Drunk on 163

Steve Esmedina. We’d pile into an old Peugot headed for the Skeleton Zebra Club in the old Douglass Hotel to see the Penetrators or the Rick Elias Band, or to the Spirit in Bay Park.
  • Steve Esmedina. We’d pile into an old Peugot headed for the Skeleton Zebra Club in the old Douglass Hotel to see the Penetrators or the Rick Elias Band, or to the Spirit in Bay Park.

Blubbo, oh Blubbo, where do I begin? You’re dead, gone, laid out rotting in a casket somewhere in the ground; and if that’s just your body, your corpse, your shell, God, I hope so, because, surely, your mind, your spirit — glorious, wonderful, twisted, sad...the essence of Esmo, a nickname they say you hated, but you never told me — is still out there somewhere. And maybe if you’re not too busy making excuses with some Higher Power for your life, you are reading these words and chuckling and shaking your head like you used to do when something amused you.

And I did used to amuse you, didn’t I? We amused each other.

I missed your funeral because no one told me you were dead until a week later, but I’m kind of glad because I would have cried, and I don’t like to do that. I hate things that are beyond my control, and there’s nothing I can do to change the fact that I can never talk to you again, never hear your voice over the phone from the “ghetto,” as you liked to refer to the old house in Southeast you shared with your mother and older brother.

Hell, I just pulled out my old Rolodex and there you are: Steve Esmedina, 910 South 37th Street, San Diego, California 92113, (619) 262-1590. I’ll have to remember to scratch you from my Christmas card list. That was the only contact we had, that and an occasional phone call — the last one must have been two years ago — that brought back vivid memories of the old days when we “hung,” and you still sounded the same, you still were the same; it was I who had changed, but even though I married and had two boys and you stayed where you were — and as you were, so people tell me — deep inside we were still very, very much alike, Thomas K. Arnold and Blubbo. Long after we had ceased hanging out together, we still had the ability to amuse each other. But it was more than that — we were bound by mutual admiration and this very weird sense that we truly understood each other, as puzzling as we may have been to most anyone else.

Death at a young age is always doubly sad, and 47 is young, I don’t care what anyone says. Of course, you always predicted you would go early, and none of us doubted you because you had epilepsy, you didn’t take care of yourself, and by the way, Steve, you shouldn’t have doused yourself in that cheap cologne every time we went out. I can still smell it… Now, why do I bring that up? It’s funny how when someone dies, the memory brings out minutiae. We say publicly, “He was a great guy and a good friend,” but we think about cologne, or the time I passed out driving drunk along 163 in the old Mustang coming home from some party, and I woke up just in time to prevent a crash, but you never said a word, never even tried to wake me. You were along for the ride, ready to accept whatever might happen.

You were a great guy, and you were a good friend. In fact, you and I were best friends when I was at my craziest and you at your glory. I was 21, a late bloomer who was discovering the world and all its delicious vices. I had started my own magazine, Kicks, covering the San Diego rock scene. Suddenly I was hip, I was cool, DJs announced my name when I walked into a nightclub, and I loved it, I ate it up. I was reckless, I was wild, I was young. You, four years older, had established yourself as San Diego’s premier rock critic, writing a column each week in the Reader that everyone in our little world devoured. Many hated you, many admired you, all knew you.

I looked up to you. You were a brilliant writer, much better than I was, much better than I would ever be. You used words like a seamstress, stitching them into intricate, colorful patterns the rest of us could only marvel at. We were journalists; you were a poet. It was 1979, and I had just launched Kicks: San Diego’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine on a $7000 budget I had amassed by working as an usher at the stadium and the Sports Arena while attending San Diego State University. My life was music, and the magazine was styled after BAM magazine up in the Bay Area, a localized version of Rolling Stone. We made quite a splash when we first published in August, and at the end of the year the Reader named me one of San Diego’s 50 People to Watch in 1980.

I met a whole new class of people: Jim Mullin, Jim Holman, Howie Rosen, Neil Matthews, Paul Krueger, Jeannette DeWyze, and you, Blubbo. They were all quirky but seemed so much smarter than the other people I had known, so much more curious. They were interested, and that made them interesting.

I forgot how we first got together, but I remember vividly the nights we’d spend hanging out — you, me, and Mullin. You had your own pad then, in the old Wilson Apartments at the corner of Ninth and A, near the old El Cortez Hotel, and since you didn’t drive much — I think you had a car back then, an old American beater of undetermined make, but you were timid behind the wheel — I would always drive downtown to your house. You lived upstairs, Mullin lived downstairs, and we’d generally pile into his old Peugot headed for either the Skeleton Zebra Club in the old Douglass Hotel to see the Penetrators or the Rick Elias Band, or to the Spirit in Bay Park, across from Kelly’s Pet Hotel, run by fast-talking Jerry Herrera, loathed by many of the bands he booked for being cheap, but always a good friend to you and me.

Sometimes we’d join up with another of our friends, Cameron Crowe, the former rock critic for Rolling Stone who is now a famous director. He was back in San Diego, attending high school, undercover, for a book and movie that would be called Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The three of us would often wind up in the parking lot, looking at the stars, talking about life and how the music would lift us up and make us feel part of something big, something we couldn’t quite describe. The Skull Club, the Spirit, later the Zebra Club, also downtown — these were great clubs, ground zeroes for San Diego’s burgeoning “new wave” scene. All my life an outsider, I felt at home here; I still didn’t blend into the scene, but at least I was there, with Kicks as my safety blanket and you as my sidekick, my friend, the rock critic despised by many musicians and fans but adored and worshipped by others — including me.

You were short and fat and dressed all in black, and you had this ridiculous-looking fake-leather jacket that you loved and wore night and day. It had come from the thrift store where your mother worked, as had so many of your garments. You had terrible hair, even by the standards of the time, a coarse mop of black and gray swept over from one side of your head to the other, like a sideways pompadour toupée. You were funny looking; we jokingly called you “Yoda,” after the Star Wars character. And yet, you had a cherubic, almost beautiful face and the neatest expression when you recounted your background — Mexican mother, Filipino father, with an older half brother and two half sisters and a wild niece, Monique, beautiful and lost. I wonder whatever became of her? I wonder if she knows you are dead.

I don’t know how we became such close, fast friends. We were young, watching and chronicling and longing to be a part of this new music scene that, to me, still marks the moment of San Diego’s rebirth, long before Horton Plaza and the Gaslamp and the trolley and North City West and the cruise ship terminal and all the other symbols of “San Diego becoming a true metropolis” that came later. The punk scene was New San Diego’s first angry cry, a rite of passage that never got the recognition it deserves.

You and I were late bloomers who spent much of our time lamenting unrequited loves — both for girls with the same first name — and trying to get laid. Or going out and “pulling,” as you would call it, with a sparkle in your eye, equal parts imp and lech. We were like awkward puppies, trying to be cool, striving for acceptance, and in the end the only people who truly accepted us, it seems, were each other. I admired you for your talent, and you looked up to me — or at least you told me you did — because I went out and started my own magazine and for a while there made it work. You’d call me “My liege” or “The King,” and that fed my developing ego; I’m sure you knew it, or maybe you really felt that way. Or maybe it was just your way of expressing gratitude for my admiration, which I’m sure you felt as well. Regardless, we filled a mutual need. Does that make any sense? It does to me, looking back, and I’m sure you would say the same thing.

However, it was we first met, I wanted you to write for Kicks. You were a marquee name, and I wanted to make this magazine work. So you did some reviews, and they were so much better than anything else we were running, but you seemed to have a little problem meeting deadlines, didn’t you? I would call you to ask where your story was, and you’d say, “Just about done,” and then I wouldn’t hear from you for a few days. I’d drive down to your apartment in the Wilson Apartments, storm up the stairs, my anger building, and hammer away at your door with my fist. You’d let me in, and I’d be screaming and yelling, but you’d be nonplussed as always — you were a human shrug, Steve, a shrug and a sigh, that’s how you went through life — and then you’d sit down behind your old typewriter in your smelly, dark living room and bang out the rest of your story. That was our formula; I don’t think you could have written something otherwise.

That was when I got in. Sometimes you weren’t home, or at least you pretended you weren’t. Once I was so mad after pounding on your door and getting no response that I ripped back to my car and came back with a pen. I still see myself writing, “Esmo, where’s my fucking story!?” on your whitewashed door in blue ink. You never bothered to erase it; maybe you saw it as underscoring your lethargic defiance.

One time you were really late, and I had been drinking somewhere with Mullin. Apparently you owed him a story for the Reader as well; we began knocking on your door — it was nighttime — and got no response. We went back into Mullin’s apartment, beneath yours, and began pounding on the ceiling with a broom handle. Again, no response.

I don’t recall who was the first to suggest it, and looking back I still don’t see how it could have come to this. But somehow, our anger transmogrified into concern, and we convinced ourselves that you were dead. Mullin was always a bit of an alarmist — back then, he used to estimate the number of weekends he had left in his life before he would be too old to party and bemoan the steadily dwindling supply — and he was flitting about like a moth around a light bulb. We began casing your apartment, looking for a way in — which wasn’t easy, since you were on the second floor. Finally — and I still don’t know how he did it — Mullin found an open window, got to it, and crawled in. I was outside on the sidewalk, keeping watch. I heard a scream, and then you and Jim emerged from your front door. Mullin was still hopping around excitedly, but he had a sheepish look on his pointy face; you were as calm as always. Then Mullin got mad and I got mad, and we both stood behind you and your little typewriter, watching you type until finally Mullin had had enough and went downstairs to bed. You and I each had a beer — one of the few times you had anything digestible in your apartment — and I remember saying over and over, “We thought you were dead. We really thought you were dead.” “Well, I’m not,” you shot back.

I believe one reason you and I were so close was we both loved like a woman, but the women we loved didn’t love us back. I remember the long conversations we had about your dream girl, the true love of your life, a beautiful blonde you had dated briefly and made love to a few times, who then uttered those dreaded words all men hate to hear — “Let’s just be friends.” In her mind that was that, but in yours it was the beginning of a long, torturous journey to get her back. Of course, you never did, but that was part of the rite, part of the ritual — the more she rejected you, the more you loved her, pined for her, yearned for her, drank yourself to oblivion over her, and talked your friends to death about her. I would listen and commiserate because I was there too.

The conversations would typically start with us being out at some club, usually the Spirit, eyeing some girls. “Let’s pull,” you’d say excitedly. Sometimes we tried, most times we didn’t; I don’t think we ever once scored while we were both out. Then we’d go back to my place and drink some more and you’d start singing either 1) “Oh my sorrow,” from the British rock band the Marmalade’s “Reflections of My Life,” or 2) “Like the river flows to the sea, to the sea,” from “Unchained Melody.” You’d get very emotional and tearful: “She is my goddess. My goddess. Oh, Thomas K., what am I going to do?” Then you’d get defiant: “Well, fuck her. She’ll come back. One day, she’ll come back and realize she needs Blubbo. But you know what I’ll say? Fuck you. Fuck her. FUCK HER!!” I’d nod sympathetically, vowing to do the same should my unrequited love come around, as I knew, just knew, she would, she must.

I’d go to the bathroom or to get another drink. When I’d come back I’d find you snoring on my couch.

Remember Earl Coleman?

He began his professional career with Jay McShann (1943) and Earl Hines (1944). In 1945 he traveled with McShann to the West Coast, where his singing was heard by Charlie Parker; “This Is Always,” which Coleman recorded with Parker in 1947, became a jazz hit. Thereafter Coleman performed only intermittently, working on his own and with various leaders, including Gene Ammons (mid-1950s), Gerald Wilson (1960), Don Byas (1962), and Frank Foster (mid-1960s). In 1968 he moved to Los Angeles to work as a freelance musician. He has recorded with such distinguished accompanists as Fats Navarro and Max Roach (both 1948), Art Farmer and Gigi Gryce (both 1956), and Hank Jones (1956, 1977). — Xrefer, a Web reference engine

Coleman is mentioned in many jazz encyclopedias and discographies, and I remember looking some of them up 15 years ago when Coleman came to San Diego for a gig. It’s not that I was a big jazz fan. It’s because the former sideman to Charlie Parker, Earl Coleman, who died in 1995, spent several months living on your couch.

Surely you remember this better than I. My memories of how this came to pass are hazy. I seem to recall that Earl Coleman came to San Diego for some show, maybe part of the old San Diego Jazz Festival, and you wrote it up for the Reader. You and Earl got to talking — and drinking.

You went home, and Earl went with you. He ended up staying for several months.

I remember several times picking you up or bringing you back to your pad at the Wilson Apartments, and this slight, sinewy old black man would be lying on your couch. At first you were amused, but after a few weeks your patience wore thin, and I remember you telling me he didn’t seem to have anywhere else to go. You were supporting him — you, who even at your peak could barely afford to feed yourself. We made jokes — there was a Saturday Night Live skit about a pesky dropper-in titled “The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave,” and that was Earl.

Eventually Earl did leave, but I don’t remember whether you kicked him out or whether he left of his own volition. I can’t see you kicking anyone out, even if they no longer amused you. It would have been more like you to go somewhere else and just leave Earl there.

Some people said your mom held you back. You were the baby, and she pampered you, protected you, to the point where she did everything she could to prevent you from leaving the nest. And she certainly was the larger-than-life figure in your life; you used to refer to her as “Moms,” as though there was more than one of her.

But I wonder. Lots of mothers lay guilt trips on their kids and don’t want them to stray far from home. I think your mother was a factor in your return to the “crib,” as you sometimes called your ghetto home, and though we never talked about it, I believe she made the inevitable easier. “The path of least resistance” is a phrase that comes up when I think of you, Blubbo. Living with your mother was safe and sound. You were shielded from the outside world, the worries and the cares of having to make a living, of having to fend for yourself. It was make it or break it time, and you couldn’t deal with that, so you went back to the womb. You really did live in Blubbo’s world, but that world wasn’t real. Staying in the real world would have meant less time to spend in Blubbo’s world, so why venture out?

You didn’t talk much of the Reader, aside from occasional snippy comments about Mullin and Holman, mostly Mullin, about his fastidiousness and insistence that you meet deadlines. “I thought at first he was qui-qui [Blubbo slang for homosexual], but man, that guy knows how to pull,” you marveled once not long after we first met. “Mullin. How come a guy like that gets laid, and I don’t?”

After you moved back home to your mother’s house in the ghetto, I didn’t see you as much. Part of it was my typical white-boy reluctance to travel to points Southeast at night, particularly after my first visit, when I got lost and passed by several bands of roaming young men who came into the street and waved and gestured as I drove by. Part of it, too, was that I had trouble accepting this sudden change in living arrangements, from Independent Blubbo to Living With a Junkie to Back Home with Mom in the Ghetto.

You rarely answered the phone yourself; it was either your older brother Bobby, the proverbial “rolling stone” who was more lethargic than you, or your mother, whom you clearly adored. Whenever I’d call and she’d answer and I’d identify myself as “Thomas K. Arnold,” you would come to the phone and with a chuckle tell me your mother had said it was “Arnold K. Smith,” a twist on the fallen financier C. Arnholdt Smith. It got to be a joke between us, and I do believe your mother was in on it.

I only met her in person once, on my first or second visit to your “ghetto pad,” as you called it. She was a big, hefty woman, already in her 70s, who looked like everyone’s grandma — she wore a white shawl over a sweater, a long dress of unremarkable fabric and color, and her hair was gray and white but mostly white, wavy, just past the ears. I don’t recall much of her face because she wore glasses and it was dark, but from the glimpse I caught of her that one moment I remember thinking, “Yes, this is Blubbo’s mother.”

I had driven to your address on 37th Street before it was fully dark and remember scouring for house numbers on a street where all the houses looked pretty much the same, 1920s or 1930s vintage, stucco and wood frame, two stories, gables and windows facing the street. Nice homes, at one time, but now in a prolonged state of neglect, with peeling paint, exposed wood, and yards overgrown by weeds, some dead, some alive. Picture the street scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street or Halloween, overlaid with a screen of grainy gray, a lightning bolt, and then all the nice houses and neatly manicured lawns thrown into a state of disarray. Typical of the ghetto, any ghetto — ghettos aren’t built, they become.

Inside, the house matched its exterior. Shabby, cluttered, dusty — but not unclean. Unkempt — like you, Blubbo. Furniture covered with slipcovers or bedsheets, stuff everywhere, an old person’s home.

Your room was upstairs, a flight of worn wooden stairs with a worn wooden railing, and here’s where unkempt became unclean. The white walls needed painting; the walls and especially the door frames were smudged and grimy. I was by no means a neat freak, especially back then, but I felt like bringing a bottle of 409 just to lighten up the place. Your bedroom was cluttered and the bed unmade, strewn with clothes. I don’t remember much more, like what pictures, if any, you had on the walls, because we were late for some function and I wanted to get out of there as fast as I could. I heard footsteps in an adjoining bedroom and saw an older man walking into the hall. You introduced him as your brother Bobby; we shook hands, Bobby not looking me in the eye, and he went on his way. “So this is the guy who always answers the phone,” I thought to myself. “What does he do for a living?” I asked. “Nothing” was the response. “Like me.”

I don’t recall how we drifted apart, but we did, the way even the best of friends inevitably do. After 19 months I passed Kicks onto a friend and signed on as Gary Puckett’s manager. I found new friends in radio, which I had started to cover for the Los Angeles Times. My Mustang blew up, and I took over my parents’ 1965 Chevy Impala, at the time not yet hip. You never drove, and my new friend, John Duncan of KPRI, had a midnight-blue Corvette, and you and I saw less and less of each other.

You lost your gig at the Reader and moved into a condo with this weird gothic girl who was on SSI. I think she was a junkie. You’d have terrible fights; you weren’t sleeping with her, but she was whacked out, and you were drinking more.

You started stumbling and falling down a lot. You went to the doctor and were diagnosed with epilepsy. Visiting you in your hospital bed, tubes in your arms, I got real mad because everyone was saying you were a drunk, and I, who had been with you most nights, knew you didn’t drink any more than I did. Of course, that wasn’t saying much — I did pass out behind the wheel one night, remember? But I never drank in the day, and I don’t recall you doing so either. I never considered you a heavy drinker, and I felt vindicated when you were diagnosed with epilepsy because it confirmed my belief that your problems walking and standing up stemmed from something else besides booze.

You continued to write for the Reader, in various capacities, but you never really got it together after you lost your column. That was when we started hanging around less; I always had to pick you up and bring you back home unless I brought you back to my place, and if I did that, there was still the problem of what to do with you in the morning.

Our friendship migrated to the telephone and then slowly drifted away to less and less contact. Friendships have a way of doing that. But even during our increasingly infrequent phone conversations, you were the same. You shared my joy when I finally got my girl; you never got yours back, but you eventually found someone as well. I wish it all would have worked out for you, Blubbo. I wish you could have gone on to experience the joys of family, of making babies. You would have made an excellent father; you would have read to your children and played with them and really talked to them and understood them.

You would have told them marvelous stories. You would have amused them, and they would have amused you.

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