I knew a guy named Aman who had been a commander in the Mujahideen, the predecessors of the Taliban in Afghanistan, back in the ‘80s when Islamist militants were on our side in the Cold War effort to kick the Soviets out of their country. One of the things Aman did back home was defuse Soviet bombs and rewire them for later use — thus his Coke bottle glasses and missing digits. I met him when he was washing dishes in a Minneapolis restaurant with a couple of his cohorts, one of whom, being an example of the crossroads which is Afghanistan, looked like any Irishman you’ve ever met. In those innocent, pre-9/11 days, Aman came into the kitchen one morning, and a young jewish cook said, “Hey, Aman, how’s the jihad going? Have you killed the Great Satan yet?” Aman merely waved his hand, and groaned, “Ah, Jewish,” and from there, as usual, we all got along quite swimmingly. A controversy at the time began when the president, George H. W. Bush, for some reason told the press he didn’t like broccoli, and the local TV station came to the restaurant for some counterpoint. Aman was enlisted for some filming which, alas, didn’t make the final cut, but there he was, our Mujahideen commander, eyes bulging behind thick glasses, ascending the stairs from the cooler with a case of broccoli on his shoulder. Coming to get you, George! God is great! And broccoli.
I knew a guy who was Goth long before sullen teenagers wandered the streets in dark trench coats. Burley, with black clothes, leather jacket and a shaved head, he might appear intimidating to strangers, but was a muffin on the inside. His decrepit looking house, with its peeling paint, surely added to his persona as perceived by the neighbors. The interior was filled with all manner of weirdness. Bones and animal skulls, heavy-metal cast-offs from the railroad, mannequins, broken tree branches, odd artwork. The ceiling of his living room was painted gold. He befriended a neighborhood girl who’d occasionally pay him visits, and one summer afternoon she and a friend came over, with beach ball in tow, for a sleepover before a trip to the lake. The weather being warm, the windows were open, and the girls, staying up late, ran around raising a ruckus. Predictably, as the screams of young girls emanated from the open windows of the Scary Guy’s house, someone called the cops. They arrived, called the girl’s mom, and ascertained that all was kosher. Then, as they turned to leave, one cop looked around at the skulls, bones, rusted industrial castoffs and assorted spooky jetsam, and asked, “ So — what’s with the beach ball?”
I knew a guy whose wife left him for a woman, so he became a woman so she could be a lesbian like his (her) ex-wife, but wound up falling in love with someone sporting breasts, a penis, and a manner most androgynous.
I knew a woman, a very old woman, who had worked in radio and television. She interviewed Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. “Of course I met Yogi Berra” was the type of statement that no longer surprised me after a few months of working for her. She thought Yogi was naturally, perhaps unwittingly, funny. While rifling through a drawer one day, I came upon a photo, autographed to her, from prize fighter Jack Dempsey. Did I mention she was old? I’d make her a snack lunch, maybe throw in a load of laundry, then sit for a visit. She and her stories were cut from a finer cloth than I, and hailed from another age. I don’t remember what we were discussing one day when she got a little cranky, and said, “That Eddie — Eddie Bernays — he was involved in advertising or something, not a nice man! A real bastard! The word “bastard” delivered with a strong Brooklyn accent. And I wondered — could that possibly be the Edward Bernays, known as the father of public relations, and by extension, the father of modern propaganda? Sure enough, and, as I found out later, he was also the nephew of Sigmund Freud. But she wasn’t name-dropping. She was just grousing about some long-ago encounter with a shirt-tail relative. A real bastard.
I knew a guy who, when he was a young man in the 1950s, was riding in the back seat of a big American car on the way to Ely to meet some girls at a dance. Just him and three buddies on a Saturday spree. The driver lost control on a bridge over a dam, and the car veered into the deep end, landing on its side under twenty feet of water. My friend pulled on the door handle which broke off in his hand. Then, as the water rose, he braced his feet on one door and broke through the window on the opposing door — with his head — and all four escaped, mostly unscathed. When our hero staggered back to the road, bloody, soaked, and shivering, the first passing car drove fearfully by, though I can imagine, by then, they hardly even minded.
I knew a guy who used to hop trains. There are six main freight lines west of the Mississippi, three running east and west, and three north and south, and by the age of twenty-seven he had ridden them all, then settled down, got married, had kids, and referred to himself as a “retired hobo.”
I knew a guy who was a Marine in the military police on stateside duty during the Vietnam War, which weighed heavily on his conscience. Sneaking a look at his official file he read that he was considered an exemplary Marine, but his superiors were a bit afraid of him. So he put on in his dress blues, grabbed his rifle, and went to visit his commanding officer. He leaned the rifle against the wall of the waiting room, went into the captain’s office, and said, “I’ve been thinking about killing you, but I’m not going to.” After that, his time in the military was understandably brief. Before that he had been in charge of a cellblock in the brig, and one Christmas Eve had freed all the prisoners from their cells, and handed out LSD. His first view of Duluth was from the deck of a ship sailing out of Ohio, and he wound up living here for a time. When he died in Washington state, there was a memorial get-together on Park Point, and in a corner of the host’s dining room was one of those scrolling LED signboards, at the deceased’s request. Despite a life rich in wit and experience, our friend’s self-esteem had apparently been low. His glowing initials and message scrolled slowly across the screen: “T P — T P — A wasted motherfucker is all you’ll ever be.”
I knew a couple who threw really good parties as part of a cult known as Big Head Religion. The big head of Big Head Religion was a large, plastic toy chest from the ’60s molded in the image of a grinning boy’s head. At some point in the evening the revelers were summoned to the back yard, and handed glow sticks. Maybe fifty people swung them in circles high in the air while chanting, “Big Head! Big Head! Big Head!” Suddenly, the Sacred One’s visage beamed, via an overhead projector, onto an upstairs window. After the cheers subsided came the Sermon on the Mount, or, more accurately, the Sermon from the Second Story Window. As we filtered back indoors, a brass band, until then sequestered in an upper bedroom, came marching down the stairs blowing some serious Dixieland, and led us out to a huge shed dubbed the “Dance Shack.” And dance we did, in Big-Headed devotion, at another really good party.
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