Ed. Adam Parfrey, publisher of books from Feral House and writer for the Reader, died on May 10, 2018. The following came by email to the Reader on July 3.
It is not generally appreciated that famous publisher Adam Parfrey once lived just off Lincoln Boulevard, a dismal stretch of gasoline-alley slightly east of Venice, California, and just over the line in Santa Monica. Twenty years ago I used to see him in the local coffeehouse. Sometimes he had his current girlfriend with him, sometimes it was just Adam. I knew who he was because somebody pointed him out to me. I’d heard he wrote, or published, nasty satirical books, so he was sort of a celebrity in these parts.
Adam Parfrey had a big mop of black hair and looked rather like Orson Welles in The Lady from Shanghai, so you couldn’t miss him. Eventually we had a nodding acquaintance, and once we even drove down to San Diego together, and went to the zoo. And that, dear friends, is what today’s story is about.
First of course you want to know about the coffeehouse. It was an okay coffeehouse, typical of the region, with a regular clientele of aspiring young screenwriters who sat by the window all day, hunched over their Powerbook 540s. I too was an aspiring screenwriter, more or less, forever reworking my “high-concept” script. It was kind of a mashup of The Asphalt Jungle and Chinatown. I would read parts of it in my screenwriting class and everybody would laugh, saying the characters weren’t “believable.”
Eventually I took a job in the coffeehouse, because that way I could get free coffee, and when business was slow I could work on my screenplay. I started modeling my characters and dialogue on some of the customers, thinking this would give them verisimilitude. But my screenwriting class laughed even harder and told me I had to get out more.
At the coffeehouse we had rapid turnover in our counter-people (this is before the “barista” nonsense started), so before long I was the senior member of the staff, entitled to the princely wage of ten dollars per hour, plus half the tips. We set up a big latte cup on the counter as a begging-bowl for tips. Sometimes we’d start the day with a couple of fives and maybe a twenty in it, just to encourage people to “give generously.” That worked on weekends, but on weekdays people would see it and just be too embarrassed to leave their fifty cents or a dollar, so they left nothing at all. Someday I must write a book about about the science and practice of begging-bowls.
I remember Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver had a bruncherie nearby. They were said to have stopped in at our coffeehouse, though I never saw them. Maybe I was looking the other way. I wasn’t a terribly good coffee-processor, but I was the only person who knew how to operate the machinetta properly, so on busy days I was busy. The machinetta was a antiquated-looking brass-covered contraption, Italian supposedly, that mixed up the espresso and steamed milk or whatever. It had more knobs and controls than a space capsule, but most of them were strictly for show and not connected to anything.
And on such a busy day as this (a Saturday) Adam and his girlfriend invited me to go down to San Diego with them the following day. “We’re going to the zoo!” said the girlfriend, who had a china-doll haircut and looked about twelve years old.
I hadn’t been south of Newport Beach in, like, ten years, so I said yes. Then I remembered I was supposed to work tomorrow, and I was still the only one who could work the machinetta. So I gave a crash-course to one of screenwriter kids who worked part-time.
“Don’t touch this. Don’t move this, I have the levels right where I want them. Turn this lever to steam the milk, but only when the light is on.” Et cetera.
I had my first misgivings about the trip when I saw Adam’s car next morning. It was an Oldsmobile Cutlass from about 1970. The muffler and tailpipe seemed to be hanging loose, the fenders were all dented, and as I soon learned, one of the door handles didn’t work and the door’s window didn’t roll down.
There’s a whole backstory to this, which I’ll get to.
“I’m so hap-hap-happy you wanted to come with us!” exulted Adam’s girlfriend. She was wearing a short black dress with a white Peter Pan collar, and big round Jackie Kennedy sunglasses. She really was juvenile, affectedly so. If you saw her in the morning light you’d guess she was 25 but pretending to be 15. You’d probably guess she was into anime and manga, and that sort of thing. Later that day, when we got to a Mexican restaurant in Old Town, they carded her and she was really flattered. Then she asked for some phone books to sit on so she could see over the table. You know, like when you brought a toddler to Howard Johnson’s in 1963, and they didn’t have a highchair.
What was her name? I forget it now. Adam’s succession of doxies has wiped it from memory. But I think it was a river; Adam tended to have girlfriends with river names. One was named Jordan, another was named Columbia. This one might have been Suwanee, but I’m not sure, so I’ll call her Schuylkill.
Adam, who was then about 40, did not dress very well and never brushed his hair, but he had a superior way about himself. There were vast lacunae in his knowledge which he would cover up by pooh-poohing whatever you told him. I remember we were driving down Lincoln or Abbot Kinney, trying to find our way to something that would connect with the 405 freeway (a lot harder than you’d imagine) and I suggested a certain road because it was even-numbered.
“What difference does that make?” Adam laughed. “Are you a numerologist?”
“Well we want to go east to meet the 405, so we want an even-numbered road. Even numbers go east-west, odd numbers go north-south.”
“Nyooo, naah, that’s not what the numbers mean, where did you get that crazy idea?” I didn’t reply, I was totally amazed. Adam had been raised in Southern California and this was all news to him. Or was I wrong? Was it sheer coincidence that I-10 and I-8 and US 30 and US 80 and Route 66 were east-west, while US 1 and Route 99 and I-5 were north-south?
Something similar happened when we drove out of the zoo parking lot and tried to find our way to Old Town, where we were going to have lunch. It was late afternoon. Now, the San Diego Zoo is set up like the London Zoo: it’s in a big park with no landmarks around it, just low-rise buildings and trees, so you can be really disorientated when you leave. Are you going north? south? east? Adam was really lost, and he didn’t keep maps in his car, so that was no help.
I suggested looking at shadows. “Shadows?” he said.
“Yah,” I said. “Sun’s in the south, so the shadow will be pointing north. Only it’s afternoon, so the shadow would actually point northeast.”
“You and your crazy navigational theories,” went Adam. “What, were you a Girl Scout?”
“It’s elementary astronomy,” I said. “What do you do if you’re lost in the woods and don’t have a compass?”
“We have a compass,” he said, pointing to a fogged-up plastic globe attached to the dashboard by suction cup. “It’s just not legible.”
But I’m getting ahead of the story.
Long before you get to San Diego, you pass through Camp Pendleton. My father was a cardiologist who did his residency at the Pendleton hospital, but that was when I was a baby, and is neither here nor there. What sticks in memory from the few times I went down that way is that there are coastal mountains a little east of the I-5 freeway, and they are purple. Really purple. Then soon after you pass the purple mountains you see the big wood sign for Camp Pendleton. It has the old cattle brand from the ranching days. As everyone knows, this used to be an immense spread owned by the O’Neill family, who called it Rancho Margarita y Las Flores, in honor of the Spanish friars. That funny little glyph you see at Pendleton, something like the hermetic symbol for Earth, a T on top of an O, is their old cattle brand.
If you have any connections to the area, you know the whole story: the War Department took over most of the ranch during the War and called it Camp Pendleton. The Marines already had a recruit depot and training bases on Point Loma, and a rifle range where UCSD is now, but now the USMC was also going to have this big coastal spread at Pendleton, almost as big as Rhode Island. This was so the Marines could practice amphibious landings and stuff like that, which was very important then, what with Saipan and Tinian and such.
The beauty part is, Pendleton has completely prevented development in a vast sector of northern San Diego County. So when you drive through it, it’s like you’ve suddenly entered the wilderness; you’re seeing the pristine California that Frémont and Kearney saw. Conversely, the northern part of the ranch, up in Orange County, is mostly housing developments. The O’Neills sold it off into McMansion towns, with a park here and there. There’s even a lush tract called Rancho Margarita. Anyway, here we are, driving past that Camp Pendleton sign… and Schuylkill says, “What is that strange symbol?”
“Cattle brand,” I said. “This was a ranch.”
“Naaah,” said Adam, “It’s just some old Indian symbol.” At this point I gave them my Camp Pendleton history lecture. I thought they were impressed. But then Adam said: “So you’re basically an autodidact.” Was that a barb? I gave a milksop reply. “Well I have a master's in French, so I guess I have to be.”
I noticed that Adam’s odometer didn’t work. “Yeah, I think they wrecked it by turning it back too many times,” Adam said.
The odometer showed only 45,000 miles and wasn’t turning. This old rattletrap had a lot more than 45,000 miles on it. Months later Adam explained to me his philosophy of car maintenance: don’t do it! Put in gasoline, change oil and tires if absolutely necessary, but don’t pay for things like struts and tie-rods and timing belts and power-steering-pumps that repair shops are always trying to sell you on. If it’s that far gone, just junk your clunker! Buy another old heap with some life left in it, then run it into the ground. Forget about mileage; if a car’s still running now, it’ll probably still run two years from now. Beyond that, it’s cross-your-fingers.
When we found the San Diego Zoo and went through the gates, Adam wanted to go directly to the snake houses. They have these long darkened huts with lighted terraria inside. I guess that’s so the reptiles won’t be bothered by your presence. At one of these, boasting what was supposed to be the most poisonous snake in Australia, Adam encountered a fellow wearing a plaid shirt and a kind of space helmet. Adam shooed Schuylkill and me away. This was evidently some private, pre-arranged meeting. Probably the whole purpose of the trip.
We stood outside the snake house and heard derisory comments from Adam. “So that’s all you’ve got? Yeah, when?”
Adam came out of the snake house. “Well that was a big nothing.”
“You mean a trip wasted?” I said. “I wouldn’t call it a trip wasted. We got to see the zoo.”
“Oh look,” I said. “Look look, there goes Joan Embery. She’s carrying what looks like a baby mandrill.”
“Who is Joan Embery?” Schuylkill asked.
“She’s the zoo lady who brings animals on the Johnny Carson Show,” I said. “Surely you’ve seen Joan Embery.”
“No I don’t watch TV.”
“And you shouldn’t stay up that late anyway,” said Adam.
With great difficulty, as I said before, we found our way from the zoo to Old Town. I’m not sure whether we went to the Old Town Mexican Café or Carlos Murphy’s. But I think it was the latter. We waited for a table while sitting in the bar area, at one of those high round bar tables. There were TV screens with trivia questions that you could answer with controller-buttons at your table. I kept winning all the trivia rounds but there was never any prize.
“Shouldn’t she at least get a free drink?” Adam asked the waitress. We were working our way through a pitcher of margaritas.
“We don’t own it,” the waitress said, rolling her eyes. “It’s some outside operation.”
“What kind of shitty answer is that?” snickered Adam.
Out here in the bar is where Schuylkill had to show her ID, and then demanded telephone books to sit on because the bar tables were too high. They brought us a couple of volumes of ratty old San Diego white pages from about 1985. This was the beginning of the end for phone books, but we hadn’t a clue about that, not then.
Eventually we got a nice booth in the back, and started another pitcher.
And now a funny thing happened. The guy at the zoo — in the snake house, with the plaid shirt and space helmet — suddenly shows up! Except he’s not wearing his space helmet this time. I didn’t recognize him at first. He goes right up to Adam. No introduction, no “excuse me.”
“Well I have the rest of it I think,” he goes, handing over a thick manila envelope.
Adam: “What—you just come up to me in a public place like that?”
“It’s okay. No one is looking.”
“Meg, Schuylkill,” said Adam, “I want you to meet Seabiscuit.”
“Aw haw haw,” I said. “You can’t fool me. Seabiscuit is a horse.”
“Ho ho ho, such wit,” drawled Seabiscuit, sniffing at me. “No, the name is C. Bizkuit Elster. My mother’s father’s name was Charles Bizkuit. A Dutch name, sort of. Frisian, actually.”
“C. Bizkuit is an big expert in vortices,” said Adam.
Whereupon there followed an exchange between Seabiscuit and me that seemed positively surreal, or infantile, or both.
“Vortices?” I said. “As in Vortex?”
“Like in Sedona?”
“Yeah! You know Sedona? Did you go to the Vortex Festival?”
“No,” I said, “I just stayed at Garland’s Oak Creek Lodge. My uncle married one of the owners.”
“I almost got bit by a diamondback rattler in Sedona once,” said Seabiscuit.
“I kept snakes when I was a little girl.”
“Is that why you were in the snake house today?”
This is where the penny finally dropped, because I had not yet connected Seabiscuit in a plaid shirt to the Mystery Man in the snake house, but did so now.
“Where is your space helmet?” I asked. “It is in the car. It is not a space helmet. It is a track cycling helmet. I am a competitive indoor cyclist. I wear it when I have to go outdoors sometimes because I have a condition, I can’t take direct sunlight. But I don’t race in it usually.”
“How come?” “Because I mainly race indoors. Did you know we have a fully enclosed velodrome up in Kearny Mesa?”
“I do not know what that is. Or where that is.”
“You should see it sometime. People come from around the world to race in our velodrome.” Through all of this, Seabiscuit or C. Bizkuit was angling to sit down in our booth with us, but Adam shooed him away. He took the big packet and wrapped it in his jacket on the seat beside him. “They’ll be okay,” Adam said, “we’ll talk about them outside.”
“Do you think you want them?”
“I told you, I’m not going to give you money for this. I haven’t looked. If there’s something I want, maybe we can work something out.”
“I could do with a drink. Whyn’t I join you?” said Seabiscuit. “We’re just finishing dinner,” Adam lied. “Why don’t you meet me outside in half an hour or so?”
The truth was, we’d barely ordered. But Seabiscuit humbly sloped off. “This is his book? A manuscript?” Schuylkill asked. “Naah,” said Adam.”Old police photos from the '30s and '40s. Some old geezer collected these for years and years, and this guy, C. Bizkuit, finds them. They’re hidden in a pile of books at an estate sale so he gets them for two bucks. Now he wants ten thousand and has this idea I should do a big coffeetable book.”
“Are they gross?”
“I dunno. I’ll take a look later. Gore and mutilation and that stuff sell only if they’re funny.”
In the fullness of time arrived the food. Schuylkill had ordered a fish dish, while Adam and I got ourselves burrito plates. “Why do they call them burritos anyway?” Schuylkill asked.
“Because they look like little burros,” I explained, “if you were to cut off the head and legs and tail. And then wrap it in a tortilla.”
“That’s gross,” laughed Schuylkill, coughing out bits of fish and rice.
“Mexicans used to make them out of donkey meat,” said Adam. “Real poor-person food. Donkey gets too old to work, you cut it up for dinner.”
Poor Seabiscuit had to wait nearly an hour before we joined him. We found him out under the plaza lights, smoking a long cigar. Adam shooed Schuylkill and me away while he and Seabiscuit looked through the stack of photographic prints. They took a walk toward the parking lot, then doubled back and joined us. This time Seabiscuit was holding the manila package.
“Yeah, they’re, uh, pretty raw,” Adam was saying, “but they do have possibilities. You should take good care of them. If you leave them with me I might lose them, and I can’t talk about buying them now.” He patted Seabiscuit on the shoulder, very condescending.
“I’ll be hearing from you then?” said Seabiscuit, his eyes wide and plaintive under the bright streetlight. “You’ve got my number. I’ve got your number.”
“He didn’t look very happy,” said Schuylkill as we got in the car.
“There’s only so much you can do for someone who calls himself Seabiscuit,” Adam said, with a little chuckle.
“Well he does race or something,” I pointed out judiciously. “Indoors.”
“Did you believe that helmet story?” said Adam. “Sheesh. The crazies all come to me. Come to me ye crazies and be saved.”
Driving up the 5 through Pendleton seemed to take twice as long as our drive down. Adam said he was still feeling the margaritas, and needed a coffee. Near San Clemente there was a sign for a Baker’s Square, so we took the exit and parked.
“You know what else I want?” Adam said.
“A piece of pie. My blood sugar is low. Coffee and pie.”
So we all ordered coffee and pie. Adam carried his jacket in a wad under his arm and put it on the seat next to him. By and by he unwrapped the jacket and put a photographic-paper box on the table.
“This is some pretty raw stuff,” Adam said. “I don’t think you want to want to look at these.” Of course we did. The first two we looked at had a totally naked old dead man hanging from a lightbulb fixture, and what looked like a couple of Chinese corpses inside a barrel on a dock. That was enough. We put the stack back in the box.
“So you stole, I mean, you switched these,” I said.
“What did you give Seabiscuit?” Adam looked into his coffee and smirked. “I had a box of old movie stills back in the trunk. I switched some of them while we were talking, put his pictures in this box. He really thought I was going to buy, but then I didn’t. So when I handed the envelope back to him, he wasn’t going to look. But they’re good pictures anyway. Original stills of Myrna Loy and William Powell can be worth a lot to some people. Maybe he can find someone to publish a Thin Man coffee-table book.” We had some more coffee.
Over the years I kept waiting for those police photos to turn up in some Feral House book. Apocalypse Culture 3, maybe, or a book-size parody of old crime magazines. I don’t think they did. They’re probably sitting in an old tea crate someplace, in a pile of other ephemera Adam collected through the years.