Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Bernie's Varicose Veins

Okay, so this isn't very short. But it's not as painful as yesterday's didactic post!

I had a friend named Bernie for a while in Austin more than 30 years ago. He’d been a family man and an electrical engineer, but that was already in his past when I met him. He had some hilarious stories about how he and some of his college friends had practically discovered peyote and other hallucinogenic drugs in Texas back in the days before various government entities even knew to pass a law against them. They'd go down to Mexico and bring them back in bundles, no hiding from the border inspectors. I think Bernie was nine or ten years older than I was and, though these drugs were already illegal by the time I came along, they hadn’t been earlier and he and others he’d know had made the best (or maybe the worst) of it.

Back then I had no objection to drugs at all. I could see that they made some people just plain stupid, but that was true of alcohol, the national pastime next to baseball and football. Men all over the planet would kill you for the God-given right to drink their stupid beer, so I failed to see much wrong with a Trip of another kind. There were some bad trips, of course. I can no more explain to you why some would flip out and go out a window than I could explain why drunks insist on their God-given right to drive drunk and kill themselves and others. One was legal, the other was not, that was the primary fact. Some people, not many, used drugs, not for kicks, but in the Aldous Huxley sense of things, to aid in passing through the doors of perception. That’s how I felt about it, but I didn’t fool myself—most people just wanted to party, regardless of their drug of choice. I can’t say I objected to the party, either.

I never was quite sure what Bernie had in mind with his drugs. I think, even as smart as he was, he'd just partied his brains out and ruined his life. He wasn’t even taking them by the time I knew him, except for beer. He was remarkably intelligent, yet he was burnt out, too, and couldn’t quite keep a grip on things. He couldn’t, or wouldn’t keep a job. He lived in various flophouses or cheap rented rooms. Sometimes he didn’t live anywhere, I expect. He used to disappear for some weeks or months and come back telling picturesque and comical, but disturbing, tales of odd things, like searching for food in California garbage dumpsters.

He said that the best ones were usually the chicken restaurant franchises because they would often tightly box up the left-over chicken in the regular cardboard boxes, and dump that in the dumpster. This meant not having to separate the good stuff from the sloppy salads and spilled ketchups, drinks, and so forth. He had his own sense of cleanliness and when he’d found a good location, he established his habits around it. He’d be eating their chicken so soon after they closed and dumped it that it was still slightly warm, he said. It didn’t have time to grow germs or get bugs in it. I guess.

In situations like that, it didn’t sound quite so repellent to me. However, he had other stories of harder times in unfamiliar cities and in parts of town he didn’t know. Bernie said the next best place would be the parts of town where the expensive houses were, if you could keep from being chased out of the neighborhood by the police. Bernie was always on foot, and you know how we Americans (especially American cops) are about Pedestrians—they are not to be abided. (I once hitchhiked through Surprise, Arizona—I know!)

Apparently, eating was pretty good out of those private garbage cans, too. Rich people, he said, seemed to always have neat and orderly garbage, for what he found was often separated and wrapped neatly in paper or cardboard. He’d find whole meals, untouched, he said, as if some pouting churlish teenager was “teaching a lesson” to Mom and Dad. Sometimes he came to expect such good pickings that he’d slip up and open some distinctly wrong things. Bernie told me that he once opened a crisp clean, extra heavy very fancy paper bag that turned out to have diapers with fresh baby shit in it. He figured maybe somebody driving down the street had just pulled over, lifted the garbage can lid, and dumped it in like that. After I got through laughing, I told him I didn’t much think it mattered how it’d gotten there! I asked him how far he’d had to stick his nose in the bag to be warned, but he just grimaced, remembering the moment.

Bernie was very intelligent. He would have made a wonderful blogster, had such a thing existed in the latter 1960’s. He had a great sense of humor and laughed well and long at your jokes as well as his, but he was ultimately unstable. Again and again I had to remember and recalculate how to treat him and sometimes, especially toward the end, I just couldn’t bear him. He began to have trouble with varicose veins and other physical ailments; he moped and became disagreeable about it. He was only 34, but he was falling apart, he said. It’s odd how many things I can recall about him, random moments, but I can’t recall the last time I saw him. I’m sure it was during a time that we couldn’t really stand one another. After a year or two, I guess, I realized that he seemed to be gone for good this time. More years went by, before I left Austin, and he never did turn up again. One wonders about the missing like that. Did he manage to go back Home in any fashion? Did he make a new life? Did he irritate the wrong people and die out on the road somewhere? Is he just plodding along slowly still, getting by, living on the edge of society? He might be the smartest store clerk in your town, an affable but listless fellow you never speak to except while paying for your drinks or videos or other goods. I always like to think he made it back to his family. But that one’s a long shot.

Addendum: In 1993 a man named Lars Eighner wrote a book called “Travels With Lizbeth”, a book about an intelligent gay man who was down and out, traveling with his dog Lizbeth between Austin and California, crashing where he could, often eating out of dumpsters. It’s a walk on the sleazy side, but as with my friend Bernie, Lars Eighner was smart and made a sort of entertainment out of his bad straits. The author was a very likeable fellow. I particularly noted the similarity of the dumpster-diving and its tribulations, though I am sure that neither Lars nor Bernie had invented it. Hobos (or any other name you’d care to call them) have been around for ages. But I didn’t know any of the nameless hobos.

My Depressing New Poetry Blog for Old & New Poems

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: "Lovers can find nothing to say to each other that has not been said and unsaid a thousand times over. Kisses were invented to translate such nothings into wounds." -- Durrell, Lawrence (The Alexandria Quartet)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here! (At least put on your socks and pants.)