Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Crash And Burn

We are born, a mixed blessing.   If we are lucky, we grow up.  If we are very lucky indeed, we learn to operate the calculus of life and achieve some measure of success and comfort.  Or not.  There are winners and losers in the game of life.

Some bloom early; some late; and some bloom not at all.  None of this is an opportunity for criticism.  It all just happens, and the understanding of the whys and wherefores remains just out of reach. 

One of my teenage friends seemed to have a lot going for him.  He had a nice, long-time girlfriend, good friends, and he had a very good, well-paying job.  He was sociable and generally well liked.  Something went off the rails when he was in his very early twenties, however, and he went into a tailspin from which he never recovered.  He died a terrible, lonely death only twenty years later.  It was the most spectacular crash and burn that I’ve ever seen, or even heard about.

Jimmy was part of a circle of friends that I joined when I was seventeen.  Everyone but him had been born within a few months of me; Jimmy was about two years older.  I already knew him, or should I say that we had always been aware of each other.  For one thing, it was that kind of town, our College Point.  On the small side, insular and clannish.  Jimmy was like me in that he was one of the boys that were always “out,” in the sense that we preferred wandering the streets and parks to staying at home.  He was never warmhearted, but he was always friendly and he never started trouble.  He was visually memorable, being tall and very thin, with a small face and very curly hair, and having a characteristic loping walk.  And usually a scowl.  Even when times were good, Jimmy was very cynical. 

You could almost say that he was popular, almost.  He was, at least, entertaining and funny.  He had a way of putting his own spin on things, like the time he caught a pass in a real football game, with uniforms and everything, and ran the wrong way for an own-goal.  He had a lifelong, obsessive love of the Beatles, which made an interesting contrast to his general negativity.  He played guitar himself, and could sing, and he had been in one of the town bands for a time.  And the girlfriend, don’t forget.  She was kind of pretty, and quite popular.  They had been high school sweethearts, and remained an item for a couple of years afterwards. 

Jimmy’s great success was art, and it was his talent for art that brought him to his great job.  After high school he’d gone to the adult night school in town and learned drafting, engineering drawing.  He got a job at one of the town’s defense plants, and he was so talented that before long he had moved on to mechanical illustration.  That is an extreme variation on the theme of drafting, consisting of cut-away views of completed devices.  Picture an automobile engine with a cut-away window displaying the interior parts, working together.  In color.  It’s a high-paying field, mostly because not many people can do it.

This was Jimmy’s situation when I hooked up with that crowd, and it remained about the same for a couple of years.  Then something happened, Jimmy was overtaken by events.  He and the girlfriend broke up, but I could not say definitively whether that was the precipitating event or a result of something else.  Maybe there was a change that the girlfriend could see, a change that she didn’t like.  It could have been substance abuse, something that we were all dealing with, more or less, but I don’t think that could explain all of it.  It could have been something more insidious, although nothing was ever clinically observed.  There are personality problems that often strike in the late teen years.  Whatever it was, within a year he had lost the job as well as the girlfriend.  He worked little retail jobs for the rest of his life, at low wages. 

He suddenly became something of a sad presence.   We spent many late nights hanging out in the semi-finished basement of his family’s home.  Listening to and discussing records, and working on our substance abuse.  One night he took me aside and asked me to take custody of two of his most prized possessions.  They were plastic models of a bf109 and a Zero, two famous fighter planes from World War II, built from kits and meticulously painted with historically accurate camouflage markings.  You could say, “professionally painted.”  They were beautiful, are beautiful.  He said that he was afraid that something would happen to them, and that he knew that if he gave them to me, I’d keep them safe pretty much forever.  I thought that it was a strange request, but I honored it.  I’ve honored my commitment, too, at least as far as the Zero is concerned.  It still stands in my display cabinet, here in Bangkok.    

There was another strange incident around this time.  Jimmy decided to buy a car.  I’d never known him to even drive a car before.  He had rather a lot of money in the bank from the good years, and he planned to buy a car that he really liked, a Dodge Hemi Super Bee.  That’s a very fast, very expensive car.  He arranged the purchase, withdrew the money from the bank, and he was on his way to buy the car when he realized that he had lost the money.  To watch him tell us this story, later that night, was a bit disturbing.  He seemed to be grasping for a reality that was increasingly eluding him, and he was genuinely baffled about the fate of the money.  It was almost ten thousand dollars, and the mystery was never resolved.*  

My wife and I moved to Los Angeles, and others of the crowd dispersed to northern California, or Long Island, or Connecticut.  Jimmy remained in New York, working at the retail, selling various things at a succession of jobs.  He had never married, and if he’d ever had another girlfriend, I never heard about it.  The late night phone calls started in the early Eighties, we were all well into our thirties by then.  Jimmy would call us, me and others from our group of friends, at very late hours.  He’d call after midnight, California time, that’s three a.m. in New York.  That was still a time when you answered the phone just because it rang, whatever time it was.  Jimmy would be very, very drunk, and he wanted to talk about the old days, how great it all was, the music and the camaraderie.  Before long, sounding like he had tears in his eyes, he was seeking reassurances that we were still his friends, or at least that we had been his friends, long before.  We had been a close knit group, with a lot in common, and most of us are in contact to this day.  Jimmy was one of us, and of course we still loved him as a friend.  Our reassurances never seemed to quite mollify him, though. 

Shortly thereafter I got a call from Jimmy’s younger brother, who had also been a friend of ours.  Jimmy’s landlord had called him because nobody had seen Jimmy for a few days and the lights had been on in his apartment for all of that time.  They let themselves in to discover Jimmy dead on the kitchen floor, half in and half out of the open refrigerator.  He was just about forty years old.  His brother told me that it had been a heart attack, and that Jimmy had been drinking way too much for many years.

That last image haunts me to this day.  The whole story haunts me.  It’s all too horrible to consider the catalog of nightmares that fate has in store for human beings.  Any sensible person faced with a challenge to their happiness should learn to just smile and consider:  it could be worse.   

*Possible exaggeration alert!  Upon reflection, it may not have been the Super Bee.  It may have been one of the more usual Dodge Chargers.  He wanted the big hemi though, at least, and a shocking amount of money was involved.  I think that it was the Super Bee, but I couldn't guarantee it. 


Unknown said...

Hey Fred, it was interesting to read your take on Jim's story. Some of it is wrong, some of it news to me that may be true, but the essence of the cautionary tale is very true. Jim's death was gruesome, but it had nothing to do with a fridge. He had an esophageal hemorrhage while sitting on his couch and bled to death. I may have thought it was a heart attack or stroke at the time, or more likely was trying to protect his memory, but I made certain the real cause was indicated on his birth certificate.

Jim had great talents, but unfortunately, he was regularly beaten by my father. My mother used me as her punching bag, but I stood up to her. Jim was only two when he was knocked out by a wrench to the head, so I'm not sure how much of a chance he stood in the face of such violence.

But as College Point stories go, we need to remember that a claim (which might have been apocryphal (sp?), is that we had more bars per capita than any other town in America. I'm old enough to remember drunks on the street being pushed out of the old swinging doors up on 20th and 127th street.

Jim, Flippy and Pete went down due to drugs and alcohol. Several of us (myself included) managed to get sober and survive. In my case, it's been 25 years, and I think it's pretty much a miracle that I did make it out of the Point alive. I spent years popping and inhaling and drinking whatever was handed to me, only asking what it was after it was in my system. I can think of three of our friends who are also in long-term sobriety, and several others who probably could have done, but choose not to, and lived lives of underachievement.

The loss of the thousands of dollars has always been a mystery to me. Your mention of the car shook some cobwebs, but my recollection was that Jim claimed to have withdrawn the cash from the bank for the purpose of paying for his wedding reception, and that somehow he "lost" it on the way to the hall. I have a very vivid memory of his girlfriend throwing the engagement ring at him and storming off after she learned of this. I could never shake the truth out of him about what happened to the money.

Jim did have a few more girlfriends in his day, and, at the time of his death, had the best job of his life. He worked for an architectural firm and would produce watercolor renderings of office interiors for the clients. He apparently did a very good job for them, and was much appreciated for his wit and talents, but then time ran out.

The last time I saw him, he had the spindly arms and bloated stomach of what I now know is late-stage alcoholism, and one of the great regrets of my life is that I was unable to do anything for him. However, I was battling my own demons at the time. The great irony in my case is that I was 10 days sober when his body was discovered. In many respects I owe my sobriety to Jim. When I identified his body at the morgue, I could see what my future held if I didn't deal with my problem, so my big brother did me one last favor that may have saved my life.


fred c said...

Thanks, Mickey. Comments like this mean a lot to me. First of all, I'm glad that you came down on your feet. You seem to be doing very well, and I couldn't be happier about that. Jimmy was one of a kind. We all knew that your dad had been rough with him, but it sounds like it was much worse than we imagined. RIP, Jimmy.

Bill "Harv" said...

Your Dad was gone by the time i hung with you all, but his treatment of Jimmy explains a lot. In the time of teen angst (exacerbated by the Vietnam war, the draft, and the threat of dying in SE Asia) we took things pretty close to the edge. I will always remember Jimmie's treatment of "Grannie", but never quite understand how and/or why she tolerated it. Odd-i have so many great memories of those nights in the basement, mostly good times for us teens, but am somewhat horrified in retrospect. If my kids had acted as we did, there would probably have been some kind of therapy put to use. I remember all of us with great fondness, and treasure those absolutely crazy times downstairs at he place. I am sometimes amazed to have survived those times.