The importance of a word of hope in dark times

I forgot this one important chapter from my short piece about the life and death of a supremely unhappy man, The Book of Friedman. It might be the most significant and illuminating snapshot of the whole sad story. A reminder of forgotten hope at a terrible time is a great gift to give somebody, just as a sincere expression of premature doom may be about the worst thing you can offer somebody in trouble.

As a boy I believed I was destined to become a great artist. I always loved to draw and I was encouraged in this dream of immortality by my grandmother (who dreamed of my worldwide fame, which would surpass her first cousin’s, internationally known sculptor George Segal) my mother, and to some extent by the grudging respect for my talent that my natural born enemy, my father, often showed. My mother foolishly (she was proud, I guess) told me that my IQ was a ridiculously high number and that, therefore, it followed that I had all these limitless interests and talents. I was going to cure cancer, my mother predicted, while never explaining how my drawings would do that.

It was all largely a crock of shit, of course, as I would soon learn, but it pleased me as a young man to believe that being smart, sensitive and talented meant something more than a lifetime of “underachievement” and a number of friends holding sullen, mounting grudges that burst into inexplicable rage from time to time. An oversimplification, obviously, but I don’t want to linger here setting the stage for this illustration of the power of a word from a friend at a crucial time.

My old friend Friedman, as you may recall, lived an endless repetition of the same three act tragedy for the entire time I knew him, more than forty years. Act one was great admiration, excitement, hope, joy, giddiness. When he discovered something he found amazing, he adored it with all his might, placed all of his hopes for happiness in it.

When he found a long-haired kid two years younger than him who truly seemed not to give a shit, who had a quick, dark sense of humor, seemed open to the world and infinitely curious while finding the absurdity in everything, he was hooked. I was the object of his great admiration and I, in turn, basked in the admiration of this quirky, very intelligent two years older guy who could drive a car. The friendship worked well for both of us in the early days. I had one concrete benefit at the start, he taught me to drive and I would tool around Ft. Lee, New Jersey in his parents’ Dodge Dart.

We started playing music at the same time, we were fledgling guitar players together. Our band, Stifled Sweat, recorded its first album a few weeks later. It was a heady adventure, making anything we could imagine become some kind of cockeyed reality, “two minds working as one” (the name of our second album, I think).

Soon, unbeknownst to both of us, we began the longest and most convoluted Act Two in Friedman’s life of a thousand identical three act tragedies.

Act Two, you will recall, is the nagging inkling of disillusionment phase of the play. Cracks begin appearing, warts, enlarged pores, spider veins, hairs in the wrong places, signs that the perfect, beloved object may contain some imperfections. For a man who’d come to be increasingly haunted by signs of aging, of death, seeing these flaws created great tension in him. Imagine his horror to discover that it wasn’t that I didn’t give a shit about anything and quickly found the absurdity in everything because I was naturally cool, it was mostly that I was trying to escape from tremendous pain I could hardly understand and I had no fucking idea how to make hurt less.

Far from being the cool guy he thought he’d found, I was insecure, uncertain, sometimes brutal. The adorable, perfectly self-contained kitten he’d adopted was shedding his fur, and skin, and there was some kind of formidable snake emerging!

As an older man, I can now easily see that this was Friedman’s problem of perception and expectation and had little to do with who I actually was or even how I seemed to be. Nothing in his expectations of me or his perceptions of me had that much to do, really, with who I was or what was in my heart and mind.

At the time, though, Friedman’s constant disappointment in me for not being an actual mythically “cool guy” was a source of great mutual bitterness. The more shit he gave me about not being a cool guy deep down, the cooler I’d be. You want cool, bitch? Here you go. It’s the kind of stupid back and forth certain young people get into, particularly young men, I suppose. He lamented that he lacked the unhesitating certainty and killer instinct of Isaac Babel’s brutal, grimly cool cossacks. I became a cossack.

Anyway, as my thirtieth birthday approached (we covered about 16 years in the previous few paragraphs), I struggled to reconcile my view of what the role of an “artist” was (smart social critic) with the widely accepted view that an artist is someone celebrated for their vision, their inspired works displayed as marvels in the world’s museums, someone famous, popular, sought for conversation by media types, prized for wit and insight into human affairs, whose bravura scrawl on a restaurant table cloth is gratefully accepted as full payment for a lavish meal for ten at the most expensive bistro in Paris.

A crock of “poop” I picked up somewhere that was suddenly much too heavy to carry, especially as my recognition of class conflict and the injustice of wealth inequality became more and more acute. So the wealthy art-collectors/speculators decide who is a great artist and who is just a pretentious, agitated schmuck with unrealizable ambitions? I griped about this to an art teacher once at City College and he shrugged. “When has it been any different? Every artist we remember today had a wealthy patron. You want to get paid? You work for the rich.”

To resolve this tricky conflict I did the only thing possible. I had a kind of nervous breakdown. I’d made an ambitious super 8 mm movie that had been enthusiastically cheered by an audience of a hundred or so people I assembled in an auditorium on the Lower East Side. I was riding a bicycle, making deliveries, to make money while I dreamed of an even more ambitious movie, this one starring me as a misunderstood, highly sensitive antihero based loosely on Bruce Lee.

I was hit by a car while cutting across several lanes of traffic diagonally on Fifty-Seventh Street (ironically in front of one of the city’s most prestigious art galleries). The guy grazed my handlebars, spun the bike, I wound up breaking an arm. Waited at the scene with the driver, as I’d learned from experienced colleagues, until an ambulance picked me up.

Even though it had clearly been my fault, the driver’s insurance company was on the hook. A few months later some shyster got me a few thousand dollars from the driver’s father, or the insurance company or whatever.

This money was going to be my big break. I was going to go to Israel to visit friends and drink fresh carrot juice, then travel East a bit (most of the route east of Turkey was by then already an Islamist hotbed I probably couldn’t have navigated). When I returned to New York I was going to make this movie with the remaining four or five thousand dollars from the bike accident. That movie was going to be my calling card, the artistic statement that would vindicate everybody’s expectations of me as a great artist (and possibly also cure cancer).

I found it harder and harder to make decisions. My arm had healed, I didn’t need to work, yet I hesitated making plans to travel. I needed shoes, went to a shoe store, spent two hours trying on shoes, agonizing, left without a pair of shoes. The same thing happened everywhere. Soon my wit turned against me, as soon as I thought of something funny to say a harsh voice in my head would angrily tell me how stupid the crack was. I had trouble sleeping, I had trouble staying awake.

I’d promised a friend he could sublet my apartment while I was traveling. He’d made plans to move in. Then I told him I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. He was pissed, I told him I’d call him back.

“Look,” said my father, “it’s not fair to jam up your friend Brendan because you can’t make a decision. You’re planning to travel, so get out of your apartment and while you make up your mind, you can stay here.” I agreed, making the worst mistake in my life to that point. Brendan moved into my apartment for six months and, at twenty-nine, I was suddenly back living in my parents house, a place I hadn’t lived since I was seventeen. I soon found myself too paralyzed to do anything.

Dark days followed, the darkest of my life so far. I won’t linger trying to describe the pain of those interminable days as I became more and more comatose. I went into the city twice a week to talk to a shrink of some kind. She knitted her eyebrows with great concern. I’d walk to a friend’s place near her office, sit on his couch and immediately fall into a deep sleep. To me my waking life felt like Jimi’s line about “living at the bottom of a grave.”

The shrink eventually diagnosed my state as some kind of dysthymic disorder [1], not even full blown depression. I was too numb to be scandalized by this weak tea diagnosis. One thing that stayed in my mind at the time, as I read William Styron’s account of his own period debilitated by depression, was that the duration of a depressive episode was the same if you took medication or not. The shrink concurred. I opted out when she offered me pills.

One icy night I found myself walking with Friedman, down by Battery Park. It was freezing cold, thick sheets of ice all over the ground, and we were shuffling around this desolate park on the edge of the abandoned business district, by the river where it was even colder than everywhere else. In the distance the Statue of Liberty’s brass brazier was frozen in the harbor. Walking there was like being in hell. Physically and psychologically acutely uncomfortable, though fortunately for me, I was warmly dressed and mentally numb. What we were doing there I couldn’t tell you. Presumably Friedman had driven us there and parked his van, we got out and started to walk in this frozen hellscape. It was all the same to me. Friedman turned to me at one point and said the words this whole thing has been the frame for:

“Of all the people I’ve ever met, you’re the last person I ever thought would end up like this.”

The words he delivered with such sincere disappointment and conviction hit me hard. The compliment of the first part was totally lost on me. I’d ended up like this. Fuck. I don’t recall anything in those six months that hit me with anywhere near the force of that sad conclusion by a close friend.

A few weeks later a friend, finding out I was back at my parents’ place, invited me to live in his spare bedroom on West 163rd Street. He had a four track tape recorder in that room and a couple of nice guitars. I wrote three or four of the better songs I ever wrote, recorded them. I still couldn’t sleep, and couldn’t stay awake, and couldn’t really carry on a conversation, but this was a much better arrangement while I waited to get my apartment back in June.

In the spring I went to a party, in the former painting studio of my teacher and friend Florence. There was a girl there, cute, dark eyes, dark curly hair, caramel colored skin. She was wearing a white peasant shirt, open at the neck and bare tan shoulders and every time she passed I somehow tried to look down her shirt. When she was leaving she asked me to call her. I looked at her blankly “how.. uh.., can I call you if … I don’t … have your number?”

She seemed to find this charming, gave me a little laugh and a winning smile, bent to write her number and as she did I finally got a look down her shirt. Fuck me. Within a week we were having conjugal visits. Life was worth living again. Not perfect, but, shit, it never is. Still, I was very glad I hadn’t wound up like that. I was the second to last person who ever thought I’d end up like that.

[1]

A mild but long-term form of depression. Dysthymia is defined as a low mood occurring for at least two years, along with at least two other symptoms of depression. Examples of symptoms include lost interest in normal activities, hopelessness, low self-esteem, low appetite, low energy, sleep changes, and poor concentration. Treatments include medications and talk therapy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s