His name was Roger or something like that. It was a long time ago and I’m shit with names. I’m also shit with remembering details from that far back so I invented some to fill in the gaps and others to make the story more compelling. If you look at life without embellishments, it’s pretty pointless stuff.
Roger was older than me, ten years and change, and he was a semi-regular at Espresso Roma Cafe in Santa Barbara. He wore a corduroy sport coat that made him look like an academic, an impression that evaporated as soon as he opened his mouth.
There was something off about Roger, but for the life of me I could not say exactly what. He would stare with his eyes glazed over, spout some random gibberish, and then lapse back into his happy trance. Sometimes he would say something utterly bizarre and misinformed. Other times, it was fairly normal and banal, but with gravity the words did not merit. “This is some weather we’ve been having” would carry the same weight as “This is Britain’s finest hour.” Then there were the times his jaw would move up and down, but no words would come out like he was a dummy whose ventriloquist had laryngitis.
My guess was that he had one or more learning disabilities coupled with one or more mental illnesses. I didn’t know which ones and it would have been rude to ask. I was plenty rude in my 20s, but not that much of a dick. I did have some modicum of empathy. Let’s say, for example, that I saw some thalidomide dude running down the street with his T. rex arms gyrating like burlesque titty tassels. I would have laughed, but only on the inside.
I was never sucker enough for the magical-puddinhead trope to make the Rogers of the world inspirational to me, but he was nice enough and whatever his limitations were, none of them were my responsibility. If he asked me if I knew where the Chumash moved after they sold Santa Barbara to the Spaniards, I would shrug rather than attempt to educate him about the flaw in his premise. If he decided to eat all the packets of non-dairy creamer or leave the cafe and go wander into traffic, I would wish him the best of luck in either endeavor.
As for wanting to rock the college-professor look, who was I to judge? Who knows? If he sewed some elbow pads on his jacket and learned to shut up, he might have been able to pull it off.
I too tried to look like I was worth a shit. With my tie loosened and the sleeves of my button-down Oxford rolled up halfway to the elbow, I strove for the appearance of someone who had endured a rough day at the office. There was some truth in that. My job did require I wear a necktie and my workday usually sucked, but I wasn’t in any office. I was in a department store selling shirts and ties for $4.50 an hour instead of the usual $4 because I had a college degree.
I didn’t have enough money to hang out in a bar after work so I’d head down to the cafe where I would drink coffee and smoke. It was 1987 so cigarettes were cheap and you could smoke anywhere you damn well pleased. People asked me why I didn’t bother changing clothes before I came out and would tell them my place was depressing. It was, but I also hoped that my attire might impress someone who didn’t know any better.
I guess I was damaged too, maybe not as bad as Roger, but still. People who spend a lot of time hanging out in cafes usually are. They’re a lot like people who spend a lot of time in bars though less drunk. The regulars at Espresso Roma Cafe had formed a loose association like one finds in a group of cats. There was the comfort of proximity, but not a lot of camaraderie. Given an excuse to hiss at each other or scatter, we usually would.
The night where the trip to the beach would lead to a trip to the emergency room started uneventfully. Dave B. had cut out early with his teenage-runaway girlfriend and Holden was at the library, no doubt researching William Burroughs and Aleister Crowley to find some detail about either of them he had yet to put in his zine. There were few other familiar faces at the cafe except for Roger’s.
Roger was fading in and out of his usual stream of nonsense and didn’t seem to care if I paid attention, which was fine. That left me time to pour words into my spiral notebook. Like most of my writing from that era, it was a combination self-aggrandizement and self-loathing with an occasional undercurrent of misogyny. I wasn’t hostile toward all women, just the ones who failed to consider my need for validation to be a turn on.
As I scribbled away, I drank coffee and smoked. Coffee, like cigarettes, was cheap back then. A cafe au lait at Espresso Roma cost 90 cents with a 10-cent cumulative discount for each one after the first. You could theoretically drink enough so they would start paying you, but I never attempted it for fear that my kidneys would shut down.
As it stood, I often had so much caffeine in my system, I would likely spend half the night staring at the ceiling sleeplessly and agonizing over every bad move I had ever made in my life. I was only 25 and therefore somewhat limited in the number of mistakes I could have made, but the ones I did make were doozies.
Insomnia would come later. The first order of business was making sure I didn’t have to go to bed with an empty stomach. When the cafe closed at 11, they’d put out the unsold bagels and croissants for the hungry and homeless. I wasn’t homeless, but I was plenty hungry and none too proud.
Fortunately, you didn’t have to be homeless or even look that way as long as you refrained from pushing and shoving while getting your food. Physical aggression has never been my strong suit so I would ensure a decent share by making others lose their appetite. That night, I accomplished this by grabbing a spinach croissant, splitting it open, and saying “Check it out. Chlamydia snatch!” This visual representation was medically inaccurate, but the intended message came across.
People said “ugh” and backed off, giving me plenty of room to make my move. One person who was not grossed out was Roger. I saw him reach for another spinach croissant and he ate it blissfully, slowly chewing with his mouth open and his eyes shut.
A woman called out Roger’s name as she walked into the cafe. She was a little older than Roger and wore an aerobics getup that was a little dingy in spots. I guessed her way of dressing herself was to pick out an outfit she liked then wear it for weeks on end.
“We’re going to have a bonfire on the beach. You should come,” she said to Roger.
“OK, Doreen,” Roger said.
“Great,” she said and waved in her two friends, a man and woman of indeterminate age and matching perms. One of them carried a paper bag containing what I assumed was lighter fluid and perhaps marshmallows. They waved at Roger as they entered.
“We want to go to East Beach. How are we going to get there?” Doreen said.
“I can give you a ride,” I said.
“Yes, thank you. Come with us,” Roger said. “It will be a good fire,” he added with resolve.
Doreen and the perm couple thanked me as well. My car was parked pretty close and we were soon on our way. Roger rode shotgun and the other three sat in the back.
I didn’t expect to be invited along. I just wanted to do a good deed so maybe I would feel better about myself. This seldom worked, which was why my good deeds were so few and far between.
I was happy to join them though. If Doreen and the perms were anything like Roger (and I suspected they were a lot like him), the conversation would be far from scintillating. I was OK with that. Normal, well-adjusted people talked a lot of bullshit as well and they were, if anything, more irritating because they were everywhere. Besides, there was something kind of cool about hanging out at the beach in a necktie and I would get to watch stuff burn. I was too wired on caffeine to go to sleep yet anyway.
It wasn’t a long drive, maybe a couple of miles. Close to half the time was spent waiting for a light to change. Back then, the 101 stopped being a freeway as it cut through downtown Santa Barbara and there were traffic signals at four intersections. If you got stopped at one, you were looking at a four-minute wait.
None of my passengers said anything about missing the light. They didn’t say anything period, which was a little eerie but kind of welcome. It gave me a chance to think about my day at work.
It was one of the better days. Sure, I had to put up with rich Montecito dowagers who insisted I help find a shirt and tie to match the Rodney Dangerfield plaid sportcoats they bought for their husbands in a failed bid to breathe life into their failed marriages. All I had to do was hold up one combination after another and say “Hmmm” until they picked the worst of the lot. After the ordeal was over, I would often go into the stockroom and take out my frustration by kicking holes in the drywall or taking underwear out of its plastic-tube package and using it to blow my nose.
But that day, there was no need because something wonderful happened. The store manager, Frank Purcell, liked to make the rounds and remind everyone that he was in charge and we were not. If the condition of a sales display failed to meet with his approval, you’d hear about it and usually with some horseshit about “vision.” He sometimes did this with one arm around his underling’s shoulder and the other outstretched as if pointing the way.
Well, someone gave Frank something to get upset about that day. The PA was such that you could page the entire store anonymously from a phone at any register. Some inspired soul used the touch tone to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Frank was standing about 20 feet from me when it happened. He was livid, and better yet, he was powerless .
The light turned green and we were once again on our way. I drove down State St. to the end and made a left on Cabrillo Blvd. After a mile or so, I pulled over, parked, and we all piled out. There was a strip of grass with picnic tables, a line of palm trees, and the beach and ocean beyond that.
It wasn’t until then that I realized that no one had brought any firewood. That’s the number-one ingredient you need for a beach bonfire. What did Roger and his friends intend to burn?
I wasn’t wondering for long. The four descended on one of the palm trees started tearing it apart. They decided this beach had its own firewood supply and I decided it was time to leave. If a cop drove by, it would not have ended well.
“I just remembered I gave to be at work early. Have fun. It was nice meeting you,” I said.
They waved. I waved back and trotted off toward my car. I got in the vehicle and said “Crazy fuckers” to the steering wheel before putting the key in the ignition.
I could see Doreen walking toward the car waving at me. What the hell did she want? She tapped on the window and I rolled it down.
“Roger is bleeding,” she said.
“Yes, he was pulling on the tree and part of it came loose and hit him in the head.”
“Is he OK?”
“Ask him,” she said, pointing past me. I turned and saw Roger on the other side of my car. He had his hand on his forehead with blood dripping between his fingers.
My first instinct was to start the engine, stomp the gas pedal, and get out of there fast. The problem was that Roger was standing real close close to the vehicle, close enough to have stepped off the curb and press his junk against the passenger-side door. If I drove away, I would have run over his feet. That might have funny, but only if someone else had done it.
Fuck. I motioned for him to get in.
“I think I better take him to hospital,” I said to Doreen.
“OK. Roger, we’ll be here when you get back,” she said.
“Palm fronds are sharp. I’m bleeding,” Roger said.
“Yes, all over the inside of my car.”
That was an exaggeration. Roger mostly bled on himself. He took off his corduroy sport coat and used it to wipe drops of blood off the glove compartment. I could see the wound now. His receding hairline provided ample room to showcase the four vertical punctures in his forehead from the frond’s thorns.
We drove off. Through my review mirror, I could see Doreen waving goodbye and the perms continuing to attack the palm tree. I wondered if they would eventually give up, hose down the tree with lighter fluid and set it ablaze. Would they stop at one tree? They might torch a big, long row of them and make East Beach look like the opening scene from Apocalypse Now. I was no longer there so it wasn’t my concern. They could do as they pleased.
I drove toward Cottage Hospital. The emergency room was probably unnecessary, but it was the only place I could think of that took patients at this hour of the night and I wanted Roger to be their patient, not mine.
“She doesn’t deserve it,” Roger said.
“Deserve what?” I asked.
“Her bad reputation.”
“Oh yeah, the song.”
“I met her at a party and she was very nice.”
“Yes, her reputation should be good.”
I hoped Roger was either lying or delusional. I didn’t want Joan Jett to be good. I wanted her to be bad, to be mean. More to the point, I wanted her to do mean things to me. I had assembled a list of those things over the years. It wasn’t very long, but it was specific. However, there was no point in sharing my thoughts with Roger on this. It was extremely unlikely he would understand so left it filed under Things That Were Never Going To Happen Anyway.
We pulled into the hospital parking lot and I got him into the emergency room. After sitting him down, I went to the desk and explained his situation to a nurse there. She said that someone would see to him, but since his injury was minor it might take a while.
That suited me fine. It could take all night. I had already done my job. I left the hospital without telling Roger goodbye.
I didn’t see Roger for some time after that, which may or may not have had anything to do with the events of that night. People come and go all the time.
I eventually ran ran into him one afternoon when I went for a burger at Wendy’s. Roger wasn’t wearing his corduroy sport coat because he was working there. There was a mop in his hand and he was cleaning up the floor where a child had vomited. He smiled and waved when he saw me. The holes in his forehead had completely healed.