This Guy I knew is Dead; This Guy I knew is Alive
My younger sister Kate's ex-boyfriend Gordon, who I've written about before, somewhat less than charitably (and that is to my shame not his) is dead. If the autopsy comes out the way I think it will, it will be evident he was murdered.
I knew Gordon before my sister did actually; he was a presence, either as an audience member or bouncer, at pretty much every hardcore and punk show I went to growing up in Rhode Island. He was a good 10 years older than me. He was massive, 6'6" at least, a former Marine, lean and just fucking ripped with muscles. I don't mean the pumped out Schwarzenegger look: I mean that wiry, rope look that could rip a cow in half. Gordon was kind of a meathead, but basically a nice guy, the kind of guy who would beat the shit out of you if he absolutely had to, but would feel bad about it later and probably buy you a beer in remorse. He worked in construction, lobstering sometimes later on.
I guess Gordon and Kate got together in 1990 or 1991: she was still at Rhode Island College (RIC) when Gordon got sent to the ACI for stabbing someone in a bar fight. God bless her, my sister, all of 19 years old (Gordon must have been pushing 30), waited for him. Kate worked in the Stanley Bostich factory if memory serves, making staplers. The job was union, and Kate refused to let anyone in management push her around: I would see her at holidays and listen to her complain about the union bending over for management. It made her into one tough little bitch, I can tell you that. It's this toughness, this aggressiveness that never lets her give in to anyone or anything, for better or for worse.
When Gordon got out of jail, they decided to finally get the hell out of Rhode Island, and moved near my parents in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, getting an apartment in nearby Margate. I didn't keep in close touch with my family at the time because I was busy finishing college, but from what I recollect my folks helped them out a lot, giving Gordon work on their property. I think he worked primarily as a carpenter once he established his presence.
At some point I learned that the relationship was over: Kate had caught Gordon screwing around with the stripper that lived downstairs. This was about when I began referring to the guy as "Stabby the Clown". Unkind of me? Yeah, but I wasn't exactly happy about the guy cheating on my sister.
Like a lot of people (like my ex-girlfriend and me), Kate kept in touch with Gordon, eventually getting over the hurt and betrayal (I hope; who am I to speak for her?), becoming friends. My mom has had a soft spot for Gordon as well: I know he calls on the holidays to say hello, the same way I call my ex's family on the holidays.
Earlier this week, my mother called me to tell me that Gordon had died. The inital story was rough, that he'd been beaten by a teenager and 5 of his friends. The story I heard after the funeral was heartbreaking.
Gordon was dating a divorced mother. The estranged father apparently instigated the beating by telling the woman's son that now that Gordon had had the mom, he was going to try to bang the kid's sister. So the kid got 5 friends together and they jumped Gordon, with aluminum baseball bats and a gold club. They beat him so bad he lost an eye. After getting out of the hospital (at the hospital? I don't know all the details yet), the woman urged Gordon to press charges, but he refused, saying he didn't want to ruin the kid's life. That is the kind of guy Gordon was: he probably could have ripped the kid limb from limb with his bare hands if he wanted to, but chose to file the incident under "Fucked Up Things That Teenagers Do." I would have to assume that, having had his own stint in the pen, Gordon knew how situations could get out of hand.
Gordon and his girlfriend were asleep in bed when she heard a thud. Gordon had fallen from the bed, and was dead. An autopsy has been ordered. The irony is that Gordon wouldn't press charges because he didn't want to in the kid's life: why bother, when his assailant ruined at least three including his own?
This Guy I Knew is Alive.
While Kate was waiting for Gordon's release from prison and working her ass off at the staple factory, I was living in New Haven. I've always been resistant to change, and the abrupt move from 18 years of my life in Newport to the completely alien New Haven fucked my head up for about 3 months. By New Years day 1992, I had gotten my footing a bit. I was playing bass in a rock band with two other guys, Greg Prior on guitar and Shawn whatever-his-name was on drums. They had been in a power-pop band in the late 1980s called Bleached Black: they had made it to the charts and were about to be picked up by Sony when their guitar player Steve-o blew the whole deal, though I never got the whole story. In any event, Greg and Shawn had started playing together again; I don't exactly recall how I entered the picture. At some point, the effort went on hiatus when Shawn quit the band, but a few months later I bumped into Greg again, and he'd found another drummer, this guy Todd formerly of the Jellyshirts (forgive any mistakes or incorrect names: it was a long time ago and things get jumbled), and we started playing together again.
Every time I've visited New Haven since I moved away, it has seemed a sadder, more dangerous, and less appealing city, but in 1992, there was a hell of a scene going on. Thurston Moore himself proclaimed that New Haven was "the next Seattle", apparently sincerely. Indeed, a week after I moved there, Nirvana played The Moon, a dirtshit, little bar in the Westville neighborhood. My friend Tim told me to go check it out. "They're gonna be fucking huge," he said. "Fucking huge." I ended up forgetting to go. I was never that impressed with Nirvana anyway; Mudhoney was more my style.
It was a fun time to be playing rock music. We called our band "Hempstead" because we were all a bunch of potheads; I still think it's a good name for a band. We practiced in the same place all the other bands in New Haven practiced: in the vacant space above Christie's Department store. In its day, it had been four stories of retail space and offices. The ceilings and walls were criss-crossed with long tubes through which interdepartmental messages had once been sent via vaccuum, but by the early 1990s, the store took up only the first floor and was desperately tryng to milk what cash it could from the upper floors by renting space to musicians and artists. Rumpleforeskin practiced there. Malachi Crunch practiced there. Nest door, where we used to practice, was VMJ and Sunflower. This was all up and down the easternmost end of Chapel Street, across from the Nude Haven Bookstore, a few blocks from Worcester Square and the best apizza you ever ate, where nobody lived and electric guitars caromed off the empty masonry, echoing down tarmac canyons.
Greg was a brilliant musician and a performer of staggering talent, with one flaw: he was totally out of his mind. I don't mean this pejoratively: he was seriously and self-admittedly bipolar, a condition he had inherited from his mother. Unfortunately, in the 1990s the available medications weren't as targeted as they are today, and they completely numbed him. "You know why I don't take them?" Greg said to me once over a couple of Elm Citys at Cafe 9. Elm City was a local microbrew, made by the New Haven Brewery riding the wave back when microbrews were new. [The New Haven Brewery is now defunct, and was never any Yards to begin with.]
"When I take the drugs, I can't play music. I can't write." I had to strain to hear him. For a guy who screamed his head off as a singer, Greg spoke only a decibel or two above a whisper.
From what he told me, Greg and his wife Ellen had met in a psych ward when they were teenagers. They had an immediate soul connection, and eventually they married. They had a little boy named Timmy, and a daughter on the way whose name I can't remember. In some ways Greg envied Ellen: becoming a mother had in many ways cured her of her insanity. They made a good couple though: both of them had issues with body hair, and kept their hair closely cropped ("above and below" he cracked). If Greg looked a little like Popeye, Ellen was a vision, in a camoflage pants, combat boots, and a bleached-white flat top, pushing Timmy in his stroller.
A little like Popeye. Greg looked EXACTLY like Popeye. The picture below only shows his shaved head. Greg was a wiry guy with a preference for tight pants; in particular, one pair made of black leather. Greg was one of the kindest, most humble guys I have ever met, but had an uncharacteristic swagger which made him seem cocky and arrogant, about which I'll write more later in this piece.
Greg was also a born-again Christian. He didn't belong to any church, prefering to worship at home in his own way. He was incredibly intense about his relationship with God, but he was a surprisingly open-minded person, unlike so many of the other devoutly Christian people I've met.
"It's not my business if someone has an abortion or is gay," he once said to me. "That's for them to work out with God, it's none of my thing. I don't have to approve, but it's just not for me to say. God has His way. And I don't care anyway."
The dark side of Greg's Christianity was depending on his mood, it went from preaceful to downright apocalyptic. His lyrics, which he sang in great yowls abnd yelps were nearly impossible to decipher, but when you could make them out, they were cryptic refernces and obscure Bible verses. On one particular song, he actually spoke in tongues. It was eerie.
One evening Greg came to practice. He pulled a pack of smokes out of his shirt, and dug his lighter out of the leather pants. "So, uh guys, I don't think I can make the gig in two weeks," he said. "I think we should cancel. I'm going in for surgery that week."
Todd and I looked up. "Surgery?" Todd said. "What's wrong? Is everything OK?"
"Oh no, it's nothing bad," said Greg. "It's just invasive, and I'll be laid up for a couple of days. You know that cyst I mentioned a few months ago?" He was referring to a benign water-filled cyst in his scrotum. "It's not like it's gotten cancerous," he added. "It's just gotten to the point where it's getting in the way, and I have to do something about it."
"How big is the thing?" I asked. "I mean..."
"Well, walking has been getting difficult, but I could deal with the Popeye walk," he said. So that's what it was from I thought. "But now it's getting in the way of me fucking Ellen. It's really... well, you wanna see it?"
"Oh yeah," said Todd. "Let's see the freakish thing."
Greg shrugged, and unbuttoned the pants, peeling them down to his knees, and dropped his whitey-tightties.
I wasn't prepared for what I saw. His nuts were pushed off to one side, and his scrotum was the size of a bocce ball.
"Holy fucking SHIT!" Todd screamed. "DUDE WHAT THE FUCK HAVE YOU BEEN WEARING LEATHER PANTS FOR?!?"
Hempstead, like so many other bands, ended up breaking up. I would still see Greg around the neighborhood and though there were no hard feelings, by summer 1993 I hadn't seen him in months.
I had left my job at the natural foods store, where I ran the salad bar during the day and made all-natural kosher vegetarian pizzas by night. Our kitchen was blessed by Rabbi Whitman, a 30-something man with a round and ruddy moon of a face, probing brown eyes peeking out from his jowly pink face who dropped by to make spot inspections.
The store was at the crossroads of a dangerous ghetto, a struggling middle class neighborhood, and a growing Lubavitcher and orthodox Jewish community. Tired frumpy women with a line of children behind them would occassionally approach me as I poked through the produce section looking for a head of romaine, asking in heavily accented English, "Excuse me mistah? You Jewish?"
My inevitable reply, "on my father's side," was met with a shaking head, and a grumbled "Never mind."
If the Lubavitchers were dour, the Orthodox community was richly diverse and welcoming. Yoshi lived upstairs from me with absolutely stunning wife Hannah and their 2 year old daughter. Yosh was in his early 30s and a doctoral student at Yale divinity school. He would come downstairs every two weeks or so and knock on my door, dressed in birkenstocks, pleated khaki pants, an oxford shirt and tie under a knit vest like my grandmother used to make, and a knit yarmulke and ask "Hey Brendan? Can you uh.. can you get, get me any weed?" The first time I was stunned. "Oh no, there's nothing in the Bible against it," he assured me, "and I'm not a narc if you'rew worried about that. It's just that I kind of figured..."
Once I went upstairs with Yosh so Hannah could inspect the buds; if the idea of HIM smoking was funny, the idea of her smoking was mind-blowing. She was a vision, who never wore a wig like some of the other women, but revelled in bright head scarves.
"Oh Yosh," she said, "This is some good shit. Reminds me of the Golden Triangle, in Thailand."
"Thailand? Golden Triangle? What the heck were you two doing down there?"
"Oh we were missionairies," Yosh laughed. "But we'd get into the city whenever we could to score some weed."
Orthodox Jewish missionaries smoking weed in Thailand. I couldn't quite get my mind around it. "Are there a lot of Jews in Thailand?"
"Oh no, none at all," Hannah laughed. "We were on mission to the poor, helping out. Kind of like Jewish peace corps."
The downside of having a hippy orthodox Jewish family living upstairs was that every Friday night around sundown, the other guys on the way to temple would show up and yell at the top of their lungs, "YOOOOSHHHHIIIIII!!!!!!!" According to the Sabbath rules, ringing doorbells was considered work, and thus forbidden, while yelling at the top of your lungs was quite alright.
The pizza calls would start coming in early on Fridays; cooking was obviously not an option during the Sabbath, and our Jewish customers were eager to order ahead. Post-worship get-togethers seemd to be pretty common, with families ordering 2-3 pies at a time. Hilariously, the most popular topping was a tempeh product called Fakin Bacon. A typical conversation would go like this:
"Hello, Brendan? It's Rabbi Whitman; can I order a pizza for tonight?"
"Of course Rabbi, what can I do for you?"
"Could I get 2 pies, one plain cheese, and one with olives and..." His voice would drop 10 decibels. "Do you have any of that... you know," and his voice would drop even further. "Fakin Bacon?" There was no meat in the product and it was kosher, but just the word "bacon" seemed to put the rabbi, and pretty much every other practicing Jew in the neighborhood, into the same shameful fever I used to get sneaking Hustlers into my room during high school.
Anyway, I had left this job, and was splitting my time between Pizza Pal Plus and painting condominum complexes in the suburbs. It was quite a crew. Todd had been one of the local rock scene's prime movers, but had since dropped out and was putting his energy into the painting business. Fernando was Todd's girlfriend's son; aggressively Puerto Rican, he spent his share of radio time blasting top 40 dance music. Paul was an older hipster; when Bleached Black was up and coming, he had been my age. Glenn was had the best stories; a recovered junkie, he had toured extensively with the Butthole Surfers as their drug purchaser.
And so it was that I heard the last of Greg for 5 years. We had just picked up our coffee and donuts on the way out to a job when Paul piped up, "Did you hear what happened with Greg prior last night?"
I took a sip of coffee and looked up. My new girlfriend had me drinking the stuff black and I was still getting used to it. "What happened?"
"Oh man, he lost it," Paul said, craning his neck to the back of the van, "He got picked up by the cops this morning walking downtown on Elm Street in his whitey-tighties." Heading into town from Greg's apartment at Norton and Whalley, the further downtown one headed on Elm, the worse the neighborhood got, a wasteland scarred by gnagland shootings between Los Solidos, the Latin Kings, and the Howe Street Gang. "He was throwing hex signs over his shoulder, saying over and over the Saint Peter was calling him."
I shook my head; it was so sad that Greg had finally cracked up. Again. A few weeks later I bumped into Ellen and little Timmy waiting for the bus downtown. Timmy held a silvery mylar balloon that read "Get Well Soon Daddy". It was heart wrenching, but at the same time, far-removed for me. I was preparing to leave town, applying to colleges out of state. Eventually, I got accepted at UMass, and spent the next 3 years absorbed in school, and three years after that looking for work in the area and propping up a dying relationship, with both Massachusetts and my girlfriend. When the one crashed, the other burned, and by 1999, I had moved to Philadelphia.
It was in New York during Halloween that I met up with Greg again. I was playing with Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops,appearing regularly in Manhattan at a little southern food place called the Old Devil Moon. My friend Paul from Newport was with me; he'd come dwn to see the freak show Halloween parade up 5th Avenue. I don't remember exactly how Greg and I bumped into each other; I think it may have been as simple as rounding a corner onto Avenue A and there he was.
"Hey man, how've you been?" I asked.
"Well, you know, up and down I guess," said Greg. "Ellen and I broke up a year or so ago. She's still in Connecticut, and I get the kids on the weekends. Good news though is that I'm finally on some decent medications that let me play my guitar. I've been doing a hell of a lot better." I invited Greg to the show that night, and in return he offered to let Paul and me stay in his apartment, which we gladly accepted.
It was good to see Greg doing so well. He gave me a tape of some of the latest songs he was working on. It seemed a little dated to me, a little run of the mill, but then by that time I hadn't been listening to rock for 3 years or so, nothing but bluegrass and country. Greg still looked exactly the same as he had in 1993, except for maybe a few new gray hairs.
It was around 3:00 AM when we got to Greg's place. "Timmy hasn't been up in a month and the bulb in his room is burned out," he said as he opened one door. "And I never had a bulb in this one to begin with." He handed me a flashlight and a lighter to Paul.
"I gotta get up early in the morning," he added stretching, "So I probably won't see you. You have my number?" I nodded. "Cool man, I'll see you next time you're up here."
I shut the door behind me and flicked on the light, looking for the bed. As I shucked my shoes and pants, I noticed the walls were covered with scrawlings and pictures, in thick crayon strokes. I began to look at them more closely; they weren't the scribblings of a child, but the work of an adult. Three altars, Two TEMPLES, one sacrifice! He shall COME when His time is near; the horn is blown.
I laid down on Timmy's bed and pulled the covers around my shoulders. It was good to know that Greg was still completely mad.
And thus I come to Hurricane Katrina, upon which I have started another entry that I haven't worked on lately.
I began this particular entry on September 20, when I saw this article. In all likelihood, you can't see this article because you don't subscribe to NY Times select [hint: try the username "myleftwing" and the password "motherfucker"], so I've copied the article here:
STORM AND CRISIS: VOICES FROM THE STORM; Just a Lucky Guy Who Left His Guitar in New Orleans
By ALISON LEIGH COWAN (NYT) 520 wordsPublished: September 20, 2005
Gregory Prior considers himself fortunate. A friend with a car and a tankful of gas picked him up in New Orleans before the full brunt of Hurricane Katrina hit. And because of the timing, Mr. Prior's regular disability check had just arrived.
So once he and his friend parted ways, there was money in his account for bus and train fare to Connecticut, where Mr. Prior has family and friends.
''I'm probably one of the luckiest people,'' he said.
He had tossed clothes and the hand-rolled cigarettes he likes into the car, but not his guitar. Mr. Prior got by as many people did in New Orleans: playing guitar in the street and in pickup bands. But there were other things on his mind four Sundays ago.
''I thought we were coming back,'' said Mr. Prior, 41.
Crossing the bridge over Lake Pontchartrain into Slidell, La., took seven hours. Hoping to go to Florida, the two men had to veer north when the Mississippi authorities halted eastbound traffic.
''People were breaking down, waving white flags because they ran out of gas,'' Mr. Prior said. ''Everyone was very somber.''
Eventually, he reached his parents' home in Shelton, Conn., where he slept on the basement couch. But his mother said her own health problems made it hard for him to stay there indefinitely.
A week after the storm, Mr. Prior learned that the City of New Haven had volunteered to take in 400 evacuees, who would be eligible for free housing, bedding, legal advice and bank accounts containing $100. He called the city's emergency line, and a soothing voice promised a reply within 24 hours. None came.
The second time he called, he was instructed to telephone the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He called and called, and finally got through on Sunday, but is still waiting for the help the agency indicated might be coming. ''I was a little disappointed,'' Mr. Prior said. ''I was hoping the city would help me.''
Local officials did solve one pressing problem. After he explained that the medicine he takes for a bipolar condition was running out, city social workers had his Medicaid eligibility switched to Connecticut from Louisiana. They also sent him to the American Red Cross, which has furnished a free hotel room for two weeks while he considers his options.
Reunited with some of his old Connecticut friends at Rudy's Bar and Grill here the other day, Mr. Prior treated himself to a hand-rolled cigarette and mulled over what he had left behind, perhaps for good.
''Everyone down there, to quote my neighbors, pah-tees like a rock 'n' roll star,'' he said. ''I don't know if it'll ever be the same.'' ALISON LEIGH COWAN
Photo: Gregory Prior, back in Connecticut, is facing a decision on where to live. (Photo by Thomas McDonald for The New York Times)
It's good to know Greg's still around.