Ed. Adam Parfrey, publisher of books from Feral House and writer for the Reader, died on May 10, 2018. The following came by email to the Reader on July 3.
It is not generally appreciated that famous publisher Adam Parfrey once lived just off Lincoln Boulevard, a dismal stretch of gasoline-alley slightly east of Venice, California, and just over the line in Santa Monica. Twenty years ago I used to see him in the local coffeehouse. Sometimes he had his current girlfriend with him, sometimes it was just Adam. I knew who he was because somebody pointed him out to me. I’d heard he wrote, or published, nasty satirical books, so he was sort of a celebrity in these parts.
Adam Parfrey had a big mop of black hair and looked rather like Orson Welles in The Lady from Shanghai, so you couldn’t miss him. Eventually we had a nodding acquaintance, and once we even drove down to San Diego together, and went to the zoo. And that, dear friends, is what today’s story is about.
First of course you want to know about the coffeehouse. It was an okay coffeehouse, typical of the region, with a regular clientele of aspiring young screenwriters who sat by the window all day, hunched over their Powerbook 540s. I too was an aspiring screenwriter, more or less, forever reworking my “high-concept” script. It was kind of a mashup of The Asphalt Jungle and Chinatown. I would read parts of it in my screenwriting class and everybody would laugh, saying the characters weren’t “believable.”
Eventually I took a job in the coffeehouse, because that way I could get free coffee, and when business was slow I could work on my screenplay. I started modeling my characters and dialogue on some of the customers, thinking this would give them verisimilitude. But my screenwriting class laughed even harder and told me I had to get out more.
At the coffeehouse we had rapid turnover in our counter-people (this is before the “barista” nonsense started), so before long I was the senior member of the staff, entitled to the princely wage of ten dollars per hour, plus half the tips. We set up a big latte cup on the counter as a begging-bowl for tips. Sometimes we’d start the day with a couple of fives and maybe a twenty in it, just to encourage people to “give generously.” That worked on weekends, but on weekdays people would see it and just be too embarrassed to leave their fifty cents or a dollar, so they left nothing at all. Someday I must write a book about about the science and practice of begging-bowls.
I remember Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver had a bruncherie nearby. They were said to have stopped in at our coffeehouse, though I never saw them. Maybe I was looking the other way. I wasn’t a terribly good coffee-processor, but I was the only person who knew how to operate the machinetta properly, so on busy days I was busy. The machinetta was a antiquated-looking brass-covered contraption, Italian supposedly, that mixed up the espresso and steamed milk or whatever. It had more knobs and controls than a space capsule, but most of them were strictly for show and not connected to anything.
And on such a busy day as this (a Saturday) Adam and his girlfriend invited me to go down to San Diego with them the following day. “We’re going to the zoo!” said the girlfriend, who had a china-doll haircut and looked about twelve years old.
I hadn’t been south of Newport Beach in, like, ten years, so I said yes. Then I remembered I was supposed to work tomorrow, and I was still the only one who could work the machinetta. So I gave a crash-course to one of screenwriter kids who worked part-time.
“Don’t touch this. Don’t move this, I have the levels right where I want them. Turn this lever to steam the milk, but only when the light is on.” Et cetera.
I had my first misgivings about the trip when I saw Adam’s car next morning. It was an Oldsmobile Cutlass from about 1970. The muffler and tailpipe seemed to be hanging loose, the fenders were all dented, and as I soon learned, one of the door handles didn’t work and the door’s window didn’t roll down.
There’s a whole backstory to this, which I’ll get to.
“I’m so hap-hap-happy you wanted to come with us!” exulted Adam’s girlfriend. She was wearing a short black dress with a white Peter Pan collar, and big round Jackie Kennedy sunglasses. She really was juvenile, affectedly so. If you saw her in the morning light you’d guess she was 25 but pretending to be 15. You’d probably guess she was into anime and manga, and that sort of thing. Later that day, when we got to a Mexican restaurant in Old Town, they carded her and she was really flattered. Then she asked for some phone books to sit on so she could see over the table. You know, like when you brought a toddler to Howard Johnson’s in 1963, and they didn’t have a highchair.
What was her name? I forget it now. Adam’s succession of doxies has wiped it from memory. But I think it was a river; Adam tended to have girlfriends with river names. One was named Jordan, another was named Columbia. This one might have been Suwanee, but I’m not sure, so I’ll call her Schuylkill.
Adam, who was then about 40, did not dress very well and never brushed his hair, but he had a superior way about himself. There were vast lacunae in his knowledge which he would cover up by pooh-poohing whatever you told him. I remember we were driving down Lincoln or Abbot Kinney, trying to find our way to something that would connect with the 405 freeway (a lot harder than you’d imagine) and I suggested a certain road because it was even-numbered.