A Truncated Chronology
To Nikki, for her courage.
One day in late summer, 1968, Jim’s dad was no longer at home. And Jim understood this was to be permanent. Not that he had been there much in the prior fifteen years. Maybe he was there in the late fifties and early sixties when he mowed the lawn and worked on his 1957 MGA in the garage, or hand-clipped the edges of the lawn like you were supposed to do then, or attended Catholic mass with the family each Sunday, followed by breakfast out and a visit to Sears, or taught Jim to play golf. The two of them went fishing a couple times, went to the shooting range, watched illegal drag racing in the desert at night, flew in a small airplane as parachutists jumped out and did some home projects. But recently, they never spent time together. Jim’s dad was at work a lot and then rarely home in the evenings or weekends.
April fourth that year, Jim lost Martin Luther King. Then two months later on June sixth, Bobby Kennedy was killed. These deaths were personal for him and for many of his contemporaries. Jim never said this aloud to anyone, but once his dad left home, he missed Bobby and Martin more than his dad. They had inspired him deeply, and the future had looked better than the past, because of them. And then, all of a sudden, it didn’t. Everything was uncertain. Real evil was active and winning.
Then his dad left.
Earlier, in the local parochial grade school, Jim shared his name with three classmates, along with multiple Dennis’s, Mike’s, Dave’s, Mary’s and Catherine’s. Parents naming their kids in the fifties apparently had a much more limited palette to choose from, versus today’s creative options. Catholics had even less: Naming your kids after saints, then expecting them to exemplify saintly behaviors was common. And now, in high school, among fifteen hundred students, there was still not a Tiffany or Trevor or Marilee or Hunter or Travis among the classes. But there were two dozen Jim’s. So nicknames were common. Since seventh grade, Jim had been manacled with two: Gomer and Smiley, neither flattering nor evocative of James Dean. These stuck to him like a “kick me” sign snuck onto the back of his shirt.
In 1968, fifties conformity was crumbling, and as it did, Jim cherished his front-row seat and increasing participation. At fifteen, he regularly read the Berkeley Barb, the Black Panther paper from Oakland and Ramparts magazine, alongside political and social treatises from Bakunin, Kropotkin, Gandhi, Oglesby and M.L. King. He visited his next-door neighbor, Fred, one Friday night, who poured him a sixteen-ounce tumbler of bourbon on ice, which he dutifully downed. The results were predictable.
Shortly thereafter, Jim and Fred shared a joint in the garage attic, something Fred, being a year older in school, had experience with. Another life-long affection began. Jim trusted Fred, and admired his sophistication. Fred had been to Seattle and had bought dope on “The Ave.”
A year later, Fred and Jim swallowed a one-inch square peace sign blotter paper on Thanksgiving, and spent the ensuing twelve hours in an out-of-body Shangri-La. As happened with kids all across he country, the next few years of Jim’s life were mapped out: Jim “expanded his consciousness” and explored his creative self, in pretty much exactly the same ways hundreds of thousands of other American kids did then, in their quest to break down conformity. The morning after his psychedelic baptism, Jim immediately went to the library, bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived, and checked out Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, took it home and read it cover-to-cover before finally falling asleep. He awoke twenty hours later.
Jim found he was good at intoxication. These were skills he honed and manicured, sorting out what was cool from what was not, how far he could go to get laughs, and how to avoid being laughed at. He learned the power of a comic non sequitur, imitating voices, performing bits from TV and movies and juxtaposing unrelated images and ideas for shock value or humor. He learned to pace, anticipate, manage supplies and avoid tricky combinations.
From family history (provided by his mother), Jim’s dad was also an adept drunk, though Jim saw little evidence of this at home. Perhaps his dad drank elsewhere. Later, drink became a problem for his father, who eventually exchanged it for twelve-step meetings and prescriptions for others’ lives, and easily digested daily reminders and one-liners, maintaining his sobriety over thirty-five years until the end of his life. But hear tell, before that he was an expert. Jim’s older cousins shared stories of tossing back cocktails at various local taverns with his dad. What we know as “Mad Men” culture was ubiquitous then, and the Rat Pack were role models for the WWII generation. Hugh Hefner took this further. A hip gentleman should be able to have three martinis at lunch, a scotch in the office in the afternoon and then drink more after dinner.
Jim’s mom was no teetotaler, but she rarely exhibited any big emotions or ecstatic creativity after a few drinks. Denial was her preferred escape. Years later, Jim confessed to her at lunch at a restaurant in Nevada City in the California Gold Country that he was seriously convinced he had a problem. It took a marshaling of will and no small amount of meditation to screw up his courage to address this topic honestly with his mom. She ordered him a margarita. It was tasty and had the intended effect. As did the three that followed. He easily let go the disappointment he felt.
The day Jim’s dad left the family home, Jim and his mom hugged and cried in the tiny second-floor bathroom. Neither uttered, “I love you”, but on some level that may have just been taken for granted, in some Irish Catholic way. Nor did they discuss what exactly was happening or why. In that spirit of tough, New World immigrant survivalism, his mom’s example was to push on, don’t speak about it, make coffee and have a cigarette. That day was the closest he and his mom ever came, and that sentiment, or any others, was never broached between them, before or since. Jim’s mom died without them ever speaking the three words.
Jim’s dad did not move far away. He took an apartment within a mile of the house, with a swimming pool, aluminized, geometric wallpaper, avocado-colored, wall-to-wall shag carpeting and a built-in bar, even in the one-bedroom units. There were nightly singles’ happy hours, pool parties and other visible trappings of the late sixties swinging lifestyle. The place may have had a carefree name like “Sans Souci West”, or “The Hideaways”. Jim would drop in to visit and they’d go for a spin in the Alfa Romeo, out into the desert, his dad with a tumbler of vodka and orange juice between his legs as he drove. His dad coached him that vodka was harder for the cops to smell. Sometimes Jim would come by after high school and share drinks, and they would discuss Eldridge Cleaver or the SDS or what was happening in cities and on college campuses, The War and the greatest American writers. They could talk in detail about Mailer, Breslin, Roth, Vidal and Baldwin. Jim’s mind opened in these conversations, more likely as a result of the screwdrivers than the academic quality of the topics.
In Portland, in ’72, Jim’s dad came to visit him at college. He arrived in his baby blue Skylark with a bottle of scotch half-done, and suggested they get some Ouzo and catch up. Dinner may have been a better idea, but good conversation ensued. Nixon was gaining and would soon be burgling, and Jim was a street-level McGovern activist. If Bobby and King’s assassinations didn’t dissuade the young people, Manson and Altamont did. What was next was not clear. Nixon was the advance janitorial crew making way for Reagan. Mailer and Terkel ran for mayor of New York. There was a lot to talk about. The night became morning, and they tucked into a Grand Slam breakfast at Denny’s. Then Jim’s dad left.
In ’78, they got together again in Lake Tahoe where Jim was working: beginning his career, but still living with roommates. A hike or car tour through the verdant and dramatic Tahoe basin would have been appropriate. But the pair headed, instead, to King’s Beach for an early dinner, followed by a long string of after-dinner drinks. Back at the house, Jim felt the time was right to get his dad stoned. Though his dad didn’t like the sensation, Jim felt closer to him than ever. He felt he didn’t just have a dad, but he had a real buddy to share his new ideas and discoveries with.
Soon afterwards, Jim’s dad joined AA and never drank again. So Jim found new buddies.
After he was released from jail the first time, Jim was required to attend classes as part of his sentence. He found them tedious, but enjoyed the group discussions. He was sure these were a pathetic lot of losers and he was nothing like them.
“Do you think your family life had any detrimental effect on you? Maybe it’s the reason you’re here today with us?”
“Not at all.” Jim answered, and then felt inspired to expand, “I had a normal fifties-sixties type of life. My folks weren’t affectionate, but isn’t that par for the course? I was happy as a kid. We skateboarded and played outside all the time. I got good grades. My brother and I watched black and white TV on three channels. We had good schools. We never had a lot, but we were happy with what we had. Our folks never beat us too much.” The latter got laughs, as he had intended. This also helped to move the scrutiny to the over-weight woman to Jim’s left.
After his second arrest, before County would hand over his clothes, Jim had to sign off that everything was there.
“Ten bucks? Are you shitting me? I came in with fifty-five. You guys have a problem.”
“Sir, it is policy to keep any cash inmates arrive with, less what the county feels is cab fare.”
“So, if, like, I come in with a hundred thousand dollars in cash in my pockets, you guys get to keep all but ten bucks? No way. That’s fucked up, man. YOU guys have a problem. I don’t have a problem.”
“Sir, I can ask the officer to step over and discuss this you.”
“No, man, just give me my shit. And, fuck you, man. I don’t have a problem here.”
“Sir, I am a woman. Please do not call me ‘man’ ”.
But Jim attended his court-ordered classes again and worked hard to impress the system people that he was a rehab poster boy. Jim’s instinct in groups was always to slowly and subtly take a lead role, and to earn it through familiarity, commiseration and camaraderie. He accomplished this in two sessions. He became the spokesman for the array of offenders ranging from the indigent carpenter with five kids, living in a van, to the immigrants from Lebanon caught in confusion about the law, successful entrepreneurs, artists, and two guys Jim knew from his business world. Among the latter, they mostly avoided eye contact, and when having a cigarette break on the sidewalk, they only said things like, “You know, man, when we’re back and stuff. You know what I mean, right? It’s cool.” His classmates would often look at him when there was a particularly challenging question or exercise. He could usually diffuse the tension.
In week three, Yolanda, Jim’s rehab leader, asked the group, “What do you think you are in denial about? We’ve talked about denial for a couple of weeks. You know what it means. I know you do people. So how about it? Jim, let’s start with you.”
“For sure I know that I am not sure if I have a soul or not. You know? I’m a Buddhist and we’re unsure about the soul. I mean, has anyone ever actually seen one? And the Warren Commission and the 9-11 Report? Total fantasy on both counts. Cover-ups. And supply-side economics. Complete bullshit. I mean where is David Stockman today? But I don’t really shill for those issues, so I think they don’t count for denial.
“No, Jim. You know what I mean. About you and your life.”
“Oh, about me more personally? Well, I’m not gay, but I have a lot of gay friends and family. I am not easily categorized politically. I’m faithful to my wife. I like Alfredo and big Barolo’s. I’m not an addict. I’m here because of a fluke, somebody else’s problem. I don’t really have any issues like this. I’m not like you guys.”
Three years later, Jim woke in the rear seat of the police cruiser with a pounding headache and his beard caked and stiff. The seat was hard plastic and very uncomfortable, and smelled of urine and vomit. The handcuffs cut into his wrists and he thought they weren’t necessary for someone like him. He wasn’t a criminal. He had no recollection of the evening’s events. Later he was told he had crashed into another car, a small English sports car with the father of two young boys driving. Fortunately, the kids were not with him, but both cars were totaled and the father was hospitalized. Since the father was three times the legal limit for blood alcohol, and had a history of DUI and domestic violence, he was seen less as the victim and they both caught relatively light sentences. In a few weeks, Jim was back to his normal life.
In 2008, Jim’s dad died and before doing so, he passed Jim his thirty-year chip.
He told Jim, “You know I love you, son. I’m proud of you.”
Jim thought, “Goddam, man. You did it. Congratulations. You made it to the end.”
Last year I ran into Jim at a happy hour at the Holiday Inn in Houston. “Hey, good to see you, man” he said. “How long are you in town? Let me buy you a drink. They’re cheap until seven. I have a circuit of these things I hit most nights after work, hotels, bars, and restaurants. Cheap dinner and a few drinks. I can walk to most of them, sometimes taxi, since I’m not driving anymore. Fucking Texas, man. Hey, it’s the anniversary of my old man’s passing and I’m celebrating him. Boy, that son-of-a-bitch could put ’em away. The Irish have a hollow leg, don’t they? Welcome to Texas, my man. Welcome to Happy Hour.”