Factotum (for Peel)

IMG_5286After college I moved to the beach and got a job delivering pizzas; my friend Peel moved to New York and dabbled in homelessness and then on to Portland, where he fell in with a group of shoplifters who returned what they stole for cash, used the cash for drugs, and slept on the street.

I moved from the beach back to my hometown and temped, wrote for a few ad rags, waited tables, got a job as a secretary, then moved to Pittsburgh and started working for Peel’s dad, who owned a video store downtown, called Downtown Video.

Peel had moved back home too, to Pittsburgh, and was going to AA as punishment for something he did in Portland, probably shoplifting or buying drugs.

We both read Bukowski in college, and romanticized a life of self-abuse turned to art. Rereading Bukowski now, it’s lost its luster and I only see the layers of sadness, and the fact (maybe like Peel) Bukowski’s suffering goes back to his childhood and feeling unwanted, feeling like a mistake.

It was Peel who introduced me to the plasma donation center on campus, where you could make $20 just sitting in a chair while they sucked it out of your arm into a machine that made sloshing sounds like a Slurpee dispenser. The last time I did it, I’d been sitting there 45 minutes before they noticed the spike wasn’t set properly in my arm and had to reset it, and the needle was about the size of a Bic pen, and left a hole that took a long time to heal.

Peel worked at a grill right off campus that sold draft beer, and would fill his soda cup up with it and steer one-handed on his bike with the other hand on the beer, sucking through a straw. I don’t think he was an alcoholic or needed AA, it was like being homeless: just something he was trying on because he thought there might be a part of himself there for him to realize, but wherever that self was I don’t know.

Peel would come into his dad’s video store with his bike and baggy pants, a hoody, and stuff handfuls of videos in his backpack and then leave without saying goodbye. Maybe the fact he wasn’t drinking made it hard for him to be friends with me, even though I wasn’t much of a drinker then. He may have just associated me with that, from college.

His dad was a gruff man who’d come in to check on things once a week, and on the rare occasion I’d be there with them both, there was something much bigger between them that’s hard to describe, but wasn’t altogether good.

He was distant too with his mom, who had a frightened look that I think comes from anti-depressants, a kind of hollowed-out starkness in the eyes…I think both his parents were embarrassed or conflicted around me as their employee, knowing I was friends with Paul, and there wasn’t much they could say about him, just what a waste.

It’s strange I felt good about Peel picking me as a friend. I think so many others on campus saw him as a blight, this kind of darkness he wore, an energy you could compare to a black hole that’s attractive in its mysterious destructiveness, in trying to imagine what happens to matter drawn through a void, where it goes on the other side.

He had an awful girlfriend, and over the summer I let him live with me in my apartment for a couple months, and came home to the two of them doing it right there in the living room one time, and she had no amount of shame or shock when I walked in, just gave me this look like a snake, perhaps an invitation to join.

I thought about Bukowski driving in to work this morning, and I thought about Peel. It was one of those days driving in with the rain you catch yourself at the stoplight with the wipers going and can’t help notice the crushing normalcy of things, of life’s colors sucked dry. The fact we’ve all been in the car at the same stoplight a hundred million times, and you look over at the others and they’re all looking the same, or down at their phones, all of us in separate metal boxes with wheels waiting our turn to get into the slot and merge, to pull into our spot in the parking garage, to scan our badge, log on, start our day, and clock out. That wasn’t Peel. He saw himself between the lines in the Bukowski and Burroughs books, either the life he wanted to live for himself or the books he wanted to write, like so many other broken souls.

And when he died and I found out I was sad, but sad I didn’t feel more than I did, that I’d already distanced myself and like Peel, gone a bit cold.

Photo of a rusted wheelbarrow by Loren Chasse, at Brad’s cabin in eastern Washington.






Categories: Memoir, writing

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

27 replies

  1. This is nice and dark, gloomy but nostalgic. I like the “I thought about Bukowski” paragraph, and the last line that is its own paragraph. Lots of weight in this one. It’s heavy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had to buck up to write that last paragraph (the one you reference) so as to infuse some more energy or life into it, so I’m glad you liked that. It’s a funny exercise to distill a life and relationship down to 800 words or so. You know what I mean. Thanks for reading duder.


      • Since I started writing, I’ve been influenced by a lot of different writers. But before I started writing, there were two writers who got me thinking I might be able to write, too. I read them and thought, I could write like that. One was John Lennon, which might sound weird, I know, but I’m talking about his book A Spaniard in the Works, which was pretty much a whole lot of nonsense yet got some critical acclaim when it was published, probably because he was a Beatle if we’re being honest, because it is a whole bunch of nonsense, really. The other was Bukowski. I read them both and thought hell, if people are allowed to write like that, well, I can write like that. I don’t recall you mentioning Peel before, but I think you did well capturing his essence in so few words. I think I got it, and it was worth getting.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s a good story. I felt that way too, from Bukowski and Henry Miller. I like that liberating sense from some artists, who ‘democratize’ it for others. I’m kind of sad the Buke isn’t doing it for me like it did 20 years ago but such is life. The Franzen though was much better than 15 years ago. But not the kind of writing that makes you think you could write, not like that. He is a devil with wings. Bukowski just a devil maybe. With boils.


      • Yeah, the Lips don’t do it for me like they did when I was 22, listening to “When Yer 22.” And when I listen to “When Yer 22” now, I don’t feel nostalgia, just old. But when I read Cather in the Rye these days I can get only so far before I start thinking Holden Caulfield is a real punk ass punk. I respect the writing a hell of a lot more than I did when I was a punk ass punk myself, and though Salinger never made me think I could write, he always made me think I had a soulmate out there. I always thought, here’s a writer; here’s a guy who can write Catcher, and then turn around and write Seymour, and in both books, despite the difference in style, there’s not much difference in world view. Just a difference in the skill of the expression, and the maturity of the expressor. I don’t know how I got onto that. And not sure how it relates to anything you had to say. I might have had one too many for a weekday. Good night!!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Good thoughts, thanks for sharing with me…and good night. To Thursday, and golden slumbers.


  2. That last big paragraph and then the little paragraph that follows it. Yes.

    I never lived a colorful life. Never had a moment where I scraped by by the skin of my teeth — having to sell my blood for $20 bucks. Never read Bukowski. And it’s one of the great regrets of my life. My life has been far less vibrant than I wish it would have been as I look back on it. And there are people I know who live their lives much more colorfully than I have managed and I envy them. Like Peel.

    I regularly look at the people in the iron boxes that share the road with me and wonder if they realize their world is as gray as it really is. Or are they not even aware of the possibilities. We all go about our business — is it only me that thinks about what I’m missing or does everybody? But we just keep marching along.

    One of my favorite songs is The Pretender by Jackson Browne. It speaks powerfully to this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My mom is a huge Jackson Brown fan. I might even have that song on LP. I will listen to it tonight. So many songs of regret, there are. I never knew this, but the song Deacon Blues is like that (thanks to my mom for pointing that out), a life of wannabe artistry…tough to gag down and contemplate. Better to do something about it. And die behind the wheel.


  3. I thoroughly enjoyed the read and I can totally relate to your story both for myself and others. … like a snake, haha

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You are aging yourself with this video store mention, sir. Fun fact: there’s a blood donation station inside the Port Authority bus terminal on 8th Av and 42nd St. It’s in the back of the depot where everything rolling downward collects.

    I still read, and enjoy, Bukowski. I put this beauty in my wife’s Valentine’s Day card this week:

    I want to
    let her know
    that all the nights
    beside her

    even the useless
    were things
    ever splendid

    and the hard
    I ever feared to
    can now be

    I love

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I get what you mean about feeling flattered or proud (?) that he picked you as a friend. Maybe he appreciated that you accepted him as he was or wanted to be. Sad story though. Was the pizza job in OCMD?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The phrase “Bukowski driving into work” made me chuckle — as if he ever drove into work in his life.

    I never read him in depth, because the little dabbling I did made me feel shitty. Probably the point?


  7. I think that mythic idea people have of living like these self destructive alcoholic writers (‘he drank like a fish and was a genius, maybe if I drink till by liver turns to chalk I’ll be a good writer too’) is false all over. Do people see it as a short cut, a rite of passage they have to experience to reach authenticity?
    Sad and honest telling of your relationship with Peel, Bill. And you’d mourned him long before he died – tells you something about the man, I think

    Liked by 1 person


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