Tuesday, April 17, 2018


The first three of my six years in Oklahoma, 1979-85, I usually shared an apartment or part of a house with one or more other people--that’s what you do in a college town, it saves a lot of money, and people can drift away when they need to. At this distant point, I don’t exactly remember what exact chronological order these places were in, but I do remember that in my first two years, I wound up for maybe 6 months crashing with two guys from Mississippi in a place that rented for $80/month. That was the total rent, not 80 each. It actually had two bedrooms and a kind of sewing room (I was never exactly sure what its intended use was, but it was an internal room with no windows) that functioned as a 3rd sleeping area, which I got when I moved in because I was the last of the three. Why was it so cheap, you may ask? Because it had a hole in the wall.

Maybe I should have said a hole THROUGH the wall. There was, literally, an eight-inch wide hole in the main room wall that went THROUGH the wall and out to the external wall of the apartment, which was on an alley. We had it covered on both the outside and inside with tar paper nailed over the hole, but you could put your arm through it (I once did when we changed the tar paper), and anyone could have easily ripped it off from the outside....but what would it have gained them to put their arm into a cheap-ass apartment with three broke college students. They couldn’t have broken in, and if they did they would not have found anything worthwhile. Probably my cassette boom box, worth about twenty dollars, was the most valuable item. The restaurant I worked at each night fed me, so I did not need to keep much food at this place....I would keep a loaf of the cheapest white bread and the cheapest store-brand peanut butter, along with some twenty-two cent cans of mustard greens and collard greens and a little piece of salt pork or ham hock to season them. I also spent as little time as I could at this place. I would hang out at friends’ places whenever I could. I had some records but no record player, so people were happy to invite me over to let them listen to my copies of, say, ONE STEP BEYOND by The Chocolate Watchband or TIME OUT TIME IN FOR THEM or an Iggy bootleg of the Beatles’ YELLOW MATTER CUSTARD or my French 12” 45 of Cabaret Voltaire’s NAG NAG NAG/IS THAT ME FINDING SOMEONE AT THE DOOR AGAIN or the Public Image Ltd. NUBES bootleg, or one of the Radar Records reissues of International Artists albums or whatever. I probably had about 25-30 albums with me at this place (the rest in storage in another city with a friend who owned a home). Also, when I was lucky, a lady would take pity on me and invite me over for dinner and cook for me. I might stagger home at 3 a.m., get three hours sleep in this dump if I were lucky (there was no AC and next to no heat--again, that’s why it was $80 a month....we each had our own box-fan and would carry it with us to whatever room we were in), and then drag myself up, pour a quart of strong coffee over ice and chug it to get to my 7:30 a.m. classes and then to my work-study job at the college. Except at night while asleep, rarely were there even two of us at this place at the same time. We all had different schedules, and we all were smart enough to spend as much time as we could elsewhere. The good part of that was that when I WAS there during non-sleeping hours, I was often alone and could have the main sitting room--the room with the hole through the wall onto the alley--to myself. There also was a small stoop with a few stairs sitting on a broken concrete chunk that was our entrance/exit (there was no front entrance), which looked onto a dirt parking lot that was used by everyone who lived adjacent to it, probably seven or eight properties with room for maybe four cars. I did not have a car at that time.

We had an informal agreement that no one would smoke IN the place (one of the guys was a pipe smoker), so even though I did not smoke daily (maybe 3-4 times a week), when I wanted a cigarette, I’d go out back on that stoop and read an issue of TROUSER PRESS or CREEM...or maybe some orphan comic book I scored at a junk store or out of the trash. When I look back now, I can’t believe the things I did to get by in this period. I would discreetly finish half-eaten steaks from people’s plates when they came back to me at the dishwashing station or when I bussed tables. I would also, while cleaning up the place at night during closing, look for cigarettes in ashtrays that had only been partly smoked, put them in a baggie, and then when I’d get home after midnight from work, I’d separate out the burned areas and use the un-burned tobacco to roll my own. I must have done that for a year and never bought a pack of cigarettes....only Bugler rolling papers.

I’ve always been the kind of person who was happy to be alive--after all, look at the alternative! Living in a college town, I could always hear some band (who cared if they sucked!) for the price of a fifty-cent happy hour twenty-ounce beer, or go to the massive air-conditioned university library where they had all eight volumes of the 1950’s Yale posthumous collection of the unpublished writings of Gertrude Stein. I remember also reading and re-reading in that cool (or warm, depending on the season) and comfortable and spacious library Oliver Goldsmith’s 1760 CITIZEN OF THE WORLD, something which seemed timeless and really spoke to me.

I could also sit on my back stoop and smoke one of my Frankenstein cigarettes taken from people who might have had various illnesses, but I was too stupid or cheap to care. I’d say I could sit and watch the world go by, but actually, I could not. I saw a gravel lot, covered on all sides by the back end of fleabag student apartments--that was my “world” to watch.

One early Autumn evening on a night I did not work and wasn’t at anyone else’s house or at the library, I was sitting on that stoop and it dawned on me what a low-grade life I was living. I was sharing a tiny place with a hole THROUGH the wall onto the alley. I was smoking discarded tobacco. I had a place to sleep with no bed (just a cot mattress on the floor--trust me, none of us EVER brought girls home to this place!) in a room that was at most 8’ x 10’. What brought all that (and more I won’t mention) into focus in one crystalline moment of epiphany was when it dawned on me what I was reading: a coverless Charlton western comic that was also missing the first and last page which I’d pulled out of the dumpster in the parking lot. Somehow that throwaway comic book (hey, at least it didn’t have pickle juice or semen stains on it--I have SOME standards!) was the perfect symbol for my life at that time.

Also, though I often champion Charlton Comics and have spent a lifetime reading them, I’d be lying if I claimed most of what they put out was great. Much of it was, but there were some dogs--you could not put out the incredible number of books they did and not have some sub-standard items slip through. I love western films and western comics, but alas CHEYENNE KID #83 was a relative dog. The two CK stories that bookended the issue were adequate western timekillers, the first one actually slightly clever and witty, with a British “dude” character who could have been played by Terry-Thomas in a film (although missing the first few pages of the first story, I had to create my own beginning for it, which may well have been more imaginative than the actual beginning), but the middle story was an awful thing where some character set in the future went back in time to the Old West and spoke in Shakespearean English. It wasn’t funny, it wasn’t clever, it wasn’t exciting, and the language wasn’t even accurate or entertaining pseudo-Elizabethan. It just sat there on the page and took up space. Speaking of college, it was like a paper written by some kid who knew what he was doing sucked, but had to turn SOMETHING of a certain length in, so he just kept typing and hit the eight required pages or whatever. When you read it, you became part of the void that it existed in--it sucked you in to its world. Just like this awful story...and the apartment with the hole through the wall.

The question I have today is WHY do I still own this comic? It did not cost me anything, and I did not really enjoy it much when I read it. Why did I not toss it back into the dumpster? And even more than that, how did it make it through my many moves since then? Well, at least it was able to jump-start my memory about that apartment and that period in my life, which I’d put behind me, because of its continued existence. Now that that’s been accomplished, though, I am going to put it in the trash and pour this morning’s coffee grounds on top of it, so I won’t be tempted to reclaim it again. I’m hoping the coffee grounds will function like the stake through Dracula’s heart, killing it off once and for all.

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