Thursday, July 26, 2012

Curtis

I have been putting off writing about Curtis. I try not to name names too often in my blog posts. Sometimes strange and mysterious musings float through my mind and end up typed out. There is no reason my imaginings should mix with helpless victims in the real world. Also some of my memories of the time I spent with Curtis will have changed over time. Just the way the human mind works. This effect is enhanced by the substances we enjoyed back then. Due to those enhancements, some of the timeline, the chronological order of events, may have shifted.

I met Curtis in high school around 1972. You couldn't be a student at our high school in those years without at least knowing of him and his outrageous antics. He was a frighteningly bright and hyperactive teenager. His mother, a bonafide character in her own right, was a classic stage mother. She got him spots on local TV kiddie shows where he did stage magic. By the time I met him in drama class he was doing card tricks, comedy and impressions. We hit it off as friends right away. He was one of those guys you either liked or hated. The card tricks, constant jokes and frantic way of talking really put some people off. I wasn't known for being hyper but my mind was always racing with it's own version of ADHD. He provided a stream of stimulating talk and challenges.

Overall he was a friendly good hearted guy, if insecure (then again; in high school who wasn't?). He got along with other cliques beside the drama/comedy ones we shared. As much as high school divides up people into specialized social groups, crossovers are not as big a problem as sad stories in the media would have you believe.

We were in several plays together at school. Theatre folk develop a special kind of bond putting up shows. There are many stories of the times we had doing plays. Like the time we were doing Thornton Wilder's "The Long Christmas Dinner". It was winter time so he went out caroling one night. Only he and his buddies were drunk off their asses. Who ever was driving hit the gas causing Curtis and whoever else was siting on the trunk of the car to slide off with a thump. We were set to do the one act 5 times the next day. Eric Tallman had to fill in for him with script in hand. By the third time through Eric was off script.
Oh Je-Zus is that what I looked like?

Shanda Witham (aka Ann Larent), Curtis Abbott,  Jeff Sandige (Jeff met a heartbreaking end)

One thing that I enjoyed was when he would tell jokes in front of the whole school at the, more or less mandatory, Pep Rallies. For a guy still in high school he had a good grasp of how to work an audience. He and I would brainstorm what jokes he could tell. Often we would be outside the gymnasium cutting class just before the rally feverishly refining down the list of jokes for that week. Bouncing ideas off of each other till the last minute. This all ended abruptly when he tested his limits a bit farther than they should go. He could be topical, joke about general high school events, have Kirk Douglas read the morning school bulletin, that all worked. When he made an off color joke about one of the humorless math teachers who as also a grumbly wrestling coach . . so much for Pep Rallies.

Theatre continued when we went to Jr College. He branched out into dramatic rolls. He had the lead in a particularly good production of "Richard the Second". He was a gut wrenching Mel in Neil Simon's black comedy "Prisoner of Second Avenue". He and I put together a comedy act that included magic that we did for the other students. This was about the time his grip on reality began to slip.

I didn't see much of him for a couple of years. In 1978 I got a job at Arrow Liquors at Columbus and Mt. Vernon (its a tax preparation place now). He had a job at the Arco gas & convenience store across the street. Except for working at the concessions in Hart Park* during high school this is the only job I know of him ever having. He didn't have it for long.
* just like Steve Martin in the movie "The Jerk" one of his jobs was driving the miniature railroad.

I take that back. The wife of one of our college professors Dr. Chapman was a kindergarten teacher. She had the bright idea of utilizing his skills at doing voices on a kid's show on local TV. Weekday afternoons for a few weeks or months the two of them would be on Channel 17 in the afternoons faking it like crazy. She was on screen as I recall, while he was behind a backdrop manipulating puppets. A'la Kukla Fran and Ollie. I don't know if you have ever had the task of filling 25 minutes of air but while he was a skilled voice guy and performer you still need material to do. The part that really astonished me was that the TV station actually put them on the air with a poorly painted set made of cardboard. The puppets literally made of decorated foam rubber with paper plates folded in half for mouths. The show had it's charms and I would pay dearly for a copy of one of the episodes. But really; What were they thinking?

He lived in a house that his mom owned off of Belle Terrace for a while. Then in a shack behind his grandparents' home on the alley side. When he lived there the whole house/shack looked more like the garage you see to the right.  This is where he and I spent 2 or 3 years drinking and smoking pot several nights a week. We called it Tortilla Flat after the John Steinbeck novel.
In a foreword to a 1937 Modern Library Random House edition of the book, he wrote: "..it did not occur to me that paisanos were curious or quaint, dispossessed or underdoggish. They are people whom I know and like, people who merge successfully with their habitat...good people of laughter and kindness, of honest lusts and direct eyes. If I have done them harm by telling a few of their stories I am sorry. It will never happen again." This foreword was never reprinted.
I remember him playing guitar and making up songs. "You're a Mustang and so's Your Car" about a girlfriend that dumped him. "My baby" ain't got no arms - She can't do me no harm, cause she ain't got no arms. This one had many verses along those lines.
When the loquats were ripe we would make Loquat Daiquiris. He spent his days practicing guitar or card tricks in front of a mirror. We planned and planned doing stand up again. We came up with several fun ideas for opening our own comedy clubs. His mental disorders were getting worse and we were was just plain old chicken and too stoned to follow through at that time.
Lucky's Laff-o-Mat bar and laundry never happened to the detriment of all mankind.

During part of this time span I was seeing a girl named Rhonda. She was pretty and fun to be with. A country girl that, when she wore a tube top, made more than my heart go pitter pat. She was unfortunately also not particularly kind to me in the areas that really mattered. Curtis would tell me "She's just using you" and "She's making a fool out of you." This was true enough but sometimes being used kinda feels good. For a while at least, until self esteem starts butting in. He was so mad at me. The quick reaction was to think he was jealous of the time I spent with her. I knew him better than that. This is also the reason I have never felt afraid to be around him even when he was acting quite literally insane. The one thing that he cannot abide is injustice or hurting people.

Most of this happened over 30 years ago so I suppose the statute of limitations has run out but just in case I'll save the more questionable stories for oral history. One thing that stands out however is the way Curtis would get worse than any junkie when the pot ran out. This lead us to travel to some scary parts of town to find a matchbox full or some joints. One night at about 1 AM we ended up on what is now called Dr Martin Luther King Jr Blvd. As you can guess this is the part of town where the black people lived. We stopped outside a nightclub that at the time was called The Cotton Club. I was scared to death because of the reputation of this place. It looked like it was packed inside. Outside there were 30 or so people in various states of drunkenness or whatever. While I lagged behind he burst out of the VW van and marched up to the most animated group of guys. We were the only non-blacks for blocks. Right off he inquired about getting some dope. Followed quickly by "I'm not the heat man". I think they could tell that. He then pulled out a deck of cards and proceeded to do sleight of hand "Is this your card?". "If you guess wrong you have to give me a joint". The guy took the bet. Every time he got it wrong the danger warning in my head got louder. By the time Curtis stormed back to the van and we sped away he got us 6 joints. He had that old VW bus for years. Petal to the metal or stopped was the only way he drove. That was not the only time I was surprised to get back to his place in one piece.

By 1982 or so he was on a medication that was so strong he only got the shot once a month. He started manic and out of control, after a few days he calmed down. Then slept most of the next week or so. He would start to perk up about 10 days before the next shot. I drifted into other interests and joined a group of partiers who, were a bit younger than me but full of energy and ready for doing crazy stunts. A fun time is a fun time but I needed to change out of the rut I was in and let go of partying as a lifestyle and major past time. I went to massage school. I didn't see much of Curt after that. He attacked his grandfather with a claw hammer I was told and wound up in Patton State Hospital for a while.
The first time I visited him at a board and care h intimated to me the secret of the card paper that encloses a book of matches. If you smoke it, it will get you higher than the best weed. Before I left he gave me half of a joint filled with shavings of the card paper. I didn't smoke it.
Patton forensic psychiatric hospital located
in San Bernardino County Ca. was opened in 1893.
I saw his grandfather afterwards, he seemed undamaged. Later Curt occupied a house near the Tortilla Flat house but he was so sleepy from medication that practicing card magic was useless and he had trouble keeping a rhythm on the guitar. A few years later I went to see him at a different board and care house in a very low rent area. The conversation was light and funny like old times. He told me about the dynamics of living in that place. The bullying and drug use of the other patients. Then he started telling me about how the pattern of veins in his arm would become animated and tell him stories. It made me think of that Ray Bradbury book/movie "

He turns up ever few years usually in a different board and care. I will often get flurries of phone calls mostly incomprehensible but generally conveying anger or need of some kind.The last time I saw him he had called and asked for some food and a guitar one day last year. I guess because of the medications the thin wiry guy I remember was more than a little fat, missing teeth ( I assume from pissing people off and poor hygiene) and showing signs of living outside. I dropped off a case of the ramen noodles he asked for but never did figure out a way to get him a guitar. All he had to offer in return was half of a joint filled with shredded match book paper. I didn't smoke this one either but who knows? He has been smoking it for over 10 years that I know of.  Figuring the guitar would be stolen or broken rather quickly I thought 'I'll spot one at a yard sale.' Never did. I am pretty lazy but the whole scene is so depressing. He also has had an ongoing rant about how the Beatles stole songs from him. This has become focused on Sir Paul McCartney's Back in the U.S. Live 2002. I actually bought a copy intending to give it to him, but like I said, visiting him is so depressing.

After I went to see him I started getting phone messages every few days. I spoke to the people I did theatre with in college and still see every week or so. They get the messages too. It is pointless to pick up the phone because he doesn't stop talking long enough to listen. The only calls I get on my land line are robo-calls and Curtis. I just let them pile up. They stopped after his birthday in March of 2011. His keepers keep him away from the phone if they can. Then I got this message just the other day.

Pretty coherent as these kind of messages go. He's talking about the McCartney album again. The thing that finally caused me to give in and type out some of my remembrances of my friend Curtis came in the mail today.




Another recurring theme the last few years is the one where I supposedly owe him for the jokes he gave me that I some how reuse for profit. I'm not really sure. What is obvious is that whatever money he lives on, from the state or SSI I assume, is controlled by a conservator. This means that he has little or no pocket money. I doubt that he can cash checks. It is not far from my house so I went ahead and dropped by with a few bucks. 

 


He looked better than the last time I saw him. Thinner. Much calmer too. I didn't want to make a big deal out of the iTouch camera so I wasn't holding it up and missed his face. A minute later I got a still of him as he looks today. He started to offer to get me some hash (made from matchbook covers?) then switched into something about the McCartney album.  Feel free to send him a few bucks or an old guitar. Or send it to me and I'll pass it along (my zip is actually 93305). 

If you have a memory or anecdote of Curtis or a correction to what I have here, type it in the comments just below this post. If you know of someone who might be interested in this blog post feel free to send then the page address. Remember to include the www, I've gotta get around to fixing that one of these times. 

Update 1/28/18 - That was the last time I saw or heard from Curtis. A mutual friend Garry W. works at a machine shop a few blocks from the Lake street address. Curtis would show up there, sometimes making a scene. That stopped a few years ago. In the vagaries of my memory I recall something about his case workers relocating him in the LA area so he won't bother people here.  

I assume his mother is dead. His sister Launi Hunt died in 2016. I was invited to the service but did not go. I would know no one there I thought. I hadn't seen her in 40 years. You never know though, someone might have remembered him. Since I had the email address I contacted Launi's son Daniel. He emailed back that he never knew Curtis, his mother kept him away.  Also that said he would ask around but he doesn't live in the area any more. I never heard back. 

2 comments:

  1. I sure did hate him before I loved him. Then, I just loved him.

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  2. Curtis was always polite to me, even though I didn't run in his 'circle' back in high school. He has wandered through my mind over the years, and I was devastated to learn of his problems. My memories of him helped me to build up my own confidence as an adult, and I now do public speaking--for that I will always be grateful to him. Thanks for the update on an old comrade...

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