My Friend the Holy Man 

The quest for heaven as a scaled-back dream

Wednesday, Jan 30 2002
Illustration by Hadley Hooper

AS A FRIEND, PAT WAS AT THE TOP OF HIS game two years ago, when I was recovering from knee surgery and he visited me every night for nearly a month, which is how people get nostalgic for disasters. Even in Long Beach he was the only one in our circle whose life was scaled-back enough that he'd want to visit an injured friend ("Hey! You awake?"), plus it got him the use of my car.

Plus he was responding to the spiritual opportunity of being around someone else's life at low ebb. Two men sitting around collapsed and looking robbed, like in a desert-island cartoon. Those were the good times. He was his heaviest ever, maybe 250 pounds and depressed about it, stirring Thai food inside its carton with a chopstick until it was time for him to struggle up from the big reading chair. But before it got that late, plenty of other people would arrive, only nominally to see me -- Kathi (who called him "Holy Man") to talk about her love life, or Mark to talk about his job -- because even in bad times, even on a desert island, Pat can draw a crowd, turning underachievement into camaraderie, into persona, into . . . surnamelessness.

Then the incongruity of watching him drive off in my car every night -- like a circus act, or one of those Wegman photos, the family pet skating down the block in your tuxedo. Usually Pat is on foot, trekking through the neighborhoods of Belmont Heights and Los Altos, a large man of 40 with his thumbs hooked in the straps of his backpack, round glasses, ball cap, Irish smile. Sometimes he's toting a book at eye level, a Tolstoy, or Joel Goldsmith on meditation. Sometimes a soda in a 32-ounce cup. Friends' kids in particular are happy to see him coming down their block. Women can be a little less amused. The self-deprecation pushes a disqualifying buzzer -- his reluctance to demonstrate decisiveness, drive, cocksureness, all the qualities that choosy women later find insufferable. Also that business about riding the bus.

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He did own a car when he was married (overstuffed hatchback -- it died), traveling north for auditions and open-mike nights, landing a few parts in plays and commercials before his wife reached her limit and divorced him. That gave him his cue to move to Hollywood. For a couple of years he did the actor hustle, but finances forced him into smaller and smaller apartments, which he treated as hampers. Searching for his phone beneath the laundry, missing his daughter in Long Beach more and more.

And that was when brilliance, or lunacy, struck. He decided to move back, find any job at all and wait for life to grow new roots. He owned only a backpack and a cell phone (cracking up his daughter by phoning her from her porch), a fun phase until the bill came, and then he owned only a backpack, going Spartan. He had an apartment above Uncle Al's Seafood on First Street, left that, and moved in with another divorced dad. After a while he got depressed. He spent his paychecks at the AMC theaters and tried to trivialize the office-supplies job he'd found. The more he hated being like everyone else, however, the more he deserved to be, until finally at some point he was. He used to think of himself as a temp. These days, he says, there is something to be said for stability, or at least to be learned from it.

LAST FATHER'S DAY, HIS DAUGHTER GAVE him a refrigerator magnet with her picture on it. They walked to the Borders café, where he bought her a chocolate milk, shed his backpack and removed from it the script to The Wizard of Oz. It took two hours, but they performed every line of it. "On behalf of the Lollipop GUILD!" Pat recited, bug-eyed, belching the word out like a ray gun.

If Pat were just a clown -- one of those sweaty children's entertainers or songwriters or party magicians -- then parents instead of children would probably adore him. Instead he is genuinely, deftly funny, subversive, original . . . but not onstage. He is sadly a whole lot funnier in person. He has a whole range of funny styles, say, over dinner. Thespian Gloom ("One more bite of cake, and -- oblivion"), Lingering Absurdity ("Is the Minty Chicken very . . . minty?"), Indifferent Spoon-Trailing ("I'm the last to arrive at the office and the second to last in sales . . . I guess you probably don't want to print that"). Whereas his standup material is either too bad or too good, so Leno, so crushed by audience expectation ("Do you know why Indiana's called the Hoosier State? Because people there always say: WHO'S YOUR DADDY!"). He should try his own talk show, maybe, but with no monologue -- he would need to go straight to the desk.

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