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A 1976 Journey in Search of Self

Mark Palermo



When I turned 27, I felt the existential void breathing down my back.  I visualized my remaining days on earth as a fifty-year routine of work, hot suppers, beer and TV. I had everything the world says you're supposed to have to be happy, but I wasn't. I was financially secure, but I remembered what Thoreau said: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  It was time for action, so I quit the job, the apartment, and cashed in my retirement account. I bought an old Econoline van, equipped it with a bed, canned food, guitar and ice box. I drove across country, worked odd jobs, and spent a year meeting sinners and saints along the way. Looking back now at 59, it was a good thing.


After a couple of months on the road, I found myself one Sunday afternoon in a Mexican bar where I met Crazy Mike from Minnesota. He worked construction, and lived with his wife and brood of kids in a tarpaper shack on one of  Mexicali’s dusty back streets. As fate would have it, a torrential flood had just destroyed or damaged thousands of homes in the southern California desert. Mike got me a construction job and let me stay at his place for a while. He turned out to be a sociopathic alcoholic, but oddly kind. Anyway, I had grown up in a tenement in Lawrence in the 50’s- a breeding ground for sociopaths- and had long ago learned to relax around them, but never relax too much...


All the guys I worked with were chronic alcoholics. My job was to mix cement, carry blocks, and on the side the contractor would give me a few extra bucks if I kept the bricklayers halfway sober, which wasn’t easy. Starting work at 4 AM, they would send me to the liquor store soon afterwards to get their “breakfast.” By 10:30, with the temperature around 100 degrees and rising, the crew would typically retire for “lunch” to “ The Owl,” a 1930’s tavern  with a mahogany and brass bar and card room out back. Lunch usually lasted for the rest of the day, and for some of those guys, until closing time.


Nights on the desert were getting too cold for the van, so I moved into a rooming house where I met my new landlord, Larry. Outwardly and unabashedly gay- this was 1977 in a desert cowboy town - Larry spoke with a lisp and walked with an effeminate swishing gait. I didn’t care about that, but the guys on the job would joke about me living with “Larry the Queer,” yet nobody ever called him that to his face- with good reason.


Larry was crazy. And it’s true what they say- when they go berserk, it takes five strong men to take them down Even the cops were a bit wary around him. Larry was about 40, not big or mean looking, but ferocious when ridiculed or threatened by homophobic cowboys, drunken rednecks or Mexican pachucos- to whom he administered some viscous ass whippings.  And if that wasn’t enough, Larry was a reputed arsonist and had been in and out of county jails and a mental hospital or two. I seem to remember him mentioning something about electro-shock treatments.


But Larry was also irrepressible and funny. For example, after a night of drinking, he would go for nude midnight jogs in the town’s central park.  And Larry never, ever worked.  He just drank and helped out in his Mom’s rooming house. In the evenings, I would sit on the porch and drink beer, and he would sometimes join me. He was a self-reflective and engaging conversationalist, with profound insights into human nature.


I asked him once if he ever had the desire for women, and he surprised me by saying that once in a while, he did indeed feel the urge, but insisted that he himself was “all woman inside” and preferred men. He yearned to play the role of 1950’s housewife to a straight-acting husband. He would often talk about Bob, a Marine drill sergeant from San Diego. Their relationship didn’t work out, and he   pined for Bob- whom he called the great passion of his life.


Larry could deal gracefully with difficult people, but he despised homophobes, and insisted that behind their macho poses, they were all closeted gays. He told me stories about judges, cops, teachers, ministers…Larry had dirt on half the town, which is why they mostly left him alone.


Larry’s life had been marked by horrible accidents and catastrophes-stuff that would have made anybody crazy. To deal with pain of his existence, he claimed to have mastered pain through the application of mind power.  I saw him do some amazing things. One time, for example, he took his shirt off, and pushed a threaded needle through his skin -sewing at least a dozen buttons into the flesh around his stomach and chest while keeping up a casual conversation. And it didn’t bleed a drop; because he willed it not to bleed.


I’ll never forget the people I met on the road, especially the characters like Larry in that sleepy desert town which reminds me of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.  I would hear a song on the radio then, “Carry on my wayward son, there’ll be peace when you are done….”  I came back a year later and enrolled in college. I had gazed upon the creeping existential void and pushed it away.

May 2009