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My Friend the Holy Man

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.

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.  

After Borders, he took his daughter to see Atlantis (she liked the visuals, which were "mostly blue and green"), later winding through town to his 12-step meeting at a United Methodist church, where there was playground equipment and enough daylight left for her to play. Within five minutes he couldn't concentrate with her hanging outside by herself, so he joined her. In the deepening dusk, they played catch by tossing a rolled-up sock over the church sign, so that they couldn't see it coming until it was almost in their hands.

But back home he got to worrying: Was it good to identify so intensely with his daughter? The roommate's daughter sometimes teased her. Pat told her he knew how it felt, and to try to accept the other girl as she was. But it was all he could do not to fight back on his daughter's behalf. He felt he might be more clear about what was right if he loved less, or less exclusively. Specifically his love for his daughter challenged his idea of a God who makes no distinctions -- a God to whom all really are one, to whom individualism is error, a symptom of The Fall. This is where Pat got confused. If his daughter were not so individual, she wouldn't be so heartbreaking; life wouldn't be sweet and doomed, and there would be nothing for him to stick up for, however silently.

PAT HAS A SLEEP PROBLEM, WHICH manifests as a waking problem. Sunday night he set a clock radio for 5:45 a.m., launching a message in a bottle to his morning self an ocean away. Whether he'd receive it was anyone's guess. Lately, doctors were talking about either fitting him with a mask to help him breathe right, or operating on his uvula so he'd get more air, unblocking the cave to REM. Until then, his first-line defense was to take consciousness where he could get it -- if his bladder woke him at 4 a.m., he would try to stay up. If his bladder woke him at 2 a.m., he'd guzzle enough water to wake him before 6. If all else failed, he'd be left to technology, talk-radio/music/buzzers/bells, it didn't matter which, because he was liable to write any such sound into his dreams. One time, the buzzer woke Pat's roommate, who came in and screamed at Pat to wake up, and the screaming gave Pat a dream about someone screaming, "Wake up -- WAKE -- UP," but it didn't wake him.

This time the hydration plan almost worked. He got coffee and a paper at the AMPM next door and boarded the bus an hour late; it took him through Cal State Long Beach to the Blue Line station downtown, to Artesia Station, where the Number 6 Torrance or the 130 MTA would bring him to 190th and Vermont. The workday flew by, or possibly snoozed by. Pat's co-workers are the earnest angels of Dilbert's America. They empathize with customers over their headsets. They nudge Pat awake when he nods off at the computer. Even the managers are supportive about his tardiness, which lenience makes Pat feel slightly guilty. So he stayed late to make up for arriving late, got some work accomplished, called it a day and rode back to his last transfer in Long Beach, where the long day was going to get longer.

Pat heard the voice before he saw the prison-yard strut of the guy chanting (of all things), "WHO'S YOUR DADDY, BITCH! WHO'S YOUR DADDY, BITCH!" A bizarre coincidence, to be sure, this fragment of his own standup monologue, but Pat was not in Hollywood anymore. In fact he was tired, irritated, resentful of the vocal assault, and though Pat is not a man to snap, he knows who he is, knows what he endures.

The bigmouth boarded the bus and sat himself with both legs in the aisle. Passing by, Pat brushed against one foot.

"Excuse you," the guy said, and in a moment for which free will had been invented, Pat could not resist saying, "You could move one of your feet out of the way."

"And I could come there and smash your face in."

Pat thought for a second and said, "Do you know it's a felony to threaten someone?"  

"Come over here, fat ass."

At one point the guy got up, crowding Pat into the rear stairwell. An older passenger tried to calm him. "You don't want this. You'll go to jail."

"I will go to jail. I'm going to put my fist through this guy's face."

But the peacemaker actually got somewhere, and the hothead only glared, assuring everyone how differently this would play out if Pat ever so dissed him on the street.

At that night's meeting, Pat was still a bit unnerved. Here he was, putting in time, trying to lose weight, trying to be a father and a friend. Something about a middle-aged father jostled, a fat man scuffling -- it offended the spirit. In the Bible, in 2 Kings, a pair of bears came out of the woods to devour 42 youths who called the prophet Elisha a baldhead. "Go on, you baldhead!" they'd been yelling at an old man of God. Of course, maybe Pat didn't rate a pair of avenging bears yet.

By the time he left his meeting, the adrenaline was down and he wasn't interested in payback anymore. It was simply his turn to join life at this level. A privilege to be aware of his mistakes. To be a working man between visits to his daughter is not heavy dues. Unlike the year when he helped his friend recover from knee surgery, this chapter in Pat's life feels like a time of little drama, the trail leading just now through lots of sameness, suburban sidewalks, life not on the edge of creative risk, unless you're looking at it from some other center -- wondering if you're hiding from your truest place in life, like Pat wonders if he's hiding from his. But if there's going to be any kind of an answer to that riddle, it's plainly more ahead of him than behind, and when he walks down the street he has a certain openness, a consent to what's coming at the end of one block or the next.

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