Every three months I receive a page-poor promo magazine in the mail, sent from the school I attended — then a college, now a university —and at which I taught for a number of years. Note: a reader should regard “attended” and “taught” as generous descriptions of my activities.
The mag arrives today. I deploy a dropper’s worth of my pal Joe’s special elixir, whip up a refreshing beverage, and give the publication a once-over during the cocktail hour — 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays, noon to 10 p.m. weekends, though I intend to ask Wanda, my personal physician and consultant regarding all things physical and metaphysical, if it’s safe to extend the weekday block by an hour or three.
I scan short, minimally informative articles written by institution flaks, most of them journalism grads who failed to land a decent job, since few remain in the biz these days, and since there aren’t many “I can handle more than two paragraphs” candidates to deal with what’s available.
I read about an administrative decision to have the school’s sports programs remain in NCAA Division II (thus maintaining an edge on much smaller universities and colleges), the piece titled “Never Second Best.” This seems similar to a morbidly obese bozo beating a legless competitor in a 25-meter race then, short of breath and suffering chest pain, jubilantly declaring he is “still the champ.”
There’s more on the sports front, about the marginal professional success of athletes leaving said program. It is a mystery to all concerned. Several administrators will be paid handsomely to investigate the situation.
I learn about the value of a poorly paid job at the university’s day care facility to a student aiming at a career in early childhood education. There’s nothing like a realistic apprenticeship to prepare someone for a difficult future dealing with undisciplined and lazy little shits who are deemed “gifted” by their overprotective parents, the saintly caretaker laboring in a minimum wage wonderland. Forge ahead, teacher-to-be, but don’t expect to purchase your own home.
A message from the university president titled “Planning to Succeed,” tracks like a mortgage hustle delivered by a late-night infomercial shill. The Prez is a makeup-blessed, well-clad carnival barker with a Hollywood smile, like high-salary execs at public institutions of all kinds, eager to justify the misuse of taxpayer dollars, ever on the make for donations.
On the page facing the president’s blather is an item titled “In Your Words.” In this section, several grads are asked, “What are the top three skills you learned as a student?” A note at the end of the replies informs readers that “responses have been edited lightly for clarity.” So, it’s safe to assume the ability to effectively employ the English language is not one the three skills.
I read that a “legendary Political Science Professor Retires.” I have never heard of the goof. I wonder why the writer of the hed chooses to cap “Retires” and “Political Science.” Or, “Professor,” for that matter. And what about “legendary?” Unlike the legendary prof, the newspaper editor in me refuses to retire.
There’s a brief article profiling a grad who hosts a show on ESPN’s Sports Center. At least he’s faring better than athletes who leave the Division II program.
This glossy, hard-copy crap carrier is crammed with flimsy info, a glam façade concealing pervasive mediocrity. Just what I need during the cocktail hour. I down another vodka tonic, continue to riffle through the pages and, as I prepare to hurl the mag to the trash, I find reason to enjoy the publication.
A section printed on the next-to-last page of the magazine includes self-aggrandizing and mercifully short updates from grads who assume someone, somewhere, is interested in what they’ve done since their departure from the institution.
I read the “wow, ain’t I something” blurbs and one from a member of the Class of 1967 catches my eye. It is submitted by a fellow with whom I shared a number of off-the-wall experiences. It was the 60s, after all.
The first thing in his notice that strikes me is the fact there was no Class of 1967. The school didn’t open its doors until 1965; the first graduates rented mortarboards in 1969.
Second, the guy’s notice — let’s call him “Ted” — makes him out to be a straight shooter, a sterling example of patriotic American manhood, a veteran, an enlightened patriarch guiding a multi-generational brood, an exemplary leader in industry and community, a charitable retiree with a fat portfolio, a deeply religious man.
I can’t fucking believe it! Ted? No way.
If what Ted states in his “It’s been a wonderful life and everyone should admire me” promotion is suspect, there’s no denying he’s accomplished something more impressive than building a productive stock portfolio and flying the biggest American flag on his cul de sac: he’s fooled a lot of people, for a lot of years. He has, like the school with its magazine, created a slick front. And he’s back there, lurking somewhere behind that veneer.
He fails to mention this achievement.
Masterful work, Ted.
When I knew him, Ted was a heroically unhinged individual, Olympian if you will. It’s clear to me that Ted remains deranged, but is now adept at concealing his past, and his condition. He mastered the skill needed to create the appearance of relative normality. This is something he was unable to do when I knew him.
His transition causes me to briefly curse the lout, then to remember him as he was. Fondly. With bonus meaning as a spinoff, reminded that I, and everyone I know, reinforce and polish our veneers on a regular basis.
Ted’s veneer must be unusually thick, and in need of regular maintenance.
I remember the first time I meet this icon of respectability, and boon to mankind. It is 1965. My introduction takes place in a small, windowless room in the basement of one of the recently created school’s three rented classroom buildings. Let’s call the space a “student center.”
The microwave oven is new on the scene, and the bulky device on the counter is a puzzler.
Especially to Ted.
I enter the room as one of three raw, whole eggs Ted’s blasting in the oven explodes. He yells out, “Woowee, will you look at that,” then opens the door to the device as the remaining two eggs vaporize.
Here’s what I see: A tall, thin fellow wearing an Imperial Russian army great coat circa 1910, with no shirt beneath, a black top hat, red plaid PJ pants, and a pair of engineer boots on which runes are sloppily painted in bright yellow enamel.
Tangles of red hair dangle beneath the brim of Ted’s top hat. He sports a bright red goatee to hide a weak chin; a bulbous nose hangs over his upper lip. He is covered with egg goo, as is much of the room in front of the oven. He reaches into the pocket of his coat and pulls out another egg.
“That was amazing,” he yells. He puts the egg in the oven, slams the door, dials the primitive device to max power and, as he punches the start button and leans down to view the carnage through the window in the oven door, he shouts, “Here’s one for science.”
After the egg explodes, Ted opens the door and sticks his face in the opening, exposing his mug and massive nozzle to hot vapor. The interior of the oven resembles the depths of Carlsbad Cavern.
After he finishes his inspection, Ted turns to a group of interested spectators and says, “Well, boy, that’s gonna be tough for someone to clean. I don’t have time, since it’s the first day of British lit class and I can’t be late. Anybody got another raw egg on ‘em?”
This is the calmest, steadiest Ted I know; from this point on, the needle on his crazy meter is pinned deep in the red. There is no way someone can ascend from Ted’s level of crazy. The veneer must be extremely thick.
I sit next to Ted in British Literature 100.
Ted turns to me, globs of brutalized protein stuck to his face and beard.
“I memorized Beowulf when I was fourteen.”
He leans over and stares into my eyes.
“Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon …”
He halts. He smiles. He chortles.
“I forget. Most people don’t understand Old English. Sorry, chap. How about The Faerie Queene?”
Before I can stop him, he speaks, leaning even closer to me; bits of egg fall to my lap.
“A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine,
Y cladd in mightie armes and silver shielde,
Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine,
The cruell markes of many a bloudy fielde…”
The professor enters, just in time. More Spenser and I’d throttle this egg-befouled geek.
The lecture begins, Ted is enthralled; he sits forward in his chair, nodding his head and emitting happy kitty sounds. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t blink more than twice during the hour-long session.
Five minutes in, I’m wondering how long this shit is going to take. I have things to do. I’m going to flee town the next day to return to Manhattan, and a weekend gig at a club on St. Mark’s Place.
As we leave the classroom, Ted grabs me by the elbow and again tilts close.
“My name is Ted, Theodore the Third on my birth and baptismal certificates. I can tell we’re going to be compatible learners and great friends. Blessed be the creator, all praise to the lord, this is going to be a great class. Are you a lit major, too?”
“No,” I reply, “I’m Karl, and I’m going to major in being absent. I picked the class because the letter B is close to the front of the alphabet, and I came today to confirm my suspicions about the school. I’m a drummer in a band; I live in New York City. I need a student deferment so I don’t get drafted, so I flew to Denver to enroll. No other place would take me, but this joint is desperate. I mean, look around — it’s obvious they’ll admit anyone. I won’t be in class at all. I figure I’ll ride this baby for a couple years before they boot me out, then I’ll figure out something else.”
Ted seems enchanted. “Music, you say? I’ve played an instrument since I was eight. Do you need a Clarke English Flageolet player in your band?”
I reckon, as whacked as Ted seems to be, he might have a line on things I need.
“Any chance you know a dealer who can hook me up with a couple hundred black beauties?” I ask. “I leave tomorrow, and need to take supplies back with me.”
“Huh?” Ted is confused. “Black beauties? Does it have something to do with the Black Panthers?” he asks. “Are there girls in the Black Panthers?”
“Biphetamine sulfate,” I say “the Rolls Royce of uppers, pharmaceutical dynamite in a black capsule. They’ll blow the back of your head off. Good stuff if you have to make a overnighter to Ohio, or you want to stay awake so long that you find yourself staring at a window, arguing with your reflection.”
“Blimey,” says Ted, slowly backing away. “This sounds like drugs. Oh, gosh, no … I … no … I …”
With that he pivots, and walks as fast as he can in ill-fitting engineer boots to a door leading to the building’s only elevator. As he opens the door, he looks back at me, like a fawn frozen in the high beams of a speeding semi.
When I’m alert, I learn something. This day, I learn Ted is even crazier than I reckoned.
The next day, I leave Denver and return to Manhattan — to gigs at The Balloon Farm, the Night Owl, The Cheetah, at the Trauma in Philly, session work at midtown studios, poverty, addiction, disaster. Pick one item from each column on the 60s musician doom menu.
I also overestimate the patience and underestimate the competence of the college administrators: after two quarters of no shows and failing grades (my brother registers me for the second quarter, exercising a bit of whimsy regarding class choices) the school puts me on academic probation. My brother registers again for the third quarter. I’m enrolled in calculus, restaurant management, criminal justice 100, and handball.
As expected, I fail the classes, and I receive The Notice. I am suspended for a quarter. I can plead for readmission in the fall, probationary status. One last chance to attend what is then the worst college in the United States.
The Notice arrives just as things collapse with the band, and a week or so before management locks me out of my room. Durb goes off to live with Joni Mitchell and recover from a case of hepatitis; Mickey seduces the wife of a well-known folk singer, and holes up in a place in the West Village, him penning sugary love songs about his sweetheart, her promising to introduce him to prominent agents while forcing him to stop shooting up, and eat lentils and tofu. Grady has an offer to play in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and splits town to be with a woman named Shrinking Violet, and her German shepherd, Steppenwolf. Stevie and Neal rocket west in a 1957 Cadillac hearse, toting four (live) groupies from Perth Amboy.
A week after I return to Denver, I get a letter from Selective Service: the damned school announced my ejection, I lose my 2S, and get bumped to the front of the line: 1A. Time to hope the war ends, or the draft board doesn’t call me up before September. If I luck out, I go back to school, change the status. If not, I’m on my way to Basic, stuffed in a bus, one in a company of testosterone-saturated cannon fodder.
There’s no call for a pre-induction physical, the school will still admit anyone, and come the fall quarter I’m back in, on probation. I’m 2S again, safe for the time being, and I cross paths with Ted.
The college has added several buildings — all of them located on the decaying south side of downtown Denver, each at a distance from the others. Students walk the old, frost-heaved sidewalks to get to classroom buildings. I spot Ted a block ahead, teetering my way.
He has adopted a new look. Above: a tweed sport jacket over a cream-colored silk shirt, a stained blue ascot draped around his neck. Below: a pair of tan equestrian pants, blousy and tucked into the tops of high, brown riding boots. There’s a Sherlock Holmes hat plopped rakishly on his dome, and he’s smoking a large Meerschaum pipe, its bowl carved in the likeness of a Moorish potentate. He uses the pipe to gesture as he jabbers loudly.
He is walking alone.
When I stop him, he remembers me. Rather, he remembers, “We, of the Great Egg Event.” He closes his eyes and chuckles in a knowing manner, drawing at the pipe. Something pops inside the bowl. I smell the ugly odor of smoldering marijuana seeds. In my absence, Ted has shuffled to the dark side.
His eyes remaining closed, Ted recites the first three stanzas of Wallace Stevens’ The Man with the Blue Guitar, using the Meerschaum seed popper for emphasis, then tells me, “We won’t be together in classes if you’re still submerged in the humanities, my friend. I changed my major to microbiology after I started experimenting with cannabis sativa. The plant has revealed a whole new world to me, and I intend to conquer that world.” He gestures broadly, a smug expression on his face indicating that he is privy to a secret.
He holds the pipe in his teeth, takes a small note pad and stubby pencil from a jacket pocket, writes down an address, hands me the note, exhales a cloud of acrid smoke, and says, “Stop by any time after four, and indulge in a wee taste with me and my roommate. Cannabis unveils new horizons. You should try it, and you’ll see what I mean.”
New horizons, indeed. I make a mental note to find Gypsy, the beatnik poet, and cop some smack. I’m feeling a bit jittery.
Why not a visit?
The best thing about my experience at Ted’s apartment the next afternoon is that I meet someone who will become one of my dearest friends — Kip Farris, an artist, and a partner in a number of projects during upcoming years.
Ted, on the other hand, proves himself increasingly odd.
For starters, there’s the spider monkey he keeps in a closet, the door to the enclosure covered with chicken wire that Ted nails to the doorframe.
“I know Beebo will settle down once he realizes how much I care,” says Ted, as the monkey screeches and throws feces and food through the openings in the barrier, “and once he realizes how much we primates have in common. We’re both god’s creation, you know. Beebo, incidentally, is an ancient Sanskrit name. Or, at least I think it is.”
Ted shows me the bandages on his forearm covering a suppurating wound (“took eighteen stitches”) opened by the beast when Ted attempted “a cuddle session with Beebo” to temper the psychotic monkey’s anxiety.
“He’s not quite ready, but I’m reading studies on animal behavior modification utilizing the power of love, and I won’t give up” Ted says as he closes the bedroom door, the Monkey’s howls muffled by a wet towel stuffed in the gap between door and floor.
“Care for a smoke,” says Ted as he sits in his battered club chair and chars the seeds in his Meerschaum.
I decline, as does Kip.
“Anyone in need of some chickpeas,” asks Ted. “I soak them, but I don’t cook them. I read there’s a sadhu who has lived two hundred years eating nothing but raw chickpeas. Proof enough for me. Plus, I’ve never been this regular. It’s incredible.”
I decline the chickpeas, as does Kip, and he and I discuss a couple of his paintings that hang on the wall, trying to ignore Ted as he reads aloud from his “Diary of Deposits” — detailed notes describing his bowel movements in terms of frequency, texture, consistency, color, and odor. Several of the diary entries are written in iambic pentameter.
“I don’t think I’ll be here very long,” says Kip, “so let’s stay in touch. I know a dealer with a regular supply of Thai sticks and good hash.”
I like this guy.
Ted leaps to his feet, dashes across the room to his Silvertone “victrola,” pops a heat-warped 1950’s vintage Guy Lombardo platter on the turntable, sways back and forth for a minute or so, returns to his chair, pops a handful of chickpeas in his mouth, takes a hit of seed smoke, closes his eyes, tilts his head back and says, “Not a lot of current music can match the masters,” then recites the last eleven lines of Eliot’s Little Gidding.
Since Ted is now a student of the sciences, and I remain mired in the philosophy curriculum, we seldom meet at the college. But, he cozies up to a friend of mine, Pierre, and on a rare occasion when Ted and I interact on campus, he announces that he and Pierre are “have become the best of friends, simpatico, amigos for life in the eyes of god. We should form a men’s group and explore our potential, like they do at Esalen. You can be a charter member.”
Pierre tells me that Beebo attacked Ted again, managed to flee the closet during a feeding, mauled Ted’s shoulder and neck, then escaped through an open window. The monkey was later captured at a nearby city park by animal control officers and executed on the spot. Ted, oblivious to the fate of his fellow primate, and to the significant amount of blood and monkey scat spattered about the apartment, is forced to vacate after he invites the landlady in to join him “for a wee smoke and some chickpeas.”
“I told him he could spend a couple of nights with Franny and me,” says Pierre, “and it’s been three weeks now. He eats fucking uncooked chickpeas by the pound, there’s burned pot seeds all over the place, he’s in the bathroom for an hour at a time, and when he’s not shitting he stares at Franny, like a starving man looking at a sandwich. He hums the tune to ‘When A Man Loves a Woman,’ smokes that damned pipe, and stares at her. I don’t think he blinks more than twice an hour. She’s getting nervous.”
“Well,” I reply, “perhaps it’s time to get him laid, and get him outta there.”
We agree Ted needs to step over the threshold, and we come up with a plan: given my connections on the shadier side of the avenue, I take on the task of finding a suitable professional to do the deed, and Pierre will provide the venue.
I contact my pal Freddy, who manages several classic champagne hustle clubs in downtown Denver. He tells me to pop in.
“Got just the person for the job,” he says. “Dutch girl, named Ilse, or Inge, or sumthin’ like that. Goes by Sweet Pea when she’s on the job. Big woman. She’ll squeeze every last drop from the clown, and he’ll thank her for it. Real pro, totally in control.”
Perfect. We go from his office to the bar. Freddy points to a booth in the back corner of the dimly lit room. A large woman with short blond hair is sitting next to a sun-creased fellow who’s wearing a western dress jacket and shirt, a snappy dress cowboy hat, and a bolo tie. It’s National Western Stock Show week in Denver, and prize pickings abound. The chumps from the prairie and the feedlot owners are out in force, and the predators are circling.
There are ten or so empty champagne glasses on the table in front of the couple, and a waitress arrives with another round. The ridin’ and ropin’ bumpkin is the only one drinking cheap champagne (Prince Andre, a five buck bottle sold for fifty), and he’s trashed. Sweet Pea’s glass contains sparkling water with a touch of weak tea. She pretends to be trashed, she pretends to like the guy; her right hand is busy in the man’s lap, the back of her perfumed left hand caresses his cheek. Once the mark goes face down on the table, his wallet is opened and emptied, Sweet Pea disappears, and any complaint by the awakened and addled client is met with a visit from a large, fearsome looking chap with no front teeth.
Welcome to the big city, pardner. Whaddya gonna tell the folks back in Wyoming?
I meet Ilse/Inga/Sweet Pea in Freddy’s office, and I explain the setup while she divvies up the cowpoke’s cash. She gets the picture, tells me she knows the ropes with virgins who need to pet some poon and suffer a spill. She works two nights a week at one of Johnny C’s parlors out in Adams County, so she’s handled needy neophytes, usually pimply twits brought to the arena by a drunk stepfather or uncle who thinks he’s doing the kid a favor.
I ask Ilse/Inga/Sweet Pea if Johnny C still drives around the suburbs in his pink roadster — the one with furry dice hanging from the rearview, and fake zebra hide seat covers — and takes the employees out for soft serve when there’s a lull in the action. I ask if Johnny keeps an ounce of flake in his desk drawer for use when the action heats up.
From that moment on, Ilse and I are tight; she trusts me. We agree on a price. I set a date and time for Ted’s transformation, and give our healer the address.
To cut to the chase: we gather at Pierre’s apartment, Franny is absent, Ted is timorous, Ilse is ready to play ringmaster in the center ring at the circus, asking that we refer to her as Sweet Pea, and notifying all present that she bathed and took care of all other bodily biz prior to her arrival. No worries: sparkly fresh.
Sweet Pea looks like a cross between a Reeperbahn doyen and a milkmaid in from the pasture with a full pail, ready to churn butter. She is a spectacular example of a woman unburdened by a restrictive moral sensibility. She begins to disrobe as she enters the apartment and sheds all her clothes by the time she stands in front of Ted, her hands on her hips, her pelvis thrust forward. It’s the 60s, pre wax/razor fad, and it looks like she has a woodchuck glued to her pubes. Ted is mesmerized by the wildlife, frozen in his chair, eyes wide, his expression registering both terror and the rapt anticipation of a rube at a carnival sideshow. Sweet Pea reeks of White Shoulders and gives off a heat we feel across the room.
“C’mon baby,” she says in a husky voice (with exotic accent) as she grabs a trembling Ted by the paw, stands him up and walks him to the adjoining bedroom, “Sweet Pea knows just what you need.”
The bedroom has French doors, with frosted glass panels. Pierre, Kip, and I sit in the living room smoking Nepalese hash (it arrives in a Hershey Bar size slab, the Himalayan wonder sludge wrapped in red glossy paper, the seam of the package sealed with a disc of wax). We gaze at the closed bedroom doors. The scene is out of a middling French noir film: forms move beyond the glass. We can’t quite see what’s going on, but we’re aware of things taking place in the fog.
Five minutes into the process, Ted screams something about his mommy. Sweet Pea opens the doors, and sashays out.
“Easy work, boys. He’ll remember this for a long, long time.”
She puts on her clothes, we pay her thirty-five dollars. She takes three or four big hits of the hash, and she’s gone, trailing White Shoulders vapor as she exits.
Ted sits cross-legged on the bed, weeping. According to him… deep in love. He’s scaled the emotional peak. For the first time.
Ted informs us that, like a knight in a tale of courtly love, he will perform great deeds and win the affection of the maiden who captured his heart this night. He stares at the ceiling, as if he’s studying a canopy of stars. He doesn’t blink.
I consider warning Ted about his plan, about the physical and emotional damage that comes from misreading a disinterested professional who drains his tank, then moves on to other tanks. I decide not to, for entertainment’s sake, and I tell him where Ilse/Inga/Sweet Pea works.
Pierre informs Ted that, should he finagle a coupling, he will have to do it in his own bed, in his own apartment.
That does the trick. The next day, Ted borrows money from his parents and he is gone.
He does not borrow enough money, however, to both secure a residence and purchase the time-sensitive affection of his beloved.
Sweet Pea’s rejection plunges Ted into what, in a Bunyonesque moment, he calls “the slough of despond,” from which he emerges slowly, thanks to a newfound obsession with birds.
Ted is nuts. There’s no recovery possible. The veneer has to be thick.
Kip and I are smoking weed, drinking shots of tequila, working off a mescaline-induced muddle, and preparing to paint a mural that will cover two sides of a three-story business establishment on Colfax Avenue, when he says, “I talked to Ted yesterday, and he’s crazier than ever. We need to check him out; it’ll be fun.”
Ted’s apartment is on the second floor of an old mansion on Capitol Hill that has been converted to dingy studio units.
We knock at his door.
We knock again. We hear noise.
Finally, a voice.
“No solicitors. And, if you’re the brute who tried to sell me magazine subscriptions, I’m warning you: I’m in contact with the appropriate authorities, and they’ll make short work of you.”
“It’s Karl and Kip,” I say.
“Karl and Kip.”
Then, “Do I know you?”
“You should. I talked to you yesterday.”
Then, “What do you want? Do I owe you money?”
“We have some primo weed.”
“Oh, well, in that case…”
Then, “OK. Here’s the deal: grab the door handle and turn it, but don’t push the door open until I yell ‘Push!’ Whatever you do, don’t open the door until I say that! Are we clear?”
“Roger that. So, when I yell ‘Push,’ open the door just wide enough to slide in, sideways. Make it fast, then close the door as quickly as possible. Are we clear?”
“Why do you keep saying ‘Roger that’?”
Then, “I’m thinking about joining the air force.”
“So, can we come in?”
“Roger that. But not until I say ‘Push.’”
Noise. Unintelligible shouts, objects hitting walls and floor.
Then, “Get ready. Now, push!”
We do as we’re told: we open the door only wide enough to slip in, and we close it behind us after we enter.
Ted stands a few feet in front of the door, back to us, naked, the whitest person I’ve ever seen. If his hair weren’t red, he’d be an albino.
He waves a broom in the air, shouting “Calm down. For god’s sake, little ones, calm down!”
Flying above and around him, and us, is a swarm of tweeting, frantic chickadees. Twenty of them, maybe more.
“For god’s sake, calm down. We have guests.”
Chairs, tables, and bookcases in the room are covered with plastic tarps, as are the floors. The tarps are covered with chickadee crap. There are flat trays holding heaps of seeds and chickpeas set around the room, with a little dish of water next to each tray.
“Hurry,” says Ted, “follow me. We’re going to do the same thing with the door to the bathroom that you did at the front door. We have to get in there before the birds follow. It’s the only room I’m safe in these days.”
Ted fends off the frenzied flock with his broom, we cross the room, and enter the bathroom, slipping in quickly and shutting the door behind us. Only one chickadee makes it in with us.
“This is Larry,” says Ted. “He’s a lot craftier than the others. He and I have special relationship. I’m teaching Larry to talk, and I think I’m making progress. Go ahead and sit on the floor, or the toilet. I have to finish taking my bath.”
The tub is full of water, the water tan in color. A cast iron pan, several plates, forks, and a spatula sit next to the tub on the floor
There is a crust of yellow-orange, congealed grease on the sides of the tub at the water line, looking like a ledge of filthy ice on an ore carrier dock in Marquette, Michigan, mid January.
Ted gets in the tub; a cube of potato bobs on the surface of the water between his knees. He grabs a long-handled scrub brush, works the bristles on his back, and says, “I have to do the dishes in the tub now, since I can’t use the kitchenette. The birds, you know? I’ve expanded my diet to include tubers, and a bit of pork. The grease and oil are great for my dry skin, so I take a bath right after I wash the dishes. I thought I had psoriasis, but this clears it right up. I spend most of my time here in the bathroom. The little old lady who lives downstairs is pretty confused, and she thinks I’m her grandson, so I cook in her kitchen, and give her foot rubs while she speaks Serbo-Croatian to me. I’ve taken to cooking my chickpeas. She loves them. They keep her regular. You should try them.”
He points to a pillow and blanket crumpled in a corner of the bathroom. “I sleep on the floor in here. The birds, you know.”
This is the exemplary, upright citizen in the magazine blurb: a pillar of the community, a noble leader, a beacon of respectability.
No way someone escapes this kind of crazy; once you’re on this bus, it doesn’t make many stops, and when it does, you shouldn’t get off. No way he is the guy portrayed in the university magazine.
It’s a matter of veneer.
I go to the Web and search for Ted. I find his Facebook page after some work and time. He claims he served in the air force, learned lab skills, rose in the ranks in the pharma research industry before he retired. This, I believe. Not a difficult career for a maniac who possesses a measure of intellect, and an interest in drugs.
Ted now runs a specialized religious organization. This, too, I believe. The organization website does little but reprint passages from the Bible that support whatever positions Ted chooses to take on a limited number of subjects —homosexuality, infidelity, drug and alcohol abuse, and abortion.
Invariably, the passages quoted on the site relate to the torment due an unbeliever and sinner. In this approach, Ted is typical. Bible, Koran, the Constitution — different scriptures, but the same technique for fervent and insane believers with axes to grind. Why reckon with the meaning of the entire document when a tiny piece suits your purpose?
As in his magazine statement, Ted describes himself on his site as “extremely conservative, a dedicated family man, a literalist loyal to the one true universal church, its sacred documents, and the Pope (depending on who’s the Pope).”
This, too, I believe. More proof he’s still crazy. He’s squatting behind the veneer.
In a photo on the site, Ted stands somewhat erect next to his short, somewhat wide wife, with a gaggle of what might be orphans gathered around the couple, all with garlands of flowers in their hair. The kids smile, his wife does not.
Yep, he’s still as whacked as ever. He merely adjusted his manner of dress, and found a woman (far from the likes of Sweet Pea) who tolerates him, and might be desperate enough, or crazy enough herself, to believe him.
But, he’s not only fucking nuts … he’s a lens.
Look through him. He’s like most of us, isn’t he? It’s a matter of degree.
Ted is the proverbial iceberg — most of him submerged, hidden from sight. The veneer, conceals what, if clearly visible, would be embarrassing, difficult to explain, damaging to his carefully crafted image and reputation.
But, a veneer sometimes peels. It happens regularly.
Public figures mask themselves for job protection, but the veneer peels: the congressman writes “moral” legislation and campaigns on the Righteous Ticket, but is caught cruising to get or give blowjobs in an airport men’s room; the evangelist rants about sin on Sunday, and Monday is discovered flogging whores at a cheap motel; the actress oozes glamour and sophistication on screen, then drinks a quart of bourbon and beats her daughter with wire behind closed doors; the woke celebrity aggressively champions the rights of the oppressed, then screams at waitresses when they forget to put her almond milk in a proper cup; the president brags to his devoted supporters about his incredible business prowess and wealth, but refuses to release documents that would prove his claims; the prince wears military caps, clears his throat with aplomb, and speaks in a clipped accent while denying he hangs out with pedophiles and diddles kids.
So-called ordinary folks craft their veneers to hide their frustrations, their defeats, crimes, errors, their faults and habits. Many a veneer signals success or satisfaction where little, in truth, exists; others trumpet a measure of accomplishment in such a way that no one can ignore it. Some veneers communicate smug superiority that is never earned. Some hide the maker so he or she can’t be hurt any further. Drunks and junkies live next door and appear to be straight; emotionally unavailable parents and mates represent themselves and their families as normal, if not perfect; masked, abusive partners hide the reality until the bruises disappear, or blame cabinet doors for the damage. It is difficult to reckon the failures, injuries, thwarted ambitions, desires and indiscretions many of us stash behind our veneers.
Some are more willing than others to crack the veneer and let the bats loose, but it is the exceptional individual who is willing to free all of them. Unrestrained transparency is a minefield most people are unwilling to traverse; to be open is to be set adrift with no control over the perceptions and judgments of others, prey to the criticism and scorn of better-concealed hypocrites, an easy target for the venom they are delighted to supply. Self-righteous trolls darken social media sites, condemnation and ridicule are the order of the day in an increasingly uncivil culture; the most sensible among us are hesitant to stand in the light and suffer the pain.
People have things to hide, and they have reason to do so. Even with memory’s power to reshape the past to conform to current need, there remains abundant material not susceptible to erasure or modification, that begs for concealment.
How many of us are nuts to a point one click off what requires an institutional stay or a prescription from the doc? How many of us find comfort when accepted as successful, satisfied, charitable souls with few blemishes?
I say: nearly all of us. To one degree or another. We need the veneer.
But, a veneer inevitably peels, and what we conceal can be detected through the cracks.
We change clothes, shave, quote passages from the Bible or refer to amendments to the Constitution. We raise money to purchase eyeglasses for kids in Somalia. We attend the high school game and drink cocoa at halftime. We visit inmates in nursing homes and send get well card to sick friends. We manufacture the veneer and hope the glue holds. But, every now and then, the veneer pulls back. Not a terrible situation for many of us; it might cause embarrassment, even shame, but it also offers the opportunity to examine oneself, to clean house, as it were.
Probably not for Ted and those like him, however. There are hoarders whose houses can never be cleaned. It’s either live in the house, patch it up and keep the doors locked … or burn the fucker down and die.
It is good to remember Ted, to see through him … to others. To me.
I wish him well. I hope he remembers to never put a raw, whole egg in the microwave.
I also hope none of those smiley little orphans ever hear about Beebo.
Best of luck, Ted.
Patch the veneer, old boy, and kkkkkkkkeep it thick.