The Starving Nutritionist

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I could have titled this Turning a Prophet, had the whole experience not been so costly. Paid to be a personal savior & messiah, I thought I had it made. Simple drama devolves into enlightenment film noir.

I was sitting at the counter of Beth's Cafe at six in the morning, strung out, babbling excitedly at Calvin, the day cook. It was the end of my shift washing dishes and cracking eggs for the legendary twelve egg omelets and I was on a sleep deprivation high. I'd just bought a 1965 twenty-two foot step van and joined the Mobile Ghetto. I was full of my new freedom, full of plans to transform the van into a luxurious Gypsy home. I was finally going to be able to go home to Michigan, I thought, and couldn't wait to pay off my debts and hit the road.

I always liked raving at Calvin. He embodied the best definition of taciturn I've ever found and would just nod and shake his head and growl, slowly bringing me out of my caffeinated stratosphere every morning. Whether he actually listened, I have no idea, but this particular morning I gained an audience in the guy sitting beside me. He introduced himself as Tyler Torgerson and his eyes glistened when he broke my fevered monologue with an offer to buy me breakfast. That got my wary attention right away, and it was only then that I noticed him.

He wasn't the sort to stand out in a crowd, except by his lack of presence, the vague vacuum he introvertedly cast. He was corpulent, pale with a babyish face and hesitant expression, about my father's age. He wore a streamlined bicycle helmet, as though worried that he might fall at any moment from his perch on the stool. I should have seen the desperation in his eyes, the fault lines of a man about to crack, but I guess I was too wired. I got free meals at work and told him that, but something in the incongruity of his offer got me to talking with him instead of hassling Calvin.

He said he'd been listening to me talk and wanted to hear more about my life. He was intrigued by my ideas, the life of freedom and adventure I advocated. Happy to oblige someone attentive, I went on at length, telling stories, philosophizing, bullshitting away. He listened intently, interrupting only to ask questions at first. Eventually he told me something of his life. He claimed to be from New York, where he had made seventy grand a year as a nutritional advisor to Nixon and Carter. After a bad divorce he had quit his position and hit the road, winding up here.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, he astounded me by asking if I would teach him, if he could "follow" me. He said he wished to go back east himself and would be willing to pay for the work on my van, and all the food and gas along the way, if I would only accept him as a student and teach him all I knew.

At first I didn't quite know what to say.

I probably only thought "easy money" once through, all four syllables, before saying it might just work. As I took him out to see the van itself, he said, "I just need to know I can trust you, that's all. I don't really trust anyone anymore. I have to be able to trust you that you'll do what you say". "Shit, no problem," I said, "I'm eminently trustworthy". The relative squalor of the van met his romantic expectations and we shook on it. The deal was done. We would "Journey to the East" together, a modern reenactment of Herman Hesse's classic tale of enlightenment.

So suddenly I had an actual disciple and seemed to have conquered my economic blight as well. All sorts of problems came out of this.

The first difficulty was that he seemed to think I was running a twenty-four hour school. Every time I got up, even to go to the can, it seemed, he wanted to know where I was going, when I'd be back, when he would see me again. No matter how many times I reprimanded him about the virtues of independent thinking, these ugly scenes persisted. I told him he had to learn a few lessons on his own, to no avail. I'd give him missions to get him out of my hair, but he'd get lost and slink back. I told him he was cramping my style to the point that he wouldn't learn anything, all to no avail.

Worse, he was terminally un-hip. He insisted on wearing his bicycle helmet everywhere he went, which was everywhere I went. This was long before bicycle chic. I very patiently explained to him that my major objective was to get laid, that his moronic appearance was diminishing my odds. He didn't get it. I began to feel prisoner in my own coffeehouse. But I needed the money so I hung on.

The next setback came when he was thrown out of his place. He wanted to know if he could stay with me and reminded me that he had already given me money to get the clutch fixed. That was beside the point anyway. In the Mobile Ghetto as I experienced it, the rules of high hospitality were practiced to the benefit of total strangers and merely strange alike. He had no place to go and asked, so I had to let him in. I didn't have to let him stay, but I had to let him in. The sense of confinement increased. The only time I got away was when he was working or when I could give him the slip some other way.

Each night, he dragged his mountain bike over my futon as he came in. I hounded him to use his fancy lock and secure it to the bumper, but he wouldn't think of it. He would curl around the damn thing in his corner and read the Bible. Looking up from my rage at the mud and catastrophe his bike had scraped across my bed and floor, I'd scream at him, "What the fuck is that, the Bible? Get that pack of lies and libel out of my sight!" "But I'm a Christian Jew," he would say. "Then what the hell did you hire me to teach you to be a Zen Beatnik for?"  "I want to learn to be like you." "Then throw the damn Bible away! I've never read it and it's totally incompatible with what you say you want to learn. If you keep up with this Christian Jew thing, you'll never learn what I know."

He would just turn the other cheek and I'd grind my teeth to sleep. It wasn't that bad yet. I liked to think, in those days, that I thrived on adversity. And I still needed the money. But it got worse.

I managed to get clear of Ty long enough to score a new lover. I was excited. It had been months since I'd balled. I brought her home.

Ty was there when we arrived and I explained that he couldn't stay that night. He got indignant first, then childishly helpless. "But where will I sleep?" he pouted. "Y'know all the friends of mine that are homeless, like Billy and Yellowhawk?" I asked. He nodded. "Well they mostly sleep in the parks. Your mission, tonight, is to go sleep in the park at the end of this lot we're parked in. See what you can learn. I've done it lots of times,” I lied, “It'll help you know all the things I know." He wanted to know what he should do if the cops came and I told him it wouldn't be a problem if he just found a good, sheltered spot where they wouldn't see him. I gave him a dark colored blanket and he left.

No sooner had we slipped out of our clothes and into each other, than there was a knock on the door. It was Ty. "What?" I growled. He came in. "I was trying to sleep, but the cops came and said I couldn't sleep there. They asked where I came from and I said I was with the guy in the van. They said they'd be over to check it out in a few minutes." "Fuck, Ty, you ass! We're parked illegally. Where did the damn keys go, anyway?". After having the bike dragged in and out for days, everything was a mess. I couldn't find the keys anywhere. I had taken out my contacts and was wearing my glasses, an old prescription that didn't really work well enough to drive. I stabbed a screwdriver into the ignition and booked out of there, transmission screaming.

When we reached our new spot, near Gasworks Park, I told Ty to get out and find a better hiding place this time. He balked. And pouted. He even swore. He sat on the engine cover and refused so petulantly that it was all I could do not to give him a spanking and send him to his room without supper. By the time this had gone on for forty-five minutes I had lost all patience. I told him he could use the door or go through the windshield and I didn't give a flying fuck which. Once he believed me, he used the door. Meg and I balled all night long, once I calmed down a bit. It was great. It looked like the beginning of something really good, if I could only graduate my pupil and send him on his way. I needed to come up with an accelerated learning curriculum, and present him with his tuition bill.

The next day, Ty was back. I was almost surprised. I told him he was going to have to get his own place soon, now. There's a limit to any guest's welcome. He suggested that since I knew more about that sort of thing, maybe I could find one for him. I just stared at him. He was twice my age or better, and asking me to get him a pad. I explained the classified ad system, how to dial a phone, the whole thing in very small sentences. He still wanted me to do it. I was on the edge of just killing him. There's more than one way to get to Nirvana, some of them very direct and only physically messy.

He escalated the pressure to spend time together, dogging my steps more closely and beginning to lay blame at my feet for his lack of any perceived enlightenment. Things began to get truly ugly. I nagged after him about getting his own place, but nothing happened.

Then he lost his job.

This didn’t crimp things for too long because he managed to take my old dish washing position at Beth’s café, where I had moved up to waiting tables. This gave him the opportunity to take things out on me as our relationship soured, by withholding silverware during the bar rush, that sort of thing. Ty excelled at passive aggression. The true hell was that he now shadowed me from dawn to dusk and back again. He worked where I worked, slept where I slept and sulked around looking stupid wherever I went to play.

The next time I rode him about finding a new place to live, he tried a new maneuver. He was lonely, he said. He got all edgy and red-faced and then asked me if I would have "sexual intercourse" with him. He'd do anything I wanted, he simpered, but he hated women and wanted me to fuck him—I was the only person he felt he knew well enough to ask. I lost it.

It wasn't homophobia, it was disgust and deep personal hatred. He was physically and in all other ways repulsive. He had come to be the greatest thorn in my side I could imagine, over the month or two I'd known him. I couldn't believe he even had the balls to ask. I kicked him out. He sat crying in the grass as I hurled his things out the door. I drove off to find a new place to park, elated to be free of my burden at last.

I came home that night with Zeebie to find him sleeping on the sidewalk next to my van. "Ty! Get up! What the fuck do you think you're doing?" "Sleeping." he replied "but I'm not talking to you anymore. I'm not listening either. I don't trust you." "You ain't sleeping here." I said, "Let me give you one last bit of advice, Ty. The whole city, the whole damn world, is yours. That cement sidewalk can't be comfortable, man. Why don't you at least go down in the bushes there? I don't need you drawing heat to my van, dig?" "What? I can't hear you." Zeebie repeated what I had said, more or less and, to him, Ty said "Oh, cops? They've been by already."

The conversation took longer to enact, but far less time to reach boiling point as Zeebie played the middleman, repeating words to Ty, who eventually refused to respond to anything at all unless it came solely from Zeebie.

It was at that point, more or less, that I made a firm, cold-blooded decision to kill him immediately. He got up as I came at him, and I had a fleeting realization that despite his flab he was much bigger than I was. I suddenly understood that he might actually be able to hurt me, but I was way beyond caring. Zeebie moved in to grab me and pull me back. I was pissed, but he got me off aways and talked some sense to me. Then he went and talked sense to Ty, who finally disappeared.

It was just about the most shameful lesson of my whole life. In the end, I ended up teaching him the last thing he needed to know, the last thing I would have ever wanted to teach him. At that point I vowed never to try and teach anything to anyone again. Every now and then, until I left Seattle, I would think I saw him dogging me, a pale and sickened wraith bent in some twisted nightmare of confused desire.

It always gave me chills.

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John T. Unger poet

I'm best known as an artist and designer. Relaxing makes me tense, so I tend to put in a lot of hours on diverse projects.

Before becoming a visual artist, I spent 15 years as a poet. I studied poetry at Interlochen Arts Academy, Naropa, Stone Circle and on the streets. I performed my work for years at Stone Circle, solo shows, poetry readings, and at Lollapalooza in 1996.

I still write poems, but only if I can make them fit the constraints ofTwitter.

Mobile: 231.584.2710 (9 to 5 PST only) | Email me

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