Saturday, July 12, 2014

An Old Friend and a New Town

Old friends pass away, new friends appear. It is just like the days. An old day passes, a new day arrives. The important thing is to make it meaningful: a meaningful friend - or a meaningful day.

Dalai Lama

The past never leaves us, though many people do.  This seems to be the way of life.  They come and they go.  Moving as much as I did in my life, I still never completely accepted this.  Perhaps that’s why it was always easy for me to make and keep friends, or at lease some of them.
When I arrived in San Diego in 1976, it wasn’t a huge metropolis, but it was a big city, much bigger than Monterey.  It was the first big city I was old enough to explore on my own.  I was old enough to explore Monterey, but in the two-and-a-half years I lived there, I had walked through most of it. San Diego had much more to see.
I tell my readers and myself that I liked to explore, but the truth is I was looking for one thing only – comic book stores.  In Monterey there were none. I had to look for treasures in bookstores, pawnshops, and even barbershops, and hope I’d get lucky.  Occasionally I would find something, but I spent more time searching than finding. 
San Diego was different.  At this time, San Diego had at least five comic book stores, all of which I could get to by bus or foot.  And, miracle of miracles, a new comic book store was opening – in Lemon Grove – six blocks from my house!
If my life were to be written into chapters, there would need to be at least one chapter devoted to Main Street Comics and its co-founder, Dick Clark.  I found out about the store by seeing a half-page flyer lying on the floor in the dealers’ room of the El Cortez Hotel at the1976 San Diego Comic Con.  (One advantage, I thought, of moving to San Diego would be that I would be able to go to the comic convention every year for all four days.  In nearly 40 years, that has yet to happen.  I have always missed at least one day every year.  Perhaps I will need to leave San Diego and come back as a visitor again for that to enjoy full attendance.)
Still, this convention, my second, was great fun and it’s where I saw the flyer for a comic book store soon to open in Lemon Grove.  The next day, Monday, I phoned the number.  What I wanted, even more than to go to a comic book store, was to work at one.  It was my dream.  I arranged an interview with one of the owners, Chuck Bobo.  Chuck was an affable fellow and we sat and talked about comic books, but he didn’t offer me a job.  He said I would need to talk to his business partner, Dick Clark (no relation to the celebrity). 
I don’t know how to describe Dick.  He was part con man and part kind man.  When I say he was part con man, I don’t mean he cheated people.  He was honest.  He just made promises he couldn’t keep.  He made things seem bigger and more important than they needed to be.  Everything was secretive.  He would say, “Now don’t tell anyone, but one day I’m going to expand this store.”  Or, “I have a secret method for knowing every single comic book I’ve ever sold.”  (He put a small pencil mark on the top corner of the third page.)  Dick was also crude, blunt, rude, and foul-mouthed when it was just the guys.
As a kid who was enamored with anything connected to comic books, I didn’t care.   I thought it was wonderful.  I spent as many hours of my day there as I possibly could.  I’m pretty sure I went every single day that it was open.  It was there that I became friends with Mike Hammond, Kenny Ramos, and Buddy and Henry Gaea.  Through Buddy and Henry, I got a job through their sister Betty at Grossmont Community College a few years later. 
I also became friends with Dick’s brothers, Mike, Scott, and Dana.  Four more different brothers one couldn’t find, except for perhaps in The Brothers Karamazov or in my family.  I even became friends with Dick’s mom, Mickey, though we didn’t like each other at first.  She didn’t like the way I handled the “mint-condition” comic books, and I didn’t like her yelling at me.  Eventually, however, we became good friends.  I became fairly involved with the whole family.  Mike Hammond, my closest friend in that period, and I had dinner and spent the night at Dick’s parents’ house on a few occasions.  One year, I spent Christmas night there.  Though I loved the family, the best part of it was that there were comic books everywhere. 
Unfortunately, it all ended.   Dick and Chuck had a falling out and dissolved the partnership.  They sold the store.  Chuck tried to start one again from his garage, but that didn’t work out.  Most of the inventory went to Mickey Clark’s house and I never saw those comics again. 
As these things happen, Dick faded from my life.  I moved out of Lemon Grove, only one town away, but without a car, it was hard to see Dick.  In fact, one night the whole gang went to the Clarks for dinner and I missed going by five minutes because I was somewhere else and didn’t get back in time.
I saw Dick once more in 1984.  He was divorced, had cancer, and was dying, but he had given his life to Christ and was at peace.  We talked for a while and then I left.  He died a few months later.  His mother, Mickey, called me the day of the funeral, but my work schedule, an injury, and an out-of-town commitment all conspired to keep me from going.
Despite Dick’s brash exterior, he was kind to me.  He even took me to an evening adult school class on how to be a clown.  (“There is no place in the clown community for a sad-faced clown,” I remember the instructor saying.  We even did a couple of parades.)  Dick was a mentor without trying to be. When I didn’t finish my commitment to the clown class, he rightfully scolded me. 
People come in and out of our lives sometimes in ways we don’t expect.  For better or worse, I’ve never forgotten any of them.  In this way I’m like Charlie Citrine in Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift – people in my past are still important to me.  They contributed something to my life and I’m grateful.  Each in their own way, taught me to Get Started and Keep Going.