With this Melville-like utterance a 20-year friendship was formed between Stephen No Middle Name Esmedina and me; it was a friendship that would endure until his death on June 24, in this Year of Our Kubrick, 2001.
So Blubbo it was, then. Actually, I’d always heard him referred to around town as Esmo, but he later confided that he’d always hated that particular appellation. To his real friends he was Blubbo. For obvious reasons. He was large; he contained multitudes. And they were all wrapped in endless folds of flesh. He was a Mexipino version of Orson Welles, Freddy Fender gone to seed, Yoda on Sterno. My wife was once thrown against him at Disneyland on an amusement ride and later told me it was like landing on the biggest, most comfortable waterbed in the world, all bouncy, warm, and cozy, a Pillsbury Dough Boy come to life. “There wasn’t a bone in that body,” she said in amazement. (When I later passed along her comment to him, he corrected her, “There’s one — small it may be, but a mighty bone it is!”) I was confused, however, when he began to address me as Blubbo, not long after we became friends. “Hold on, why are you calling me that?” “Everybody’s Blubbo,” he answered, as if stating an obvious universal Truth. It was, I quickly learned, his world, and if you wanted to live in it, you accepted his Blubbo Theory of Relativity. Everybody’s Blubbo in his own way: I am Blubbo as you are Blubbo, goo-goo-goo-joob.
So many mixed emotions raced through my mind the day of his death — grief, in the enormous emotional void; anger, at the complete needlessness of his death — yet all these were essentially preempted because he had been chronically foretelling his death ever since I first met him in the spring of 1981. “I’m doomed,” he would repeatedly moan. “Only when I’m gone will they appreciate my true genius and finally get off my crutch.” After having heard this song and dance for the millionth time, I would reply, “Well, I guess there’s only one way to test that theory.” He would then look at me with those gimlet eyes and utter with all the disdain he could muster, “Midcult.”
It was a friendship like no other I’ve ever known. To be sure, every friendship is unique. The special chemistry between any two individuals cannot be replicated; it is sui generis. But then so was Steve. He was as unique a person as I’ve ever encountered, and though I was as close to him as I’ve been to anyone, I knew only a part of him. I knew of, but couldn’t help contain, the demons that possessed and then finally consumed him. Had he been able to believe more in himself, been able to push himself instead of going into a kind of hibernation the last 20 years of his life, Steve Esmedina could have been one of the finest American cultural critics of his time. Instead, he stayed in his room and allowed his fierce intellect to turn in on itself. But during those two decades, I was able to spend a great deal of time hanging with him, carrying on hour-long conversations with him on the phone, influencing him, and being influenced by him, and he helped shape my view of things as much as any one person ever has.
Before I moved to L.A. in 1996, I talked on the phone to Steve two or three times a day for 15 years. I valued his opinion, trusted and relied on his judgment, and constantly sought his take on those essential things that make life worth living — movies, music, literature — the arts. He was da bomb, he be de man, the Dr. Know It All of da Hood, the Ghetto Guru. He knew. That his writing style was as elegant as anything published in the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books made this just one of the many contradictions of the late, lamented Blubbo.
Writing was what he did, who he was. It was understood that if I were to loan him a book, I would get it back with copious Blubbo commentary in that easily recognizable and nearly indecipherable scrawl of his. He simply could not write well. His prose style was something he created as effortlessly as walking or breathing. Probably with less effort, actually. It was a style that utilized his formidable intellect in a rigorous and disciplined examination of the chosen work, woven together in a breathtaking command of the language that was so dazzling it could circumvent any possible dispute with his thesis. If I disagreed with him and wanted to take him on, his mastery with the spoken word was always so in evidence, the best I could come up with was a meek retort like, “Well, that’s your opinion,” and I’d be lucky to escape with my wits intact. But he loved the give and take of intellectual discourse, whether about movies or music, politics or the tragicomedy of the opposite sex and its misty intersection of love and lust. Steve was a throwback to an earlier time when the art of conversation was prized. He would have been at home in a salon during the reign of the Sun King or in a gentlemen’s club in Restoration England or in the agora of Periclean Athens — there would have been Blubbocrates holding court, delving into the mysteries and forms of that particular branch of philosophy known as Aesthetics.
It was a matter of life and death for him. Although Steve was nominally a good Roman Catholic and a former altar boy, I think Art was Steve’s true faith, a religion he could really believe in in an empty, uncaring universe. The greats were to be championed and revered, the heretics and apostates — those purveyors of artistic mediocrity — were guilty of bad faith and to be sought out and condemned. Bad works of art (and bad critics; he despised obnoxious fools like Dave Marsh) were personal transgressions to Steve, sins against God and Blubbo, and the blasphemous perpetrators must be caught and held accountable. And so, just like his greatest hero, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, the Cid, this rotund knight of South 37th Street would mount his Olivetti steed and sally forth to do battle. Yet he could be as articulate in defending his favorite pop culture trash like the Spice Girls or Howard Stern as he was in defending the avant-garde jazz of the Art Ensemble of Chicago or the writing of Sinclair Lewis.
His was the most original mind I have ever known. He could reduce a complex work to its essence in a brilliant one-liner. His pithy, incisive writing style, so uniquely his, could be so illuminating. In conversation, he could be dazzling. After every one of our marathon phone calls, I felt exhausted, as if I’d dropped acid. He could expand your horizons with a logic that skewered most commonly held assumptions as you entered his Blubbo Unified Field and had your mind bent. Like a latter-day Mencken, one of his heroes, he could provoke you to see things in an alternate context, to argue, defend, and reassess your own precepts. Received wisdom was always a phrase he uttered with derision and contempt. No recycled thinking for our Esmo. If he thought Citizen Kane was one of the most overrated films of all time — it wasn’t even Blubbo Orson’s best jam; that, of course, would be Ambersons, thank you very much — then Our Man Esmedina would be compelled to shine that light, ring that bell, to testify! And if he preferred the raw energy and emotional purity of Please Please Me and The Beatles’ Second Album to the psychedelic contrivance of Sgt. Pepper, then he would cry out in the darkness like the hero in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” proclaiming eternal vigilance against the mindless forces of philistinism and conventional wisdom; a knight-errant battling pretense and white elephantiasis. Whether exploring the universe of James Joyce or Leave It to Beaver, it was all the same to Steve; if it gave him a bone, then it was a good jam.
There was, as I say, quite a distance between Esmedina in print and the genuine article. But dichotomy was rampant in the soul of St. Stephen — his longing, his despair, the tenderhearted soul masked by those many outer layers of cynicism, his commanding intellect, his abject doubt and self-loathing. “I’m really a preppie, trapped in the body of a fat Filipino,” he would lament. He was missing a gene somewhere when it came to ambition. His career goal was not to write the Great American Novel or to be the generation’s preeminent man of letters. No, not for our Stevie. He confided to me on more than one occasion that all he wanted out of life was to drive an ice cream truck or operate the Ferris wheel at an amusement park. And he was serious. But I digress.
I first became aware of the name Steve Esmedina in the pages of the UCSD student newspaper, the Triton Times, in 1975. His review — no, essay, for it was a meditative contemplation, really — about Terrence Malick’s directorial debut, Badlands, was a revelation, college newspapers not noted for such sophistication. His Badlands piece was so graceful and elegant, so assured, it seemed to have come from the pen of an established East Coast literary lion. Around the same time, Steve began writing for this very publication and he and Duncan Shepherd soon became the most quoted (and argued about) writers in San Diego. In the 1970s, the music column in the Reader was a coveted forum. It seemed like the best gig in town. Steve’s weekly column would spotlight a music act that was coming to San Diego. His contentious and opinionated writings provoked scores of outraged partisans, but few questioned his facility as a writer or his exhaustive knowledge. So when a mutual friend introduced us in 1981, I was intimidated. He was something of a local legend, the shining star of the San Diego music-journalist firmament, of which I was a minor figure. Besides, if he was anything like his writing, I would be mincemeat inside of five minutes.
To my profound relief, he seemed neither imperious nor supercilious but friendly enough and even a bit shy. The three of us went to see Albert Brooks’s Modern Romance and for much of the movie found ourselves the only ones laughing. Not long after, Steve and I went to the Ken Cinema for a screening of Terrence Malick’s majestic second film, Days of Heaven. After the screening, we repaired to a Japanese restaurant, and over bites of sushi, we engaged in a wide-ranging discussion of shared interests. Although the intellect was clearly there, it was never on show; he never felt the need to issue advertisements for Blubbo. Instead, he was open and generous and remarkably witty. His writing never did him justice in that regard. During a lull in the conversation, he looked at me and asked, as if it was the most natural question in the world, “Ever have a girl go poo-poo on your chest?” “Uh, no,” I responded, and he proceeded to discuss other topics. But as I choked on my sushi, I realized there was a lot more to this complicated character than I could imagine.
At that time, Steve was living in Cabrillo Square, a high-rise apartment complex at the edge of downtown. His roommate was a rather bizarre creature whom he had dubbed Moona, after the vampira-like hostess of a popular Saturday-afternoon sci-fi matinee on Channel 10 during the ’60s. He had recently stopped writing his column because of health problems. It seems he had developed epilepsy, and he recounted a story about a day at the Reader office when during an attack, he’d stood up on a desk and done a swan dive into his typewriter. He was on hiatus, taking a break from the grind of a weekly column, and writing the occasional music review for the Reader. We discovered that we had shared the same childhood — we had both grown up watching those projected shadows on the screens of the glorious, vanished movie theaters of downtown San Diego — the Fox, the California, the Spreckels, the Plaza, the Balboa, the Mission, the Broadway, the Orpheum, the Aztec. We had read the same comics, studied the same books, watched the same TV shows, listened to the same radio stations. But he had me on the music; somehow he’d managed to listen to every rock-and-roll album ever released, and he was equally knowledgeable about the even vaster world of jazz. And he remembered everything.
We hit it off immediately, and I began hanging out at his pad. It was fortuitous for me. I had just lost my job at a video store for being a smart-ass college boy, and when my landlady found out, I was on the street in no time. I was living in my car, still hanging around UCSD and writing art-section reviews for the school paper when I met Steve. Graduating two and a half years earlier from the UCSD visual arts department with a filmmaking/film history degree, I was not prepared for the real world and reality was biting me on the ass with a vengeance. I was trying to figure out what to do, how to pursue a film career, how to get enough money to put gas in my car, and where could I crash tonight? Steve extended an open invitation to use his couch, and during a dark period of my life, he provided me with a haven. That was one of the most endearing things about my friendship with Steve. No matter what trouble I was in, I always knew there was a couch I could crash on at his house and a willing ear to listen to my troubles. Throughout the years, as my fortunes rose and fell, the knowledge that despite the vicissitudes of capricious fate, I always had a place to stay at Steve’s meant the world to me.
We both had an assured knowledge of movies, an assurance that came from having digested thousands of films and thought about movies at such an early age they had entered our genetic code and become part of our dna. Just as knowledgeable about film as he was about music, Steve had seen everything and brought that same critical facility to bear in his film analysis. We discovered a shared passion for many of the same filmmakers — Malick, of course, Resnais, Godard, Sturges (both Preston and John), Dreyer, Wilder, Hawks, Scorsese, Peckinpah, Buñuel, Hitchcock, Welles, Griffith, Fuller, Wise, Aldrich. Again, he saw no difference in high or low art in the movies he liked. He could appreciate the precision of Ozu or the ambiguity of Antonioni with the same passion as he embraced the raunchy ghetto humor of Rudy Ray Moore as Dolemite. He liked Scorsese more than I did, never shared my enthusiasm for David Lean, and as anyone who knew Steve can tell you, he revered Anthony Mann’s El Cid as the greatest movie of all time. “Can a man live without honor?” he would ask, quoting from the film, just before he would pass out. Like Blubbo, I, too, had seen the film at the grand Fox Theatre and had fallen under its spell as a youth. A better film by far than the other, more celebrated, Heston epic, that lumbering tale of the Christ, Ben-Hur, El Cid is a vigorous piece of filmmaking that was the most rousing epic of its time. It was Steve’s touchstone, the jam of jams, his own cinematic grail. Although he was more Sancho Panza than Cid, Steve saw himself, I think, as the last knight-errant, seeking honor and romance in a world that had lost its way and no longer honored the code of chivalry that so informs El Cid.
He seemed genuinely surprised (and even embarrassed) that I could recite his reviews from years earlier. Sometimes they would be pleasant memories for him, such as when I quoted line after line of his Badlands review; sometimes he would squirm with the unpleasant feeling of having been found out. When I challenged his disregard for the Beatles with a flippant dismissal, “As one who never cared for the Beatles…,” he grinned sheepishly, admitted he’d been in a bad disposition toward the Fabs ever since seeing the wretched disco movie musical adaptation of Sgt. Pepper and the equally godawful touring abomination Beatlemania (“Not the Beatles but an incredible psychedelic simulation!”). In fact, I discovered Blubbo had been Beatles-obsessed in childhood, buying the albums, the fan books and records, even a prized pair of Beatle boots. At the tender age of ten he had ventured to the California Theatre to see A Hard Day’s Night, braving hordes of screaming teenaged girls. At one point, during the incessant hysterical shouting toward the screen, young Master Steven turned to one of the screaming Beatlemaniacs, who was his elder by a good five or six years, and asked, “Do you really think the Beatles can hear your deluded rantings?” “Oh, shut up, little boy” came the response as she continued her hormonal caterwaulings at the unresponsive images on the screen. Nevertheless, A Hard Day’s Night remained one of his favorites movies, and I was always impressed that in an age before VCRs, he had committed every line of dialogue in the movie to memory and could recite it on the spot. We cemented our friendship by harmonizing on Beatle songs late into the night, especially Lennon’s splendid hymn to teenage angst’s unrequited yearning, “No Reply.”
Another shared passion was Neil Young’s “Thrasher,” as poetic a song as has ever been written. Steve had seen Young with Buffalo Springfield and had been a longtime aficionado. I was preparing to write a book on Young and felt that “Thrasher” was one of his masterworks. It was a song about friendship and death, the obligation to yourself to move on when friends have chosen to give up on their dreams. Steve and I actually got up one night at the old Spirit Club off Morena Boulevard and sang the damn thing in the only known performance of the Disposable Diapers. But the fact that he had so totally understood the song, the majesty of the lyrics’ imagery and metaphors, amazed me. There was never a trace of pretense in his enthusiasm; it was always genuine and organic. One thing his writing never adequately captured was his passion. When he liked something, he was a partisan, an advocate, a true romantic in affairs of the art.
We quickly hatched a plan to write a screenplay together. Although I had written several shorter scripts during film school, this would be my first attempt at a feature script. Steve was the pro. He had already turned out a couple of spec scripts with friends. He decided it should be based on our lives, what was happening then and there, a snapshot of the times. It would encompass the theme of Young’s song “Thrasher” and examine a group of friends in a particular place — San Diego — in the first year of the Reagan era. The title was borrowed from Steve’s current favorite James Taylor song, “Her Town Too.” He had admired Fellini’s I Vitelloni and the French director Claude Sautet’s Vincent, Francois, Paul and the Others for their depictions of friendship and their sensitive capturing of the milieu of the protagonists, and we set out to create a group of artistically talented twentysomethings about to hit the Big Three O and study their dreams and aspirations as some chose to leave San Diego and pursue their destinies and the rest decided to stay and succumb to the soft life in America’s Finest City. I have never had, before then or since, a writing partner, so I cannot compare working with Steve to working with anyone else. But it was pure creative joy to work with him. The give and take as we hammered out the script made the drudgery of putting thought to paper an exhilaration I still vividly recall. Steve could be incredibly supportive and was a great booster of talent. Though his print persona might seem otherwise, if you were his friend, he would be most generous in his praise, and that encouragement and enthusiasm was a gift he gave to many of his friends.
Another instance where the man deviated from the writer was his sense of humor. Though there were humorous passages in his writing, they were generally filtered through that sober, analytical prose voice of his and never suggested the wicked humor of himself. He was the funniest motherfucker I ever knew. His deadpan delivery combined with carefully calibrated shocking remarks was a Blubbo trademark. He loved to be the contrarian; he reveled in any opportunity to poke fun at sacred cows. His irreverence always derived its force by containing insights of stinging truth expressed in a laconic delivery. For hours, he could riff on a topic that only he and I would care about, like the film career of Jack Elam or the pretentiousness of long-forgotten writers like James Gould Cozzens, or his unique plan to reform the country — a monarchy! His take on the absurdity of life was a never-ending source of inspiration; he was like some great jazz comic, endlessly jamming. His penchant for mischief once got him in trouble at the Reader when he submitted a movie review of an imported film from the Philippines entitled The Sour Taste of Lemon over Menudo. It was an insightful review of a sterling piece of Filipino filmmaking that existed only in Steve’s twisted imagination. His editors were not amused.
While cowriting the script with him, I came to learn that Steve possessed a sense of dread. He was convinced he wouldn’t live to 30, which was only a few years away. Though I tried to argue with him about this doom-and-gloom outlook becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, it was ingrained in his personality. “Life was better before I came along,” he would state, and I would get enraged at this. But his despair seemed bored into his soul. I found out there had been a girl; isn’t there always? She had taken his heart, made off with his dough, and left him longing for an early grave.
Apparently, there had been two other long-term relationships in high school and college, but this one he fell hard for. Her name was Louise, and I always felt he was trying to work out his relationship with her in the script, trying to make some sense of what had gone wrong with the love of his life. It was during one of our writing sessions that I stumbled across another explanation for his heart of darkness. Arriving at his pad, I found Steve had taken some acid and was tripping. Hardly the wisest move for someone with diagnosed epilepsy, but there he was, so I tried to be calm and comforting to ease his trip. He began to cry, telling me Esmedina wasn’t his true name, that his real name was Stephen Nunal. In a highly unusual arrangement, his biological father had lived in his house posing as his “Uncle Thut” and had helped raise him while the man who was ostensibly his father went off on long absences, frequently traveling back to the Philippines. His mother never told him of his father’s identity, until his sudden death by cardiac arrest in the family kitchen, dropping to the floor in front of 16-year-old Steve. It was the double blow of witnessing his beloved uncle’s death and the subsequent revelation by his mother that Thut had been Steve’s real father that sent him in a psychic spiral that would remain at the very core of his emotional pain. This was the only time he ever brought this up, and I never mentioned it to him again. But I’m convinced it was a psychic wound from which he never recovered.
After a few weeks of writing our script, Steve announced we’d have to change locations. He was going back to the ghetto to live with his mother. I helped him pack and move, but I had a sense of foreboding. Moving back home when you’re an adult is always fraught with much baggage; it’s far too easy to lapse into an adolescent codependency with parents. Which is what happened. He moved back home, and for the rest of his life that would be his fixed abode. He had a complicated relationship with his family. Clearly, he was so far above their level of comprehension and understanding in matters of intellect that it must have been extremely lonely for him. He was devoted to his mother, a big, gruff woman whose own cynicism and cutting wit so strongly shaped Steve’s character that I used to refer to her as The Explanation. Since he was the baby of the family, born long after his brother and sisters had grown, he was pampered to a probably unhealthy degree, and despite his mother’s acerbic side, she was willing to grant him carte blanche, just as long as he was at home and under her watchful eye. He adored his brother Bobby, a ne’er-do-well who loved to gamble and party and spin tall tales. One of Steve’s earliest memories, he once told me, was of Bobby’s coming home and telling Steve about a party where Frank Sinatra had told him to break up a fight between Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Bobby was a swinging Errol Flynn–like rogue, a hipster Dark Knight of the night, and Steve idolized him and emulated his wastrel ways as he grew older. And, of course, there was Steve’s strong positive self-image: “The two most fucked-up races in the world are Mexican and Filipino, and I’m both.”
Yes, our Blubbo was a complicated customer, and I realize that just about anything you might care to say about him would be true. One word that might come to mind is that current bugbear, “racist.” It is quite a loaded term in this politically correct world, and whatever the word means, I suppose Steve was one. He certainly was aware of race; he suffered for it and used racial epithets freely. Black, Latino, Jew, Arab, Asian, and Anglo were all targets of his racial profiling. I lost count of all the times I heard him say, “The white man is the devil,” but he spared no one. He was an equal-opportunity racist, although actually, I always thought he was more Don Rickles than Tom Metzger. I’m convinced he loved the shock value of tossing out forbidden racial slurs in polite society. “What’s wrong?” he would innocently inquire. “That’s just the way us ethnic folks talk in the ghetto.” I always felt Steve freely acknowledged his own racist bent to make his listener confront his own latent racism and hypocrisy. I know Steve had endured his own racial taunting from the cops, boyz in da hood, strangers on the street. “Chico” or “Pancho” or “Gordo” were some of the names heaped upon him through the years, and I’m sure as a kid they must’ve stung. But his own macho, streetwise self-image literally took a pounding one day at Otto Square, the nearby shopping center in Shelltown. I’d warned him that his mouth would get him in trouble, but he always assured me he knew the ghetto, he knew how to handle its denizens. One day, when I called to see about a writing session, I was told Steve was in the hospital. Apparently, one of the hobo watch sellers at Otto Square didn’t share Steve’s advanced views on racial epithets, and when Steve declined the seller’s offer of a watch by telling him to “Fuck off, nigger,” umbrage was taken and Steve received a punch that punctured a lung. When I visited him in the hospital, he would only acknowledge that his assailant must not have been from the hood and so didn’t know better than to mess with Blubbo.
The irony is that Steve was immersed in black culture, from Miles Davis to Dr. Dre. He’d read and admired Stanley Crouch, Cornel West, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison; knew the music of the Motown and hip-hop nation inside out; loved raunchy black comics like Rudy Ray Moore; was enthralled at the grace of Nat King Cole; and had once allowed a forgotten black singer, Earl Coleman, to stay at his downtown apartment for over a month and came very close to writing Coleman’s biography. In fact, in print Blubbo was an outspoken liberal, denouncing the apartheid government of South Africa and what he saw as vicious Reaganomics that struck hardest at minorities and the disenfranchised. And yet, how to reconcile these admirable sentiments with the story he told me of wanting to join the Klan as a youth, only to be heartbroken when he found out they didn’t accept Mexicans? As I say, he contained multitudes.
We continued writing during that summer of 1981, weaving our personal experiences into the script, living our lives and turning our experiences into artifice. A girl whom I fancied preferred instead the company of the guy who introduced me to Steve; our friendship was broken, but, hey, he got the girl and I got Blubbo. It was a fair exchange, and it all went into the script. We were writing not just a movie but in an eerie, prescient way plotting the course of our lives. My character struggled and finally broke free of the soft life of San Diego, making the move to L.A. to seek his destiny in the film industry. Steve’s character stayed behind in America’s Finest City, unwilling or unable to take the risk of leaving home. The film ended at a funeral, where the remaining group of friends, now scattered, reassembled to say a final good-bye. I had never been able to complete a feature script before, but thanks to the encouragement and partnership of Steve, I finally overcame my doubts and finished the screenplay.
Around this time, director Robert Wise was screening Orson Welles’s Magnificent Ambersons at SDSU. I tried to interview Wise, but he suggested we meet in his office. Steve didn’t want to come, so another friend went with me — a visit to Olympus with one of the gods — and then that night we saw Abel Gance’s Napoleon at the Shrine Auditorium, complete with orchestra and Cinerama prototype, three-projector triptych finale. Not long after, I had dinner with my friends the Hutshings and I talked about my interview with Wise and the screening of the Gance film. Prue knew of my film background and suggested that I start a film series at one of the local museums. Her husband, Ed, who’d had a career in Hollywood before becoming book editor of the San Diego Union, endorsed the idea, and that dinner altered my destiny. When I mentioned the idea to Steve, he was terrifically supportive and we began mapping out a strategy. I convinced the Museum of Art to let me curate a ten-week film series that would take issue with the auteur theory; we named the series “Hollywood Film: The Collaborative Art.”
In the fall of ’81, I found an apartment in Mission Hills overlooking the airport. Though I now had my own place, I was still in touch with Steve constantly. Even before I had a phone installed, I would walk down the hill to the pay phone at the Union 76 and spend hours jammin’ with Bighead. God, was he a one-man revivalist of the lost art of conversation. I mean, he could go for hours, he was the marathon man of Ma Bell. And we talked about Schopenhauer and Clyde Crashcup, movies and women, music and politics, the future and the past. Thanks to Steve, I heard about an opening at the San Diego Union for a freelance music writer to supplement Bob Laurence’s music reviews. I got that gig and was now respectably ensconced in my new pad, working for both the Museum of Art and the Union. I had managed to turn things around and was eternally grateful to Steve for being there when I needed someone to believe in me. He wrote a wonderfully crafted piece in the Reader highlighting the film series, and on opening night, he was the one who I wanted to impress, whose reaction I valued the most. In the next few years I brought to San Diego some of the legendary talents of Hollywood film history: Frank Capra, Billy Wilder, Jack Lemmon, Ernest Lehman, Haskell Wexler, Stanley Kramer, Jack Nitzsche. And Steve was there for all of them, and when San Diego native Tony Bill came down and wanted to sneak out during a screening of his hit production, The Sting, to cruise around his old haunts, it was the three of us in the back of his limo — Mr. Bill, Mr. Mike, and Blubbo — riding around downtown, reliving our formative San Diego years.
Yet over the course of time, the fire that had once burned in Steve’s eyes grew dim. No longer did he talk so much about moving to New York to pursue a writing career or about our long-held plan to move to L.A. to pursue a career in screenwriting. In fact, the idea of moving out of his mom’s house seemed to grow more and more remote. The foreboding I had when helping him move back to the crib had been justified. He had returned to the womb and had essentially disengaged from the world. Oh, sure he still wrote for the Reader and had a monthly column in San Diego magazine for a while, but by the time his 30th birthday rolled around on Groundhog Day, 1984, it seemed as if Blubbo hadn’t seen his shadow and had returned to bed to hibernate. He still read voraciously, listened to music, saw all the movies in town and on cable, still picked up his copies of Mad magazine, Playboy, and the National Review (he liked the writing style). But for all practical purposes, he had managed to return to childhood, free from the stress and pressures of adult responsibilities. He would still look out at the world (and find it wanting), but he did it from the comfort of his inner sanctum, his Blubbo Fortress of Solitude. And an impregnable fortress it was.
His bedroom was on the second floor of his house, and upon entering his room a sight of unforgettable horror greeted the unwary visitor. Piles of garbage covered the floor, making navigation across the room a delicate proposition at best. Scratched-up vinyl record albums were strewn across mountains of newspapers, magazines, drawing pads. Half-empty packs of cigarettes littered the floor, which was tastefully garnished with the occasional bottle of vodka, all festively decorated with scores of writing tablets amply illustrated with his Thurber-esque drawings of sultry sexpots having their carnal way with Blubbo the Stud. Steve was no slob; he was so far beyond slovenliness that a new category would be needed to classify his Ubermessiness. This compost heap, this mountainous range of refuse was his refuge, where he spent all his waking hours when not watching TV downstairs. His bed was completely buried underneath all this, and so he slept, literally, on top of this crap. Oh sure, he might roll over and crush the occasional LP, but, hey, he could always buy another copy at Off the Record, and besides, it was probably scratched up anyway. His response to any critical questioning of his hygiene was always the same — “I don’t let my possessions possess me.” Overwhelm, yes, but not possess. For someone who made his livelihood writing about music, he had the cheapest sound system imaginable. “How can you hear anything on this cruddy second-hand piece of shit?” I would ask. “I just turn it up,” he would answer, as if it were the dumbest question in the world. His TV/vcr set was just as shoddy. He would record movies at the slowest speed on the cheapest tape, but he seemed content. Remembering Blubbo’s First Commandment — “Thou shalt not get on my crutch” — I never brought up his sanitarily challenged living quarters. It was his universe, after all, I was just visiting.
As the decade progressed, I was still trying to save enough money to move to L.A. when I met a girl, fell in love, and we got married. I landed a PR job for a student-exchange organization, and it seemed like I was in danger of growing up. But no such fears attended Blubbo. He was a constant — fixed, immutable. Years later I would find out that it was around this time that Steve was first diagnosed with liver disease. Although I knew he liked to get fucked up, I had absolutely no idea of the extent of his alcohol consumption.
He kept it private. I should have realized something was amiss when he was rushed to the hospital with a bleeding esophagus in ’89. Looking back, I can’t believe how blind I was about his drinking, but he was so secretive about his health that I took him at his word and never connected his health problems to his drinking. In public I never saw him drink to excess. But apparently, during those epic phone conversations we used to have, he was doing more than just listening to Roxy Music and playing with his beloved toy Godzilla monster, the Blubbo version of a teddy bear.
In 1996, my wife and I were finally able to move to Los Angeles. I did not enjoy the same relationship with Steve after that move. Our conversations still continued, but not as many and not as long. Bobby had died, and the two elder Esmedinas were ailing. The house, which had always been dark, even in broad daylight, now seemed more than ever a cross between Tennessee Williams and The Addams Family. I think Steve stopped writing for the Reader around this period — too many missed deadlines. But I was preoccupied with my own struggles, trying to start a career in an industry that had seemed to stopped caring about making movies for anyone over 25 (years or IQ). My marriage collapsed and I plunged into an abyss that I have yet to crawl out of. I don’t recall hearing much about Steve’s problems, emotional or physical. He was still great fun on the phone, but from what I gather, those years were a time of dissipation and decline for him, hanging around strip clubs, enjoying the attentions of the ladies.
When I would call, he’d talk about familiar things — movies, music, politics — the usual essentials. We were both thrilled that Terrence Malick had finally made his third film, The Thin Red Line, after a 20-year hiatus. Steve and I were transfixed by the enormity of Malick’s accomplishment. The first time I saw the film, ostensibly an adaptation of James Jones’s WWII novel, I was as confused as everyone, but on second viewing I realized what Malick had done, and I soon recognized this was at once Malick’s most flawed film, yet by far his greatest accomplishment. Although a simple story — a hill on Guadalcanal has to be taken — Malick’s concern is all war — that war at the heart of nature that defines human history. The movie is told from the point of view of a collective conscious. I became obsessed by the film and saw it over 20 times. For me, it was a work of art comparable to that of Milton or Dante. The myriad voiceovers on the soundtrack that had at first seemed so confusing now seemed simply understandable. This film was told from God’s point of view, and this is what it must be like for the Creator to hear the unspoken thoughts of men about to die (and, in one extraordinary scene, the thoughts of a dead Japanese soldier). It was a studio-financed film that asked the big questions about the meaning of life, a film that as far as I’m concerned can rank with some of the greatest works of art in Western civilization. Steve, of course, got it on the first showing and promptly proclaimed it Malick’s masterpiece. When I got to meet Terrence Malick at a Directors Guild of America dinner, I sheepishly approached him and conveyed my profound admiration. He was very soft-spoken, almost serene, his Texas accent reminding me of Lyle Lovett’s speaking voice. Immediately, I raced home to call Steve and relay the great news. But while I was babbling, Steve was sitting on his terrible secret he’d long kept from me. He was dying.
It was at the beginning of 1999 that Steve was hospitalized for what became the beginning of the terminal phase of his liver failure. A minor stroke followed, and at some time during the spring, Steve lost the use of his legs and was forced to use a wheelchair. I would go down and visit, but despite his recent setbacks, he still seemed jovial and never revealed the extent of his disease. In the summer of 1999, I was in Canada working on a film called A Storm in Summer for Showtime. Robert Wise was directing it — it was to be his 40th and final film — and had insisted that I be his assistant. While shooting in Vancouver, I called Steve with the news that his onetime goddess Nastassja Kinski had been cast in our picture and he should come up to visit the set. It was then that I finally discovered how much deterioration had taken place and how much pain he was in. He told me it had been so terrible he’d wanted to die, and for Steve to confess that made me realize how serious it was. When I returned to L.A., I raced down to San Diego and found that Steve had been placed in a hospice in El Cajon and was not given much time to live. Yet he seemed in relatively good spirits when I arrived, and I managed to take him for a drive to a nearby record store, and for a brief moment, Blubbo was in his element, all was right with the world.
When Mr. Wise was injured in a fall, I became the overseer of the postproduction of the Showtime film. Unable to visit Steve, I was pleased to learn that he had gone home and seemed to be on the mend. This would be a pattern repeated throughout the next year and a half. After each stint in the hospital, he would return home a little weaker. Sometimes I’d drive down and we’d go see a movie; other times I’d arrive at his home and he wouldn’t want to get out of bed. And then Steve’s mother died and things became bleak. He stopped taking phone calls and I didn’t know what was going on. This dragged on until this spring, when he took another turn for the worse. This time he didn’t go home.
In December of last year, I landed a job working on the Academy Awards, handling media relations. It was a great gig but very time consuming, and I didn’t realize how bad Steve was getting. I was even trying to get him to come up — I’d get him into the Oscar show, which was being held on the same weekend that Charlton Heston was appearing in person at a screening of El Cid at the American Cinematheque. But Steve, in the final stages of his liver failure, was in no condition. After the show was finished, I drove down to visit him at a rehab center on Euclid Boulevard, and he seemed as down as I had ever seen him. He pleaded with me to get him out of the place; his roommate was a screaming psycho, and he just wanted to go home. But he was too far gone, and he soon found himself back in Paradise Valley Hospital.
When I went down in May, it was a difficult encounter. He was speaking incoherently, as if he were talking in his sleep, and I realized there wasn’t much time left. The liver was shutting down, and the toxins were flooding into his blood. One day, I called to find out how he was doing, and his nurse told me he had developed a life-threatening infection. His liver had finally been eaten away; his kidneys were shutting down. I got a call from one of his sisters, and she said he was about to go. I drove down the next day but stopped by a friend’s place in PB for a brief hello. I lingered too long, and by the time I arrived, Steve had been dead for about 35 minutes.
A week after the memorial service, I spent my Fourth of July going through boxes and boxes of Steve’s objets d’garbage at the now-empty house. I was hoping I might find some lost writings, a novel perhaps, maybe some short stories, something that could be published posthumously. After all, he’d had 20 years in which to indulge his need to write; there had to be something. And yet all I found were scraps of writing, fragments of unsent letters; nothing of significance. There was a reference to a pair of novellas he’d written, “Death Fears Me” and “So Many Assholes, So Few Bullets,” but I could find no trace of any manuscripts themselves. I found scattered copies of some Reader articles he’d written, but nothing collated in any kind of order. I found some prized books, ranging from The Confessions of St. Augustine, to Jerzy Kosinski’s Painted Bird, plenty of well-worn copies of Playboy, massive amounts of pornographic cartoons he scribbled in his last few years, but nothing of his writing.
I spent the night on the couch of the empty house, knowing it would be the last time I ever would do so. It brought back many memories of nights spent in the past, and I knew I’d never have that kind of friendship again, the kind where you could call someone day or night and they’d be there for you, the kind where you speak in a shorthand that only you two can understand, the kind of friendship that we shared. The next morning, three of Steve’s sisters stopped by and we talked about what a sad waste it all had been. Still trying to understand why, what it was that made him give up on his life, I sought an answer to a question that had always bothered me. Why had Steve turned down the scholarship that he’d been awarded to Harvard? “Oh, that was Mom,” came the reply. “She didn’t want him to go back East. ‘Why do you want to go there? You won’t be able to make it.’ So she talked him out of going to Harvard.”
I sat there, stunned. Although I knew Steve’s mom had always been overly protective, I had never realized it had such destructive consequences. “Steve was the baby and she spoiled him rotten. We all did. She didn’t care what he did, just as long as he was doing it upstairs in his room. She didn’t think he could handle it back East, that the pressure would be too much for him. That’s why she talked him out of taking the Reader position too.”
“What Reader position?”
“Steve had been offered a job as editor of the Reader, but Mom didn’t think he’d be able to handle the pressure, so she convinced him not to take the job. She just didn’t think he was up to it, and she didn’t want to see him fail.”
“Do you think that was what caused him to turn to drink?”
“I think it was that and Uncle Thut’s death. Right after Thut died, Mom told Stevie that Thut was his father, and I think that’s when he began drinking.”
I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. As his sisters went on to talk about other family matters, I heard little of it. I sat there in silence, as if a body blow had slammed into my chest. Without putting too precious a spin on it, I felt as if I’d found the answer to the question that had bothered me since we had first become friends all those years ago, and now Rosebud was revealed. Not a sled, just an overprotective mother, probably unaware of just how gifted her son truly was, trying to protect him from failure and instead denying him the chance to test himself in the forge of adversity. The law of unintended consequences is a bitch, handing out death sentences in the name of love.
I’m sure there were many other reasons as well for his despair — failed romances, low self-esteem, the gulf between his intellect and his surroundings, the crisis caused by his father’s unspoken identity — but this revelation seemed the key to this whole fucking tragedy. Steve’s identity had been so intertwined with his mother — they shared the same cynicism, the same gruffness, even the same penchant for dispensing nicknames — that her refusal to allow him out of the nest must have been a source of conflicted anguish for him. I cannot pretend to even begin to understand.
And to think what it must have been like for him, during those last years, knowing he had brought it on himself, scoffing at the doctors’ warnings. What thoughts must have tortured him during those bleak hours, alone, bedridden, and in agony. I can only imagine what hell he must have been suffering.
As I ruffled through the rest of the papers strewn about his room, I felt like getting drunk. Christ, what anguish must have eaten away at him. Alone, in his room, with that intellect of his. I found scraps of paper he had written, berating himself for his cowardice, castigating himself for the roads not taken. And then I found a photograph of Steve that broke my heart. There he was, going to his senior prom with his high school sweetheart. There was no trace of the overweight, ill-dressed man-child that I had known for all those years, but rather, a dapper young Stephen Esmedina, elegant in top hat and tails, ready to take his best girl out on the town. He has the confidence of youth in this photograph, the world was still his, waiting to be taken by storm, and, by God, he looks like he was ready for the challenge. There was something in that photo, something in those eyes I had never seen — a confidence, a sense of hope. I wish I could have known him then. I wish I could have told him to be strong and make his way in life, to believe in himself. I wish there was something I could have done for him. I wish there was something I could do to ease the anguish in my own heart for the long, slow death of Stephen No Middle Name Nunal.
When I hear King Crimson or Robert Palmer or Traffic or Art Blakey, or when I watch Soderbergh’s King of the Hill or Terence Davies’s sublime The Long Day Closes, Blubbo will be there. I shall think of Steve when I listen to the Stones and recall those times we went to the stadium to see them. I shall think of Steve when the Chargers score a touchdown and recall how nervous he was during their march to the Super Bowl — he got up and left our living room so he wouldn’t jinx their chances. I shall think of Steve when I listen to Kind of Blue, because he was the one who told me it was the best jazz album of all time. I shall think of Steve when I see a movie I know he would have liked and feel the sadness of not being able to share with him. I shall think of Steve at 3:00 a.m. when I feel alone and wish there was someone to call and open up my heart to. I wish I could say, Hey, Blubbo, your man Bryan Ferry is on tour, are you gonna go? Or, Hey, what about that new Buffalo Springfield box set? And, of course, I shall think of Steve when I watch the films of Terrence Malick. Before Steve’s final decline, I was burning a cdr for him that contained the philosophic voiceovers from The Thin Red Line. The spiritual yearning, the desire for transcendence — these, too, were a part of the Steve Esmedina that I knew, a part not easily shared with many others, and as I listen to those haunted voices offering up their thoughts to the great unknown spirit, I think of Steve and hope my friend’s troubled soul has found peace at last.
“I remember my mother when she was dying.… I heard people talk about immortality but I ain’t seen it. I wonder how it would be when I died. What it would be like to know this breath now was the last one you was ever going to draw? I just hope I can meet it the same way she did, with the same calm. ’Cause that’s where it’s hidden, the immortality I haven’t seen.… Your death that captures all.… You, too, are the source of all that’s going to be born.… Maybe all men got one big soul, where everybody’s a part of it. All faces of the same man, one big self. Everyone looking for salvation by himself. Each like a coal, thrown from the fire.… Are you righteous, kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your sufferings will be less because you loved goodness, truth? This great evil — where did it come from? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us? Robbing us of light and life. Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow or the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you too? Have you passed through this night? One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there’s nothing but unanswered pain. That death’s got the final word — it’s laughing at him. Another man sees that same bird and feels the glory.… Where was it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with, walked with? The brother, the friend. Darkness and light, strife and love — are these the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes, look out at the things you made. All things shining.”