Saturday, July 14, 2012

My Old Pal

Happy Bastille Day.  Also, Happy 100th Birthday, Woody Guthrie.  It’s cool that a white, working class southerner whose ever-present guitar was sometimes plastered with a sign reading “This Machine Kills Fascists,” shares a birthday with France’s “Fourteenth of July.”  Guthrie was most famous for his anthem “This Land is Your Land,” as well as for being the primary inspiration for Bob Dylan who used to visit him in the New Jersey psychiatric hospital where he lived while being treated for Huntington’s disease.

I also have to say a personal Happy Birthday to Guy, my college roommate and, for a time, best friend, whose home was a mile or so from that very hospital where Woody Guthrie and Dylan used to meet.  I spent a summer with Guy painting his family’s house while they were away on vacation.  Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” album* had come out recently, and we had it blasting out of speakers set up in the windows as we painted the huge, two-story mansion that doubled as Guy’s father’s doctor’s office. 

Guy had about as much influence on me and my view of the world as Woody Guthrie had on Bob Dylan.  My suburban/bourgeois upbringing didn’t stand a chance in the face of his bright, iconoclastic mind.  When I met him as a freshman in college, he struck me as the smartest human being I had ever encountered.  He played an astonishingly good game of chess and he always seemed to have an understanding of things that I had never thought about.  We became roommates when I moved into his dorm room soon after his officially assigned roommate left college for alcohol-related reasons.  We continued to room together for the next three years until I got married and he dropped out of college.

Guy was not only brainy, he was bohemian.  This appealed to me immensely.  Having grown up in a small town in Florida, my only inkling of a bohemian world came to me through high school lectures on the dangers of marijuana and heroin (which convinced me that they were essentially the same thing), and the occasional off-beat pop song redolent of Greenwich Village.  One I remember in particular was called “Walking my Cat Named Dog.”  Its absurdity broke through the many layers of my Ozzie and Harriet upbringing to tug at that part of my heart that longed for something else.  Guy represented that something else.  Growing up within striking distance of New York City must have helped him become the post-Beat free-thinker that so impressed me. 

We spent hours together, driving around the South and hanging out in the French Quarter.  We weren’t always the most mature dudes on the block.  One of our “fun things to do,” was, after quaffing a bit of this or that heady stuff in a Quarter bar, to climb around on the local architecture.  Sometimes it was possible to go up a fire escape, slip over onto a ledge and be off on an architectural adventure, going from roof to roof.  Once, after we had scrambled from one building to another, we decided to drop to the pavement.  What we didn’t realize was that we had landed in the middle of the enclosed courtyard of a very wealthy elderly lady who saw us plummet from the roof into what she (rightly) considered part of her living quarters.  She came out and faced us with anger, but we could also tell, a bit of fear as well.  We felt awful for having unintentionally frightened her and, in our most contrite, college boy manner, we slunk toward her gate and, apologizing profusely, let ourselves out.  No more of the French Quarter roof ballet for us.

We did, however, continue our midnight dockside explorations.  Like I said, we were 18 or 19, but inclined to act a few years short of our actual ages.  Once, while making our way to the docks, we had to cross a railroad track that was blocked by a stationary train. Guy, a high school wrestler, was quite agile, and he hopped up on a connector between two cars and jumped off on the other side.  I used the more pedestrian, seemingly less risky method of slipping under the coupling.  As soon as I stood up on the other side of the train, a horrendously loud clank indicated that it had started moving.  Guy and I looked at each other in astonishment and then laughed, but as we stood there watching the train move off, I think he must have, as I was, been contemplating how different our lives would have been had we been a couple seconds slower in crossing the tracks.

On the docks we used to keep track of where the different ships came from and, when we saw one from a Latin American port, I tried to engage the sailors up on deck with a bit of broken Spanish.  I think Guy’s favorite moment came late one night when, as we strolled down a deserted dockside, along came a man pedaling a small ice cream cart.  Guy couldn’t get over the absurdity of this: here we were in a place overrun with cat-size rats and dark, hulking ships, a place where finding an unfortunate mob-crossed corpse wouldn’t be beyond possibility, what did we find?  The Good Humor Man. 

Guy specialized in appreciation for the absurd; sometimes he seemed almost to live for this predilection.  One incident I recall involved Guy dancing with his semi-girlfriend Susie in the downstairs Rathskeller where our university generously made beer and other drinks available to us.  During the wild bouncing dance, Susie lost her footing and collapsed on the floor.  She lay there laughing with embarrassment, but Guy’s response was to continue dancing, circling around her and laughing himself as though this were all part of their “act.” 

It might be appropriate here to say I have no picture of Guy, but he looked a bit like Rudolf Nureyev; and he had a lithe and athletic dancer’s body.

                              Rudolf Nureyev

Guy was kind of the world’s first post-modernist.  He was ready to challenge every cherished truth and unquestioned assumption held to by common sense and current intellectual fashion.  Sometimes it drove me nuts, but it was always a refreshing exercise to talk to or debate him.

We plowed through different intellectual fads – Nietzsche (what college student back then didn’t experience a Nietzsche phase?), Freud, James Joyce.  Once, during our deep-into-Freud phase, Guy was complaining about his parents’ incommunicativeness.  His parents, who were actually a couple of sweethearts, had a kind of Germanic reserve and Guy used to say they wouldn’t respond to him.  So, one evening, while he was writing a letter home to his mother, he turned to me and asked, “What can I say to her?  She doesn’t pay attention to what I write anyway.”  So, in a flippant mood, I suggested writing something about masturbating and crying “Mother! Mother!” in the night.  Guy liked that idea and decided to put it in his letter.  A week or so later he reported triumphantly that his mother had written back but had said nothing to him in response to his outrageous claim.

When I left New Orleans, Guy, no longer a student, stayed behind.  He seemed happy enough when I saw him in subsequent years, but he was clearly spending too much time drinking.  Eventually he wound up living at a charity institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, where such basics as housing and food were taken care of.  I went to visit him in the 1990s with my daughter, Grace, and I found him, as always, happy and upbeat.  He talked about how much he enjoyed riding around on the back of the charity’s truck as they cruised neighborhoods picking up donations.

Guy would have been 66 this Monday, but I found out a couple days ago that he had died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2010.  Even as his health deteriorated he apparently kept his good nature and upbeat spirit.  He was unique and if our mortality is extended mainly through the memories of those whose lives we have shaped, Guy still has at least a few years to go - through those of us who remember him.  He was dear to me and I’m a different person for having known him.


Here's a picture sent to me by an old friend long after I had written this:

Guy, looking untypically serious, in our New Orleans apartment

*Blonde on Blonde: Still the greatest album ever.