WITH ONE HAND WAVING FREE
I often say that as a child of the 60's, considering all the stuff I endured and inflicted on myself, I'm pretty much just happy to be *anywhere* today. I learned just today that one of my old friends has died. We shared-- strangely enough-- the same birthday. I always thought of Andrew on my birthday, and wondered where he was and how he was doing; if he celebrated our day in some nice way. It seems that this stuff is kind of episodic; we lose those we've known and loved, and we sometimes narrowly escape *being* those people, ourselves.
I first met him when
we worked together at a movie theater in Washington, D.C., in the early 70's. He was the manager-- and a cooler boss it would be hard to imagine. Short of just not showing up for extended periods of time, you couldn't get in trouble with him. The name of the theater (long gone, now) was The Cerberus 1, 2 3-- named after the creature of myth, as we had three auditoriums or screens there. The employee's handbook Andrew wrote for the theater contained this entry:
"In Greek mythology, Cerberus (pronounced SIR-burr-us) was the 3-headed dog who guarded the gates to hell -- God knows from what. In modern-day Georgetown, it is the name of the theater where you work. The Cerberus is owned by Mr. Martin F----. Martin owns a one-headed whippet named Victoria."
Another entry was this:
"Since our projection booth is located an entire floor above the theatres, people may be curious about how the image reaches the screen. You can tell them: 'This is accomplished via a series of periscopically aligned front-surface mirrors, the last of which is installed high in the rear wall of the theatre, and which reflect the image from the projector's lens three times, finally beaming it onto the screen.' Or you can simply shrug and say: 'Uh, I dunno. Maybe magic?' "
Andrew turned to me one night, after we'd dealt with a particularly obnoxious customer who had demanded a discount based on... godnose what reason; something he'd simply pulled out of his ass. "Ah, the General Public", Andrew said. "An entity that would find reason in surfeit to bitch about free admission to Paradise!"
He was brilliant; funny, literate, witty, clever and amusing as hell. He played the piano and cello, wrote poetry and short stories, painted and drew pictures and cartoons. He sang beautifully. He was an original. He was quite eccentric and lived in a very dirty and unbelievably cluttered house with his retired and very sedentary father. There were still pots on the stove containing the remnants of the last meal his mother had cooked for them, before she died. He left them there as a sort of a shrine. Nobody was allowed to touch them.
Atop his refrigerator was a plastic bag filled with onions-- or what had once been onions. Over time, they had broken down and decomposed to the point that they no longer had any bulk. Just paper husks and dried sludge. They also had no odor... Very odd. There was just this long, wide, brownish stain that ran from beneath the bag down the side of the 'fridge. Rather than clean it up, Andrew had taken a black magic marker and written in bold letters alongside this descending stripe of dried goo: "TODT UND UMWANDLUNG" -- which is German for "Death and Transformation". Uh... well, what can you say? It was an apt description.
He was clever with his hands and with all sorts of tools. He and I and a couple of his friends once built a sound booth in his basement so he could set up a bank of microphones, speakers, tape recorders and turntables (old school sound-- no digital stuff...) in the basement for a party he threw. He created and installed this little plywood booth with a smoked glass sliding panel on it, so he could observe the rest of the large room. He covered the walls in aluminum foil and the floor in plastic sheeting, and hung black lights here and there. It was like a mini disco in his basement... You kinda had to be there, I guess. Very trippy.
The highlight of the evening was the distribution of several dozen aerosol cans of whipped cream, their
subsequent discharge by all present, and a hysterical and frenzied, party-wide whipped cream writhe-a-thon. After everyone left, Andrew just shut the basement door and we didn't venture downstairs for several months. When we *did* go down there again, it looked like a science experiment gone hideously wrong...
He was brash and impulsive and fearless-- and foolish. He'd take any dare, try anything, say and do whatever came into his head. I was in awe of him, actually, and aspired to be more like him-- loose and confident and bold and provocative-- the sort of person who always stood out in any crowd and for
whom no obstacle stood in the way of a good time. He was always up for some fun, always the first to suggest something exciting to do. He drank too much, ingested epic, heroic quantities of drugs, but that just seemed to sort of come with the territory. We had some insane adventures together.
Whenever I thought of Andrew, a line from Bob Dylan's song "Mister Tambourine Man" came to mind:
"... Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow..."
Andrew always seemed to be dancing, somehow, shrugging off both memory and fate and doing one hell of a soft shoe on those circus sands. To hell with tomorrow.
I remember one bizarre evening close to 40 years ago, now, when he and I and two pals, after consuming enough cocaine and bourbon to cripple several more people (and wandering squarely into the peculiar mind set that entails...), found ourselves at a lull in the night's festivities. Andrew announced that as our host, it was his duty to ensure that we were not bored and that we needed a challenge. He decided that maybe wanton violence was the answer, so we all pummeled one another for a time-- but that hurt, and so we stopped. Group sex was suggested-- but we were all guys and nobody (except Brodie, who was gay) was really interested in that. We considered and rejected various ideas, and Andrew finally came up with: SENSELESS VANDALISM! In the wee hours of the morning, we somehow-- the logic escapes me now--decided on a plan of action that seemed quite appropriate, by Andrew's lights.
We piled into someone's car and drove into the night. Since it was a week or two past Christmas, there were numerous discarded Christmas trees lining the curbs in front of houses all over the area. Andrew stopped the car next to one, got out and felt it.
"Hmmmm; pretty dry" he said, as he lit a match and tossed it onto the tree, which burst into flames and crackled and popped like crazy. We hooted with glee-- and piled back into the car and roared away. I think we lit up seven or eight more dead Christmas trees that night. They make a wonderful fire... There was some caution applied; though we were -- after all-- committing arson, we were careful to make sure the trees we chose weren't close to any buildings or cars, but were isolated at the curbs.
We crammed a couple of trees into the trunk of the car, and went looking for another target. We wound up pushing one of those large, plastic portable construction site toilets ("Don't you just hate the very IDEA of these damned things...?" Andrew asked) out into the middle of Four Mile Run (a local thoroughfare) by nudging it along with the bumper of Andrew's car, and then we crammed it full of dead Christmas trees and set it on fire. Just as it got to blazing away wonderfully, the car's engine died. We couldn't get the car to move, and here was this conflagration in the middle of the road... Plastic burns like crazy, and the thing was melting and puddling in the street. We had to push the car to the shoulder of the road. OF COURSE a flaming outhouse in the middle of the road attracted attention, and various uniformed people showed up to deal with it as we all hid, crouched in the weeds nearby. Am I proud of that? Well... not really. It was, however, an absolutely unforgettable night. Bet you've never done it...
Time passed, and we lost touch after that theater closed. We all went on to other jobs, but I'd run into him now and again. My sister, who also worked at the theater for a time, dated him for a while, and I'd hear about his exploits from her. He continued to drink heavily, and began to veer wildly out of control after the death of his father. She last saw him several years ago. He arrived to take her out to dinner, already kind of wobbly. She was alarmed at his erratic driving, but they made it to the Polynesian restaurant without incident. Once there, he proceeded to basically drink his dinner-- pounding down several Mai Tais and Zombies and Voodoo what-nots. "RUM! A favorite of sailors! Ahoy! Yo-ho! Avast! " he said several times, and then he passed out, cold, at the table. He had to be hauled bodily to a cab with the help of a waiter. My sister got him home and put him to bed. She didn't see him again for a long time. Sad... not amusing.
A mutual friend of ours, who used to work at that movie theater (and who was also there that night, crouching in the weeds with us, watching the Port-O-John burn...) became an Intensive Care nurse at Fairfax Hospital. He called one day to tell me that he was working on a patient who came in via
ambulance the previous night. The man was filthy, disheveled, with a matted beard and hair. He was emaciated and puking up blood. He had stomach ulceration; his kidneys were in danger of shutting
down, and they were intubating him and hanging fluids on him and basically trying to forestall all sorts of possible system failures. As he worked on this man, he heard him say: "Well, hiya, buddy..." and he suddenly realized that he was frantically working on the wreckage of our old buddy, Andrew. Andrew was eventually stabilized, cleaned up, treated for a number of problems, and left the hospital. Sad and horrifying-- not clever and bold.
We lost touch completely then-- until he showed up, out of the blue, at my mother's funeral a couple of years later! Mom liked him a lot, and she always remembered to call him to wish him Happy Birthday on our birthday. Andrew was fit, tanned, had a stylish haircut and was wearing an expensive suit. I'd never, ever seen him looking so strong and healthy and lively and... just overall good! He was working for an
airline pilot's association of some sort, and spent a lot of his time scuba diving-- hence the tan. He told me that he'd found AA, got himself a sponsor, was attending regular meetings and was working the program. He was filled with energy and hope, and said he was pretty sure he'd manage to stay with it. He looked terrific!
We corresponded for a brief period, afterwards, and then I didn't hear from him and lost track of him again. Word reached me a couple of years later, via some of our old running buddies, that he'd begun to use heroin. Just... sad and frightening.
Several months later, my old pal the Intensive Care Unit nurse called me and told me to have a look at
the front page of the Washington Post's METRO section. There was an article whose title was this: "WHEN FRIEND DIED, PAIR LEFT HER FOR THE TRASH MAN".
The article detailed how a woman had apparently overdosed at Andrew's house, and he and his then girlfriend-- instead of some far more appropriate response-- zipped her up in a sleeping bag, dragged her up the street and deposited her on the curb near some trash cans. After much deliberation, and since her death was ruled an accident and not the result of foul play, police charged him with.... illegally disposing of a body.
As my friend put it: "I mean, for chrissakes! Exactly how fucked up do you have to be that you think the best possible thing to do when someone snuffs it in your living room is to say: 'Uh... I know! Let's make it look like a tragic camping accident!' What the hell could he have been thinking?"
Sad, sad, sad; horribly, terribly wrong and grotesquely sad. I think I knew right then that he was beyond help. I never saw Andrew again.
I ran into a woman today who used to work with us at that movie theater long ago. She told me that she'd heard from mutual friends of ours that Andrew had died from an overdose of heroin. Life stopped being fun and exciting for him long ago, obviously. His downward spiral took years-- and it was many, many years ago that I stopped wanting to be like him. I managed to pull myself back from the precipice, to avoid the slide, to resist giving in to the power that substances had over safety and reason, while poor Andrew did not. Or would not. Or simply could not. Why me and not him? Why not both of us-- one way or the
other? What saved me and doomed him? How the hell can I ever really know?
I miss him, though-- I'll tell you that, unashamedly. I miss him terribly, and despite his tragic flaws, I still remember the glint in his eye and the purr that came into his voice when he'd suggest some sort of hijinks. When he was sharp, I swear I'd follow him goddamn near anywhere-- into anything at all. So would you, most likely, if you'd known him then. He had that kind of attractive, magnetic intensity that said "Come on! This'll be GREAT!"
The last letter I received from him closes with: "...and so I go off to work, and after a suitable interval, to Boston or to Hell. Bye-bye."
I hope you're in Boston, Andrew-- but if not, save me a seat near the dance floor, won't you?