The life that I have thus far led, told through the stories contained herein, is often outlandish and profane and deviant and of the utmost personal nature. I cannot tell these stories without the inclusion of the many people who lived them with me, but it is not my place to shine a light on their histories, therefore many names have been changed to protect their privacy.
This gas station has a history. This weathered and beaten gas station rooted at the corner of San Carlos and Leigh, in one of San Jose's least-desirable neighborhoods, has a history tied to mine. Roughly twenty-five years ago, I was what optimists would call destitute; pessimists wouldn't even bother.
The eighteen-year-old version of me existed, if one could call it that, on $400 monthly, working part time at the very best job available within my car-less walking radius: Chief Seating Engineer at a chain restaurant. Okay, I was a Host if you want to be a dick about it. Though my monthly rent was obnoxiously cheap, it was a full $75 more than I netted, all for a studio apartment roughly the size of a coffee can, deposited smack-dab in the heart of white-trash-Mecca Concord, California. I persisted on a diet of Chicken flavored Nissin Cup-Noodles during the week, and dined at a local church soup kitchen in Saturdays. Sundays were markedly less lucky.
Scraping together what I could to pay that rent usually consisted of singing and playing harmonica (badly) outside a local supermarket for spare change, and often tear-riddled calls to mom. I also happened to be self-rehabbing from a particularly spectacular drug habit that included binging on LSD and large quantities of Methamphetamine. One particular month was particularly bad when it came to finances, and I devised an amazingly stupid plan: I would take my nice $204.37 paycheck to Bank of America and open a checking account, and the following Friday night, I would drag my minty new ATM card to the after-hours machine and withdraw $200 (the daily limit at the time) at precisely 11:55pm. Five minutes later, I would deposit an empty envelope and tell the dumb machine it was a $200 check ("it" being the envelope, not the machine), and proceed to immediately withdraw aforementioned $200. Assuming your math is better than mine, I was then overdrawn by $195.63. I would make rent that month. Twenty-four hours later, I would repeat aforementioned $200 scam. I would eat that month, too, and spend the last $60 on a cliched-90s-tribal-looking forearm tattoo to always remind myself that I was a musician. Or something like that.
Fast-forward 5 years: I had a relatively decent job, made possible by years earlier getting angry enough to apply for Food Stamps and General Assistance, as well as a community college tuition waiver for making less than $7,000 per year. Unfortunately, something followed me all those years: the amazingly stupid ATM stunt, which had subsequently landed me on ChexSystems — a banking blacklist, if you will. I was literally forbidden from having a bank account for seven years. Subsequently, my now-decent paycheck had to be cashed at shady check-cashing kiosks; kiosks often residing within gas stations; gas stations like this weathered and beaten one, rooted at the corner of San Carlos and Leigh, in one of San Jose's least-desirable neighborhoods. This happy gas station is the same one that happily cashed my paychecks for a 5% fee. And I used those paychecks to pay rent for my very own apartment, nestled mere blocks away, in the heart of the San Jose barrio. But this time, the paycheck paid the whole rent. Usually.
Making The Cut
Pleasant Hill Ace Hardware. Exactly twenty-three years ago, I worked here full-time as a janitor and stock boy, and literally dreamed of being promoted to cashier so I could make those big, big bucks! I heard some cashiers even made $10/hr. I had tried other jobs: Door-to-door Salesman (where they left me stranded, car-less, and fifty miles from home, on my very first day), Host at Baker's Square (where they couldn't give me enough hours), Line Cook at Sizzler (where I ate half the "Cheesy Bread" I grilled, so they uncerimoniously demoted me to Buss Boy), Burger Flipper at Burger Road (where I literally couldn't stand the heat in the kitchen); I even flirted with joining the Navy (free room and board!), but nothing stuck. All those jobs led me to Ace Hardware, where I would decidedly stake my claim.
After a very brief interview (during which I strategically covered my new forearm tattoo with long sleeves), they hired me at around $5.25 per hour. It was late Spring. They initially planned for me to be a Stock Boy, but figured they could get cheap janitorial work out of me too. I actually liked the janitorial work more than the shelf stocking, because at least it wasn't boring and you got a workout. That said, stocking wasn't bad either: I could stare at the tools and electrical knickknacks (I have a thing for light bulbs) and learned the lay of the store; MY store.
Summer rolled around, and we hosted a Parking Lot Tent Sale. We built huge, open-air tents over rows and rows of sale items on long, folding tables. I stocked those tables 8 hours a day for 3 weeks, all the while daydreaming of the Cashier position I had discussed with my supervisor just days before the event. He said they were going to promote someone, and promised that if I did a good job at the Tent Sale, I would be a shoe-in. I stocked, and I dreamed.
The Tent Sale opened, the people came. One or two at first, and then a steady stream that turned into a deluge. The shelves needed to be continuously stocked as merchandise was sold, and I made damn sure they were. "Cashier is mine!", I thought. Oh, what I could buy with $10/hr! I could move out of the room I rented a few blocks away (after getting kicked out of my studio apartment for too many late rent checks), I could get a new apartment! Maybe even a 1-bedroom! Maybe even CABLE TV!
July rolled into August, and the Tents came down. After all the merchandise was put back into bins and trucked to the back, (they let me use the forklift until I backed it into a pallet and almost tipped over), I put my gloves and belt away and sat down in my supervisor's office; the one I mopped so many times back in the Spring. My eyes would stare at that pale green linoleum floor as he haltingly explained that Jessica would be getting the Cashier promotion because she'd been here a few months longer than me, and had previous experience. My eyes would well up when he also explained that Summer was over, the Tent Sale was done, and my services were no longer needed.
As I rode my half-rusted 10 speed bicycle those few short blocks home, the tears welling up in my eyes became an avalanche. My Cashier plan was gone. Ace was gone. I was back to being jobless, I was already paycheck-to-paycheck, and soon would surely be homeless again. I continued to sob, knowing in my heart that 5 years from now I would not be the rockstar I dreamed of my entire young life, but I would be a Bum. I would literally be homeless and living on a street corner and telling stories about how I once dreamed of being a cashier at Ace fucking Hardware, but didn't make the cut.
I got mad. The tears of self-pity turned into tears of anger. Anger at The World that was trying to break me. Anger at the thoughts of failing, anger at the idea that it would all end like this, in a puddle of ineptitude. I pedaled faster. I stood up on my bike, and pedaled as fast as I could back to my rented room in that house on Doray Drive in Pleasant Hill.
I would continue to stand on that bike when I rode it to Diablo Valley College to apply for tuition assistance, and the Fall semester. I would stand on that bike when I rode it every computer and music class they offered over the next 2 years. I stood on the bike, never allowing myself to sit, because I had to test my will. If I was strong enough to never touch that bike seat, riding every day, through the sweltering Summer heat and frigid Winter rain, I would prove to myself that I was strong enough to never end up a Bum on that street corner, telling stories about how I once dreamed of being a cashier at Ace fucking Hardware, but didn't make the cut.
I was strong enough.
Tea For Whisky
“I never did like singing in front of people”
That’s what I thought to myself, while sitting in the Whisky A Go Go dressing room, in the heart of West Hollywood, minutes before taking the stage. Only a few months ago our self-recorded debut album was destined for Rasputin’s bargain bin (if we were lucky), and now here we were, sitting in the same dressing room that hosted Led Zeppelin in the 70s, GnR in the 80s, and Aerosmith last month. We had just flown in that afternoon, met up with friends and fans and bouncers and stage hands and promoters, and at exactly 10pm we would take the stage of one of the most iconic music venues on The Planet and record a live album. How the fuck did I get here, and where the fuck is my hot tea?
The first time I sang in a band was pretty much by accident. It was 1992, I was a 16 year old who had a strong penchant for skipping homework, and I was bored as all hell. I was still attending San Mateo High School — I hadn’t yet been shipped off to the dreaded Mid Peninsula High: a “continuation school” for drug addicts, pregnant teenage mothers, and violent thugs; and I hadn’t yet dropped out with nothing but a pseudo-GED and thriving drug habit. Those were coming, but not yet; back then, I was still “normal”.
The 3 o'clock bell blared through the halls. I ran into my buddy Hans; a half-German, half-Cuban mate with a well-documented predilection for sarcasm and Jane's Addiction. (We met in Middle School during the prelude to a fight — our own). As we met up by the lockers, I assumed he was headed to catch the Shame Train (read: school bus) back to our hometown of Foster City. Instead, he was headed to his friend Jimmy’s house in Shoreview.
Jimmy was a prototypical Fighting Irishman who was a solid combination of Cliff from Cheers (due to his encyclopedic knowledge that often sounded like he was bullshitting you) and MMA’s Conor McGregor. He wore tie-dye and loved Blues Traveler. He liked to talk, and he liked to fight. And I liked the guy.
When we arrived at Jimmy's pad, we found someone awaiting us: a long-haired Latino with a booming laugh and a slightly shocking Southern drawl named Harold. He chainsmoked Marlboro reds (though usually not his own, much to our dismay) and was a Rocker with a capital R. He lived in a D.R.I. t-shirt and drummed with all the subtlety of Animal from The Muppets.
It became clear to me this collection of misfits was here for a reason: Jimmy had recently taken up playing bass guitar; Harold and his D.R.I. t-shirt had his well-abused 5-piece kit already configured in the garage; Hans was to meet up with them, having recently picked up the electric guitar.
I noticed there was no singer, and figured what the fuck? My brother was a singer and guitarist; My ma was a singer, guitarist and spectacular pianist; her father was a goddamned Opera singer. It was in my genes, in my blood; why the fuck not? So we jammed.
Needless to say, that day changed my life forever — though not because of our aptly-named song, "Glaze My Face". That band was obscenely short-lived, but there would be many, many others. Hans and I would soon hook up with two more friends and form the band Rising Son, which would eventually feed both my ego and my quickly growing drug additions, which ultimately led to dropping out of school. I would write dozens of songs with Rising Son, and after the band played its final show, and months later I lay shaking in withdrawal on the floor of my studio apartment, purposefully exiled from my friends and enablers and dealers, I would pickup the guitar myself, just to keep the songwriting going. Many years and many bands later, I would take all those songs from all those years, and form a band called Audiobender. And nine of those songs would end up on that debut album, which miraculously got us to that holiest of dressing rooms on Sunset Boulevard on a Saturday night in April 2015. But that night, all I could think about was finding my hot fucking tea - I've got to sing tonight.
I was on the school bus when I heard the news that Magic Johnson had HIV. Freddy Mercury would die of AIDS fifteen days later. It was 1991, a few weeks from my sixteenth birthday, and for me — for my whole generation — our truth was If you had sex, you were going to die.
Fortunately, I thought I was invincible. Those four sentences, along with the dozens of girls I had slept with, raced through my head in a toxic mixture of dread and resignation as I opened the door to Planned Parenthood. It was 1997, and I was going to die.
That summer had been a hot one in Sacramento. I had just moved there with my best friend, Shaun; we met at community college in Pleasant Hill the year prior; I was just getting into programming, he was a seasoned vet showing me the ropes, and we became inseparably fast friends. When I found out he was transferring to U.C. Davis, I decided to join him in Sacramento; I had exhausted all the computer and music classes our little college had to offer, and Consumnes River College, another JC in nearby South Sacramento, showed promise. We split a newer two bedroom apartment at the corner of Mack Road and HWY 99; gated community, AC, full gym — I felt like George Jefferson, though this apartment was on the ground floor, not in the sky. Rent was $400. God bless the 90s.
At first life was good. Within weeks I had already registered for a few classes; guitar and artificial intelligence, and even found a part time job building PCs at a small computer store. Luckily they both were within bike-riding distance, as I was still relegated to my 10-speed. Soon the vibe began to change; I noticed little things while riding that 10-speed, that perhaps people miss while moving in cars: the houses that lined the streets to my college all had bars covering the windows, peeling paint covered the walls; tall, unkempt lawns; early model cars in cracked driveways. Perhaps the gates in our gated community apartment weren't there for "exclusivity" after all.
One morning while riding past a large, open park, I heard a voice bellowing through the air "Yo Cracka! Wanna box??"
"No thanks!" I yelled back, half in sarcasm, half terror; I was in no mood to die in a fistfight.
The first time someone came out to me was a shock. I had known a few LGBTQ throughout my young life, but none had come out to me, personally; I had always simply heard or known or been directly told by others. When Shaun invited me to the patio for a smoke one Sunday afternoon, lit his Marlboro light with a nervously shaking hand and laboriously exhaled, I knew something was wrong. When he explained he was gay, I sighed in relief; when he explained that he started hanging out with me last year because he thought I was cute, the shock set in. Was our friendship some kind of ruse? He knew my skirt-chasing ways: what did he expect? Thankfully, those acidic thoughts left as soon as they appeared, as he explained that he grew to accept and love me as a friend. And in turn, I accept and love him to this day, as evidenced by the fact that I once chaperoned him to an internet-based LGBTQ house party, but that is a story for another day.
I tend to be a decidedly happy person. I emphasize the word "decidedly", because there are certain days and certain times that I believe you need to decide to look at the bright side of life, as Monty Python would extol. This decision was no longer possible for me midway through the summer. I cannot tell you how or why. I can hypothesize that the momentary cracking of our friendship, combined with losing my PC-building job, in addition to a sharp uptick in my drinking (at least I was drug-free by then), and the realization that this slice of the pie in South Sacramento wasn't all it was cracked up to be, led me into my first, and thus far only, depression. Suffice to say, I failed to cut myself despite staring blankly at the gleaming scissors lying open in my hands. Fifteen minutes after checking myself into Kaiser Hospital's 23-hour Psychiatric Lock-down, I had a come-to-Jesus moment and snapped, thankfully, in the right direction. What the actual fuck am I doing. I literally slapped myself across the face, and once again decided to be happy. It was a decision, and it required action. After I convinced the Psychiatrist that I was no danger to myself, and would perhaps do well on a regimen of sunshine and Prozac (Which a future bandmate and I would later chop up and snort, just for shits and giggles), I was released on my own accord, returned to the apartment, and began reading a book my mother got me weeks' earlier, which I hitherto ignored: "The Power of Positive Talk". I would stand daily in the mirror for the ensuing weeks, look myself in the eye and repeat "I am a strong and competent person." I would repeat that mantra whenever the doubt would creep back in, be it in the classroom, in bed at 2AM, or while riding my bicycle to Planned Parenthood to get my first HIV test.
There I was, with that toxic mixture of dread and resignation as I opened the door to the clinic. I thought I was invincible all those years ago when I lost my virginity at 15; through the drug-fueled one night stands with groupies, fuck-buddies, girlfriends, et al. But on this day of reckoning in August of 1997, I truly believed it was all coming home to roost. HIV tests were relatively new at the time; the CDC had not yet devised the efficient detection methods we enjoy today; the test in the mid 90s took a full two weeks to yield results. To say that two weeks is an eternity whence awaiting your fate is an understatement; even the most headstrong will falter.
Acceptance can be a freeing, beautiful thing. I was lucky enough to experience this roughly four days into The Wait for the test results, and this acceptance quickly turned to a strong desire to cross off lines on my hastily authored Bucket List. One of those lines read a single word: "Mexico." Knowing that getting to Mexico from Sacramento on a bicycle wasn't exactly an easy task, I did what any twenty-year-old with access to a 14.4 modem would do; I turned to the internet!
I met Sara (virtually) in an internet chat room named "#bayarea", which resides, to this day, on the IRC (Internet Relay Chat) protocol. If that sentence seems like gibberish to you, don't fret; it barely knew what it meant back then myself; what I did know was that through the magic of modern technology, I could fire up my modem, click a few buttons and voila; I was chatting with thousands of people, all over the world, which is a very comforting thing when you live in the middle of the valley with but a single friend within 50 square miles. Sara was one of those thousands of people, and she lived in the middle of nowhere, or what some people like to refer to as "Fresno." It is oft said that "gentlemen never tell", and though you are now fully aware that I am pretty fucking far from a gentlemen, suffice to say that I flirted sufficiently enough to convince her to jump in her car, drive 160 miles to Sacramento, pick me up, ("Hi, nice to meet you!") and drive me to Mexico.
* * *
As the endless farmland and huge mountains of Interstate 5 slid by, and the drone of the 4 cylinder engine hummed in my ears, I reflected on my life thus far. It was a good life. It had its hardships, but I felt I had seen and experienced so much, and it was enough. I could rest now. I closed my eyes, still consumed by the drone of the engine, finally at peace.
I slowly opened my eyes as Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" playing on the radio made its way into my consciousness. The warm Southern California wind rushed by through the opened windows. I struggled for a moment to remember where I was. When I last closed my eyes, we had just left San Diego after a short visit to Sara's mother's house, after briefly cruising LA's Sunset Strip (due to much pleading from yours truly; seeing the Whisky A Go Go in person was high on my Bucket List. Little did I know I would actually take the stage 20 years later). I lazily glanced around to gain my bearings; the farmland of I-5 were gone, and we were surrounded by seemingly endless, grass-covered hills, yellow with thirst. I scanned the horizon for a highway marker; "805", I mumbled, followed by an perplexed expression at the next sign depicting what appeared to be a man, woman and child running.
Suddenly the final grassy hill was breached, and jutting out in front of us was a vast, hard city of grey and black hues, with a gigantic Mexican flag standing proudly across from an equally gigantic, gently-waving Old Glory. Behold, the mighty Tijuana. It was a shocking sight to see after all those untouched hills.
We drove past the checkpoint with ease. While one would think that I would jump eagerly from the car and dive headlong into a shot of Tequila in first cantina I could find, one would be far from the truth; it was never about the destination; it was always about the journey. A week later I would get the unbelievable news that I had tested negative, but back here in Tijuana, all I knew was that our odyssey was complete; we immediately turned that faithful sedan around, and waded into the impressively long line home, and as the border officer asked for our country of origin, I exclaimed in my very best Spanish accent, "Estados Unidos!", because in the end, you have to keep your sense of humor.
I stood with shaking, clenched fists, breath fuming in the frigid Oklahoman night air. With my brother beside me, I was finally face to face with dear-old-dad after a 20 year absence, and I had one thing on my mind: vengeance.
To tell the story of my father is to tell the story of my immediate family, including my brother (19 months my senior), my then-unknown half-sisters, and of course, my mother. Their story is theirs alone to tell, so I will do my best to only include what is absolutely necessary to tell mine.
The first memory I have of my father is a belt. He wielded it like a Slaver’s Whip whenever his temper would flare, which was often and lightning-quick. He seemed to enjoy it, with a fire in his eyes that was very different from the usual hyper-intelligent glint that he was blessed with, and yet different still from the brooding stare and bad-boy charm that he wielded just as often; women were drawn to him like a magnet, and he to them, and by the time they realized his bad-boy charm was actually the real deal, it was too late; they were already ensnared.
His intelligence, charm and wrath were matched only by his laziness. He loathed getting out of bed almost as much as he detested working, and he seemed to quit doing the former not long after quitting the latter. Alas, the bills had to be paid, so he insisted my mother work long, late hours to make up for the single income stream, while he would watch TV and graze shirtless on chocolate eclairs. A bully since early childhood, he would hone his brutish skills in Vietnam, the latter of which often left him paranoid and convinced the Cubans would invade at any moment. This meant that his two young sons needed to be strong to defend the homeland, and speak Spanish to infiltrate the invaders' ranks.
I remember being woken at 4AM on the regular, and being ordered out of bed as he would drop to his knees in front of me. His would then bend his massive frame forward and slap his fist the ground — it was pushup time. Chest all the way down to the fist and back up. Back straight, lock elbows. Over and over, until our arms shook and the tears broke; and then he’d wail and we’d keep going until the inevitable collapse. I once got up to 300; I was 5 years old. My brother was 7, and got up to an unfathomable 1200.
Spanish was to be learned in solitary. He would flippantly hand us a list of 50 words, with strict instructions to learn pronunciation and meaning within the allotted 60-odd-minute timeframe that he spent sunbathing nude in the backyard. When he’d return to our inevitable looks of terrified failure, out came the belt. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
Twenty days after my 6th birthday, the day after Christmas of 1982, I was awakened yet again at 4AM, but this time it was my mother. With assured confidence in her eyes that belied every fiber of her long-tortured, terrified being, she whispered for us to gather our clothes and our single favorite toy and head outside as quietly as a mouse. We silently packed our minuscule 1980 Ford Fiesta to the brim, with barely enough room at the very top for our beloved cat Gypsy and his litter box. No one said a word, but I believe to this day that I understood that we were escaping, and was fully onboard. Somehow he didn't wake up when she started that little 4 cylinder engine, and he didn't wake up when we drove away. And somehow, someway, he didn't wake up when she had to sneak back into the house nearly 20 minutes later because she forgot to grab his guns from the bedroom closet.
* * *
There I was, finally face to face with my father again after nearly 20 years. I was no longer a terrified, skin-and-bones 5 year old. I was a full grown man filled with two decades of rage. I saw what he did to her, I remembered her wailing. I remembered the beatings and the pushups and the force-feeding and the guns; and finally here I was, and there he was. He was a broken man by then; the years had not been kind. Esophageal cancer, likely from chain-smoking Camel non-filters, had robbed him of his once-deep voice after the extraction surgery. His previously massive frame was now shriveled and bent from the years of sedintary neglect. My rage slowly faded into disgusted pity as he excitedly pleaded his case; he knew he was a "bad father" and "made mistakes", that he'd "seen some shit" in 'Nam and claimed to have stabbed a man in an alleyway at one point in past.
I'm glad I didn't take a swing. Perhaps I would have relieved decades of pent up rage, or more likely he would have bested me, perhaps even made me the second man he stabbed in an alleyway, though I guarantee my brother would have stopped him, or died trying. Regardless, I am not a violent man, and I chose not become one; I chose not to become him.
My brother and I left Tulsa, Oklahoma the following day. He would die from complications of lymphoma the following Thanksgiving. I inexplicably cried for 3 straight days after his passing, and I will be forever grateful that I gave him my forgiveness via a series of emails several months prior. I did not forgive him to ease his suffering; I forgave him to ease mine.
Wildling Under The Juniper Bush
The first time I tried Lysergic Acid Diethylamide was in Geometry class, sitting a few feet away from Cherrie San Pietro; the impossibly gorgeous object of my affection. Once the dose kicked in, the back of her head starting pulsing and breathing like a squid. We'd end up dating a few months later; apparently I like seafood.
The word "recreational" in "recreational drug use" never made much sense to me, but "vacational" has yet to catch on. I used drugs to escape; to find a warm, quiet place inside my boredom-soaked frontal lobe. When you were a latchkey kid growing up in the sterilized ultra-suburb confines Foster City, literally any stimulation was welcome. And stimulate I did.
The first time I smoked pot, I was crouched under a juniper bush with my t-shirt pulled hard over my head; I was a sharp little bastard, and reasoned I would be grounded until the turn of the millennium if mom smelled it in my hair. My best friend Mike had produced a sad gathering of dried, sickly-brownish-green stems and seeds about the size of a nickle, and I fashioned a makeshift pipe out of a Bic pen-cap. After unsuccessfully lighting two of our three matches, (thanks, levee wind), the third mercifully caught flame, I plunged it into the tightly-packed orifice and sucked down hard. Eureka. I ended up with a slight headache and a wild thirst for more. I was twelve years old.
Once I got to High School, pot became a daily companion, rarely leaving my side. I was mostly broke, as an arrest and all-expenses-paid trip to juvenile hall had robbed me of access to my previous money-making avenues (burgling cars in the dead of night), so I instead had to rely on friends to feed the beast. Luckily, my friends were generally well-to-do by way of their parents, and thus usually carrying. It was not unusual to find me smoking well over an eighth a day without actually having any weed myself. God bless America.
When pot was scarce for any number of reasons, (usually monetary), my bandmates and I discovered the joys of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, more commonly known as LSD. Oh what fun it was! While pot produced a commonly mellow high for an hour or two, a hit of LSD could put you on your ass for half a day, all for the price of a pack of smokes, which back in the early 90s cost little more than $2 and the change you found in your parent's couch cushion. (Sorry kids, you missed out.)
The extreme duration and intensity of high, combined with ludicrously low cost, (what accountants refer to as "value"!) meant that LSD shot straight to #1 on the Top Ten List of Saturday night excursions. By my seventeenth birthday, I had logged over 300 trips; welcome to the frequent flier club, you may now move freely about the cabin.
And then there was Methamphetamine. Full stop.
When I close my eyes and rub my temples and try to find the singular, cataclysmic event in my young adult life, it was unequivocally the day a bandmate showed up at my door with a small packet of chunky pale blond powder he called "peanut butter crank". I loved every single moment, from slicing it thin with the slightly rusted razor blade, to drawing out those inches-long lines, to turning my last dollar bill into a tightly rolled straw, to baring down on the mirror like a lion on its prey, to the inhale to the shot to the back of the head to the burn to the horribly fantastic drip. Explosion; Universe; Superman. Full stop.
The lines of reality blurred between feastings. Longtime friends became strangers, with questioning eyes and suspicious intentions. Lonely cars parked in the rain became filled with narcotics task force agents, watching my every move from behind my tightly drawn window blinds. How long had I been awake? Was it a day? Two days? A week like last time? I need to eat. I can do more; I haven't done it since Tuesday. What day is it? I need to sleep; later. Life: Full stop.
Being a certifiable latchkey kid had its advantages. My single mother worked her fingers to the bone to provide for her two Wildling sons, and sometimes required an excursion or two herself, though hers were of the genuine, travel-type. Those weekends she unwittingly left us to our plethora of vices turned into absolute breading grounds for the sickly-skinny and depraved, as I would throw carnivorous 8-ball parties; where impossibly large quantities of powered death were consumed with a ravenous fury that would make John Belushi fucking blush. It wasn't unusual to be empty and frantically looking to score within a single night.
Five Foot Nine, One hundred and Eighteen pounds. I was Eighteen years old. Full stop.
The first time I tried Heroine, I snorted it in liquid form through the impossibly small tip of a hypodermic needle wielded by a genuine, honest-to-goodness Neo Nazi, and as he depressed the plunger into my nostril with one hand, he held my head back by my hair with the other. How the tall, lanky waste of flesh came to be in my microscopic studio apartment is another story, but suffice to say I thank the stars that I didn't enjoy the high, and in fact, felt little more than mild lethargy. And it was there, with my immaciated eighteen-year-old body drooped low, legs and arms spread wide across a makeshift couch in middle of Downtown Concord that said Enough; I'm done; Goodnight. Full stop.
My first real tech job was Desktop Support: a thoroughly unremarkable position where the most exciting thing one might do on a given day was change the printer toner. The year was 1998, I made $33,000 per year, and lived in two car garage. Within ten years I would triple that amount, and within twenty, more than septuple; and I did it with no degrees higher than Middle School; by negotiating, bluffing, bullshitting, job-hopping, pirating, and programming my way up. And I'd do it all over again in a nanosecond.
Proxy Communications hired me fresh out of college. And by "out of college", I mean in the sense that I was currently attending college, and then I wasn't; I had exhausted two junior colleges' stock of music and computer classes, and had zero intention of getting a degree; the Bay Area in 1998 was an economic revelation, where even the most slack-jawed of interviewees would soon be filling out a W4. There was a wave to be rode, and I want to ride it, bad; I had been sleeping at a friend's house on Silver Street in San Francisco for the past two months due to an unfortunate incident that involved the Bay Bridge, an Rx7, a speedometer reading 92, and a seized engine. Though I slept at his house, I was by definition homeless, surviving on Top Ramen and Mahatma Red Bean and Rice Mix. I guess you could say I wanted the job. Thanks, Proxy.
Within a few months of changing toner and upgrading memory and other soul-crushingly mundane tasks, I moved all three boxes of my worldly possessions out of SF, and into an uninsulated two car garage, 20 miles to the south in sunny San Carlos. While one would assume living in a two car garage to be harsh, I assure you it had its perks: a vaulted, cross-beam ceiling and easy access to the laundry machines made it more than inhabitable, and the price of $500/month was certainly nice. Winter indeed came with frigid brutality, but it was all I could afford on $16.50/hour.
During my time at Proxy, I learned my manager's title of Systems Administrator carried a loftier sound (and salary) than my own, and I was determined to find out how to get to that next level; I would peek over his shoulder as often as I could, but was constantly stonewalled by him, unwilling to mentor and unable to supply the various software and systems I needed to learn. So I took the matter into my own hands.
The internet in 1998 was still a wild, untamed frontier; hundreds and thousands of micro-sites littered the web with shockingly little oversight; one could, if one was so inclined, find pirated copies of pretty much anything they wanted, assuming they knew where to look. Fortunately, I knew where to look, dating back to the endless hours I spent in the Diablo Valley College computer lab, marveling at the splendor of the internet when viewed through Netscape Navigator over a mighty T1 connection. I would literally spend hours bombarding search engines like Netscape and Alta Vista, scouring the young web for games and freeware and anything else that struck my fancy, including quite a few sites that hosted pirated copies of business software.
Immediately I began installing, configuring, breaking and attempting to fix server software on my home-built PC. While this might seem complicated, it's likely much easier than you think; a server is nothing more than software that serves something: the hardware is and always has been irrelevant, as evidenced by today's "Cloud" computing. I will not divulge what server software I came across via these, um, unorthodox acquisition techniques, but I will say that I used the tools at my disposal, and taught myself enough to fake it.
Time to fake it. With rudimentary knowledge of a handful of server software staples in hand, I resigned from Proxy Communications after 7 short months in the Spring of 1999. You might be asking yourself why I would resign without first having secured another job, and the reasons are twofold: one, because I believed I needed a fire lit under me, and two, because I'm an idiot. Miraculously, a few short days later I found myself sitting in front of the desk of the CFO of NewMedia Magazine, interviewing for a recently-vacated Systems Administrator position that I had absolutely no business interviewing for. To offset that little detail, I had freshly prepared, that very afternoon, an "enhanced" version of my resume (read: bullshit) that included not one, but two years of Systems Administration experience. As luck would have it, the old Systems Administrator had resigned the day prior, on the spot, and it is a little known fact that CFOs have no fucking idea what they're doing when it comes to Systems Administration, let alone interviewing for one. I had just bullshitted my way into a 60% raise.
Roughly four weeks later, I unceremoniously resigned from NewMedia after aforementioned CFO voiced his extreme displeasure, in loud, frothy-mouthed terms, at my failure to check the backup tape drives for the past month; a fact that was discovered after a catastrophic collapse of the company database. In layman's terms, they lost everything in spectacular manner, and it was all my fault. Frankly, I'd say it's his fault for hiring me, but what do I know.
NewMedia taught me to always have a backup plan, and to never oversell oneself.
I would eventually move to San Jose (by way of a garage eviction and a rent-free 6 six month stay in the house of a wild-eyed fifty-something-year-old raging alcoholic I met on the internet) and over the next 3 years bounce from company to company; one month here, six months there; nearly always without a safety net, employing the strategy of inserting my grubby fingers into every single pie I could find; soaking up as much as possible, and employing the golden rule of “if you've touched it, on the resume it goes.” Though I had made some gains in salary, and this strategy kept me afloat through the great tech downturn of 2000, the vampires at Enron wielding their rolling blackouts, combined with the September 11th attacks, took a devastating toll on the economy; In early 2002, I needed a job, bad. Enter SGI.
Never in my wildest dreams would I disparage a company that saved me from being homeless yet a-fucking-gain. I would, however, disparage a consulting agency that they employed. Withholding the names of the guilty to spare those of the innocent, I will say that I was employed as a contractor at SGI, and for 12 of my 18 months, my coworkers and I were forced by our senior manager to work nights and weekends, despite not receiving law-mandated overtime pay. When we would complain to our agency, the response was a glacier-cold "I suggest you look for another job, though you won't find anything". It was In 13th month in early 2003 that we discovered the nameless, faceless proprietor of our consulting agency just happened to be married to the SGI senior manager we ultimately reported to. Further, it was discovered that the agency, through aforementioned senior manager, would whore us out at well over 3 times the rate we were paid, and the unpaid overtime went directly into the manager's pocket. Nothing to see here, folks. It was only after we threatened to go public that we immediately received checks for the entirety of our back-pay; and the following Monday we were all relocated to a new agency with 50% raises each. A well-placed threat has its uses.
While studying computers in junior college, the classes I felt most drawn to and had a natural affinity for were of the programming genre. I have always loved mathematics for the logical stepping process resulting (usually) in singular answer; I failed advanced algebra on purpose, just so I could take it again; and for me, programming was very similar to algebra: you have variables and constants and a logical stepping process, among other things. I loved it, I excelled at it, and it is because of that love that I stayed as far away as possible from a programming-centric career; for it is a terribly-kept secret that programmers work horrendously long hours — those paychecks are bought with your life. To satisfy my love for programming and my need for balance, I have incorporated scripting — an abbreviated form of coding, focused mainly on automating repetitive tasks — into nearly every position I have held. Not only has this sated my needs, but it fortified my resume with the bullshit hiring managers wet their pants over. This same bullshit would help get me to the next level, Systems Engineering, but my core knowledge was lacking, and doors were always closed. So I cheated.
My big break into Systems Engineering came when I strong-armed a company into a a raise and promotion. This might sound harsh, but as Michael Corleone would say, it's not personal, it's strictly business. It all came to fruition when I was a salaried employee of a well-known consulting firm who made their bones by lending those consultants to companies in need, who would in turn sign a contract to pay x_amount per month for the services of said consultant, with strict understanding that the consultant was restricted agent, solely owned by the consulting firm. In layman's terms, CompanyA paid a shit-ton for my services to CompanyB, the latter of which paid me a percentage. Still not clear? Fuck it — the company I worked at paid my agency $125/hr for my services. My agency paid me roughly a third of that.
Now then, the company I worked at was infinitesimally small — seven-person small — and I was performing the standard Systems Administration role that I had honed over the past several years — building and maintaining webservers, databases, scripting, et al. They were very much a pre-IPO startup, had recently burned through their last round of funding, and were looking to shed expenses. I was a very large expense. I will not go into the gory details, but suffice to say we worked out an "arrangement" whereas I would resign from the agency, and immediately be hired by said client company with a 10% raise (which, if you've been paying attention, was in direct breach of their contract). Let it never be said that I am not an enterprising man, for after witnessing the CFO terminate the agency contract, I politely informed him that I would be requiring a 25% raise, in addition to a promotion to Systems Engineer, knowing full well that a reply in the negative would leave them up shit creek. You see, I could now go back to the agency and tell them the company tried to hire me, triggering an acquisition fee more than large enough to bury a fledgling startup struggling to cut costs. We settled on 22% to finally reach the magical six-figure mark, and the title of Systems Engineer; a job I have performed for various companies over the past decade, and still do today.
It's not personal, it's strictly business.
The Italian Restaurant
I wasn't much of a baseball fan growing up. My apathy likely spawned from the spring of 1988 when I played my one and only season of Little League; it is very likely I set the all-time strikeout record (as a batter) en route to a nearly perfect season (the losing kind); our one blemish to that dubious record was a tie game on account of a rain-out. Perhaps that's why I was watching Silver Spoons, not the World Series, the largest earthquake of my life hit.
My hometown of Foster City is a picturesque suburban town, nestled between San Mateo and the Bay, roughly 20 miles south of San Francisco. It was built in the 1960s atop engineered landfill, covering the Bay's marshes that stood for a millennia. Sprawling parks throughout the town contained miniature beaches, which gave way to an interconnected series of Venice-like lagoons and waterways; it was a beautiful bedroom community built on water, containing water, and very much acted like water when that 6.9 raging Juggernaut hit: waves.
October 17, 1989. 5:04pm. 12 years old. Home alone. Living room. Silver Spoons on TV. Rocking chair.
To this day, it was the absolute loudest sound I have ever heard. Imagine a gargantuan, thundering freight train running through the living room, while stone-armed giants violently beat and shook every inch of the house, from the foundation to the chimney, all happening at lightning speed. My stomach recalled that sickly roller-coaster pull as my pupils dilated and hair stood on end. Instinct screamed to get in the front doorway as the misinformed would preach ad nauseam in school, but it, like every wall around me, swayed back and forth like a grandfather clock pendulum, only half as regular and thrice as fast. God, that banging.
Somehow I wrenched open the front door and staggered haltingly into the street like a drunk after last call. Trees swayed violently in the windless air as the driveway, lane, and street in front of me rolled like waves approaching a wild beach. And still the giants pounded.
And then they stopped.
First there was a deep, black silence, like the very planet itself was holding its breath. Then it all slowly faded in: the pulsing rhythm of car alarms; the screaming mother; the crying children; the gushing fire hydrant.
I wiped back tears as I ran into the house, and after spending roughly four seconds surveying the fallen pictures and glass and debris that littered my bruised and battered home, my twelve year old brain correctly registered that this was not a Safe Place. I had to find mom.
I do not recall how I got in touch with my family, nor do I recall how we agreed to meet at that Italian restaurant on El Camino. I don't recall how my trusty BMX bike, complete with pegs in the wheels, navigated those thoroughly broken 5 miles between Dove Lane and Belmont. I don't remember the broken water mains, the ambulances, nor seeing the newscasters tear up on camera while as they showed pictures of the collapsed Cypress and Bay Bridge and crushed cars and homes and fires and chaos and wondered where God had been; I only remember getting there, to that little Italian restaurant in Belmont, being with my family, and still being alive.
Kevin Barcume was a fucking genius. He not only thought and lived Outside The Box; he jammed a stick of dynamite up said box's everloving ass, lit the fuse with his cigar, and chucked it over his left shoulder. He went from ground zero to six-figure tech hero within a matter of months, all by the age of 22, by literally reading a stack of books. He inhaled life almost as quickly as his food, and his gregarious nature and hardy laugh dominated every room he entered. He was my best friend, and he jumped off a six story building.
Something seemed off that Tuesday morning. I was shuffling back to my cubicle at Electronic Arts in Redwood Shores, having just finished a round of closing desktop support tickets (probably replacing fucking printer toner), when Kev popped into my head; I realized he hadn't been over that past weekend, which was damn odd considering we'd been virtually inseparable for the for past two-and-a-half years. He'd been going through a pretty rough patch the lately having finally kicked Methamphetamine, cold-turkey; though he had to bulldoze straight past rock-bottom and halfway to Hell to do it. When his phone went to voicemail that morning, my pause over his weekend absence went from musing to concern in approximately four seconds flat. I called my girlfriend Cherise; we agreed to ditch work and start searching. I scribbled the date "10/10/2000" on the my last support ticket, and headed home.
I met Kev in an internet chatroom back in '97. He went by the handle of "veK", which I sheepishly admit took me years to realize was an anagram. Chatrooms back in the late 90s served a variety of purposes, from landing new contacts to feeding flirtatious appetites to slinging snark from the peanut gallery; but chief to me was treating chronic boredom sans recreational substance abuse: I was nearly two years sober and needed a new escape. Another thing I needed was a new tech mentor after relocating from Sacramento to Pleasant Hill (for the second time), and Kev took the mantle with aplomb: he was a self-made, self-taught techie in the field of systems administration, with a voracious appetite for knowledge almost as large as his appetite for partying, often driving his neighbors batty with techno music blasting at all hours of the night. He spent money like a sailor on shore-leave, his generosity nearly as large as his paycheck and stock returns. His rented two bedroom house in suburban Sunnyvale came complete with a dining room converted to a hacker’s dream-office, and a lowered, permanently topless Honda Del Sol; license plate reading "NTLEET" in the driveway. (I would later adopt the "techleet" moniker as a tribute). He was loud, he was cocksure, and he was brilliant. And he was high as fuck.
Looking back, it makes less-than-zero sense how I of all fucking people could have missed the signs: the late night parties stretched to dawn; burning the candle at both ends on the regular; speedily gnawing technical books and documents like a piranha through flesh; the constant tinkering and fidgeting and sweating and laughing and catching his breath; I was blinded by his hot white brilliance, unknowing the light was actually a supernova.
Halfway through 1999, the truth was crystal clear: pun unintended, but appropriate. He had moved out of the house and into a two bedroom apartment off Wolfe Road the year prior, and while I would love to say the proverbial shit hit the fan, it was unfortunately very much literal. His new roommate had left months earlier due to Kev's increasingly odd behavior: performing his own dental work and feverishly scribbling quasi-mathematical equations on his bedroom wall with his own feces. Read that sentence again. Multiple interventions would yield mixed results; usually involving determined agreements and unkept promises. Piles of In-N-Out wrappers and destroyed Amazon boxes and raw garbage covered every inch of carpet when myself and a handful of concerned friends cleaned out the apartment in response to the sternly-worded eviction notice. At the towering height of his usage, he consumed a staggering 8-ball per day through the tip of a glass dick. Now jobless, penniless and homeless, he relocated to a friends house in Fremont to get sober, and to get right. He was twenty-four years old, and he was finally onboard.
As I drove home from Electronic Arts that morning, I couldn't shake the fact that kept blaring through my mind like an overdriven megaphone: Kev had spent every weekend of the past nine months with me. My two bedroom townhouse apartment in the San Jose barrio had become his second home during these long months of detox, and although his bipolar depression came screaming into focus after his medicine of choice was finally in the rearview, I viewed our time together as my duty; loyalty means being there when needed the most. And as I sped down HWY 101, calling every mutual friend and acquaintance in increasing concern, the explanation "I haven't seen him since last Thursday" kept exiting my lips, sounding more ominous with each iteration.
Sometime around 1PM, there was finally an answer. More specifically, a message: a voicemail from Kevin's grandfather. In his warm, aged and wispy voice, he told us he was headed to the downtown hospital, as a police officer had left a note on his front door explaining that Kevin had taken a fall. We were invited to join, and within minutes of arriving, we were deposited in a small, windowless room with an armchair, two couches facing each other, a coffee table in between, and a shaded lamp perched atop a lone endtable. Two framed pictures depicting natural vistas hung on the walls, and I was struck by how un-hospital-like the room was. What I didn't notice were the large tissue boxes resting on the coffee and end tables. I would soon be handing one of those boxes to Cherise, immediately before tossing the armchair across the room as the chief of staff explained that Kevin's fall had been of the extended, self-inflicted variety, and that six-story-long, headfirst jumps are not conducive to survival. My best friend, Kevin K Barcume, died on the operating table on October the tenth of the year two-thousand. He was, and always will be, twenty-five years old.
Cul-de-sacs And Grassy-hills
As I sat shell-shocked and shivering with terror in the front passenger seat of a faceless mid-80s hatchback, my mind began to naturally question how in the world I ended up here. Having a gun pointed directly at your forehead will do that.
Ah yes; I was hanging out with Tony again.
I met my Tony Lang, whose real name I shall withhold for soon-to-be-obvious reasons, on the playground of Audubon Elementary School in Foster City, California, during a mid-morning recess halfway through my 5th grade school year. He was a casually-athletic, good-looking kid with dirty-blond hair that always seemed to fall in just the right way; an easy smile and a good-natured, childish charm that helped get him out of the endless piles mischief he very regularly got himself into. Adopted as an infant, he was raised by a soft-spoken ex-military man father and an incredibly kind — and incredibly Christian – mother; and they both showed him endless patience, as God would surely show him the right path. Eventually.
If you put (another) gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you which of us was the worse influence, but I can say that from the day I met him on that playground, we were the very literal definition of Partners in Crime; he came up with the outlandishly bad ideas, and I devised ways to get away with them. Over the next several years, we would pad our adolescent criminal resumes with breaking and entering, trespassing, vandalism, defacement, petty theft, felony theft, peeping, destruction of city property, tool-shed explosions, under-bridge squatting (long story) and any number of rebellious activities that I have long forgotten. We would spend 30 minutes twisting the hood ornament off a brand new Mercedes, and then sneak into a private apartment building with nothing but a voice on the buzzer claiming to be the UPS guy. (You have no idea how often people fall for that) As we continued to be successful in our adventures, our hubris grew tenfold, and culminated in our most idiotic of plans: break into cars in the dead of night and steal stuff.
It was, in a word, clockwork. The digital wristwatch strapped to my twelve-year-old self would begin beeping at 1:30AM, and like a whisper in the night, I would quickly slip on the black cargo pants, black hoodie pulled tight, black socks and gloves and sneakers, and ever-so-slowly slide open the window in my 2nd floor bedroom, knowing how light of a sleeper my mother was, just a few short feet down the pitch-black hallway. Our townhouse roof had a terrifying 45-degree pitch that slid right past my window, leaving roughly a foot of wiggle room before the sheer edge gave way to our front yard below, but I was determined to navigate those creaking, weathered wood shingles at least twice per week, and by the time I would painstakingly make my way onto our adjoining neighbor's fence and drop silently to the sidewalk below, my watch would inevitably read 2AM. Clockwork.
Walking silently through the shadows and sprinting though the light in the crisp night air, I made my way all those nights to Tony’s bedroom window, where a barely-perceived “tap-tap-tap” would soon produce an identically clad Tony; it was 2:20AM, and our night was just beginning.
I admit my current state of contrition comes with more than a dash of pride, and I must divulge that there was a method to the madness; I made sure we followed certain “Rules”. Only target unlocked cars: they’re asking for it; we’re simply obliging them. Always wear gloves; no fingers means no fingerprints. Always have more than one escape route. Always check for car alarms first, and never, ever steal more than $500 worth in a single night; my logic being $500 was the magic number that bumped a simple misdemeanor up to a felony.
At the end of our night's work, we would stash our spoils and painstakingly sneak back into our houses, nudging the key into the doorknob one ever-so-slight tick at time, always acutely aware of perils of sound. At last, back in bed, the wristwatch would read 4:30AM; the sun not yet breaching the horizon, and mother would be none the wiser. Clockwork.
After nearly two years and literally hundreds of late-night excursions, netting more daily pocket-money than any prepubescent tweens should rightly have; after daily splurges on candy and coin-up video games (another rule: no tangible evidence of our spoils – parents tend to notice shiny new toys); after all that raging success and beautifully choreographed clockwork and oh-my-god-we’ll-never-get-caught, we finally slipped. We got sloppy. We broke nearly every single rule that night, in a cul-de-sac in Foster City, just before a visibly-shaken rookie police officer aimed his 9mm Glock-17 directly at my hoodie-covered forehead.
And there I sat in that faceless hatchback, clad in black from head to toe, barrel pointed at my dome, and it was everything I could to not defecate all over that darkened car and immediately drown in my own stupidity. How could we have been so idiotic? How could we have thrown all our rules out the window; the two-exits rule, the no-car-stereos rule, the never-more-than-three-cars-per-block rule? And releasing the e-brake on that one sedan, sending it rolling into the middle of the cul-de-sac, and then having the audacity to stick around and go for one more score; that faceless mid-80s hatchback in the corner?
Needless to say, I am alive, so the ludicrously young patrolman declined to shoot; instead he directed me in quick, loud, and frantic instructions to put my hands on the car door (“OUTSIDE, OUTSIDE! THROUGH THE WINDOW!”) and as another officer was perched on top of Tony, knee lodged firmly in his spine, yet another officer cuffed my hands tightly behind my back. If you’ve never felt the cold steel of standard-issue cuffs mercilessly gripping your wrists, I cannot recommend it.
We arrived at Foster City Police Department lockup at roughly 3:30AM, and were immediately separated and thrown in isolated holding cells, devoid of windows, furniture, and color – the four empty corners of that empty white room were designed to shock and dismay, and they did their job admirably. Within minutes, my nearly-thirteen-year-old eyes burst into tears as an officer threw the door open and informed me that Tony had told him everything; that we were not adopted brothers Tony and Eric Lang (Rule number 7, which I happen to be using at this very moment) as we had so claimed upon arrival. Whether I was tricked into giving my real name or not is irrelevant – we were on our way to prison.
Hillcrest Juvenile Hall rests at or near the top of a hill in the western edge of San Mateo, California, roughly ten miles south of San Francisco. Though they are named "halls" by those living the outside the concrete walls and 20-foot fences, the inmates themselves know they are very much Prisons, filled with thieves and drug dealers and the violent and every other type of twisted, black soul you can imagine, and there I stood with the latest batch of honored guests, holding my freshly-issued white briefs, t-shirt, and far-too-large jeans — sans belt — in my tear-soaked hands. We happy bunch were gathered in single file, awaiting our turn with the prison doctor; his current goal being to inspect the deepest regions of our posteriors while we stood ten-odd-feet across the room, spreading our rosy cheeks amid the shivers in that cold, echo-filled 1950s-slickly-green room. Immediately following the exam of absolute degradation, was mercifully housed in my own cell; five-by-eight-foot, sleeping cot complete with two impossibly-thin blankets, exposed toilet and sink, and a one-foot-square window overlooking the courtyard. The door shut behind me, the locking bolts clanged shut, after my thoroughly spent mind told my weakened hands to fashion a makeshift pillow out of one of the blankets, I collapsed onto the cot and closed my eyes, just as the harsh and haunting echos of the jail's inhabitants made their way under the cracks of the cell door and into my shaking ears.
Daylight eventually broke and I was unceremoniously awakened from my slumber (if you can call it that) by the clanking of the lock bolts and a cavalier swing of the cell door. Breakfast was thoroughly unremarkable, aside from the fact that it was served upon a tray within a living hell known as prison. That said, the lemon muffin was surprisingly good. After what seemed like ten total minutes of being out of that cell, I was shuffled right back there again, the clanking of the lock bolts even uglier and more apathetic than mere minutes ago, and as I later stared out that small window at the courtyard below, with the unimaginably beautiful grassy-hilled countryside held just out of reach by the brooding twenty-foot fence, I knew, then and there, that if I ever got out, I would never be back.
My mother would finally pick me up later that morning, and I can tell you from first hand experience that mothers generally do not appreciate waking on Wednesday mornings to find their sons in prison. I can also tell you that she voiced her displeasure in no uncertain terms, and that my punishment back on the homefront far outweighed my single-night-stay at Hillcrest, and indeed outweighed the summer of community service I was sentenced to when the judge found a bit of mercy to give. I would never again see Hillcrest, neither as an inmate nor a visitor; and further, I would hang up my burgling gloves for good. I wish more than you know that I could say the same for Tony, and although we ran together for many years afterwards, we would eventually grow apart, and sadly he would continue down that same path we forged back on that playground so long ago. Prison has been his home the vast majority of his adult life, and the years and scars and hardening have left him someone I no longer recognize, but I will always remember that good-looking kid with the dirty-blond hair that always seemed to fall in just the right way; the easy smile, and the good-natured, childish charm.
Summers on the iconic streets of San Francisco aren’t exactly known for their warmth — a fella by the name of Mark Twain once allegedly quipped that the coldest winter he ever saw was the summer he spent there — and it was a cold summer indeed back in late June of 2007, as Giants’ infamous slugger Barry Bonds was all-but-certain lose the All-Star Game vote to the Cubs' new left-fielder Alfonso Soriano. With a few days to go and trailing by nearly half a million votes, the prospect of one of MLB’s all-time Greats missing an All-Star Game being hosted in his very own home park was as unfathomable as it fucking gets. He was my hometown hero, who grew up here and signed here and stayed true to his roots, and he was losing to an clearly inferior player.
So I hacked the election.
I have always been fond of coding. I first dabbled in a language by the name of Turbo Pascal back in college (college being the anyone-with-a-pulse-is-welcome, “community” kind), and though the lessons started very simply, I found I had a natural aptitude for them and I would soon move on to other languages like BASIC and C++ and others that very likely mean absolutely nothing to you if you are not in The Club. I would ultimately choose a non-programming career path, but my love of coding never waned, and I would incorporate it into my daily work-life, with an emphasis on automation and the web; so when Major League Baseball announced an internet-based voting system for the All-Star Game, it was, as they say, in my wheelhouse.
The voting rules were simple enough - fans would go to the voting website, choose their favorite players at each position, and submit the ballot. Further, the rules allowed for voting up to 25 times per fan; I assume this was done to make the fans feel like their votes really mattered, but more likely it was to get more eyes on their advertisements that lined the voting page, and because MLB wanted the fans' email addresses that were required for ballot submission. It is a particularly interesting fact that on this particular voting year, the required email address was requested at the end of the voting process, not in the beginning. Further, the voting website designers failed to account for even the most textbook of nefarious circumstances; as I discovered the simply refreshing the submittal page changing the email address allowed for repeated ballot submittals far exceeding the allotted 25. In layman's terms, they done fucked up, and I exploited the fuck out of it.
Armed with the mind-numbing truth that the only things stopping me from stuffing the ballot box was time and resources, I immediately dropped what I was doing at the impossibly small startup company I worked at, and got to work. Roughly seventeen minutes later, I had written a fully-functional script (in the language of AutoIT, for those who care) that could refresh a fully-filled-out the voting page, enter a randomly-generated email address, click the "submit" button 25 times, and repeat all over again. I now had the resources.
Unfortunately, I was still fighting time. Only three voting days remained, with a nearly 500,000 vote gap to makeup, and If you know anything about Barry Bonds, you know he was universally reviled both for his unfathomable talent and for being a surly prick; I was up against the vast majority of baseball fans who would surely vote for Soriano, not only for being a Cubby (and not being Bonds), but also for being an ex-Yankee; it simply wasn't a fair fight. After calculating that my little PC running the voting script 24/7 would likely net less than 100,000 votes before the deadline, and even if I got it running on a few spare work computers, we would surely fall short. I knew I needed more help. I needed a team, a group of accomplices, if you will, so I turned to the residents a Giants internet Fan Forum and spread the word along with a copy of the hacking script. Several users gleefully joined in the fun, and after our expressions of giddy disbelief at the nearly 400,000 vote jump in the first day of our operation, we doubled our efforts. A day later, our beloved slugger inched past Soriano, and by the final tally on June 30, 2007, Barry Bonds was elected to his twelfth, and final, All-Star Game.
I cannot tell you that we were solely responsible; and I cannot tell you with certainty that the script even worked; but I can tell you that we did what we did, and that the vote count rose exponentially; and that when I called into sports-talk radio's Razor and Mr. T show later that week to boast of my accomplishment, I used my old alias of Eric Lang. Because you have to stay true to your roots.
Vagrant Of The Wood
Occupying a vast swath of the western Sierra Nevada mountain range, Yosemite Nation Park is a breathtakingly prime example of what Earth looks like when its terminal disease — the human condition — is nowhere to be found. Placid, crystal-blue lakes mirror the endless sky, giving way to soaring mountain peaks blanketed in evergreen pines and foliage and a silence as deep as the loneliest midnight, save for the occasional screech of a Red-tailed Hawk or the lazy buzz of a June Bug. It was here in this untouched expanse that I found myself; foodless and alone, naked and shivering inside an oft-too-thin sleeping bag, awaiting the conclusion of a twenty-four-hour trial of the mind; I was on a quest to find myself, and I still had a ways to go.
My journey began nearly 3 weeks prior, at a YMCA Summer Camp nestled the Santa Cruz Mountains, just outside the sleepy coastal town of Pescadero, California. My attendance at this camp was a byproduct of my fifteen-year-old self being arrested and jailed the previous autumn; and was decidedly viewed as half-punishment, half-Hail-Mary thrown by my mother in a last-ditch attempt to steer her wildling son away from a life of crime and deviant fucking behavior. This particular camp offering was dubbed "Leadership In Training"; an intense 7-day boot camp, followed by a 2-week expedition into the wild, untouched bowels of Yosemite; the goal being that of self-exploration and affirmation, ultimately graduating to a higher state of being. We were to enter as softened clay, and exit carved of wood.
Boot camp, or “Training”, as the camp Drill-Sergeants-slash-Expedition-Guides called it, comprised of rising daily at the bleeding edge of sunrise, overcoming multiple challenges and obstacles that littered the day, be them rock-climbing or Belay-duty or knot-tying or plant-identifying or other activities beyond count; capped off with an evening campfire gathering of food and drink and conversation as the stars twinkled overhead. The purpose of this week-long training was clear as the fresh mountain air; to prepare us for the rigors of the expedition that lay ahead, and to bond tightly with our trek-mates; the brooding, shaggy-haired skateboarding devotee, newly inseparable from the angsty, Kristen Stewart look-alike, might-be girlfriend; the chubby, blond, terminally awkward fifteen-year-old who whined incessantly about his lack of cigarettes; the attractive, dirty-blond nineteen-ish woman clearly in lust with nature nearly as deeply as her lust for the thirty-something, tanned-and-tattooed expedition guide. There were twelve of us all told, ranging in age from 15 to 35, each with a different home and story and temperament and motivation, and yet as the sun set on the final day of camp, it rose the next morning to find this motley crew boarding a bus as a united fellowship, bound for Yosemite.
The six-plus-hour bus ride from our camp in La Honda to the drop-off point in Yosemite left us a ten-day-march outside our ultimate destination of Mono Lake. Armed with backpacks filled with rations, cooking pots, flints, and sleeping bags, we plunged into the great wide frontier as the bus pulled ominously away. We would march in single-file, capped front and rear by our two guides. Our young backs would soon be bent, yet on we marched, mile after mile, day after day, stopping every few hours to catch our breath and marvel at this untouched world’s beauty; or for small, tasteless, grateful meals cooked in tiny tin pots over makeshift fires. We slept beside mirror-like lakes and at the feet of jagged cliffs, rising from the ground to greet the indifferent sky, all while wrapped in sleeping bags with incalculable numbers of stars overhead; we trudged through sweltering heat and shivered through frigid nights, the sun ever a blessing and curse; we scaled a sheer rock face with harness and belay, and we perched on peaks and stared in slack-jawed wonder at the unimaginably beautiful Earth below, as vast as it was silent.
The eighth sunset of our expedition eventually came, and as our filthy and weary fingers did their best to sneak food past our sun-chapped lips, our guides proudly informed us that we had traversed nearly eighty miles, the final stretch was at long last in sight, though one challenge remained; the Trial of Solitude. If we chose to accept this final challenge, we would leave behind our gear, food, books — any and all stimuli — be led blindfolded roughly a quarter-mile from base camp into the forest, and be left with nothing but a sleeping bag — and when I say nothing, I truly mean nothing; we were to disrobe inside the sleeping bag and hand over our garments as well – and there we would stay for twenty-four hours, naked and alone, with nothing but a sleeping bag and our thoughts and the silent depths of Yosemite.
I can say with extreme assuredness that one does not truly know the meaning of a minute, of an hour – of time itself – until one is completely, absolutely alone, with a total lack of stimuli to quench one's ever-thirsty mind. Minutes seem like hours and hours languish like days, slow and long and drawn out like a mile-long blade from its sheath. One will quite literally try anything to distract from the never-ending monotony. Counting. Seventy-four ants, nineteen acorns. Daydreaming. Plotting. Even singing; and so it was that on that day in the summer of 1992, at the ripe old age of fifteen, I quite literally sang my first song: Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody; as it was fresh on my brain due to box-office-smash “Wayne’s World” catapulting it back onto the charts earlier that year; I bellowed and blustered and belted out line after line, from the delicate opening to the falsetto-laced operatic build, all the way through the hard-rocking crescendo; I was fucking god-awful, and I sang with an all-out, balls-to-the-wall conviction only reserved for those brazen few who believe that no one in the world could possibly hear them.
Completely spent, both mentally and physically, I would soon fall asleep, only to be awakened in the morning by my guide; protein bar in hand, ready to take me back to base camp. We would feast that evening on the dwindling remnants of our rations, and the following daybreak would see us hoist our backpacks and head out for the final time; mere hours later we would find a well-trodden trail, leading at long last to our destination: a small town on shores of Mono Lake. Soon we would be having our fill of the most delicious pizza Straw Hat has ever produced, and I would find myself staring at my now-strange face in that restroom mirror; tan and lean and caked with dirt; and as the water washed away the evidence of that amazing summer's epic journey, I would find my mind wandering back to the previous evening, when I was finally reunited with the fellowship after the longest twenty-four hours of my life; and as I feasted on the dwindling remnants of those rations, my weary ears picked up more than a few whispers of the crazy, drunken vagrant in the woods, bellowing Bohemian Rhapsody at the top of his lungs. A few short months later, I would end up in a tiny garage in Shoreview, singing with a makeshift band into a dented microphone, but naked, alone and fasting in middle of the Yosemite National Park was where I quite literally sang my first song. Sorry, Kristen Stewart.
Trust The Process
Songwriting is a cockeyed, fickle bitch. Each new piece of contrived art is eighty-percent inspiration, fifty-percent formula and ninety-percent dumb-luck; it shouldn’t add up, but it somehow always does. But don’t take my word for it; I’m a bit of a cockeyed, fickle bitch myself: ninety-percent of the hundred-odd songs I’ve written over the past twenty-five-odd years took less than two hours to write, from initial inspiration to demo recording.
Inspiration generally finds me in a hot shower, minding my own, fingers scrubbing lathered hair, when out of nowhere it bludgeons me over the head like a rocket-powered sledgehammer. My cranium immediately starts to bob and weave to the kickdrum-and-snare now driving incessantly through my cerebrum, just before an accompanying bass line happily enters the fray; if I’m really lucky, guitars and a vocal melody will immediately join the party-in-my-head as well.
Clumsily racing to my home-office with a towel wrapped around my dripping wet frame, I frantically click open the drum software on my computer, knowing that any second inspiration could leave me cold and wet and hung out to dry. Roughly five minutes later, I have the most rudimentary of drum samples, usually a verse beat and a chorus beat — perhaps even a bridge or change-up if I’m feeling especially saucy. The skeleton has been built; time to move on to the muscles.
Another few clicks and the multitrack recording program magically appears, and down my drum skeleton drops, solidly landing on that first shining track of endless possibilities. Fetching my bass guitar from its wall hanger, I pull on my headphones, and mash the record button. Under no illusions that I can actually play bass, I do my best to approximate the groove as best I can, all while the drum skeleton throbs through the headphones’ small-but-outrageously-loud speakers. Drum and bass tracks secured, I pull down my guitar from its perch on the opposite wall and overdub the rhythm and lead tracks, leaving room for vocals, which ironically come dead fucking last.
I would love to say that the lyrics I produce have incredible depth and meaning and each is a special, unique snowflake procured from the very depths of my tortured artistic soul, but I would be a fucking liar. I sometimes get exceptionally lucky and the poetry simply flows from depths unknown, but far more often the lyrics are in fact crafted with a general theme and couple good lines and a two-bit rhyming dictionary, where words are plucked from its pages like fruit from branch, taking what’s offered but carefully choosing for quality and application; my general formula being lines two and three rhyme. Or lines two and four. Or whatever fits the beat and flow and melody and fuck it I have no idea; just make it work. Special, unique snowflakes, they are. Mash the record button; I’ve got some hit lyrics to belt out.
Ninety-minutes in, give or take, finds me adjusting the recorded tracks’ levels, panning left here, adding pop-rock cliches there, eventually culminating in a unified mixdown, three-second-mastering job, and a hot-off-the-presses mp3 demo. Never known for being a patient man, I immediately email bandmates with a “new one!” subject line and an attached copy of said demo, the latter of which I will invariably tweak and re-record several times within the next thirty minutes. Luckily, said bandmates generally know better than to listen to said demo until five minutes into our next rehearsal, at which point I sheepishly apologize for the absolutely horrid bass playing and rudimentary drum lines, reminding them that these parts are merely skeletons to be fleshed out by those learned musicians who actually know what the actual fuck they’re doing; after all, songwriting is a cockeyed, fickle bitch.
Flowers For Gracie
Monday mornings for a typical Systems Engineer living and working in the heart of Silicon Valley are generally a boring affair; the alarm clock states its angered plea, the shower-head bursts to life, the hair is combed, the t-shirt donned, and we race to get in line with the other lemmings sandwiched hapless and helpless on the 101. One particular Monday morning in 2009, a mere three days before Thanksgiving, was destined to be decidedly peculiar; I was headed to a major radio station in San Francisco, armed with a handful of my songs and a head full of dreams, and yet that wasn’t the most peculiar thing to happen; I was about to be introduced to Grace Rose Andersen: my 15 year old daughter.
Never known for being shy, I wasn’t the least bit coy about my radio station appointment that morning. My ecstatic announcements on Facebook - along with lavish praise to my sister Brandi for setting it up – had been coming fast and furious from the get-go. Several friends reached out with various congratulations and knock-em-deads, and one friend in particular gave me immediate pause: a long-lost name attached to the long-forgotten face of a girl I knew way back in my angst-riddled, drug-fueled teenage days, Sasha. She sent me a private email with phone number attached and asked me to call her immediately, as we were in need of a nice little chat.
As my curious fingers tapped out the unfamiliar area-code on my bleeding-edge flip-phone, the blurred memories came slowly into focus – “Sasha! I remember you!”, I thought to myself. Long, dirty-blond hair parted in the middle; bangs that rested on the cheeks of her beautiful, heart-shaped face; petite-but-developed figure; penchant for being dramatically romantic, and a strong desire to hang out in my band’s make-shift rehearsal studio. She was what one would refer to as a band groupie, with her eyes decidedly and permanently fixed on my microphone-wielding torso. Memories of dating and late-night rendezvous and hours-long make-out sessions raced through my mind, along with a vague recollection of the one solitary time we were intimate before I moved away and left all I’d known behind.
The ringing on the phone gave way to the vaguely familiar voice of the girl long since grown, and after exchanging surprised pleasantries and nice-to-hear-from-yous and how-have-you-beens, she dropped the fifty-megaton bomb: I was the proud father of a fifteen year old daughter.
Ladies and gentlemen, please return your seats to their full upright position.
My head swam as she detailed the painful process of a teenage mother giving up her child for adoption. My heart raced as she confessed that it was an “open” adoption, whereas she had maintained regular contact with Grace, and that her middle name of Rose was given because of my well-known obsession with Guns ‘N Roses. My eyes welled as she explained the reason I was left in the dark and forbidden from contact in the adoption agreement was because of my then-raging drug habit and wild, nefarious ways.
We continued to talk on that little flip-phone the entire drive up to the radio station, pausing just long enough to have the meeting that would later prove fruitless; she told me Gracie’s fifteenth birthday was the following day, and that she desperately wanted a very first present from her real dad, explaining that Gracie’s love of diamonds far outweighed the bouquet of flowers and plush teddy bear I proposed. Beautiful pictures of Gracie as a newborn arrived in my inbox, then newer ones of her as a toddler, and newer still as a teen. Sasha proceeded to pass questions from Grace to me, as the adoption agreement expressly forbid contact, both physical and verbal. How tall was I? What was my favorite sport? What did I do for a living? Why didn’t I want her? Please send money.
Had I one-thousand lives to live, I would surely never have enough time to fully describe my feelings of pride, responsibility, soul-crushing love, and absolute resolve to spend every waking minute of the rest of my life teaching, protecting, and worrying about the newly-minted most important thing in my life - if diamonds she wanted, a jewelry store she would get.
Had I one-thousand lives to live, I would also surely never have enough time to fully describe my feelings of absolute loss, betrayal, confusion and rage when I learned the truth two days and dozens of phone calls later; Sasha was revealed by her own brother to be a compulsive liar, prone to conjuring grandiose stories out of thin air, for purposes I will never understand, and one of those grandiose stories was that of a fifteen year old girl who never existed, all to extract a few bucks from a long-lost old flame who happened to be heading to a radio station on a very atypical Monday morning in November of 2009.
The room was pitch-black, save for the dim, reddish glow of “3:09 AM” on the alarm clock when I sat up with a start. My eyes blinked away the sleep as I clumsily grasped at the loudly ringing phone perched on my nightstand.
“Jared!” the voice of my mother exclaimed through the receiver with a tortured, breathless gasp, “Mike and your brother were in a car accident. Mike’s dead.” she continued, half sobbing, half shouting. “Your brother is in a coma; they airlifted him to Modesto; I’m headed to the emergency room now!”
Think. Wake up.
After hastily scribbling down directions to the hospital, I frantically threw on yesterday’s clothes, grabbed my keys and bounded out the door. I don’t remember if Marilyn already knew that her newlywed husband was in a coma when I called from my flip-phone while rocketing down highway 101, but she was ready and waiting outside their tiny apartment with two coffee-filled thermoses by the time I pulled up. In she jumped.
Gas pedal, screeching tires, gone.
The only sounds I heard during the two-hour drive from their San Mateo apartment to Modesto Kaiser were the droning hum of the V6, and the wind whistling past the windows, cracked wide to accommodate my ceaseless chain-smoking. Weary and shell-shocked, our only thoughts were of getting to Saul, but as the barely-perceptible farmland passed by in the night, I suddenly remembered Mike. God, he was such a sunny, good-natured man; smile permanently affixed to his face, always ready to laugh or lend a hand or give a kind word. He was a spectacular salesman by trade, and I guarantee it had less to do with skill than the simple fact that everyone loved Mike, none more so than my mother. My mother! What a cruel hand she had been dealt yet again, as only a few years after finally finding the man of her dreams and getting married in a whirlwind courtship that belied her trademark deliberate prudence, she now had to bury him along with the shattered plans of a lifetime of happiness together.
My mother was already seated, drained and lifeless in the pale yellow waiting room. Beside her sat a fifty-something married couple; neighbors and fast friends since mom and Mike moved into their sleepy mountain town of Murphys a few years prior, they insisted on driving her to the hospital — as even in their own state of grief, they recognized she was in far worse shape. Ever the bedrock, my mother sat stone-faced on the cheap vinyl waiting-room couch, going over the myriad of tasks that lay ahead – breaking the news to Mike’s parents in Detroit, informing the insurance companies, making funeral arrangements, gathering all his clothes and tools and softball gear and on and on and on; I dared not stop her or even slow her down, as I knew it was her way of coping with the unimaginable, coping with her dead husband and her eldest son lying motionless in the next room with a breathing tube down his trachea.
Morning sunlight sparkled off my dew-covered windshield by as I pulled into the Motel 6 parking lot. The doctors had finally briefed us minutes prior, explaining that my brother would need at least a few more hours of the chemical-induced coma, as it was providing his concussion-riddled brain much needed healing; until then, we should get some rest ourselves. I warily obliged, but not before opening the motel's nightstand drawer and producing the small, black, King James Bible. I am not, by any fucking stretch of the imagination, a religious man, but as they say, "there are no atheists in foxholes"; I sat on that sickly orange bedspread and read Genesis as tears fell on the impossibly thin pages, and I dropped to my knees as I asked aloud for God to spare my brother’s life.
We were admitted into his room in the intensive care unit at roughly eight in the morning. The shuffling of the nurse’s sneakers gave way to the impossibly slow pulsing beep of the vitals monitor, and there he was; his shoulder-length brown hair had been hastily cut on one side by first responders; his sinewy, late-twenties frame buried under layers of blankets and wires and tubes. Our eyes welled in relief as he opened his, and the glint of recognition in them was faint but miraculous. Usually sharp and cocksure, his response to us was like that of a child, unsure of his surroundings but drowsily comforted by our presence.
We would soon learn that he had suffered three concussions when the SUV had flipped over. Mike had been behind the wheel and was knocked unconscious, tragically suffocating on the airbag. We will never know the true cause of the accident, as to this day my brother remembers only flashes and fragments, despite his full recovery. As with all tragedies, we need a reason to latch onto and a place to lay blame, and speculation suggests that one drink too many was downed that night at a bar so frustratingly close to home; perhaps a turn was taken too sharply on that winding mountain road, alcohol leading to misjudgment leading to the end of a beautiful life. I choose differently. I choose to believe Mike was lucid and capable and responsible, that perhaps a deer strayed carelessly into their path, causing an unrecoverable moment while in the action of saving a life. I choose this, because I knew him. Mike Jewell was selfless and good-natured and kind, and one of the finest men I had ever known. I would have been proud to call him my father, and I said as much while standing at his funeral, choking back tears at the age of twenty-eight, in the year 2004.
Tired Little Fingers Lead To Shortcuts
My adolescent years saw my father's belt replaced with writing sentences.
My adolescent years saw my father's belt replaced with writing sentences.
My adolescent years saw my father's belt replaced with writing sentences.
My adolescent years saw my father's belt replaced with writing sentences.
My adolescent years saw my father's belt replaced with writing sentences.
My adolescent years saw my father's belt replaced with writing sentences.
My adolescent years saw my father's belt replaced with writing sentences.
My adolescent years saw my father's belt replaced with writing sentences.
My adolescent years saw my father's belt replaced with writing sentences.
My adolescent years saw my father's belt replaced with writing sentences.
My adolescent years saw my father's belt replaced with writing sentences.
I am not a genius. Those five words will come as a shock to absolutely no one who has ever been within my general vicinity for more than five minutes. I swear like a sailor, I have the attention span of a flea, I can be brash and loud and obscene and am incredibly well-versed in the fine art of forgetting my train of thought mid-sentence, and I... where was I again?
Despite this veritable cornucopia of handicaps, I have always excelled at the most curious thing: test-taking. You could quite literally sit me in front of a Scantron and a stubby Number 2 pencil, lean back and pour a cup of dime-store coffee down your orifice of choice, and by the time the first hot drop pushed past your esophageal sphincter, down the pencil would drop like a lead balloon; done. At the exact same time, anyone who has ever sat in class with me can surely attest that I absolutely abhorred homework, viewing school as institutionalized prison and the three-o’clock bell as a good old fashioned jailbreak – the absolute last fucking thing I was going to do was to drag my ball and chain home with me.
It was this unique concoction of test-taking prowess and decided lack of homework that should quite easily explain my C-average throughout grammar and intermediate schools, the latter of which also happens to be the last place that would ever hand me a nicely-printed official-looking completion notice, otherwise known as a diploma. To be clear as glass, I’m sure I at some point received a Certificate of Proficiency after my cannabis-soaked frontal lobe somehow passed the California High School Proficiency Exam – the Golden State’s version of the GED – though I very likely rolled that nicely-printed official-looking completion notice into a straw, just before diving face-first into a pile of powder.
The express lack of nicely-printed notices had zero impact on me until I was twenty-six years old, at which point I had the wherewithal – and the $30 – to fill that void, notably by trying my hand at the Mensa entrance exam. For those not in the know, Mensa International is the largest and oldest high IQ society in the world, according to their letterhead – nicely-printed, of course. Hopefuls are administered a closely-monitored IQ test in multiple-choice format, seated at blank, open desks devoid of drawers, with a nothing but a good old lead-filled Ticonderoga, a piece of scratch paper, and a timer. The minimum required score for acceptance clocks in at a healthy 131 IQ, or the 98th-percentile of the good planet Earth, though slightly – and thankfully – lower than the 140 IQ "genius" designation. The last requirement is to finish the exam within the allotted 3-hour time limit. My pencil dropped in 2; done.
Three weeks later, I finally had a nicely-printed official-looking completion notice to hang on my office wall.
How Sweet It Is
To say that I have been unlucky-in-love when it comes to long-term relationships would be an understatement of such vast proportions it would rival the Andromeda Galaxy. Though I must emphatically state that I forever hold them dear, and count all but one as friends to this very day, I have for reasons unknown made an absolute art of pairing the right woman with the wrong time, the wrong woman with the right time, or a spectacularly bad combination of the two — the sixteen-year-old emancipee that I made every single relationship mistake with; the forty-something very beautiful, very intelligent, and very married woman who also happened to be very much my boss; the terminally-clever LA-based ex-classmate who went to extremes to hide me from her newly-separated husband and subsequently the world — I more than had my fill in the autumn of 2009, and promptly combed my hair and straightened my tie and dove head-first into the terminally-sordid world of online dating.
Unfortunately, said dating world is absolutelly filled with narcissists and groupies and ultra-religious emotionally-unavailables, along with a healthy portion of the socially-awkward and tragically-bashful and twenty-years-outdated-photo-peddlers. After spending untold time and money on dead-on-arrival first dates, I pivoted to a new strategy of mini-golf to break the icy waters of the opening rendezvous; no longer would I spend an hour and a crisp c-note sitting across from the latest snaggle-toothed mouth-breather like a job interview gone horribly wrong; now I could slap fourteen dollars on the counter, snatch a pair of golf clubs and make idle, getting-to-know-you chit-chat with the added bonus of securing a descrete glance or two of the latest nominee’s, um, physical assets. And yet despite my newly streamlined approach, most nights would see me return to my apartment dejected, still searching vainly for my soulmate, my love, my wife.
And then there was Hayley Sweet Lewis.
The story of how I met the doe-eyed, soul-crushingly-cute, terminally-warm, ambitious, indescribably miraculous unicorn-of-a-woman inexplicably began a full two years before we met. Long before our first email exchange, our first text message, our phone calls that would last into the early morning hours, and the eventual serotonin-soaked first date that deliriously exceeded even the most optimistic expectations, I was attending an old friend’s birthday party in a sixties-era bowling alley in San Mateo, where I just happened to bump into her Father. And her step-mother. And her cousin and cousin-in-law, which I just happened to be smiling next to in a picture that Hayley would stare at in disbelief a full two years later, whilst meeting me for the first time.
Jaw, meet floor; Whisky, Tango, Foxtrot.
After scrapping said jaws off of said floors, we discovered that my old friend celebrating her birthday that night, Amber, just happened to be Hayley’s lifelong family friend, whom spent nearly every Christmas and Thanksgiving dining at Hayley’s family table. More incredible still, Amber’s attached-at-the-hip best-friend Aili, also a longtime friend of mine, had been inviting both Hayley and myself to parties for innumerable years, and yet by an extreme stroke of fate we didn’t met until that warm Sunday afternoon of August 14th 2011, at Redwood City’s Malibu Grand Prix mini-golf course, with a pair of clubs in hand and an absolute, without a doubt, this-is-it expression on our faces.
Within three weeks we would step though the threshold of her father’s front door, he would throw his arms around me and half-sarcastically exclaim “Welcome to the family!”, and an hour later we would sit next to her step-mother as she tearfully proclaimed that she would someday preside over our wedding.
* * *
Eleven months after our unbelievable meeting and three months after moving the entire contents of her life into the warm confines of my two-bedroom apartment, the day I had envisioned for nearly a year had finally arrived — July 4th, 2012. The day began with misdirection: a story I manufactured about a lazy day spent in Sausalito, followed by dinner and a fireworks-show nightcap, but soon after arriving in the impossibly quaint town, I hung a sharp left and pulled into the famed Sausalito Pier, where a sixty-something gentleman with a sea captain’s cap stood smiling beside a 36-foot Catalina sailboat — both awaiting our arrival. Hayley immediately exclaimed, in half suspicion and half amazement, and I’m absolutely positive that somewhere in the recesses of her clever mind she had already guessed exactly what was afoot, so I proceeded to assure her that I would never in a thousand lifetimes propose marriage unless clad in a formal suit and tie, as I happen to be fucking classy like that; my current attire of jeans and t-shirt would, and could, never do.
Onto the boat we climbed, carefully stepping over the shining aluminum guardrail and onto the sturdy white ship's stern. Within minutes, “Captain Chuck”, as he happily asked us to call him, let loose the sailboat’s mooring, and I produced a bottle of her favorite wine from my backpack, along with a package of now-impossible to find chocolate-covered Belgian waffles. Within minutes we were out to sea, surrounded by the choppy white-capped waves of San Francisco Bay and the impossibly spectacular views of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, The City, and the beautiful, sleepy town of Tiburon. Alcatraz and Angel islands greeted our eyes with sparkle and awe, and the crisp salty breeze leapt to meet our faces and nostrils. As the hours passed and the Sun made its final descent into Pacific, the sky filled with hues of pink and purple and orange; and we stared straight up into the bowels of that famed Golden Gate, so orange that it blended into the sky as we slowly turned to circle back.
We found ourselves floating sationary in the dead-center of the bay as dusk was finally upon us, with Sausalito on our left and The City on our right, when the fireworks show to end all others sprang excitedly to life. Shooting vessels launched high into the air and exploded around us like supernovas in all imaginable colors, followed by the booming sound of ten-ton cannonballs as gunpowder met spark.
Nearly thirty minutes of dancing lights and crackles and their reflections on the pitch-black waters passed before I retired to the galley, once again reaching for my backpack; and within the impossibly-small galley bathroom, that backpack produced a suit and tie — neatly rolled to prevent wrinkles — and Hayley burst into tears as I emerged from the galley of that sailboat, ring in hand, during the fireworks finale over the San Francisco Bay on July 4th, 2012.
Nearly thirteen months of dress-shopping and venue-scouting and cake-tasting passed before I stood on a beach in Carmel-By-The-Sea, watching my bride walk down the sandy isle. I watched as her father guided her hand-in-arm, still marveling that I met him two years before her. And as he placed her hand in mine, her step-mother openly sobbed behind us, seconds before fulfilling the promise to preside over our wedding.
And so it was that on a gorgeous late summer afternoon in August of 2013, I forever promised my heart to my soulmate, my love, my wife.
Haircuts And Hot Rods
I sat shivering in the passenger seat of a parked and lifeless ‘66 Mustang coupe, the interior as weathered as the exterior. My arms were tightly folded under the old-fashioned leather biker jacket forming a makeshift blanket on my chest. It could have been midnight or three in the morning; I was watch-less and peaking on LSD and all I knew was if I unlocked that Mustang door, Rod was going to cut my hair off.
Steven picked me up in his Mustang earlier that morning; the throaty roar and uneven idle of its engine announcing his presence. I knew the coveted muscle car well — a couple buddies and I had helped him scrape off the old forest-green paint the prior summer, just before he applied the flat-black primer and fell in love with the results, either by look or by laziness. Steven looked good that day, clad in his favorite – and well-used – leather jacket, plain black t-shirt and jeans. He very much looked the part of a biker, save for his tall, lanky frame and long dark hair that hung down to his mid-twenties chest. My hair was nearly as long as his – though mine was shaved on the sides, as was the trend in the mid-nineties – and I brushed it aside as I lit the Marlboro Red hanging from my teenage lips.
“Sup man, where we headed?”, I asked, leaning into the passenger side window.
“The City, dude — sheet time! You down? Should we grab Ed, too?”, he responded in his typical sleezy-yet-good-natured drawl.
“Totally”, I replied while jumping into the front seat.
Edward Knotts — or “Ed” as Steven and a few close friends called him — lived only a mile away, but our hometown of Foster City was a maze of curving parkways, littered with cul-de-sacs and waterways that snaked throughout the city, giving more well-to-do homeowners water-front property than any city should rightly contain; all I knew is it meant bridges, and having to go “the long way” was very often “the only way”.
We rolled into the row of garages, one of which was attached to Ed’s townhouse, and Steven let loose an obnoxiously long horn blast; soon after the familiar sight of long, curly, flame-red hair appeared. Standing at a full 6-foot-4 when he wasn’t showcasing his trademark slouch, and tipping the scales at a decidedly less-than-muscular 255, Ed was an imposing figure, especially for a seventeen year old. Sporting his ever-present Mickey Mouse t-shirt and baggy shorts, one might never guess him to be a blues-rock guitar prodigy, but our band was brash and loud and we proudly lived the "sex, drugs and rock n' roll" mantra to a tee, with the "drugs" part of the equation often supplied by Steven.
Steven's specialty was LSD — or "acid", as we called it — and that day we were to make a run up to San Francisco to score a Sheet — a 2 1/2" square piece of thick paper containing perforated lines forming 100 quarter-inch squares, each being a single dose of acid. I was well versed in the routine. We would make the twenty mile drive to The City, park on a side street in the iconic Haight-Ashbury district, and enter Golden Gate Park where Haight met Stanyon, where soon one of the dozens of suppliers would offer their wares if given the correct passphrase — "Doses?" would usually suffice.
Novices like curious teens or runaways or drunken frat boys would simply hand over the $100 and take what was given, which all-too-often turned out to be plain unlaced paper, or even the rat poison strychnine. Admittedly strychnine did the job fairly well, but it was low-grade and edgier and often led to bad trips. We wanted the good stuff, and I knew how to get it — stop, drop and roll.
My job was simple enough — take a hit, sit in the car, and wait for the effects to kick in. On the rare occurrences of unlaced paper, we'd chalk it up to a loss and look for another supplier. If it was strychnine, I would know within thirty minutes when the jittery prelude would kick in, and Steven would snatch up the sheet for half price. If it was the real deal, the prelude would come about forty-five minutes in, more gradual and mellow and laced with a tinge of euphoria, at which point Steven would giddily reach for his wallet.
You read that right — In the summer of 1993, I was a grade-a, certified drug-tester. For me, the title, the risk, the unimaginable stupidity — none of it mattered; that sunny autumn afternoon I had yet another all-expenses-paid trip to the netherworld of the psychedelic subconscious.
After my dilated pupils, parted-lip smile and excited half-nod told Steven all he needed, he secured the full sheet and jumped back in the car. Ed proceeded to put his own hit on the tip of his eager tongue, and soon after we were buzzing down highway 280, the greens of the trees and the blues and whites of the sky extraordinarily vivid as the acid worked its way into my visual cortex. After a brief gas station stop on Sneath to grab more smokes, we were back on the highway, headed to our next destination — Redwood City, where Steven already had a buyer lined up.
I do not, for reasons that should now be obvious, remember much about the next eight-or-so hours. I have cloudy recollections of arriving at Rod's house, somewhere in shady underbelly of Redwood City. I recall him being only a vague acquaintance to Steven, and a complete stranger to me. I recall the dark curly hair that nearly reached the small of his back, I recall his late-thirties face being weathered by time and hard-living, and I recall the confederate flag in the living room and the "Slaves Quarters" sign he sadistically laughed at above the kitchen door. I remember hearing the n-word shouted several times, followed by frothy-mouthed suggestions of a deploying a baseball-bat wielding search-party, and I remembering wondering where in the actual fuck I was. Did the acid trip somehow drop me in the middle of a backwoods, redneck dystopia? When did it become dark outside? Why the fuck were we still in this shithole house?
I remember Rod drinking an unimaginable number of beer cans, and I remember it being the cheap-yet-disgusting Natty Light. I remember him seated on a kitchen chair planted in the middle of the living room, leaning forward and vomiting straight down onto the sickly-green sixties-era medium-shag carpeting, and continuing to drink as if nothing had happened. I remember him discovering that Ed and I were both on acid trips, and I remember his demented glee as he threatened to cut off our beloved long hair – the pride and badge of our rocker-dom — if we dared to fall asleep. I remember the twisted look in his eyes as he brandished the scissors and chopped at the air in front of our panicked, dilated pupils. And I remember shivering in the passenger seat of a ‘66 Mustang coupe parked lifeless in Rod’s driveway, wrapped in Steven’s leather jacket, fearing for the life of my prized long hair.
Steven would eventually emerge from that redneck pit of nightmares and drive us home, and I would later recall that Ed had indeed been sitting next to me in that cold Mustang the entire time. I would thankfully never see Rod, nor his house, again. Ed and I continued to rock and roll and run together, but it was always about the music – the drugs were just along for the ride – and I am happy to report that he is alive and well and living sober in Las Vegas, and we keep in touch to this day.
Steven would not be so lucky, as his final drug run came only a year later, when he and a handful of friends decided to make the trek to Humboldt, hoping to score a few plants – sans payment – and live off the land along the way; he and my sometimes-girlfriend Misty would tragically die from ingesting a large quantity of Water Hemlock, mistaking the ancient poison for an edible vegetable. He will forever be twenty-odd-seven, and she, nineteen.
You Only Live Thrice
The credit evaluators at Macy’s must be the bravest on Earth; they gave a nineteen-year-old with no bank account and zero credit history a shiny new credit card with a $400 limit. I maxed it out within a week, and didn't pay a cent for years. I take that back – they’re not brave; they’re absolute morons. Luckily, I got hit by a car.
My credit history, to the shock to no one who has read any of my writing, has been checkered at best; I sported a sub-400 score for years due to that little Macy’s card stunt, and only by paying off the collection agency and somehow acquiring a Chevron card five years later, I managed to get up into the low-600s and started qualifying for spectacularly-bad credit cards and car loans with interest rates that would make a loan shark blush.
By the time I was in my mid-thirties, I had mismanaged my finances so awfully over the years that I had a wallet stuffed with 8 cards and over $60,000 in debt. This wasn’t student loan debt, mind you — this wasn’t a car loan or a mortgage or any kind of so-called “good debt” — this was young-and-stupid, paycheck-to-paycheck, living-beyond-your-means kind of debt, and I was paying a staggering $1,000-per-month in interest alone. Read that sentence again. The minimum payments were more than my rent, and that’s saying something in the Bay Area.
Despite this albatross wrapped firmly around my neck, one lesson I learned was to never pay late, even if it meant choosing between a making a payment and making rent, which unfortunately happened more times than I care to admit, much to my landlord's dismay. Perhaps this refusal to pay late is what saved me in the autumn of 2008 when the financial meltdown came knocking, and nearly all my available credit – which I considered my safety net — vanished overnight. The banks were overextended and dropping like flies, and unilaterally slashed credit lines to smithereens; mercifully, one account remained untouched — American Express — likely due to my flawless payment history. Regardless, I was drowning in a crisis of my own making.
And in an instant, it changed forever.
The sun was still high in the air as I drove home from work that afternoon. I had just started at a new company in Palo Alto after spending the past five years enjoying a three-mile non-commute to StarCite in San Jose, but I was thoroughly adoring this new, longer drive — Page Mill Road was absolutely gorgeous that time of year, and I have a thing for natural beauty. With windows down and moonroof open wide, I drank in the warm breeze as it whistled past, and gazed admiringly at the grass-covered rolling hills, now yellow from thirst, when a ringing through my door-speakers and a glance at the center console announced Jeff’s call.
“Yo, yo, yo!” I answered merrily, while rolling up the car windows.
Jeff joined the band only a couple months prior, as a falling-out with our old time-keeper, Roy, necessitated an immediate and dramatic change. Roy was a spectacular drummer, cast in the mold of Dave Matthews Band's Carter Beauford – splashy and syncopated and intricate – but we both had heads carved of solid rock, and those heads clashed like battering rams, often and spectacularly. To further poison the well, Audiobender was the first band I had spearheaded myself — both in material and direction — and I was learning to lead on the fly, often with mixed results. Jeff stepped in and hit the ground running, as we had recorded an album together a decade prior, and my current bass player Paul just happened to be in that band as well — it was not only a timely fit, but a comfortable one. Our phone call continued as I approached the on-ramp to HWY 280, my small sports car staying lazily on the right side of the two-lane ramp.
I will never forget the sound of that Nissan 370z’s engine, revved high and throaty in the lane beside me, nor the sound of the screeching tires, grasping desperately at the payment. The impact shattered my driver’s side window and lifted my rear-wheel-drive coupe into the air, slamming it into the guardrail and dragging it another hundred-odd feet, before the twenties-something frat-boy driver finally yanked on the steering wheel, decoupling the mangled machines. I sat in shock as Jeff’s startled voice rattled through the speakers, my knuckles white against the steering wheel, glass shards lodged in my eyes.
My body would still be in shock after I managed to kick the car door open, and even still as I limped to the side of the road. Hayley would arrive roughly twenty minutes later, frantic to get to me after receiving a phone call no woman ever wants to hear, let alone a week before her wedding. Her face would have the same pained look as she watched her fiancé down on his knees in the middle of the on-ramp, as paramedics tried to flush glass out of his eyes.
My eyes would recover, but other scars remained — a torn labrum in my left hip would not heal without surgery, which my lawyer strongly recommended. He would later spin that surgery – and the subsequent months-long rehab — into evidence of pain and suffering, and eighteen long months after the accident that might have claimed my life, the insurance companies finally did their job and we agreed to a settlement. After all the mouths were fed — lawyer fees and medical bills and loose ends – a check was handed to me in the amount of $60,000, and I knew exactly what to do with it, as I dreamed of that exact opportunity my entire adult life. I would days later spend that check paying off every last cent of debt, and overnight – Thanksgiving Day of 2014 – my credit score would rocket from 622 to the 750s, eventually reaching an impossible 850.
I would sob like a baby that day, standing in the middle of a motel room outside Greaeagle, California, surrounded by my wife and mother, knowing how lucky I was get handed a second chance at life, twice.
The Big Three
The first car I ever drove was a 1973 Ford Ranchero 500; it sported a 302-small-block under a canary-yellow hood, featured ripped vinyl upholstery and was covered in dents the size of basketballs. Purchased from a raging alcoholic who had crashed it more times that he could count, it cost a mere $500 cash, all of which was the college money my mother claimed to have been saving since intermediate school. Mom knew I wasn't going to college, I knew I wanted a car, and the alcoholic knew $500 would buy a lot of booze — sold! I started her up, threw it in drive, and cruised Foster City for nearly an hour. Unfortunately, I didn't have a driver's license.
I would eventually get a license, of course, and soon "The Banana Boat" — as my friends dubbed it — became as inseparable from my personage as a cherished appendage, mainly for making regular deliveries of highly-compressed Mexican bammer-weed to my handful of customers, all to keep me flush with smoke and fast food and gas for said deliveries. The battered old girl would soon pay for itself, as a failure to look left whilst pulling out of a parking lot onto 25th Avenue in downtown San Mateo caused an elderly Asian fellow to plow directly into my passenger-side door. This was very unfortunate for said fellow's BMW, but very fortunate for me, as the boat barely registered the hit, and my wallet would subsequently fatten up. The insurance company totaled the old blond, sealing her fate with a $500 check — the exact amount I bought it for. I would two months later trade said $500, along with said Ranchero, to my bammer-weed supplier for the keys to a shining pillar of late-seventies majesty — a platinum-grey 1978 Mercury Grand Marquis Italian Mafia Drive-by Car.
That beautiful behemoth measured a staggering twenty-two feet end to end, its width a hair under three meters, and boasted a curb weight of over nine-thousand pounds, give or take. Featuring a platinum-grey crushed-velvet interior, burl wood inlays and pinkish-red entry lights that shone down on the three-person couch masquerading as a back seat, one could barely hear the throaty roar of the 351 Cleveland V8 over the monstrous sound system I painstakingly installed, the crown jewel of which was a custom sub-woofer enclosure filling the entirety of the massive trunk housing twin fifteen-inch "Earthquake" speakers mated to a 1000-watt amp. One could quite literally hear me coming from a mile away, long before seeing my chest-length hair and impish smirk, and long after the green Led Zeppelin sticker adorning the rear window disappeared from view. The playlist du jour was varied and loud, from Ice Cube to Guns N' Roses to Nirvana, but Van Halen's 1984 — and specifically Hot For Teacher — was on regular rotation. On rare yet magnificent occasions, I would delight my audience with an extra helping of panache, simultaneously pumping my breaks to the beat and hitting the trunk release switch in the glove compartment, revealing the sub-woofer dynamic duo as the Great Gray Cruise-liner bobbed up and down as if by hydraulics. It was large and brash and beautiful, and most likely stolen, as the missing c-pillar window and broken shift tree might attest. I mean, come on, I bought from a drug dealer for god sakes. Tragically, the magnificent beast died a death unbecoming its kingly stature — a lowly blown starter, a flat-busted eighteen year old me, and an "eye sore" notice on the windshield led to a tow-truck egress to parts unknown. Being sentimental even back then, I would salvage those crushed-velvet front seats from its dying carcass, and in the "living room" of that little studio apartment in Concord they would serve as the seating of choice.
An old-gold Motobecane ten-speed would serve as my only transportation for the next three years, at which point a trip to the San Mateo traffic court amid threats of a bench warrant led to the reinstatement of my license, which had been suspended two years prior for failing to pay a moving violation ticket. In my defense, said ticket was issued by an irate officer of the law — on foot — who believed my majestic Grand Marquis had cut him off mid-crosswalk, and when I explained through clouds of my dangling Marlboro that I was well clear of his crosswalk-crossing personage, he flippantly wrote me up for failing to signal one-hundred feet before a right turn. I snatched the ticket from his sweaty hand and abruptly tossed it into the back seat, never to be seen again, for though he was correct in claiming my signal fell short of the hundred-foot requirement, what that fat fuck failed to mention was that I had taken a previous right merely fifty feet prior to the second, as the offensive turn in question was into a parking garage. In layman's terms, it was physically impossible to signal the requisite distance prior. He knew it, I knew it, I knew he knew it, and I'd be damned if I was going to pay it. So they suspended my license. I sure showed him!
After finally paying the fines and reacquiring my license, my mother loaned me a hefty $2500 to buy a brand-spanking-old 1986 Mazda RX-7. Sure, it had 102,000 miles on that little 13B Wankel rotary engine, but it was Japanese — what could possibly go wrong? Plenty, of course. Within a week, the "check coolant" light and accompanying warning-buzz began a no-holds-barred barrage on my sense, as the buzzer would loud and unimaginably obnoxious, like Gilbert Godfrey screaming for Cheerios directly into your ear-holes. Said coolant warning could be "disabled" with a shift and substantial pounding of the fist, planted squarely on top of the dashboard, which I'm sure was a sight — and sound — to see whilst driving down the avenues of Pleasant Hill, CA. Despite it's obviously audible flaws, it was a beautiful machine in my twenty-one year old eyes — low slung and dark sapphire blue, the stick shift had a nice, short throw and the high-revving rotary engine pulled with extra bursts at 3,500 and 7,000 RPMs, almost like stages in a space shuttle launch. Unfortunately, I enjoyed those stages a bit too enthusiastically, and it wasn't unusual to see me racing the wind on the regular, a few instances in which I can plainly say that I cheated death — the 132 miles-per-hour jaunt down the I-5 Grapevine into LA at 2AM — sans lights; the left-rear tire blow-out on 880 whilst weaving through 4PM traffic at nearly one-hundred miles-per-hour; or the ninety-miles-per-hour race across the Bay Bridge when the coolant buzzer refused to be beaten into submission, just before I noticed the smoke pouring out of the hood. The engine would seize after I parked in front of a friend's house on nearby Silver Street, and there I would live for the next several months as multiple mechanics tried to get the new engine to start.
Eventually a fuel-line kill-switch would allow the poor thing to turn over, and I drove it for two more years, but it was never the same — all the punch and fun was gone along with that original motor, and it would be in the shop more often than out, eventually dying the same fate as that beautiful Grand Marquis — broken and battered and towed to some untold location. I would have many more cars — Chevys and Jeeps and Lexuses — Lexi? — and BMWs — but those first three will always be the first, and they were the best first a kid like me could have.
A Shortcut To Mushrooms
The chemical compound psilocin, which provides the "magic" in Magic Mushrooms, produces a uniquely curious high. Decidedly more mellow than its distant cousin LSD, the entire trip – from easy, breezy visual distortions to vague sensations of euphoria to the inexplicable urge to speak in a miles-long drawl similar to that of The Lizard King himself, Jim Morrison – is hard to recall and even harder to describe, especially to those who have not undertaken it. This fact is especially poignant in light of the first time I tried the stale-french-fry-tasting mushrooms, as I was already miles-high on pot. And LSD. And methamphetamine.
The year was 1993, and the sixteen-year-old version of myself awoke the Friday before Spring Break to an obnoxiously gorgeous blue sky, birds singing their happily carefree songs, and the sound of my brother and his friends noisily congregated downstairs, frantically searching for a pipe.
Wiping the sleep from my eyes, I leapt out of bed with excited aplomb, knowing that if I was able to solve their particular predicament, they would surely reward me with a wake-and-bake worthy of this majestic morning. Though I am quite sure I will never be confused with MacGyver, suffice to say the gravity-bong I produced that morning out of a plastic gallon milk jug, a pair of scissors and a piece of Reynold's tin foil was a goddamned work of modern art.
Within fifteen minutes, the group of five-odd wildlings and I would be gathered into an eager circle, as each took a turn plunging the lighter into the make-shift bowl, engulfing the sticky green herb in flame, and lifting the jug ever so slowly out of the nearly-filled kitchen sink, and at the very last second before reaching the apex of the water's surface, removing the tin-foil-bowl, wrapping his lips around the orifice and plunging the entire contraption back down, forcing every last molecule of that pungent smoke of life into our thirsty teenage lungs.
Needless to say, I was not bound for school that day; I had months-earlier devised what my underdeveloped, overly-cocksure cranium believed to be the first-ever foolproof plan to successfully ditch school without getting caught; namely, getting my fifteen-year-old friend Tammi to phone the San Mateo High School attendance office, posed as my dear mother. After somehow successfully executing this cockeyed plan one nameless mid-winter morning of my sophomore year, I proceeded to repeat said feat of brazen stupidity so often that even the clockwork repetition of the Earth around the Sun would sit up and scoff indignant – by mid-Spring I had racked up nearly two full months of absences, with nary a whiff from the school nor my mother. What could possibly go wrong?
After the requisite gorging on whatever snacks my bloodshot eyes happened to gaze upon, I eventually found myself showered and dressed and by mid-morning I was ready and eager to explore what trouble I could get myself into. As fortune would have it, I heard through the grapevine that a casual acquaintance by the spectacular name of Robbie Revo was hosting a house un-warming party; as he and his parents had just moved out of their three-odd bedroom ranch-style house in the sublime suburb of Foster City, leaving it empty in preparation for the cleaning crew, staging and subsequent sales listing – this empty shell of a house would serve as a mighty fine stomping ground for the wicked and the wild, and as a particularly safe haven for the guest of honor – a freshly-procured Zip-lock full of magic mushrooms. The party was a mere six hours away; time to prepare.
Being a particularly idiotic young man, I made the spectacularly unsound decision to counteract my morning pot mellow with a quarter-gram baggie – or “quad”, as it was known – of methamphetamine, reasoning that if I was going to make the shroom-party that night, I would need proper fueling. Bag; tap; chop; snort; disco.
Within approximately three seconds, I was zooming down the dopamine highway at lightning speeds, ready to tackle the day, literally.
I wish I could tell you all about the various misadventures I got myself into that afternoon, but as with most crank trips, hours become like minutes and life exists in mere flashes – one minute you’re feverishly searching for an existential knick-knack, the next you find yourself chain-smoking in the backseat of a station-wagon; there is no in-between. I recall seeing Ed. I recall dropping a hit of “Yellow Shields” acid, paradoxically reasoning it would warm me up for my first mushroom trip. I recall being at the old Taco Bell off Foster City Boulevard, stuffing mushroom caps into a burrito supreme. I recall the nightfall, and being inside Robbie’s cavernous living-room, completely devoid of furniture or parental supervision, impossibly empty, save the lone 13-inch color TV sitting on the floor. I recall my buddy Ric staring at said television as he played some faceless, nameless video game, and I thought to myself “When did Ric get here?”. I recall the faces of my friends shifting and breathing and swirling like pizza tossed into a slow-moving blender, and I recall half-walking, half-crawling the two-plus-miles home, collapsing on the bed, and falling in and out of consciousness as the hard rock posters adorning my walls frantically shifted from wall to wall, faster and faster until my eyes rolled to the back of my head and a dreamless, black existence somehow approximating sleep overtook me.
My eyes slowly cracked open, like an ancient tomb unearthed after a millennia of slumber, as an impossibly white, blinding brightness came to greet me. As my consciousness glacially faded back into being, I became convinced that I had indeed crossed over to the great beyond; that an ill-fated day comprised of a myriad of spectacularly poor choices had finally caught up to me; and yet, the white brilliance of Heaven didn’t seem to be a very likely destination for such a wicked wretch. Within seconds, my eyes would reclaim their function and adjust to the morning sun, shining brightly through the uncovered window behind my head, and onto the cream-colored walls of my bedroom; and I would look again on those beautiful posters, somehow still hanging in their natural position. I was alive; I had survived what would turn out to be the most sordid, idiotic concoction of recreational substances of my lifetime. Well, so far.
Chapter 23: “The Giant”
It goes without saying that the Great Recession hit a decidedly large number of people decidedly hard, and I was no exception. Though I did not have a house to lose and somehow managed to evade the gargantuan axe that dropped on the necks of nearly 75% of my company, the banking meltdown in the autumn of 2008 saw my credit lines slashed to nearly the exact amount of my balances, effectively eliminating my available credit. This posed as a particularly bad thing for me, as the vast debt that I had accumulated over the years saw me caught in a vicious cycle of using paychecks to cover rent and credit card bills, and credit cards to cover everything else – when the available credit dried up literally overnight, I suddenly found myself not only unable to get my grubby hands on the luxuries in life, like cable and beer and music gear, but also things one might consider useful, like electricity and gas and – oh yes – food.
Ever the schemer, I took out a loan against my 401K retirement plan, reasoning that I would buy some time (and food), and ride out the financial crisis, all while paying my future-self back at 5% — what could go wrong? Naturally, plenty went wrong – the meltdown continued, the layoffs continued, and my piss-poor spending habits continued – by February 2011, I had long since blown through the remnants of the 401K loan, as well as the $1000 my mom loaned me after my tearful, pleading phone call. I had even blown through the $1000 my sister lent me after my insistence on handing over my only guitar as collateral; I had exhausted every option and propositioned every friend and I was finally at the end of the rope, literally days away from an eviction notice on my front door and the inevitable bankruptcy of both finances and hope.
And then Joe Cox saved my life.
I met the sturdily-built, twenty-eight-year-old Chris Kline look-alike five years prior; he was a longtime friend of my bass player, Paul, and I knew I liked him the second I saw the San Francisco Giants hat planted prominently – and permanently – atop his head. Easy-going yet fiercely principled, he was a sous chef by trade and an unassuming world-traveler by choice, having traded his native California roots for overly-extended stays in Canada and the Bahamas – this was the kind of man who would pick up and move to the remote beaches of Kauai at the drop of a hat, demonstrating hidden resources – and thirst for adventure – that belied his pickup-truck-driving, humble-living appearance.
To my slack-jawed surprise, those hidden resources are the same he would agree to delve into – on the spot – as we sat in a burger joint in San Francisco one Saturday afternoon while I casually explained my dire predicament. To my naïve eyes, I was simply shooting the shit with my buddy before Giants Fanfest (mercifully admission-free, despite just ending their 56-year championship drought), explaining that my latest scheme to wiggle out of financial ruin required five-thousand Big Ones to pay off my 401K loan, after which I would immediately take out a new loan for fifteen-odd-thousand, and then pivot and pay back the five-thousand to whatever saintly lender had the finances and faith to trust me. I blamed none of my friends for declining — it had always been a hail-mary inside a pipe-dream — who the hell would have that kind of liquidity — let alone to loan someone — especially in those destitute times? At least I had Fanfest.
I had barely plunged the final bite of my cheeseburger into my mouth before he looked up from his roughly-six-second pause and calmly quipped “Why didn’t you ask me, dude?” with a half-indignant smirk on his face.
“I didn’t think you ‘ad that kind of cash layin’ around!”, I bewilderedly exclaimed between chews, more than half-expecting him to start laughing after such a convincing leg-pull.
He did not laugh.
Within two days, this unassuming saint of a human being would wire $5,000 to my checking account, and I would pay off my 401K loan that same day. Within a week, the new loan was funded and I hastily delivered the $5,000 to Joe as promised – as well as an additional $500 that I insisted on paying for his troubles.
I would make rent that month, I would repay my mom, and I would reclaim my beloved guitar from my sister. Unfortunately my vicious spending cycle would continue for several more years, but I made it through the Great Recession relatively unscathed; no eviction notices made their way to my door, I had gas and electricity and food, and I had a newfound love and respect and undying sense of gratitude for one of the finest men I’ve ever met – the man who saved my life.
The Gold Mine
I was a latchkey kid growing up. Mom had to work long hours at her infinitesimally small embroidery shop on Laurel Street in San Carlos, and her evenings entailed blowing off steam with aerobics – both participating and teaching – or martial arts training, the latter of which was to specifically ensure no man laid finger on her ever again; if you knew my father, you’d understand why. This hectic schedule led to her leaving our small townhouse in Foster City around 7AM, and returning around 7PM on the regular, leaving the vast expanse of twelve full hours for my brother and I to get into an amazing amount of mischief, and I assure you we were well adept.
My grammar school years saw YMCA after school care – dubbed “Day Camp” – act as my primary guardian from the time the final bell rang until 6PM, at which point I would navigate the short walk home; this stroll often occurred after the sun had retired into the western horizon, and while some may raise an eyebrow at a nine-year-old walking home alone in the dark, Foster City was well-known for being an idealic safe haven.
After plunging the key hung low around my neck into the deadbolt, I would dart happily into the living room, plop down on the couch and mash power button on our state-of-the-art, white push-button cable TV box perched on the end-table, assuming my latest shenanigans hadn’t resulted in TV privileges being revoked. I can only assume you are now asking yourself how a mother could enforce a no-TV punishment when her mischievous child is sitting alone at home, frothy-mouthed at the thought of cartoons and the newly-launched MTV and whatever nefarious adult-only programming was currently broadcasting on HBO, and the answer is a mixture of simplicity and genius; Mom’s ex-boyfriend, a circuit-board designer by the name of Augustus Robert “Rob” Modeste, had installed a make-shift kill-switch on our nineteen-inch Zenith TV’s power supply. It was controlled via a standard turn-key lock one might find on a gym locker; when in the unlocked position, it completed the power circuit to the TV’s power switch, and when secured in the locked position, the circuit was broken, rendering the unit a decidedly heavy doorstop. I have no idea how this failed to electrocute the sole key-bearer – my mother – but then, I am no circuit-board designer; all my childhood mind knew was that if it was locked, there would be no cartoon babysitter than evening. Such is life.
The real fun began when 1988 saw my eleven-year-old self graduate to intermediate school, and YMCA after-school programs were no longer an option. The magical ring of Bowditch Middle School’s 3 o’clock bell would send me dashing through the courtyard double-doors like a prison break, with my darting, hungry eyes looking for what trouble I could get myself into, locked-and-loaded and ready to melt a G.I. Joe in the oven again or marvel at the wonders of a blowtorch fashioned out of a lighter and a can of Aqua Net®.
On rare occasions when all the expendable toys had been melted and the hairspray depleted and all other devices of boredom-suppression exhausted, I would roam the cupboards and dressers and search for hidden gems and treasures; such was the case one particular November afternoon, when my sticky eleven-year-old fingers happened to find their way into an unmarked envelop hidden deep inside the bowels of mom’s beloved roll-top desk. My eyes widened and my lips parted in shocked delight as I pulled out the thick stack of rubber-band-wrapped currency, and my pulse quickened as I saw Andrew Jackson’s visage staring sternly back at me on the center of each of the impossibly-crisp twenty-dollar-bills.
How could I not take one? There were so many – she would never know – how could anyone possibly count so many? I had to take one. But only one. One was smart. One was fair. One was just. My weekly chores of mopping the kitchen floor and cleaning the 2.5 bathrooms and mowing the lawn and sweeping the patio and picking up the sad, fallen palm fronds from the yard yielded a meager buck-twenty-five per week. I deserved this. I was owed this. Hell, I was practically doing mom a favor!
So I took one.
I was no rocket scientist, and thankfully it does not take one to realize that moms tend to notice when their latchkey children come home with new toys, so my scheming preteen mind quickly realized it would be best to leave no physical evidence of impropriety. Further, I had at some point earlier watched the Richard Pryor comedy “Brewster’s Millions” on HBO, which dealt quite literally with finding ways to gleefully spend money without actually acquiring anything tangible in return. I do not recall the exact moment I giddily realized that spending my spoils on video arcade games at Fashion Island Mall’s “Gold Mine Arcade” was the only and absolute best way to go, nor do I recall appropriately screaming “EUREKA!”, though that scream would make for a great detail, indeed. Regardless, I had my twenty, I had my plan, and I now had eighty rounds of video-games to play.
And I played. Oh, how I played. I played Assault. I played Altered Beast. I played Winning Run and Ghoul’s ‘n Ghosts and Tetris and Double Dragon until my fingers burned and my wrists throbbed and my dry and bloodshot eyes couldn’t take another moment of electronic ecstasy. Four hundred quarters and three-odd-hours later, my happily exhausted body rode my BMX home with minutes to spare before mom would arrive; I had pulled off the ultimate burgle with an ear-to-ear grin and no one would ever be the wiser — It was perfect!
It wasn’t enough.
How could I not take one more? There were so many – she would never know – how could anyone possibly count so many? I had to take one. But only one more. One was smart. One was fair. One was just.
Days flew by with thousands of quarters feeding untold numbers of arcade games in their wake, my brazen hubris only matched by my thirst for more. The school bell would ring and my bike would whisk me home at lightning speed; the roll-top desk opened, a twenty plucked from its nest, and out the door I would fly like a sailor on shore-leave, bound headlong for electric arcade glory.
And then I ran into Grant Stevens.
If I were one of the neighborhood wildlings, Grant was the hands-down undisputed wildling King, daring to go further and bolder and badder than any wildling would imagine, born with a supernatural ability to not give a flying fuck about getting caught. Grant was the kind of kid that would shoot his friend in the leg with a metal Bibi gun and laugh as he writhed on the ground; when he pilfered, it wouldn’t be a mere candy bar – he was the type to stuff his jacket to the brim like a pregnant wildebeest, and then simply walk out the front door, daring you to look him in the eye. He was as apathetic as he was half-crazy, and within five minutes of questioning me at Gold Mine Arcade, I told him everything.
He wanted in.
Truth be told, he could have just taken the money and been on his way – he was a few years older, a few inches taller, and often prone to sadism – so my immediate acceptance of his entry into The Club was altogether predictable. What wasn’t predictable was that he would soon bring others into the fold, and within a week I was splitting my hard-pilfered spoils five ways, making a mere fifth of my former profits. Despite this annoying turn of events, we were a well-oiled machine, the twenties kept flowing, and none were the wiser.
And then Jamie Driver found out.
Jaime was the little sister of my brother’s best friend, Pete – the two siblings lived across the street with their mother, and the four of us played together in some combination on the regular, at least in part due to the extreme proximity of our home addresses. I found Jaime to be easy on the eyes and tough as nails; half of me had a crush on her and half wanted to punch her in the nose, the latter desire of which came screeching to the forefront when she announced that I would need to cut her into the arcade scam as well, lest she turn me over to my mother.
I was now feeding five, and being blackmailed by one.
Any hope I had of slowing the deluge of twenties was gone forever; the pace at which five terminally bored preteens spend other people’s money on video-games knows no bounds, and by mid-December I had extracted a staggering $480 out of that beautiful oak roll-top desk. And so it was that ten days before Christmas in 1988, my mother sat down to her desk and unearthed the grisly remains of her stash, and when my panicked fingering of Grant being the ringleader quickly gave way to my full tearful confession, my fate was sealed; the jig was up.
There would be no Christmas presents under the saddened tree that year, and I would be grounded for the next six months, and forced to write three-hundred sentences condemning the charges of lying and stealing, though I'm quite sure I found a shortcut for that.
Lying and stealing is unbecoming of a well-behaved young man.
Lying and stealing is unbecoming of a well-behaved young man.
Lying and stealing is unbecoming of a well-behaved young man.
Lying and stealing is unbecoming of a well-behaved young man.
For as long back as I can remember, I have had an uncannily strong predilection for the female of the species. One wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to say my affinity for women has at times been too strong, bordering on obsession. While I’m quite certain a gentleman by the name of Freud could spend many a lecture espousing innumerable deeply-rooted reasons for this affliction, I personally chalk it up to women simply looking better in sundresses. Sorry, RuPaul.
My first crush came at the ripe old age of six, and the object of my affection was a five year old by the name of Jenny something-or-other; we were kindergarten classmates at White Oak Elementary in sunny San Carlos, California, and for some reason I found her ever-present melancholy expression to be absolute magic. One spring afternoon I resolved to ring every doorbell in the neighborhood until I found her house; I gave up after the third try – it was nearly 1PM and nap-time beckoned.
My second crush came whilst eleven-year-old me prowled the playgrounds of Audubon Elementary School in Foster City – Janelle Sinnacre was so ludicrously beautiful to my tween eyes that her ever-present back-brace had about as much significance as a spec of sand on the beaches of Normandy. Unsurprisingly, my young vocabulary wasn’t exactly exploding with the famed French charm; despite professing my undying childhood love for her – often, loudly, and from great distances – she didn’t give me so much as a second glance. C’est la vie.
And then – le destin!
Sixth grade; Bowditch Elementary School; the annual Halloween dance. I quite literally spotted an angel from across the room, aptly dressed as Barbara Eden from "I Dream of Jeannie" – the top of her long golden hair was pulled back in a ponytail, while the sides fell softly past the front of her intricately costumed shoulders; her name was Caroline Beaulieu, and her cherub face was punctuated by the warmest pair of eyes I had ever laid my own upon, and her perfectly imperfect smile was the perfect fit for what I then and there proclaimed to be the perfect girl.
I somehow clumsily convinced this vision of beauty to dance with me – if dancing is what you would call our awkward adolescent gyrations – and our hearts raced as we stole embarrassed glances between the blaring thump of George Michael’s "Faith" and the all-too-prophetic "Is This Love" by Whitesnake.
By the end of the greatest seven-odd minutes of my entire prepubescent life, I mustered the Herculean courage to ask this obvious future wife of mine to “go with me”; she flung her hair back, looked me dead in the eyes and responded with a sultry “Oui!”. Well, at least in my version of the story.
For those not in the know, to “go” with someone was the intermediate school equivalent to dating, though ironically enough it didn’t necessarily mean one would actually go anywhere nor do anything other than hold hands and pass notes and perhaps even sneak a kiss or two behind the gymnasium. Unfortunately, the Bowditch gymnasium, like every other structure that comprised the school, was shaped more or less like a many-sided circle – there was no “behind” from which to sneak kisses; another venue – and some encouragement – would be required for the existentially magic moment of my very first kiss. Enter Brandy Loba.
Brandy Loba was Caroline’s ever-cheerful, terminally-likable best friend, and the two were virtually inseparable. In fact, dating Caroline could be more aptly described as dating Caroline and Brandy, the latter of which would gossip and counsel and advise the former on every detail of our weeks-long romance, and though it might sound like a young gentleman suitor’s worst nightmare, I can assure you it was not, as Brandy had an absolute heart of gold and her radiant and mirthful demeanor made her a joy to be around; she would in fact become my dear friend as well.
In addition to her sparkling personality, Brandy also provided three fundamental ingredients to my twelve-year-old self’s very first kiss: the location, and the direction, and the subsequent laughter. And so it came to pass that on a late afternoon in early March 1989, Caroline and I sat on the floor of Brandy’s bedroom, face-to-face in Indian-style fashion, as Brady excitedly blurted the magical, poetic words of “You two should kiss!”; and as I leaned in with my heart racing and my eyes closed tight, I pressed my lips against Caroline’s ever-so-lightly, and my derriere let fly a whiff of noxious gas, accompanied by a rather unfortunate audible cue, followed immediately by the sound of Brandy’s laughter.
My very first kiss was pungently punctuated by flatulence — yeah, I farted.
See The Difference A Little Light Makes
Staring dead-eyed at the three walls of my mockingly-comfortable prison, I slowly surveyed my all-too-familiar surroundings, ever-craving even the faintest glimpse of change; to the left, the sleek TV perched atop our squat mahogany dresser; the beautiful white door to the right, leading to everything I'd ever known; and the dreaded cave of despair directly ahead, where I had spent roughly seventy-percent of the past six weeks. The five puncture-wounds spanning my now-lithe abdomen and the ever-present stabbing pain that came with them were the least of my troubles – I was subsisting on six-ounces of water and perhaps a few bites of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup per day, tormented day-and-night by a failed and broken body – the only thing that kept me going was knowing my handgun was a mere ten feet away, ready and willing to end it all.
I was first diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease in the spring of 2005 – I had been struggling to swallow food for a few years by that point, and the episodes of gasping and sputtering as my own esophagus gripped tight around sustenance like a python grips prey became so frequent that a trip to the doctor’s office became a necessity. After forcing down a gray, pasty “milkshake” primarily consisting of the element barium, my throat and chest were x-rayed and evaluated and I would soon be swallowing 10mg of Prilosec/Omeprazole every morning. This miracle drug did its miracle work, and much to my waistline’s dismay, I was swallowing cheeseburgers whole within a week flat.
The years wore on and the symptoms returned; slowly at first – with a hesitation here and a gasp there – but soon the doc and I agreed that doubling my dosage to 20mg was the prudent maneuver; pills are never the preferred answer, but neither is starving to death. Within a few more years the symptoms would return yet again, and again the dosage was doubled to a then-rare 40mg; and again, it was deemed better than starving.
In the ever-shorter years leading to my fortieth birthday, the miracle drug was again losing its brilliant shine, and again I went knocking on doc’s door; unfortunately this time I was presented with a much grimmer picture – my miracle drug of Omeprazole did not come without its dark side, and whispers of osteoporosis and even dementia were being heard throughout the medical community. Further, the fact that my father had his esophagus removed due to reflux-related cancer became much more than anecdotal, as this black-magic drug didn’t protect against cancer, it merely masked the symptoms.
My options were unsavory and limited; either I immediately purge all acid-producing foods from my diet like chocolate and tomatoes and alcohol and carbonation – all that makes life worth living – or undergo a complex surgery — namely, Fundoplication — where the abdomen is sliced open and the top of the stomach is wrapped around the bottom of the esophagus. Check, please.
Ever the wise man, I decidedly leapt out of said doctor’s office and landed immediately on the nearest barstool, threw back a whisky neat and prayed for shift and permanent amnesia.
Unfortunately said amnesia never came, and by late 2017 the intense burning and constant choking left me with little choice but to surrender to the knife. I had dived into quite a bit of research by then, and found a specialist from Poland who had pioneered a modified version of the surgery, promising less complications and superior results. I swallowed hard (no pun intended), stood up straight and scheduled the procedure for the ninth of February, 2018.
The days following the procedure – officially named a “Partial Nissen Fundoplication” – were not the greatest these eyes have seen, but they were far from the worst — the burning and choking were now distant memories, and though the stabbing pain and tight bandages enveloping my torso were uncomfortable to say the least, the opiates did their job and within three days I was excitedly swallowing solid food.
And in an instant, everything changed.
Noon, Valentine’s Day, 2018 – five days removed from surgery. The term “bloating” does absolutely zero fucking justice to the sensation that overtook my horrified visage; it was as if someone plunged an air-compressor down my throat and let loose a never-ending flood of air, expanding my bruised and battered stomach until it could stretch no more, and then turned up the pressure ever further. Sitting was not an option, nor was laying down. The only position that gave even a modicum of relief was to stand with a pronounced hunch, and the “relief” meant that I went from wanting to jump off the nearest building to merely wanting to puncture my own stomach with a rusted dagger.
Next came a wave of all-encompassing nausea – a nausea so staggeringly powerful and utterly complete that all reason escaped my mind; my eyes swam in their sockets as I frantically searched my surroundings for some mystical relief that would never come, and my panicked mind became dreadfully aware of my recent surgery, and that the unavoidable expulsion of vomit would most assuredly rupture my sutures, leaving me to bleed out then and there.
Someone was screaming. It was me.
Hayley raced home from work around 2PM, pushing the limits of her chocolate-brown Mini Cooper’s speedometer. After easing me into the passenger seat of my Jeep Grand Cherokee – chosen for the gentler ride – we sped down the freeway towards Good Samaritan Hospital’s emergency room, ever-balancing the vital need for expedience with the knowledge that every single vibration sent lightning bolts through my horribly malfunctioning body, threatening to disrupt my slow, shaking breaths and laser-focused concentration – the only two things stopping the imminent onslaught of certain-death dry-heaving.
After twice stopping on the side of the road to breathe deeply as my head swam and my hands shook, we made it to the emergency room around 2:30PM, where an astounding level of unapologetic ineptitude would be on full display. Despite my repeated shouts for help between frantic, pained gasps, the nursing staff could not possibly give any fewer fucks; the screams from Hayley detailing my recent surgery and the danger of vomiting only led to shrugs and an occasional response of “I already gave him anti-nausea in his drip, Sugah”.
My escalating lurches, punctuated by the occasional and terrifying dry-heaving — producing a sound somewhere between a jackhammer and a lion’s roar — eventually led to a hyper-powerful shot of the opioid Dilaudid directly into my IV, at which point I exclaimed “Whoa, where we goin?” as I instantly sunk one-hundred-thousand feet into the emergency room bed. Flight Attendants, please prepare for liftoff.
Roughly eight hours, an MRI and a half-dozen shots of anti-nausea drugs later, I was unofficial diagnosed with an Ileus — a brutally painful condition that sees the gastrointestinal tract shut down due to shock and/or trauma, ceasing all movement — but the root cause was still unknown.
After another hour of pleading, I was finally hoisted into an ambulance, bound for El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, as it was the site of my recent surgery, and only the pioneering surgeon would know how to properly treat me. Hayley would curl up in the chair next to my bed as an army of nurses filed through the door nearly every hour of the night, taking blood and urine and stool samples and swabbing my mouth and checking my pulse and shooting me full of Dilaudid and anti-nausea meds.
As the morning light shone softly through the sheer curtains, I began feeling better due to the nutrient-rich saline drip, and soon the door opened once again, this time producing the familiar eyes of my esteemed Polish surgeon. I began to suspect something to be amiss when he declined to shake my hand, and slowly the surgical mask over his nose and mouth turned into ominous signs of concern. He would proceed to explain I had contracted an infection by the name of Clostridium Difficile, also known as C-Diff, and my face immediately lit up in joyous relief.
“An infection?!” I exclaimed, “Is that all?! I thought I was dying!”.
I would soon learn to rue those words.
The next two weeks would see a never-ending barrage of hyper-nausea and extreme bloating, both of which were unimaginably exacerbated by the surgery; the fundoplication left me unable to belch, thus unable to relieve any of the bloating, and the hyper-nausea led to hours-long bouts of staring laser-focused at random objects, concentrating with every fiber of my being to not dry-heave and subsequently ruin the surgery. The unimaginably insidious intestinal infection led to an ever-present need to defecate, contradicting my complete and total lack of appetite, the latter of which led to near-zero caloric intake, and near-zero energy. I knew only an existence that consisted of laying in bed for days at a time, punctuated by the popping of pills and hours languishing on the porcelain throne. I would lose eleven pounds within the first week, and that would only be the start.
Hayley persisted. It was all she could do. Her life consisted of sleeping in the guest bedroom, far away from the highly-contagious infection; waking up, driving to work; sobbing at her desk, begging the heavens for the return of her husband, both in body and spirit. There would be no answer.
Three more weeks passed, and still the infection raged. The prescribed antibiotics only accentuated the nausea, putting a strain on the already-useless anti-nausea pills. I was subsisting on six-ounces of water and perhaps a few bites of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup per day, tormented day-and-night by a failed and broken body – the only thing that kept me going was knowing my handgun was a mere ten feet away, ready and willing to end it all. No part of me wanted to die, but behind my sunken eyes and impossibly-slow gait, my brain screamed for an end to the cycle, an end to bloating and nausea and endless hours in the darkened cave of our bathroom and the draining puncture wounds and the washing my hands nineteen times an hour with that sickly liquid soap that I can smell to this very day. I kept going because I knew I could ultimately end it at any time, and that gave me strength – strength that I had some semblance of control, even if it was only over my own death.
Nearly six weeks and twenty-three pounds later, the third round of antibiotics would finally, mercifully turn the tide against the accursed infection, and I would slowly regain appetite, vigor, and hope. The fundoplication surgery ultimately proved unsuccessful, likely due to the infection and dry-heaving; I am back on 40mg of Omeprazole — like I said, pills are never the preferred answer, but neither is starving to death.
My torso and my memories still bear the scars of that horrific ordeal, but I made it to the other side with a renewed appreciation for life and health; and the darkened bathroom I spent so many weeks in would see drastic change as well, as I would eventually add a window, so I could always look up and see the light.
The late, great Maya Angelou once said “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned”, and although home means a great many things to a great many people, I myself have ached to own my own home for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area during perhaps the greatest housing cost explosion in history; owning a home meant digging far, far deeper than our parents and grandparents — it meant being hyper-agile and hyper-creative in savings and finance; it mean swallowing hard, tightening belts, and repeating Richard Branson’s irreverent motto, loudly and assuredly — "Screw it, let’s do it!"
Growing up as a middle-class kid in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, I assumed from an early age that buying a house was natural step in the progression of life — if my single mother could afford to raise her two sons in such an idealistic place, I would surely be able to as well. Reality would soon slap me dead in the face, as that small townhouse I grew up in is now selling for five times what my mother paid for it, and believe me when I say I don’t make five times what she did. Salaries have scarcely adjusted over the years while the rise of Silicon Valley let loose an economic tsunami, and that deluge of jobs brought with it a deluge of immigrants — both foreign and domestic — with only so much housing to around. The highly-skilled workers commanding their high-powered salaries continued to flood in, wave after wave, driving home prices to unfathomable levels and driving lesser-skilled natives to the hills, or worse yet, the streets. Despite making a series of decidedly-lucky career decisions, my wife and I were going to need some serious magic to jump into the fray of home ownership.
In the autumn of 2014 we began to explicitly save as much as we could, greatly aided by the fact that my current landlord had only raised the rent three times in the past decade. Our eyes were decidedly fixed on the infinity-cheaper confines of San Diego, as we were both in love with the city nearly as much as the ocean it sat beside. While the thought of sliding that key into our very own front door was the sweetest of dreams, it always came with the bitter sting of resignation; we would be giving up family and friends and all that we had known; the invading conquerors would finally win, pushing us out of the beloved home where we were born and bred. Seeing no viable alternative, we decided to take a deep breath and enjoy all that it had to offer for as long as we possibly could.
As I'm sure you are well aware, the natural splendor of the Bay Area is world-renowned, and that splendor was on full display two Septembers later as Hayley and I navigated the rolling hills of eastern Milpitas, bound for a lazy Saturday afternoon tasting at Big Dog Winery. Delighted at the lack of cars in the small, dirt lot, we parked and headed into the tasting room. We made it a habit to go wine-tasting every free Saturday we could; we both loved the smells and tastes and relaxed ambiance, and above all, the breathtaking views.
After we were handed a pair of deep-bowled glasses and presented with the day’s menu, the cheerful pourer remarked how gorgeous the weather was, playfully lamenting the fact that she was stuck inside. Perhaps wanting to live vicariously, she offered to let us roam the estate, wine-in-hand, and wade through the rows upon rows of ripened vines. We of course accepted and made our way around the back of the tasting room where the small dirt steps lead to a vine-covered hill above. And so it was that Hayley and I found ourselves strolling lazily through the grape vines of Big Dog Winery on a crystal-clear Saturday afternoon, perched high on a hill overlooking the entire Bay Area; we gazed awe-struck at the endless grass-covered hills and the bay beyond, and we fought back tears as we confessed that we didn’t want to leave all this, despite the promise of an affordable home in San Diego. We vowed then and there that we wouldn’t let them win, that we would find a way, against all odds, to stay right here and buy a house in the only home we’d ever known.
* * *
For those not in the know, house-hunting in the Bay Area is an extreme test of agility and stamina, resiliency and sanity. The average home is on the market for an average of seven days, bombarded with an avalanche of offers, and regularly sells for tens of thousands over asking. Open house events see prospective buyers stalk the hallways like dogs in ravenous search of fresh meat. Our realtor — a dear friend of mine by the name of Cara Hopkins O'Halloran — set us up with email notifications the instant a house entered the market, and each new listing would send me flying to the car — day or night — frantically speeding down unfamiliar streets to the house in question where I would arrive minutes later, inevitably seeing another hopeful buyer (or two) already peeking through the windows.
Such was our existence for seven long months; scouring the internet for listings, shuttling from house to house, pushing our way through crowded hallways and impossibly-small kitchens, lamenting the astronomical price-tags attached to sickly, languid houses in seedy neighborhoods, all while smug-faced Realtors gave us you-can’t-afford-this smirks. Despite receiving generous help from our families, those smirks would nearly drive me to a nervous breakdown, as the mental gymnastics needed to calculate exactly how much we could rightly afford after estimated mortgage interest deductions and W-4 withholding manipulations and 401K loans and ungodly property tax payments and homeowners insurance premiums and every other boogieman crept into my cranium at all hours of the day. I drew up spreadsheet after spreadsheet, detailing likely scenarios and their worst-case counterparts and exactly how much money down to the nano-penny we would save if we took out a loan to install Solar panels and substituted Coke with Pepsi. The unending stress was crushing us like a ten-ton boulder, and though our backs bent, our legs held firm with desperate determination.
And then, March 8th 2017.
The familiar ding of a new email greeted my weary ears as I sat hunched over my keyboard, dry eyes staring blankly at the computer screen. A flick of the wrist and two clicks of the mouse revealed yet another new house, and I warily slapped my cheeks to waken, grabbed my keys and headed for the car. I knew this latest house was a contender due to the complex email alert rules I had narrowed over the months — it was in one of our dozens of target streets lining our three target neighborhoods with our required number of bedrooms and bathrooms and square footage and blah blah blah. “Why would this be any different than the others?”, I thought as I sped down Guadalupe Expressway towards Blossom Valley.
Pulling in front of the house, the decided lack of cars — the type that belong to would-be home buyers — didn't faze me, as it was late-morning on a Wednesday, and this was a "soft" open house, per se; an eleven-in-the-morning sneak-peak for prospective buyers before the full blown open house extravaganza planned for the coming weekend. After nonchalantly parking in the driveway and admiring the Japanese Maple, gloriously in full crimson bloom, I shuffled up the front walkway and past the exotic wooden door — flung wide open — and nearly caught my breath. My eyes widened and my mouth fell agape as I slowly surveyed the wide-open floor-plan and gorgeous dark-brown hardwood floors; the immaculate crown molding and custom paints, the inch-thick granite countertops and stainless appliances, the jewel of which was a six-range DCS gas stove, worth more than my first four cars combined.
"Baby, you gotta get in here. Now.", I frantically whispered into the phone.
"Oh Yeah? Pulling up now", Hayley responded, half hopeful, half annoyed.
I hung up the phone and continued to marvel at my surroundings, suddenly glimpsing the twin, eight-foot-tall double French doors leading to the picturesque backyard; and there, in the middle of that immaculately landscaped yard stood an outdoor kitchen, covered overhead by a beautiful wooden structure upon which a thriving grapevine grew, and in the middle of that kitchen stood a brick-and-stone wood-fired pizza oven. Yes, a fucking pizza oven. Realizing Hayley was standing awe-struck beside me, I blurted out "Baby, you want it?" and started dialing Cara's number before she had a chance to say yes.
"This is it; blow them out of the water. Whatever it takes", I said in a harried, hushed tone into my cellphone.
"On it!", Cara replied with her trademark confidence.
We finally found the house we wanted. Now we had to take it.
The three of us knew that if it made it to the full-blown open house on Saturday, it would without a doubt elicit bidding wars with throngs of buyers and surely send the price rocketing into the stratosphere; we had to strike quickly and aim for the jugular. Within hours, Cara compiled an offer of such overwhelming aggression that Vito Corleone himself would blush: $65,000 over their asking price, thirty-day rent-back — where they could stay in the house for an extra month, rent-free — and a ludicrous fourteen-day financial contingency, the latter of which meant that if we did not secure the home loan within two weeks — something that typically takes more than a month — we would pay the owners nearly $50,000 and walk away with nothing but the clothes on our backs. You read that right; if we didn't get our home loan within two weeks, we would lose the house and a staggering fifty-thousand big ones; thanks for coming, have a nice day.
Despite the outrageous offer, we knew it wouldn't be enough if the house made it to Saturday's opening, so Cara included an expiration clause stating that the offer would be null-and-void as of Saturday afternoon at 12:59PM — one minute before the doors were to be thrown open, commencing the start of the event. Given assurances from Cara that my calculations and spreadsheets and fretting were sound and that her ace mortgage broker could get us the loan on time, Hayley and I swallowed hard, closed our eyes and gave word to submit the offer.
And then we waited.
There are times in life when our internal clocks and the ones adorning the wall are in perfect unison — when you wake up nary a minute before the alarm springs to life; when you hit the gas, knowing that green light is just about to turn yellow — and does; more often than not, our internal clock is violently askew — time slips by without the slightest hint or warning, leaving us breathless and bewildered and wondering where it all escaped to; or minutes languish like hours while our impatient striatums focus hard and fast on every single tick of the second hand, meandering along with its brazen apathy.
Such was the case during the longest three-and-a-half days of my life while awaiting word from the homeowners. How many times we drove slowly past that house just for a glimpse of its majesty, I cannot say, nor can I say how many times we stared longingly at the same seventeen pictures of the various angles of her beautiful hallways and the wine cellar and its well-chosen trim. Tick-tock, tick-tock. Not a word; not a peep.
Saturday morning came, mere hours from the open house and the offer deadline. Tick-tock, tick-tock. Filled with an contradictory mixture of excitement, assuredness and dread, we tried desparately to slay as much time as humanly possible; an open house here, a game of scrabble there, and ultimlately decided the best course of action would be to go out for a glass of wine or three, so off we went to picturesque downtown Los Gatos.
The tumble of the clock hands from 12:59 into 1:00PM rang out like a bowling ball through a cathedral, and still we sat, staring a hole through our phones with the intensity of a thousand suns. Tick-tock, tick-tock. Five minutes passed. Then ten. Twenty, thirty, forty. Minutes slipped into hours, and the look of despair on our faces deepened with each passing second.
After sharing a dinner together which mostly involved pushing around the food on our plates with our thoroughly dejected forks, we shared a silent car-ride home, threw our coats on the floor and pulled a lone bottle of champagne out of the fridge; originally chilled for a celebratory toast, it was now to be used as a vehicle to drown our sorrows, having lost our absolute, without-a-doubt, one-in-a-million dream home; it was 9:54PM, nearly nine hours past the deadline, and they never even bothered to fucking respond.
And in that instant, a ding came from my phone. And then another. Who the hell was texting me at nearly ten o’clock at night? And then Hayley’s phone buzzed on the counter.
It was Cara.
“Hey guys! The best news ever,” her text message read. “they’ve agreed to about offer!!! I’m going to be sending you a counter offer that just extends the response time for agreeing to terms. OMG!!!!!! This is real.”
“Sorry! Agree to ACCEPT our offer!!” the text message continued “Yo, we’re buying a house!”
Shock, elation, waterworks. Full stop.
The following fourteen days were, by far, the most stressful of my lifetime. Though the hoops one is required to jump through to acquire a home loan have always been numerous and covered in white-hot flames, and those hoops were multiplied tenfold after the 2008 financial meltdown, banking collapse, and subsequent Dodd-Frank Act reforms. Credit score under 750? Next. Earn less than thrice your expected mortgage payment? Sorry. Misplaced a tax return from five years ago? Go fuck yourself.
The list of requirements is longer than a certain Great Wall in a country by the name of China — perhaps you’ve heard of it — and few, if any, concessions are made. Two years’ worth of bank statements and credit card statements. Five years’ worth of tax returns. Retirement account balances. Two years of paystubs. Two years of cashed rent checks. Fifteen thousand dollars more needed by Monday morning or you lose everything. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Every single cent possessed had to be accounted for, and had to be 100% yours — any non-income-related deposits needed to have a signed letter of ownership, right now, or you lose $50,000 and the house of your dreams. Two days until the financial contingency expires. Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
We would eventually get the home loan with hours to spare, aided by a bit of financial gymnastics in the form of a home equity line of credit (HELOC), which was immediately maxed-out and used as half of the down payment, all to avoid having to pay mortgage insurance. Of course, HELOCs are secured by a lien against the house, which we wouldn’t own until the home loan was funded, and yet we needed the HELOC to fund the home loan. Financial gymnastics indeed.
We signed the seven-thousand pages of loan documents — give or take — on a sunny Friday afternoon, and the loan was funded the following Tuesday. Escrow closed on April 11th, signally the beginning of the previous owners’ official thirty-day-stay as our rental tenants; free of charge as per our purchase offer. We would spend that month driving past our new home, misty-eyed and full of pride, and practice driving our new commute from work, sampling the local restaurants and soaking in the ambiance at the quiant neighborhood park.
As the sun began its slow descent into the horizon on Thursday, May the 11th of 2017, our eyes welled as we slid that key into our very own front door. Within minutes, Cara stood beside Hayley in our very own kitchen, pouring freshly-popped champagne into three plastic flutes, and tears streamed down my face as she turned to us, lifted her glass and said “Welcome home”.
The Sniper And The Bagel
Nineteen-ninety-nine was a hell of a year. The so-called “Y2K” craze was sweeping not only the tech sector, but the nation; unbridled optimism, a roaring economy, and visions of flying cars were counterbalanced by fear and loathing of the so-called “Y2K bug”; the latter of which talking-heads warned would lead to everything from jets falling from the sky to ATMs spewing out free money.
It was in the middle of this raging tornado on the precipice of the new millennium that my tech career began in earnest, as in March of 1999 I left my first post-college tech job in search of greener pastures — and by green, I mean money. Unfortunately, I possessed a regrettable combination of hubris and impatience which led to a string of quit-first-and-find-another-job-later career cliff-dives. Though I generally stumbled upwards, my aforementioned hubris also led to only considering jobs that were upgrades in both pay and position, which can be quite the problem when one is living paycheck to paycheck; this affliction was not lost on the landlord of the San Carlos area two-car-garage I was living in, and as I handed over my third consecutive late rent payment, the customary response of “Thank you” was immediately followed by “Now get out.”
Suffice to say, being evicted from a two-car-garage was not exactly the high-point of my young life. But I digress.
Reasoning that having a place to live is generally considered a positive thing, I immediately began looking for another one. Strangely, landlords prefer their tenants be employed and in good credit standing, and perhaps even be in possession of money, so my options were decidedly limited. Luckily, my then-girlfriend Cherise was both cute and female, and though I am no student of psychology, I believe these to be advantages whilst looking for a place to live; so I did what any thoughtful, caring boyfriend would do – I sent her to the internet to ask men for a spare bedroom. As luck would have it, her first inquiry would be her last, as a quasi-acquaintance by the name of Jim Sweeney immediately and enthusiastically opened his doors to us. San Jose, here we come.
Jim was an odd fellow. The top of his mid-fifties head was nearly bald, save for thin, brown-and-grey hair on the sides that fell down to his shoulders. An ever-present graying stubble dotted his face, punctuated by a mouthful of shockingly brown teeth, likely due to his incessant chain-smoking and love for morning coffee; this morning coffee was decidedly strong, thoroughly black, and absolutely necessary to rouse him after his near-nightly Jack-and-coke benders at the local dive. His wardrobe consisted entirely of faded blue jeans and a curiously-tucked-in polo shirt, which I believe to this day was to somehow convince his boss that he was worthy of continued employment. His house was nestled in the Cambrian Park neighborhood of San Jose and was of the shockingly small, three-bedroom-one-bath variety, filled with furniture one might find at a yard sale; also filling the house was two-to-three young prostitutes a month, which I’d like to think he was trying to single-handedly put through college.
To the untrained eye, Jim was crotchety alcoholic with a penchant for hookers, but he was also shockingly, disgustingly, filthy rich; his chosen career path back in the 80s was that of the then-little-known field of Network Backbone Engineering, and by the time the internet exploded onto the scene, so did his paycheck. Further, he had the good fortune of getting in on the ground floor of an internet-hosting startup company whose stock would split many times over as it rocketed up the NASDAQ, taking his E*TRADE account along for the ride — he was the veritable definition of a king living as a pauper.
Cherise and I took the small bedroom at the front of the house, with a window overlooking the yard and street beyond; I don’t recall if the bedroom came furnished or not, but it had just enough room for a queen-sized bed and a dresser full of clothes. Jim was surprisingly effortless to live with, being generally easy-going and oft-humorous, except on the nights when he’d guzzle one-too-many Jack-and-cokes and come home schnockered out of his gourd and looking to fight; his preferred opponent usually a wall. The sober Jim told stories of his favorite girls in Thailand and his frequent trips there, and how his love for the area spawned from multiple tours as a sniper in Vietnam; as they say, all is fair in love and war.
Ever the generous fellow, Jim was free and easy with his booze and his smokes, both of which I gladly indulged in until finally landing a job at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space Advanced Technology Center — say that five times fast – in Palo Alto; I was hired to patch their systems against the aforementioned Y2K Bug – due to the aforementioned fear and loathing – just in case missiles started shooting off into space the second the ball dropped in Times Square. My workday consisted of a morning meeting discussing the days’ objectives, a late-morning meeting discussing progress, and an afternoon meeting discussing what we would be discussing in the following days’ morning meeting – which is precisely how government operates, by the way.
Interspersed between the gaggle of meetings, I would be surprised to find myself doing actual work, the highlight of which generally involved traversing quarter-mile underground tunnels between buildings and entering high-security areas via hand-scanners; once inside, flashing red lights like those found atop vintage police cruisers would signal my arrival, at which point the seated engineers would throw readily-available tarps over their desks. I would then flash my employee badge and begin the patching the computers as armed guards burned holes through my head with their laser-like stares. What fun!
Back on the temporary home-front, Jim continued with his usual cavalcade of whisky and hookers and was soon joined near-daily by his good friend Bob, who also happened to be the co-founder of their Thai internet escort service, the latter of which I earned my keep at the house by coding and handling graphic design duties. Bob was another pasty, fifty-something balding fellow – sans long hair on the sides – with a easy way about him and a pronounced, protruding belly; he enjoyed long walks on the beach, driving his vintage MG convertible, and trips to Mexico to sample the local female cuisine; his latest trip netting a blushing bride barely old enough to buy a pack of cigarettes. Within six weeks she was with child – now Bob would have two children to feed.
I would not be long for Lockheed Martin and their parade of meetings, as two months into my tenure I was approached by a lanky, well-spoken Englishman whilst perusing the isles of the local Fry’s Electronics; he seemed rather impressed by my spontaneous lecture on the differences between level 1 and level 2 CPU cache to a thoroughly uninterested store employee, and immediately asked if I was interested in joining his company. Though the prospect of spending the rest of my days traversing the quarter-mile underground tunnels of Lockheed was mighty tempting, the words “startup” and “stock options”, shall we say, piqued my interest. The fact that this lanky, well-spoken Englishman just happened to be said-company’s CEO sealed the deal, and by Monday morning I had left Lockheed in a lurch, sporting a signed offer letter from JET Software to go along with a shiny new desk.
Within weeks of joining JET as their new Systems Administrator, Cherise and I bid Jim Sweeney and his friend Bob adieu, bound for our new two-story, two-bedroom townhouse nestled in the middle of the San Jose barrio. Jim would present us with two unasked-for but much-appreciated parting gifts – an old couch and a thousand-dollar check, with the memo line reading “For services rendered” — though he said it was for my work on the Thai escort service website, I have no doubt it was indeed a gift, as his hospitality and free rent were by far payment enough. I would see Jim two more times – once at that tiny San Jose home, and once more after he moved into the hidden bowels of Boulder Creek. Though it has been twenty years, I truly hope he is alive and well and still putting prostitutes through college.
As for JET Software, I was not long for its hallowed halls either, as an unfortunate incident a month into my employ involving a game of hooky and a flying bagel led to my immediate and deliberate resignation, sans a new job. Because, hubris.
Under The Bridge
The sweltering summer of 1993 was notable for a variety of reasons, both culturally and personally. Newly-elected president William Jefferson Clinton launched missiles against Iraq in response to the attempted assassination of former president George H.W. Bush; a van filled with explosives detonated under the World Trade Center; and the sixteen-year-old version of me was in constant conflict on the home-front, fueled by an unbelievable amounts of narcotics, a fed-up mother, and her unabashedly teenager-despising, live-in boyfriend.
With the final days of June expiring and July coming fast on its heels, grand visions of the wide-open road and star-spangled freedom filled every corner of my adolescent mind, growing larger and more vibrant with each passing day. Reaching a fever-pitch one nondescript Friday morning, I resolved to act; after depositing a hastily-scribbled goodbye note on the kitchen table, I packed my backpack until it nearly burst at the seams, grabbed my trusty Mountain Bike and bound straight out the front door, slamming the gate with a reckless abandon only reserved for the happy few who believe they’ll never see said gate again.
And thus, I ran away. Well, I rode anyway.
Pedaling as fast as I could through the whitewashed avenues of Foster City with the wind in my hair and a smile from ear to ear, an overwhelming rush of possibility flowed over me. I could live wherever I wanted! Do whatever I pleased! No more Saturday morning chores, no more homework or nagging or expectations or rules or consequences! I was the young, I was strong, I was free!
I was hungry.
Mom didn’t keep much by the way of snacks in our health-food-infested cupboards, so a stop by Ed’s house was the top priority. After tossing a few rocks at Ed’s bedroom window produced his trademark fiery-red mop-top, a heartfelt plea and a bit of groveling led him to toss down a granola bar and half a pack of smokes.
“Set for life!”, I excitedly thought to myself.
With rations and supplies clearly secured, I turned my attention to the next chapter of Jared’s Suburban Survival Guide – shelter. Having previously spent a spectacularly restless night sleeping on the roof of a local park’s public restroom, I was keenly aware of how valuable four walls – and a separate bathroom – were to both survivability and sanity. Luckily, I had already chosen a location of such spectacular brilliance that I quite literally giggled at my own twisted genius. However, I would need physical help to seize my shining new abode. I would need Tony Lang.
As luck would have it, Tony never passed up an opportunity for brazen mischief – the more brazen, the better – so he predictably jumped at the chance, blurting out an exuberant “F**k yeah!” before I even finished my proposal. The plan was simple – break into the maintenance room “bunker” under the Hillsdale Boulevard bridge spanning the lagoon north of Pilgrim Drive, and take it for our own.
The maintenance room in question was more or less carved out of the bridge’s base, and used as storage for the bridge lights’ fuse and breaker boxes. Securing the room was a reinforced steel door, weathered from age and the salt-filled air, along with an equally-weathered thickened steel padlock, the latter of which we began chiseling away at with a hammer and a tire-iron; each slam of the hammer timed to coincide with a car crossing over the bridge above our heads so as to not attract attention.
Sixty-odd-minutes later, Tony let fly the final swing of hammer into tire-iron, and our eyes lit up like fireworks as the padlock fell in slow-motion onto the indifferent dirt below. Wiping sweat from my eyes, I pulled back the steel securing brace and together we pushed the heavier-than-expected door inward, letting loose a stream of dust and cold, stale air. Producing a small flashlight from my backpack, I shone it’s soft yellow beam into the impossible blackness inside, revealing the roughly eight-feet deep and thirty-feet wide, concrete-walled room; dirt covered every inch of the floor and likely comprised it as well, and a low, sloping roof followed the structural arch of the bridge.
Within hours we had furnished our new home — as Tony decided to join me on the run the second he saw the amazing new digs — with sleeping bags and lawn-chairs and candles and music posters and a half-dozen various knickknacks, all procured from our respective ex-houses; I still had plenty of time to pillage my old abode before mom would return home from work.
Naturally deserving of a reward for a job well done, we proceeded to drop a couple of hits of LSD, washed down by a few tokes of spectacularly brown Mexican bammer-weed; we then lit the candles and barred the door with a heavy steel pipe to prevent the inward swing, sat in our chairs and prepared for the acid trip. The long, slow descent from mild-pot-buzz into electric psychedelia took hold, and by late afternoon we were knee-deep in the throngs of dilated-pupil psychosis.
And then, the knock.
The first knock rang out like a bowling ball dropped from a great height onto a thick wooden floor, jolting us out of our catatonia and thrusting us back into reality.
“DOOM, DOOM, DOOM”
The knocks continued, and we slowly realized it to be coming from the other side of our then-shuddering steel door, as thin beams of light danced through the cracks between door and frame onto the floor in front of it.
“DOOM DOOM DOOM”
“This is the police — come out with your hands where we can see them!”, a man’s voice shouted from beyond the door.
Pupils the size of watermelons, a crooked smile overtook Tony’s visage as he merrily shouted back “Shut up, Rick; we know it’s you!”
Rick Drury was a good buddy of ours; part of the Picnic Table Crew — as we called ourselves — that included Tony, my bandmates Hans, Ed and Josh, Rick and his next door neighbor Tammy Hoss. We called ourselves the Picnic Table Crew because of the old wooden picnic table inside Tammy and Rick’s townhouse complex that we gathered at on the regular, usually involving smoking tobacco and/or marijuana. Rick was quite advanced for his age, sporting a shockingly deep voice, and it would not be a stretch to say he began shaving in earnest at the ripe old age of 12. Being high as fuck, Tony assumed it was Rick banging on our new steel door, trying to get a rise out of us.
Unfortunately, the gun poking through that doorway quickly informed us that it was not, in fact, Rick.
Within seconds Tony and I were ushered into the blinding sunlight by two uniformed police officers, guns drawn and more than a bit curious what the fuck we were doing squatting inside a city-owned facility. After a quick search of our concrete bunker, one of the officers produced a small smoking pipe, freshly stained with pot resin and smelling particularly foul, and proceeded to ask if we had any more of the pungent flower on our personage. Learning years prior that cooperation in the face of a gun is the absolute best possible choice, I answered in the affirmative and reached for my small baggy. Grasping at nothing but air, I searched another pocket. And another. I stammered as the officer became increasingly impatient, and I slipped into full-blown panic as his partner demanded immediate compliance.
“If you don’t produce that pot within 5 seconds, you’re both going to jail!”
My heart pounded and my mind raced as I jammed my hands in my pockets again and again, hoping beyond hope to find the AWOL bag of stems and seeds.
And then, a fucking miracle.
They left. They fucking left. Somehow we escaped charges of breaking and entering, trespassing, destruction of city property, and possession of a controlled substance, among others. Somehow, someway, they bought our little story about “finding the door open” and us “just building a fort”. And by some stroke of dumb luck, they mistook a full-blown LSD trip in mid-peak for a low-grade marijuana high.
Not ones to stick around and question why, we packed up our sleeping bags and lawn-chairs and candles and music posters and a half-dozen various knickknacks, did a quick wipe-up of fingerprints, and headed out. Our next destination was that of Derek Verrett’s house, which I could spend half-a-dozen chapters on by itself, but that is another story for another day. I would be on the lam for another two-odd-weeks before finally returning home to my warm friendly bed, but I will never forget my first home-away-from-home — a concrete-walled, dirt-floored bunker under a bridge.
I Don't Think I'm Gonna Go To LA Anymore
I went hiking at Rancho San Antonio today. No cell phone, no internet, no tether; just myself, nature and my thoughts. I have been wrestling with my understanding of you for weeks now, the lines continually blurred between good and bad, right and wrong, innocence and blame. Are you a good person? Are you a bad person? Who is right; who is wrong? Who is responsible for our once-amazing relationship deteriorating in spectacular fashion? Should I be angry, or contrite? I thought of all these things as I began the hike towards the mountain.
I came to The Farm about fifteen minutes in. More of a petting zoo than a farm, various sheep and goats and even a few chickens litter its confines, but it’s called The Farm none the less. On I hiked, all the while trying to figure out the story that was us, struggling to put it into perspective. I began talking softly to myself, listing things that I knew to be true about our time together; you have a beautiful and sensitive heart, as do I; we spent unbelievable amounts of time together as the days and weeks and months flew by like the endless Southwest Airlines flights that united us nearly every weekend. We began to fight, and the fights came faster and harder and communication was strained to the very limits of spoken word. We slipped away from each other. We misunderstood both word and motive, and faces vacillated between cruel and caring. You broke up with me. You moved on. It was your fault! These things are what I told myself. Black and white, right and wrong. On I hiked.
Ten minutes past The Farm, I came to a patch in the trail where the trees bent low and covered the earthen floor in a cool shade; a small, dry creek bed to my left; the mountain standing tall and resolute to my right. My thoughts began to change. I remembered things I had said to you; mistakes I had made. I remembered telling you that I wasn’t upset that you were seeing Jeff; that I was only upset that you hadn’t been honest about it; and I remembered that being a half-truth; I wasn't upset, I was absolutely devastated. Perhaps our miscommunications and rapid banter left so many things unsaid and missed and lost, that things we felt the other _should_ know, remained in reality, unknown. I remembered telling you not to tell me if you moved on in the first place, because it would hurt too much. It was my fault too! Black and white was slowly turning into gray. Right and wrong were becoming subjective. On I hiked.
A few minutes after the shaded patch I came to a crossroads; to the right began the well-trodden trail up the side of the mountain; forward led to places I had not yet been. Not ready to move onto something new, I lowered my head and turned towards the mountain.
As I began the long, slow ascent, my thoughts again changed to the good times we shared; the Billy and Elton concert in Anaheim; our adventure on the Grapevine; you haggling with that sleazy Lexus salesman and assuring me that Fredrick's Red was an acceptable color car for a man to drive; holding each other outside Bowditch, marveling that it had been twenty years since we roamed the halls together. I trudged on, heart growing heavier with each labored step. I remembered the end of the good times as a singular point in time — the day you got back from your trip to Boston and we began our week-long, bare-knuckle fight; everything before that singular point in time was bliss, and everything after was chaos and heartache and pain; it was clear, defined, and brutally obvious. How did we go so wrong? Why couldn’t we capture those first magical months again?
On I hiked. The path grew increasingly steep and narrow as my pulse quickened and my breath labored and sweat poured down my forehead. I vainly tried brushing away thoughts of how beautiful our first few months were; the agony in my heart so fresh and overwhelming; I tried to concentrating on the bad times; the fights that dragged on for hours; the yelling, the crying, the restless nights. You spoke Japanese, I spoke Swahili. That’s why it didn’t work! Black and white again.
At long last, I came to a clearing. The sky opened high and purposefully above me; the wide, shallow mountain peak sat one-hundred-odd feet to my right, covered in tall, dry grass. Gasping for breath, on I marched towards that peak, eventually slowing as I approached its apex. I made it. This is the mountain top that I planned on kissing you for the first time, so many months ago. I told you about it half a dozen times; we always planned to go, but sadly never got the chance. I was finally here. I imagined you were with me. As I climbed the last few yards towards the summit, I could almost see you there, waiting for me.
“We made it,” I whispered to myself, choking back tears.
I stood atop that peak gazing at the majestic view of the Bay Area, dumbfounded at its breadth and beauty. To the right was my current home of San Jose, its bustling downtown and endless sprawl appearing insignificant from such a long distance; straight ahead was Shoreline Amphitheater, where we planned see so many concerts back in the better days; to the left I could barely make out the Metro Center Tower in our hometown of Foster City, reminding me again how strange fate was reunite us so late in life. We made it.
Exhaling, I turned to my left and began the long, slow decent to reality.
We didn’t make it. You we're there. We planned to go a dozen times, but never got around to it. We never kissed for the first time on top of that summit; we kissed on my couch. We never hiked back down, slowly and carefully for concern of your balky knee; we roller-bladed Venice Beach as I lashed out in discomfort and frustration. We never moved in together. We weren’t together when your divorce papers were finally served. We never had the two boys and two girls you touchingly said you'd birth for me. I never spent the requisite three-month's-salary on your Tacori engagement ring.
That wasn’t our story. We didn’t have five months of bliss followed by two months of agony. It was never black and white. We had a roller-coaster relationship from the moment you walked off that plane for the first time to the slamming of the phone receiver yesterday afternoon. There was more than enough love and admiration and respect to last a lifetime, but we had a laundry-list of issues and incompatibilities and neither one of us was ever really, truly happy; we came together in a toxic mixture of horrific timing, brutal miscommunication, and long-distance disharmony. The love and admiration and respect was never enough.
All those thoughts flooded my mind as I made that long slow decent down the mountain. I remembered all the mistakes we made. I remembered all the hurt we caused each other, the vast majority of which was unintentional. I remembered that it was I, not you, who threatened to end the relationship half a dozen times before that trip to Boston. I remembered saying so many things in the heat of the moment, thinking it was exactly what I wanted to say, but never really saying anything at all. I remembered that I never really understood you, and you never really understood me, and I began to find peace.
Slowly approaching The Farm again, I glanced at the sheep laying in the shade and wondered if they had thoughts like these while laying with a mate.
As I made my way across the small, wooden bridge spanning the dry creek that led at last to the parking lot beyond, I finally reached a calm, and a conclusion. I realized that we are good people, with brilliant hearts; I realized we are sensitive and warm and scared-shitless and right and wrong and good and bad; we came together at a point in our lives that was chaotic, and the relationship mirrored that chaos to a tee. We spoke and listened, but didn’t hear and understand. There is no fault. There is no winner nor loser, no bad person. Ours was a relationship of so many peaks and valleys that at any given time one could say we were either a perfect match or a toxic mixture. I finally resolved to look at the overall impression. My impression of you is “wonderful,” and that wonder is not meant for me.
I am truly sorry for the pain I have caused you, and I hope someday you can see that I never really wanted to hurt you. Even yesterday.
I forgive you.