"MAKE ME FAMOUS, NATE"
- CORNELIUS, 1999 -
Back in the mid-90s, Cornelius and I were in our mid-20s, on our own, working full time, and taking night classes at college. I was jockeying a cubicle at Liberty Mutual Insurance and Cornelius was chained to a phone at a call center making reservations for Yosemite National Park.
We met through a mutual friend, Chrissy Dyson. Cornelius tended bar once in a while at his folk’s Mexican restaurant to pick up some quick cash or fill in if someone couldn’t make their shift. Chrissy was becoming a regular there, stopping by for a few margaritas after nursing school. She struck up a few conversations with Cornelius and eventually invited him over to her place to tip back a few more and rip some bong hits. She called me and invited me over, too.
Chrissy opened the door to her apartment and I stepped into a cloud of marijuana smoke infused with the aroma of fresh-baked fudge brownies. Then a loud, boisterous laugh came from the living room. I can’t remember what spawned such a guffaw, maybe it was something Chrissy said about the Beastie Boys because she never stopped talking about them, but I followed that bellowing laughter to its source.
Cornelius sat hunched over on the far end of Chrissy’s white leather couch, his bony nose protruding from the shadow of his Cleveland Indians hat. He always wore the bill low on his forehead, making it difficult for anyone to see his perpetually glossy eyes.
Chrissy turned up the volume and glided into the living room with her famous six-foot glass bong, bobbing her strawberry blonde curls to 311 bumping out her speakers. Chrissy’s place was pre-party headquarters, where everyone gathered to start the night. It was near Fresno State University, and most of her friends were students there. Chrissy laughed a lot, always had an extra bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in the fridge to give you and would smoke everybody out. As she loaded the bong, hit it, and passed it, Cornelius told me his story.
“We were together for a long time,” he said. Cornelius’s voice was deep and loud, much bigger than his wiry frame. “But she cheated on me. After that, every time we had sex I had to take a shower. I just felt dirty afterwards, and it started to piss her off. So, we finally broke up. Now I gotta move out. Know anybody looking for a roommate?”
“My buddy Miah, he’s looking for a roommate,” I said. Miah had been crashing on my couch for the past two weeks. “I’ll call him and see what’s up.”
Miah and his girlfriend Grace came by after their shift at Asian Persuasion, known for its high MSG-laden food – even the braised green beans would make your hands swell so much you couldn’t get rings off – and then B-Load showed up, then Slater and Trevor. Cornelius hit it off with everybody, like he was already accepted into our awkward little circle of friends.
I had known these guys since fourth grade at Lawless Elementary, but I had known Miah the longest. He and I went back to our days in Underoos when he was five and I was seven.
He and his mom moved into the unit above mine in the little courtyard apartment complex on Princeton in central Fresno. Didn’t take long for his mom and mine to become best friends. His was a twenty-three-year-old humorous extrovert with Irish roots in Chicago, mine was a twenty-four-year-old blonde from Texas who liked to chirp rubber in her blue Firebird with the T-tops off as she sped over to Foodland or Valley Christian Center. A few years later, his mom got married and coincidentally, both our parents moved out of the apartment complex the same year and moved into ranch-style homes on the northwest side of Fresno, where we both said goodbye to Homan Elementary and transferred to Lawless. Our families remained friends for decades, long after my folks divorced in 1986.
A few weeks after that first meeting at Chrissy’s, Miah and Cornelius moved into a three-bedroom, two-bath ranch-style house near Fashion Fair Mall. It was a nondescript rental made of tan brick with a dead front lawn. Inside there was brown shag carpet and the walls were flat white. In the backyard behind the carport, detached from the rest of the house, was the master bedroom. That was Cornelius’s room.
Miah tacked a few Jimi Hendrix posters in the living room. Cornelius nailed a wooden African tribal mask above the mantel of the tan brick fireplace that was stained with smoke. I quickly became a regular fixture on their lumpy blue couch that always smelled like sweat. Cornelius was generous with his weed, though, and I always brought over beer to share. Cornelius always had kine bud, too, and I didn’t like cheap shit, so I always brought over the good stuff: Bud Light. Cans.
Cornelius always had the TV on ESPN, piped in from an illegal contraption he called “the box” which gave him access to free cable. But the sound on the TV was always off. Instead, Cornelius turned up the stereo so we could chop it up over Led Zeppelin.
We worked our boring jobs during the week and slogged our way through classes at Fresno City College in the evenings, looking forward to the weekend rendezvous when we could forget about our troubles. The location changed, but the scene was always the same. I was usually at Cornelius’s place, but whether it was there or at Chrissy’s apartment or a party at B-Load’s house on the east side or a bonfire on the banks of Bass Lake, add an ever-increasing amount of alcohol and narcotics and random faces, shake, pour, then repeat for eight years straight, and there you have the foundation of our brotherhood.
Our weekend debauches became legendary. We destroyed hotel rooms on the coast like The Who, started drunken brawls in biker bars, got thrown out of restaurants, chased out of casinos, and somehow dialed it all back for work on Monday morning, even if we were both blurry-eyed, pale and nauseous, still half-drunk, napping in the bathroom stalls at lunch. We’d fully recover by Wednesday, ready to turn back into Jim Morrison and Hunter S. Thompson by Friday. We became such degenerates we were eventually 86’d from our favorite watering holes and banned from coming over our friends’ places. Even B-Load and Miah, who became roommates after Miah moved out of Cornelius’s place, banned Cornelius and I from coming over to their apartment because of the noise complaints they’d get from the neighbors and managers.
A decade later I wrote about several of our misadventures in a short-story workshop I took with Bobbie Louise Hawkins at the Jack Kerouac School in Boulder, Colorado. Bobbie was a phenomenal writer with Texas roots, married to the poet Robert Creeley who was drinking buddies with Kerouac. After workshopping a long-story about another gonzo weekend, this time on Pismo Beach, Bobbie said, “Is that all you write about? Just your friends and all the drinking and drugs you do?”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “That’s what we did. That’s what we were into at the time.”
I thought it made sense at face value, so I never explained it. I was just reporting the facts. I thought that was confession enough. However, it’s one of those times where my old buddy, the reclusive writer Ben Olson, said my work “lacks soul.”
So, I guess the big question is why.
At the time, Cornelius and I rarely discussed any of that stuff. We were self-destructive, but we didn’t see it that way at the time. We were breaking on through, tasting a little death to remind us of the flavor of life. We had our dark sides, and our similar Aries natures found us headfirst into debauched adventures never asking why, we just kept going. It’s only now, two decades later, that I’m beginning to attempt some reflection, some form of understanding.
Cornelius and I liked getting fucked up. I liked extreme experiences and exploring my consciousness and used drugs and alcohol to fuel both and ignite the senses, setting each moment on fire. At the same time, I wanted a separation from the self. I wanted to forget. I wanted to distance myself from the constant worry of paying rent at one flea-infested apartment to the next, of paying bills, of fixing my series of barely running buckets on wheels I called cars. And how the hell was I going to maintain this pace of working full-time at a job I hated while going to college part-time at night, what? I was looking at six, maybe another eight years until I had enough credits for a Bachelor’s degree. And then what?
It wasn’t just my present worries I wanted to temporarily distance myself from. I certainly had an unaddressed dumpster fire of shit in my past that I wanted to run from as well, or ignore, or continue denying, whatever. Turns out using drugs and alcohol to cope with stress, and have fun, ain’t a sustainable strategy, no matter how romantic it may appear in Hollywood.
What I really wanted was a separation from the self. I desired this because from the age of two I was told the flesh, the human body, was sinful and an idle mind was the devil’s playground. This was pumped into my little brain right at the time I started forming long-lasting conscious memories. The indoctrination began before the day I asked Jesus to forgive my sins and come into my heart to be my personal lord and savior, which was before I turned three.
For the next thirteen years I lived in a skewed reality from the rest of my peers. I was a Jesus Freak. I felt foreign in my own skin, my body, my emotions, my thoughts, my gut instincts. I was instructed to squash the self, and let Jesus live through me instead. The self was evil. The ego was of The World.
My mother encouraged this along the way. It kept me under her submission. Any attempt at self-knowledge was discouraged. No reading of secular books beyond a few approved classics. No worldly music. No R-rated movies. This bizarre situation only compounded the deep sense of shame I felt about my biological father’s paranoid schizophrenia and my mother’s narcissism and bi-polar disorder. Where did that leave me? I carried that load well into adulthood. My adoption played into this sense of shame, too. Growing up, all I knew about that side of my family was my mom referred to them as “the crazy Jordons.” It would be decades before I recognized my mother’s castle of lies, and I no longer needed to be ashamed of who I was, who I came from, and who my people were.
So, add to this toxic recipe a heavy helping of social anxiety, eight ounces of PTSD from the army, a tablespoon of self-hatred disguised as arrogance, then top it all off with the nagging script of toxic religion resounding in my head – and what you get is a cacophony of noise. I just wanted to shut it all down, even if it was just a short time. Unfortunately, I had not yet discovered meditation. Instead, I used more noise, chaos and impulsivity, embodying the zeitgeist that I needed to “have my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames.”
Cornelius wanted to have his kicks, too, but he had his own dark reasons. It took me years to piece them together. He held deep resentment towards his mother for cheating on his father in the early 90s, and he was angry at his father for being passive about it. His parents divorced but would later remarry and enjoy a happy retired life together, traveling in their Class A RV with their yappy Yorkshire Terrier. Still, Cornelius harbored a disdain towards them, even as he approached fifty.
The unfortunate truth is, Cornelius felt victimized by his parents. And I felt victimized by mine. Boo-hoo, right? Hasn’t everyone felt somewhat traumatized in one way or another by their parents? Amongst all this macho activity, all the drinking and destruction, it was the pettiest pink elephant in the room.
Cornelius and I also shared similar values. We grew up in the San Joaquin Valley of California with immigrant family roots in the soil. We were kids of the 80s, teens of the 90s, born one week apart in April 1974. We liked the same music, read the same books, talked a lot about ideas and opinions, but truth is, we didn’t get too deep. Not for a long time. I’m a storyteller, that’s for sure, and we shot a lot of cow manure around many a campfire, but it was all relegated to Don Quixote backstory stuff, most of it taking six years before Cornelius began realizing all my stories were true.
Over the years and all the risky experiences, we began to trust each other. We may not have trusted one another with our deepest secrets at first, but at the very least we knew we had each other’s back. One of us could always drive home. Cornelius was always pretty good about keeping a level head and getting us out of trouble while I bumbled around in a half-conscious stupor. He was a good wing-man. Over time, our friendship deepened.
Cornelius finally graduated from Fresno State University in 2003 with a business degree. Two years later I graduated from the same school with a BA in English.
Our roads diverged from there, Cornelius’s leading to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, mine to Texas, Colorado, and Arkansas. We visited each other at all points in between over the years but, as we miraculously survived into our forties, and I found myself married with three kids, we grew to be very different people than the jackasses we were in our twenties, back during The Struggle.
Now, Cornelius was a farmer in Oregon. What was I doing? Well, I was running an experiment in Arkansas.