The Captain was walking on 42nd Street. He was barefoot. I took him back to my apartment, and he took a shower. Then I gave him some money, as usual.
Another time I saw him asleep on a piece of cardboard near the Plaza Hotel. He jumped up and walked with me for a while
A few weeks later, I saw him again, up ahead of me on Fifth Avenue. This time he looked like a caveman. “I don’t want to deal with Gurley now,” he said.
Not long after that, he called me up, sounding great. He was in Bellevue.
I became friends with the Captain at the University of Kansas in 1988, when he moved downstairs from me in a big yellow house off campus. His real name was Ron and he liked to crank the Clash’s “Death or Glory” in the morning.
Once, at a cafe near campus, I hit him on the arm for telling a girl that I liked her, and the Captain picked up a squeeze bottle of ketchup and squirted it all over me.
Ron grew up in the upper-middle-class suburb of Mission Hills, Kan. At Shawnee Mission East High School, he played on the golf team (eight handicap). He got into the University of California at Berkeley. That lasted a year. Eventually, he failed out of the University of Kansas, too.
Then it was panhandling in Manhattan. Then it was Bellevue. Then six months with his parents in Kansas. Then back to Manhattan, back to Bellevue and back to Kansas again.
The worst came in July 1994. He was on the wrong medication when his mother picked him up at a mental hospital in Osawatomie, Kan., for a weekend leave. Ron went berserk on the highway. He grabbed the wheel and forced the car into the other lane. His mother was injured. The driver of the other car, a husband and father, was killed.
Ron told the police he was trying to kill himself. He was sentenced to two and a half years in a state hospital.
I’ve always appreciated his attitude, his way with people, his freedom to do nothing, to fail, to starve. He’s great company. Whenever I’m back in Lawrence, he’s the person I spend time with. He makes me laugh, and I buy him cigarettes, burgers, burritos, shaving cream, etc., until I end up getting pissed off at him.
He sent me an e-mail on Sept. 11 telling me he was in Aspen, Colo. “They don’t mind mountain men and campers but don’t put up with homeless people, loiterers and panhandlers,” he wrote. “I’m staying warm and have enough to eat.”
Six days later, I was there. “Dude, what’s up, man?” he said, greeting me at the bus station. He had all his stuff with him-minimal clothing, four books on wilderness survival, a pan, a sleeping bag, two blue tarps.
We walked out of the bus station and walked and walked until we reached some underbrush right by a bike route on the edge of town.
“We’re gonna be sleeping together, but we’re not faggots, O.K., Gurley?” he said.
The ground was rocky and uneven. The grass was wet. The temperature was about 30. I put on two hats, pants over sweat pants, and I got under the tarps right next to the Captain, who said he hadn’t taken a shower in a week and a half. He smelled. He just stank. At 1 A.M. I heard something. It was the Captain’s snore, a steady, rumbling, growling grunt with a wheeze thrown in. I slept maybe an hour that night.
The next day, we were on a bench in town-in Aspen’s Mall.
“A lot of people have warned me that the weather is going to get real cold soon,” the Captain said. “I’m probably going to build a snow cave.” Soon he was jabbering about getting a “sponsor,” maybe North Face, to provide him with a tent and a sleeping bag. And where did he get such an idea? “M.C. Hammer,” he said.
That bench in the Mall is where we spent most of our time when we weren’t simply walking around. Even though the Captain had something to say to almost everyone we passed (he said: “How’s it going?”; “What’s up?”; “How’s your night going?”; “Cowboys, huh?”; “What’d you do to your arm?”), it was really just the two of us.
At a Chinese restaurant one night, he talked about his ambitions. The “ultimate,” he said, would be to be promoted from Secretary of State to President on his 35th birthday, with the President and Vice President resigning. “Beats Kennedy as the youngest President in United States history,” he said. By age 40, he said, he’d like The New York Times to have recognized him as the greatest man who ever lived. After that he’d like to beat Methuselah as the “longest-to-have-lived human being”: 970 years old.
While he’s always liked Sigourney Weaver and Lisa Bonet, the woman he really wanted to marry was Jackie Onassis.
“That was a loss to me when she died. I was outside her apartment. For some reason that just kicked everything into high gear, just thinking about her. You ever have like a huge overwhelming desire for something, Gurley? That’s what I’m talking about. It’s like there was no way it could be stopped. I question myself sometimes, if it was ethical for me to want someone that bad, because there is no way she could say No.”
The Captain got his fortune cookie and smiled. He handed it to me. It read, You should be able to undertake and complete anything.
“Pretty good fortune, huh, Gurley? Anything .”
“The sky’s the limit,” said an eavesdroppping woman at the next table.
We slept under a trampoline that night in the backyard of a city-owned property by Roaring Fork River. In the morning, a guy in a cowboy hat, Steely, said he was the groundskeeper and that we would have to leave. We agreed, then got on top of the trampoline: I lit a joint, the Captain smoked a cigarette, and then we took a nap in the sun.
The next night, we spent on the floor of an apartment in Woody Creek. It belonged to Cameron, a 21-year-old clerk at the Texaco station, where the Captain mopped the floor on occasion in exchange for cigarettes.
Cameron had a wife named Rosie, and she was six months pregnant. The Captain and I stretched out on the floor, amid herbal remedy and pregnancy books, a remote-control fireplace, banana peels and half-eaten bowls of cereal. He snored happily all night. I suffered as Cameron, a few feet away, played violent video games from midnight until 6:30 A.M.
The next night was a little better. We were back outside, behind the Aspen Institute think tank. The Captain said he liked the fact that Nelson Mandela, Alan Greenspan and Henry Kissinger had been there to speak recently.
“I’d like to have those guys on my side, like Kissinger as an adviser,” he said.
By this time, the Captain had run out of his medication. He’d tried to get an appointment with various psychiatrists in Aspen and had even tried the hospital, but he couldn’t get any help.
I didn’t sleep much that night. When I woke up, I went into town and got a room. After a nap, I went back to the think tank and got the Captain. He hadn’t been sleeping well, either.
Later, I called Hunter S. Thompson, whom I had interviewed for this newspaper twice before, to see if he’d meet us for drinks. I asked him what he thought of the Captain’s plan to live homeless in Aspen.
“It’s a good way to get shot,” he said.
He said he would see us at the Woody Creek Tavern in 45 minutes.
At the tavern, the Captain and I ate a lot (meat loaf, cheeseburgers, fries, mashed potatoes), drank a lot (whisky for me, grapefruit juice for the Captain) and shot pool. A spunky lady came over and squeezed the Captain’s belly. “Any chance of me getting some of that?” she said.
Mr. Thompson never showed up. The Captain didn’t mind, saying that, while Mr. Thompson was a great guy, he was “just an author.” The Captain, on the other hand, was going to be “a statesman, businessman and movie star.” He said he expected to contribute more than the “top 40″ most significant human beings ever, including Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Hitler and Lincoln.
“And I want to make money for it,” he said. “The idea I’m tossing around right now is to be the world’s first trillionaire.”
I asked the Captain about delusions of grandeur.
“When Napoleon was 10 years old, dude, he could have seen a psychiatrist and could have told him, ‘I’m going to be ruler of the world, I’m going to be emperor of France,’ and they could have said, ‘That’s delusional thinking.'”
That night I got a room for both of us at the U.L.L.R. Lodge. I also began a small mission to persuade the Captain to leave Aspen and return to his parents (and his medication) in Kansas.
In the room, we had a channel-changing dispute. “The Captain is not a fan of Letterman,” he said, so we watched Jay Leno. Soon, he was snoring again, and I had to ask him to sleep in the lobby. The Captain urinated on the couch, and we got kicked out of the place the next morning.
The next night we were outdoors again, on the other side of West Main Street, at the base of Shadow Mountain. I said it looked like that mountain in Close Encounters of the Third Kind .
“Dude, can I make a request?” the Captain said, smoking in his sleeping bag. “Let’s not talk about anything even remotely scary.”
Very soon after that, he was snoring, and I looked over my knees and saw something-a fox. I freaked out a little bit, waking the Captain, and the fox ran away.
“Something tells me Gurley wasn’t made for camping out,” said the Captain.
The fox came back and sniffed my head. Later, it pounced on my feet. “Please leave me alone!” I said.
I left at 4:30 A.M. and went to wait for the Christmas Inn to open.
While I was gone, two Aspen police officers discovered the Captain. “This is no place for people without a place,” he was told. “You think these people with their million-dollar houses want to look at you?”
Later on, over at the Christmas Inn, the Captain settled into bed, continuing a 17-hour sleep. By doing so, he slept through an interview he had lined up for a dishwashing job. I was jumping on his bed and screaming at him to get up, but it did no good. The Captain didn’t want that job.
That afternoon, I was high, hanging out in the sun, and very bored. Laurie, the lady at the front desk, was wearing a tight, hot black number. She looked maybe 10 years older than me, around 40 years old or so. “Anything you need done?” I asked her. She said I could mow the lawn with a push mower.
I got right to work pushing that thing. After I was done, Laurie said the Captain could have a room of his own and she offered me two kinds of beer. I chose the pale ale and was starting to get nervous, in a great way. Now I was in the bedroom of her little hotelier’s apartment. Then her kitchen.
“So why don’t you come over here?” I said.
“It’s very flattering but …” I saw her smile and heard the dreadful “boyfriend”-as in, “I have a boyfriend and I love him very much.” Eventually, I gave up. All right, I probably took it too far. I was persistent. But I did give up at some point.
Some time later, with the Captain still asleep on the bed in my room, a guy appeared in the doorway. He was a regular, nice-looking, large Midwestern man. He was thick. His arms were thick, his hands were thick. He looked like he did some kind of physical work for a living.
“Are you George?”
“Can you lay off Laurie? She was getting kind of upset.”
“Oh, that’s bad. That’s bad. That is so bad of me. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry.”
The Captain was awake. “Dude,” he said to me. “That was very uncool.”
With the Captain disapproving of me, I decided I had to apologize to Laurie. But Laurie and the boyfriend were gone, having left a note on the door. Paranoia struck. Was she getting the police? So I went upstairs in a panic, found my drugs and flushed them down the toilet.
Next I sat outside in the driveway, waiting for Laurie or the cops or both. A Domino’s delivery guy showed up with a pizza for Laurie. I paid for it, thinking, This’ll smooth things over. An hour passed, and I decided to turn in my room key (I had already paid for the room). The Captain and I hauled our stuff across the street to another motel.
“Dude, this is a very classy thing to do, leaving,” the Captain said. Then he suggested I should write Laurie a letter of apology.
I felt better. The Capatin was letting me off the hook, giving me the papal dispensation, absolving me.
I treated him to another big fancy Mexican dinner, and the Captain agreed to let me buy him a bus ticket back to Lawrence. I handed him the $140. He was in a much better mood than he’d been in the past two days.
“Dude, I’ve never lived like this,” he said. “This is great.”
He arrived in Lawrence, Kan., two days later.