Peel died of a heroin overdose in a cheap New York hotel, probably exactly what he wanted. I saved a letter he wrote in 1992, with his careful, shaky verse: instead of my name in the address line on the envelope, he just wrote “brother.”
Most kids our age just drank and smoked pot in college. Peel had an old wooden box full of tools used for hard drugs, and took the bus to New York to buy them direct. We both followed the Beats, traded books and tapes, dreamt about writing in his dorm room or during walks on the college golf course. We deciphered lyrics by Tom Waits; they were encrypted with directions to another world far away and abstract, where we longed to be.
After college, Peel moved west and joined a ring of Portland homeless kids who would shoplift, then return the merchandise for cash and use it to buy drugs. Something about the mild climate of the Pacific Northwest and lenient return policies at the department stores promoted this kind of culture.
His dad owned a video store in downtown Pittsburgh and hired me to work the cash register with a black guy named Fonnie. I walked to work from the South Side, crossing the Smithfield Street bridge over the Monongahela River, and stood there watching clips of new releases on one screen, and images of hooded figures in the back room porn section on another.
Peel showed up one day, back in town, grabbed a handful of movies, put them in his backpack and left. He was in an AA group and hitting me up for rides to meetings, but copped a cool, shitty attitude with me and so I did the same in return, and never saw him again.
Back in college, he used to drink tap beer through a 32 ounce Big Gulp cup with a straw, while riding his bike with one hand. He was often getting into accidents, and would proudly reveal the wounds by peeling back his shirt sleeve, or rolling up a pant leg cuff.
I let him give me a ride on his bike like that once, across campus, weaving in and out of the other students, high on life. That will be the last photo in the album, today.