October 18, 2015

Out of the Past


I don’t know what it is, what it may signify, but I am loathe to put it down as anything with meaning, a portent of some kind, when in all likelihood it’s a mere coincidence in the guise of what my friend Ken has called JCS, or “Jim’s Cheap Symbolism.”

            I admit that of late I’ve been feeling some intermittent deep regret at having lived such a cloistered existence this last decade, avoiding most direct human contact (even on the telephone) whenever possible. I duck repeated invitations from friends who live a couple of blocks away, and others from people who offer to make the long trip down to Bay Ridge. I know I’d like to see them, that it would likely be good to step out and interact with those few people I like, that I’m missing a lot by not doing so, but something in my head and guts simply recoils at the thought. It says something I think that the one person (apart from my wife and downstairs neighbors) I’ve seen more than any other in that ten-year stretch lives in San Francisco, but comes to New York City once or twice a year. As I get older and realize more fully that each day is another tick closer to the dirt, I’ve been recognizing that my priorities have been a little fucked. Not that I’ll likely do anything about it, but the thought’s been creeping in. Maybe it’s just maudlin nostalgia for a youth and energy long gone. If you wanted to give it any form or meaning at all, it seems some malevolent force in the universe has taken it upon itself to remind me of something.

            Over the past three weeks a number of people have been emerging from the shadows of my past without warning. Not close friends, really, some of them I’ve never met in person, but all of them interesting in their own way, and people I’ve been thinking about of late for one reason or another. Last week I wrote about unexpectedly running into a guy I hadn’t seen in twenty years, in the bodega across the street from my apartment. Even back then we’d only met briefly once or twice, as he played bass in the band that backed me up when I did a goofy one-off Elvis show in the East Village. How he recognized me after all that time, my hair shorter and gone all white, the fedora long gone, my features, well, whatever they’ve become. But he did, and it was good to see him again even though he seemed to know a little too much about me.

            Then just last night I received a note from another guy I hadn’t heard from in nearly three years. I’ve never met him, he wrote me out of the blue once and we’d corresponded intermittently since then. Funny, often boorish youngster from Dallas who’s led an extremely peripatetic existence. In the past he’d always seemed fairly laid back about his assorted insane jobs and relationships, but suddenly last night he wrote to ask if he could call me on the phone, because he needed my advice about some hellish personal trouble in which he’d become embroiled. That’s all he would tell me. Now, that’s bad news on both ends. If he’s asking me for advice then he must be in some deep and desperate shit, and on the other end of things I always cringe a little when anyone asks for advice, out of the simple fear someone might actually follow it.

            Earlier in the week I’d heard from a woman I hadn’t heard from in eight years. That last time had been at the memorial service for a mutual friend, and we’d spoken only briefly. I felt terrible afterwards, because she’d asked me to sit at her table but it was such a confusing and confused day, people swirling all around, I never had the chance to sit down and catch up. Back in the late Eighties she’d been the receptionist at the Welcomat, the paper where I’d first started writing. More than the receptionist, she was the spirit of the paper—loud and brash and crass and funny, a large woman with long, straight hair who bore a striking resemblance to Mama Cass, had a barking laugh and no tolerance for bullshit. She was also my speed dealer at the time, and before I moved up here, I sold her my typewriter.

            Before her days at the Welco, she’d lived a variety of wild lives, as a biker chick, a metal groupie, a Wiccan, and after she left the paper things only got stranger again. Last I’d heard she and her new husband had become gun rights activists.

            But she was writing to let me know that after months of feeling shitty and dealing with a fistful of doctors who could not pinpoint the cause, she’d been diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. Although she was as upbeat and zany as ever, and although she said she seemed to be responding to the chemo regimen, the prognosis was simply not a good one. I couldn’t help but think of my friend Steve. We’d finally reconnected after years of silence, when boom, he broke the news he had liver cancer. Two weeks later he was gone.

            A week and a half prior to hearing from the woman in Philly, I received a phone call on a Saturday afternoon from a man I hadn’t heard from in ten years. That I was hearing from him at all was a little flabbergasting, and though mutual friends who knew him much better than I did warned me away, I picked up the phone. I was curious, right?

            Well, it’s a long story. As with all of these people he deserves a column or two himself just to try and lay out a few of the pertinent facts of our connection, and maybe I’ll do that one of these days. For now, though, let’s just say I spent three hours on the phone that Saturday afternoon, saying very little myself apart from “uh-huh,” as he detailed how and why he’d spent the previous eight years in assorted federal pens on child molestation charges.

            The nut, though, was this: He was an incredibly charismatic man, a proverbial larger than life character. Before his arrest, he had been a major and successful player in both the film and music industries. Since his release, and I guess it’s understandable, most of the people he’d worked with in the past were now refusing to deal with him in any way. Even old and dear friends were shunning him. He still had a mortgage to pay off and a family to support, and so was desperate to get back to work in some way. So desperate—and desperately misguided—that he thought with all my, um, “success” and, um, “clout” and, um, “industry connections” I might be able to help him do this. I did what I could in the days that followed to gently dissuade him of this clear misunderstanding.

            Don’t misread me, here. I was quite happy to be back in touch with all these people after so long. That they all reappeared essentially at the same time was a bit strange and mysterious, but still. What was troubling, and why there might well indeed be some meaningless Cheap Symbolism at play here, is that three of the four had contacted me from the depths of simple fear and confusion and desperation. Each in his or her own way, they were people who were asking me for some kind of help I simply couldn’t provide. The fourth, meanwhile, seemed to know a little bit more about me than he should have, which was even more unnerving.

            Maybe the real lesson here is that sometimes it’s best not to speculate, best not to wonder too hard, and just let Cheap Symbolism be Cheap Symbolism. And sometimes, like with those movies you were real nuts about when you were nine, it’s best to let memories be memories and ghosts be ghosts.


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