Nostalgia is a powerful and useless emotion, isn’t it? The deep sweetness of memory, mixed with the hollow pain of loss and longing, finished off with the harsh realization you can never have it back. Memories of cuddling a beloved pet while sharing your secrets; sitting in a kitchen full of wonderful aromas, love, and your grandma’s smile; carousing with friends when life was simpler and you had the fearlessness of youth; or perhaps getting lost in a brief, passionate, perfect romance.
In the fall of 1984, I was in my first semester as a freshman at a small university in Southern California. Early on, I managed to meet the self-styled campus drug dealer, another freshman who was from a nearby town. He was a small, scrappy guy with blond hair that had a big cowlick in the front and beady yellow eyes. To quote Ralphie in the movie A Christmas Story, “So help me God, yellow eyes!” In a nod to Ralphie, we’ll call him Scut. And like Scut in A Christmas Story, this guy was a bit of a sadist and had power issues.
Oh shit! That’s right! I took acid before I left the party last night.
But, he also had an endless supply of drugs which he generously shared, a relaxed, affable roommate who was a pleasure to be around, and a small nervous dog that he secreted in his dorm room. So being a fan of drugs, nice people, and animals, I spent a fair amount of time at Scut’s.
A few weeks into the semester, I began to receive mail in my box addressed to ‘Otto Jewell’ at a different dorm. “Hmm”, I thought. “Some guy on campus with the same last name as me”. I casually mentioned this one day to Scut, and just kept marking the mail “WRONG DORM” and dropping it in the outbox.
One evening I was attending a rather large party in Scut’s room, and he led me over to a fellow party-goer and made an introduction. “Charlene Jewell, this is Otto Jewell. Otto Jewell, Charlene Jewell”. Otto was a shortish guy, in Levi’s and a plain white t-shirt, and blond hair with I swear a ducktail in the back and a curl in the front (but that hairdo may just be my memory playing tricks on me). He had this James-Dean-meets-Brian-Setzer thing going on, and he was adorable. I leaned in and said “I’ve been getting your mail”, and that moment we sat down together and literally talked face to face for hours with this loud, raucous party going on around us. We talked about everything, as we partook in alcohol and party favors as they were offered. Around 4 am, it didn’t strike either of us as a questionable decision to drop acid when it was offered, so I gave him his dose, and he gave me mine. Within 30 minutes, the party was winding down, we’d both forgotten we’d taken anything, and we said goodnight with a promise to talk soon.
Up until that point in my life, sex had been pretty much teenage sex.
I woke up around 9 am the next morning, hopped out of bed, and realized something was not quite right. I was a little light-headed. Things were a little strange – didn’t look or feel quite right – the edges of objects and ideas were a little….off. I splashed some water on my face and looked in the mirror. Oops.
I’m not sure how long I stared at my morphing visage until I remembered. “Oh shit! That’s right! I took acid before I left the party last night. And oh yeah, Otto.” I got dressed and ran off to find my best friend Syd. Nobody better to be with on a trip than Syd.
Syd lived a few doors down in my dorm. He had a dry, witty sense of humor, and was a genius at coming up with abstract and unusual concepts, which we would often try to reduce to practice. Syd was an East Coast transplant to Los Angeles, and already a seasoned Deadhead at 18. We shared a love of music, and while our tastes were mostly quite different, they intersected at important places, like Pink Floyd. Best of all, Syd was a connoisseur of experiences. He turned me on to fabulous things like the music of King Crimson, the mad writings of Hunter S. Thompson, the art of Ralph Steadman, and the city of LA. Although we’d only known each other a few weeks, we were already fast friends and partners in crime and misadventure.
I can’t recall if Syd met Otto the same night I did, or if it was shortly thereafter, but ultimately he was as enamored with this new wild spirit as I was. We became a gang of three, separable only when necessary, together most of the time.
Otto and I became a thing within days. And we had great sex. Up until that point in my life, sex had been pretty much teenage sex – a little awkward, mostly just the act of having sex. I mean yes it felt good, but it didn’t really feel like a connection or interaction, just an act. Otto on the other hand was present – I was me, not just a girl. Otto saw me and relished in me, and I in him. I’m pretty sure he was the first guy I actually went to sleep with and woke up next to. It was a big deal.
One night, Otto took the burning candle from the bedside (yeah – he was the kind of guy that would light a candle by the bedside. He was as into mood, atmosphere, and experience as I was. But I digress.) He took the candle and began to drip hot wax on my chest. After a couple of drips, he would blow it cool and soothe me. I’ve never forgotten it – my first foray into sexual anticipation, pain as pleasure, trust. That memory is so seared in my brain I can almost feel it.
In the wee hours, we’d lie in each other’s arms and he’d tell me about growing up in his hometown in Central California, a place I’d never been that seemed forever away. He hated it there – he felt stifled. I would tell him about growing up in my hometown in Montana. He asked a lot of questions. Having grown up in busy, populated California, the idea of such a quiet, empty place as Montana fascinated him. As chance would have it, my career has since taken me to Central California, including his hometown, frequently. I even found out a few years ago that one of my co-workers went to High School with Otto. Kismet.
Of course, music was also part of our connection. For nearly my whole life, turning people onto music and getting turned on in kind has been one of my joys. Otto was into some music that I was only vaguely familiar with– new and old rockabilly, punk, some hard-to-define artists. We’d sit and listen to his records for hours. I found a love for music I had heard before, but not listened to enough – Johnny Cash, Iggy and the Stooges, Stray Cats, Jerry Lee Lewis. The Sex Pistols ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ and Danny Elfman’s “So-Lo” albums were completely new finds that I was head over heels for. (Fun fact: “So-Lo was actually an Oingo Boingo album, but recorded as an Elfman solo project to escape issues with their record label). To this day I can’t hear Boingo’s song “The Last Time” without thinking of Otto. It’s so fitting. Our song, if you will.
A few weeks into the gang of three, Otto’s best friend Randy entered the picture. Randy arrived suddenly to campus one day on a motorbike, his dark hair in a relaxed Mohawk, wearing Army surplus style clothing and black combat boots. Randy was a punker – a quiet, somewhat intellectual, and immediately likable punker. He would take me on rides on the back of his motorbike, and we’d always make a pass through the local cemetery. It was over a century old, with huge trees and beautiful, intricate gravestones. Randy, like the gang of three, sought experiences and mood and believed in aesthetics, and we quickly became a gang of four.
Early one afternoon, Otto announced that we were having movie night. His dorm had a room with a TV and a VCR (a big deal in 1984!) that residents could reserve. He had secured it for the night, so the four of us headed to the nearby Alpha-Beta store for refreshments. We picked up a few things and once we were out of the store, Randy produced an item from his pocket…and a sleeve…and a pant leg. A steak, a lobster tail, and the coup de gras, a bottle of cheap champagne! Delicacies we could not afford on our student budgets! I was both in shock and awe, and while I was a little uneasy learning that Randy was a master shop-lifter, I was really excited about dinner.
Back at campus we cooked up a tasty feast in Syd’s makeshift dorm kitchen (toaster oven + hot plate) and toted it over to Otto’s dorm for movie night. He had rented two films which were quite new at the time – Repo Man and Breathless.
Repo Man is an off-beat film about a young punk rocker who is hunting a high bounty radioactive ’64 Chevy Malibu with a secret cargo in the trunk. The soundtrack bore bands from the relatively new LA punk scene – like Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, and Circle Jerks. Plus Iggy Pop wrote the title theme, and the soundtrack has the honor of being one of the first to use established music tracks rather than an original score, which makes for great movie music.
Breathless stars Richard Gere as a reckless petty criminal obsessed with Jerry Lee Lewis who convinces a woman he only recently met to hit the road for Mexico and have a steamy romance while he flees the police and escalates his criminal behavior. The soundtrack is great – Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, Link Wray, the Pretenders, and instrumentals by Brian Eno & Robert Fripp, and Phillip Glass.
Over time, Repo Man became a cult classic, with the new bands on the soundtrack becoming significant figures in punk rock history. Breathless? Not so much. But what was amazing about movie night (other than our five-finger gourmet dorm feast) was that Otto was able to choose two films that encapsulated who he was so well. Those lead characters, those stories, that music – all a reflection of Otto. Disenfranchised, wild, passionate, reckless, creative, self-destructive, curious, and a bit criminal.
After that, things got a little darker.
Otto’s grandmother, who was funding his college education, passed away sometime around or just after Randy’s arrival, leaving Otto with a sizeable inheritance and her BMW, a beige late 60s/early 70s New Class.
Well, our gang of four had always dabbled in a bit of this and a bit of that when it came to drugs, but now there was a lot of money. Money was particularly handy in the case of one really expensive drug that everyone had previously enjoyed in budget-restricted moderation, cocaine. Otto’s new windfall meant moderation was out the window. Although we were all partaking, Otto was becoming particularly restless and paranoid. Scut, sadistic bastard that he was, fueled the fire by planting seeds that something must be going on between Randy and me. While this was entirely false, it was enough to get Otto wondering, and he would sometimes become cold or slightly hostile until Randy or I could get him to realize it was utter bullshit and Scut was a troublemaker.
Otto declared one day that he needed to stock up and knew someone at another school that could make the deal. So off the gang of four went, in my 1970 Buick Skylark 4-door with Otto at the wheel. To where I don’t know. I think it was UCLA or San Diego State. I honestly don’t remember where we went or how long we were gone. All I know is that it was a drug-fueled adventure to get even more drugs. That trip was likely the closest I’ll ever come to truly relating to Hunter Thompson. I know I was gone long enough to miss a final or two, and that at some point there was discussion of going to San Francisco. Luckily, somewhere in the depths of my addled brain, a voice of reason stirred and said, “no way, you have to take me and my car back to school first.”
So they did. And then the gang minus me loaded up into Otto’s BMW and took off for San Francisco.
Back in reality, my first order of business was to see my professors about my missed finals. Luckily, despite my dubious extra-curricular activities, I was a good student. After some mumbling about illness and apologies on my part, they responded with concern, relief, and “of course you can make up your test. How about Friday morning?”
Next, I received a much-deserved ass chewing from a friend, involving “what were you thinking?”, “you look like shit”, and “irresponsibility”, and followed by him effectively locking me and my books in his room with orders to “study and get my shit together”. It is truly good to have friends.
A week later, my shit was fairly back together and my finals were passed, but Syd was still AWOL and no communication. This was in the days before e-mail and cell phones, so it wasn’t quite as alarming as it would be today, but still, what had Otto and Randy done with my Syd? He had finals to take as well. Where the hell was he?
After a couple of weeks of waiting, worrying, and wondering, Syd resurfaced. After a couple of crazy weeks, he woke up one morning in a Berkeley flophouse where the three of them were staying to find that Otto and Randy had taken off and abandoned him there. He scraped some cash together, took the Greyhound bus back to LA, and had a friend bring him back to school. I was happy Syd was back, and we returned to our life of existential hi-jinks, only occasionally asking each other “I wonder whatever happened to Otto and Randy.”
Several few months later I received a postcard of a golden-colored horse with a blond mane and tail, sporting a saddle. The reverse side had an inverted postage stamp of a wooden duck decoy and said “Wanna buy a duck?” A short note explained that the postcard was from their Oregon passage and that he and Randy were back in the Central Valley moving into a house. “Miss you! Affectionately yours, Otto”. It was the last time ever I heard from him.
Now that we have the internet, I looked for Otto recently and found him. He is an attorney specializing in children’s rights, and domestic and gender violence. He is an activist and a voice for people who are suffering. It made my heart smile to know he stayed true to what he believed in.
And guess where he got his law degree. The University of Montana. Is this my little contribution to Otto’s movie? I like to think so.
I cherish having briefly lived a fragment of Repo Man and Breathless. A brief, passionate, perfect romance. It is only with time and age that I have realized how rare and unique connections like the ones I had with Otto and Syd are. What I wouldn’t give to go back and relive one week with my gang.
Ah, nostalgia is a powerful and useless emotion, isn’t it?