concurred and you sang the praises of the Land of the Maple Leaf and we slagged the current administration with unbridled contempt. As you do. As we do.
I left for Europe the following spring, returned that summer and moved in with another girlfriend that fall. After the new year, we moved to Brookline and you had called to say you were back in town but could we get together without the girlfriend around. This would be the first time you’d make that request explicitly and it’s just as well. We were on the outs and I was about to enter a pretty tenuous period in my life.
This would be the pattern for years to come. You’d come back to the area, we’d meet and chat until voices cracked and life would continue apace. The world would stop when you came back and a kind of insularity that doesn’t characterize any other of my relationships would assert itself as a lovely cocoon for us to parlay in for hours and sometimes days at a time. During the nineties, you moved to Peru and I returned to Houston after my mother took ill. Once she was fine and Jim and Tina had returned to the city, I elected to return to Massachusetts and began a period of recovering from a period of wandering and relative darkness.
I’d been in the restaurant business for altogether too long and decided it was time to cast about for something else. I turned to temping and working on the fringes of the tech community. You asked why I didn’t visit you while you were in Peru and I never had the wherewithal to say that I was basically, pretty fucking poor. I could scrape together enough to get out for my niece’s wedding, but I’d pay dearly for that. Things changed a little when I did a temp gig in San Francisco and returned to better assignments and better wages in Boston. It was around this time that I fell bonkers over someone again and began to realize that I really suck at relationships. After that breakup, I decided it made more sense to save the dollars for traveling. So if I missed you in Peru, I hope I made up for some of that with visits to Honduras and Costa Rica.
You asked me recently about what I remember as highlights of our time in Honduras. There were so many; meeting Dan and Robyn, Walkey and Patti, the trips to Copan and Roatan. Antigua and Lake Atitlan were good times, as well.
I’m going to put this aside for a bit. I want to savor these moments, these memories. You’re present in them and with them and I hold you in my heart a little differently that way. Differently in the sense that of late, I’ve held you in a more absolutely essential state of heart.
I’m not nostalgic nor do I see that likely to become the case. That doesn’t mean I’m a coldhearted bastard; it means that I still feel the warmth of your sun. I’ve watched your star rise over Latin America and the Caribbean and then how you fell in love with Africa. When you said that South Sudan was the most devastated area you’d ever seen, I had a feeling that you might angle a way to go back a little more. I know how much you loved Haiti, so this didn’t surprise me.
On the other hand, I could kind of see that you were getting close to tired of working fulltime and retirement seemed increasingly alluring and living in Florida would afford you proximity to Kate. Let’s face it: your niece and nephew are two other stars whose flames burn pretty dern brightly. Must take after their auntie.
I don’t really want to end this. But I’m pooped. Just a little. I’ve been slightly off my game since you flew off. Not critically shaken, not shaken to my fundament. Nope. I’m a bit better than that; but there’s the crummy sense of not being able to email you or take you out to dinner or chat with you randomly.
I’ve been watching a lot of comedy lately and at first, I didn’t know why. I thought it was just that I was enjoying Ricky Gervais and Craig Ferguson. But I haven’t been able to get back in the groove of sitting and meditating quite as regularly. The past month has been dreamlike, surreal in the way a Delvaux (as opposed to a Dali) painting is surreal. Things look almost normal but they’re not; the veneer of actuality is suspect and solidity more and more illusory.
I’m enjoying laughing; it’s not a matter of trying to hide from the pain of your departure. It’s almost a celebration. Robyn tells me that OFDA is having a happy hour memorial for you on May 20. Wish we could be there to chime in, clink some glasses and share stories.
Hey, remember this one: http://archive.boston.com/ae/music/articles/2009/02/25/three_girls_without_their_buddy_strike_a_chord/. We did see and hear some great music. The Offenback was great, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, stuff at the Paradise and Johnny D’s….
Okay. It’s time for sleep. I’ll write more tomorrow.