If, at some point, you start to wonder whether I have made a habit of befriending crazy dysfunctional people, know that I have spent a not-insignificant amount of time puzzling over that exact same thought.
It was never my intention. There are people who go well out of their way to meet and know pirates and stoners and schizophrenics, and I have never ever ever thought of myself as one of them.
Still, this is the very lip of the rabbit hole, and that’s more than a little troubling.
This will be long, like the last one, and like the last one, it will be a personal story about someone you’ve never met. Forgive me. When I make an effort to carve out a little time to think about something other than business and not chasing my wife into an insane asylum, this is just where my mind goes – I wonder what happened to such-and-such. This particular such-and-such, well, heaven only knows. Nothing at all would surprise me.
* * *
When I was a stupid and angry teenager, I played a lot of basketball. I mean, there’s the normal amount of basketball – organized ball during the winter, weekends during the summer, maybe a game of HORSE or twenty-one on the odd weeknight – and then there’s 17-year-old Miserable Shitehawk, skipping school and going to the local army base, sneaking into the locked gymnasium, and playing hours and hours of one-on-one or two-on-two with my fellow delinquents, until well after school had ended and the sun was headed down and at any minute MPs were coming to chase us into the night. Waking up Saturday morning at 7:30am on the floor of a friend’s basement bedroom, still wearing yesterday’s still-moist mesh shorts and stretched, foul-smelling t-shirt, pulling on my heavy high-tops, and driving to the local blacktop, the best spot for pickup games, there to practice jumpers for several hours before the regulars started to pile up in groups and negotiate court rotations. This would be the first stop of the day: South Run, Gunston, Newington, 7-Eleven for a Slurpee in the afternoon, Hayfield, Lee District, The Mott, South Run (again) at sundown – they had lights that would time out every 90 minutes after dark – then back to his house by midnight, to sleep on the same floor in the same putrid clothing. A lot of fucking basketball.
Sometime before my junior year of high school, I started to hear about this kid in the way that you sometimes hear about other kids when you’re a dipshit high-school kid who cares way too much about the playing of basketball: he’s the best player in the area or wait till you see him play or he can totally dunk or simply dude is SICK. None of that registered quite as much as his name, though. His name was Rock. His actual given name. Where I may have used an alias for “Beth”, what the fuck am I supposed to do here? Call him “Thunder”? “Cloud”? No. His name was Rock. Rock, if you’re reading this . . . hi!
Surly teenage boys have a stupid way of meeting each other, with a grunt and a nod and then a lot of quiet posturing and mean-mugging and looks of boredom. I am into my thirties now and I still find myself doing this from time to time, and when I was a teenager, I could have taught a class on looking too cool and also like a complete fucking idiot. I grunted at Rock and nodded and tried to look disinterested, but he really was a sight to behold. He was a foot taller and rail thin and his mini-fro was twisted into little half-inch flagella, and his teeth were distractingly crooked, like someone had built a tiny little white picket fence inside his mouth and then beaten the shit out of it with a sledge-hammer. And he was wearing, no shit, like 7 t-shirts and 4 pairs of shorts and 6 pairs of socks. His feet were comically humungous. The only indicator to 17-year-old me that this kid might be a basketball prodigy was his apparent blackness, hopelessly white and suburban and stupid as I was.
Also, there was a smell. In the years since, I have come to think of this, happily, as the Rock smell. And the fact that it is a happy association is a fucking miracle, because holy hell that fucking smell.
* * *
There’s an interesting truth about angry sub-6-foot depressive introvert perfectionist basketball fiends: for all the time we spend obsessively working on our game, we have a tendency to disappear immediately once live action starts. This has become a theme of my entire life: I love to cook, I’ve got all the fancy kitchen gear, I watch food television constantly, I own dozens and dozens of cook books, I can make some seriously mean meals, but I chickened out of attending culinary school, and now that ship has sailed. I am something of a movie buff: I interned with a production company, I own a production quality camera and a fairly badass editing suite, I can talk about stupid pointless shit like mise en scene, I’ve got a dozen books about filmmaking, etc. When that internship was turning into an actual paid job with an actual production company? I quit. Why? It was interfering with my day job AS A FUCKING BARISTA. That ship sailed over the horizon and was burned on the shores of a faraway land. It’s been a rough dozen years learning to accept that particular failure, believe me.
So, there’s a vein of obvious cowardice running through my history of being passionate about things.
At any rate, in my angry dipshit youth, I needed a superstar teammate. Rock, for all his reputation and height and super-cool non-whiteness, was not that teammate. He liked to shoot from deep, and when I say “from deep”, I’m talking about 30 feet from the basket. And he liked to try weird, physics-defying dribble moves, also 30 feet from the basket – changing his dramatic crossover dribble into an in-and-out by bouncing the ball off the inside of his knee, for example, or dribbling from left to right between his legs with his right hand. And his shorts were always too loose – all 4 pairs – and he liked to sag them so that the waist band was just above his knees, and so when he wasn’t dribbling the ball clumsily off the elastic of his trousers he was trying to crossover his defender while also holding up his shorts with his off hand. He was a mess on the basketball court. A talented mess, a tall and long and athletic mess with obvious skill, but a mess is a mess.
This mattered a lot to me for a few days and then gradually less and less until it didn’t really matter at all. After we were done grunting and nodding at each other, I learned over the course of a few months that Rock was an almost unbelievably funny guy. Quick-witted and silly and an easy laugher, it was apparent that Rock was never more comfortable than when he was deflecting stress or diffusing tension with humor. This was enviably easy for him: all he had to do was put on a certain facial expression – tucking his lower lip, or frowning just so, or furrowing his brow – and the room would bust up into laughter. He used funny words and phrases, too: he called people “burgers” and “nuggets” where you or I might say “bum” or “scrub”, such that no one really knew exactly whether an insult had in fact been leveled. He’d work up an interpretive dance routine for virtually any song at any time. We laughed constantly. Constantly.
We developed a friendship that fall and winter, crossing paths in organized ball and pairing up in a good amount of pickup ball. When my junior year ended, we spent most of that summer with common friends, sleeping on floors and waking with the sun and piling in and out of rusted hoopties and touring the courts and subsisting mainly on Slurpees and Burger King, living out of a beat-up Bronco and a mighty beat-up Volvo. It was a blast, probably the best summer of my life.
It may have been less thrilling for Rock. Rock never went home that summer, not once. Couldn’t, actually. And when the days cooled and shrank and school came back around, of the two of us, only I stopped living out of a car.
* * *
The Rock smell is what happens when a person wears literally every piece of clothing they own, every day, all day, all at once, all the time. As an impossibly clueless teenager, it took me half a year to figure this out. It sank in little by little, but it wasn’t until my funny friend spent the night at my house and my mom offered to wash his clothes that this reality really sank in. His clothing went into the wash one color and came out a completely different one. Stylish maroon shirts came out blazing red. Grey mesh shorts with forest green piping were suddenly bright white with neon trim. These articles of clothing left more than dirt in the wash, however: nothing that came out of the machine for weeks afterward smelled anything but awful. This was a funny anecdote at the time – damn Rock, you stink! – but something like concern started to creep into my mind.
Why can’t he go home?
This was a complicated question made more complicated by the fact that I was a spooked teenager who didn’t want to get serious enough to ask a serious question, and dreaded having anything like an earnest conversation with my basketball pal. Rock had parents and siblings living in a nice-looking new house not far from our stomping grounds, but was apparently not welcome there. I’d seen the place once or twice, when I’d pulled up in front to wait while Rock ran in to pick up a pair of shoes or a toothbrush. Why can’t you go home? How come you never stay here? This question became more and more urgent in my mind as the summer wore on into fall and school came looming up into the foreground.
We’d all been staying in basements and bedrooms and on couches at various friend’s houses for months, but over the last few weeks of August, Rock had been more or less living with a mutual friend, eating dinner with the family and washing dishes and letting the dog out. This made no sense: Rock’s parents lived only a few miles from this house, in a bigger home, and all his clothing was there! Just what the hell’s going on here?
I finally asked. No, not Rock, the friend. What’s going on here? Why is he here all the time? What’s up with his folks?
I learned perhaps more than I wanted to know. On top of having rather alarmingly dropped out of school, Rock apparently had a child living with his long-term girlfriend and her parents somewhere in the area.
Rock had been “kicked out” of his home. He was “crashing” with our friend. Later, he was “staying at [his] place”. It turns out these are all transitory terms, a status that comes before another one. We were teenagers – the only conceivable next status in line was obviously “back home with one’s parents”. That all these things could be true of a fellow teenager – dropped out of school, fathered a child, kicked out of home, crashing at a friend’s house – was difficult to comprehend. Of course he’ll go back home! He’s just 17! What else could happen? There does exist another next status, one I could hardly bring myself to even think, let alone say aloud: homelessness.
But Rock’s life was already very much like that of a homeless person. When school began, it brought with it an uncomfortable ruse: Rock would “stay over” at our friend’s house, then “leave” in the morning. Leaving entailed riding along with our friend to school, then sleeping and/or sitting quietly in the car all day long, then “coming over” after school, then “staying over” again that night. He spent no fewer than 8 hours a day sitting in the passenger seat of a dusty old Bronco.
The idea of Rock as a homeless person was terrifying. I had already done some desperately stupid stuff in my life, but I had never been anywhere near the bottom rung. My silly friend who was fond of interpretive dance and peanut-butter-and-maple-syrup sandwiches was thisclose to being without a place to sleep at night. And that margin was closing fast.
* * *
Because my mom is a total softy, she didn’t take much convincing. She’d met Rock a few times and knew him well enough to know he was mostly harmless. When our friend’s house ceased to be an option, my house became a very real last resort. But shelter in her home came with certain expectations: Rock would need to get an ID. Would need to get back into school. Would need to get himself a driver’s license. Would have to find and hold down a job. Would have to keep his clothing clean and organized.
In return, Rock was given a bed in a bedroom. And Rock made an effort, although it came with quite a bit of active stewardship from my mom. He never did get a driver’s license, but he got a walking ID. He didn’t get back into school, but he did find a job at a toy store at the local mall. And he mostly kept his clothes clean. For a while.
Things started to go south around the time Rock started riding with me to school and sleeping in the car. A condition of his living with us was holding down the job, but more importantly, my parents were looking for indications that Rock was making some progress towards demonstrating some degree of seriousness about taking care of himself. During the summer, when all teenage boys are focused mostly on partying with girls and/or obsessively playing basketball with other teenage boys, a friend who stays over all the time is one thing, but the rest of the year is supposed to be spent being productive and attending to one’s future in one way or another, and casually dumping a paying job so he could skip school with me and play basketball in an empty army building was not the sign of maturity they were hoping to see.
This went on for several months, with Rock stowing away sleepily for the ride to school, then dropping the seat back and doing whatever it is a person does who is confined to a parked vehicle for 7-8 consecutive hours a day. The car began to smell like a sweaty person all the time. My mom’s patience thinned daily and finally evaporated. Together, they visited a building in town that I’d never even imagined. The abyss. Whatever comes after the bottom rung. The worst thing.
Rock was given a due date. A week from today. With all his stuff.
Before I could let that happen, I tried a few other options. I talked to the friend with whom Rock had been previously been staying. That was a dead end, not remotely an option. I passed the idea around to several other friends, to no avail. It came to pass, finally, that I picked up a phone and called Rock’s home, to speak to his family, without his permission or blessing or foreknowledge. If it was his own stubbornness that kept him from going home, I was going to find out and fix it, was going to take the decision out of his hands.
It was not his stubbornness.
I wish I could tell you why they wouldn’t let him back, but I can’t, and they absolutely would not. I’d never been told by Rock why they wouldn’t have him, but many different theories had been thrown around when he wasn’t listening: we knew that Rock lived with his mother and his stepfather, and his mother was white, and his half-brothers were white. Perhaps race was a factor? We also knew Rock was shiftless and had fathered a child and dropped out of school. Perhaps that was all his family could take? I’d never known him to be violent or a thief or even especially disrespectful, so it was hard for me to imagine them just not liking him very much. But his stepfather was very clear that Rock was not welcome back in their home, not even if I could arrange a sit-down between them. The part of Rock’s life where going home was an option had ended utterly. The stepfather was not willing to discuss the why, only the absoluteness of the no.
I didn’t have the heart to tell Rock his family didn’t want him. He’d been avoiding making that call himself – he knew, but there’s something different about knowing, about having it confirmed, about having to face up to it with your basketball buddy. We spent a quiet few days mostly avoiding saying anything to each other. After an uncomfortable, dismal, pre-apocalyptic week of stunned helplessness, Rock took a quiet ride to a humble building where a humble cot in a large room would make up the whole of Rock’s new world. He cried that night, quietly and then desperately. He hadn’t packed his clothing. He was wearing it. All of it.
* * *
All these years later, it is still unacceptable and horrific that we dropped my funny friend Rock off at a homeless shelter and drove away, but that’s not where the guilt starts. I was a teenager, my mom was a responsible adult, and this was above all our heads. No, the guilt lies here: I have not spoken to Rock one time since that night. I could fucking kill myself right now as I sit here. What an unbelievably cowardly thing to do to a person. Gah. I should be taken out and stoned.
My wife and her sister do this thing, sometimes, where they fuck up, and when they’re done fucking up, they call someone up and confess. And I have always found that to be silly and unfair and more than a little bit dishonest: here, Jiminy, YOU be my conscience. Tell me I was wrong and then absolve me of this guilt. Oh hon, I drank so much and ate half a cake even though I told myself over and over I was going to stay sober and eat right. Yeah, you’re right, it’s such a bummer. Oh, thanks, yeah, I guess it’s not so bad after all. No. You’re a big girl. You fucked up? YOU hold you accountable. It was YOUR RULE you broke. This bullshit reformation means nothing if it requires my participation. You’re taking from this exchange quiet permission to fuck up again, because you know I will absolve you. And I can only absolve you, because I love you and because your failures never mean as much to me as they should to you.
I fucked up with Rock. He was a good guy with a difficult family and a sad story, and he couldn’t go home, and maybe he had to be homeless, but he didn’t have to be friendless. He’s alive – or, at least, he was alive, somewhere in New Jersey, at one point squatting in an abandoned row house, at another point selling drugs, apparently getting many tattoos along the way. The last picture I saw of him showed tattoos on his face. I’ve kept tabs on his alive-ness via people with much more courage and humanity than I’ve had. The truth is, I’m now such a completely different person than I was then, one way or another Rock and I would probably not be hanging out today. Still. It’s a shame. It’s my shame.
Hey, be good to your friends, eh? Regret is a terrible thing, and absolution will not come from airing out your shit down the line. Confessing your sins will not bring you forgiveness, even from yourself. Be good to your friends.