Heroland Comics 2: Sex and Comic Books

The Police let me out after a few hours. Turned out the officer didn’t ‘arrest’ me; he just put me in cell to calm down.

I walked out into the waning afternoon sunlight, and covered my eyes as I looked up into the cloudless sky. What would be my purpose now? I was jobless, homeless; I had no family or possessions. I wasn’t considering suicide, but I definitely wanted to curl up into a ball and just give up. But no…no, giving up was giving in. And no matter how bad things were, I knew from past experiences that I could turn it around. Not destiny, not God, I didn’t need anyone’s help; this was my mess, and it was up to me to improve my situation.

So, armed with only a car, I began spending all of my time filling out job applications.  I wanted, needed to do anything to keep my mind off of my loss. After a few weeks of searching, I was hired at a convenience store; Always Open. It was a boring overnight shift, but I liked working at night, mostly because it was so hard to fall asleep in my car. I was eventually fired for stealing lottery tickets.

One of the other night employees that I worked with, told me that if I got bored, just scratch off a few lottery tickets; she told me that I’d eventually win the money to cover what I’d scratched off. One night I scratched off two-hundred tickets and only won a “one-free” ticket. I kept scratching thinking that I HAD to win eventually, right? Nope. Got fired the next morning when the morning shift counted the lottery tickets. One of the reasons why I don’t gamble to this day, and certainly never buy lottery tickets. Lottery is a tax on stupidity.

Then, I got a job at a Gas station, where I was fired after a few months for stealing cigarettes. I just didn’t care anymore. In my mind the law had failed me. If Lee could get away with stealing something that meant so much to me, I figured that I could steal whatever the fuck I wanted. I was lost without my collection. My mother refused to talk to me and the deep feeling of rejection, isolation, and stupidity at being ripped off, seeped into my conscience like rainwater on a sandy beach. The nice boy I’d tried to be was replaced by an unrecognizable homeless deviant as the values that comic books had taught were pushed aside. In my mind I was now at war with Lee, but what I didn’t realize was that instead of fighting him, I was slowly morphing into him.

Over the next year I took showers at friend’s houses and motels, but I still slept in my car while bouncing from job to job until I was eventually hired at Red Lobster. This place was different, not just because I entered into my first continuous sexual relationship with a 36-year-old red headed waitress, but because I actually liked my fellow employees.

One of the older waitresses at Red Lobster, spoke with her husband and they invited me to stay with them a few nights a week. Then I met Elliot. Elliot was a few years older than me, and a very handsome Greek guy. He drove a little sports car, and looked like Richard Grieko. Elliot would invite me to bars with him after work, where he either knew the owners or they were friends of his, so I could get in and get served, even though I wasn’t 21 yet. I liked hanging out with Elliot a lot, but he was a bit of shady character.

Now that I didn’t have comic books clouding my vision, drinking and going out took a priority in my life, so hanging out with Elliot was very liberating. He introduced me to Nine Inch Nails, and I still, 30 years later, attribute my desire for alterna-chicks to the times I would hang out with Elliot at an underground punk bar in Chicago, called “Trax”, which was a high-energy windowless dance club underneath a train track.

Elliot lived in the attic above his mother’s garage in Chicago. It was actually a pretty big living space, and sometimes I would crash at his place; he even let me leave my things in the garage below, so that I didn’t have to carry all of my possessions around in my car.

I was a bus boy at Red Lobster, and Elliot was a server. My outgoing personality, made me friends with everyone there from the cooks to the wait staff, and I became something of a mascot. I wore cowboy boots that I’d bought with my very first credit card, which had a one-hundred-dollar limit on it from Sears, but I was finally building some credit in my life.

One of the waitresses at Red Lobster, was named Diane. Diane was a foot shorter than me, and had red hair. Kissed by fire. She was tiny and beautiful, with large breasts and a very outgoing if not authoritative personality. On Valentine’s Day in 1991, after our shift was over, Diane changed into a Valentine’s Day outfit, which consisted of fish net stockings and a pink heart that covered her front. The top of the heart showed her cleavage and it was the sexiest thing I’d ever seen. I was 18 and full of sexual desire, though I never thought in a million years that this beautiful 36-year-old waitress would fuck me, I knew I had to try. When she came out of the women’s bathroom in her outfit, I asked her if she was going on a date with a senator that night.

An hour later, I found myself getting my first blow job in the front seat of my car. THIS…this took the edge off. Diane had me coming out of my shell; the depression and loss I had been feeling turned into a constant desire for sex.

It was a perfect storm of knee trembling fuck-dom. Diane was at her sexual peek, I was at MY sexual peek, she wasn’t shy and I was a willing student; she taught me a lot.

Diane lived in a trailer park, and I spent a lot of time with her there, though she never invited me to move in with her. Diane was very sexually aggressive; she ran the show. That’s just the way she liked it.   Diane was a dog lover, and bit of a ditzy bleeding heart when it came to her animals. She adopted and fostered junk yard dogs that the pound was going to put down because they were very aggressive. I was attacked by her dogs on more than one occasion, and Diane would just let me fight the dog off, watching and getting very turned on. Then she’d lead me into her bedroom, sometimes bleeding from various scratches and bites, to fuck. She’d leave her bedroom door open as the red eyed, hellish, gnarling, drooling, beast that just attacked me, would froth and growl at me as I was fucking her. I’d ask her to close her door, but in the heat of passion she’d tell me to ignore them. Looking back on it, I think she got off on that. To each her own, I guess. My point being that to this day…I can fuck through any distraction.

At some point during this time in 1991, I felt like I wanted to start collecting again. I was feeling better as I had friends and was sleeping with someone. I began to see that maybe comic books weren’t the cause of my personality, but maybe they were a product of who I already was. I was happy; maybe not ‘fulfilled’ completely, but happy. And I was at that place without the influence of comic books.

I called Joe at Heroland and told him I was interested in starting my collection over from the beginning. I told him that I’d like to come into the store sometime, but I wanted to make sure that Lee wasn’t going to be there. Joe told me that he’d wanted to talk to me for a year, but had no way to get in touch with me. We made plans to meet up outside of Heroland, because he had a story to tell me in person.

I met Joe and his friend Paul, who had recently started working part time at Heroland. Paul was in his forties, a few years older than Joe. They’d met at a convention years ago and became fast friends. Paul was married, had a seven-year-old son and a fourteen-year-old daughter; they lived in Lemont. I’d find out that Paul was a Teamster, who worked at McCormick place and on movie sets in Chicago. Paul had been a Teamster since he was in his teens, and he grew up in New York.

When I met with them at The Worth Restaurant, which was a diner directly across the street from Heroland, Paul shook my hand and told me that he was sorry for my loss. We ordered some food, and as we waited for the waitress to bring it out to us, Paul and Joe told me that EVERYONE in the comic book world had heard about how Lee ripped me off. Some of the other shop owners had even started a collection to help me restart my collection, but nobody could get a hold of me. Heroland Comics had been banned from attending conventions and Lee couldn’t get a table anywhere. Joe told me that he didn’t mind that at all because he hated driving that death truck and working conventions every weekend. It seemed that Lee was losing money left and right and now, over a year after he ripped me off…and he was looking to sell Heroland. It turned out that I’d exacted some revenge on Lee without even knowing that I’d done it. AND I was getting laid. Everything was coming up Hempen!

I started the slow process of piecing my collection back together. Since Lee spent all of his time at the warehouse and rarely came into the store, I went into Heroland every week to buy some new issues and a few back issues. It was tough going through Lee’s back issue bins. Sometimes I would come across comic books with ‘MH’ in the top right corner. When I’d collected comic books in military school, I would write ‘MH’ (Mike Hempen) in the top right corner of the price box on the cover, so that if anyone stole them, I could prove they were mine. I only did this on a few hundred issues, and they were nothing expensive. As collections change hands so much in the comic book world, you can still find comic books from the 80’s, with my initial on the top right corner. I saw one on eBay not too long ago.

Comic books were great, but I found myself going in to Heroland, more to bullshit with Paul and Joe, than anything else. Comic books had become background noise as I developed those friendships.

There was a lot of laughter at that time in my life, and although Paul didn’t work at Heroland too often, I made sure to only go in on days that he did. Paul could be just as funny as Joe, but Paul was more outgoing and jovial. Paul sounded like Adam Carolla, but funnier, and any time I tell a story involving Paul, I love mimicking his voice. Paul would give me advice about fucking a woman 20 years older than me, we’d talk about what an asshole Lee was, and we’d talk about life in general. Diane would sometimes come into Heroland with me and whenever she did, Paul would pull me aside with that childlike smile of his and whisper “is her favorite bird the SWALLOW?” or “Does she like PEARL NECKLACES?”. He was like a 40-year-old teenager himself. There was no subject off limits to Paul, and I loved those conversations which always ended in near tears from laughter. I recognized Paul as a consummate bullshit artist, much like Lee, but Paul was likeable and had a great personality.

Then, when Lee heard that I’d been shopping at his store again, he told Joe to offer me a job.

 A Welcome Back

I took Lee up on his job offer. Truth be told, I couldn’t believe he made the offer in the first place. But Joe told me that Lee almost HAD to do it, to get himself back in the game. I already had the job at Red Lobster, and I had the sexual self-confidence of George Clooney at an Oscar party, so I made some demands of my own to Lee. He wouldn’t give me my collection back…that ship had sailed, but I wanted to be paid in cash AND comic books every week. It wasn’t a lot, but it felt like a start.

Unfortunately, Lee didn’t have much call for me to work in the shop, other than on Wednesdays, which was ‘new comic book’ day. I mostly just ran conventions on the weekends with one of his employees named Stan. Stan was only a few years older than me, a handsome blonde Polish kid, and he had an interesting history of his own. Stan had the distinction of having been the youngest man ever to work at the Chicago Stock Exchange. Incredibly smart, Stan was one of those genius kids who graduated high school at 14 and college at 18.

After agreeing to my terms, Lee made a few phone calls to tell the people who ran the conventions and other store owners, that I was back working for him and all had been forgiven. I had to talk to a few of them myself to confirm the news; nobody trusted Lee anymore. Heroland was welcomed back at the conventions and I worked them with Stan on the weekends.

The first show I went to with Stan was at a Ramada in Crestwood. It was a small convention center with local comic book dealers and no celebrities. We parked Lee’s bread truck of doom outside the front entrance and Stan and I loaded up the dolly with a bunch of boxes to bring in so we could start setting up our table. Stan held the door open for me and as I backed in, pulling the dolly, a hushed silence fell over the room. The sound of tinkling ceramic coffee cups, forks clinking on dishes, and sporadic murmuring came to a halt as soon as I was in the door. I turned around and all eyes were on me. There was a moment of utter unease. I didn’t know what to think. I had only heard about my status in the comic book world through Joe and Paul, and frankly I didn’t pay it much thought.

Stan and I looked at each other and then back to the crowd. There were about 50 shop owners and their employees in the convention center. It was only eight A.M. and the show didn’t start until ten, so there were no customers yet. I knew most of these guys, so I nodded at the crowd and uncomfortably moved forward with my cart. As I passed by, they greeted me, asked how I’d been and patted me on the shoulder. Some told me to come see them after the show, as they’d taken up collections for me. These ‘collections’ were mostly small collections of comic books. One dealer gave me a run of “Dazzler” from 1-42. It was nothing, but they were all extremely generous. I think that a lot of these guys had been through some shit in their lives, most didn’t have kids, so they saw me as a kind of representative for their community.

As I moved through the crowd, they began to clap, until the entire room was lit up with thunderous crescendo of applause as dealers welcomed me back into the fold. I felt accepted and proud to be a part of that world in those moments.

I made a lot of money that day, as customers would come to our table just to ask if I was the kid who’d had his entire collection stolen. Every conversation would end with them saying what an asshole Lee was, before dropping a bunch of money on comic books at his table. The irony that many of the books they were buying, were the very books that had been stolen from me, was not lost. But, to me at that time, they were buying from ME, not from Lee, and that meant more to me than the collection that I’d lost. My life was expanding beyond my loss, and I found myself looking forward rather than living in the past.

 As the weeks went by and I worked conventions, I would help the dealers as I’d done in the past. All of them gave me ridiculous discounts on comic books as I slowly built my collection back up. Every day I was at a convention, someone would invite me out to lunch with them and talk to me about what an asshole Lee was. Many of the dealers I knew invited me to work for them, but I turned them all down. Not out of a sense of loyalty to Lee, never that, but out of loyalty to Joe, and Paul, and even Stan who I’d just met. Plus, Heroland Comics was close to Red Lobster, and the back parking lot there was about the only place where the cops didn’t harass me for sleeping in my car.

The Death of Superman

Superman 75

As much as I liked working the conventions, I still enjoyed just being in Heroland. When I wasn’t working at Red Lobster or fucking Diane, I spent all of my time there. Since Lee was never there, I could hang out and bullshit with Joe, Stan, and sometimes Paul.

On Wednesdays, Stan and I would pick up the comics from Diamond Distributors. Diamond was, and still is the hub of ALL comic book stores in Illinois. I think they ship things out through FedEx now, but if you owned a comic book store in the 90’s and wanted to have the new comics available for your customers on Wednesday? You had to drive all the way out to Oak Brook early Wednesday morning to pick up your books. That job fell to Stan and me.

There had been rumblings in the industry for a few months that DC was going to be killing off Superman in the February 1992 issue of Superman #75. We all knew that this was going to be a big issue, but every comic book dealer had been fooled in the past with events like this. DC or Marvel would announce a BIG event, the dealers would buy a bazilliondy copies of said event, and then the event would suck, nobody would buy it, and they’d be stuck with a shitload of books that didn’t sell. Because of this, nobody in the industry took “The Death of Superman” ploy overly serious. But still, just in case, Joe had ordered 500 copies along with the regular new books for Stan and me to pick up that Wednesday morning.

On this particular Wednesday, Joe was off and Paul couldn’t work as there was a show at McCormick Place, so Stan and I had to run the store by ourselves. Typically, Stan and I would pick up the books at Diamond at around four A.M., grab some breakfast, and then get to the store by six, unload, put out the new books, and open at seven. Stan and I didn’t watch the news and we didn’t listen to the radio, so we had NO idea what to expect when we got to the store on the Wednesday that the ‘Death of Superman’ came out.

There was a line so long, outside of Heroland comics when we got there, that Sam Kinison couldn’t have snorted it. The line wrapped around the store and down the side street. There must have been over five hundred people waiting for us to open. Stan drove by the front of the store slowly and we both stared out of the passenger side window with our mouths agape. There were people with sleeping bags near the door, which told us that they’d probably spent the night there. He drove us around the back and we quietly brought our stock in through the back door.

The instant I opened the door, we heard the phone ringing. Stan picked it up. It was Joe. Joe gave us instructions that NOBODY was to get more than one copy of Superman 75. He told us to keep fifty issues on the side for him and keep two hundred issues in the back room. We were to put NONE out on display because if he was right…they were gonna be worth A LOT of money in about an hour and people would be fighting and kicking to get one off the stand. Joe told us that Heroland was on the news, and he was watching the crowd on his TV. Sure enough, we looked out of the huge front windows and there was a news crew outside interviewing the waiting customers. Apparently, “The Death of Superman” was all over the news. Everyone in the world wanted a copy of this comic book, even people who never bought a comic book in their life.

Stan and I put all the new comic books out on the racks, set fifty issues of Superman 75 aside for Joe in the back room, and at $1.25 an issue, we put $12.50 each in the cash register for the ten issues that each of us bought. All the rest we stacked on a shelf under the sales counter. We let the people in and soon the store was packed with businessmen, housewives, children, and comic book geeks alike. The news crew asked if they could come in and we welcomed them in, but told them they had to buy a copy of Superman 75; they all did including their sound guy and cameraman.

The air in the store became stale as we were all just breathing in each other’s breath. The windows fogged up quickly and the cacophony of, sometimes, angry customers swelled as we told them only ONE issue each. At $1.25, Stan and I sold about fifty issues in those first ten minutes, when the phone began to ring again. I picked it up this time and it was Joe again; “Start selling them for twenty dollars” he said. I hung up, told Stan what he said, and we told the crowd the price had just gone up. They wanted them even more. We sold five more issues when Stan took the initiative and started selling them at thirty apiece; people kept buying. I raised it to fifty…and they kept selling. Stan was in his element, with giddy laughter, he told me that it was just like being at the stock exchange.

We had now sold about a hundred and fifty issues and there was so much money in the cash register that Stan and I had to start using a big box to throw it in. About forty minutes into the frenzy, the phone rang again. I picked it up and Joe said “Go twenty-five dollars now”, I told him that we’d sold nearly forty of them at fifty dollars. Joe started cheering on the phone and I had to take it away from my ear lest I go deaf. “Fuck it.” He said, “Go with one-hundred”. We did and sold another twenty at that price, then Stan raised it to one-fifty, I raised HIS raise to two-fifty…and they kept buying them.

At this point we had about ten issues left. We felt bold, so the price became five hundred dollars. By ten A.M., we were sold out of two-hundred and thirty copies of Superman 75 and Stan and I had made Lee over twenty thousand dollars…in three hours. So, at its peak of five hundred dollars, Stan and I sold the ten copies each that we’d bought for ourselves, for five hundred dollars a pop. That was the most money I’d ever made in my life; five thousand dollars in a wad of hundred-dollar bills.

We didn’t tell Joe that we’d sold our copies, but he couldn’t believe that we’d sold the ten we told him about for five-hundred each. Joe was elated, and told us to sell the remaining two-hundred copies while there was blood in the water. We asked if he wanted us to sell his fifty, but he said he was going to wait until they went up to a thousand dollars and put a down payment on a house. This turned out to be a huge mistake, as five hundred was the peak, and it didn’t last long.

A few more people paid five hundred an issue, but ultimately as the crowd started to die down and the frenzy subsided, we had to drop the price back down to around two-fifty, then one-hundred, and it finally settled at fifty dollars where it remained until they eventually, and of course, brought Superman back from the dead. I don’t even think it’s worth the $1.25 cover price at this point. But at the time, that was the biggest sales day in Lee’s history, and it was made possible partly by the guy who he ripped off. But Stan and I both walked out of our $3.75 an hour job with a cool five grand each that night, plus a few issues of Superman 75 for ourselves.

Joe told Lee about our initiatives in raising the price and Lee was SO thankful he bought us each a gyro…no fries or drink of course…AND we had to go pick it up…and bring him back 3 gyros, a fry and a drink. Man, did I hate that fucking guy.

1st Appearance of Guy Gardner

Green Lantern 59

In March of 1968, DC comics introduced a new character named Guy Gardner in Green Lantern issue 59. Guy Gardner was a Green Lantern, much like Hal Jordan, but he was a much more violent character. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, DC turned Guy Garner into a parody of the ultra-macho “red-blooded American male.” I loved the character and collected The Justice League comics just because of him. Whether he was starting a fight with Batman, taking super hero women on a date to a porn theater like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, or generally being made a fool of because of his buzz cut hairdo, Guy Gardner was a hysterical character and I wanted his first appearance.

Because I was young and dumb and full of cum, I’d spent most of the five grand I made off of the Death of Superman by taking Diane out to nice dinners and expensive hotels. Although I was still working at Red Lobster, I took a few weekends off to hang out with Diane, leaving Stan to work the conventions by himself. On one of these weekends, I went to a convention just to shop around for a copy of Green Lantern 59. When I came into the hall, I immediately went to Stan and offered to watch the Heroland table for a bit so he could go get something to eat. He came back with hot dogs for us both and we sat down to bullshit as people perused Lee’s stock for back issues.

I told him what I was there for, and he told me that Lee had recently bought a collection with a Green Lantern 59 in it. He looked through a box under the table and pulled it out…the price tag said two-hundred dollars. We both knew it was worth maybe fifty bucks in the condition it was in. Stan said “eh, gimme ten and it’s yours.” I gave him ten bucks and left the convention a happy man. Sure, I knew Stan was pocketing the money, but did I give a shit if someone was ripping Lee off?

A few days later when I went into Heroland, Joe and Paul asked me to go into the back room with them. There was a somber air in the store, and when I went into the back with them…Lee was there. This was the first time I’d actually SEEN Lee since the day outside of his warehouse, when he’d told me “I had no idea those were your books. I just bought a collection at a good price.” Lee was bigger and smellier than ever.

Lee told me that he knew Stan had sold me the Green Lantern 59 for only ten bucks and they needed it back as evidence to have him arrested. “Bullshit” I said. “Why would you even think that?” Lee leaned back in his giant smelly office chair, folded his hands across the great expanse of his stomach, smiled and said, “Someone who works for me at my warehouse noticed it was missing when Stan brought the stock back from the convention.” This guy at the warehouse, Jim, was in charge of inventorying Lee’s collection to keep it filled when it went out to conventions. Apparently, Stan had only made about seventy-five dollars at the convention, but when Jim went back through the inventory…there was about seven-hundred dollars’ worth of merchandise missing, including that Green Lantern 59. Because Jim and Stan were friends, when Jim asked Stan about the book, Stan TOLD him that he sold it to me for ten dollars. “Jim told me, and now I’m going to have him prosecuted for stealing. Nobody steals from me; not Stan, and certainly not YOU. You’re lucky I don’t have you arrested.” The look of knowing irony seeped from his disgusting, black-toothed smile.

Wow, I thought. First of all, how shitty is it that Stan’s friend at the warehouse tattled on him? Second, and again, what do I give a shit if Lee got ripped off?  Third, I didn’t want to lose my Green Lantern 59. As I stood there not knowing what to say…Joe piped up with “We’ll give it back to you after the cops see it.” I’d seen enough to know this was a lie, and it was the first time that I felt that Joe was betraying me; choosing Lee over me, but as it turned out, Lee had threatened to fire him.

You could see that Joe was uncomfortable in this situation. He hated the fact that Jim dumped this on his lap, because not only did he LIKE Stan, but Joe had hired him. Joe and I looked at each other knowingly, not wanting to give up one of our own. I thought it over for few seconds and finally I said: “No idea what you’re talking about Lee. Sounds like a lot of hearsay to me. I did go to a convention as a customer, and I did buy a Green Lantern 59, but I had no idea that was your book. I just bought a collectible at a good price. Besides, possession is 9/10s of the law.” The smile seeped from his face and as he tried to sit up in his chair, its broke underneath him, and all six-hundred pounds of Lee tumbled to the floor before he could stack his indignation on me. Joe and Paul were helping him up as I walked out.   

It was nothing; a MAYBE 50-dollar book, but as I walked out of Heroland that day…I felt like I’d accomplished a sliver of revenge on Lee. I felt confident, regal, dignified; head held high, I headed to Diane’s for some much-deserved sex. I was never intimidated by Lee again.

As it turned out, Lee didn’t need that Green Lantern 59 to call the cops on Stan. When he came into work the next day, Lee was waiting for him with the police. You would have thought Stan had fucked a kid the way Lee was carrying on and making a spectacle. “YOU SON OF BITCH! YOU STEAL FROM ME? YOU’RE LUCKY CALLING THE COPS IS ALL DO!” Stan was in tears as the cops led him out, while Lee screamed and cursed him through the door. Paul, Joe, and I just stood at the back of the store in stoic silence as we were powerless to help our fallen brother, while at the same time disgusted with the irony of Lee calling anyone a thief.

Marty Nodell

Paul and I became close over the years, and after he bought Heroland from Lee, I gave him that Green Lantern 59; I told him that he should have it as Heroland belonged to him now. Years later, maybe 2001, Marty Nodell, the 86-year-old artist who’d created Green Lantern, stayed at Paul’s house for the weekend while he was in town signing autographs at a convention. Although he was wheelchair bound and too incapacitated to come into Heroland, Mr. Nodell signed books for Paul at his house. One of them was that Green Lantern 59, which Paul had kept in his personal collection. He then gave it to me as a birthday present that year. Marty Nodell, the creator of Green Lantern passed away in 2006.

Grey Jim

After I left Glenwood just before the end of eighth grade, I was thrust into a regular high school in August of 1988. I didn’t know anybody there. I’d met a few other people over the summer who would become lifelong friends, but I didn’t meet Jim until that first week of high school. When I did, I quickly realized that Jim and I had a bond that I didn’t share with the others. We were two sides of the same coin.

Jim was Italian and had a large family, though I didn’t even really know my heritage at the time, and had a modest family, most of which my mother had alienated. As I did with mine, Jim lived with his mother, Carol, since his dad and her split when he was young. Jim didn’t see his father often as he lived in Florida and is a fairly solitary man, much like my own father. Jim’s mother was remarried, and he has two younger half-brothers; I have a half-sister. Jim’s step father was an alcoholic, where my mother was an alcoholic. Jim and I liked the same food, the same movies, and would come to be friends with the same people all of our lives.

I met Grey Jim while in the hallway at school one afternoon. He was wearing a green army jacket and had long grey hair. Some kids were picking on him; shoving him into the lockers, calling him ‘grandpa’, and just being general assholes. I stepped in and told them to stop and Jim and I both got our asses kicked right there in the hallway. But, we became best friends after that incident.

Jim eventually introduced me to his mom and two little brothers. To get away from my mother, who hated having me around, I spent a lot of my time, that first year of high school, at their home. Jim’s mom was one of the nicest moms I’d ever met; his stepdad didn’t seem like a bad guy; he was just drunk most of the time. I was young, but in my short time on the planet, all I ever knew was a mother who didn’t want me around; a mother who did everything in her power to get rid of me, so being around Jim’s mother, who made time for me even as an outsider amongst 3 kids of her own…she was just a very special woman to me.

After the incident where we were beaten up in the school hall, Jim began working out. He told me that he was tired of being bullied for his grey hair, and so took steps to do something about it. That’s his origin story. Jim took advantage of the gym at school, and would go in an hour early every day, work out between classes and on lunch, and then an hour after school every day. Weekends, holidays, any time he could get into a gym, he was there. He read all the books by Schwarzenegger and Weider about working out, bought supplements at GNC, and always ate right. At that young age, and doing it alone and without a coach…it was pretty inspiring to see. To this day, I’m ashamed of myself for not having the fortitude for taking my health and appearance as seriously as Jim did most of his life.

In any case, as you can imagine, Jim became quite swole. Even with his grey hair, which I came to find out was a genetic gift from his father, who had the same color hair since he was a teenager, Jim became a handsome young man. Unfortunately, much like his dad, Jim could be…solitary. He wasn’t really good around other people and I was REALLY good around other people. This became the fulcrum in our relationship. We were perfectly compatible as Jim would draw people in with his good looks, and I would keep them drawn in with my charm. It’s a male friendship trope as old as time.

During the summer of 1989, Jim was going to go to Florida to visit his father. Although his father’s name was Jim as well, Jim wasn’t a ‘Junior’. Everyone called Jim, “Jim”, and his dad “Big Jim”. Carol asked if I’d like to go with, and I told her that there was no way my mother was going to allow that or pay for me to go. Carol got on the phone with my mother, and talked her down when she started angrily yelling at Carol to ‘mind her business’ and that ‘nobody tells her to how to raise her son’. Then Carol talked my mother into letting me go AND into paying for it. Paying for things for me was NOT something that my mother did, so this was amazing. I couldn’t thank Carol enough. I was in awe of her diplomatic ability to shame my mother into letting me do this.

I spent that summer in Florida, from May to August. Big Jim was a chef at Disney. Like, a real chef at a fancy restaurant. One of the most memorable nights of my youth, was when Big Jim got us in to the world premiere of “Ghostbuster’s 2” at Walt Disney World. That was an amazing event. Bad movie, but an amazing event.

Big Jim worked out as well, so he was pretty swole himself, though a foot shorter than Jim or me. Besides their height, the two of them looked so much alike, with matching physiques and hair, I used to call them Hans and Frans. Much like his mother had, Jim’s dad took me under his wing. As I said, he was a solitary man, a very serious man without much humor, but he was an Italian man who conducted himself with honor in all of his dealings, was respectful of those around him, and was very quiet, which could be intimidating. As Big Jim was a chef, he was also in tune with how one should comport themselves in a restaurant, and he taught me things as a kid that I still live by today.

It had been years since Big Jim had seen his son, but seeing Jim’s commitment to his health and how his mother had raised him to be respectful, made Big Jim proud. I admit to being a tad jealous of this dynamic between the two as I’d never known a relationship with my father.

Seeing us both as young men, without a lot of male influence in our lives, I think that Big Jim took on and enjoyed the responsibility of teaching us the ways in which a man should behave.

Big Jim knew a lot of people in the Miami restaurant scene, and as he was a strong and handsome, but quiet and reserved man with a lot of friends and a lot of respect amongst that community, he rarely paid for dinner, and women loved to sit with us and tell Jim how handsome his son and his friend were. While out, Big Jim taught us how to order a steak, the different cuts, and doneness. He was of the opinion that people who order steak ‘well-done’, should be thrown out of a restaurant along with men who wear hats inside of an establishment. He taught us to open doors for others, not just the person we’re with, as a sign of respect. He showed us the best seats in a restaurant, and how to ask for them. When, who, and how much to tip, and finally how to deal with a bad server.

Big Jim told us that most servers are working for tips, so it’s only on a rare occasion that you’ll get a very bad server. He said, you never want to be responsible for someone losing their job, so if your server is particularly bad, you leave change on the table. If you leave nothing, they can think that you forgot to tip them. ‘Change’ let’s them know that there was a problem. Then, before you leave, you tell the bartender; not the manager. The bartender will speak with the server, and they won’t lose their job. They may just be having an off-night or gotten some bad news. They wouldn’t be in this business if they’re like that all the time. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

Jim and I listened across from Big Jim, with rapt attention. It was like when “C” learned the ‘Sonny door test’ in ‘A Bronx Tale’.

Anyway, although Big Jim lived…well, big, when we went out, he had a very modest studio apartment. He had one chair and a TV, with a fairly empty and modest kitchen, which one would not expect of a chef. Without bikes or any transportation, Jim and I were couped up at his dad’s place while he worked. He would come home late at night, light a joint and watch TV. We sat on the floor, ate TV dinners on the floor on weeknights, slept on the floor; I wasn’t a fan. Also, from being together for long periods in close quarters, Jim and I quickly learned the things about ourselves that were less than similar. Jim and I eventually got into an argument over music, as our musical tastes couldn’t have been farther apart.

Remember my friend Aaron from Glenwood? Well, him and his family had moved to Sarasota the year before, so at the beginning of July, I went to stay with them. That’s a story for another time. I stayed with Aaron and his family until mid-August, when it was time for Jim and I to fly back to Chicago. Jim and I had made up over the phone, Aaron’s mom dropped me back off at Big Jim’s, and then we went home together to begin the new school year…but the fun and frivolity of that summer in Florida would soon end on a very harsh note because when we got back home, we found out that Carol was dying of stage four lung cancer.

It took two months. Carol didn’t tell Jim about her diagnosis while we were in Florida. Carol knew that Jim’s life was about to get much harder, so she wanted him to have one last summer of fun. Jim’s step father was an alcoholic, and he was very jealous of Jim’s relationship with his mother. He was also jealous of Jim’s strength, which Jim would use on his step father when he tried to be abusive towards Carol or his little brothers. Carol saw that without her being there to anchor their relationship, Jim would soon find himself alone.

One night…one night, my mother received a phone call from Jim’s step dad. He told her that Carol asked if I would come over after school the next day while Jim was at the gym. I hadn’t seen Carol since we’d gotten back from Florida. I only knew what Jim told me. When I arrived at their apartment, Jim’s step dad reluctantly led me to the back bedroom. He was drunk and bothered that I was interrupting whatever TV show he was trying to watch to forget about his pain. I don’t blame him…some people just don’t know how to cope with losing a loved one.

Carol was so thin; she wore a scarf over her head, that was tied in a knot just above her left shoulder. Her eyes were sunken and dark. She was hooked up to an oxygen tank, and what seemed like a sea of yellow pill bottles, littered the nightstand next to her bed. As I approached, she looked up at me and smiled. I can remember thinking of the word ‘grace’, when I saw that smile. Even at so young an age. I kneeled at her bedside and broke down crying; she was so strong, and I was so weak. I was ashamed. I wanted to be stronger, I didn’t want her to think that the sight of her made children cry…that just made me cry harder.

“Michael…” she said with kindness…

I looked up at her, tears rolling down my face.

“I’m glad that you came into my son’s life. He loves his bothers very much, but he loves you as a brother too.”

I held her hand and tried not to squeeze too tight; but she matched my grip, even in her weakened state.

“Did Jim tell you why he started lifting weights?” She asked with a smile.

“The kids at school were picking on him, and he didn’t want to be bullied anymore.” I said, matter of fact. As if it were an afterthought; a story I’d told a thousand times.

“Oh honey, no. Jimmy told me that you inspired him. Your courage, your strength; the way you deal with your mother…the way you stepped in to help a complete stranger who was being picked on…he told me he didn’t know if he could have that kind of strength, so he wanted to be strong in a different way.” She cupped my cheek, and I saw tears begin to form in her eyes.

“You complement one another, Michael. I want you to be there for each other. Use that strength we all see in you to help Jimmy through this. Can you do that for me, please?”

“Of course, Carol. Of course, I will…” and I got up and hugged her desperately, but gently.

“I need to sleep now, but you have a good life, Michael. I’ve enjoyed spending some of mine with you.” And she smiled a huge smile. I cried harder.

Carol died later that week.

My mother drove me to the wake, but sat in her car and drank. When Big Jim saw me sitting alone, crying in a pew in the church, while Jim was talking to family members, he sat next to me. I looked up at him, and he asked me why I was crying; I made a sarcastic gesture towards the coffin. Big Jim faced me and said, quietly, but sternly, “Look at me, boy”.

I was shocked, at the quiet delivery of that near-angry tone, and did as he asked.

We locked eyes; mine sad, his with a sternly empathetic resolve: “I loved Jimmy’s mother very much. Everybody does. But this isn’t the place for your tears. You need to be strong here, for them…” and he pointed over to Jim and his little brothers, who were mobbed by a sea of grieving family members.

“I cried for hours after I heard. I cried on the plane ride to Chicago. I cried in my hotel and I cried in the cab ride over here. But now I’m here. I’ve given Carol all of my tears, now I’m going to give our son my strength, because Michael…how we deal with death, is at least as important as how we deal with life. Do you get me?” he looked at me very seriously.

I nodded, “I do, sir” I paused, thinking…”But…isn’t that from Star Trek?” I asked quizzically.

Big Jim laughed and looked around the room. “You’re a sharp kid, Mike. Now go over there and be with my son. He needs you. There’ll be plenty of time in life for crying.”

I put my hand out to shake. Big Jim grabbed me and hugged me hard. “Now get outta here, kid.” He said laughing.

Not long after that, my mother surprise-emancipated me and I moved in with Nancy. Then, Lee and Nancy collaborated to steal my comic book collection. So, Jim and I had been through a lot together, which made this next part particularly painful…

Jim and I, Circa 1988

Betrayal

It was now 1992, three years after Carol passed; Jim turned eighteen in December of 1991 and got a job as a Glazer apprentice. It was an excellent job for a strong guy like Jim and he was now making a good living in, what would become a lucrative career in construction. Jealous because Jim was making more than him, Jim’s stepdad was kicking him out of the apartment that he’d shared with his mother since he was very young. Of our click of friends, Jim was the first of us to get his own apartment.

I’d been sleeping on couches and in the back seat of cars for a while now, and sure I wanted my own apartment, but I just never made enough money to put it together. I had jobs, but you need first month, last month, and a security deposit to get a place. I was making what, 300 bucks a week at best? It’s not easy to save money when you’re sleeping in your car, especially in the wintertime. It SOUNDS good on paper, if you sleep in your car, you have no overhead, it should be EASY to save up 1800 dollars to get an apartment. I still had money from my Death of Superman fund, had no credit, so even when I filled out the credit apps for apartments I was turned down.

I was staying at Diane’s trailer 3 or 4 nights a week and before Jim moved into his new place, he invited me to move in with him so that I could save money and get my own place; maybe even in the same building so we could be close.

I wasn’t in love with Diane, but I’d grown comfortable and close to her, as you might imagine a young man would with his older sexual teacher. We had moments of intimacy and closeness, but our relationship was one built on passion, not love. I grew to rely on Diane, as I should not have done; but those cold winter nights sleeping in my car, were the worst. I’ve found in life that there is no pain, quite like the feeling of having to pee in the middle of the night, cramped up in the backseat of a car with negative ten-degree temperatures outside. I was always afraid to turn the car on and blast the heat, lest it break down or run out of gas. The other thing I found was that the police love nothing more than to tap on your window and tell you “You can’t sleep here”, no matter where you park. This made for a lot of sleepless nights.

Diane could be aloof, a bit selfish, entitled and vain. She was beautiful and she knew it. But during the winter of ’91-’92, sleeping with her a few nights a week, was like having a glass of water after you’ve been dying of thirst.

But now, Jim was going to let me stay at his new place.

The night Jim moved into his new apartment; he threw a party. He had no furniture and brought only a few belongings. I remember his bedroom just had a blanket on the floor and a pillow. No curtains or dishes, just his workout bench and some weights on his living room floor. Our friend Scott, who was 25, bought all the beer and other liquor, and Jim and I bought snacks. I moved the belongings I had in my car into Jim’s place, but my comic books were in Elliot’s garage.

Our friends began to show up and the party took off; music was playing, everyone was talking and laughing; women were dancing in the living room, and everyone was having a great time.

Diane showed up after she’d gotten out of work, and I let her in, introducing her to everyone. Diane was very private, so this was the first time she’d actually met my friends. When I introduced her to Jim, she was noticeably shaken. Her breath quickened and she laughed a little too loud at everything he said. I look back on it now, and I marvel at my inability to see what was happening. She talked with Jim, twirled her hair around her finger, asked if she could feel is arms, then his chest, and Jim was just as noticeably uncomfortable. I noticed nothing.

Pete, Scott and I went outside after a while to have a cigarette in the cold. Jim was maybe the only one of us who didn’t smoke at the time. As we laughed drunkenly in the freezing cold, Diane came outside excitedly. She was smiling, and I said smiling back “What’s up?”

Right there in front of Scott and Pete, Diane said “We can’t see each other anymore. I’m going to sleep with Jim.”, and almost giddily, she ran back inside.

I was…I mean, what? Scott, Pete and I looked at each other in surprise, and as I began walking back towards the apartment, everyone started pouring outside. Jim kicked everyone out and locked the door.

I was told, that Diane told Jim that she wanted to fuck him, right there; she told him that in front of everyone, like they weren’t even there. “kick them out.” she’d said. Keep in mind, these are all teenagers, many of whom were still virgins. Jim himself was a virgin. Jim told Diane “No fucking way; you’re dating Mike.” So, Diane immediately came outside and broke up with me. The end. Jim, having this beautiful older woman throwing herself at him, threw everyone out as there was now no reason not to fuck Diane.

Jim had no curtains and lived in the garden apartment, so when some of our friends started watching him fuck Diane through his bedroom window…I made the mistake of looking before Jim got up and nailed his blanket over the window. It felt like my fucking heart Wile E. Coyote’d off a cliff.

One of the unfortunate side effects of a great break up is IMAGINING your ex with another person. This feeling can hit you anytime, anywhere, and when it does it seems like the sun is falling on top of you all over again. Actually, SEEING it is about a million times worse. I have a personal code that I live by to this day; I will never cheat on someone, and I will never sleep with a woman that a friend has slept with. I wish that feeling on nobody.

Just like that, my incredible sex capade was over. I was mortified from embarrassment; she did this RIGHT in front of everyone I knew. It was a humiliation that I have never known since. I went from something of a celebrity status amongst my friends for sleeping with such a beautiful older woman, to a romantic joke. I quit Red Lobster the next day; I just couldn’t see that woman again.

Not only did I lose my place to stay a few nights a week with Diane, but I also lost sleeping at Jim’s place because there was NO way I was ever talking to him again. And that was the worst of it…being betrayed by my best friend; my confidant, my brother. The man whose mother, on her death bed, asked me to look out for him; asked that we always be there for each other.

Pussy will divide men like nothing else.

The post script to this story is that not even a month after this, Diane was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Diane was Jim’s first sexual relationship, as she had been mine, so she was able to convince him to break his lease and move into her trailer, so that he could take care of her. They lived together for years, Jim taking her to her doctor appointments and paying all the bills because Diane couldn’t work. Jim paid for that betrayal with his youth.

I called Elliot a few days later, and asked him if I could crash at his place for a few nights, and he told me that someone had stolen my comic books from his garage. I told him I was coming over; I didn’t believe him, and he told me he had to go out. Nobody would be home.

I went over to his place anyway and banged on his apartment door; nobody answered. I tried opening his garage, but it was closed. His mother came out from the main house. She was upset and asked me what I thought I was doing. I told her what Elliot had told me and she opened the garage door. It was empty. Elliot’s mom began crying and told me that he was using cocaine. He’d stolen some of her jewelry, and almost anything that hadn’t been nailed down to sell for more drugs. She said that the day before, a very large man came to the house in a filthy bread truck. He and Elliot put all of my comic books in it and the man drove away. She supposed that Elliot must have sold them to that man. Guess who it was…

This time…this time I didn’t even care. I’d collected as almost an afterthought and this collection was not a tenth of my old collection. Maybe seven boxes, none of it worth much. It was the 90’s after all; there wasn’t much worth collecting in that decade. Elliot often came to Heroland with me and he knew the story of Lee robbing me. He must have called Lee at his warehouse and sold him my collection for a quick buck. Lee may have ripped me off again, but I wasn’t nearly as devastated as I’d been that first time. Better people than Lee had devastated me this time.

Not long after that, I broke down and, feeling humiliated, frightened, abandoned by my friends, robbed, and alone again, I went crawling back to my mother. I’d heard that she’d stopped drinking and was now in Alcoholics anonymous, so I let down my pride and begged her to let me move back in. I’d lost everything for the second time in my life, and I could no longer take the freezing cold, sleeping in the cramped back seat of my car.

She told me that she’d rented my old bedroom, but because it was so cold out, she’d let me sleep on the couch for a few nights.

To Be Continued….

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