It was 1997 and I was mostly drunk most of the time. Drugged too, but mostly I was drunk and mostly I did it alone. But not always. There was Herman, after all.
Herman had moved to town a few months previous, having taken a truck driving job for a local hauling contractor. I met him when he came into the auto parts store, and we hit it off immediately. If you were fond of laughing, you could only like Herman. He was one of the funniest people I’d ever met, and humor was something I desperately needed in my life at that time. I was fucked up, half-starved, and very Generation X. That is, I was morose, lazy, and disgusted with everything you could put on a list. Suicide was like a thirsty mosquito buzzing in my ear, and I was tired of constantly shooing it away.
So it was good to have Herman around. He possessed an infinite supply of ridiculous, hilarious stories that he’d accumulated from his varied travels in life. Whether these stories were truthful or not didn’t rank as a matter of importance to me. Herman made me laugh, and hanging around with him was good for my soul. He was also, like me, an enthusiastic alcoholic with a particular taste for vodka. After I helped Herman acquire an apartment next door to my own, the local package store frequently ran out of 100 Proof Smirnoff. Hanging with Herman may have been good for my soul, but it didn’t do any favors for my liver.
Herman was, I think, fifty-nine years old at the time--although he confessed that he was unsure of his own birth date. He was tall, lanky and black. Really black. In point of fact, Herman was one of only two black people in the entire town. In small-town southern Indiana, that made him about as black as humanly possible. Predictably, the very white local townspeople hadn’t welcomed him with open arms and offers of friendship. I never heard Herman complain of any outright hostility directed toward him--his large physical stature probably discouraged all of that. But I saw the dark frowns on people’s faces when his back was turned. And I heard the growls and murmurings, which usually went something like this: “Fuckin’ Mexicans were bad enough, now we got niggers movin’ in.”
Well. I’d never liked the locals much anyway.
Even if the local racists had summoned the courage to curse Herman to his face, the odds are that they couldn’t have gotten a word in with him. This was a man who existed to communicate with others, and he was unwaveringly dedicated to his calling. As much as I adored the crazy bastard, his stream-of-consciousness jabbering did tend to wear me out after a few hours. If Herman had been a painting, he would have talked. If he’d been a stone or a bedpost he would have talked. Silence played no role in Herman’s life. Indeed, I don’t think he’d ever heard of the concept.
I am a quiet creature by nature, so I did a lot of listening. This was fine in the early evening, when Herman was sharing funny anecdotes and feeling mellow. But as the night wore on and the two of us consumed greater amounts of liquor, things would usually get more serious. Herman would begin complaining about all of his troubles in life, and he kept a long checklist of them in his head. First, he would usually complain about his lousy no-future job, which was a topic I could easily relate to. Likewise, I could sympathize with his complaints concerning money, and his general lack of it. But then he would move on to the world of his five ex-wives (!) and the large assortment of estranged children he had scattered across the Midwest. This was all foreign territory to me, the far-fetched stuff of movies and novels. I pretended to listen, nodded my head agreeably, and drank more vodka. Herman would go on an on, describing his many fuckups and regrets, and I would feel a little better about myself and my life. Friends should do that for each other.
Herman called me “Tricky” most of the time. It was my nickname. Everyone who lived in Herman’s world received a nickname.
“Tricky,” he would often say to me, “you a helluva man. Fo’ real. You always here whenever I need someone to talk to. Boy, I appreciate it.”
“Anything left to smoke?” I would ask.
Herman’s oldest son worked in a UPS distribution center somewhere. Every now and then, a nondescript brown box would land on Herman’s doorstep, and it would be stuffed full of green goodness. And these weren’t small boxes. Sometimes the kid even sent rolling papers in his care packages. I never asked Herman if his son, shall we say, supplemented his UPS salary with additional income.
Our friendship only became truly strained when the TV was on. Herman loved television, practically worshipped it. At that point in my life, I could hardly stand to watch it. I enjoyed movies and cartoons sometimes, but most of the programming on TV made me feel nauseous. I didn’t like sports, sitcoms, the news, or dramas about doctors, lawyers and policemen. I detested Letterman, Leno, Stern, Tom Brokaw, David Duchovny, OJ Simpson, Cindy Crawford, Michael Jordan, Bill and Hillary, and especially all those maddening dumbass commercials. When I watched TV, I felt as if the screen were assaulting me. Television was selling a bogus product, a bullshit vision of the American lifestyle, and I didn’t like the way it manipulated my emotions. My emotions were muddled enough already.
But it was important to Herman that we do our male bonding while watching TV, so I went along with it. It was normally a low-key affair, the two of us drunk and stoned and staring at the magic entertainment box. Sometimes I wondered how my life had come to such a state, but then I would take another drink and say to hell with it. And if that didn’t work, I would take yet another drink and say fuck it.
One Monday evening, this vegetative scenario was violently interrupted. We were watching professional wrestling. And let me tell you, watching pro wrestling with Herman was entertaining. He got into it, stomping and howling and cursing and cheering. When we watched wrestling, the whole neighborhood knew about it. And if Hulk Hogan was wrestling? Forget about it. Herman would be on his feet for the entire match, punching and jabbing and shaking his ass like a high school cheerleader. The Hulkster was his man, his hero. The "Real American," the Superman of wrestling.
But on this particular night, Hulk Hogan was different. He came to the ring wearing black clothing instead of his trademark yellow and red. His familiar Fu Manchu moustache was now set off with black beard stubble. The audience was booing him, and Hogan sneered arrogantly at them.
Herman looked at me, frowning and bewildered. “Tricky, what the hell…?”
I shrugged in my ignorance, having no idea what was going on. Clearly, we had missed last week’s episode. Or more likely, we had been too fucked up to remember it.
Herman was aghast as Hulk Hogan, the archetypal wrestling good guy, grabbed a microphone and informed everyone watching that we were looking at the new Hulk Hogan. “Hollywood” Hogan had arrived. Hogan told us that he and his gang, the New World Order, would rule wrestling forever. “And to all you fans out there,” he declared, “you can stick it!” Presumably, up our asses.
I laughed, and I laughed hard. Much like Anakin Skywalker, the Hulkster had succumbed to the Dark Side. Hollywood Hogan. This was funny shit.
Herman did not laugh. On the contrary, his drunken bloodshot eyes blazed with a fury that was frightening. I had seen Herman angry before, but this was something different. This was betrayal. Fully enraged, he leaped forward and shouted, “YOU NO-GOOD SORRY SON OF A BITCH!!!”
My poor old second-hand television never had a prayer. Herman kicked the screen dead center with his steel-toed work boot. The TV bounced off the wall, hit the floor, and belched out a quick, wretched death. A long jagged crack had formed across the darkened screen. In a matter of seconds, my apartment was filled with that distinctive fried-electronics odor. The stench lingered for a couple of days afterward.
Had I been sober, I probably would have leaped to my feet in alarm or outrage, something along those lines. But sober I was not, so I just stared down at my demolished television and thought about what an unusual evening this was turning out to be. I’d never seen anyone attack a television set before. Except, y’know, on TV.
Herman stood in the center of my living room for a time, staring at the wall, trembling and seething. I heard him mumble something to the effect of, “Even you, Hulk Hogan.” And I’m sure I heard a “motherfucker” and another “son of a bitch” in there somewhere.
I think my friend Herman had abandonment issues. Just a hunch.
Eventually, he cooled off and looked at me. The rage was gone, and now there was sadness and regret in his eyes. He looked down at my savaged television as if he were seeing it for the first time. “Aw no! Aw shit. Tricky, I’m sorry, boy. Damn, I’m sorry.”
“Herman,” I said, somewhat shell-shocked, “you just drop-kicked my fuckin’ TV. What the hell, man?”
He plopped onto the couch again, bent over and put his head in his hands. “C’mon Lord, I can’t believe I done that. I’m sorry, Tricky. Oh, I’m sorry. It just, I dunno, I dunno. Lord, my sorry ass, shit!”
It went something like that. And it went on for a minute or two. The whole display was so pitiful that I felt guilty for even mentioning that he’d destroyed my television. I felt guilty, if that makes any sense.
“It’s all right, Herman,” I finally said. “Don’t worry about it, man. It was an old TV anyway. No big deal.”
Sitting up straight and slowly shaking his head, Herman looked at me again. The grief in his face was, in my opinion, quite out of proportion to the circumstances at hand. But I also realized that, under the surface, we were no longer just dealing with Hulk Hogan’s new black tights and a broken television set. There was something bigger and nastier than that in the room with us. Neither of us was going to look it in the eye, but it was there.
“I’ll buy you a new one, Tricky,” Herman sighed, his voice gravelly with emotion. “I got to. Okay?”
I knew that would never actually happen, so I let it go. “Okay.”
I reached over and clicked on the radio, and then we drank some more. Sometime later that night, one of us unplugged the TV and set it on the front porch. I don’t remember doing it myself, but I may have. And soon after, I found another cheap used TV. Herman didn’t offer to pay for it, and I wouldn’t have accepted his money in any case.
Less than two years later Herman quietly skipped town, leaving behind a considerable number of angry bill collectors. The last time I saw him was around Christmas 1998. I was doing a stint in court-ordered drug and alcohol rehab, living in a halfway house and wondering how in hell anyone could withstand sobriety. Herman came to visit me one weekend. He greeted me with a huge smile and a crushing hug. It was damned good to see him.
Herman danced around, squeezing the air from my lungs and slapping my back affectionately. “Tricky!”
I laughed and savored the smell of liquor on his breath. “How ya been, Hollywood?”
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