I thought I had some understanding of the pain my friend Pete the Poet went through every week, probably every day, but I’m learning now how little I really understood.
I know he struggled with a sense of feeling cut off from the world of other people, alienated and distanced, and the painful news that local poet Peter McLaughlin died on April 18 at age 54, having taken his own life, has left me reeling with a sense of being alienated and distanced, as well. I’ve taken a baby step toward Pete’s world, a world that I enter constantly through the words he left behind, a book of poems that I as his publisher had looked forward to bringing out until an anguished Pete told me no, he just couldn’t handle that.
But Pete got too many things too right for me not to be haunted by the lines of his poems, the music of his pain, told with such clarity and humanity, courage and comic flair, that we laughed along with him and only rarely paused to tune into what lay under the surface. Pete, who grew up in San Francisco and moved to Santa Cruz in 2002, found a local following with regular appearances at open mics like the ones at the Ugly Mug and Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing. He showed up one Tuesday night here in Soquel for our regular open readings at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, the writers’ retreat center I co-founded with my wife, Sarah, and I had no idea what to make of him. Sarah had heard Pete talking about his poetry that afternoon at the Buttery, and encouraged him to stop by. I worried about what this innocuous-looking character might share under the label “poetry,” with his wiry salt-and-pepper brush cut, the athletic thin build of a former runner and P.E. coach, and an open, engaging look that expressed both a low-simmering bewilderment with the world and a readiness to wink and turn that bewilderment into a joke. I braced myself for haikus on kitchen appliances or odes to the pitching style of Giants left-hander Madison Bumgarner.
Pete, bouncy with nervousness, told me he had written a poem called “I Wish I Was Billy Collins,” a uniquely Pete mashup of gentle mockery and honest homage, and had actually put the poem in an envelope and mailed it off to the bestselling poet himself. Billy–outdoorsy poster boy of the New Yorker-and-NPR set–had written Pete back. And he’d sent a funny, implicitly approving note! Which as a matter of fact, Pete could pull out and read aloud right then and there for us! It was all pretty amazing, and Pete enjoyed winning the “Show and Tell” competition with such aplomb.
Here’s that poem, which would have been the title poem of the collection.
I Wish I Was Billy Collins
I wish I was Billy Collins.
No, not George Clooney, just good old Billy C.
I bet Billy lives in some
charming upstate hamlet,
probably New York or Vermont.
His house is rustic and inviting
no gate, just a hand-painted peace sign out front
and a box that says “free rhubarb, take some”
a wrap-around porch and swing,
tasteful unpretentious curtains,
a happy chimney whispering out aromatic smoke,
and there’s always an apple pie
cooling on the window sill.
And so here I come now—
Yes! It’s me, fantasy Billy
smiling the smile of the successful
rolling up in my vintage
(but not gaudy)
’56 Chevrolet pick-up
my dog Thoreau, a rescue of course, riding shotgun
manic chickens scattering crazily as I pull in.
I was in town, at the diner,
with Clem and Lefty and Cecil
sipping coffee and discussing
the high school football team’s prospects.
It’s fall—everything is beautiful.
My wife, who works with orphans,
has just come in from her pottery studio.
She kisses me and informs me
that my agent called and Harvard
wants to honor me again next month.
“Oh how tiresome,” I say.
“I’d rather play horseshoes with Clem.”
But I go anyway.
Some wealthy hedge-fund alum
Whose literary daughter has all my books
dispatches his pilot to fetch me.
He glides into our cow pasture at the appointed hour.
We don’t have cows any more,
too much work.
But it’s nice not having to drive to the airport.
I make my speech.
Everyone loves me.
At the reception afterward
some comely twenty-nine-year-old
her siren’s hand lightly on my lapel
lets me know just how much
my work has meant to her….
but I’m used to this by now
so it’s no trouble.
I’m such a great guy.
Back at my hotel suite
I toss off a quick poem
for the New Yorker
and sleep soundly as always.
I even wear pajamas.
My children all work for Oxfam
and are expert mountain climbers.
I never need Viagra
my eyes are 20/20
my teeth so sound
the dentist has me visit
only once a year.
But sometimes … on quiet evenings
When I’m tinkering with the Chevy
(I call her Sylvia, after Sylvia Plath)
the Red Sox game quietly on the radio
I find myself wishing I lived in Santa Cruz … yes
In a musty studio apartment
with a decrepit cat who barfs violently on the carpet at 4 a.m.
it’s as though he’s trying to turn himself inside out for Christ’s sake
and neighbors whose high decibel, jack-hammer style love-making
comes and comes again hard through the cheap-ass half-inch sheetrock wall
penetrating even the protective pillow I press to my beleaguered ears
and a voodoo smoke alarm with a freaking mind of its own
and a malevolent marauding murder of hoodlum crows
who seem to derive particular glee from shitting only on my car …
But that lasts about two seconds, tops
I shake my head, smiling sheepishly,
and I chuckle softly to my silly Billy self
switch off the light
and head upstairs to bed
to my extraordinary wife
and sleep like a fucking baby.
Pete read the poem aloud to us that first night, and looked jolted by the loud round of applause he received, as if his hair was standing on end. He raised his eyebrows and thanked us for listening, as he did so many times. He’d made us laugh, he’d made us smile wonderingly at all he’d packed into the lines, as he would again and again. Pete could describe the indescribable in a matter of fact way that, depending on the subject matter, was often hilarious, sometimes just random. He had periods where he visited every week to read his poems and periods where he stayed away, because he just couldn’t grapple with the emotional roller coaster of feeling high over the way we all loved his poems and then being up all night, vibrating with self-doubt and self-loathing. During one of the periods where he was letting himself enjoy being embraced by us, he helped out with some chores before an event at the Wellstone Center and explained to me in meticulous detail that he was better at sweeping than anyone you’d ever meet, and demonstrated his technique, which was indeed remarkably efficient. Pete felt at home talking about sports, and when I told him what it was like hanging out with Dusty Baker or Bruce Bochy, a break from his episodic ambivalence about life seemed to come over him. We worked for months preparing his book, and Pete and our Wellstone Books intern Kyle would sit together for two or three hours at a time, going over line breaks and occasionally word choice, but mostly just getting silly and laughing so hard they cried.
I’ve always thought of breakthroughs in writing as offering a kind of handrail to take us deeper into life, but for Pete it wasn’t like that. I didn’t offer to publish him because it would be good for him, I offered to publish him because the world needed to see his stuff. When I talked to Casey Coonerty Protti, the owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, about this remarkable unlikely talent, or to Eric at PGW, our distributor, I always had a cautious excitement, because with Pete you never knew. He used to show up at Bookshop and stand there imagining he was giving a reading, the focus of 40 sets of adoring eyes, and told me that after much practice he was ready for that. Then he changed his mind. Pete’s poems worked best when he read them himself, the music of his pain coming alive with a kind of low key jazz beat, the exasperation underneath the words ebbing and flowing and sometimes exploding into a full-fledged rant, but above all a chord of hope or optimism sounding somewhere in the lines. He identifies so totally with an electric car in “Angry Prius” that it’s both hilarious and exhilarating to hear him riff. Here are the final lines:
Listen, I’ll drive in the slow lane forever—
“Baby on Board” sign if you want.
Carefully shuttle all those dorky Montessori kids
to tai chi, chess club, kite-flying, whatever.
Re-upholster me with hemp for God’s sake if you want.
Hell, slap a “Feel the Bern” sticker on me.
It’s all good.
Just let me be the only little bad-ass Prius in the world,
man enough to proudly tote an automatic weapon if need be.
You know, for when the oil does actually dry up,
and it’s every thirsty Mad-Max hybrid for himself.
And please let me taste the fast lane once,
for like five glorious full-throttle minutes …
Aggressively flashing my high-beams
at some clueless, Lexus-driving realtor yapping on her cellphone,
honking in repetitive denigrating blasts
at a tentative mini-van loaded with three generations of wide-eyed Pakistanis.
let’s maniacally flip off a dawdling astigmatic rabbi
in a shit-brown Yaris.
Oh, let me live a little,
just a little,
before the inevitable day when you trade me in,
like a once-scintillating wife you’ve slowly grown tired of,
on that fully gelded, sexless, lifeless,
smug-as-a-church-lady, no-gas-tank, phone-booth-sized,
ultimate P.C. status symbol,
the electric car.
Pete would fold back into himself after he finished “Angry Prius,” eyes down, his apologetic demeanor both comical and revealing. The poems were a way to share some small inkling of what it was like to be him, to have an imagination that rocketed through all the same private thoughts we have, just like us, but with more zany energy and freakishly spot-on detail than the rest of us can muster. Hearing him read, there was always astonishment in the air, the astonishment of seeing major talent face to face, and in so unlikely-seeming an individual, an unassuming divorced fiftysomething man living a quiet life in Santa Cruz. Pete understood all this—that, in fact, was part of the joke—and he had a way of reading where you could see him taken over by something beyond himself, something larger, that pulled him through the words, something that opened up to reveal what most of us keep hidden. Selfishly, we loved listening to him, even wondering what exactly it cost him to share so much. I never pushed Pete, except nudging him to read a favorite line one more time, when I knew he was up for it anyway. I didn’t push him because I knew there was much I would not know and could not know about the private terrain of his dread.
Pete had his quirks, which he invited us to laugh about along with him. He had never owned a computer, and knew he never would. He talked of one day buying a cell phone, but the plan seemed farfetched. He wrote his poems out by hand in pencil and kept them in a binder, which he had a way of clutching in his lap, just before cracking it open to pick a poem to read, as if he feared it might explode in his lap. He’d gone so far as to duct-tape his binder shut one time and hide it away in his closet, half-convincing himself that it was gone; eventually he came around and cut it open again.
Now that he is gone, I feel myself flayed by the pain of losing him, disoriented by the suffocating weight of knowing I’ll never talk to him again, never share a laugh. But with each day since I got the news, I’m trying to focus as well on the wonder of being friends with him, the wonder of sharing his moments of joy and happiness. He was arriving at the end of a long and harrowing journey each time he made it to easy-going and laughing, letting fly with another spontaneous hilarious line. I was lucky to share that with him. We were all lucky.
More than any other poem, I find myself going back to “Old School Timmy,” a poem in a different key than most everything Pete wrote. He only read it aloud to us after much coaxing, underselling it in the extreme, but it was a revelation in its own way, autobiographical in a different way than most of his other work. Pete would fight back tears late in the poem as he read, but then look up smiling once he’d made it through another reading.
Old School Timmy
Hi my name’s Timmy Archibald and I’m seven
going on eight and you’re invited to my
birthday party at Magic Lane Fun Center
this Saturday but leave your sissy parents
at home ’cause we’re bowling without those wimpy
little fences that block off the gutters so your
sensitive feelings won’t get hurt because
you’re too uncoordinated to roll a sparkly
eight-pound ball straight down the alley.
I’d rather bowl an honest seven than some pretend
sixty-three and if you cry for any
reason I’ll sock your shoulder so hard
you’ll really have something to cry about
we’re eating corn dogs and drinking Mountain Dew
and we’re putting seventy-five cents in
the condom machine in the men’s room even
if we have to stand on the garbage can
to do it let me tell you, show and
tell is gonna really be something on Monday.
If you’re a spazz I’m not picking you for my team at recess
go play four square with the girls
or tetherball by yourself, creep.
I don’t want fairy tales without kids
getting eaten I don’t want a trophy
for picking my nose in right field
I’m sure as hell not hitting a baseball
off a tee and if you crowd the plate
I’ll drill you just like my dad told me.
I can’t stand grownups who wear costumes
on Halloween and take pictures of every dumb thing
their rotten kids do. I can cross the street
by myself so don’t hold my hand I’m
almost eight for God’s sake.
My uncle told me back in the day
playgrounds had metal slides ten feet high
you could jump off and kids threw
dirt clods at each other real hard and
dogs would have fights like savage wild
animals and you could watch them have sex
and sometimes they’d end up stuck together
and you could ride in the open bed of a truck
or at least pack nine or ten kids in
a car all crazy like clowns at the circus.
Johnny’s mom is a piece of ass, that’s what
my dad says, I’m not sure what he means
but the other moms don’t like her at all she
bartends at TGIFriday’s where the
dads go to watch sports my mom works
at the daycare she hates my dad she
says he’s emotionally bankrupt he works
at the lumber yard but his back hurts a lot.
He can’t really play too much any more.
He mostly just watches TV.
He was a great bowler before I was born,
he has trophies and a smashed-up old pin
with 300 written on it and pictures of him
smiling with other guys all wearing shiny shirts
that say Al’s Refrigeration on them
they look really happy.
He’s pretty fat now
and has to take pills for his heart
he has a girlfriend she’s a hairdresser but
she usually comes over after I’m in bed
I hear them laughing then it’s quiet.
Once I heard him tell her I was a mistake.
Mom says she’s through with men the assistant
principal took her out a couple times she
says he’s a goddam toe-licking pervert.
Mom and Dad went to counseling before they split
and the time I went I drew
pictures of how I felt.
mostly they were of people
living deep underground.
I remember Mom cried real hard.
Dad just sat there, looking at his hands …
sometimes I wish I was invisible,
and no one would ever know I was there,
but I’d be there,
just kind of floating around, you know,
like a really nice ghost, or maybe just part of the air.
Pretty crazy, huh?
Anyway, the party’s at three,
no grown-ups allowed.
There will be a memorial for Peter McLaughlin at 3 p.m. on June 3, at 452 Palm St. in Santa Cruz.