Friday, October 3, 1997
BETWEEN THE TIME I first met my friend Cameron, almost four years ago, and the time he died, at 1 am yesterday morning, he had alienated the better portion of the people I ever knew him to be acquainted with, as well as gotten himself 86'ed out of almost every decent bar in the city of Bellingham. Cam was a larger than life character, a 6' 3" swaggering ball of destructive energy who consistently unsettled and occasionally even scared almost anyone who didn't know him well - especially when he'd been without sleep for about two days and was ambulatory (if not exactly awake) only with the aid of the combination of whatever chemicals he'd come across in his meanderings. Such as he was at 1 am yesterday morning, when the last bartender who ever poured him a drink led him out to the back patio of the last bar he ever drank in.
Cam was a prodigious drunk and a prodigious drug abuser. Most people I knew saw his path through life as little more than a slow motion car crash, and kept their distance from him, not wanting to be around when the wreckage started flying. I was one of a few who believed there was something more than that to Cam - I don't know, I may have been wrong. But since the people who knew him as a friend were far fewer than those who were acquainted with him solely as a spectacle, I wanted to talk about him here.
I remember a few months ago, I can't recall what movie it was, but a few of us were at a midnight screening at the $2 theater - which is a big old place downtown that shows 2nd run movies, a very cool theater. Cam had called me earlier in the evening about getting together. Since nights with Cameron usually involved getting blind drunk and spending too much money, and I wasn't in that particular mood, I declined - obsequiously inviting him along to the movie, if he cared to come, knowing inwardly that sitting still in the dark for an hour and a half with attention focused was opposed to everything Cam was about.
So me and five friends were sitting there in the theater, 20 or 30 minutes into the movie, my friends (but not myself) bright eyed and giggly, having sparked up a couple of hoovers right before the flick, when a voice rolls through the darkness: "MICHAEL KIRBY."
Five stoned pairs of eyes snapped sideways at me, big as saucers.
"Cam!" I called out.
Five stoned pairs of eyes silently asked, "WHAT - ARE - YOU - DOING?"
And Cam appeared in the aisle, lumbered in front of, over and across five stoned pairs of eyes, big as saucers, and myself, and then all 6'3" of him swayed, tipped over and collapsed at once straight into the seat next to me. The guy in the seat behind yelled, "AAOOWW!!", and jerked his foot back from its position against the back of Cam's chair.
Cam turned to me calmly and said, "hey, dude" - then sat still in the dark, with attention focused, for the remainder of the movie.
AFTER THE MOVIE, we walked over to the Cyclone Cafe - myself and Cam, and my five friends, trailing at a cautious distance and with a wary eye. After we put our name on the waiting list for a table, my friends fell into some sort of stoned negotiations out front, and Cam suggested he and I wait in the bar.
I am at a bit of a loss to convey the character with which Cam the barfly could conduct the ritual of ordering and drinking his liquor. "Drinking on a professional level" was the phrase he always used. As in, "Cam, whatcha doing tonight, man?" "Oh, not much... just drinking on a professional level."
At the bar, Cam cocked an eyebrow at the bartender and delivered a line: "I'd like a Jack and Coke for myself, and a beer for my attorney here" (a nod to Hunter S. Thompson, there; it was something we called each other constantly.) Then, in quick succession:
1.) Bartender puts cocktail glass on bar, in front of Cam, with ice;
2.) Bartender pours Jack Daniels into glass and tops off with Coke;
3.) Bartender turns to get beer glass and beer from the fridge behind him;
4.) Bartender puts glass in front of me and fills to lip with beer; and
5.) Cameron slams his empty cocktail glass on counter and says to the bartender, "I'd like another Jack and Coke, please - and one for my attorney here."
The second round came, Cam chugged down his second cocktail, and immediately started eyeing mine - his silent way of saying I wasn't drinking it fast enough - when we hadn't even been there long enough for me to get more than three good draws off my FIRST drink. Just then, one of my friends stuck his head in from the front and said that they had decided they didn't want to eat there after all. I took 2 gulps from my beer, Cam knocked back the Jack and Coke he'd ordered for me in one gulp, and we walked out. Cam eyed me and said, "Mike - you're fired." To which I gave the stock reply - "yeah, we'll see what happens next time you need quality legal representation." Total time to arrive, drain three cocktails, make witty repartee, and leave: less than two and a half minutes.
The above aside, what I really wanted to write about was what happened on the walk home that night. It was a small incident, but for me it illustrates who Cameron was - the sort of thing that really sums up what he was like to be with.
Leaving the movie, Cam had told me he was cold sober. I didn't press him for details, but if I had to guess I'd have said at that moment that "cold sober" meant five or six beers and a tab of ecstasy. At any rate, as we walked through Bellingham Center fairgrounds he was cogent and collected enough that my friends, though still wary, had at least become comfortable enough to walk side by side with us instead of keeping a safety buffer. The exit from Bellingham Center was in sight when we passed a security guard, standing about 30 feet away.
Cam cheerfully called out, "Good evening officer! How are you tonight!" (my friends' eyes opened wide again, fearing - rightly - that the element of chaos was once more about to enter their lives.)
And the guard pleasantly called back: "I'm good. What are you up to?"
Cam again, as cheerfully as possible: "Oh, nothing much - we're just talking about some cum-guzzling ho-bags."
Thirty feet away, the guard's face registered total incomprehension - not of what the words meant, I think, so much as of the fact that they were said at all. "WHAT??"
"Oh, I just said" - big smile here - "we're talking about some cum-guzzling ho-bags!"
And the guard froze for a moment... then broke into a grin and chuckled. "OK! Have a good night!" And we walked home.
A small incident, but it was vintage Cameron. Funny, chaotic, crude as hell, a little scary, and, in a unique way, pretty charismatic. That's how I'm always going to remember him.
LISTEN, I WANT TO TELL you the fundamental truth about Cam: He didn't have a malicious bone in his body. Even those who wanted nothing to do with him would concede that fundamentally, he was a good person. "I don't dislike the guy, I just don't want him around" was a sentiment I heard more than once (particularly from any friends who, say, owned or rented any property.) He was witty, ingenuous, and, in his own way, charming. He loved music, and though very few people knew it, he was a quite passable guitarist - his playing was unrefined, but he seemed to have a sensitive ear, and improvised with feeling.
Now, don't get me wrong. In addition to the arguably rational fear he inspired in people simply by being 6'3", lumbering, pale as death, swaggering drunk and clearly wired to the gills, it is a fact that chaos did follow Cam around.
No, it didn't just follow him around - he led it, on a leash. This was the guy who pissed off both me and the friend on whose couch I was staying by pounding on the door at 5 am, waking me up, to offer me some crank - and then justified it by telling me, "Hey, man, I could not think of ANY BETTER thing to do at five in the morning than some high quality methamphetamines!" This is the guy who once showed up at my place and without knocking walked in on me and my girlfriend, smack dab in the middle of sex, then stared stupidly before shutting the door for just long enough to make her uncomfortable (glazed over, I later found out, from over two days without sleep), and then, once she had dressed and left, hit me up for a $30 loan.
I remember once he got into a drunken argument with some unwitting barfly, over a topic which I can't recall but which somehow culminated in him standing up in his seat and bellowing, "EXCUSE ME, SIR, I USE HEROIN - BOTH IN AND OUTSIDE OF CHURCH!", scaring the hell out of rest of the otherwise quiet bar. Even when he wasn't doing anything quite so memorable, Cameron the barfly knew nothing of reason or moderation. Not content with just buying you a drink, he'd line up 6 shots of whiskey in front of you - then, when you had finished three of them, would line up 6 more.
Suffice it to say, nothing about Cam was discreet. But for all the chaos, the thoughtlessness, and the occasional carnage he caused, Cam never intentionally targeted the people around him. I believe it was all almost incidental - not destruction aimed at those around him, so much as spillover into his surroundings of destruction aimed primarily at himself.
The magnitude of Cameron's self-destructive habits was unbelievable, staggering. In the period of time I lived with him, in the months after we first met, he would frequently come home from a long night, stone drunk, late in the morning - sometimes late in the afternoon. "Dude," he would say, before collapsing, "I'm toast." I once watched him sit for 2 hours, in the small hours of the morning, pale and quaking with coke-induced paranoia of imagined cops lurking behind every corner; then he hopped into a cab at 5:45 am to make opening call at his favorite bar. One night, several months ago, I left him nodding out on heroin on a friend's couch, then later that same night got a voicemail message from him saying he had just been up snorting some speed, and then, when I called the next day, was told by his girlfriend that she last saw him at 8 o'clock that morning dropping ecstasy. All this within the span of 12 hours! Cam seemed philosophically opposed to stopping before the money was all spent and the drugs were all used up - which in some cases was long after the body had fatigued and the intellect dulled.
If any demons haunted Cameron, egged him on to his stratospheric heights of excess, I never knew about them. In four years of friendship I never heard him express a doubt or a fear. He never exhibited sadness, alienation or frustration - just a colossal propensity for getting very, very fucked up. Basically, he's left us all, his friends, without ever having given a hint as to why he was so driven to do the things that killed him.
CAM'S BODY WAS FOUND doubled over at the bottom of a stairwell outside his apartment building. In the four months previous he had been to the emergency room twice that I'm aware of, both times complaining about his heart or chest after doing street drugs.
He had been drinking at a bar adjacent to his building's property when he started complaining to the bartender that he couldn't breathe. Paramedics were called. Cam was led to the back patio by the bar staff, who, if things went as they usually did with Cam, were scared by his huge frame and obviously drug-fueled shiftlessness, and wanted first and foremost to get him the hell away from the rest of the customers. I'm told he had been up for two days on cocaine and booze.
That was the last time anyone ever spoke to Cam, so I can only guess as to the reasons for what happened next. Perhaps it was panic. Unable to breathe, he responded to primal fear with a primal thought - escape! - and dug at the dirt under the back fence of the patio. Paranoia must have played a part, some cocaine-induced fear of horrible consequences were he to remain where he was or attempt to exit back through the bar. Either way, he burrowed under the fence, came up into the parking lot of his building, stumbled to an exterior stairwell, fell, doubled over, and died. I consider it a suicide.
He hasn't been gone long enough for me to miss him yet. Past experience has taught me that that will come later, the first time something happens I know he would appreciate, the first time I have something I want to tell him and he won't be there to hear. Right now, I'm so fucking angry at him. I wish he was around for one more day so I could wring his fucking neck.
Cam occasionally talked about going to maritime college in California, and visiting me in San Francisco if I moved there. He wanted to own a bar someday. Shortly before his death, he was offered a job at Boeing, and had landed some high paying salvage work that earned him a couple of grand in a few weeks. He had bought some new shoes and clothes. He was learning to make sushi. I imagined that someday my attorney Cam and I would be 40 or 50, sitting around somewhere laughing about the old days, amazed and jubilant at having somehow survived them.
Ultimately, Cam completely betrayed the faith I placed in him. I defended that son of a bitch to those who belittled him and stood by him as a friend when I could. When he wasn't fucked up he was genial and funny, and a good friend. When everyone else wrote him off as just a drunk drug fiend, a junkie, and nothing more, I was there for the man buried deep underneath whom only I believed was there - and whom I was sure with the support of a good friend would eventually come to the surface so all could see his value as a person. I've never been so fucking let down in my life.
I'd like to think that the drugs weren't what killed him, but were rather a symptom of what killed him. But junkie is as junkie does - or as junkie dies, right? I honestly don't even know. This bleak logic is an attempt to impose sense on the senseless, and in the final analysis all that remains is the simple fact that Cam both lived and died senselessly.
BACK IN THE SUMMER OF '95, Cameron invited me to spend a week with his family at their timeshare in Port Aransas, Texas, right on the gulf of Mexico. We spent a week sportfishing and drinking Shiner Bock beer, and I got to see Cameron in the unusual context of his family - not Cameron the sketchy late-night caller or Cameron the swaggering barfly, but Cameron the brother and son. A pretty conventional bunch, Cam stuck out like a sore thumb but somehow also fit right in.
Now, when the whole clan got together to fry up the day's catch, it was as loud and noisy a bunch as you'd imagine family of Texans could be, largely due for once not to Cameron but to four or five screaming kids which his older sister had brought in tow. There were two or three of her own, plus like one friend each, all between the ages of six and eleven, and hellbent on disrupting whatever reserves of peace or sanity the poor woman could hope to muster. So, you'd try to have a conversation with her, and she was like: "Well, we - KEVIN, STOP PULLING ON THE DRAPES! - anyway, like I was saying, we were - JANEY! DON'T JUMP ON THE COUCH! - anyway..." and so on and so forth.
So, Cameron leaves, saying he's gonna get some ice for the drinks. And he's gone, like, 45 minutes... and everyone's wondering, "Where's Cam?" And I'm thinking to myself, Oh, no, Cam, what are you doing this time?
The kids are getting hungry but dinner's not quite ready yet, so they're running around and yelling, there's a Jim Carrey movie on the television, mom's getting exasperated... when back in the door comes Cameron. He's holding a brown paper bag. And he proclaims, over the maelstrom, "Hey, Sis," - now he's got the attention of the whole room - "when I saw your trouble with the kids, I knew exactly what the situation called for."
Everyone quiets down... Cam calls the kids over. Then he opens the bag, and with a huge grin on his face, hands each of the kids a watergun.
NOTE: On the 8th anniversary of Cam's death, after much deliberation, I decided to change the name I used for him in this essay back to his real name. I had substituted a different name, as I do with everyone else mentioned on the site, but it bothered me every time I read it. It just didn't seem right. It made this feel too much like fiction. [See the original email this essay is from.]
[See the original email this essay is from.]