Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Dear John Post

Last week an old friend of mine from when I lived in West Hollywood randomly popped into my head. (For now I'll just call him John.) We weren't terribly close, but we spent a lot of time together, usually at our second home, the bar Rage on Santa Monica Boulevard. On any given night you would find us there, John with a Sauza margarita and me -- making $23,000 a year -- with whatever was cheapest that night. Although he was only a few years older than me, in your early 20s those years seem like a lot more. 

We also carpooled together because both of us worked 50 miles south behind the Orange Curtain -- John at his family's insurance business in Tustin and me at the O.C. Register in nearby Santa Ana. I'll never forget being on the 101 coming home from work one afternoon whizzing through downtown L.A. when the news came on the radio that Robert Reed's autopsy showed he'd died from complications of bowel cancer and that HIV was a contributing factor -- and how John and I turned to each other and squealed in delight at finding out that Mr. Brady was family, and a bottom to boot! (In those dark days we took whatever gay representation we could get.)

John's day job was in the insurance industry, but he freelanced on the side as a photographer -- pre-digital when you had to have real motivation and real connections -- usually as an excuse for getting close to hunky up-and-coming actors. He was especially giddy when he got to spend the day with an Italian stallion from a "Married ... With Children" spinoff on the fledgling Fox network called "Top of the Heap" (later known as "Vinnie & Bobby"), a guy named Matt LeBlanc. (He may have also done interviews with his subjects, but my memory is a little fuzzy.) 

He also knew some casting agents, and claimed to have given one he was friendly with my (newspaper!) headshot for the role of Matt Fielding on "Melrose Place” when his pal said he didn’t like anyone he’d seen so far. I was duly flattered -- this was definitely not something I ever asked him to do given that I had zero acting abilities or ambitions -- even if I was fairly confident it was one of his awkward attempts to impress me … like Hollywood would ever cast a gay man to play a gay man, anyway!

John didn't talk about it often, but he came from a fabulously wealthy family in Laguna Beach. As such, he had a new sports car and two-bedroom condo in a fancy building on North Doheny Drive, on the WeHo-Beverly Hills border. When my roommate James and I decided not to renew our lease on South Bundy Drive, John suggested I move into his spare room, an offer I declined because I knew it would not be a good idea. (Unbeknownst to me, I instead ended up living with porn star Mike Henson and his boyfriend, whom I connected with via a roommate service on La Brea.) Though we were bar friends and carpool buddies, I never really thought I knew John very well. As friendly as he could be, he was also guarded and odd. We didn't have language for it at the time, but looking back I think he was what we might call today on the spectrum -- his ability to read social clues and his reactions to things never quite right. Still, when gay guys tried to jump on the #MeToo bandwagon I rolled my eyes and later had to laugh that it took me two years into the movement to remember that John -- in whom I had never expressed the slightest sexual interest -- pulled his penis out and started stroking it while I was using the phone in his condo one afternoon calling a roommate ad in Frontiers. (Ohmygod, I was a victim, too!) Call me old-fashioned, but I was neither permanently scarred nor in need of financial restitution for his clumsy attempt at some action, which I completely ignored. (Leave #MeToo to the ladies, guys, who face serious bodily harm in ways that men never could understand.) 

After I moved to the East Coast, I returned to Los Angeles in 1994 on a vacation with my new boyfriend. I immediately took Rafael to all my old haunts and, sure enough, there was John where I'd left him standing at the bar at Rage, nursing a Sauza margarita and taking in the sights. Although his view of the world was frequently off, he hit the nail on the head when he took one look at my man and whispered in my ear: "Way to go landing that Latin lover!" 

Jump to 2022. For the past three decades, I haven't thought about John often -- until last Friday. Maybe it was the impending Pride weekend -- he and I attended a few in Los Angeles, including the year Fake Darrin came out and was grand marshal with Elizabeth Montgomery -- or maybe it was just my ever-nostalgic brain doing what it does at 3 in the morning in lieu of sleeping. So I did what people in the 21st century are want to do -- I googled his name and was immediately alarmed by what I found: a perfunctory obituary on Ancient Faces, a website where people can share memories of the dead. Despite what I saw, it looked autogenerated -- there were no photos and hardly any of the fields were filled out except the eerily likely years 1963-2005 -- so I convinced myself he wasn't necessarily gone, bolstered by seeing other things online that still listed him as the owner of the condo on Doheny and had updated his age to 59. 

So then I found phone numbers for people who appeared to be his parents and decided to call. Much to my surprise, a woman immediately answered. Although she didn't sound young, she definitely didn't sound anything like she was in her late 80s, as John's mom would be.

I explained why I was calling, letting her know in advance that I apologize for the randomness of my call but was curious about an old friend of mine to whom she appeared to be related.

At first I thought I'd gotten a bad number -- she didn't confirm or deny that she knew of a John who used to live on Doheny, before sort of muttering, "No ..." And then suddenly blurting out: "You're going to have a hard time finding him because he's not on this planet anymore."

Stunned -- and realizing that I must be speaking with his mother, a mother who had lost her first-born child way too soon -- I expressed my condolences and said, "What happened?"

"He died!" she flippantly replied. Before I could say anything else, she added: "That's the past. We don't talk about what's in the past." 

As I tried to process what I had just been told while also trying to understand why she might be acting so belligerently -- I couldn't help but think of my late friend Larry and my brother Bill and felt certain that Larry’s mom and my mom would be thrilled if an old friend contacted either of them out of the blue -- she immediately followed her quip by saying: "It's time for dinner now -- I have to go."

Puzzled I just said the first thing I could think of, which felt like a bit of an overstatement even as it was coming out of my mouth: “OK, then. I just wondered what happened to him because he was special to me," to which she coldly replied: "Goodbye."

Still reeling from the interaction -- had I done something wrong by calling? -- I suddenly received a message on Facebook from another person I'd reached out to who was listed on as a "possible associate" of John's. Turns out the guy was a former roommate and, unlike Mom, was more than willing to chat, eventually disclosing that John had been a little "off" with him, too. He hadn't seen him since their brief time as roomies (1998-99) but said that he had heard that John died in 2005 although he knew no details. After a little back and forth, I told him I wondered if John's death might have been especially traumatic, and perhaps this is the way his mother copes with the whole thing. The former roommate said he had been thinking the same thing -- and proceeded to tell me how he'd only found out John had died because both of their names were still on the lease and at some point John had stopped paying rent and the landlord had come after him. (John's rich parents left the kid holding bag.)

I couldn't sleep very well the next few nights, as the roommate and I sent messages back and forth trying to solve the mystery of our friend's death. We speculated about a lot of stuff -- had John taken his own life? was he living with HIV but never told me? might the mom have mistakenly thought I was the ex-roommate she and her husband had screwed even though I identified myself as an old friend? was she estranged from John when he died? -- and I was left wondering why hearing about the death of someone I had briefly known three decades ago had upset me so deeply. 

Ultimately, I decided it was because John had always struck me as a kind but lost soul -- and I guess deep down I hoped he would find his way somehow. Hearing that he died nearly 20 years ago -- living like he had when I knew him -- meant that could never be.

And because I still want to know what happened to him, who for a brief time was special to me, in his most peculiar way.

A rep at Ancient Faces kindly dug up two of John's yearbook photos for me. RIP.

UPDATE: I was able to learn his cause of death. Read HERE.


j said...

Very nice writing Kenneth- it made me think of guy I had crush in when I was teenager have not seen him since and sometime wonder what happened to him.

Jeffery said...

This is my go to people locator site:

I wanted to see if my oldest brother had an online presence. We had no relationship. Looking him up on line I found his obituary. In his obituary I found out my second oldest brother had died before him.

Dave in Texas said...

Let us know if you find out more- you’re a great detective!

Scott said...

It looks like the condo was on the East side of Doheny? Was it? I did know a guy that lived on the West side of Dohney just a few blocks south of Sunset.
I worked as a bartender at the Revolver from 1984 to 1990 and I knew him, but I left LA in 1990 for a few years.

barryearle said...

Kenneth--I lived in LA from 1968 to 2010. And so our paths might have crossed at some point. I wasn't much of a bar person and during my Hollywood career, I was focused primarily on work. Playtime was kept to a minimum and separate from my work. But I'm amused that maybe at one moment we might have passed each other. Meanwhile, great story.

Anonymous said...

What a mystery! Do you think it could just have been homophobia on the mother's part? Disowning anything from that part of his life?

Bill said...

What a fascinating story that left more questions than answers. He may have been bi-polar. Just a thought. If you get any more information I hope you write about it.

Kenneth M. Walsh said...

@Jeffery: Thanks for the tip -- that's a great site!

@Scott: It was on the east side of Doheny. I've since learned his parents sold the place and John lived with that roommate at Park La Brea, where the unpaid rent incident took place.

AB said...

Such a hottie. I wish I knew you back in the day. You remind me of this guy Lance that I had a crush on who worked at the Tower Records. We were both too in the closet to do anything though.

Anonymous said...

Funny I think we all have someone in our past that we think of now and then and say...whatever happened to them... for me it was Malcom Reynolds from Montana - He worked for Dan River in NYC in the early 1980's as a photographer oh well sometimes it's better to leave the past in the past

Critifur said...

My guess about the mother, is that she too, is on the spectrum.

I am "on the spectrum", and absolutely identify the idea of being "off", and never knowing why. Until a little more than a decade ago, when things clinked into place, and the right therapist got me tested.

It only took another eight years for me to figure out what was wrong with my own mother... John's mother sounds exactly like a candidate for ASD.

Chris Harris said...

What a great post Kenneth. You’re definitely right about Larry’s mom — she would love a friend to ask about him and tell stories.

Steve Kmetko said...

Well written Kenneth. I understand the curiosity and the desire to clear up the loose bits. Thanks Kenneth.

Hank Plante said...

This is so sad and so well written. I think many of us have made phone calls like that with results that saddened or shocked us. What an era we went through. Still.

Thomas Muller said...

Wow what a moving story . I completely relate to your feelings. Like you, I also randomly think of people from my past and try and look them up via the Internet often with no luck and it can bother me forever. If you find out anything more about what happened please let your readers know .