Tuesday, February 17, 2009


I haven't spoken to Chuck but once in the last five years, and that was only because we ran into one another at the corner Starbucks. And after that brief encounter I was glad I hadn't spoken to him in the last five years. But I'll get to that later.

He's fifty six years old, and has never moved out of his parents' house. He has never had a girlfriend. Never had a date. He claimed once to have visited a prostitute in Ensenada, but I did not believe the story. There were no supporting details, like for example- where in Ensenada? Just somewhere.

I've known the guy since we were both in high school. Like everyone in our small circle of friends he graduated in June, and enrolled in junior college in September. And like most of the gang, he never finished the first semester. I just bailed, and got a job. He would have finished but another one of our pals kept showing up at his house with beer and weed, so it wasn't really his fault. I applied for a job with the post office, and he figured that would be a good idea as well. I flunked the entry exam. He actually got hired. But they had it in for him at the post office. They made him lift a bunch of really heavy bags, and the ropes that held the bags closed chaffed on his hands. So that was another career unfairly taken from him. Around that time I got my first motorcycle, a used Honda 305 Superhawk. He convinced his parents to let him have one, so they bought him a new 350 Honda that was, he frequently reminded me, faster than my bike.

Later on I gave up the motorcycles for surfing. Chuck wasn't into much of anything then, and one time I invited him to come down to the beach with me and try out the boogie board. The boogie board has the advantage of being really easy to use. Unlike surfing, it takes no practice, no skill. All you need to do to get it moving is turn your back on an already broken swell, hop on, and let the whitewash carry you to shore. The poor bastard couldn't even manage that. Years later he would remind me of how much fun it was surfing at River Jetties.

By now Chuck, at my prompting, had applied for and secured a job pushing broom for the local school district. Except for his unfairly heavy workload, and the indignity of working for people who were less intelligent, and had advanced to higher positions by kissing ass- he did OK. Around that time another of our friends, one who had not quit school but went on to earn a couple of BS degrees took up computer programming. This was Chuck's true calling he figured. So he got a computer, and then two. I couldn't have given a rat's ass about computers. Wasn't interested in what they could do or how they worked. I didn't know anything about the subject. So at every opportunity, Chuck would deliver droning lectures in jargonspeak about the inner workings of the electronic brain, pausing every so often to remind me that he was probably more knowledgeable than our friend who was making a very good living programming the things.

One summer, after a morning of drinking beer, we decided to go out and look at Harleys. Neither of us had ridden in years. I got a look at the new models, and fell in love. After some deliberation I gave in, and ordered a brand new Softail. While I waited for delivery, Chuck went out and bought a used Japanese lookalike. They were, he reminded me, faster, and more reliable than the real thing.

And I don't mean to give a wrong impression, here. The guy was a good friend. As the cliche goes, if you were stuck at three in the morning with your car broke down, Chuck would be the guy who would come out and give you a lift. He just never grew a life of his own. He imitated the people around him as long as it didn't involve real commitment, sacrifice, or work. He watched others live life and tried to play like he was doing it too. And worse, as other friends moved on I became the one most frequently imitated. Unfortunately, he didn't know what to imitate, and what to just watch.

As I've mentioned, I cracked up and lost my job teaching school. I got tangled up in legal bullshit, dealing with doctors, and lawyers and every element of my personal and public life became enmeshed in the gears of "the system". It was my intention to leave California when the mess was over. I was going to take whatever assets I had, and move to West Virginia. I loved Appalachia. I had friends there. I figured I would find some sort of work that wasn't teaching school. I just wanted to get out. In the mean time my artistic burn had waxed into a white hot obsession. I carved stone like my life depended on it. And my work began to draw some attention. Galleries were actually coming to me, and asking if I'd display there.

That's when Chuck decided to quit his job and become a computer artist. The stress of working as a night custodian was killing him, and besides, he had developed a knee injury. But he refused treatment for the sore knee. Instead he got a lawyer, filed for workers comp, and got on permanent disability at about nine hundred bucks a month. He pushed for vocational rehab training, and used it to take what amounted to hobbyist classes in using computer animation software. He souped up his computers to run the stuff, and made three second cartoons of soda cans filling glasses, and satellites passing planets. Often I'd be at the carving table, and he'd show up at the backyard gate. Cue the droning monotone of jargonese, the descriptions of how the processors worked to convert this algorithm into that base function while simultaneously redefining quadrant parameters at x number of bits per second...I had a computer by this time, and was treated to endless explanations of how it worked, and what I could do to make it faster if I'd only let him fix it up for me.

And then my artistic burn just flamed out. The last creative project I had going was the toy story epic. Ed from Robot Japan had seen a few episodes, and offered to host it on his site if I would learn Dreamweaver. But that meant taking computer classes myself. So I signed up for adult ed. took the classes, and learned the basics. It took over a year, but I got enough knowledge to work Dreamweaver. And I got enough knowledge to learn that Chuck didn't know what the fuck he was talking about. He knew enough of the terminology to bullshit someone who was totally ignorant. I had suspected this before, and knew it for a certainty before I had finished the beginners' class in Microsoft Word. But Chuck was going to become a commercial artist, maybe even go to work for Pixar, or Dreamworks. The problem was- Chuck had never of his own free will so much as picked up a pencil and doodled out a picture on paper. He had no interest in art at all, and was possessed of absolutely no creative instinct. But he knew how to use all the tools in the Photoshop tool kit. He knew how to work the animation programs, and the rendering programs. He really did not understand that there was a difference between knowing the function of tools, and being able to use them for something.

I needed to buy a new computer if I was going to run Dreamweaver and Photoshop. For all the BSing, Chuck at least did know one computer from another, which I didn't. We drove out to some electronics mega mart to look around. He told me what to buy, a re-conditioned top of the line Hewlett Packard that was more than I needed or could afford. I wasn't sure, and wanted to sleep on the decision. Cue the lecture in jargonese. I tuned out and went over to look at movies on DVD. Chuck ramped up the sales pitch for the reconditioned PC.
"Well, are you going to get it? I'll set it up, and I have bootleg copies of photoshop, and some 3D rendering programs that a guy in my class gave me..."
"No", I said. "Not today anyway. I'm going to sleep on the decision."
"Why, not? This machine has...." He threw a major shitty. I never saw the guy get so angry. I dropped him off at his house, and that was the last we spoke until I ran into him at the corner.

I never did go to West Virginia as I had planned. I met the woman who would, some months later become my wife. Her father died shortly after our wedding, and we spent the next year staying with her mom. And then my mother reached the point where she had to quit driving, and couldn't keep up with the house or the bills alone. Life happens. A bout of heart trouble took all the savings I had accumulated. Fortunately I was treated in time, and regained my physical strength. But I needed money, and ironically enough, was hired as a substitute custodian by the same school district that Chuck had quit. It was a new direction for me, and a good one. I enjoyed the work, and I made a few new friends as well. I was sitting at the corner talking with Louie, one of the guys from the maintenance crew. I looked up, and saw Chuck crossing the patio to our table.

"Hey, Chuck", Louie said. "I thought you were moving back east."
"Hey", I said. "Long time no see. How ya doing?"
" Oh"- Chuck answered, "OK, I guess. Nah," he said to Louie, "I'm still here and you know- doing the same old same old. I got a new computer. State of the art. Hey," he turned to me. "I heard from Bob that you had a heart attack."
"Yeah. It sucked. Nothing in it to recommend the experience, though."
"Well, that's too bad, " he replied. "Sorry to hear." The gloating tone was unmistakable. "I'm still healthy as ever. Anyway, I gotta get food for my dad. See ya around". He went into the sandwich shop.

"You know Chuck?" asked Louie.
"Yeah. For a long time actually."
Louie went on. "Boy, there's another disgruntled employee. He quit a few years ago. Told everyone how he was going to get out of California, and move up into the mountains in Arkansas. Said he was really into that whole Appalachia thing. So where do you know him from?"
"Ah, well," I said. "We go back quite some time."


walt said...

So, um ... within yourself, what do you "do" with a fellow like Chuck? Or is it another case of "it is what it is," and go on with your life?

I had a close friend and even business partner at one time; we did most everything together until we both got married. None of the details matched your story, but the "feeling" sure did.

At one point he was talking to me about something and all of a sudden my eyes sort of shifted, and I felt like I could see inside him. There was no one there! He was the classic Hollow Man!

Anyway, if you're inclined to elaborate about Chuck, it would be interesting!

jwm said...

I don't know that there is much more to say, Walt. The idea to write this popped into my head this morning, and I immediately balked. It's not a pretty story to tell, and I don't really feel good about painting a picture of someone else's shortcomings. God knows, I have my share. I wrestled with it for a while, and then decided to just do it. But it took time. I started this sometime around ten this morning, and didn't finish up until almost five.
I'll tell you this; it was a more than a little horrifying watching him throw his job away. I did 'try to tell him...' It was useless.
I pity him, but I have no sympathy. Whatever psychic damage he sustained that rendered him into such a shell was not my doing or my fault. I feel bad about it, but not guilty for it. Of course, there's a lot about my own story that is not fodder for the blogosphere, but I'll say this. I had far worse stuff to deal with, and I'm not talking about the loss of the teaching job. I got slammed hard, and more than once. I picked myself up and kept going. Chuck never once in his life risked anything.
A very typical example: Some years back I heard about salvia divinorum. I was fascinated by the stories, and I wanted to give it a try. So I did. It was absolutely the most shattering experience that I ever had from ingesting anything. There are simply no words that can do justice to the event. It was a real and true step on the path to the coonosphere. I told Chuck about it, and he wanted to have a shattering experience too. But he didn't really want to- you know- have the experience. He just wanted to be able to say that he'd had the experience. It takes a couple of whomping big hits to get off. Chuck tried the tiniest little puff- a match head sized pile in the bowl, and blew it out as soon as he took it in. It could not possibly have been enough to feel the faintest effect. But he became an experienced traveler to anyone who would listen to him tell the story. And he would tell it with me sitting right there knowing full well what the truth was.
So what do you do? Shake your head. Own whatever bad things you have to own, and make amends for them as best you can. But you never own what is not yours to own, good or bad. That's about all you can do.


julie said...

I had a Chuck once. She was a couple years younger than me, one of the first friends I made in my last college. We hung out a lot, and had a lot of fun. I helped her get a minor job in the Art History department.

Like Chuck she had a rough time with various jobs; they didn't understand that she needed to stay home and deal with her latest fight with her boyfriend, or that she just couldn't lift things, or that the customers were rude so she shouldn't have to be friendly. It took me a while to figure out that she was trying her hardest to become the family members whom she most hated and railed against. A couple years after college, when she just couldn't get a break or a decent job, I invited her to stay at my place, maybe take some time to sort herself out and either get a job or go to a trade school. She had a painting degree (and was very talented, too), but as I've learned they aren't good for much besides filling out a frame nicely.

Anyway, three months later, she went back home, with the understanding that I was finished. In three months, all I had asked in exchange for lodging and board was that she mind my dog while DH and I went somewhere nice for our anniversary. She couldn't even do that. She didn't want to emulate me in any positive sense (ie, getting a job, any job, because working and paying your bills is preferable to plonking your butt on someone else's couch and whining about how unfair the world is), she just wanted to insinuate herself into my ready-made and (to her eyes) perfect life and be entertained. I've never talked to nor heard from her since. I genuinely wish her well; I hope that at some point along the way, she had an epiphany and began to act on it, that she's found happiness in a good relationship, that she's being creative and benefiting from that creativity. But when I saw her last, there were some pretty major obstacles to all of that happening, so I just don't know. There's just as good a chance she's hollow, too.

will said...

Great character profile. I gotta say, I see a bit of Chuck in myself and it frightens me. I suspect that the one dominating factor in the soggy indolent mess that is Chuck - in all Chucks - is fear.

I've really become convinced that 99% of all human fear is fear of what others think of us. We all have to wrestle with this fear, of course. The extent to which we allow it to dominate us is the extent to which we are alienated from God.

Robin Starfish said...

Everybody's a Chuck to someone else to some degree. As I am currently unemployed - at least in traditional suit n'tie fashion - my dear old mom thinks that's me. But then anything short of pope equals slacker to her.

Eh, do I sound bitter? ;-)

On the other hand, what Will said. [swallow hard]

Regarding tattoos, I guess if you ink up, you might as well get one that leads somewhere.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Thanks for sharing, John.
Losing a friend, especially a good friend can be somewhat traumatic, at least at first.

One thing I learned is that people change, often not for the better, or remain static, which can have catastrophic results, but usually it's just sad.

Like you said, you just hafta pull yourself up and carry on.
Sometimes I wonder how close we all would be if we weren't seperated by distance.

Knowin' my own foibles well, perhaps distance is a good thing.
I seem to grate on folks after awhile, but I mean that only half seriously.

I dunno, though. Havin' OC in common, and the quest to gno Truth, Goodness and Beauty is a new for me, so I don't have any experiences to honestly relate to in that regard.

I have changed...a lot, as y'all have. And that's a good thing. :^)