05 November 2014

The Biggest Square I Ever Met -- Remembering an Old Friend's Uncle Earl

My friend Carl had an Uncle Earl who actually used to hang around with us when we were kids. I can’t tell you why. It’s not like he was baby sitting Carl and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t a pedophile, he was just around all the time.

When I was about 13 years old Earl was maybe 40, 45. It’s hard to tell exactly how old a grown up is when you’re still a kid. Earl lived alone in a little apartment in El Cerrito. We were in Berkeley which is the next town over. Uncle Earl — we all called him that, he kind of liked it — was single and for all I know was gay before it was acceptable. I kind of doubt it though because he was always looking at women and there wasn’t anything effeminate about him. He had short, dark slicked back hair. He must have put a pound of hair cream in his scalp everyday. His face was tanned and wrinkly not the least bit handsome but not exactly ugly either. He was kind of short for an adult and skinny as hell. Earl was the most average dresser you ever saw to the extent that I can't tell you what he ever wore except that it was ordinary. Actually I do remember that he wore a windbreaker. Didn't matter if it was freezing cold or burning hot, he had on this tan windbreaker zipped to to the top. Kinda weird.

Uncle Earl chain smoked Tareyton cigarettes. He was always sipping a coffee, a coke or a beer depending upon the time of day. I can’t recall ever seeing Earl without a drink in his hand except when he was driving and even then he might have a beverage. Speaking of the car, Earl drove this old beat up Oldsmobile. He used to brag about how well it ran and how much better it was than those "fruity foreign makes that everyone raves about." I remember the interior of his car stunk of stale cigarette smoke. There was always junk on the floor of the car and the exterior always looked ready for a wash.

Earl was always around, like I said. My friends and I hung out a lot at Carl’s house because he had a big backyard and lived near the school. I guess Earl had a job but I don’t know what it was. If I had to guess I’d say plumber or mechanic. It seemed like he always had dirt under his fingernails and I know he often fixed stuff at Carl’s house. Earl used to always ask us the same stuff like how are day was and if we had girlfriends yet and what we thought of the Giants or Cal’s football team. He kind of spoke sarcastically to us like we were just dumb kids, but then again he did seem genuinely interested in our answers. He always shared his dumb opinion on sports and you could tell he was just repeating what he read in the sports pages. I knew ‘cause by that time I was reading the sports section front to back. Earl’s comments were kind of annoying but he was an adult so there wasn’t much we could do about it. The worst was when he made fun of “that so-called music” us “nutty kids” listened to. Ole Earl thought that the Beatles and all the other popular rock groups of the day were nothing but a lot of noise and that we would eventually grow out of liking them. I could never figure out why he cared what we listened to. Oh and another thing he did that chapped my hide was to always tell us that we needed haircuts. This was in the late Sixties and everybody was growing their hair out. Earl was the kind of grown up who was somehow offended by hair covering ears. And you never wanted to let him get started on hippies or the peace movement. He'd give you an earful on what bums they were "especially those damn dirty beatnik types." Earl had to be as square a guy as anyone ever met.

The nice thing was that Earl would sometimes take us to a ballgame. He’d never spring for the tickets but was always good for buying everyone a coke. Carl and I knew more about baseball than Earl and it was irritating that he was always offering dumb opinions -- mostly negative things about the Giants. He was even worse at Cal football games. Cal was really bad in those days and Earl was always yelling at how awful number 27 or number 80 was. He never bothered to remember or learn anyone’s name. Same with the Giants. Other than the big stars like Mays he couldn't barely remember anyone's name. I was pretty sure that Earl wasn't a smart man and looking back I see no way he could have gone to college. I doubt he ever read anything besides the newspapers and maybe TV Guide.

The one thing Earl knew a lot about was horse racing. He was always going over to Golden Gate Fields or Bay Meadows and betting a wad of dough. “I love to play the ponies,” he said like a zillion times. I think Earl won big and lost big in equal amounts. I don’t remember him ever coming back from the tracks talking about breaking even. Earl said he bet using his gut although didn't mind getting what he called insider information from some guys he knew who worked at the tracks.

As I got into high school I started doing different things and kind of drifted away from Carl and that whole gang, we still saw each other and were friendly but my days of hanging out at his house were over. This, of course meant I wouldn’t be seeing his Uncle Earl anymore. The truth is that I never gave his Uncle Earl another thought during high school after the last time I saw him at Carl’s house. Somehow I remember it pretty clearly too. Earl didn’t greet me like he usually did. He was just sitting on the backstairs smoking a cigarette and staring off into space. I give him a weak sort of “hi” and he barely looked up and just nodded his head. I had a lot of other things on my mind and was sure as hell not going to give Earl’s unusual behavior a second thought. Grown ups were a different race as far as I was concerned and were beyond comprehension.

Four years later I graduated high school and a few months after that I was off to college. The first time I came home was for Thanksgiving. I got together with a friend the day after and went to a movie downtown. When we came out of the theater I saw Carl who was likewise in town from college. We chatted for a little while and had already wished each other well when for some reason I thought to ask: “hey, how’s your Uncle Earl doin’?” I hadn’t though of Earl in probably five years and it was a miracle that he popped into my mind.

Carl frowned and slowly shook his head. He paused about five seconds before telling me that Earl had committed suicide a few years back. Just got into a hot tub and slit his wrists with a razor. Nobody found him for like a week owing to his lack of friends. Earl hadn’t left a note or anything so no one knew the reason. I felt bad and let Carl know how sorry I was. Carl said it was okay and water under the bridge and all. I thought about Earl for a minute or so but was distracted by my friend and our catching up on things.

Over the years I’ve thought of Earl sporadically. Sometimes it’ll be because of a reference to horse racing, other times I’ll see a guy who looks like he did or I’ll see some poor sap outside smoking. For some reason a ham sandwich will remind of me. Don’t ask me why, maybe cause Earl said how much he liked 'em once or something. I was reminded of him the other day when I heard a fan at a Cal game yelling at a player just like he used to do. It was then I realized that I was almost certainly older than Earl ever got to  be. That felt weird for a minute but then I realized that’s the way of life. Old Uncle Earl, what a character.

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