on the page magazine

issue no. 10, summer 2003


Plastic Jesus

by Jason George

A sunny, warm summer day is a rare find in San Francisco and this one finds me and Carp quite literally drinking it down. We're in his bright orange, rusted-out pickup truck, there are three bottles of Jim Beam rolling around the floor, and we're doing slow leisurely laps around the city. The last time we pulled this trick, the day culminated in Carp falling out of a tree when we pulled over somewhere in Twin Peaks so I could take a piss. The only thing I remember is running over to his contorted body, his face is twisted in pain, and he's moaning, "J! I'm broke! I'm broke!" We ended up spending the next sixteen hours in the E.R. with Carp on his back in neck traction while we waited for the results of his X rays. But to see us now, we're two happy sailors on a weekend pass, heedless to everything but the siren songs of the sun and the city. Because really, how can you learn a lesson from a day you can barely piece together?

Carp reaches down to the floor to grab a bottle of Beam. He's keeping a watchful eye on the road for cops, steering steadily with his left hand and unscrewing the cap off the bourbon with his right. All these easy movements suggest a sobriety he just can't be feeling. We've been at this for over an hour now and the first bottle is almost done. I know I'm getting pretty loaded at this point and he's drunk way more than me. With a casual swing, Carp brings the Beam to his lips and opens his throat. I can tell that he does this because the caramel liquid bubbles and bubbles without stopping, like Mean Joe Green in that Coke and a Smile commercial.

"I never see someone hold his whisky like you, sir," I say, shaking my head as he passes the bottle over to me. Carp nods and smiles a wide, thin smile. He may or may not get the Walter Mitty reference.

"Where to next?" he asks.

I pause before hitting the Beam myself. "I don't care," I say. "Wherever…. I'm having fun just doin' this. Let's keep taking in the city."

Carp nods and slowly drawls, "All right then, Captain, let's have another go around."

I try to open my throat like Carp but the Beam has an angry tantrum in my mouth. I choke for a second and then swallow hard. My head is definitely spinning now and I decide to rest behind my eyelids for a bit while Carp takes us to who knows where.

Carp's full name is Stephen Fleming Carpenter. His middle name comes from Fleming County, Kentucky, the place where his father grew up. Now, Carp lived his entire life in Connecticut before coming to San Francisco, just like I did, but he's adopted many of the mannerisms of a well-bred Southern gentleman—the slow measured speech, the dashing gallantry, and a highly-tuned sense of justice. And all of this becomes amplified when he's been drinking. I figure he must have picked up these signature moves from his father. Then again, his favorite movies are Cool Hand Luke and Badlands, films about charming rebels on destructive paths. So who knows? But when you throw this all together, you get an unpredictable cross between a knight-errant and Yosemite Sam with a dipsomaniac edge.

When I open my eyes again, we're now somewhere in the Excelsior District, past the Outer Mission. It's much more suburban here as we begin to leave the city and enter the neighborhoods where houses with lawns replace apartment buildings. Suddenly Carp hits the brakes as if a dog or cat has just darted onto the street. I look sharply all around the truck but I can't see anything. Carp seems to be focused on a house to our left for some reason, but I can't see why. All I see is some old Mexican guy out in his yard, trying to dig up a small tree.

"That's a dogwood tree," says Carp.

"Yeah? So what?" I shrug.

"So, maybe he's getting rid of it."

"Well, what do we want it for?"

"Why wouldn't we want it? Trees and plants are life on this little world of ours," Carp reminds me merrily.

And now it's easy to see how the next hour of this beautiful day is going to take shape. Outside the truck, the orange hazards start flashing, prompting the old Mexican guy to stare our way with a look of guarded curiosity. Little does he know, but inside the strange vehicle that has just pulled up are the Good Swilling Samaritans, talking photosynthesis, and getting ready to pay him a good turn.

With a couple of swigs for energy, we finally spill out of the truck, and this is what our Mexican friend gets to gape at: Carp stands about 6'2" and is dressed in a faded purple T-shirt and long, baggy jeans that meet a pair of unlaced, cracked Doc Martens. I'm looking like I'm AWOL from the same platoon but my T-shirt's white and I can probably salvage 5'7" in my steel-toed boots. Not a fighter at heart, I've always figured these babies can wreck a shin or two and ensure a quick flight to safety.

As we approach the guy, I'm suddenly quite certain that in this scenario I get to play Sancho to Carp's Quixote and he's mistaken this dogwood tree for a damsel in distress. I half expect Carp to lift an imaginary feathered-hat from his head and bow when he opens with, "Excuse me, sir! My friend and I couldn't help but notice you struggling in the heat. We're gardeners ourselves and it would be our pleasure to assist you. Would you allow us to help?"

I don't think the old Mexican guy understands too much English, so much of Carp's charming introduction is lost upon him. But he gets the idea that we want to relieve him from his sweaty task when Carp reaches for the shovel in his hands and makes digging motions. He nods happily at us and refuses the Beam that I proffer with a "No, gracias!" and a shake of his hands.

"Gardeners?" I'm thinking as I put the down the bourbon and grab a pick lying on the ground next to the tree. The closest thing Carp and I have come to gardening is when we built a carport one summer in the yard of a family friend. That landscaping effort consisted of moving five yards of river bottom to one concentrated area and packing it down with shovels.

But I guess those credits transfer. Before long we've dug a moat around the base of the slim eight-foot dogwood and I can finally get the sharp end of the pick underneath some of the roots. Round and round we go on our hands and knees, gradually picking and shoveling until we've cleared the entire tree base. I've got to say, in that moment when we stand up and extract the dogwood with most of its roots intact, I forget how dry my mouth is and how much sweat is pouring out of me. We've come in and altered the living landscape by toil of lung and limb and it feels pretty damned triumphant.

By the time Carp and I are back in the truck, we've shared a quick drink with our old Mexican friend, Carp's pressed $40 into the shocked man's hands, and we've got a bundled-up dogwood in the back bed. At this point in the day, the sun is still high but it's got to be nearing 4:00. There's still a little over a bottle of Beam on the floor of the truck and the nice buzz we're feeling isn't solely attributable to the alcohol.

We continue driving for a while in silence, luxuriating in the noble ache of our throbbing muscles. Finally, Carp motions to me to hand him the last full bottle of Beam. He unscrews the cap and takes one of his impossibly long drains on the stem. Then he hands me the bottle and asks, "You ever worry that you'll never do anything heroic in your life?"

"You mean like saving a tree from unsafe alkaline levels in the soil?" I ask happily.

"No," he says. "I mean something that you can point to when the only thing you can ride in is a rocking chair. You righted an unforgivable wrong. You changed the course of someone's life for the better.... Something that says it was a good thing you were here and alive for a certain point in time."

I pause for a minute, digesting all of this, and then take a big pull on the Beam. This time the stuff flows down so easily I wonder how I could have ever struggled with it. "I guess that's crossed my mind in some form or another. But lately it's been more the worry that I've forgotten all the things I used to say I'd lost sight of. I can't remember what they were or where they went."

Silence. I look at Carp and he's nodding at my remark but he's reacting to the tone of the lament rather than to the words themselves. He's really loaded and I'm right there with him. I finally add, "One thing I'm definitely worrying about right now is my bladder, man. It's about to burst. Find some place when you have the chance?"

One of the greatest things I've found in this life is that when you meet a friend with enough weird idiosyncrasies you're cool with revealing some of your own. Carp's that guy for me. When he first moved out to San Francisco and we were invited to a dinner party or a barbeque, we would have to stop and get him something to eat before we arrived at the affair. Carp had this thing about eating in front of strangers—he couldn't do it. He would get to the party, having already eaten, and then just drink. With me, he knows that I can't piss in front of other people. In college, when I played lacrosse, I was chosen for random drug testing and suspended from the team for two weeks because I couldn't provide a urine specimen in front of the athletic trainer. The worst thing was I hadn't even been doing any drugs. I just couldn't go in front of the guy and he figured I was trying to pull some kind of stunt. So when I tell Carp that we've got to find some place, he knows that it has to be a Starbucks or a restaurant with a bathroom where I can lock the door and be in a solo state. That or a dark alley or woods somewhere. Bars and taverns with a bathtub mounted to the wall are just a horror show for me.

When Carp pulls the truck over to a spot on some street, we're now somewhere in Presidio Heights. We've traversed the entire city while we've been talking and drinking and waxing it up. "I gotta piss too. Let's head towards the shops and there'll be some place we can go," advises Carp and I'm all for that.

As we walk, we keep listing into each other like we've been at sea for too long and can't find our land legs. I'm on the left and Carp's on the right and we're bobbing to and fro when out of an open garage a big black Saab shoots right out at us. SLAM! Carp smashes the trunk of the car with his fist as it comes within a hair of taking him out at the knees.

The car stops immediately and a man in a dark suit and sunglasses jumps out screaming, "What the hell did you do to my car?" I can't believe the guy is mad at US.

"Are you nuts? You almost ran into us!" says Carp with more composure than I could have mustered. "You even check your mirrors or are you in too big a hurry?"

The man stares at us for a second and then says, "You're drunk," like it's something to be ashamed of.

"Fuck you," says Carp and glares back with disdain.

Now no one tells this hotshot to fuck off, you can tell. He sets his face and steps towards us with his finger pointed and hisses, "I'll own you!"

Me, I almost burst out laughing at this, it's so bad. I can't believe how people walk around this world so unaware how easy it is to get your ass kicked. There is no such thing as law and order until the law actually arrives at the scene.

Carp's had it now, I can tell. He steps towards the man, deliberately pointing his finger in as close as he can and smiles with an eerie calm, "I'll… kill… you!"

The man smiles confidently and confirms, "So, you're threatening me!" as if he somehow has us where he wants us.

And that's when my steel-toed boot is suddenly lodged in the taillight of his car. Again and again and again.

There's no other way to say it: the drunk-tank sucks. I've never been caged like this before in my life and it scares the hell out of me. As dumb as it sounds, they HAVE us and I can't get over it. Once we've been booked and un-cuffed and thrown in the holding cell, my drunken mind can't quite conceive that our reality has become a 10' x 10' steel-clad constriction—especially after the free-range day we've had. What's scaring me even more though is that I've still gotta piss so bad I can't sit still. I unbutton the top two buttons of my jeans but it doesn't help.

This is the worst situation I've never imagined. The police station is hopping with cops and the crazy energy of angry, screaming people being busted. In our cell is a stainless-steel toilet bowl but it's fixed right near the open steel bars, in full view of the outside. Right now it's just Carp and me, but I know it's just a matter of minutes before somebody else gets thrown in there with us. I'm beside myself. This is my only chance for the entire night.

"Carp," I whisper. "Dude, I gotta piss so bad but I don't think I'm gonna be able to do it here. They're gonna throw some freaks in here with us soon and then I'll be so fucked. Carp! I don't know what to do."

Carp looks outside the cell at the chaotic scene and frowns when he sees that I'm right. Then he turns to me and slowly soothes, "All right man, listen. Put your back to them as best you can and I'll turn my back to you. Then close your eyes and concentrate. I'm gonna sing to you and I want you to listen to me and nothing else. You got it?"

"Okay, man… This has gotta work or I'll be so dead!"

We get into position. I close my eyes and unbutton my jeans. Everything feels blocked. Carp begins to sing. Softly at first but then louder, in a scratchy, unabashed voice that seems to feel each word: "I don't care if it rains or freezes… Long as I've got my plastic Jesus… Sittin' on the dashboard of my car…." I recognize the song. It's from Cool Hand Luke. "Comes in colors, pink and pleasant… Glows in the dark 'cause it's iridescent… Take it with you when you travel far." And suddenly, mercifully, some of that Cool Hand "world-shakin'" energy is transferred from Carp to me to the very bottom of that mocking steel bowl. For one night only, there I am. Pissing just like a regular guy.

It's about 2:00 in the morning when our six-hour stint is over and we're ejected from the station. I say to Carp, "Hey, let's just head for home and we'll pick up the truck tomorrow, all right?"

Carp shakes his head, "No, we've got to get the truck tonight. We've still got some work to do."

"Oh Christ." I shudder as I picture bricks and rocks sailing through the Saab man's apartment windows. Southern justice never forgets a slur. "What, are we going back to that guy's house? I dunno, man…."

Carp shakes his head again, smiling. He's still pretty messed up. "No, no, no. We're going to the park, Captain. We've still got a tree to plant."

Jason George is 33 years old and lives in Berkeley, California, with his dog, Phoenix. He still hangs out with all the guys he grew up with.

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