It’s a rainy ol’ dirty bastard raw day today. In group this morning we delved into depression, and the stigma associated with it. Now I could care less if anybody knows I deal with it- as you can tell from this blog. This wasn’t always the case just because I was fearful of admitting that pain because it would became real. I convinced myself it would be easier just to think alcohol was the only issue which proved false. At almost a year of sobriety having gone through and actively working the steps, running a sober house, and having sponsees I was still miserable inside. It was until I was willing to admit to myself that alcohol was just a maladaptive coping system of what turned out to be bi-polar 2 depression that I was able to truly start to work on myself, and the traumas of my past. As you see this path has had a lot of peaks and valleys. But writing has always been my constant hope.
So today I wanted to share a chapter from the book I wrote for my MFA thesis. A book about my twenty something self’s journey running away from lost love, and the murders that happened to my sister, niece, and nephew- and how music saved and introduced me to a misfit of characters that would influence me for the rest of my life. This chapter features two of the most important people I would meet as a naive 19 year old for the first time in the Bay.
Chapter 2 –All I Saw Was Ugly
I spent the night of their deaths staring at a computer screen while talking on AIM. I am telling my friend Fhrate (pronounced like freight as in a freight train) what happened. He seems like the only person I know who would understand.
“I just feel numb, just numb.” I typed to him.
“I understand, man, well maybe not with the magnitude of what just happened, but I feel the same way all the time. I just don’t feel anything, and sometimes I wonder if I even really love my family, or girlfriend. That’s what I miss about drinking, because at least then I felt something. And even if it was nothing but sadness it was better than this numbness that replaced it.”
I first met Fhrate three years earlier in Oakland under a blank canvas sky which captured a yard dead to the world: weeds, soil with no hopes of prosperity, a fence without the guts to stand. This yard led to a house where in the kitchen, sitting Indian-style, was a gutter-punk Buddha, sewing needle in one hand, dental floss in the other, with a hooded sweatshirt adorned with patches resting on his lap. This was Fhrate, with short-cropped black hair, and a fresh razor mark gash on the back of his neck from cutting his hair himself. I was surprised by how tranquil he looked, and how shy he seemed, given the stories he wrote made him come off as a maniac hobo who explored America in a constant haze of drugs and alcohol.
He put down his needle and approached me with a small smile.
“Hi, I am Sean.”
I was meeting him for the first time, yet, I felt like he was an old friend because of our numerous conversations online, and from reading his stories. Even though I was surprised at how shy he was, I really shouldn’t have been, because the person whom he had written about was a character of his past, a drunken train bum who was kinetic energy in motion, never happy unless in constant flux, realizing the only way to escape life was to be constantly running from or towards new problems.
His eyes were sad paradises of truth and seemed listless when he talked about his dead-end job.
“This girl, well, woman, I think she’s almost forty. I am not sure if this makes her more desirable, or makes me feel old, but anyway she keeps asking me to go to the bar with her, and my other co-workers, and I have to say no. It’s not fun to bitch about your job when you’re the only sober person in the room. Plus, I have that a whole alcoholic thing to deal with. And I would be left in that weird state of not knowing if I should make a move on her because I work with her, and I wouldn’t be able to laugh it off the next day at work on us just being drunk. Plus, I hate that fucking job.”
Fhrate was sober again, which was ideal for him, but somewhat of a disappointment for me. I was nineteen years old and came out to Oakland in search of this great myth. I had just finished On The Road a few months earlier, and I was ready for this wild adventure where there would be loose women, kicks, and all that other bullshit you fantasize about in life after reading that book. Maybe the problem was I wanted Fhrate to be a character in a book, and real life is never that tidy. He was bored with life because he was living it by the rules of what he thought he should be doing, instead of what he really wanted to be doing.
His eyes lit up as we entered his room, and he showed me a map on his wall of all the railroad lines he traveled across America. His face contorted into a grimace when looking at the East Coast, “I have never had a chance to travel that far East yet.”
Next to the map was a calendar of different trains, and Fhrate could tell you everything about each one, and even all about the do’s and don’ts of train hopping.
“All right, first things first-if you can avoid hopping ‘on the fly,’ do so. It makes more sense to get on an unmoving train that one that’s going twenty miles an hour.”
His voice sounded like a dusty vinyl recording of William Burroughs played on 45.
“Also, don’t be afraid to ask workers what trains are going where, but avoid the bulls at all costs. Also, I wouldn’t ride piggy-backs.”
I heard piggy-back, and in my head I pictured two old fashioned hobos, complete with sticks and bandanas tied around each end, attempting to hop a train with one man riding on the back of the other.
“That’s a trailer on flat car. You should avoid those because there’s nowhere to ride really, leaving you exposed to wind, rain, and prying eyes. And don’t ever get on someone else’s box car. It’s just rule of thumb and travel. It is also a sign of respect and it lends itself to caution. However, in the in the event you do get on an occupied boxcar, just acknowledge your mistake, dismount, and find another open car. The real concern is that, while you may meet some real solid brothers and sisters on the road, you may just as easily encounter some fucking psychopathic assholes. If you get on an asshole’s boxcar then that asshole feels he has certain entitlement, like to your wife, wallet, pack, or coat. “
For a few seconds Fhrate grew silent, and seemed to be back on the road longing for that one train to lead him to whatever he was searching for, or maybe, he was thinking instead of just the joy that is escaping from having to search for anything in the first place.
“If you should be in or around a yard, and you know you’re coming up on a hobo jungle, always make your presence known. The tried and true salutation/announcement is ‘Yo Camp!’ Possibly yelling out ‘Hobo!’ will put the resident campers at ease, if they think you are kindred ‘boes. Also I wouldn’t carry lots of cash. “
After the train-hopping lesson we ventured to his living room, and watched a Scribble Jam tape from 1999 to kill time, before heading across the bridge into San Francisco, and over to Stef’s apartment. Stef was a dj who, at 40 years old, was ducking the norm of what life told her she should be doing, and instead living life how she wanted to. This may have been fueled by her love of hip hop, and records, as she was heavily involved in the music scene in San Francisco, where she ran a magazine called Vinyl Exchange, and was also kindly letting me crash on her couch for this trip of mine.
In Stef’s room, through the maze of old rap posters and flyers, was a single rose hanging on the wall. It was a rose Fhrate had giving her. This was a side of Fhrate he usually kept hidden from the world, and this sweetness was first thing alcohol would take from him as it transformed him into a different person that seemed hell bent on self-destruction. That flower sums up the paradox that was Fhrate, and his constant struggle with alcohol, which always seemed to lurk in the darkness of his soul just waiting to fuck up whatever good things he had going at the time. Stef cared about him enough to understand this, and a set a steadfast rule that she would not be around him if he drank. So maybe the flower was Sean’s way of telling her he understood, and was sorry for all his actions, and any time he may have hurt her before.
The next night I met up with Fhrate outside the club for the 10th Anniversary Anticon show. Outside the club I met a friend of his named Ian, and his bottle of vodka. He offered me some, so we headed into the back alley to pass the bottle back and forth, while above us the third shift stars went to work.
More people joined, and then the bottle was empty. To combat this we retreated to the inside of a convenience store, where Fhrate, the only one of us over twenty-one, bought beer for us. Outside the club a circle formed, and the beers were passed back and forth. Fhrate couldn’t resist, and joined in.
A fractured memory later, drunk, with ears ringing, we decided to keep drinking after the show with a graffiti artist named Demo, who had flown down to the show from Chicago. He was there with his girlfriend, a fiery little brunette, and her honey-skinned friend who just wanted to take pictures of San Francisco.
They invited us back to their hotel and by 3 a.m. I was hunched over the toilet puking, as Fhrate was out getting late night grub with Demo. Fhrate never returned, and disappeared after conversing with some homeless folk, and losing Demo in the process.
As the shadows of morning crept through the blinds I lay awake. From my hiding spot, a hard bed with starched white sheets and mattress springs that scratched and dug into my exposed spine, I noticed the wall was a sickly pink, like a diseased flamingo begging to be shot at the merciful hands of a poacher, and even when I closed my eyes I couldn’t stop my head from spinning and twirling as if I was on the deranged teacups of a dead Disney Land. Out the window was a seedy motel. The proprietor of sin was a dirty soul with a vast paunch belly built on greed. He had an unshaven face caked with gray whiskers and pockmarks. His eyes were wasted on only that which was perverse, blind to the notion that the girls he thought of as whores were really just angels lusting for their wings.
Silence was broken. Awoke in haze. Commotion down hall. Banging on doors. Yelling, then Fhrate. He wore the results of his slumber on concrete with eyes as red as a brand new kickball. I quickly got out of bed to deal with him, and get him out of the motel before he did any more damage, or woke up any more guests.
Fhrate needed more booze, but was broke. Then an idea came to him.
“I have this fifty dollar Gap card I got for a present, and as you can see,” he pointed to his gutter-punk outfit of Carhart pants, and a black sweatshirt with patches he had sewn all over it, “I am never going to use it, so we can to sell it, and split the money.”
We approached the Gap, navigated through a crowded market area filled with sight-seeing tourists with fanny packs and fresh faces, while Fhrate antagonized a homeless man sleeping on the street, and woke him up by kicking him softly.
“Rise and shine. You can’t sleep all day.” The man grumbled a little bit, but just rolled onto his other side, and went back to sleep. I was beginning to understand the belligerent drunk side of Fhrate, but yet I was fascinated by his actions and even thought this is what it must feel like to have walked around with a young Bukowski.
Outside the Gap a Jesus freak was telling the world, “Repent For your Sins,” and “AIDS is God’s cure.” Fhrate approached him with a grin and put an arm around my shoulder, “Jesus wouldn’t mind that we fuck all the time, right?”
We entered the Gap and I did most of the talking since Fhrate was half drunk, and dressed like an undercover prophet in thrift-shop garb. I approached a lady shopping alone who had an ass that looked like a nerf football stuffed in spandex.
”Excuse me, would you be interested in saving ten dollars? I have a Gap card I am selling that’s worth fifty, but I’ll sell it to you for forty.”
She looked at Fhrate and then looked me up and down. It was the first time I really felt like an outsider to regular folk society, and realized this woman probably thought we were drug addicts who stole the card from a nice young married couple, probably with an adorable new-born, and were fiends dead-bent on going to take this money to shoot up, and would then go on some raping and kill spree like she was taught in the anti-drug movies of her high school days.
”No,” was her answer as she quickly walked to the opposite side of the store. That scene repeated itself for the next twenty or so minutes until we found a black girl, who realized we were not trying to swindle her, who bought the card off us. As we left the store, a mother and her daughter walked in and Fhrate screamed, “Aid’s is God’s cure for all the yuppies and their children, and I am here to infect you all!”
I pushed him out of the store, and with money in his pocket Fhrate headed to the corner store, where he bought a bottle of Long Island iced tea, and some smoked malt liquor that tasted like it had been brewed in the womb of a grizzly bear. As we walked Fhrate apologized to the homeless man, and showed him his bottle of booze, which for some reason made the homeless man smile, and understand there were no hard feelings. On the corner a dealer was slanging dime bags of weed and Fhrate, who never smoked, decided to buy a bag off of him.
Content with his booze, Fhrate and I headed back to the motel to see if Demo and his crew were still there. When we arrived we found just the honey-skinned photographer, who only warmed up to seeing our return after she found out we had weed. Fhrate tried to roll a joint but couldn’t get the papers to stick.
“You can’t even roll a joint?” she said.
“Can you?” I asked.
“No, but I figured one of you could do it. It’s not that hard.”
The joint was not going to work, but I had an idea.
“Hey, do you have a can? Like a Coke can anything like that?”
“How the hell should I know?” she said.
I found a Pepsi can and rinsed it out, and then crafted makeshift bowl out of it. We smoked as Fhrate kept drinking, and by the time Demo came back, Fhrate was freshly drunk. We explored San Francisco for a couple hours until Demo and the girls finally ditched us after Fhrate caused a scene in a pizza place by berating the workers.
”Y’all communists and Fascist bastards who think they control the world through your three-dollar slices of pizza. My shit tastes better than your pizza, you fucking cunts.”
We spent the rest of the day wandering the city as ghosts left to haunt themselves. Fhrate kept drinking, and I shambled after him.
As the sun started to set, lust hung in the air, billowing like wispy white clouds that hover over the immense Rocky Mountains. I was lusting for knowledge, a lust to end the confusion that engulfed me like the heavy morning Pacific fog of a decaying shipyard. Rusted steamers, cracked masts, torn sails, the ghost of wanderers past: nothing but ugliness and lost dreams.
Fhrate once told me if you stay up late enough and search long enough under those stars, that the whore we call America will finally show you her beauty. But I was three thousand miles away from home and all I saw was ugly.
The night grew cold, and Fhrate became more distant and drunk. We walked to the BART station where Fhrate could hop a boat back across the bay to Oakland. He had already spent all his money from the GAP card on alcohol and weed, so I paid for his ticket. His eyes were hollow, and he seemed like a shell of the person I had met a few days ago. His sad figure haunted me as it disappeared into the darkness, and I wondered how long it would take him to find his way home. I returned to the street only to shudder at my own reflection as it passed me by in a store front.
Reading this back it’s painful because both Fhrate and Stef have passed away. Fhrate through suicide a couple years after I first met him in the flesh, and Stef from a heart attack at only 55. Being so young, dumb, naive, and lustful for adventure I was greatly shaped by their influence on my life at that young age of 19. It’s strange for people, who I physically in person had such limited amount of time with, became so vital in my personal growth at the time, and to this day. This occurred because of the internet’s ability to close the gap of connection. Even through a lockdown one of the blessings of the internet is that ability to stay connected. As I continue this voyage to find clarity knowing I can still explore human connection in this world- and I hope through my writing I can keep connected with you all.