Monday, May 19, 2008
friend files-one: i married a yahoo.
Today, he is an architect. He puts on collared shirts and vaguely ironed pants and a belt and lace-up leather shoes to go to work. But when I met him and when I married him, he was a yahoo.
First time I saw him was at a party. He lived in a garage apartment. His friend lived in the garage apartment next door. They called the place “the institution.” C. was cute and rough around the edges, maybe a little 1970s-era rock n’roll scruffy. His neighbor was cute and taller and slender, maybe a little east-coast-preppy. C. was loud. His neighbor G. was quiet. They, along with their other friends, knew how to throw a party, heckle a band (“Come on. Play ‘Radar LOVE!’”), and create their own brand of dadaism. C.’s tiny side yard included an old porcelain toilet from which kudzu vines emerged and walled-in the entire space. C.’s neighor G. paper mached a life-size tree-trunk in the middle of his tiny one-room-apartment. C. was loud and rowdy. G. was shy, quiet and also rowdy (given enough liquor, lack of sleep). C. has always managed to choose friends who are remarkably different from himself, but equally creative, quirky and rough around the edges.
C.’s parents own and operate a Goodyear tire store that is known for its absurd locally produced commercials. “I got tires coming outta my EARS,” one ad used to proclaim. The main character in another old ad announced, “I’M MAD!!! About the price of tires!” Later, as a follow up to this ad, another commercial declared WAR on the price of tires. These commercials tend to run on CBS during Letterman. They are the brainchild of C.’s dad – a tall stern-looking depression-era Okie, who over the years transformed from shy and quiet to a boisterous businessman. I believe he exercises his own strong creative impulses through his ad campaigns and his massive summer garden.
There are two of these shops in town now, but at one time I think there were five. Maybe even six. They sprung from an Esso service station his dad owned in his twenties.
When I first began dating C., people would ask if I knew he was the son of the local celebrity tire-commercial-man. In spite of growing up in Baton Rouge, I’d never heard of this tire-man, and I’d somehow overlooked years and years of bizarre advertisements.
The “I’m mad” ad campaign bore a generation of t-shirts that say, none-other than, “I’M MAD!” Eventually, I was lucky enough to secure one.
C. grew up in the country. The very white, very working class, very country country. There was one Filipino (or Vietnamese- I can’t recall) family nearby. He had to wake up at 5:00 a.m. to feed a hog that later would be killed and cooked and eaten. There were several of these hogs over the years.
He attended a predominantly black high school in Baton Rouge (and not in the country) that was known for its jazz band. It was perhaps less known for its obvious racial segregation, or for its historic significance. The school, one of the very first publicly funded African American high schools in the US, was and is in a historically African American neighborhood. In the eighties, alongside its “regular program,” attended by the neighborhood kids, it became home to a small “gifted and talented program,” attended by mostly white kids, a few black and a few Asian kids. In 1994, when C. graduated, there were still two proms. A “regular prom” and a “gifted prom.” A black prom and a white prom.
He had his share of physical fights with kids from a the “regular program.” One kid in particular terrorized him (a kid I’d attended middle school with and remembered as funny and nice. But looking back, I can recognize a glimpse of anger just beneath the surface). Because C. was small, he had no choice but to be fierce in self-defense. I gather that there was a great deal of misplaced anger in all these high school boys, black and white.
From the time he was a kid, C. spent summers working at his parents’ tire store. He once told me that, just as he’d had to know exactly how to fight back in high school, he had no choice but to respect the black guys who worked as mechanics and no choice but to work hard in front of them. Not that they would have, but they could’ve easily beaten his ass. And he was already perceived as the boss’s kid, which demands the task of self-redemption. Most of all, he watched these men work their asses off day in and day out. He observed the way others did not always treat these men with respect. And he could not be among the disrespectful. It must have been tremendously confusing to go off to high school and be harassed and occasionally pounded on by angry neighborhood kids.
It’s difficult trying to describe and analyze, for lack of better term, the experience of “segregated integration.” His interaction with all these mechanics and his student peers, “gifted” and “regular,” impacted him.
Once, confused about some of C.’s favorite musicians, my sister asked if he was “trying to be black,” or “wished he was black.” It was one of the most ignorant remarks I’ve heard her utter. Not purposefully ignorant, but naively ignorant. She may have judged his musical tastes as some sort of rebellious phase or some kind of white-man’s-guilt-self-loathing. I don’t think she necessarily got the implications of her statement. But C.’s musical history, his knowledge and love of hip hop, R&B and jazz, is very much a product of his human experience. The way people brush shoulders and insults and attempts to understand one another past handed down paychecks, age differences, and internal rage.
From his Cajun mom, there is swamp pop, Tommy McClain singing "Silver and Gold," and there is also Motown. Aretha, Aretha, Aretha. He loves her.
C. is a music aficionado. In his youthful absorption of the musical worlds – something maybe akin to a sensation overload to one's taste buds - he loved not only hip hop and jazz, but also reggae and punk. In high school he had a leather jacket with the Fishbone logo hand-painted onto its back. And a Bob Marley poster on his bedroom wall that his parents took down and threw out. But if you look at his 500 albums or any of his CDs or the songs filling up his I-tunes, you’ll find The Who, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, The Minutemen, Pharcyde, Bob Dylan, contemporary Indie-rock, alt-country, Can, The Books, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson. You’ll find musicians I have never listened to or heard of and to whom you have never listened.
I met him in college when he and his neighbor threw parties at the institution. I saw him, at the center of a group of people, guys and girls. He radiated intense appreciation for life. I didn’t know at the time that he’d almost died in a fall off a mountain. No wonder he seemed so happy to be alive. The people gathered around him seemed enthralled by the humor he projected.
I grew to learn all of the different angles of C. Lover of music. Backpacker. Photographer. Mountain biker. Painter. Sculptor. Printmaker. Skate boarder. Laborer. A guy never afraid to get his fingernails filthy dirty. A collector and an inventor. He had a shelf full of convex glass lenses, doll-house-sized plastic Schlitz cans, glow in the dark Virgin Mary magnets, old blown-glass lab beakers, an old wooden cello neck and fingerboard, a universe of found objects he arranged together and called the “antiquated system.” His very own Joseph Cornell piece displayed on bracket-hung plywood – before he’d ever discovered Cornell’s shadowboxes.
Once, a teacher at his private school told his mother that he was hopeless and she should give up on him. That he wouldn’t be able to learn. He was ten or eleven. This memory still makes C. visibly angry.
He will make you laugh with a wry joke or an uncanny impersonation of yourself or someone else. He might piss you off. He might easily get pissed off. He’s got curly-ish hair. A hearty laugh. He is left-handed. He can be a risk-taker. He has a lot of scars. I used to try to count them and keep track of their origin. But it is a hopeless endeavor. I don’t mind taking risks with him. Because he is also committed to succeeding at his own ventures. I think he reciprocates in this respect. He is most always willing to take risks with me.
Some of the things he thought he wanted to be and studied in college are landscape architecture, print-making, photography, drawing & painting, architecture and sculpture. He became a sculptor- working with mostly metal. He likes to weld, to meld hot metal into structural form. Later, he became an architect. His sketchbooks - even from way back in high school, make it clear that he was drawing lines in the right directions.
He can read about architecture for days and days and days. He’s enjoys fiction, but he mostly reads informative non-fiction books and articles. Which is funny since I write fiction. One of his favorite novels is The Catcher in the Rye. He didn’t read it until he was in college –but he, boy from the South and the country and a tire/auto-repair shop, a back-woods elementary school, and a segregated integrated high school – he related to Holden Caulfield. He can remember feeling like Holden Caulfield when he was growing up.
The first time I went backpacking, it was in Big Bend National Park, and it was with C. and a group of four other friends. The second time, the two of us went to the Grand Tetons, where he’d worked for a summer. I remember arriving at our highest point of elevation, looking out at the treeless mountains before me, and realizing at last, how very small-how absolutely tiny I am compared to the great big universe. I thought, I am just part of the minutia, but all the parts are connected and essential. I felt liberated by this understanding.
C. is the sum of so many parts. Odds and ends that seem unrelated, or like it would not be possible for them to intersect.
His mind works in funny and fascinating ways. He knows how to observe and absorb his surroundings and then toss out abstract objects to reflect back on them. If you can’t make sense of his response to this world, it’s okay. He doesn’t really need you to. It’s more about his own understanding, his own reflecting. Designing a building or a sculpture or a wall relief or arranging objects on a shelf – this is his way of contributing to the amazing minutia we all are and in which we are engulfed.
His fingernails don’t get as dirty as they did when he was a blacksmith after he first graduated college. He doesn’t throw 2 a.m. parties anymore or heckle bands. He hasn’t been in a fistfight in some years. Underneath his vaguely ironed clothes, he’s still a yahoo. Is there such a thing as a yahoo-intellect?
It’s okay to get lost in the details sometimes - they can be astonishing and humorous and extraordinary, or sometimes just plain simple. It’s not his intention to teach me, but this is one lesson that I learn from him all the time.
SONGS: Too Many People, Paul & LInda McCartney; One Hundred Years Ago, Rolling Stones; Dear Boy, Paul & Linda McCartney.