He feared his maturity as it grew upon him with its ripe thought, its skill, its finished art; yet which lacked the poetry of boyhood to make living a full end of life. — T.E. Lawrence
I found him though the auspices of St. Vincent’s Village, through someone named Carlos Fowler, who had taped the man. He is real, not famous, pretty much a forgotten footnote in the speculative-fiction annals of the momentarily notable. I remember his several works because of a short piece that affected me while I was going through the same affliction myself. I do not know if the interview subject still lives or not. This interview took place six months ago, and death is not uncommon for a denizen of the street.
He was never sure as to his age. He was probably no more than 35, he reckoned, though he might be closer to 40. The vagaries of his birth, the timing of it, was rivaled by his faulty memory, made worse by alcoholism. He took his cues from his peers, on the street and in the bars, when he could afford them (his SSI check came in at the first of the month). He’d been diagnosed at the clinic by the presence of Reed-Sternberg cells — Hodgkin’s lymphoma — growing wildly and terminally to their inexorable end: painful, grotesque, permitting no dignity in the final weeks or months of rampage. It was often referred to as “the young person’s disease.” It was also referred to as “the good cancer”; in other words, the most treatable of the “’omas.”
He insisted on anonymity to the point of obsessiveness — not only his name but the titles of his works, thus making much of Carlos Fowler’s information unverifiable.
He could already walk and say things like “light” and “smoke” and “Daddy” and “fuck” at nine months old. That was in ’78 or ’79, he was told, but it could have been ’80, as his mother (she said, later in life) had been admitted somewhere around midnight on that December/cusp-of-January night. Hospital records from the period were compromised by snow turned into rain that flooded the streets, basements, sewers, rivers, and the souls of Chicagoans already dampened by history and immigrant jokes about luck or the American Dream.
For all practical purposes, the youngish man’s name was Weems, though he had used many others. He was never precisely popular in his chosen field, but years ago, critics took note of him. The man was in his teens when he made his first sales to the pulp markets. To popular audiences, the dear and constant readers of science fiction and fantasy, he seemed inscrutable, incomprehensible, and so self-absorbed that one who was hardly among the East Coast literati but rather a populist beacon and reviewer for sci-fi/ fantasy was compelled to write: “D.D. Weems (or d.d. weems, as he would have it — à la e.e. cummings) is in constant danger of crawling up his own bunghole should he get any more introspective and self-indulgent while trying to tell a story.”
A 40ish, semi-retired journalist named Fowler, in search of Weems (weems) had been a writer of various genre fictions himself. He knew his proposed subject was obscure, an example of Warhol’s 15 minutes of dubious fame; but the writer held a certain fascination for the journalist. An alternate mirror of remote possibilities. Fowler is now a part-time volunteer at a homeless facility in the neighborhood. I’d never heard of him before, and my material is both paraphrased and verbatim from Fowler’s recorder. He wanted no credit but did not mind his name being used, as long as it was clear that the stuff on the recorder came from a schizophrenic alcoholic. However, Fowler was convinced that this was the same man who, at a young age, had showed so much promise, who had established a small cult following briefly, and mostly among intellectual high-schoolers.
Looking along the length of Imperial Avenue this morning, in San Diego’s Southeastern section — Desolation Row, as the old veterans call the stretches beneath bridges nearby — D.D. Weems turned to his interviewer, an old hippie with a tape recorder and a job, and repeated the man’s question: “Where do I get my ideas?” He gestured vaguely. “They’re on every street corner, as O. Henry once said.”
The kid (that’s how the interviewer thought of the prodigy) had been published in the Paris Review when he was 17, Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly before he was 20; then in the genre magazines, an inexplicable career turn during his 20s. He went on to publish in magazines such as Fantasy and Science Fiction, England’s Interzone and New Worlds.
The reporter knew his work. But he’d thought that Weems was an older man.
The kid (Fowler thought of everyone under the age of 40 as a kid), who wrote under the name d.d. weems, and whose real name was mutable but often Richard Alexander on pulp-magazine covers, continued his thought: “O. Henry was a bad influence on everyone, and so was Rod Serling. All those facile and predictable twist endings.”
The reporter had heard that Weems/Alexander/Roger Slade/Mac Miller — or any of the dozen other pen names he’d used in the late ’70s and throughout the ’80s — was living a homeless life under bridges or in bushes or shelters. This intelligence came to him through friends in the independent used/retail book business, what was left of it. Four hard-scrabbling, barely surviving booksellers had each spoken some version of: “You remember D.D. Weems,” 15, 20 years ago? “He was like the next Delany, Malzberg, Stanislaw Lem, or Disch, or whatever. Except he disappeared. You used to write science fiction,” they told Fowler. “You must remember him.”
Fowler most certainly remembered: the idiosyncratic style, the writer’s use of smaller-case letters for his byline, like e. e. cummings. His bizarre but intriguing premises. Like, the inevitable madness space travel would inflict on crews and passengers. Or the mental deterioration of hack science-fiction writers producing, in the 1950s, impossible word counts — its effects on their lives, relationships, sanity, usually culminating in a bonfire of expository prose and action that was grotesque. Conventional reviewers in the trades compared this phase to “Rock and Roll about Rock and Roll: ineluctably boring and self-indulgent.”
The semi-retired reporter could not help but seek out this J.D. Salinger of gaudy-colored paperbacks, the inspiration for more than one Ivy League student’s master’s thesis on the relevance of a ghetto genre at the turn of the millennium. One young woman’s paper had been published in The Iowa Review; she’d coined the term “Meta-Sci-Fi.” It was run up the flagpole of one publisher’s sales force and no one saluted. It, like Weems, is now forgotten.
The reporter, working on his own memoir and seeking distraction (please, Lord, anything but this crap again) was intrigued, as he was informed that Weems (or whatever his real name was) alternately taught creative writing at San Diego State, worked at a 7-Eleven in Carlsbad, lived under a bridge at the junction of the 805 and the 163, or was in the psych ward at Tri-City hospital in Vista.
After checking the Paul Mirabile Center roster, or last night’s bed check (this after much rigmarole with security and management), he found the name Wiley Alexander. An example of the younger man’s sense of humor, but, also, the older writer hoped, a signpost for someone, anyone, to find him. A breadcrumb along a trail.
When Fowler found Weems, the man (the kid?) looked a decade older than he’d pictured him.
One dust-jacket photo for Mythocide showed a boy in his early 20s, preppy, about to play tennis or go sailing. But the man before Fowler now was a grizzled street denizen with missing teeth. He was seemingly older than Fowler himself, yet youth lingered there…somewhere: in the curvature of cheekbones and lips; in the prematurely white, yet youthfully nascent facial stubble; in the eyes.
“Have you written anything recently, and why did you come to San Diego?” the graybeard with the recorder asked, desperate to get his questions in before Alexander or Weems or Clark Kent could drink the next Steel Reserve beer.
“No — and I don’t know. My social worker says I shouldn’t make any more income because they’ll just deduct it from Social Security. She advises me to write my biography and self-publish it for no profit. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. ‘Vanity publishing,’ and that’s what it’s called, actually, it costs you money. Money I don’t have. And I have no interest in that. I have Hodgkin’s lymphoma, with maybe six months or a year to live, and I suppose I could get a book out of that, but I’ve put so much of my own life into my fiction, I figure, what’s the point? I feel like I’ve already written it.”
“You won a Galactic Award for best novella, didn’t you? Back in, what was it, 1980?”
“Yeah. That’s like the Special Olympics Award for literature. I gave it to my social worker. And one day I was over there and saw that she uses it to prop up one leg of her piano.”
“How did you end up on the streets of San Diego?”
“That was the fare I could afford from L.A. What was left I used on a room at the Plaza downtown. Total rathole.”
“What were you doing in L.A.?”
“I was technical advisor for the Syfy Channel on a pilot called ‘Centauri Pirates’ or ‘Pirates of Proxima.’ They hadn’t made up their minds yet. I was making $4500 a week, and after two weeks, that’s what I needed to live on in Studio City. Anyway, the series was flushed, and after nine weeks I had a bad coke habit and a taste for champagne that wouldn’t quit. This,” he lifted and drained a can of Steel Reserve malt liquor, “is the new love of my life, muse, agent…whatever.”
“You must have written something in the past few years.”
“Oh, well, I’ve taken certain approaches to my memoirs. I had a social worker/shrink suggest this. Oh, I told you. I may have some pages…ah…”
Here Weems handed Fowler a Jack-in-the Box wrapper for some sort of large burger. Among the grease stains was cramped but flawless handwriting in blue ink. The title seemed to be “Lust Bucket.”
It began: “I was born of poor but honest parents on a blustery December night in the city of Waukegan, Illinois, just north of Chicago, in the year of our Lord 1977. It was a ‘precipitous birth,’ said the doctor, one Luchesi Carmenetto. By which he meant, in the race between my mother’s death and my own, I won.
“For those of you who wish to read of events of my early life and forego the biographical details of my ancestry — which is every reader’s solemn right — please turn to Chapter #104, page #389: ‘I Emerge From the Womb: Infant of Destiny.’”
This burger wrapper was given to Fowler, who threw it away after being disgusted with the unverifiable interview. The scrap was clearly Weems’s sense of an intrinsic absurdity in autobiographies.
I have seen “Weems” myself, in line for a free lunch at St. Vincent’s. It must have been the man Fowler described, though he was incoherently drunk and insisted on being left alone. I later watched as security pulled him out of the line after he’d fallen twice, and they walked him to Imperial Avenue and told him to move on.