The pigs were squealing loudly from the back of the van, as if heralding the approach of a biblical event. When one strikes a list of possible travel-mates, one usually doesn’t include guinea pigs. However, here we were, half way between Las Vegas and Reno, looking through the dirty windshield of the van at the long expanse of road grinding ahead as straight as the shortest distance between two points, rocking in the cross-wind with a couple of guinea pigs. Ron and I had no idea why the pigs would randomly sound off like a vegan (which they are, I guess) being served a slab of veal marinated in kitten tears. Then again, we were traveling with guinea pigs, which rendered most other musings secondary.
Ron and I have the kind of friendship that doesn’t need much tending. Our four decades of being in a shared orbit has allowed us to pop in and out of each other lives with the kind of spontaneity that makes some of my other friends feel unloved. Even after a rather lengthy lapse of regular contact, when Ron suggested I fly down to Las Vegas where he has a house and partner, to help him drive back to his life in Oregon where he keeps his extended family and car collection, it was a done deal. I booked an aisle seat, removed incriminating files from my laptop, and packed my car-themed Hawaiian shirt for the obligatory Vegas automotive museum visits.
We’ve known each other for so long, I often forget we are not the kids we used to be when we lived together under the screen tower of the drive in movie theater we ran. I spontaneously revert to the person I was before we had to stop drinking and start trimming ear hair. I still mindlessly answer to a nickname his brother gave me, providing those outside our youth a moment of wondering who the hell Ron is addressing. We remain men from an era where adults didn’t hug or cry. We love big, American cars with enough real estate on the hood to park three Priuses and a obscene enough carbon footprint to negate any good done by all the hybrids with Obama bumperstickers. (Admittedly, my current dream car is a obsidian black metallic Tesla S to be charged by an über array of solar cells: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/tesla_model_s ) As a point of pride, we both still have our Roman Red 1960’s Impalas that we drove when we were teens—the hope being we will restore them and do a road trip together before we’re 60 and/or gasoline is outlawed. We’ve both been in business most of our lives and have rather pragmatic perspectives—which never lets us forget if we sold our old Impalas, we would be as miserable as those who pimped off their muscle cars when gas hit a couple bucks a gallon and the world thought the Pinto was a good idea. We feel manners are important and though we both can easily wade into the shallow end of our vocabularies, we reel it in when around other people (Especially Ron’s partner). When I feel a little too normal, I remember that Ron travels with his “travelin’ pigs,” and that such a thing doesn’t exactly pop out against the landscape of my idiosyncrasies.
Monty is perhaps the sanest and least eccentric of the people I’ve shared the last few decades with, which suggests I must have very few sane and typical friends to size up against each other. He has spent most of his career working in juvenile justice, exposing him a side of how people treat each other against which he has grown armor—keeping his humanity unscathed. One of his co-works described him as having a Buddha like “calmness.” I think she mispronounced “physique,” but his impressive ability to fill a doorway aside, he is one of the most centered people I know. I’ve seen it when we are caravanning across the American west on our two-wheeled beasts, and the road gremlins smite us with bad weather, suffocating traffic, or rest rooms that would add another level to Dante’s hierarchy. Where as I am reduced to cursing the gods in all their forms, Monty finds a succinct appraisal of what just went down and employs his surgical ability to cut to the humor of the situation. And he does it without being mean.
I have an intrinsic trust of him that he’s proven to be justified. Years before we both had to stop eating sugar, we were riding across Wyoming when summer turned into this desiccating bitch, ripping the moisture from each and every pour like a solar powered wet to dry vacuum. I thought I had food poisoning borne of a steady diet of fast food served by restaurants that knew we weren’t coming back that way, so freshness was a vague recollection of how things were served before the hatred of the public set in. After a pyrotechnic night spent reading the shampoo bottle 146 times, I slammed the usual drugs used to plug up the leaking holes and saddled my big Harley. I’m thankful this was the days before everything damn thing ended up on You Tube—I was not making my motorcycling ancestors very proud with my skills at guiding the 900 pound bike straight and true. I’m sure it looked like three days of heavy drinking preceded me mounting that beast. Monty, having a keen eye for when I’m in trouble, kept me from drifting into the ditch or oncoming traffic in the triple-digit heat. “Just look at the back of my bike.” And I did. For 700 miles I followed his silhouette. He got me home. A day after that I was in emergency surgery where they removed the shards of my appendix.
With his tattoos and menacingly bald head, he chooses his battles carefully and doesn’t let them choose him. He has been set upon by inmates at work in every way imaginable. No one is going to impress him with how tough they are. Yet another surprise about Monty is that he religiously watches his language—though he is almost as much a heathen as I am. After a career of working professionally with kids, he can’t afford to slip in old speech patterns forged during his eight years as a paratrooper in the army. Somehow my unabashed crudity, cynicism, and near savant ability to turn any sentence into a sexual spoonerism doesn't permeate his wholesome being. Then again, it’s a safe bet that if he does cut loose with an explicative, you know shit just got real.
He possesses an intelligence that far exceeds what he would have you believe. Words on a page are not his strong suit, but he has lived a life with awareness and has pulled more from that than most people get from a diploma and a research grant. When I am at my worst, he is at his very best. He doesn’t complain that I work too hard and tolerates our rides or other excursions getting truncated or obliterated by something happening at work or some other vulgarity. Unlike most of my friends his age and contrary to the aura he emanates, Monty hugs everyone. When we used to feel motorcycle events were a dandy way to kill a weekend, most friends we met were quite content with the I’m-Not-A-Homosexual two-pump handshake, followed by taking a step back. Monty would wrap his massive arms around them a squeeze them with almost passive-aggressive verve. I suspect he enjoyed their discomfort more than he should have.
Though he spends half his life in the desert in Arizona laughing at our PNW winters, we talk on the phone every couple days. Usually it’s to have me get on Craigslist and look at some motorcycle that caught his eye.
“You by your computer?”
I’m always by my computer.
“You on? Now look up Portland. Search for 650 KLR.”
“Ain’t there, Monty.”
“Second page, around the middle. You on Portland?”
I make a yes-noise and on a lark, look at Portland, MAINE Craigslist. And there it is, in the middle of the second page. “You’re off by a continent, brother. This one is in Maine.”
“Yeah, I know…How long would it take to get there, ya think?” Smooth, Monty. Smooth.
Monty has been across most of the US on a bike and knows American geography better than that Atlas guy. Thus, it became obvious he was either messing with me or was in powerful need of a road trip…or both.
“A couple hours, I think.” I didn’t mention that would be true if we were in the Space Shuttle. I guess it would only take 45 minutes in the same vehicle to travel from my Oregon theater to his Arizona single-wide.
“So, when you riding down for lunch? See ya in a couple hours?”
I don’t see this ever changing.
I felt quite odd sitting at this large, orange-draped dinner table. Not only was I wearing nice clothes (for me) and dining with my business partner who happens to be my former wife, I was sitting across from Jon, whom I’ve known for a couple of decades. We became friends back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and he was my professor. He and his two boys, both now the size of healthy brontosauruses, would come to my little theater to see pre-Avalon first-run fare. They would watch the movies from the projectionist’s chair in the cramped booth and Jon and I would wax cinematic. This was the pre-digital projection era so the booth was always alive with clattering and things that glowed and buzzed. It also had be constantly attended, which meant Jon watched his boys and I watched the presentation, and we talked about this thing everyone likes, but we fell in love with: Movies. Movies had become the thing around which out lives have orbited since we were old enough to buy a ticket to sit in that big room with the monster screen.
Jon was being honored this night with a the Distinguished Professor award and somehow I came to be the only non-academic at the table, perhaps in the room which was filled with dozens of tables surrounded by people much smarter than me. As I departed from the notion this was a hallucinatory event sprouted from my guilt and never having finished my degree at Oregon State, I remembered that this is my Jon whom, though a nationally recognized authority in his field who publishes a new book every ten minutes, is in fact my friend.
I had never taken a film class before when we first met, and after three minutes of his lecture I realized this guy could teach me something. University program and degree be damned, I took every class of his I could. When I dropped out of Oregon State in 1996 to build my first theater in Corvallis, he jumped right in and booked movies for the freshly minted Avalon Cinema during the first 18 months of it’s life. This was a tough row to hoe since we were starting cold and Jon’s educational connections at the movie studios afforded him little mileage with the exhibition departments of those studios. Between his tenacity and my discomfort at the thought having to find a real job, Jon and I kept the Avalon afloat through her infancy. That was almost 20 years ago. The death of the Avalon Cinema made way for the Darkside Cinema, where Jon lent me his son to get the last of the projection equipment dialed in. Guy, a mechanically gifted teenager, was disinterested in academics and his dad figured he should spend some time getting his hands dirty with someone as colourful as me to show him what happens if you don’t finish school. The kid loved the gears, sprockets, wiring, and grunt work and he learned well. He learned a little too well when it came to the pneumatic nailer, according to his mother. She had some reservations around her son handling something that spit out 16-penny nails with the force of an M-16. Some of the more manly construction jobs had to be handled by those of us his mother was less concerned about getting punctured with a nail. We even tried explaining to her that it’s safer to be behind the nail gun than any place else. She wasn't buying it.
When Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid and Nancy) came in to show his latest film, we all went out for dinner. About half way through the dinner Alex and Jon started talking film history and I realized I had been left behind. Who know Alex Cox was also a raging academic? It was fascinating. Though I know more than most about how to keep a cinema running through the hell-fire of being an ant surrounded by elephants, I know little about the French New Wave and its celebrated directors. It was a satisfying moment when I realized even as steeped as I was in ignorance, I was complicit in bringing these two together to play out this conversation. There is a quiet satisfaction sitting there knowing that Jon, Alex, and I were three of the unimaginable number of parts that powered the film industry which brought to the world the thing we loved: motion pictures.
As I watched Jon being heaped with well-deserved laurels, I remembered all his hard work I witnessed over the decades. He was never one to refuse a student a moment of his time or read the latest script I pieced together from scraps of my life and psychosis. But there he sat with his family—the one thing that meant more to him than movies—being recognized for a lifetime of learning and teaching. Realizing that though I was not an academic, Jon and I are co-conspirators in the plan to make movies a part of people’s lives. Jon lacks sentimentality, which means my presence there wasn’t because he thought it would be “nice.” Maybe I was allowed to sit with the grownups because my ex-wife(s) and I took what Jon had imparted upon me and combined it with my ability to swing a hammer and lie to a lender. From that odd collections of lessons and skills, Corvallis came to have an art theater. Something he and I both wanted.
Jon loves to tell people that he told me it was just a bad idea to try to build an art house cinema in Corvallis, but he did everything he could to make it happen. He was showing 16mm fare in an uncomfortable auditorium one night a week at Oregon State. The projectionists were adept at the art of breaking film (yet, not at splicing it) and he was nearly crazy trying to hold this film series together. So, handing over the job of bringing alternative film to Corvallis to me was both sad and a huge relief. We don’t get together as much as we would like, but when we do it’s not to parse the latest Aronofsky film. We talk about our kids and our health and what people we know are up to. I often wonder if we are quite a sight: the good looking New York Jew with the tall, pissed-off looking biker sitting in the leather chairs of the Big River bar, dipping out bread in the olive oil and balsamic. Neither of us watching our language, both rather comfortable with each other and who we are in our community.
Jon’s the good looking one, by the way.