Monday, July 11, 2005


I've been meaning to write about Matt Champlin for the past 6 months. I've started then stopped, got caught up with everything, anything else. And that's a rat's ass shame on my part, because Matty was a good guy, a fucked-up guy with problems, but a good guy nonetheless. This is for you pal. I've owed you this for a long time, seeing as I never got to say goodbye.

I've written previously of my experiences as a dishwasher, a time in my life that was particularly rock bottom. I was 19 or 20, my license had been suspended for refusing a breathalyzer, I was on all sorts of bad drugs, I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. Furthermore, Rhode Island was in the depths of Bush Senior's recession, and seaside resort economies are never friendly in the depths of winter to begin with. After months of unemployment, culminating with me moving out of my first apartment and back into my parents' basement, I found a dishwashing job in a little toilet of a restaurant in Middletown called Andy's. I rode my bike about 3 miles to this godawful place, mostly uphill.

Maybe "toilet" is too strong a word: the food at Andy's was actually pretty good in a bland and predictable way (as I remember, the chicken pie was exceptionally tasty). It was the location and the people in the kitchen that made the place so unpleasant. It was located in a ticky-tacky shopping plaza, the kind with 12 storefronts, of which three always seemed to be empty, one of which was a dentist's office, and one of which was a hair salon with the standard bad name like "Shear Madness" or "Hair Today". The one-story buildings were pre-fabbed taupe trapezoids with roofed sand-blasted wooden shingles. Then, the plaza was surrounded by farmland; if you took a right out of the parking lot and followed the lane away from the main road, you'd run smack dab into the Sakonnet River, winding its way through Portsmouth up to Providence. Today, much of that open space has been partitioned into ugly McMansion housing developments: the plaza was kind of the pioneer.

The people in that kitchen were awful. Andy himself wasn't so bad but had this habit of speaking in catchphrases and shallow generalizations. He looked kind of like Billy Joel.

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Worse, Andy would dish out uninvited advice culled from his life experience that, interestingly enough, would have fit nicely into some of Billy's more maudlin numbers [whaddya mean more maudlin? -ed.]

"Nevvah, and I mean NEVVAH, marry a woman that makes yuh laugh. Kavin," and here you have to remember we're in Rhode Island, where not only are "R"s in the medial and final positions, whether stressed or unstressed, generally reduced to ah, uh, and a sound unique to Rhodey, euh which kind of sounds like the u in pull blended with the oo in pool, they are also replaced with a soft V sound when used in the initial position. Thus if, are on the highway in Pawtucket with Andy's wife Karen and you see the state bird, you would say, "I was dviving in nawthun Vo Dilan with Kavin and I saw a Vo Dilan Ved voostah!"

"Kavin," Andy continued, "always made me laugh. Oh, she was funny one. And when we got owah divawse, she was the biggest fucking bitch, took me fah awll I had. Nevvah, NEVVAH mavvy a woman that makes you laugh..."

"Oh Andy,you are SO right," echoed the sous chef, an enormous woman named Genevieve, who looked like Grimace from the McDonalds ads if Grimace had been shit on his entire life. She was ugly on the inside and the outside, with a face that looked like it was made of sourdough, her nose a gin-blossomed blob. She must have weighed 300 pounds, crammed into grimy sweatpants and a filthy sweat-soaked tee-shirt with yellow circles under the armpits and ringing her breasts, which spilled over the sweatpants like garbage bags filled withtapioca pudding.

Genevieve glared at me my first day in the restaurant, snarled that her name was pronounced "Zhawn-vee-ev, NOT Jen-a-veev," and it was all downhill from there. The day dishwasher was a lazy sack of shit, a mustachioed guido with a greasy mullet whose name it's not worth my time to remember. I would come into work at 4:30, a half-hour early just to deal with the stack of dishes, pots, and pans he would leave for me. I would complain, but no one every disciplined him because he was Genevieve's weed connection. The only way I could get through the night was to start chugging coffee, cooling the hot grounds with lots of cream and sugar, and pounding them down like the Eclipse or Autocrat coffee milks we used to get in elementary school. I would go through four or five cups before 5:30. It was a miserable job.

1989 and 1990 were bad years. Most of my friends had left town for college, and the people I ran with were turning out to be dirtbags. I don't know when or why I started hanging out at Matty's apartment: we had been in different crowds in high school and didn't really mix. I had never gotten along with his girlfriend, who I thought was a real priss. Matt and I had no animosity: he was just another face in the hall. But at some point after high school, we had been introduced and became drinking buddies. Matt had his own apartment in a building owned by his father, and a fake ID. I in turn always knew where to get weed or cocaine (or as we called it, "shit"). At some point Matt broke up with Nicole, and started having regular parties at his place: he was a good looking, congenial guy with an infectious laugh, and he knew some really hot girls. My dirtbag friends thought he was gay, but the guy got girls like crazy. I would end up at Matt's place pretty much every night; in a sense my addiction to girls helped me get off the cocaine, since I spent far less time hanging out with the dirtbags, who only attracted skanks. [Note to self: the story of Deana and Eric must be told. But that's for another day. -- ed] It was a great place to drink off the coffee high I'd be riding after work: I'd usually give a call around 9:00 and ask Matty to pick me up a 12 pack of Budweiser or whatever was cheap. On one particularly brutal night at the restaurant, I had slipped on the wet floor and spilled boiling hot water all over my arm: I still have the scar. My employers, in classic fashion, refused to let me leave, and made me stay until the end of the night despite the fact that my arm was blistered and oozing pus from the burn. When I got home, my folks forced me to go to the hospital, but all I wanted was that beer at Matt's place: after 8 cups of coffee, I was sure to be tossing all night.

Choosing to put off college was, in retrospect, probably the main reason Matt and I became friends (well, beside our thirsty livers). People like the Eckhardts or the Fitzys had never planned to go to college either, but they were voc-tech kids: Matt and I were both college prep material. It was only natural that we gravitated toward each other. I had decided to take a year off before college, to "get a taste of the real world", only to find it tasted like rotten fish. Matt, who was adopted as a baby by a fairly wealthy family, was putting school off as long as he could. "I have no plans for the near or distant future," he would say through a cloud of bong-hits. "I'm not worried about shit. I'm just gonna float along and be a professional failure," laughing as he reached for the dwindling bottle of tequila.

I don't think any of us realized that Matt was serious about that. Certainly not in 1991, when I came back to Newport for a birthday visit after I'd moved to New Haven. Matt and I, who shared the same birthday, drank ourselves stupid that night. My best friend Tim gave me a copy of the new Bags album Night of the Corn People, and we listened to it over and over, laughing our stoned heads off. Even Johnny Eckhardt had showed up, and for once wasn't being a total dick. I don't remember falling asleep, just endless bong hits, beers, shots of Jagermeister, and waking up to October 22 with a hangover that felt like someone dropped anchor through my skull, then weighed anchor through the back of my neck, before leaving me washed up on the shore of Rue and Regret.

(That's Tim on the left, holding what looks like a hot dog. It's actually a chourico, pronounced "sha-reese")

That may have been my last visit home for awhile. Eventually the homesickness for Newport wore off as I got used to New Haven, made new friends, and started school. My friends from RI rarely visited me, if ever. I think Pauly came out once, maybe Mark did too. My mother used to joke about "Newport gravity", and she had a point: if Newporters whine about having to drive 45 minutes to get "all the way to Providence" I was bound to be disappointed if I expected any of them to make a 3 hour trip to Connecticut.

I remember a trip back home in 1995 or 96. I would try to get home each year for Tim's birthday on July 4th, and we had all gotten together at someone's house to party. Matt was there, the first time I'd seen him since 1991. He looked pretty much exactly the same, maybe a bit ruddier around the cheeks, shadows under the eyes.

"Hey man, howya doin', long fuckin' time," he said as we hugged.

"Yeah, man. Too fucking long! Hey, let's get a drink," I said heading for the fridge. "So whatcha been up to in the past couple years?"

"Eh, same old same old," Matt said. "I finally quit the maitre d'i position at Ocean Cliff. I'm over at the Viking now, floor manager. It's a nowhere job." Flaw manajah. Nowheah jawb.

"You thinking about maybe going into hospitality or something?" I asked. "Cus you must have experience out the wazoo at this point. You'll make a shitload more money with a degree."

"Nah dude, the plan is still the same," Matt said. "Go nowhere as fast as I can, have a good time getting there. You know the drill," he added with a chuckle, gulping down a shot of tequila. "'Professional failure'!"

It was an odd comment, and later on after a midnight dip at Forty Steps I was talking with Tim about it.

"Yeah, Matt's an odd duck," he admitted. "You know he was adopted, right?"

"Oh yeah, I knew all that, I said. "But I thought he had a pretty damn good life?"

"Oh he does," Tim said, "no doubt about that. No frikkin' doubt. I mean, he fights with his old man, but who doesn't?" Tim took a sip of his beer. "But I think maybe Matt's got some deeper issues there, I dunno. I think he maybe has some issues about the whole adopting thing. He's clearly..." Tim trailed off, staring out at the moonlight reflecting off the waves.

"Well, he's smart and should be doing something with himself," I said. "I dunno. It's just kinda disappointing to come home and see everybody doing the same shit they were doing when I left. Man, I'm glad we both went to college," and then the conversation veered off toward school. By this time I had moved to Massachusetts and was finishing off my bachelor's degree. Tim was wrapping up his journalism degree at Northeastern University in Boston, and we'd get together when I trekked out to visit my girlfriend who was in grad school at Simmons.

Another trip back in '98 left me feeling the same way: Matty was still hanging out partying, but fewer and fewer of the old crowd were around. He seemed bored with Newport, but didn't seem to have any desire to change direction. Maybe he didn't know how.

That summer, Matty was still working in lower management in the hospitality industry, a floor manager, a maitre d'i, a head waiter, whatever. His father had sold the building his cheap apartment had been in, and Matt had to work harder for his income. "It kinda sucks now, living here," he said over a couple of beers. "But then I think of everything I have here, my friends, my life, and I feel better. Maybe I'm not going anywhere, but I can change that whenever I want. I mean, it's not like I'm trapped, tied to this place."

I nodded my head, thinking how much he sounded like the drunk he'd become. It's nothing. I can quit anytime I want.

"Good luck on that," I said to him, raising my can. "I'm sure that when you figure out what you want to do, you'll just go and do it. You're a smart guy Matt, and the world is still your oyster, whever the hell that means."

"Amen to that, dude. A-fucking-men," he said, and we clinked our cans and downed our beers.

Life goes on. Matt and I dropped out of touch, not that we'd ever kept in touch that much after I left Newport anyway. My girl and I broke up. I joined a good band, moved to Philadelphia, and got on with my career as a musician and writer. I stayed in touch with people like Tim and Paul, but for the most part I was too busy in my own life to take time to remember all those faces from the past, to keep in touch with friends. I think we all go through this: it's always a learning experience to look back at all the people you thought were your friends, people you thought you'd be close to for the rest of your life, only to find that they become little more than shadows and ghosts, wraiths that appear in memory, then disappear as quickly as they came. Minor Threat was right: someday we'll look back and laugh about the salad days. We dwell upon our memories but there are no facts.

It is interesting how people change. During my visit to Newport in 1998, Paul and I had ridden our bikes down to Gooseberry Beach. It was one of those glorious Newport summer days, with the sun's merciless heat swept away by cool shore breezes.
The few cloudy puffs that drifted overhead across the brilliant blue sky made me feel like we had stepped into a Monet, as we sped past oceanside mansions that the wealthy had referred to as "summer cottages" during the Gilded Age.

As we crossed the parking lot to the beach houses, I saw an old face, Tony Goddard, walking with a large, matronly woman I didn't recognize and two young children.

Except I did recognize the woman as she came closer. It was Erin Downey, who was behind me by a year or two in high school, and one of the lookers who hung out at Matt's place back in the day. God, I remember how Erin embodied Heaven and Hell: she had a dynamite body which she was always showing off, and she was about the most aggressive flirt I had ever met. Seeing her in a bikini was like cotton candy for the eyes, and the way she wiggled when she walked was just a sin. She took pleasure in leading guys on and then cutting them off without warning, a vicious and remorseless tease. It got to a point where I would't even talk to or look at the girl, because I couldn't bear to deal with my masturbatory fantasies that would inevitably lead nowhere. And here Erin was, Tony's wife, transformed into a giant meatball of a woman. The butt she'd been so proud of in high school now hung off her back and sides like a sack of potatoes, and she had at least three chins. I have to admit a part of me was happy Erin had turned out so unattractive: the memory of her breasts and bottom when she was 20 still brings stirrings in my groin, and I had envied Tony when they had started dating, knowing he was getting to see, touch, and suck on those lovelies. Memories....

I don't know when it was exactly, but sometime in 2000, near my 30th birthday, Pauly called me in Philly.

"Hey man," he said. "I don't want this to fuck you up too bad, but I have bad news. Matt's dead."

"Matt?" I said. "Matt who? I know a few Matts."

"Matt Champlin," Paul said. "Matty's gone."

"Matt Champlin? Matt Ch-- why do I know that name?" I asked.

"Uh, maybe because you used to spend every night at his house drinking with him until the two of you passed out with the fucking door open all the time? The guy you went through an eightball with in less than 2 hours? The guy you shared a birthday with? That Matt Champlin?"

It was like a slap upside the head. "Matt Champlin died? What? What the hell happened?"

"You're not gonna believe this," Paul started. I was already curdling inside, not because my friend was dead, but because I didn't even remember his name. He'd become, like so many others, one of those ghosts. Not even a ghost: just forgotten, like a stranger who got off the bus two stops back.

"He finally decided he was getting out of Newport, I guess," Paul said. "He went to Connecticut to interview for a job, stayed over at Oscar's buddy Todd's place near Waterbury, you remember Todd." I was nodding my head as Paul's voice crackled over the phone.

"You know, he never thought that much of himself, because of the adoption thing. I remember a big drunken talk we had about it a few months back, when he was talking about getting out of here, that it was no wonder his parents gave him up when he was a baby," Paul continued. "Something about it being his last shot, that he didn't want to tie himself to this town. So I guess... yeah he drove to Waterbury, what is that, 4 hours? He was going for a job interview, and I guess it didn't go so well.

"Cus when Todd came home from work that evening, he found Matt hanging in the closet, hanging from the tie he wore to the interview that morning."

Paul sighed deeply.

"Damn dude, I can't fucking believe you didn't even remember his fucking name."

[Update: Tim adds: "When Matt died, it really didn't surprise me on one level. I don't know if you remember, but he was one of several Rogers [high school] kids who tried to off themselves (Matt on some kind of pill OD) within weeks of James' [Tim's cousin] suicide [in 1984]. From that point on, we (me, Kenny, Dave and Rick albeit retrospectively) agreed that it was always going to be a card that he'd keep in his deck."]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

...seriously brilliant telling of your story. Even reading about Matt's demise (as weird as it was) has finally put to rest what happend to him. I was back for a reunion and I found out then but didnt know the deets, but as I (the avid researcher I am) decide to google Matt for an Obit and instead, your blog comes up,--I read. and I read some more...until...well-you know the rest.

Thanks for your story hombre...I have cool memories of that kid and I wish he like others in our class that never saw graduation because of suicide, could have thought a bit more of themselves as to avoid (at least) the taking of thier own lives.

Tyrone Spencer

1:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Matt Champlin was my only uncle on my mother's side and from what little I remember and what little supplemental information has been provided by family, he was a good guy by all accounts. Reading this after a long shot Google of "Matthew Champlin Rhode Island," was certainly startling. Not the easiest 2a.m., on-my-way-to-bed material. Still, I'm glad that Uncle Matt left an indelible impression. We left Warwick before my first birthday so I only ever met Matt a couple times. When people from New England ask where I'm from, my correct pronunciation (war-wick, not warrek, or warruk, or however you want to phoneticize it) let's them know I that I couldn't have spent any length of time there (also, my hesitancy to employ the word "wicked" before virtually any/every adjective is a dead giveaway). Anyway, I get the feeling that Matt and I had many similarities, get bummed out about the same type of shit (with the exception of being adopted, which as you mentioned, was probably a heart-breaker for him his whole life--how could it not be? [it would be me more strange in my opinion if knowledge of that nature had no effect on a person]. One important side note that I'll add is that he was not just the adopted child, he was also the only boy in a family of seven children, all his senior. I might be filling in blanks a bit here but I'm also pretty sure that the largest chronological gap between birthdates of the seven Champlin kids was between my youngest aunt and Matt--maybe not, but the point is my oldest aunt could have passed for his mom in a pinch, and sometimes it's the little nuances like that in family dynamics that contribute to and compound pre-existing feelings of isolation and dissonance, sometimes leading people toward certain emotional/psychological trajectories. Also, coming of age in what I'm certain will decades later be called the heroin era, it isn't hard for me to contextualize the impact that alcoholism and maybe drug abuse (I wasn't there so I don't want to speculate on the latter (although the chutzpah necessary to polish off an eighth of chowder with just one buddy in less time than it takes to watch Forrest Gump, opening to closing credits, most likely indicates trouble in those waters as well) could have had in exacerbating those issues.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that while I appreciate your recollection as a glimpse of one man's perspective of Matthew (a friend, not a best friend, but definitely more than the 90's equivalent of a Facebook friend), there was a lot more going on there that you couldn't have known--and I'll give you credit for making that fairly clear.

Anyway, I love and miss Matt Champlin and it's good to know that at least some of the people that knew him better, or for longer feel the same. Rest in peace Uncle Matt. -sam

3:47 AM  

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