Paul “Blue” Nicoloff (1954-1999)

 

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Paul “Blue” Nicoloff was generally liked and respected by almost everybody on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue scene. The problem was, he never seemed to really like or respect himself. He dragged himself around town like his body and soul were a terrible burden to him- which apparently they were. When Blue killed himself a few months ago, we were all shocked, but none of us were surprised. He often talked about killing himself. A few years ago, when he got on a HUD housing program, he told me: “My lease is up for reapproval after two years. So every day, I save up one of my meds. And if they kick me off after two years, I’m going to swallow them all.” Blue suffered from some weird form of spiritual anorexia.

He seemed to deny his soul nourishment. He was the kind of guy that, if nine good things happened to him it wouldn’t mean anything to him, but the one bad thing that happened would cut deeply into his soul. And stay there forever. He once said to me: “I vividly remember every bad thing that’s ever happened to me. I remember things from the second grade where I made a mistake and the kids laughed at me. It still hurts me today.” His mind had this weird editing machine that ran every painful scene back and forth in front of his eyes. Endlessly. He largely trained his razor-sharp, critical mind on himself and sliced himself up into ribbons. Why? Who knows. Karma? He tried many things to break free from his unrelenting depression, most notably Prozac, seeing a psychiatrist, and drinking lots of beer. Nothing seemed to make a dent in it. Finally, he just gave up, and spent years holed up in his apartment, watching television from the moment he got up until he went to bed. Trying to endure his life as best he could. What made it all the more disturbing was that he seemed to have so much to live for. He was enormously talented, with that razor-sharp mind of his. Bright. Funny. Opinionated.
 10312524_892763934074484_8886104765638750851_n-1.jpg.jpg
His opinions alone- endlessly stated, on every subject- were a work of art themselves. He was a master of the New Yorker-style, single panel gag cartoon, only better. His work was not only brilliantly funny- in a dry, clever, cerebral sort of way- it was also highly conceptual. He had a unique way of looking at things, of putting the pieces together, and that was a reflection of his very original mind. Every month I avidly looked through the Berkeley Monthly, and when I saw they had printed one of Blue’s comics I would look forward to showing it to him: “See, Blue! Look! The world wants you.” Hoping to instill in him a sense that perhaps Blue should also want the world. But he never did. He just never seemed to like this world. His chronic and endless state of depression seemed to engulf him in a gray cloud of heaviness that he could never quite shake. He would look at you with those big, dark, haunted eyes that burned into you like smoldering coals, but that mostly seemed to look inward and burn into his own soul. He always seemed to be in the midst of a horrible spiritual battle. That he was losing. He would sit in the window seat of the Cafe Intermezzo drinking his Anchor Steam beer, his face would reflect such misery and suffering that folks passing by would stop and come in and say, “Cheer up, man.” But there seemed to be no cure for the psychic agony that tormented him. I first met Blue back in 1994. I was sitting on a bench on Sprowl Plaza and this gaunt, emaciated, crazed-looking, street person came up and introduced himself. He was dressed in torn rags, no socks, with the hollow, sunken eyes of a concentration camp survivor. It turned out he had subscribed to my newsletter years ago when he was a cab driver in Austin, Texas (his last job).

·

 1922314_892763344074543_5554126442617125627_n-1.jpg.jpg

He was just a name on my mailing list. And now here he was in front of me. He said that Berkeley seemed sort of interesting from my newsletter, and he couldn’t think of anything else to do. So here he was. He said he had been sort of watching me for a whole year before he got up the nerve to introduce himself- which was typical of Blue, for he put a lot of thought into everything he did, often with the most convoluted reasoning. He presented himself largely as a total loser. “I’ve totally given up on life. Which is why I’ve been homeless for the last year. I just don’t care anymore.” But as we walked down Shattuck I remember him looking me in the eye, with those haunted eyes of his, and declaring, “I’m a genius, you know!” He was certainly right out of central casting for the modern-day Van Gogh/tortmented-artist role. Only, inexplicably, his cartoons came out light and funny in spite of his dark, dark world view. Of course, he had a loathing for pretension and artifice that prevented him from playing out the artiste role. Mostly, he presented himself to the world as this plain, unassuming, almost Jack Webb-ish, nothing-but-the-facts-ma’am kind of persona. But he was aware of the great pool of talent within him, talent that he never quite completely harnessed- primarily due to the crippling depressions that seemed to suck the very life out of him. But the few bits and pieces of artwork that did squiggle out into the world hinted at this deep reservoir of creativity within him. After a couple of years of being homeless, Blue got on SSI and got himself a cheap room at the Amhurst Hotel. Typically, he didn’t take the room with the window view of Shattuck, but a cramped, dank, windowless, little cave in the middle of the floor. Blue denied himself at every point in his life.

10374058_892763620741182_7838342718149989742_n-1.jpg.jpg We responded: “You mean it’s not discovery, it’s invention?” “Exactly,” he said.“So you feel life is meaningless and we just project meaning onto it that’s not really there?”

“I’m positive of that, in fact.”

“So that’s what you MEAN?”

“Yes, that’s what I mean.”

“Get it?”

But he never quite got it. To his dying day, Blue invested great meaning in his projection, ironically enough, that life was meaningless. His nickname on the radio show was The Take Umbrage Man. And he was ever ready to gleefully jump on, and savage, the slightest falsehood or pretension. In truth, his aggressive, belligerent attack mode was his transparent attempt to build some kind of armor to protect himself, to appear tough and hard, when in fact he was

painfully soft and hypersensitive. Many times after the radio show on the walk home, Blue would slip back into his ever-rejected persona: “I know nobody wants me to do the show.” And I’d have to try and convince him, yet again, that he was great. To know Blue was to walk on eggshells around him, for he was ever ready to interpret the slightest hint of criticism as a devestating personal rejection. After which you wouldn’t see him for six months or a year. Considering this built-in, self-defeating mechanism that doomed everything he tried, “plop” artist Richard List pointed out: “The amazing thing isn’t that he killed himself, but that he managed to last as long as he did.” For the mere act of existing, of facing another day, took a monumental, even heroic, effort on Blue’s part. Despite hsi dark outlook, Blue had a great sense of humor and laughed loudly and from the belly. I remember one radio show when we played Rodney Dangerfield albums. Rodney droned: “I have a terrible sex life. Terrible. Are you kiddin’? Why, I wouldn’t get any sex at all if it wasn’t for who I am (pause)… A rapist.”
No automatic alt text available.Blue laughed and laughed until tears flowed. Blue had a cheeky love of the outrageous, of anything that went beyond the norm of acceptable good taste. He relished saying things that would shock and unsettle. Perhaps because he, himself, was so shocked and unsettled by life. After a beer or six, Blue would often slip into his “us-Irish-guys-like-to-drink-and-fight” mode. Though he was from a soft academic/suburban background near Boston, and the only boy in a family of sisters, he took a certain pride in his willingness to stand up for himself and “mix it up”. But he was equally famous for never having won a single fight. He almost seemed to delight in his victimhood. Blue often told, with relish, the story of the time he got into it with fellow Irish brawler, one-legged Dan McMullen: “Danny’s drunk in his wheelchair and he gets into a fight with this guy on Telegraph. I’m a little drunk myself so I try to break it up. And Danny launches himself out of his chair at me. That’s when he broke my arm. Then he bites me on the leg. He’s literally hanging from my leg with his teeth in me. And I’m hitting him on the head trying to pry his teeth off of me. And it was at that point that a passerby walked by and looked at me with disgust and said: “‘YOU SHOULDN’T HIT A MAN IN A WHEELCHAIR.’” Blue would tell this story gleefully, with a smile on his face and a belly-laugh of delight. And he would deliver the punchline with the impeccable timing of a natural stand-up comedian. It was the absurdity of it all, and the misconstrued meaning of it all, that inspired his sense of humor- and his comic art- most of all. During the last year of his life, Blue had a short period where he seemed to finally be getting his life together, a pattern he would repeat many times, but never able to sustain.
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He met a wonderful young woman in a chat room on his computer. With his considerable wit he was able to charm her into coming out and visiting him. Soon, they were making plans to be married and Blue seemed happier, more self-assured, than I’d ever seen him as he showed off his “fiancee”. I didn’t see him for several months. Then one day, he sat down at our vending table on Telegraph Avenue. “It’s over,” he said, matter-of-factly. He sat there, sort of crying silently, though no tears came out. I don’t think I ever saw Blue cry. It was more like he was shuddering and grimacing from an unbearable inner pain. We talked for several hours, and it was a wrenching conversation, knowing full well the shaky ground he was on. He told me he had tried to kill himself a few days earlier, that he had swallowed several hundred of his pills. But it only knocked him out for about 10 hours. And here he was. I tried to find the words that would get through to him; that would make him see that he was great, far greater than he could possibly imagine; that life was in fact great and meaningful and magical and amazing and a precious gift; that there was a whole world out there just waiting for him to claim it.

But it was if I was talking in a foreign language. It didn’t penetrate. He could understand the concepts intellectually, but he couldn’t feel it. And yet, even then, in his darkest hour, I remember Blue responding with genuine belly-laughs at my feeble attempts to use humor to lift his spirits. Even then, he could still delight in the absurdity of it all. For, in fact, his sense of humor was the tiny little life-raft that he clung to all his life, amidst the raging seas of his stormy soul (I can hear Blue from the

1477338_892763520741192_9042437812304401630_n-1.jpg.jpgnext life sneering: “Cornball!” at my “stormy soul” analogy). Perhaps that’s why his sense of humor was so brilliantly honed: He needed it so badly. In the next few weeks, we left many phone messages for Blue and wrote several letters (never answered). Finally, we managed to entice him to come up to the Avenue and take some photographs for a yearly calendar we publish. (Did I mention Blue was a brilliant photographer?) He did come up to the Ave, but he was so discouraged he went home after 10 minutes. That was the last time we saw him. He simply just did not want to live anymore. When we got the news that Blue had committed suicide, we all went through the changes you go through when that happens. What can you really say? We all miss him. We all wish him well in the Great Beyond. Good-bye, Blue.
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A gay story

 

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Everybody is talking about gay stuff this weekend.  For a variety of reasons.  Here’s a gay story for you.

In 1976 I hit the streets of San Francisco for the first time.  I was a fucked up 19-year-old bum, basically.  Sleeping on the Fremont St. off-ramp and eating at St. Anthony’s every day, this soup kitchen in the Tenderloin.  Somehow I hooked up with this guy named Fearless Frank.  He was another homeless bum on the scene.  But he was kind and gentle and harmless.  Which is something you couldn’t say about a lot of the specimens in the Tenderloin.  And he had a good sense of humor.  So we hit it off.  Physically he reminded me a lot of Andy Warhol.  Or a cracked toymaker.   And he played up the swishy fag routine.

Originally he was from Utah from a strict Mormon family.   His family spent a lot of money on various therapies to “cure” him of his homosexuality.  To no avail.  When he was 17 he got in a drunken car crash and severely fucked up the people he hit.  His parents got sued and lost every penny they had.  So he’s 17-years-old and he’s bankrupted his family.  That was the kind of luck he had.   Fearless Frank.

So he moved to San Francisco.  The great gay mecca.  He had a couple thousand bucks in his pocket.  So he rented out a room at the Fairmont Hotel — this ultra-ritzy hotel on Nob Hill.  He ordered champagne and caviar from room service every day for a couple of days until his money ran out.   Then he hit the streets.

By the time I met him, Fearless Frank had pretty much given up on life.  He’d panhandle enough money to buy a little bottle of Thunderbird wine — which was the skid row rot-gut booze of choice during that period — and drink himself into oblivion.

After eating at St. Anthony’s we used to like to hang out and talk at this park bench at the Benjamin Swig Pavilion at 5th and Market.  In spite of it all, Frank was still bemused by life.  And he kind of accepted with equanimity that he was doomed.  And he had the fearlessness that comes from Not Giving A Flying Fuck.  I was completely fucked up myself at the time.  I Had Issues.  But I genuinely enjoyed Fearless Frank’s company.  We were just a couple of kooks.  And he had more soul than a lot of people.  If you know what I mean.

Every afternoon Fearless Frank liked to walk from the Tenderloin to the Golden Gate Bridge.  Just for something to do.  To kill time.

“When I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge I’d look down and think of jumping off the bridge and killing myself,” said Fearless Frank.   “But the view was so beautiful I’d always decide to walk back downtown to the Tenderloin.”

Then one afternoon, Fearless Frank didn’t come back.

.

Paul “Blue” Nicoloff (1954-1999)

 

10363726_892764884074389_705375957997705699_n-1.jpg.jpg
Paul “Blue” Nicoloff was generally liked and respected by almost everybody on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue scene. The problem was, he never seemed to really like or respect himself. He dragged himself around town like his body and soul were a terrible burden to him- which apparently they were. When Blue killed himself a few months ago, we were all shocked, but none of us were surprised. He often talked about killing himself. A few years ago, when he got on a HUD housing program, he told me: “My lease is up for reapproval after two years. So every day, I save up one of my meds. And if they kick me off after two years, I’m going to swallow them all.” Blue suffered from some weird form of spiritual anorexia.
He seemed to deny his soul nourishment. He was the kind of guy that, if nine good things happened to him it wouldn’t mean anything to him, but the one bad thing that happened would cut deeply into his soul. And stay there forever. He once said to me: “I vividly remember every bad thing that’s ever happened to me. I remember things from the second grade where I made a mistake and the kids laughed at me. It still hurts me today.” His mind had this weird editing machine that ran every painful scene back and forth in front of his eyes. Endlessly. He largely trained his razor-sharp, critical mind on himself and sliced himself up into ribbons. Why? Who knows. Karma? He tried many things to break free from his unrelenting depression, most notably Prozac, seeing a psychiatrist, and drinking lots of beer. Nothing seemed to make a dent in it. Finally, he just gave up, and spent years holed up in his apartment, watching television from the moment he got up until he went to bed. Trying to endure his life as best he could. What made it all the more disturbing was that he seemed to have so much to live for. He was enormously talented, with that razor-sharp mind of his. Bright. Funny. Opinionated.
 10312524_892763934074484_8886104765638750851_n-1.jpg.jpg
His opinions alone- endlessly stated, on every subject- were a work of art themselves. He was a master of the New Yorker-style, single panel gag cartoon, only better. His work was not only brilliantly funny- in a dry, clever, cerebral sort of way- it was also highly conceptual. He had a unique way of looking at things, of putting the pieces together, and that was a reflection of his very original mind. Every month I avidly looked through the Berkeley Monthly, and when I saw they had printed one of Blue’s comics I would look forward to showing it to him: “See, Blue! Look! The world wants you.” Hoping to instill in him a sense that perhaps Blue should also want the world. But he never did. He just never seemed to like this world. His chronic and endless state of depression seemed to engulf him in a gray cloud of heaviness that he could never quite shake. He would look at you with those big, dark, haunted eyes that burned into you like smoldering coals, but that mostly seemed to look inward and burn into his own soul. He always seemed to be in the midst of a horrible spiritual battle. That he was losing. He would sit in the window seat of the Cafe Intermezzo drinking his Anchor Steam beer, his face would reflect such misery and suffering that folks passing by would stop and come in and say, “Cheer up, man.” But there seemed to be no cure for the psychic agony that tormented him. I first met Blue back in 1994. I was sitting on a bench on Sprowl Plaza and this gaunt, emaciated, crazed-looking, street person came up and introduced himself. He was dressed in torn rags, no socks, with the hollow, sunken eyes of a concentration camp survivor. It turned out he had subscribed to my newsletter years ago when he was a cab driver in Austin, Texas (his last job).

·

 1922314_892763344074543_5554126442617125627_n-1.jpg.jpg
He was just a name on my mailing list. And now here he was in front of me. He said that Berkeley seemed sort of interesting from my newsletter, and he couldn’t think of anything else to do. So here he was. He said he had been sort of watching me for a whole year before he got up the nerve to introduce himself- which was typical of Blue, for he put a lot of thought into everything he did, often with the most convoluted reasoning. He presented himself largely as a total loser. “I’ve totally given up on life. Which is why I’ve been homeless for the last year. I just don’t care anymore.” But as we walked down Shattuck I remember him looking me in the eye, with those haunted eyes of his, and declaring, “I’m a genius, you know!” He was certainly right out of central casting for the modern-day Van Gogh/tortmented-artist role. Only, inexplicably, his cartoons came out light and funny in spite of his dark, dark world view. Of course, he had a loathing for pretension and artifice that prevented him from playing out the artiste role. Mostly, he presented himself to the world as this plain, unassuming, almost Jack Webb-ish, nothing-but-the-facts-ma’am kind of persona. But he was aware of the great pool of talent within him, talent that he never quite completely harnessed- primarily due to the crippling depressions that seemed to suck the very life out of him. But the few bits and pieces of artwork that did squiggle out into the world hinted at this deep reservoir of creativity within him. After a couple of years of being homeless, Blue got on SSI and got himself a cheap room at the Amhurst Hotel. Typically, he didn’t take the room with the window view of Shattuck, but a cramped, dank, windowless, little cave in the middle of the floor. Blue denied himself at every point in his life.
 

 fb_img_1494872521316.jpg
We responded: “You mean it’s not discovery, it’s invention?” “Exactly,” he said.

“So you feel life is meaningless and we just project meaning onto it that’s not really there?”

“I’m positive of that, in fact.”

“So that’s what you MEAN?”

“Yes, that’s what I mean.”

“Get it?”

But he never quite got it. To his dying day, Blue invested great meaning in his projection, ironically enough, that life was meaningless. His nickname on the radio show was The Take Umbrage Man. And he was ever ready to gleefully jump on, and savage, the slightest falsehood or pretension. In truth, his aggressive, belligerent attack mode was his transparent attempt to build some kind of armor to protect himself, to appear tough and hard, when in fact he was

painfully soft and hypersensitive. Many times after the radio show on the walk home, Blue would slip back into his ever-rejected persona: “I know nobody wants me to do the show.” And I’d have to try and convince him, yet again, that he was great. To know Blue was to walk on eggshells around him, for he was ever ready to interpret the slightest hint of criticism as a devestating personal rejection. After which you wouldn’t see him for six months or a year. Considering this built-in, self-defeating mechanism that doomed everything he tried, “plop” artist Richard List pointed out: “The amazing thing isn’t that he killed himself, but that he managed to last as long as he did.” For the mere act of existing, of facing another day, took a monumental, even heroic, effort on Blue’s part. Despite hsi dark outlook, Blue had a great sense of humor and laughed loudly and from the belly. I remember one radio show when we played Rodney Dangerfield albums. Rodney droned: “I have a terrible sex life. Terrible. Are you kiddin’? Why, I wouldn’t get any sex at all if it wasn’t for who I am (pause)… A rapist.”
No automatic alt text available.Blue laughed and laughed until tears flowed. Blue had a cheeky love of the outrageous, of anything that went beyond the norm of acceptable good taste. He relished saying things that would shock and unsettle. Perhaps because he, himself, was so shocked and unsettled by life. After a beer or six, Blue would often slip into his “us-Irish-guys-like-to-drink-and-fight” mode. Though he was from a soft academic/suburban background near Boston, and the only boy in a family of sisters, he took a certain pride in his willingness to stand up for himself and “mix it up”. But he was equally famous for never having won a single fight. He almost seemed to delight in his victimhood. Blue often told, with relish, the story of the time he got into it with fellow Irish brawler, one-legged Dan McMullen: “Danny’s drunk in his wheelchair and he gets into a fight with this guy on Telegraph. I’m a little drunk myself so I try to break it up. And Danny launches himself out of his chair at me. That’s when he broke my arm. Then he bites me on the leg. He’s literally hanging from my leg with his teeth in me. And I’m hitting him on the head trying to pry his teeth off of me. And it was at that point that a passerby walked by and looked at me with disgust and said: “‘YOU SHOULDN’T HIT A MAN IN A WHEELCHAIR.'” Blue would tell this story gleefully, with a smile on his face and a belly-laugh of delight. And he would deliver the punchline with the impeccable timing of a natural stand-up comedian. It was the absurdity of it all, and the misconstrued meaning of it all, that inspired his sense of humor- and his comic art- most of all. During the last year of his life, Blue had a short period where he seemed to finally be getting his life together, a pattern he would repeat many times, but never able to sustain.

He met a wonderful young woman in a chat room on his computer. With his considerable wit he was able to charm her into coming out and visiting him. Soon, they were making plans to be married and Blue seemed happier, more self-assured, than I’d ever seen him as he showed off his “fiancee”. I didn’t see him for several months. Then one day, he sat down at our vending table on Telegraph Avenue. “It’s over,” he said, matter-of-factly. He sat there, sort of crying silently, though no tears came out. I don’t think I ever saw Blue cry. It was more like he was shuddering and grimacing from an unbearable inner pain. We talked for several hours, and it was a wrenching conversation, knowing full well the shaky ground he was on. He told me he had tried to kill himself a few days earlier, that he had swallowed several hundred of his pills. But it only knocked him out for about 10 hours. And here he was. I tried to find the words that would get through to him; that would make him see that he was great, far greater than he could possibly imagine; that life was in fact great and meaningful and magical and amazing and a precious gift; that there was a whole world out there just waiting for him to claim it.

But it was if I was talking in a foreign language. It didn’t penetrate. He could understand the concepts intellectually, but he couldn’t feel it. And yet, even then, in his darkest hour, I remember Blue responding with genuine belly-laughs at my feeble attempts to use humor to lift his spirits. Even then, he could still delight in the absurdity of it all. For, in fact, his sense of humor was the tiny little life-raft that he clung to all

his life, amidst the raging seas of his stormy soul (I can hear Blue from the next life 10374058_892763620741182_7838342718149989742_n-1.jpg.jpg

sneering: “Cornball!” at my “stormy soul” analogy). Perhaps that’s why his sense of humor was so brilliantly honed: He needed it so badly. In the next few weeks, we left many phone messages for Blue and wrote several letters (never answered). Finally, we managed to entice him to come up to the Avenue and take some photographs for a yearly calendar we publish. (Did I mention Blue was a brilliant photographer?) He did come up to the Ave, but he was so discouraged he went home after 10 minutes. That was the last time we saw him. He simply just did not want to live anymore. When we got the news that Blue had committed suicide, we all went through the changes you go through when that happens. What can you really say? We all miss him. We all wish him well in the Great Beyond. Good-bye, Blue.

A Ghost Story

 

I’ve always been fascinated by the subject of death.  Maybe because by the time I was 20 I had already had loaded guns put up to my head, and knives up to my throat, and had come within a flick of the wrist of dying.  So death was like a daily companion to me.  It wasn’t just an intellectual concept I played around with.  I don’t know if it gave me a certain gravitas.  But it made me aware at a young age that death could come at any moment, in a blink of an eye.  So you might as well start preparing for it. I think a lot of people, they kind of block out and  repress the subject of death.  Then, when they’re old and on their death bed, it suddenly hits them all at once.

I remember  the first time I really experienced death.  The first time you experience death, it’s kind of like losing your virginity.  Popping your death cherry.  Going through all that for the first (but by no means the last) time.  My friend David McCord committed suicide right before Christmas of 1994.  29 years old, he jumped in front of a train.  David was one of those guys who was born depressed, seemingly.  He lived in a constant state of depression.  When I first met him in 1982 he was this baby-faced high school punker with a mohawk.  12 short years later he was dead.   When we got the word of David’s suicide we were all stunned.  “Shocked but not surprised,” is how one friend put it.  In retrospect it seemed almost inevitable.

Anyways, a couple of weeks after David’s death I was going through a big pile of mail.  I used to get 200 letters a month back then, so it would often pile up for a month before I got around to opening it.  So I was stunned when I came across a letter from David in the pile.  I opened it up with trepidation.  He had mailed the letter a couple weeks before he died.  It was a fairly mundane letter.  “How you doing?  Send me a copy of your latest newsletter when you get a chance.  Nothing much happening here in Chico, etc. . . ”  He had even enclosed an SASE so I could easily write him back.  But I sure couldn’t write him back now.  I stared at that letter for a long time.  It was eerie.  Like getting a communique from the Other Side.  Like David was calling out to me from some twilight zone where departed souls passed through.

I wouldn’t say I’m superstitious.  But I believe all that stuff about the After Life, and ghosts, and spirits, and haunted houses, and sacred spots, and netherworlds.

Shortly after David’s death, Mary and I decided to go out and get drunk and have our own private eulogy for our departed friend David.  Sort of an Irish wake (David was half-Irish, half-Jewish).  The weather that night was gray and drizzly and foggy.  Like the setting for a cheesy  horror movie or something.  You half expected Jack the Ripper to jump out of an alley-way at any moment.  We decided to go to the Bison Brewery, this legendary pub on Telegraph Avenue, to pound a few.  As we walked down the Ave we passed this grizzled-looking street person in a ratty trenchcoat who was panhandling in the drizzle.

“Spare any leftovers?” he said as we passed.

“Sure,” I said.  I handed him the leftover to-go Chinese food I was carrying.

“Thanks,” he said.  “I just got into town.  I just got off a train.”

Mary and I continued walking towards the Bison Brewery.  But after about a half a block, I stopped and looked at Mary and said:  “That’s weird.  Did you hear what that guy said?  ‘I just got off a train.'”

“Yeah, that’s a weird coincidence,”  said Mary,  “considering David just got killed by a train.”

“You don’t suppose . . . ” I said.

We both turned and looked back towards the street person.  But he had disappeared.  He had seemingly disappeared into the mist.  Or maybe he had went off to eat his Chinese food.  But it was eerie.  Like we had just seen a ghost.  Like the spirit of David had come back to earth to say good-bye to us one last time before his soul went off to wherever souls go off to after they die.   And a shiver went up both of our spines.

And throughout the evening, as we drank and talked about David,  we’d periodically think back to that street person in the trenchcoat who had just got off a train.  And that shiver would go up our spines again.

.

.

Suicide

.

I can’t say I’ve ever really seriously considered suicide.  Sure, there were many times in my life when I felt like giving up.   There were many times when I couldn’t stand my life, where I felt this world was just a hopeless botch, and wished I had never been born.  But I think that’s different from suicide, technically.   For one thing, even though I’m an extremely angry person,  I’m not a violent person.  So I don’t think I’m capable of committing violence against myself even if I wanted to.

I remember one time when I was in my 20s, I was talking about suicide and my friend the cartoonist John Crawford gave me some good advice:  “Ace, this life is going to be over before you know it anyways.  So what’s the hurry?”  That made sense.

My favorite writer Charles Bukowski said he felt suicidal all his life.  And that, strangely, it gave him sollace.  The reassuring thought that if this life ever got REALLY bad there was always an escape hatch out of it.  He said even when he was in his 70s, every time he’d drive his car across a bridge he’d get a sudden impulse to veer his car over the side.  But then he’d think:  “Man, that’s ridiculous.  What’s the point?  At 70 there’s not even that much left to kill.”

Of course I’ve known many people who did commit suicide over the years.  By gunshots, by bridge-jumping, by hanging, by jumping-in-front-of-trains (I’ve known THREE of those, what are the odds of that?).  One of the most ingenius ways — or at least one of the cleanest ways —  was by this registered nurse I knew.  He got into the bathtub full of water, took some kind of medication that he knew would put him to sleep, and then he painlessly drowned when he slipped under the water.  You’d be surprised how many people commit suicide and leave a big mess behind, giving no thought whatsover to the poor guys that’ll have to clean up after them!

I had this suicidal friend when I was in my 30s.  He was one of those guys you DREADED when he got on the phone.   He’d talk on and on about his personal problems.  Even worse, if you ever tried to change the subject to something else — like, say, YOUR problems —  he couldn’t be less interested.  He’d practically yawn in your face.  One of those classic, self-absorbed narccisists.   “But enough about YOU.”  He was like a black hole when it came to sucking you into his emotional void.  And he knew every trick to hook you.  Sometimes after listening to him prattle on for an hour I’d make up some excuse to get off the phone.  And he’d say stuff like:  “OK, Ace, but I just want to tell you I’m sitting here with a shotgun in my lap and I’m seriously thinking of blowing my brains out.”  So I’d tell him in so many words:  “OK, I’ll listen to you prattle on for a little longer.”  Last thing I wanted was to say the wrong thing and he ends up killing himself and I feel guilt-tripped for the rest of my life.  It was a weird form of emotional blackmail.  (Ten years later, long after he had moved on to another city, I got word that he did in fact kill himself, poor guy).

The only time I ever made a half-assed attempt at suicide was when I was about 20.  I was homeless, sleeping on an offramp in San Francisco, flat broke, covered with acne, and living in a strange city without a friend in the world.  I just felt like I had no prospects for happiness so what was the point of enduring this pointless bullshit called life?  So I decided to walk up the Fremont Street offramp to the Bay Bridge and jump off.   As I was walking up the sidewalk I passed this clean-cut young woman who looked like a secretary or something (this was right in the middle of the Financial District after all).   And for some reason I blurted out to her:

“I’m gonna walk up to the Bay Bridge and jump off!”

I have no idea why I blurted this out to a total stranger. And it wasn’t the so-called “call for help.” Because I knew there was nobody who could really help me with my problems. I think it was more like: When you’re going to do something serious, when you’re going to take drastic action, I think you want to at least run it by another person first to make sure it’s a good idea.

The woman looked at me and said;  “No.  Don’t do that.”

So I said:  “OK.”   And turned around and headed in the other direction, and lived another 37 years (and counting).  I guess it was a stupid idea in the first place.  Not to mention I was afraid of heights. Are you kidding?

In truth, the one thing that keeps me from committing suicide (aside from my general hunch that the Hindus got it right and that if you commit suicide you just come back again reincarnated in the exact same situation, only slightly worse for the bad karma of committing suicide, so you might as well stick around and deal with Your Shit while you’re here) is, well, not so much for the cheap kicks (though that often keeps me going).  But more the realization that this goddam life is SO unpredictable.  Anything is possible.  Even happiness.  So I might as well stick around and see what comes up on the next spin of the karmic wheel.

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Carlos Castaneda and the Suicide Women

If Castaneda has not been on your radar screen up until now, “The dark legacy of Carlos Castaneda” by Robert Marshall is a basic though unflattering introduction.There is biographical information– the early marriage, and, even though the marriage ended, Castaneda’s adoption of the son his wife already had from another man. We are told that he worked on The Teachings of Don Juan for seven years. The editor at the University of California Press had serious doubts, but the UCLA anthropology department convinced him to publish the book in 1968, and the Carlos Castaneda myth was off and running.

30 years later, the death of Carlos Castaneda was shrouded in mystery. A woman named Gaby Geuter wanted to become a member of Castaneda’s inner circle, but was constantly rebuffed. By 1996 she realized it wasn’t going to happen, so she and her husband Greg Mamishian started following the teacher and filming his activities whenever possible. Borrowing from the technique of government agents and A. J. Weberman, they became garbagologists and retrieved many interesting documents from Castaneda’s trash. The Gaby & Greg website was shut down in 2008 but it included a photo captioned, “Carlos being helped to the house, less than a month before he died. This was the last time we saw him…” Immediately after the sorcerer’s death, four women disappeared. An associate, Daniel Lawton, wrote,

I had telephone numbers for four of the ones who left at the same time, which were all disconnected on the same day. This, and the strange mood of the May 2 one-day workshop, led me to make certain inquiries that resulted in me learning that he was gone.

Another female member of Castaneda’s intimate group fell off the map a few weeks later. The five suicide women included two witches, a chacmool, the president of Castaneda’s company, and his adopted daughter/paramour. This is enough intrigue for anyone’s biography.

Richard Jennings (aka Corey Donovan) started a website after Castaneda’s death. Sustained Action is “devoted to exploring and evaluating the legacy of Carlos Castaneda, and to investigating other possibilities for increased awareness and expanded perception.” The webmaster did research on the women who had been so close to Castaneda and then disappeared. His records started with 1947 and ended up in 1999, tracking the lives of the fancifully re-named female disciples. In a piece called “Sex, Lies and Guru Ploys,” Donovan/Jennings gives a succinct capsule description of Castaneda:

He claimed to be the last of an ancient lineage that supposedly held the secrets not only to traveling bodily into other worlds or dimensions, but which also offered the promise of a form of immortality–evading death by keeping one’s awareness intact. He claimed to have a unique “energetic configuration”—one that he and his colleagues purportedly had not seen in any of the thousands of people they had interacted with over the past few decades—that gave him special abilities and capacities as the “Nagual.”

Amy Wallace was enthralled by Castaneda for many years and later wrote a book, Sorcerer’s Apprentice, about her experiences as a member of his inner circle. When she first got involved with him, her life was headquartered in Berkeley, so at least there was some protective distance between them. When she talked about relocating to Castaneda’s realm in Los Angeles, one of his close female companions (a witch) warned her,

Don’t move to Los Angeles. Those that do the best are the ones who take his work, use it and make it their own, and stay far away from here – the stress is too great.

But Wallace did not heed. Of course, given what she later learned of the intrigues enmeshing the sorcerer, what sounded like a warning about grave spiritual danger could have been merely a jealous reaction from a concubine already forced to share her beloved’s attention. The last thing an established favorite wanted, was another cute young college girl moving in.

Kylie Lundahl

Wallace became the confidant of Kylie Lundahl, the tall gaunt Scandanavian instructor of magical passes, or Tensegrity. (In Sorcerer’s Apprentice, she is called Astrid.) In Castaneda’s universe, Kylie Lundahl was a chacmool–a fierce guardian warrior–but it’s too complicated to go into here.

The point is, in Castaneda’s last days, Lundahl warned him that some of his people might commit suicide. To fill the emptiness, she recommended that he assign people specific tasks to carry out, once he was dead. She was talking about not only the tight inner group, but the followers who ran and worked for his organization, Cleargreen. It must have surprised Lundahl when the boss told her he didn’t care what happened to Cleargreen. But she managed to change his mind to an extent, and he did assign jobs to people as she had suggested. It kind of makes a person wonder. If he had not taken Lundahl’s advice, how many more suicides would have occurred?

In an online discussion group, Wallace talked about the final weeks of Castaneda’s life. Apparently when the witches, chacmool, and adopted daughter left, one of the other followers, Carol Tiggs, stayed behind, thinking to take on the leadership post. She told Wallace the ones who had left were “Dead, dead, dead!”

Carlos Castaneda in Acid Heroes

I Can’t Believe How Empty My Life Has Become: Part 3

(Originally published Halloween 2005)

I’ve seen them come, and I’ve seen them go.

I had one friend who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge (what a cliché). 1979.

I had another friend who jumped in front of a train and sliced himself to ribbons. 1994.

I had another friend who hung himself on his fire escape. 1999.

And I had another friend, he was a registered nurse, so he got in a bathtub and injected himself with some drug that conked him out and then he slipped under the water and died (I had to give him points for finding such a clean way to go out). 2004.

I knew a bunch of other people who wiped themselves out on drugs and drink and despair. You couldn’t technically call it “suicide”, but it certainly smacked of self-destruction. Maybe you could call it suicide by the scenic route. I knew this one woman, around age 60 she just gave up on life. She sat in her dusty apartment alone all day with her two Siamese cats, staring blankly at her television set and guzzling down endless six-packs of tall Budweisers, washed down with Nyquil cough-syrup chasers. “I’ve been waiting all my life,” she said blankly. She never quite articulated exactly what it was she was waiting for. But I guess I kinda knew.

There’s this emptiness that can drive you nuts. Most of us are pretty ham-fisted when it comes to being philosophers or religious spirits. We read a couple self-help books, try to do a little home-made psychological therapy on our brains. And then figure: “What the fuck.” Sit there and stare in space. Watch the world go by.

You can fill up your time with an endless series of distractions: “I want a cup of coffee.” “I want a jelly donut.” “I want to buy a new CD.” “I want a cigarette.” “I want to slam a big shot of crystal meth and masturbate non-stop for 48 hours”

ANYTHING to fill that gnawing hole in the pit of our souls. (It can drive you nuts, that goddam gnawing emptiness.)

Nothing really fills it. I’ve tried “success” and I’ve tried “failure.” I’ve tried “sensations” and I’ve tried “renunciations.” Nothing quite does it for very long. It’s just sort of existential I guess. It’s not even tragic (though feel free to feel sorry for me and give me plenty of good sympathy). It’s just the goddam human condition.