A Long Way From Home

A Long Way From Home

Thursday, January 28, 2010

1966: Mamet Reads Moby Dick & I Leave Vermont on a 10 Speed Bike & Peddle to Chicago

      Often times people ask me to explain what happened with me & David. Here I am --- a fairly obscure person, who fell into a deep friendship with someone who became massively famous. When I look back on these years that I knew Mamet, I often wish I would have sort of stuck with the guy, as a friend. Perhaps, then, I would not have fell into a cycle of homelessness that only got deeper and more deadly, the more I became bitter at the success & prosperity of nearly everyone I went to Goddard with [1963-6]
   I have often been encouraged, by social workers & other "do-gooders", to write about my years of being "Homeless". I was a social worker in Charlotte for many years and invariably this insistent litany of requests came from the people I worked with [1995-2003] in Charlotte, North Carolina's regional "Mecklenburg County Area Mental Health" govt. entity. Adult schizophrenics, delusional people who needed assistance keeping body & soul together.
    Indeed this post, that you are reading here, is a result of a quiet request from a wonderful friend from the early '60's, who I lost track of for years & years & years. Who, ergo, knew ZERO, NOTHING of me for 40 years.
   FOR ALL SHE KNEW, I WAS DEAD. This Beautiful Friend, Who I Lost Along The Highway of Life & who [now] utterly fails to fathom what happened to me. Well this woman gracefully & innocently asked me to "write a little" about how my demise came about.
   And so, how can I say this? It HIT ME LIKE A BOLT OUT OF THE BLUE: It's Really David Mamet that's to blame. MAMET! MAMET came up with the crazy idea of me riding my bike to Chicago from Vermont! YEAH!
   Or, wait a minute. Let me see --- I take that back --- I came up with the IDEA of peddaling away from Goddard, the pot'n LSD Stew, the gay guys hitting on me in the communal bathrooms, all that. SO: I came up with this "This Land is Your Land/My Land" approach. You know, the Highway, The Desert, The Stars.
   Uh, OK, uh -- Sure! "This Land is Your Land"? -- YOUR Land!? -- did you say? . . . Since When, Buddy? "Your Land?" Fuck! YOU! Jerk-Off. IT'S ***MINE*** MOTHER FUCKER!! This's MY, FUCKING, LAND.
---    & See This? . . . This's also MY Gun. .
             MY. LAND!! MY. GUN!!
         GET IT???
   Mamet & I were kicking back in his little sanctuary-like-dorm-room on Greatwood Campus. I was leafing thru a collection of folk-song Lyrics laying around his room. It was a lazy afternoon & we were both skipping some class. Mamet was deep into "Moby Dick" -- sometimes he would say, "Listen to This!. . ." & read Melville aloud to me.    In this folk-song book was Dylan's "Blowing in The Wind"      . . . Yes'n how many seas can a white dove sail,. . . [etc, etc & then] ". . . Yes'n How many years can a mountain exist, before it is washed to the sea?" The Waste that was my life, it suddenly hit. It was like I had been slugged. I quietly looked over at Mamet, sprawled out on his bed, engrossed in his book & quietly said, "David? I got an Idea."
   "I want you to advise me about something."
   David lazily looked over at me "Geeze!" he said, as he often did, to the ceiling.
   He flashed that wonderful-warm-ironic-smirking-smile of his. He "Oh, No. OK, OK, OK." He laughed his warming, chuckle laugh & chided me: "Oh, Wells -- whatca got?"
   I just told him, "I think what I'm gonna do is, I'm going to get on my bike and ride away. Just ride away from this crap-heap. I'm gonna hit the road"
   .    I remember it so well: Mamet instantly warmed to the idea. Infact, he got ALL excited about this! ---- IMMEDIATELY. & For over an hour that afternoon, it was all we could talk about.
    Mamet came up with the idea of riding to Chicago. Of us meeting there. Of maybe involving Berger, too. The "Z" Cards? MAMET, DEFINITELY!! Give me a BREAK!! Who ELSE Woulda Thought Up Something So Crazy!?!
    "Fucking Yeah! Wells!! THAT'S BRILLIANT! Ride Your Bike Away. Oh, Holy Shit! Yes!! Ride a BIKE!! to Chicago, man. & I'll set it up with Bernie that you meet me there. We'll get an apartment on the North Side, near Second City. Oh, Wells. This'll be GREAT!!"
See: David Mamet was just God's Instrument! Buta very persuasive force in my pathetic 1966 orphan-life -- a crucial time.
   Precisely as he was to be a few years LATER, in Chicago Theater & later in Hollywood. Precisely in the way he moved a whole generation of writers and theater-goers in America. Yeah, Mamet & a whole pantheon American Ideas. David Mamet was & is --- A Force. Poor Eric, Caught in this Tornado of a Man of Ideas, then hammered on anvil of "Moby Dick", Poe & Hemingway.
   Plus don't ever forget Dylan & Woody Guthrie & Pete Seegeer; or that Viscious Freak-Show War we had all been invited to, Viet Nam. STANDING ROOM ONLY, LADIES & GENTLEMEN! GET YOUR TICKETS HERE!
   Now, if you have read the previous two chapters of this blog [concerning David & I at Goddard] you will already know that I was considerably more "Famous" and "Known" than David was when I had met him.    So, as I thought about writing this Chapter, I was mildly surprised to realize that the story of my "Homeless Years" begin just about the time David and I get back from Provincetown -- i.e. Chapter 2.
   I was deeply involved with Ellen who, 3 years later, would kill herself at Goddard. It begins in the summer of 1965.
   My father & I were a bit out of touch with each other. No doubt I called him occasionally on the phone, but my father was very devious and did not trust the phone much [& he absolutely hated paying for a collect call] so ---- even if he accepted the charges, which was maybe half the time, i.e. he was not drunk the night I called him at home [i.e. if I ever called him at work it would only be because I was in the hospital or Dead --- my father would pick up the phone & simply say, "What is it son?" What I mean is: I never really knew if he was listening to what I needed to explain to him at ANY given time.
   I had found a summer job. In Vernont, right there at Goddard! I was hired to work in the "Records Office" --- with Corrine Mattuck, the Registrar. She had been my academic counsellor during my Freshman year. She was a sort of motherly figure. A stickler for detail, though & not an easy person to work for.
   Since I could type pretty fast, though & she liked me alright, she gave me a job helping her generate the transcripts. It was a very detailed and tricky job. You could not make mistakes. What you typed was written in stone. In Triplicate!! We used an electric type-writer and a blank form, with carbons, & I had to fit in all the comments and grades, etc. My job was to take her written draft & create an official College Transcript. No erasures, of course. Well I did that all summer in Plainfield, Vt. The weather was pretty nice, most of the time. I can't remember what I was paid, but it could not have been much. Infact it wasn't nearly Enough.
   I saved all my money so, on weekends I could afford the gas to drive my old '52 Pontiac down to Boston to spend precious time with Ellen. This was a big mistake because I was not taking good care of myself or getting enough sleep. I was not playing music either, or writing any songs. I was Depressed, really, although I was giving guitar lessons to a little girl [whose mother also worked in the Records Office, in Cabbot, one evening a week. I would drive, I think it was Tuesday evenings, to Cabbot and get a free meal from her while I gave her daughter lessons. Actually the whole summer was an insane and lonely time for me.
   At some point I remember I drove down to NYC and met a woman who I knew. She had known me pre-Goddard, Summer of '62. We had met at a kind of "Folk-Camp" run by the Putney School. She took one look at me and said, bluntly: "Man, you are looking old. You're hair is falling out. You used to be so cute, Eric." She quickly let me know she could not be seen with me. And, yeah, I was a mess. She had that right.     Although I was working full time, in Vermont, I slept in my car! Even in New York City, I slept in my car.
    I did not rent a room or get an apartment in Plainfield, like any sane person would have. I ate very, very little. I was a mizer with my money. See, I didn't [yet?] know how to live alone & take care of myself. . . getting some food & cooking it, buying suitable clothes or even washing my clothes! . . . or how to relax, kick back & watch TV. I was already a Hobo: The only things I cared about was my friends, singing & playing guitar & Ellen that summer. Nothing else was of much interest to me. My life was already On-The-Road. I LIVED "On The Road." Hell with reading the damn thing. Every once in awhile I would drive to Cambridge and sleep on Jeffrey's floor. Take LSD if I had a few days off. It was crazy, man, crazy.
   I always worried about Ellen, who I suppose worried about me. So by the end of the summer my life was already, taking on a shadow of "homeless-ness": IE sleep in the car & no phone # & no place to shave, no bed or stove or refrigerator or anything.
   Well, I show up at Goddard on the day of "Registration for Fall Semester" & go to find out my father has not paid my tuition. It was, if I remember right, $1,550. Which, back in those days, was a relatively average expense for a couple of semesters at a college.    But for a college STUDENT?! Today, if I asked you to go out in your neighborhood & find a million dollars to borrow, it would be about the same.     When I got my father on the line [collect, Goddard never even helped me reach him] he complained about the collect charges & said he did not have the money to send. I was stunned.     What was I going to do?
   Certainly everyone knows how crazy and wild Registration day is in September on a College Campus. It surely is, to this very day.
    everybody gettin' ready to party that nite, choosing classes, wondering if they are gettin' laid that nite with somebody they missed all summer, etc, etc.     Well, I suddenly had No Friends, when it came to money problems. I mean, Berger did really feel bad for me, but WE had no Money!! $1550.00??? You gotta be kidding! Perhaps, way back in June, I could have gone thru some agency in NJ or NY or Vermont that would have helped me finnesse a student loan. Or Something. Duh? But, now, here, suddenly, in September, I was told --- don't unpack your bags; you have no dorm room here; you cannot eat here; you have no funds to buy your books here; you cannot attend any classes either. Infact, buddy, for all we know --- you're trespassing! So, Get Out. Or come up with the money ---- in 24 hrs. You Have 24 Hours.
   THEN: a professor, Will Hamlin, who was on some academic review board of the school, heard about my showing up without my tuition paid-in-full & put my name on a list of students who were to be "reviewed" for both behavior & standing. Corrinne Mattuck [my boss that summer] did help me by placing a number of phone calls to my father & maybe even my mother [whoknows?] & got the tuition paid. My father told me months later he had to take out a real expensive loan at his bank to cover this. And who was I to ask for money when he had supported his own self, "During The Depression, Son" --- from the age of 15. That he had financed his own way thru school, etc. etc. etc. Berger was really irate over this &, the one time he had met my father, Berger had barely spoken to him because he got, ". . . such a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach," --- I think is about the way he put it.
   One thing that puzzles me is Mamet's reaction to all this & I simply draw a blank: I don't remember him involved in this crisis at all. Although, later, we became much closer & he would have helped in whatever way he could, probably I leaned most on Michael Berger and Michael Ventura. Ellen I remember was deeply troubled about me possibly having to leave.    Mamet's family -- as he had told me -- in Chicago were actually pretty wealthy. Infact, David had two families: His real family and his step-family. "Bernie" -- how often I had heard about "Bernie" and his hot-shot lawyer job with the Unions out there! Mamet painted a rosy picture of all this, although he did say his real father was difficult for him to get along with.
   Not that he could have gotten ME any money from Bernie! Jesus, no. Mamet and I were alike in that way: our families just expected us to hustle up whatever cash we needed. School of hard knocks, find a job & Get Paid. & Don't ever forget the Depression, kid. You think you got it hard? Please, son --- If We Starved When We Were Young, Then So Can You." -- That was the Mid-western ethic both David & I had been raised with.
   However, there was one CRUCIAL Difference: David could call his parents for Advice. Whereas my crisis was CAUSED by my parents!    But --- be that as it may --- none of that happened, because Mamet & I were not [yet] Really Close. But we were to become so, during the next whatever months and years to come. And, who knows? --- perhaps Mamet & I gravitated towards each other, not only because we were both astonishingly creative, in our own ways, but also because we both distrusted parental perceptions & believed most deeply in friends & lovers. Loyalty to one's Friends & Fidelity to a Vision were the touchstones that would become central to both our lives. So often in Mamet's work: Loyalty and Deception are central to the motivation of his characters in his work. And David was, of all things, so very loyal to our friendship and trust.
   True to form my father also went to his little manual typewriter one night and wrote me a short note, saying I had to come down there & sign some documents he had for me. [I remember meeting him in Manhattan, at his bank & conned into signing a bunch of papers that indebted me to the state of NJ for over a thousand dollars, later on. I signed them.     It came back to haunt me for year and years, that I had signed this shit on his advice. I never did pay NJ back either. The interest went higher and higher, until it dwarfed the Principal. Fuck them all, is the way I always felt. Miraculously, in about the year 2000, they finally gave up.]
   I had to take out a Student Loan for any further education of mine. That I was a burden to him. That he was marrying Vivian & my mother was filing for divorice & he didn't need me and my problems, that I had to start "Working And Taking Better Care of Yourself." Stuff like that. The New World Order of the Wells family had just been announced in no uncertain terms. Him not paying my tuition was just a "shot accross the bow." Don't think Robert C. Wells didn't have better aim & could sink my boat any time he felt like it. I assure you my father would not have hesitated for a moment if I ever challenged him on a issue like this. I loved my father, fortunately & --- though he was an impossible human being in many ways & had a cruel streak as deep as it was long --- ultimately he was an extroadinary man & when I look back on the tricks he pulled now and then, I can only marvel. My sisters and brothers were not so lucky. True they saw a hell of a lot more of him in his later years than I did. But, as the old saying goes, "familiarity breeds contempt." And since I was homeless and out of touch with my father for years and years, I kept the best parts of him in my heart. Whereas my poor brother and 2 sisters --- they saw all the dirt and lonliness turned bitterness that he was capable of. I did not nor would I have seen it. I would have just laughed and gone on and lived my life, as I knew my father did most of his tricks just because he was ten times as alive as any of his children. And he always had a grudging respect for my stubborn approach to life: as he could tell, I did not hedge my bets in Life's crapshoot. Truly, my cynical approach to life exactly mirrored his.
   So then there was about a week where I was on "Probationary Status"--- until the school officially let me in. It was not fun. If I had sex with anyone during all this, I bet it was only with myself.     Ellen, my 'Girlfriend', was never much help thru all this. It was, I think, in October or early November, she came to my room and I told her I was leaving her. She was a remarkably fragile person & it was about the most painful thing I ever did. Boy I remember wishing I had the money to make some phone calls in those days. I had noone to talk to. I was really getting lost. Goddard did send me to a psychiatrist who had an office way up, near the slopes, in Stowe. He was a wonderful man, astonishingly perceptive, who had only one arm. But, hey, what good could that really do? In the end, I was fucking on my own & I knew it.    I took up with a new and really pretty girl named Michelle. Beautiful body, fantastic dancer, kisser, and great, Great in bed. She moved in with me, as if we were suddenly husband & wife. She liked my music.
   Time passed, David & I got close, that trip to Provincetown happened, then I sort of draw a blank --- like a whole file of memory & time has been lost in there & suddenly it is early Spring, 1966. Mamet takes me into his room, insisting we be alone when we talk, & he tells me exhaustively why Moby Dick & Herman Melville are so crucial to, "Life & Everything! Eric. Ya Gotta Read Melville! It'll change your life." etc. etc. I do remember that so well.     One night he comes to my room and asks me if I want to take a walk. I say sure. It is sort of raining or misty. Nobody is out. We stumble around, like we always did, like we were nine or ten years old, graceless. I think we had a few Budweisers, too. Infact, almost definitely we did because we had sunk down with out feet in the mud, on a downed tree that was part of this nw parking lot the school had just created a few weeks before. We both hated this set of what are called "Mercury Lamps" --- i.e. they are what you used to always see in parking lots in those days, a huge ghastly glare and a low hissing sound comng out of them.
   "FUCK!! IT!!! Eric, listen to that thing hiss . . . Can you believe they put this stupid bright lights here in our wilderness? Can you believe they are spending our money to ruin our home, our college, our alma mater, our Robert Frost- peace-'n-quiet?" etc.    Mamet suddenly stood up and walked over to where the bulldozer had left a pile of debris --- he calmly fished out a bunch of rocks. He handed me one.    He said, "Let's Protest!!! Let's knock the thing out, killit!!" I must have agreed this was what was needed, that it was the solution to something & surely Melville would approve. Well, fuck, David would know. He's Read Moby Dick --- All of it!
   So for about five or six minutes we are aiming these rocks at this well-shielded but still not completely fool-proof parking-lot illumination device.
    All our rage, at Everything & Our Non-Place in It, was aimed at that lamp. It was pretty far up there, too. Suddenly both him & I actually start connecting with the glass cover. We realize that the only thing missing now between us is timing our throws, TOGETHER, so our rocks hit at the same time. We both drink some beer and catch our breaths: We count down 1,2,3, and throw together. BAM!! The light explodes, exactly like in Apocolypse Now, when they are fragging villiages with napalm. The light instantly is silenced & the woods grow dark all around us.
    David & I look at each other: I will never forget how surprised, shocked, afraid & elated we were, all a the same time., "Holy Shit!!!"
    Infact, almost defnitely, we both screamed, "OO''###AAUUaaaaurrrrrrggggggh, FUUUUUGGGGGHHHHHUUCCCK-IT" -------------I vividly Do remember how quickly we got the hell out of there, because the explosion was so loud, we were sure somebody would come to find us there if we did not get away, NOW!!
   This actually sort of changed our relationship. After that Mamet seemed to admire me a little and pity me at the same time. David & I grew closer that Spring. But, as time would tell, our friendship would always prove to be a walking-talking-contradiction. He loved me and couldn't stand me. He admired me and pitied me. He stood up for me and deplored me. He found me shelter and ripped me off. It was always like that.    And, from the little I have heard from some others, I was not the only friend [Then/'65'thru'68 or so] who ran up against this in him. Or maybe in all of us? Maybe. Maybe.

    It was about this time that something serious happened to me. I supposedly had a roomate but he was of no use when I needed someone to talk to. I talked sometimes with Berger but I remember even that friendship deteriorated. My sex life was suddenly nil --- I had been there, done that. I stopped going to class. I had a music-theory class I loved very much, which I kept going to, because I loved the secrets transmutted via Piston's traditional but quite clear explanation of the hurdles I needed to jump.    There was one big problem: I did not have any experience playing the piano. I had not even learned to finger scales. I taught myself this, because my teacher [a pig from South Africa, who sweated under his arms morning, noon & night and stunk like a pig, and acted like one and looked like one, too.] As much as I was learning, one could not demonstrate or hear or express musical ideas minus a keyboard: Nothing Shall Be Revealed seemed to be the mantra cursing my life. I sunk into the first of many, many clinical depressions I would go through in the years to come. Sleep was the only drug I knew of. For about four solid weeks I barely could make it to the dining room once a day, often not even that.
   Mamet came to my room and told me to get up and come out for a walk. He brought me food every once inawhile. Cigarettes too. Somehow, I can't remember how, I got some money together and bought a bicycle, a 10 speed, almost new, that one of the rich kids had and didn't want anymore. It was about early May.     Mamet & I cooked up this plan --- Berger & Ventura were in on this, too as advisors, observers --- where me, him and Berger would meet in Chicago on a pre-arranged date. Mamet said his step-father Bernie could get us "Z-Cards" [a US Merchant Marine Document, Issued by the Coast Guard] because Bernie was an attorney for the Union that ran the Merchant Marine Hiring Office on the Great Lakes. i.e.> Iron Ore vessels that went up into Canada all summer and fall> and us 3 would make a lot of money doing this. A Lot of Money, he assured us.
   & Plus of course, "It will be Fun!" this is the declamatory kind of statement Mamet would make about anything. He was very optimistic, hopeful. Also he wanted to introduce us to His Chicago. He really did love the damn place
   Well, I decided, suddenly, my part in the plan would be this: I would leave Goddard early, not even finish the semester out. I would ride the bike to Chicago, cure my depression that way and have an adventure in the bargain. And also get in better physical shape for work because sleeping so much and not eating had really been torture on my physical shape as well as my mind.
   For a couple of days I sat around and tried to put a carrier made of a 2x4 & some nails and wire, on the back of the bike. It was a mess & would not work. So, not wanting to be at Goddard anymore I did something I wished, once I looked back on it, I had not done: I found somebody's bike on campus who had a "carry-all" made of steel, with one of those spring-loaded arms on it, stole it, got some wrenches & bolts & nuts & put it on my bike. Then I put a sleeping bag I had & & a few shreds of clothing that would fit on ithe back, tied it all down & sat in the shade, sipping a beer.    It wasn't long before Mamet and Berger & Ventura had heard I was leaving that day, thru the Goddard Gravpevine. Mamet came over and sat with me. He insisted I should eat before I left. Berger didn't say much, clearly amazed I was doing this. The time was mid-morning, a real nice sunny Vermont late Spring Day. We 3 went over to the dining hall & ate & talked a little.    Mamet was really like proud of me that I was leaving on this journey. We figured out that I could call one of the payphones collect, and not have to pay --- if I called at a specific time each day, so I could tell him where I was. So we had that as a touchstone.
   About one in the afternoon I stood there with my bike. Ventura had rounded up a bunch of people I only vaugely knew & there was a small crowd of maybe 15 people gathered around my bicycle.     Ventura had found an egg somewhere & he made a kind of crazy speech about how my bike needed to be "Baptized": then he took the egg and smashed it onto the front-tire of the bike. He may also have had his trumpet and played something. Everybody was laughing. Of course a joint was passed around. I remember this was one of the first times I ever got really paranoid smoking pot. This paranoia thing was to become a recurring problem, later on, socially for me.     After the joint(s) had been passed around, some of the Goddard losers Ventura rounded up, prophesized I would be back before nightfall. The egg yolk dripped down, off my front bike tire. Everybody stared at the egg dripping into the earth, for awhile, silent.       Well, too late my Brother, Never Mind: I didn't care anything about these Goddard People anymore & Ventura knew it, which is [of course] why he was making me look stupid in front of them. Berger, Mamet, Ventura, Me -- we were a literary Mafia: They were trash. What could be more obvious. & My role was to look stupid/kicked out/defeated. OK. But Mamet was Different. He was my travelling buddy, my companion. My One True Friend.
   So then, I finally spoke up: I said, "I have been at Goddard for three years. And I am happy to leave, but sad to leave you, my friends," which seemed to piss everybody off, that I would say such a thing. Apparently they wanted me to be drunk & stoned. They needed for me to say, "Fuck You". So my goodbye met a stone wall. That I will never forget! If Ever Goddard could be summed up in One Moment, it was this moment. There was just dead air & incomprehension. I remember everyone but Mamet & Ventura were staring at the ground.
    Even Ventura looked at me like I was living in a dream world. Then I turned to him & Mamet hugged me tight and wished me well.     "Now, Wells --- You gotta call me, tonight. Tonight, man! I'll be waitin' by the pay phone. Tell me how far you get. You be careful of the traffic out there on the highway. Meet me in Chicago. Oh, Wells, this Great!" Mamet's face shone with all the adventure that he knew I would have. His enthusiasm and faith in me as well as his benediction of friendship, sustained me on the long & painful journey ahead. So, then, I just jumped on my bike & rolled away. I found the dreaded road south & never looked back.
    I got quite long way that afternoon. The traffic was pretty thick for a few twisty stretches, I remember. But, oh, when that little ten speed got to the top of a hill & I began to coast down, Life Itself Began to Come Back Into My Eyes.     In 3 days I had covered almost the whole state and was entering UpState NY. Goodbye Vermont.     Onwards to Chicago.    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~***~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

   Note: Copyright 2009: All Rights Reserved. You are encouraged to forward this column to your friends. Permission REQUIRED FROM THE AUTHOR to quote from this material.
~   ~~~~***Disclaimer: The content found in ~Sunbugs~ is True & Strictly My Own Opinion. My Story. The views and opinions expressed on the site are those of the author & Any Comments added are covered by this copyright; No one --Other Than The Copyright Owner -- May Use The Written Material from ~Sunbugs~ in any Written/Visual or Oral Media Publications, unless specifically given permission by Eric J. Wells: Owner of the ~Sunbugs~ Copyright.
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