John Alexander Marshall was one of my closest relationships. We slowly, surely, truly built up a great relationship. It was unlike any other — not just any other I experienced, or he experienced, but compared to all relationships, ever it was fairly unique. I won’t go into too many details, but he would chuckle if he were to read that line. Let me try to prevent myself from going on and on and on and just tell you ten things about John that were unique or interesting. This blog was both fun, and gut-wrenching, for me to write.
John and I shared the same initials — J A M. The chances of that occurring in two random people who become close friends is about 22 x 22 x 22, or one in ten thousand. He would usually sign his emails to me as “JAM the Elder.” And he called me “Youngblood” often. I also called him “Johnny Ringo” because we both LOVED the movie Tombstone.
John would have absolutely loved Game of Thrones. He quite liked movies, such as Tombstone, The Wild Bunch, flicks about the Alamo, and anything fantasy. We must have sat and watched forty or fifty movies together. I was very proud the day I gave him a signed, framed movie poster thingy featuring Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone. We both teared up repeatedly, even if we saw it for the twentieth time. If you don’t know the role, here is your entree: LINK. It features Kilmer opposite the able actor playing Johnny Ringo, Holliday’s authentic nemesis back in Tombstone, AZ in the late 19th century.
My friend was born in about 1947. He was a rambler, a gambler, a joker, a smoker, a midnight toker, as Steve Miller described a character in the famous song. He never became educated, and in fact was the son of a harsh and overbearing father. John went to prison a number of times; he was selfish and uncouth and got himself into trouble fighting, safe-cracking, and the like. He attributes this streak of an outlaw to his home life and the fact that he was raised in New York City in the Italian neighborhood. Then and there, it was a route to earning self-esteem and respect to be tough, to be steadfast, to be loyal. A real man’s man, but with a soft side.
For example, one time we were in group therapy (yes, I was therapist trainee, age 22, in San Diego, where he landed, depressed and suicidal, bored and lonely and poor). He was always pretty congenial to the others, and could really see the positive in people. If you were genuine and confident and open, he probably liked you. In general, though, he was a misanthrope, and one of his only joys as a rebellious rabble-rouser stuck in an old man’s body was cruising around on his motorized scooter ogling women who were passing on the street. I wish I had a dollar for every cup of coffee he drank, sitting on his scooter, watching the world go by in San Diego, circa 2004.
One day, probably ’86 or ’87, John was feeling very mentally ill. He would sometimes stay at mental hospitals, almost to refresh and recuperate, really. This time he presented himself for treatment. He said to the psychiatrist (to the best of my memory): “Doc, I’m totally lost. I feel just rudderless and despondent.” Asked what he means, he replied: “Well, I think the thing is is that I just turned 40. I literally cannot conceive of life after 40. I was always absolutely sure I would die young. In all the fights, drinking and drugging, professional gambling, outlaw lifestyle, and so on, I was convinced that one day my number would be up. It just seemed to be a foregone conclusion. I ‘lived right up to the hilt,’ as it were; burned the candle at both ends; and yet, here I am. It’s like I don’t know what to do with myself; as though I don’t know how to live as a middle-aged man. I don’t exactly want to die, I just don’t know how to live life.” Needless to say, the astonished doctor said, “You may be experiencing the oddest reason for depression and anxiety I’ve ever heard anyone tell me, but I can’t keep you here; good luck John. Why don’t you go have some fun or do something meaningful?” Off he went, probably to a bar or to write some poetry.
Now, John never went to college. His work — legal work, anyway, which he did when there was nothing better to do — was simply putting together odd jobs around New York, San Francisco, when he wasn’t traveling. By traveling, I mean getting itchy feet and hitting the road. His career in his obit was “hotel manager.” That meant he manned the window at some cheesy SRO in Hell’s Kitchen, I think. John told me that one time he was making macaroni and cheese in some single-room-occupancy hotel in one of the big cities, down on his luck or having the blues because of some woman or something. He turned off the stove, just left the pasta in the hot water, grabbed his valuables, and split. No note, no cleanup, no extensive packing. Hit the bus and head to New York, probably.
Anyway, group therapy. I tried to sketch how rough-hewn and streetwise John was. I mean, he was 6’2″, 220 lbs., and the Mafia hoods back in Brooklyn called him “Big Al” (based on his middle name). He once got in a fight with — not even kidding — six bikers. He was the one who walked out of the bar, believe it or not. His physical prowess, physical courage, and tolerance for pain were quite remarkable. His constitution was legendary. If he were a historical figure, he would probably be a Scottish warrior circa 1215 living in the Scottish Highlands, drinking much whiskey, wielding a claymore with a ferocity that would strike fear into the hearts of the English soldiers. When John did his gambling and carousing and nightcrawling, he would often put back 15 beers, and then have a full breakfast, and then go to sleep at 4 a.m. or so. Smoking, drugs, women, petty crimes, the whole 9.
So there we were, he and my therapy supervisor, the inimitable Lou Mone, and six or seven group members. This old, almost “decrepit” man, probably 6′ and 170, wracked with constipation and depression and who felt all his friends had died and gone away. You just got the impression that he probably should have died in a fight at age 26, or in Vietnam, or some such thing, but group therapy seemed so tame and bourgeois, I think.
I related to him because he was a very interesting man by the time that he slowed down and started to “live life on life’s terms,” as they say. Through therapy, we grew to really know each other. Well, me more than him, as is the case in a therapeutic relationship. But I exposed parts of myself, as appropriate, and we kind of realized we were kindred spirits. Yes, I was 24, and he was 60, but we were actually going the same speed by then! Indeed, the part of him that was decent and erudite and refined grew out of the place where the fast-living punk had expired.
He had a powerful mind. Again, not formally educated, but the kind of guy who, if he was doing 90 days or 18 months in prison, would eat, shower, play some cards maybe, but mostly sit on his bunk and read. And read. And read. He was either reading something like Kerouac, Vonnegut, Orwell, Camus, or the Bible. Why the Bible? Because he hated hypocrisy and needed to know what kind of nonsense was contained therein so he could know how to beat a theist in a debate/argument. Let me put it like this: though somewhat antisocial, he was not the kind of person who would fleece some new fish who landed in prison. Why take advantage of the weak, basically? He had his reputation, and would put anyone on his back who doubted it, so reading was simply the best use of his time. Ironically, perhaps, he would have said something like “Why would I want to sit around and bullshit with all these stupid assholes when I could be sitting in silence, doing my time, reading On the Road for the tenth time?
Gosh, I still haven’t made my main point about therapy. I’ve been trying to sketch what John, the old man, was really like, to effectively make my point. So, Jennifer was a fairly cute, rather vulnerable woman. When it was her turn to talk, she recounted how sad or despairing she was. We men were all very affected, and there was a somber pall in the room. I will never forget, he kind of looked at her like a Johnny Cash or a Humphrey Bogart in an old man’s cloak, and said:
Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss’d me,
Say I’m growing old, but add:
Jenny kiss’d me.
We all were astonished. Right from memory. Right on the spot. About a downtrodden woman named Jennifer, to make her feel better. That was John for ya.
I helped him out financially, because he was living on social security disability. I paid him to find me quotes in books. He proudly and loyally went to the library with a fucking voice recorder and a little microphone, and would scan until he found something interesting, profound, or meaningful, and would speak it into his lapel. One of us would then type them out. He was a real pal.
I could continue writing about John and reminiscing for days.
Below is an email snippet. We would email each other every day or two, and get together two or so times a week. It was a very important social connection to him. With his “hunt and peck” method, he would compose interesting, insightful, sometimes crass or lewd emails, and look forward to my reply. This would be on the computer that I bought him, I am proud to say. He wrote to me once, in his witty, somewhat pedestrian style, as old men are liable to do:
That is beyond my simple powers of reason. He sounds right on, but what do I know. If we could only turn back the clock and mind our fucking business!!! On a personal note, I’m having a hell of a time. Just when it seemed things were lightening up….even my disease seemed for the first time to be backing up a bit, the bottom just fell out of everything else. Both my scooters are down. I’m truly homebound and can’t get anyone over here to look at them till Dec. 6th. No matter what, it will be expensive. The people from my other company, [the oxygen people] promised to come and go over my scooter and they didn’t show. They broke their word so I fired them. Now I have no oxygen supplier. I did what I needed to do. Computer is a mess. Waiting for Tim to come and look at it. He should be back in town tomorrow. I hope!! Can we do a movie and din-din one night this week and give me Novembers pay? I’d really appreciate it. I’m just getting punched around mercilessly.
Thanks ‘Blood. The Elder JAM
I heard this song this morning, and it, like some Dylan, “Stairway to Heaven”, Edith Piaf, and actually some techno I introduced him to, remind me of him. It’s a neat thing by Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. It goes a little somethin’ like this:
Maybe you bought all the lines that she told you
Maybe they tore you apart
Maybe she shrugged off your finest emotions
Carelessly walked on your heart
Life ain’t for sissies, and you ain’t no sissy, boy
And only the strongest survive
Bad love is better than no love at all
At least you know you’re alive.
Chorus: And just thank God you still got your feelings/ And you’re free to be easy and warm/ But from here to the end is what matters, my friend/ And you’re right at the peak of your form/ Still in the eye of the storm
Maybe you tried somethin’ too hard to handle
And maybe you took you a fall
Is it true that if not for the pain that you’re feelin’
It wouldn’t have mattered at all? (tell the truth)
All there is left between living and dying
Is loving or leaving alone
You can take it or leave it, but make up your mind
Or fall on your ass on your own
Chorus: And just thank God you still got your feelings/ And you’re free to be easy and warm/ But from here to the end is what matters, my friend/ And you’re right at the peak of your form/ Still in the eye of the storm
Here is a link to a rendition and lyrics to “Eye of the Storm”.
Another song that John really connected with was “The Man in Black”. Can you see a bit of a pattern here (Kristofferson, Nelson, Cash, etc.)? Yah, when I knew him from about 58 to 64, that’s how he was, Johnny Cash all the way. He really connected with it, and it spoke to his understanding and love of honor, and righteousness. Here is a link to a wonderful rendition of one of the best songs ever written, “The Man in Black”. In it you’ll see a deep sense of honor and love and strength that John both admired and often tried to emulate. John also appreciated the character Worf, and Star Trek in general, if that means anything to you. Here are some clips of Worf being Worf.
I swear to God, John had many poems memorized. He would often, say, in prison, set his mind to finding a book of poems from the prison library, and absolutely perfectly committing a poem or five to memory. He could literally recite this upon command: T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. It was mind-blowing to hear him speak it, like some sort of android. If you think you don’t have to be a genius to memorize this and many others like it for years on end, try doing it and see.
This is also one I remember he knew, and it’s quite interesting. It’s by Ernest Dowson (LINK) . Now that he is gone, it’s haunting, and causes me great sorrow.
“They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.”
Profoundly, the writer on the page I cite writes this:
“One writer calls Ernest Dowson ‘The incarnation of dissipation and decadence,’ which combined with the sad beauty of today’s poem, brings to mind the rather indelicate expression that a rose may grow out of a manure pile — the ‘pile’ in this case being Dowson’s decadent and deadly habits. For him, the combination of an excessive lifestyle and alcoholism with his tuberculosis proved quickly fatal. He died a few months beyond his 32nd year.”
John saw a hawk land on his balcony railing one time. Said it was absolutely amazing. He felt it was looking right at him. There was a quickening, a rush of profound meaning and joy and wisdom, he felt. One day, having seen a dead bald eagle, he told me, revealingly: “What a stirring sight is a dead eagle; it got a chance to fly, and it does not have to wait to die.” We both shared a love of birds, and I guess you could say they are our “spirit animal”.
One thing I want to note, about his illegal behavior when he was younger. John was basically from a hard-luck home in Brooklyn. He wanted to become a professional baseball player, but he just never put two and two and two together, and subtracted three, and added four to get seven, if you will (my little analogy for the process it takes to become a pro ball player). He was obviously smart enough to achieve much in life, and I think he had regrets that he didn’t hoe that tough row when he was younger.
Like many big, clever, needy kids in the Italian part of town, he became “a tough” and found that it was just easier; a perfect fit. He resonated with the positive aspects of Mafia life: the honor, the loyalty, the strength, the camaraderie, the safety in numbers. Like the consigliere, Tom Hagen, in The Godfather, this talented non-Italian also had “street cred” and was not bothered by the “made men”. He didn’t really want to fit in to society’s pre-determined roles for young men, frankly; he was rigorously independent and self-confident (at least, in some ways). He developed what could basically be described as an “anti-social personality”, and like many self-absorbed men, it took many years for him to see the error of his ways. He “aged out”, as it were.
And he did see the error of those ways by the time I knew him. In fact, he was so far from a thug that it was a real task to try to alleviate his depression and prevent him from killing himself because life felt so bland and meaningless to him. He thought it was a bit of a cruel joke played on him by Fate that all his friends died and here he was, depressed and physically challenged in San Diego. Like something out of a Camus novel, or Rush’s take on the epic poem by Coleridge, Kubla Khan. Sartre or someone used the phrase “condemned to be free,” and John felt in a way he was condemned to be a handicapped, poor, old man. Epilogue: after a rough start, we decided to work together in therapy, and developed a very robust mutual respect for each other. Trust me, if he were just some curmudgeon or douchebag, I would never have bought him a cup of coffee, let alone thought of him as a grandfather figure. We each had a little Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp in us, frankly.
The point about being an “outlaw” is that he didn’t want to hurt the innocent. When I knew him, he had regrets about folks who he wronged back in the day. In that regard, he was more like Robin Hood than some gangster from the ‘hood. I think of John as the kind of person who wouldn’t rough up a lady who didn’t have it coming (and I mean for real, not like some domestic violent excuse). He preserved much of his ire for politicians, bad cops, CEOs, so-called Christians, and the like. A good way to sketch him would be that somewhat like a samurai, he was no stranger to violence, but there was a code to it; omerta, in Italian, in part. The worst thing you could call him was a rat. If you were in a position of authority and your paths crossed, you were in for potential trouble. If you were a drunk guy roughing up your girl in public, you could expect a kicked ass that night.
Me — he never hurt me, and I know how much he came to respect wisdom, honor, progressivism, love, and concern for the less fortunate. I think of him as akin to the scrappy and principled Howard Zinn if, instead of going to college on the G.I. Bill and becoming a professor, he remained in Brooklyn, broken down by anti-Semitism, classism, and bad luck. If you have seen Tombstone, John was kind of a combination of Doc and Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil — but no Sheriff Behan, and very little Curly Bill. In a word, when young, he sort of took what he wanted, and sometimes paid the price (jail, a beating, a break-up), but I believe he felt that life was asking for all of his earlier ill-gotten gains back — with interest.
When I knew him, he would walk a mile to apologize to you if he believed he had wronged you in error. John identified heartily with the downtrodden, and was much more sympathetic to the American Indian than he was “Westward-headed pioneer” if you will. Like the character Lieutenant Dunbar from Dances With Wolves, though white, John would certainly have objected to the treatment of American Indians and would have taken up arms in their defense. Likewise, he resonated with Tom Cruise’s character in The Last Samurai, from the feeling of being washed up and down and out, to the willingness to fight for goodness and right — even if it were against your own kin. For him, he grew to have a deep understanding of what is moral; it wasn’t handed to him as a young boy.
I visited John in the hospital two days before he died, at about age 62, in 2009. His body was that of a 102-year-old man and it was diseased and defunct. He managed to fight off the Grim Reaper, as he thought of himself as figuratively doing for all those years, but finally Death won. He respected that foe, the only one to ultimately best him. Anyway, he was a shell of a man; hauntingly, he was in the hospital, in that stark hospital gown. I saw him sitting on the doctor’s examination table, hair mussed, mostly bald, face unshaven. He was breathing through his mouth, and with much effort. He looked at me, and sort of seemed not to recognize me. He told me that the doctor was asking him to take a pill that the doc claimed was going to help him, but he believed them to be poison. He asked me if I thought he should take them; I replied that I thought he should. He looked down at them in his hand, questioning if I was shooting him straight or if I were perhaps not myself, but an agent of Death, come to claim him with my treachery. I felt so sad and so hopeless and so helpless and a bit angry, I cry as I write this line.
This song haunts me to today; it’s called “How to Save a Life” by The Fray.
John, if I could have saved your life, I would have. I hope somehow you knew that — there with those pills in your hand, an ambivalent and inadequate look on your face — somewhere in your deluded and demented mind. I would have stayed up with you all night had I known how to save a life.
Where did I go wrong? I lost a friend, somewhere, alone in the bitterness.
I have lost many friends in my life. One I never lost was John. I fear that there are only five people on Earth now who remember him. He’s buried, inconspicuously, in Shiloh Cemetery, Jefferson, Texas. He touched hundreds of friends, was a part of the lives of thousands of acquaintances and those met in chance encounters, but none of whom are alive or would remember. I believe his step-daughter, Tracey, and her two children, remember him. I imagine all his age mates are now long-gone (they all died young). Even now, type in John A. Marshall or John Alexander Marshall buried in Shiloh Cemetery and you find exactly nothing online. It’s breathtaking.
One day, John was leaving my house, on his way to the bus stop to head back to his disability-discounted apartment. I paid him to take a bus one way, walk my dog while I was at work, and take the bus back, easily a three hour tour. He was happy to earn $8 an hour, even to sit on a bus and think or read or write. I was happy to do it, too. He turned, referencing Doc Holliday from Tombstone, who was speaking to Wyatt Earp, while on his deathbed in a sanatorium in Colorado (LINK). It is an amazing scene, truly a credit to the two men and how talented they are as actors, and how unique their friendship was — after all, Doc was an outlaw and Wyatt was a rough-and-tumble but pretty straight law man. John said:
“You know that line in Tombstone, where Doc says to Wyatt, ‘You’re the most fallible, stubborn, self-deluded, bull-headed man I’ve ever known in my entire life. Yet with all, you’re the only human being in my life who ever gave me hope’?
Well, Jason, you give me hope.“
He turned, walked out, and shut the door behind him. Ω
John’s quotes, the ones I know of, can be found HERE. I fear these little needles in a haystack are the bulk of what remains of the man, now. You’ll see some real humdingers, full of pith and insightfulness, such as:
We might as well consider new, Americanized theories of right and wrong such as: “It’s Right Because it Has Always Been the American Way” theory, “Uncle Sam Says it’s Right, So it’s Right” theory, and the “Don’t Ask Questions, Follow Orders!” theory. I sometimes think Bush’s favorite theory is “Don’t Be a Terrorist Sympathizer You Weak French Fry: Do As I Say!” theory.
Those who do not steal or rob only for fear of the consequences should they get caught, are not only thieves, but cowards as well.
Part of the reason I criticize like I do (or “moralize,” depending on how you feel about it) is to publicize the fact that there are so many countries out there who do atrocious things to their citizens in the name of profit, public relations, and power. So, on the one hand, I am happy to live in America. And on the other, I am willing to criticize America for its failings.
Isn’t there a hell of an irony in the fact that I would have fought proudly to the death for Freedom in a place like the Alamo, and now I must fight (and quite likely to the death) my own body against an immune system that is supposed to protect me?