Thursday, October 24, 2013

Joe's Anniversary

To my shame I can't remember exactly how many years it has been since I knocked on the door of my best friend's ex wife to tell his 8 year old son that his Father was dead. I don't do well with time. It has been well over ten years. I know it is the anniversary of his death because he died a few days after John Denver was killed and now John Denver fans post memorials on Facebook that remind me of that.

I met Joe through a practical joke. Don was the superintendent on a huge hospital job that I had taken over because the original drywall contractor had gone bankrupt in the middle of it.  I had worked for Don before on other projects and he recommended me to take over the project. Don knew my back story. He knew how I had been a former Protestant minister, had gotten fired and by happenstance started a construction company. 

So Don called me over one day and he said, “There’s a guy you need to meet here on the job. His name’s Joe, and he’s really spiritual. I think you guys would really have a lot in common. I think you’d hit it off. If you want to track him down, he’s up doing doors in the north wing.”

So I walked down the long corridor to the north wing. Forty feet away I saw this guy with long, blond hair standing on a ladder, slamming a metal door frame with a rubber mallet, swearing like a drunk sailor. He was the only person doing doors, so I walked up to the ladder.  He cocked his arm to swing the hammer and he looked down at me and stopped. I said, “Are you Joe?”

He said, “Yeah.”

I said, “Hi, Joe. I’m Steve. I’m the new drywall contractor. Don says you like to talk about God.”

Joe says, “Yeah, that’s right. So, are you a Christian?”

And I said, “Yeah.”

He said, “Okay... I hate Jesus Christ, and I hate Christians,” and he spit. I didn’t flinch.

“Cool,” I said. “We need to talk.”

Over the next months, we spent hours working together. When we finished the job, I hired him. For eight to ten hours a day, we worked together and talked about God. Over the months, he told me he was an orphan. At about age three he was adopted by a charismatic Protestant minister. That was how he came to hate Christians. He was physically and sexually abused by his father, his mother, his brothers, his uncles, and his cousins. He left the house when he was seventeen and became a male prostitute in Hollywood. Not because he was gay, he said, but because there was money there. He became a heroin addict and an alcoholic, but now he was five years clean and sober. He attributed his sobriety to his higher power: a nebulous blob of deity and cosmic power that could be benevolent or malevolent, depending on the whim of the deity that particular day.

We worked at several hospitals.  Whenever we’d see a grossly impaired child in a wheelchair or somebody severely handicapped, Joe would just look at them and shake his head and say, “Hm. One of God’s little jokes on humanity.” One of the ways Joe dealt with his childhood was just to believe that, for some odd reason, the deity, the cosmic power, decided to play a little joke on him, and in some mysterious way down the line, the punchline would make sense. He'd had an out of body experience once when he was nearly dead of an overdose, a "white light" encounter. He said he woke up and everything made sense... everything, including the Holocaust, babies dying, disease, hunger, war, everything. But then, he said, "I forgot it.  I forgot how it all made sense, but I just know it does."

He had an obsession with knives. He had a collection of cheap switchblades, butterfly knives and Bowie style stuff.  He knew it had to come from somewhere so he went to a hypnotherapist. In a session he "remembered" being in the back seat of a car watching his father stab his mother to death. He didn't know if the memory was real, but he knew his mother was dead and his father was in prison which is why he was adopted out.

In spite of all of his "worldliness", Joe had an innocence that was disarming.  He could say anything to anyone, uncut, uncensored, straight up, no chaser, no preface and people would not be offended. I recall working at an art gallery and the two curators were obviously gay.  Out of the blue in a conversation he just says, "So are you guys butt-f**kers?" One of them grinned and said, yeah, we're partners.  Joe said, "I thought so... so which one of you pitches and which one catches?" He had an uncanny ability to read people and game-playing and would call people out on their crap, but people would just go, "Oh, OK! Thanks...."

Joe watched me go through my affair and divorce. He called me out all along the way on all the stupidity and consequences, but in the end he said "at least you got someone nice".  We went through several phases together. We wore Hawaiian shorts to work for a few years. We painted our tennis shoes, wore overalls, bought guitars and amps and cruised garage sales. We played the blues in my garage. He bought a piano and practiced obsessively. He was gifted in music.

One day Joe decided he missed the taste of beer. He bought a six pack of "near beer".  He drank that and went and bought two more six packs and drank them. Then he decided instead of drinking 18 beers he could get the same effect with a six pack of cheap beer.  That began his decline back into vodka and heroin. 

Over the next few years he did everything he could to destroy himself and I did everything I could to keep him from it. He lived with me. I left him sleeping behind dumpsters. I picked him up from detox in the middle of the night. I didn't pick him up and made him walk home in the rain in the middle of night barefooted. No amount of dysfunctional or functional love could restrain him.  I cannot presume to know what it was like to wrestle with his demons, and they were legion.

His son had seen his Dad nearly dead a dozen times.  He had stepped over his urine soaked, trembling body on the living room floor of his apartment many times.  He had called 911 or me enough times to have him taken to the indigent's detox center.  But this time Josh wasn't with him when he passed out.

Joe worked for me that Friday.  He was living in a rehab and had been clean for a few weeks again. He was supposed to get a pass and stay at my house with his son for a weekend visit.  I asked him when I should pick him and Josh up.  He said, "I have plans tonight..." I knew that wasn't good. When he was sober his son was his life.

He and a group of his friends had scored some dope and that night they went AWOL from the rehab, bought their alchohols of choice, and rented a motel room.  When Joe passed out no one paid attention.  When someone finally shook him, he was dead.  They panicked and left his body in the room and snuck back into the rehab. In the morning one of them anonymously called the police.  They found my phone number on a card in his wallet.

I was on the job Saturday morning working alone.  Joe didn't show up for work. I knew he was probably drunk again.  I got a phone call about ten o'clock.  "This is Sergeant --- from the Phoenix police department.  Do you know a Joe ---?"

It was a short conversation.  I was able to positively ID his body on the phone by his tattoos and scars. I packed up my tools and drove to his ex's apartment.  His ex answered the door.  I didn't say anything but I guess the look on my face said it all.  She said, "Joe?...."

Josh cried.  His ex said, "That son of a bitch".  Then she cried too.  I couldn't.  I still haven't.  I think by the time it happened I was too ready for it.  I think the best lesson he ever taught me was by his resistance to my efforts to save him and by his death:  that is, that I am not Jesus Christ.  He died imprisoned, bound and casting himself into the fire, and in the end all I could do was watch because I had run out of ways to love him and, at times even prayers.

I presided over his funeral at the rehab center. For years I was angry at the parade of guys who abandoned him in the motel room, who came to the microphone and wept.  They were supposed to eulogize Joe, but it really wasn't about Joe, it was about themselves "See how much I loved him..."  But now I realize they probably loved him like I did, helplessly and cluelessly and eventually angrily because he would not validate our love for him by staying alive and being our friend, Joe.  At the intersection of whatever within me was "real love" and Joe's free will, or his will bound up by the sins perpetrated on him and his own sins trying to loose himself, lies his death that still hurts in places I do not understand.  And perhaps it is best that it remains a mystery and a conviction of my own finiteness and lack of faith and understanding.  For that gift I am still grateful.

Somehow Josh found me on the internet a couple years ago. I got an email from him.  He's probably in his early 20's now and has moved out of state and is doing well.  He asked if I had any pictures of his Dad.  I had two.

This one is a Polaroid of us in front of my 1952 bread truck/work van probably taken around 1990.  My ex didn't like my deer head over our fireplace so I mounted it on the front of my truck.  One Christmas Joe and I decorated it with a wreath, Christmas balls and a wired a red light glued on the nose that lit up when the key was turned on.  The Christmas decorations never got taken off.

We were working at an office building one day and one of the office workers complained that she was staring at the deer head out her window and was offended.  The building manager came and told me I was technically in their office parking spaces so I had to move my van.  When I went out to move it, there was a vacant general parking space immediately behind my van and I backed it up 15 feet into it.  The building manager laughed and said, "You're legal."  Yeah, I can be  passive aggressive.

Eventually some kids stole the deer head in the middle of the night and the van broke down irreparably, probably out of grief.
This is another Polaroid that we took with the Easter Bunny when we were working at a mall one year.  Joe put on his "Easter Joy" face for the picture.

So, if any of you who read the blog pray for the departed, please remember Joe for me.  I don't remember him often enough after all these years.  But our friendship is such that he would tell me that I'm a shitty Christian and he expected so much from me... and that he doesn't mind because he would do the same if the tables were turned.


elizabeth said...

Memory Eternal; all else I can think of is that God has all our tears in a bottle and knows about them, perhaps also the unshed ones.

James the Thickheaded said...

Gee... and so the challenge of failure is like failing our final judgment... or seeing it happen to the guy just ahead of us in line. "You're next!" "Um... yeah... guess I'm due what he got, huh?"

Not so sure that just because some of our departed friends have had cleaned up, prim and proper lives... either they... or ourselves are any better off than Joe. God loves them all. And yeah... pray like the departed like it matters. It does. We're all dead men... we just don't know it.

Anonymous said...

He sounds like a lovely human. This made me cry, because my husband is an alcoholic in recovery, and this reminded me that there are no guarantees. Sometimes they never get better, and even when they do, sometimes they lose their recovery and don't get it back. There's a Twelve Step motto that slaps me in the face every so often: "I cannot, God can, and I am going to let Him."

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

Memory eternal to Joe, and may God grant comfort to those who miss him and mourn his passing.

Margaret said...

Memory Eternal! I've been orthodox Christian for going on 8 years now and one of the things that told me this was God's way to do Christianity was attending the kneeling vespers service at Pentecost and hearing prayers said for absolutely everyone living and dead! God is the Lover of Mankind, and He is the God of the Living. Lord have mercy on us all.

Anonymous said...

Steve, you were so good to Joe A. I still get a sick feeling in my stomach thinking of him sitting in his chair, dead with a needle in his arm. You made a great memorial for him. When I drive by the apartments on the way to your house I think of Joe I miss him.

Drewster2000 said...


People like Joe help people like me remember that we are all God's children - painfully so. And people like you have the words to describe it so well.

Thank you.

Grace said...

I've never known anyone like Joe, but I've known my version of the same thing -- the people that God brings into my life to show me what I am and am not capable of. When broken people I love won't let me fix them, I have anger twice over, and I'm ashamed to say sometimes I just can't handle it and let them go. I think I forgive them, but I don't think I forgive myself for not loving them with the love that God has shown me.