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Al Billings


by Al Billings

My friend Mike Doran possessed an intense curiosity. Bright, and driven by his interests, he displayed a relentless drive, yet he had not found focus in his search for his deepest passions. Like any number of Irish-Americans I’ve known, he was quick with the jokes, and given to cackling madly when pleased with his own brilliance, Batman’s Joker at large among the ignorant. After protracted explorations in search of his intellectual destiny, he discovered the world of alternate spirituality. Mike became New Age when New Age wasn’t cool.

We were in our early 20’s then, and pleasantly full of ourselves. Once Mike discovered his true destiny, his personal cosmology burst into brilliant bloom. He bought tarot cards and astrology magazines by the dozens. He considered becoming a Rosecrucian, and through the mail, he purchased strange electrical gizmos that attached to the scalp that were said to invigorate the brain. I wasn’t sure about Mike’s proclivities, but what the hell; I was regularly dosing myself with very strong LSD. In the spirit of the times, we were all searching for something we couldn’t easily explain. I’d read in some Jack Kerouac novel that the Manhattan hipsters used to buy Paregoric, a tincture of opium and alcohol used to ease ulcer pains. Mike’s dad had a small bottle of it stashed away in a kitchen cabinet. We snuck the bottle out of the house, and following Kerouac’s advice, we dipped a few cigarettes in it and let them dry and then lit up. For our troubles, we caught a minute buzz, and hell from Mike’s dad. (I offer here an overdue apology to the late Bud Doran, Mike’s father, who understood the marvelous depth of our collective stupidity.)

Mike soon branched out into the world of health food. He discovered a small shop in downtown San Bernardino that sold a wide array of organic products. Mike decided that carrot juice was the cure for all major health problems, and began guzzling bottles of it on a daily basis, and he’d call me and ask me to drive him to the health food store when he needed to resupply. Within two weeks he’d managed to turn his nose and earlobes bright orange from Carotene poisoning. The clerk at the health food store suggested that he back off for a few weeks.

Mike eventually began to contact local psychics and fortune tellers, hoping to further his investigations. I think he found a few old gypsies here and there, but he struck gold when he discovered a genuine clairvoyant living in San Bernardino. Mike called her, booked a session, and then grandly paid for my wife and I to also have our destinies revealed.

So we presented ourselves to Lady Rose Sutton. She ran her operation out of a two-bedroom apartment, one of those classic southern California lath-and-plaster boxes that passed for housing, surrounded by deceased rose bushes and a nearly dead patch of lawn near the cracked sidewalk.

Lady Rose looked to be in her 80’s, and she appeared to be both tottery and nearly deaf. We seated ourselves on a couch in her office, beneath a vast photo collection signed by long-dead silent screen actors, Clara Bow, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and actors we could not identify. Judging from her photos, she was uncommonly beautiful in her younger days, but we couldn’t grasp it. All we knew about the 20’s was supplied to us through jittering silent movie clips featuring actors comically fast-forwarding through stilted scenes, and we failed to understand the sensuality and outrageous permissiveness that saturated those times.

We understood that Lady Rose had once been at the top of her game, and had lived the lavish lifestyle that came with it, but it was obvious that a good fifty years or more had passed between her days of fame and glory and the circumstances that she now found herself in. We could see that when her star had finally toppled, she suffered a long and painful fall to the bottom. She was assisted by her daughter, June, a lady in her 60’s, wearing a jeweled turban, and obviously bald. They were both sweet and friendly, and desperately needed money. I would venture to guess that Lady Rose was surviving on Social Security benefits and the few bucks she scraped up from her business. San Bernardino had grown tough; her neighborhood was gradually surrendering to heroin dealers and burglars.

Lady Rose took each of us aside individually, peered into her crystal ball and revealed our fortunes. I remembered none of it, because the entire episode was beginning to give me cold chills and a sense of profound hopelessness. Lady Rose asked us to return the next morning, and in order to convince us to do so, she promised that something spectacular would take place.

So we reluctantly returned to Lady Rose’s apartment. Burdened with a sense of dread and mistrust, we really wanted to leave, but we wavered. June met us at the door and ushered us back to Lady Rose’s office, asked us to wait for a few minutes and disappeared through drawn curtains. We could hear a commotion emitting from the back room, a mysterious shuffling and thumping. And suddenly, Lady Rose burst though the curtains, wearing a fantastic silver gown that must have set her back a small fortune back in the day, an explosion of sequins, spangles and feathers. She’d draped herself with a large American flag. June bent over to assist, and her turban fell off, revealing her bald head.

Lady Rose stood proud and erect, and began to explain to us that she had a new plan to save America from it’s downfall, a rambling, near-senile babble entirely lacking coherence. Gathering the flag over her shoulders, she proclaimed that we’d buy a limousine, rent vast concert halls and set off across America, taking the country back from the various unseen forces that now threatened it. We were stunned by Lady Rose’s near insanity. We eventually extricated ourselves and drove away. Back in the car, I shot Mike a look, and we all burst out laughing.

I’ve shared this story many times, to great comic effect. And on the simplest level, I suppose it is. Back in the late 1940’s, a banjo player named Uncle Dave Macon had become one of the most famous and successful performers in all of country music, picking, singing, laughing, playing the clown and entertaining everyone around him. One night, a young man named Earl Scruggs walked on stage and let loose a blizzard of bluegrass banjo rolls, the likes of which most people had never heard. Earl’s playing revolutionized bluegrass music. Uncle Dave was standing behind the curtain, watching Earl, and like Lady Rose Sutton, he could clearly see the impending demise of his own career. He turned to someone and remarked “He ain’t one damned bit funny!”

January 23, 2011 6:33 pm

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