Saturday, November 05, 2005

Five O' Clock World

People come and go and forget to close the door,
And leave their stains and cigarette butts trampled on the floor,
And when they do, remember me,
remember me.
– Brian Eno, Some Of Them Are Old

We all used to have this joke about other people’s record collections.

You know, they’d show you this neat line-up of 50 or 60 albums piled neatly by the stereo and our reaction would always be “Well, sure, they’re the ones you’re listening to at the moment, but where’s the rest of them?”

Although he had originally been my wife’s friend, Steve G. and I developed a telephone relationship where we’d hash out movies, music, politics and pop culture. And, although I encouraged most folks not to use the diminutive form of my name, I couldn’t quite shake Steve of the habit so I just gave up. Each call would begin with his familiar “Hiiii, Bahhhhhb!” spoken as if by the villain in a James Bond film. He’d then go on to tell me what was on his mind which, sometimes, could take quite a while.

Mostly, though, we talked about stuff. You know, promos, imports, toys, collectibles…stuff. We both took it very seriously. In fact, there was a good eight-month gap where we didn’t speak because of a misunderstanding over a fast food toy someone owed the other one. We were serious.

I remember hearing about the medical problems once in a while and then they suddenly seemed to pile up and the next thing I knew he was telling me about how the leg had to come off due to the diabetes. The what?

I couldn’t fathom it. It’s the sort of situation, with the possible exception of death, that I think frightens people the most. And yet he was talking about it like any other kind of operation, his explosive laughter still coming out at the ends of his sentences.

At this point, Steve had quit the record store and now only worked record shows, selling bootlegs for a creepy guy who actually made him price some of the stock from his hospital bed. He’d still work the shows with the one leg, though, and a terribly uncomfortable prosthesis. Record shows had become fairly depressing affairs at this point, with the really good dealers jumping ship for the internet and leaving the dregs that no one cared about. To see Steve hobbling around in such sad circumstances was a little heartbreaking.

Then came a period where it seemed all he did was go back and forth to the hospital. That should have told me something, but I always hoped for the best. I simply wasn’t capable of considering a worse-case scenario. I visited him one last time and brought a Big Gulp cup from a new 7-11 Simpsons promotion with me. The nurse told me his situation was “very bad” and drew back the curtain. He was lying there unconscious and his body seemed to move as if he were having a bad dream.

I spoke and got no reply, so I left the cup for him on the table and went home.

The next time I called him, they told me to call the family. I knew what that meant. I found out later that Steve had made a choice. The doctors had wanted to take the other leg but he chose to keep it, regardless of the consequences.

A lot of people came to the funeral, even the famous classic rock deejay who’d known him for years and who let him sit in while he did his show. His claim to fame was that he’d broken many big acts in Philadelphia, including the hometown one that conquered the world. Now the music had changed so they made him play his oldies on Sunday nights. His own funeral was not that far off.

Bob had not yet moved to California, so he came. Old friends from out of the past appeared and paid their respects. We all agreed after the fact that the eulogy managed to capture something of who he was, which you can’t always depend on at these things. The rabbi or priest does the best they can with the info they’ve been given. All things considered, it did a more than respectable job of conjuring up something of his passion and his personality, which is the most any of us can hope for.

Seven years later, Steve M. would have trouble breathing while he was in the hospital.

His affair featured a lot of remembrances from family members, stories that helped fill in parts of his life that we only knew sketchily, like his love of cooking. Of course, like at the other Steve’s funeral, everyone spoke of his love of music, almost as if to say “I don’t understand taking something to that kind of extreme, but to each his own.”

How do you explain it to someone who hasn’t been tapped by that fairy wand?

How do you explain the adrenaline, the excitement, the sense of joy?

Better they should never know it. Look at what it does. Holds heaven out like a carrot on a stick, making otherwise sensible people forget everything else that matters. Makes them embrace a lifestyle and a business that promises everything and delivers nothing. Reduces men and women to beggars with a game of three-card monte that is eternally unwinnable.

Better they should never know it.

And yet, they were happy. Maybe it was the only way for them to be happy.

When I talk to Bob, it’s always with the unspoken understanding that we feel lucky to still be here. After all, we were all the same age and had the same affliction. What sense does it make that we’re still here? All of us had all put our lives on hold for the same reason. We all crucified ourselves with horrible jobs that humiliated us because we had placed our own lives behind the need to forge a ball and chain that increasingly made it harder and harder for us to even move, and impossible for us to make any kind of positive change.

But we are still here in this sadder, poorer world. And we still talk. And my wife worries a little more about me because I’m getting older and I take a lot of pills.

Sometimes I think I know what heaven is. Sometimes I think I see it, feel it when I see an outdoor restaurant decorated with twinkling lights on a warm summer’s night. People are laughing and there’s a hint of the smell of Valencia oranges coming from somewhere.

Friends are moving from table to table, leisurely, enjoyably.

The air seems drunk and the years are spread out before them like a carpet.

If I could rescue the two Steves and place them back in the garden of our youth, I would.

We’d be at a record show and the aisles would be filled with wonderful dealers from everywhere, their tables gleaming with incredible finds, the mystery records you dream about that usually disappear when you wake up, and the wife and I would be trying to get each other’s attention as we’d attempt to make some headway at the piggie trough, already impossibly crammed with kids in heavy metal t-shirts, and Shark would be there with his remarkable mohawk and Bob would be making fun of the customers with his Billy Baloney ventriloquist doll, laughing uncontrollably as people shot strange looks at him, and then we all gradually notice the raised platform at the end of the hall where Steve M. and Steve G. are embracing and laughing, and Steve G. throws records into the crowd as Steve M. opens a bottle of champagne, and their glasses clink as they drink a toast to us and we to them.

Hallelujah, Elysium.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm always moved by your columns, but by these two most of all obviously as I knew one of the Steves very well at one point in my life. I was one of the ones who moved on with my obsessions, no longer caaaaaring quite as much as I used to about having every version of every song by my favorite bands.

I was sniffling a bit as I walked to the train the other day after reading your vision of heaven. I cry so easily lately.

Here's my vision of heaven, when I get to the door. Large puffy cloud as flooring, beautiful radiant light. To the left is a group of my dearest departed. My cat Hershey up first, so happy to see me again. Behind him are my mom and Jake, then my friends Scott and Chuck.

To the right, standing by himself, is Morris (although still with the world now, just not with me, but it's my vision of heaven). All the anger and tension are gone from his face, he no longer casts a long shadow. He looks like he does at the very best of times, happy and carefree. I go to him without a moment's hesitation or fear.

Heaven is what we make it, isn't it?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005 11:55:00 AM  
Blogger Count Screwloose said...

I doubt that anyone could really do justice to Steve G.’s volcanic personality in words, let alone in the brief sketch offered here, so it’s especially nice to hear that someone who knew him found it pleasing.

Hopefully he would forgive us for reprioritizing some aspects of our lives. Then again, maybe he wouldn’t! I’d like to think he could have resisted the curmudgeonly road I’ve taken.

May all your dreams come true. And many thanks for the kind words and Entertainment Weeklys.


Wednesday, November 09, 2005 5:12:00 PM  

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