Juan, A love story for Valentine?s Day? (Part 1)
By the time I actually met Juan, he had already met me?which was typical of all the friends I?ve made over the years doing my radio show on WBAI. They?d be listening for weeks, months?or even years, then they?d write or call, or run into me outside the station someplace. And then, one thing and another down the line? a friendship developed?
What happened with Juan was he sent me a box of audio-tapes of my morning radio show? along with a short note telling me that he?d been recording my shows for close to a year already and asking me did I want the other tapes.
The box was neatly packed and each tape was clearly labeled in black pen on red labels with the dates of each show and Juan?s made-up titles; i.e., ?Mike?s Rant on Christmas Hypocrisy.?.. ?The Computer is Eating My Soul??
The titles, like his note, carried a kind of amused affection and ironic wit?both of which, I came to learn later, were constants in Juan?s relationship to his friends. I saw also?more a feeling actually?in the concise way the tapes were packed, and in the neat, readable handwriting on the cassette labels?something deeply familiar. It was the born techie?s neatness when doing a job? My father had that same quality. He was, when not on an actual job, sloppy; the way he dressed, the way he drove, his manner of relating to other humans?in general, in the entire manner of his living?he was as imprecise, extravagant and inexact as a man could be. But, when it came to making notes on a blueprint, using a slide-rule or analyzing a flow-chart or electrical schematic, he was as precise and refined as a needle.
?After a couple of months of his sending tapes, Juan came down to the station to volunteer during a fund-raising drive?but really more to meet me in person. We shook hands. He laughed. I smiled. We were friends?
Juan, his last name was Santos, was a big guy?maybe six two, six three, probably weighed around 250 pounds. I guess you could say he was overweight, but not a whole lot of it was fat. He was pretty active?earned most of his living, such as it was, by doing fancy home remodeling? You know, putting in internal stairways and wainscoting (whatever the hell that is) in rich people?s condominiums and brownstones. Tearing out wiring, fixing elaborate plumbing problems? Whatever needed to be done, either as a necessity or a luxury. He was basically a sub-contractor for larger home-remodeling companies and worked with his own small crew of men that he paid by the hour.
He probably could have made a lot of money?But making money was not in the cards for Juan; He was too artistic and too self-destructive?both?to ever pile up any real amount of cash? A man after my own cracked heart.
Juan was a true artist and quite an accomplished one too. He sketched, took photographs and, most especially, he was a sculptor. He worked with heavy, found pieces of metal, wood, rope and such-like materials.
Up on some run-down dock on the Harlem River, he kept an old, beat-up boat that he was perpetually attempting to restore. And while he was up there ripping apart and putting together a boat that would probably never sail again, he scavenged for old beams; heavy, rusted rivets, chain, planks, metal sheeting? All these he welded, tied, pegged and screwed together to make big, sweeping, powerful works of art.
Eventually, with the help of some more famous and accomplished artists, he had a couple of gallery shows and even sold a few of his pieces? His work was always on a grand scale; absolutely inspiring, and certainly worthy of worldwide recognition? If had had luck, a different childhood, maybe more will power, or whatever else it takes to be a successful artist?
Upon meeting Juan?
The first important thing you didn?t notice about Juan?didn?t notice because his big smile, big heart and big mind eclipsed everything else about him?was that he had a terrible case of acne?more psoriasis; the kind of condition that you imagined was generally treated in hospitals or maybe by some intense therapy and serious drugs.
In fact, if you?ve seen Dennis Potter?s, ?The Singing Detective,? you?ve seen Juan?or someone who looked almost exactly like him. The actor, Michael Gambon is roughly the same size and has the same semi-ruined face as Juan had. In ?The Singing Detective?, the main character is hospitalized for a total-body case of psoriasis?one that the hospital considered to be of psychological origin.
Poor Juan?s skin, what you could see of it on his face and his arms and hands, looked like it was in flames?as if he was boiling with some volcanic internal combustion and it had bubbled to the surface in lava-like bursts.
What I figure, being an expert on such things (both in the observing and the living)?is that he had a kind of massive rage over the way his life had gone?especially the way he had been treated by his parents? And, being very bad at expressing even the slightest bit of anger, it turned in on him, cooked for a while in his guts, then burst through his skin.
It wasn?t just his skin either. He had let his teeth go?they were out of line, brownish?stained from smoking, drinking serious booze and slurping down endless cups of black coffee.
His hair was light brown and thinning even at an early age? And he paid not the slightest bit of attention to it, save for patting it down occasionally so it didn?t fly off in all directions.
He couldn?t hardly be more physically unattractive if he tried to be and maybe that was the point? Yet, as I say, he was as bright as sunlight and just as warming to be around?because of his wit and his heart?
Juan lived in a small project apartment in a towering building on the East River, way up on the 27th floor?
He had, from his tiny, rickety-railed balcony, a glorious view of the Triboro Bridge towering over three rivers? It was place where you could see for many miles?way past the edge of the city. A place where the world was in vast motion?on the river, in the sky (he was near La Guardia Airport) and on the bridges where he must have seen a million cars drive by? Sometimes huge gray clouds swept over his building by like great ships? sometimes the bright morning sun poured onto the building like the concentrated benevolence of God.
Standing up there on his balcony, you felt you had just climbed the Andes or reached some transcendent plane of being?(You just had to ignore the rats on the staircases, the broken, urine-soaked elevator and the rust and peeling paint on the balcony railings and fittings?)
Juan lived with his mother, Irene, a former beauty?
In fact, as Damon Runyon might have had it, she a former ?Chorine??a dancer and a showgirl in some middle-level Broadway follies/shows in the forties and fifties? She was tall and you could still see, through the vague ruins of her life-long drinking and generalized over-indulgence, the image of a once big, gutsy, gorgeous woman? So naturally sexy that it was almost a sin; as if her sex appeal was her great triumph and ultimate downfall. And she was smart too?not school educated, but she had a really sharp mind? soaked up books and knowledge like a sponge?
Irene had numerous ?men friends? (and, it was rumored, a couple of woman friends too). She flirted shamelessly with Juan?s friends and seemed to be, more than half of the time, as much his lover as his mother. And if there was more to that comment than just poetic license, Juan never said a word about it to me.
But it would have been no surprise to hear that it had been true, at some point or other… He had that crazy, protective energy that you are forced to develope when someone bigger and crazier than yourself has had you at their mercy once upon a time. The alcohol-consumption and almost relentless craziness in that little apartment of theirs was amazing?like being next to a large ship?s turbo engine, running at high speed. The only
time it was ever calm there was when Irene was on a date, asleep or passed out.
Juan was a good boy. He was an Olympic-medal-class good boy. (He and I are both holders of the World?s champion gold and silver Good Boy medals).
He took care of his mother; physically and emotionally. He cleaned up the bourbon bottles from the kitchen floor and the hallways; He straightened up the place up as best he could and he probably put her to bed a good deal of the time as well. He did the laundry, took out the garbage?providing he wasn?t too high to do it himself; bought most of the food and cooked it as well.
I don?t want to say Irene was completely a helpless drunk?that would be base and unfair. She had a job for a long time? was the main receptionist on one huge floor of a big corporation in mid-town.. She had native wit, charm and intelligence? and worked for many many years at that job?till they laid her off in her some time in her late fifties. I never knew the reason, maybe it was downsizing, maybe age or sex discrimination (they needed a prettier, younger woman) but my guess is she was just too far into the bottle?
I liked Irene?it was hard not to. The least of it being that she absolutely loved men, of every age, shape and size?
Her memorial: She was a bright, good-hearted woman who tried to be the best mother she could to her son. When she was relatively sober she guided him and they talked about the ways of the world. She loved Juan and did whatever she could for him… But, in the end, Juan was another sad member of the great club of children who grow up as their parent?s parents.
And where was Juan?s father? Gone, ladies and gentlemen. Gone. Far far, away?
Juan?s father was a rich businessman from a wealthy family in Bolivia.
I don?t remember what the money came from, maybe mining, maybe chemicals… He was an also an educated man, an engineer?just like my father had been.
He’d left when Juan was a child? left him back in New York and practically never saw him again. The father, disgusted, maybe, with his low-class fling in America, had no intention of bringing his bastard son (Juan?s parents were never married), anywhere near his aristocratic family.
I don?t think Juan saw him more than five times in his life?a couple of times when the old man visited New York on business or once or twice in South America at some anonymous resort?
So Juan, just like me, had developed ornate childhood fairytales that he told about his father? Stories of adventure and travel and exotic locales. His father, like mine, was Ernest Hemingway, George Patton, Superman, The Sheik of Araby? whatever a lonely boy makes a father into when his father spends an entire lifetime away from him…
Since this is a love story, you could say that Juan and I were made for each other? He heard me on the radio, talking about my crazy, child-like mother and my adventurous missing father? He heard me tell his story as I told my own?and, to paraphrase Othello describing Desdemona listening to his tales of horror and triumph? ?He wished Heaven had made him such a man??
As I say, I think, aside from the remarkable parallel content of our lives, what attracted Juan to me was what he saw as my fluid ability to express my feelings; yearning, loss of love, affection, especially feelings of anger and outrage, on the radio?for all the world to hear.
It?s the not the first time this had happened to me. People just assumed that since I could so easily and clearly state my anger, fear or affection, that I must be some kind of realized master?that the articulate expression of all these things was some kind of magic gift that no doubt granted me great mental health and equilibrium.
I could easily imagine that?s the way it sounded? In truth, I was so aware of the effect of my ability to talk so well, that I sometimes counted on it to get things I wanted from people, or at least dazzle them enough so I could get by, or away with something. But in the end, it was mostly thoughts rather than feelings that I was expressing. And, certainly, it was words far more than deeds that defined my personality?
Never-the-less, for better and for worse, I had always attracted people who thought I had some magic key to the locked room of feeling?and, accordingly wanted to spend time around me?maybe borrow the key, get into that room themselves?
It?s a complex phenomenon, one that you can often see with public people;
Gurus, teachers, performers, artists and the like? Their talk can be genuinely inspiring?motivating people to actually change their lives, but the?teacher/artist?s own behavior often belies, if not actually seem to be the very opposite of their teaching and their art.
I remember being often inspired by Alan Watts to try to think, perceive, even act differently in my life?and generally it was for the better. Then I read a biography of him that described him as being more or less drunk most of his waking hours. In fact, he drank so much that he killed himself doing it?dying in his early fifties.
When I read that I questioned what the value of all his great teaching was. Maybe I would be happy, at one and peace with all things (as Watts taught) if I was drunk all day and night too.
But in the end, you take what is there that?s good for you?the teaching, the words of hope and inspiration? and you leave the life alone?
Juan, having been stepped on by his parents, especially his father, had the additional burden of being almost completely unable to say how he felt about his life or about his feelings for other people. Whether it was affection, disappointment, desire, or?certainly?anger, the poor guy just didn?t feel like he had the ability?or maybe, to be more precise?the right to say it out loud. Ring a bell?
Of course, Juan was just like thousands of other people; the trod-upon, the constantly taken-advantage-of, that have the greatest right to say how they feel? But that?s not the way the world works. Its always the arrogant, the insensitive and the overbearing?the ones who cause most of the suffering in the world?that seem to feel the most entitled to ?express? themselves? And, their expression, in word or deed, is inevitably to the detriment and dismay of everyone around them. It?s the great carousel of sado-masochism that we have all ridden upon at one time or another until (if we were lucky and brave) we were able to jump off.
So, Juan? a Knight in horrible armor…
His psoriasis was one of the defining elements of his existence. It made him, purely as to looks (though he was otherwise not bad looking) almost repellant. For a possible sexual or love partner it would be almost impossible to handle? and though Juan desperately wanted a woman to love him?and well-deserving of such love he was? naturally, most women would (and did) have a very hard time getting past his skin. It was a kind of barrier, a thicket he had grown and kept up at all times? Maybe it was a test (unconscious of course), like in an old fairy-tale? Get through this; see through my skin to my heart and you will prove your love?
But a middle-income project apartment on 98th Street and 1st Avenue is not ?Long ago and Far away?? and beautiful princesses with hearts of gold you very rarely find wandering around Manhattan (except in my house?but that?s just my dumb luck).
So, Juan, sloppy in his dress, overweight, and with his skin saying: ?Don?t come too close?Please come closer,? had the habit of attaching himself to people who he admired, envied, wanted to be like?mostly, as I?ve said, he picked people who seemed be unafraid of expressing themselves; saying and just what they felt they wanted to say.
But also, so pure was Juan, so telepathically sympathetic, that I think he knew down deep?deeper than his own desperate wishes would have him consciously comprehend?that we, the loudmouths, the extravagant performers of the world, were just himself turned inside out.
Our psoriasis was flaming on the inside and meanwhile we showed our handsome face (Dorian Grey-like) to the admiring world?
Juan and I grew to be close friends? but not exactly true friends?or at least what I think of as true friends. We were not exactly equals?not balanced souls?
Our unspoken contract of relation was based more on the ?Star? and ?Fan? model? He needed to be around a ?Star?, and I needed (forgive me for my sins) to be around a ?Fan.? So our friendship was, as all such relationships are, unbalanced from the beginning. And despite how much we enjoyed each other?s company, it was always pushed along by this strange sense of opposites attracting.
What would have happened, I wonder, if I had suddenly became quiet and private?as I have gotten now in my older age? or if Juan had became public and outgoing? Would we have just simply switched roles? Would we have drifted apart? Who knows?
Of course, in the end, it all became much more complex. Things began to change between us?as things must. And that, as in all such stories, is when the trouble started?
(Part Two on the way?)
– Mike Feder (New York City – February 14, 2005)