by Stephen M. Park
Trade Paper; 450 pages; 5-1/4″ x 8″
Stephen M. Park’s High & Dry is a memoir of misadventure akin to a Hunter S. Thompson fever dream. Under the pseudonym Wilson High, Park narrates and illustrates exploits that belie the beleaguered fugue from which they came.
If you ever imagined yourself exploring the ragged edge, this is it.
High’s life unfolds like an experiment gone awry. Among the myriad variables are fifty full-time jobs (including a stint as “The World’s Fastest Typist”), basketball, life-threatening illnesses, addictions, the d.t.’s, gunfire, crazy companions, mental wards, jails, halfway houses, wino hotels, apprehension by the FBI, a Tijuana divorce, Scientology, The Evergreen State College and years of marijuana cultivation.
The only constant in High’s life is his absurdist approach to it (like attempting, for instance, to drink himself out of alcoholism). He drifts from one fantastic adventure to the next, not searching for meaning but simply living in The Moment. The Moment can be comical or tragic, gentle or crass, beautiful or horrific. The Moment is a product of our humanity in all its perverse, ironic glory. The important thing, High reminds us, is not to shrink from the strange … but to embrace it.
Selections from High & Dry
The World’s Fastest Typist. As innocuous as that sounds now it seems even sillier that I made my living that way. Not because I didn’t think I was (I truly never met, heard or read of anybody who could type as fast as I did for as long as I could on any kind of keyboard – be it a teletype, a typewriter or a computer), but because speed typing was a natural for me, a perfect confluence of the monk and monkey in my head.
Once I learned to touch type, anyway. The summer after eighth grade my mother got this idea in her head that I should learn to use a typewriter. This would not be such an unusual notion now, not when kids start using keyboards as adolescents, but in 1961 I couldn’t imagine a fourteen-year-old girl with typing skills, much less a boy my age. In retrospect it seemed very prescient of mom to even make me try. When I complimented her on this once she simply laughed. “I wanted you out of the house in the morning,” she told me, “and after seventh grade I enrolled you in that summer reading class. Do you remember that?”
“I’m not surprised. You had a whole long list of books to read and you read them all the first week. Even finished your little reports on them. Then there I was … stuck with you again.”
“So the typing …?”
“You were so uncoordinated I was sure it’d take you all summer to learn.”
And she wonders where I get my attitude.
So there I was at the local high school for five mornings a week, not only the only kid under fifteen in my typing and English classes, but also the tallest and skinniest. (I’d grown nine inches in the past year, stretching from 5’4” to 6’1” with no discernible increase in weight.)
My self-consciousness abated somewhat the first time the teacher walked in. He was a 6’9” 260-pound giant who had played professional basketball for the St. Louis Hawks in the early 50s and was now teaching typing in summer school. He stopped in front of his desk, peeled off his tacky sports coat to reveal arms as big around as my body.
“I’m Mr. Taylor,” he rumbled. “But you can call me ‘Big Joe.’”
I literally gulped. I can’t speak for the other 50 students in the room, virtually all of whom were girls of varying ages, but it’s safe to say Big Joe’s voice was scarier than his size and he was the biggest sonofabitch I’d ever seen. Then, to prove he could type too, he rolled over a little Olympic portable on a stand, set up something in the textbook to read, hit the timer and started pounding. I remember it like it was yesterday: how was it possible for fingers that big to manipulate a keyboard that small?
When he was done he corrected his work and he’d typed 70 words a minute for three minutes straight with one error. He slid the typewriter stand aside, stepped toward us and extended his hands. “If I can type that well with mitts like these,” he said, “imagine what you can do with those scrawny little paws of yours!”
He had me convinced. Unfortunately I’d done some hunting and pecking on my older brother’s typewriter over the past month or so (it was a graduation gift from my parents and he barely looked at it before passing it on to me) so even though the keyboards in class were blank I remembered where the letters were and looked down as I typed.
It was the morning of the third day when a giant shadow crept over me. I twisted my head and saw Big Joe standing there.
“You like to look, don’t you, High?” he said.
“Well,” I said, “maybe once in awhile.”
I was in the far left corner of the room – the same place I always sat if I had a choice – and Big Joe pulled up a chair and sat down next to me. He drew a handkerchief from his back pocket and slowly unfolded it in front of me.
“You see this kerchief?” he asked.
“I’m going to blindfold you with it.”
“What!?” I had visions of him wanting to cover my eyes before he reached over, popped my head like a grape.
“I’m going to blindfold you so you can’t look at the keyboard or anything else. Then I’m going to read the lesson aloud and you’ll type along to what I’m reading.”
I’d been doing 20 words a minute as a hunt-and-pecker … I didn’t think I could do 5 if he blindfolded me. “I don’t know, Big Joe,” I said.
“I do,” he replied, and wrapped the hankie around my eyes. For the next three mornings, until I learned exactly where each letter was simply by touch, Big Joe read to me while I fumbled around in the dark, trying to keep up. He never did it for anyone else in the class, even though, before I was blindfolded, it seemed to me that everybody in there was cheating. Did he recognize my hidden talent as a typist? (Does such a thing even exist?) Or did he simply feel sorry for me because he’d been a tall, awkward, skinny kid himself?
I’ll never know and I suppose it doesn’t matter. What’s important is the impression he made on me, the way being taught to type by a huge, rugged bastard like that mediated my own misgivings about “being good at a girl’s job.”
And I would have missed so much if I hadn’t learned to type … it has (along with walking) been the great meditation of my life. By the end of that summer, when I was hammering out eighty words a minute with no errors, I pretty much had the formula down, i.e., the faster I typed, the more my right brain kicked in and the more far away and serene I felt.
Drugs would help in that regard later, of course – marijuana is a performance-enhancing drug when it comes to speed typing – but back in that summer of ’61 there was another incident that cinched my typist future. This was my English teacher pulling my maiden typewritten paper from the messy pile of book reports on his desk. From where I sat I could almost feel his relief as he leafed through those crisp, neat, typewritten sheets, then set them down with a sigh and scrawled a grade on top.
When I saw it was a big, fat “A” I knew I was in there: unless it was an in-class assignment I never submitted a handwritten paper again. It’s why I either carried a portable typer with me during the wino years or bought a used one as soon as I could afford it. I worked in typing pools through college and when word processing became popular in the late 70s I out adrenalined those rush-job attorneys.
Not that it matters anymore: scanners replaced me and voice commands will, eventually, replace them. The other day I got an actual typed letter from the ten-year-old daughter of a friend of mine, thanking me for a gift I’d given her. This is what she wrote:
“It is s%o hard to wr#$% t= on a tYpwriter. IT is some&*
kind of machi+#$ne from the old da&$ys & you can*(‘t
Erase! Tha*n&nk G^od for Compute%rs!”
A week after I arrived in the Bay Area I was living in that old Plymouth. It happened without much forethought on my part, one morning I woke in the back seat with my feet out the window and the next thing I knew that was my daily routine. I had paperbacks and boxes of crackers on the front seat, empty beer cans on the floorboards in back, brake fluid and water jugs in the trunk. There were plenty of parties to occupy my evenings and when I needed a shower or a real meal I’d drop by Canby’s place. I passed an indolent month that way before finally returning to work, first painting houses with a friend in San Bruno, then loading and unloading watermelons from produce trucks before I hooked on with Delta Airlines at the airport.
My hiring was something of an aberration. Delta was based out of Atlanta, Georgia and usually employed only neat, earnest, cleancut characters to work the tarmac and ticket counters. I, on the other hand, living on fast food and booze as I did and sleeping in my car, had a head start on the grungy hippie look. I wouldn’t have made it past the initial interview if I hadn’t been given a test. It was one of those deductive reasoning exams popular at the time – 50 questions to answer in twelve minutes – and after I became the first applicant to finish it, much less score higher than 40, I was hired on as a ramp agent.
Which made little sense, of course, because it took about as much brains to load and unload luggage as it had those watermelons. I worked from midnight to eight in the morning (a concession, perhaps, to my disheveled appearance), and though the graveyard hours were the worst part of the job they also meant we had but three planes to service the entire shift.
So there was less supervision and a smaller crew, two of us to load luggage onto a cart and another two to shove it into the belly of the plane. Because I was tall and the bins were only four-and-a-half feet high I spent most of my time at the baggage chutes. My partner was Lonesome Louie Houston.
He’d been nicknamed “Lonesome” because he rarely smiled and seldom spoke. He was twenty-five years old, an average-sized guy from San Angelo, Texas who wore horn-rimmed glasses and worked like a demon. We labored in the labyrinth of chutes beneath the airport, pulling bags off conveyor belts and tossing them onto carts.
Or Lonesome did, anyway. In the time it would take me to bend over, grab a bag and swing it over my shoulder and onto a cart he’d have four of them in there. Then when the carts were full he’d be the one to jump in and drive them to the plane. I worked with him my first two weeks and not only did he rarely speak, he had a permanently bored expression that only lessened when he was doing the work of two people.
So as the nights went by I learned to simply stay out of his way. I’d pull up a chair at the bottom of the chute, chain smoke cigarettes while I waited out the drunk I’d come in on or the one I was getting over. I had certainly not tiptoed into alcoholism. In my haste to take advantage of it, in fact, I’d convinced myself that I should drink whenever I felt like it and simply see what happened.
Sitting there in the noisy, midnight bowels of the airport, slipping in and out of consciousness had been the main result so far. But I didn’t begrudge Louie his need to work his ass off and the muteness thing was fine with me … you couldn’t hear yourself think in there, anyway.
Then one night I came in way drunker than usual and Louie found me passed out beneath a chute. When I woke I was standing upright in a black, coffin-like space with my forehead resting against metal. This was vaguely reassuring – if it was a coffin I hadn’t been buried yet – but I was woozy and couldn’t feel my feet. Then my eyes adjusted to the dark and I realized there were three horizontal slats in front of my nose. I dipped down, peeked through the top one and recognized the employee dressing room.
Which meant I was … what? Standing inside one of the seven-foot tall lockers? How was that possible? It was a great place to pass out, all right – and I’d surely take advantage of it in the future – but I couldn’t remember having the idea myself. Then I heard footsteps and someone tapped gently on the locker door. “Wilson?” said a soft, Southern voice. “Are you awake yet, Wilson?”
Who the hell was that? I peeked through the slats again, saw Lonesome Louie looking up at me. I tried to open the locker door but couldn’t manage it from the inside. “Yeah I’m awake, Louie,” I said. “Get me out of here, would ya, I gotta piss.”
He opened the door and I tried to step out but my feet were asleep and I tripped, pitching forward into Lonesome’s arms. He dragged me to the chairs beside the wall and lowered me into one.
Then he laughed. A grin crept across his face (it was like ice cracking), then his mouth opened and out came this odd ack-ack noise.
“Christ!” I said, slipping my shoes off and rubbing my feet. “How the hell did I get in that locker?”
“I put you in there,” said Lonesome. “You were so drunk I couldn’t wake you and to hide you from the other guys I dragged you over here, stood you up in the locker and shut the door.”
I just looked at him. His voice was a soft Texas drawl with very little inflection. A monotone really, even when, like now, he seemed amused.
“Except,” he added, “they sure as hell could have heard you. Do you know you snore standing up? I had to hustle by every fifteen minutes or so, bang the door hard to wake you.”
I held my head: I was still bleary-eyed and tipsy. I’d discovered scotch the night before and it had not been a positive experience. “Why’d you do all that for me, Lonesome?” I asked.
“I don’t want you to get fired,” he said. “I enjoy working with you.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“No, you’re a real strange duck, High.”
“That’s something coming from you. And hell! I come in drunk half the time and don’t do anything … why would you enjoy working with me?”
“Because of that. I like to be so busy I’ve no time to think. With you around that’s pretty much guaranteed.”
“And you don’t want to think because …”
“I suffer from suicidal depression.”
“You’ve had it rough, eh?”
“No, I’ve had it easy. I just haven’t enjoyed it.”
I laughed, stood up to head for the urinal but stuck out my hand first. “Well thanks, partner,” I said, “I appreciate you looking out for me like this.”
“Don’t mention it,” he said, giving my hand a brisk shake. “And while we’re on the subject … is it true what the other guys say? That you actually live in that awful car of yours?”
“It’s comfortable enough ’til winter comes and I’ve no money for an apartment at the moment. I keep drinking it up.”
“You can stay at my apartment in Millbrae, High. I’ve an extra bedroom that no one uses.”
“Really? How much a month?”
“Nothing. Like I said, the room’s just sitting there and it makes no difference to me. All I ask is that you don’t speak to me unless you absolutely have to.”
A mute roommate and free rent? How could I keep getting better deals than the Portland State whorehouse?
“Lonesome,” I said, slapping him on the back, “you got yourself a roomie.”
Finding a lover and/or girlfriend can be difficult at any age … as a sixty-four-year-old dope grower in Portland it’s damn near impossible.
Not that being 6’6”, skinny and bald helps. I had this absurd notion when I turned forty that, as I aged, my old rogue status would become increasingly attractive to women, that they’d weary of the safe, boring lives they’d lived to that point and want a little of the strange stuff.
Just the opposite is true, of course … like most of us I’m less appealing every day. I was so desperate last fall that I went on the High Times website to check out their “Personals” section. I figured any woman who’d post herself there must be looking for a guy like me.
So I’m glancing through the photos and descriptions – there are some attractive, interesting women listed in my age group and locale – and at first I’m so sure they have to be stoners that I don’t look at the “Preferences” section. When I finally do what do I see in response to the “Marijuana Okay?” question but statements like “NEVER!” “NO WAY!” and “ABSOLUTELY NOT!”
What am I missing here? Why would someone list herself in a High Times personals ad and not want to get loaded? Or is that simply the code, i.e., if they’re there that shows they want to get high regardless of what they say? (And if so, you’d think a simple “NO” would have sufficed.)
But I can’t complain: I’m more interested in sex than companionship and hormones will take care of the former soon enough. Plus being monkish by nature is a real boon in Boregon. I have dozens of friends nearby and probably know another hundred people across the state, but I’m the sole single person among them.
They feel bad for me, I feel worse for them.