Soaking a Pot Overnight: A Remembrance of Joe Carioti:
I’ll start with something funny, like the time our boss wrote in the kitchen crew journal: “Soaking a pot overnight doesn’t do a goddamn thing.” Shit, lady, that’s what my mom always did. How was I supposed to know anything kitchen-related other than what my mom taught me? I was twenty-two, in a steep post-college depression. I’d earned a degree in English and had learned nothing about pot-scrubbing. Joe Carioti had worked a lot in kitchens. He soaked burnt pots too. Everyone did. Notes like that at five in the morning were so rude, such openly awful behavior from a hungover grouch. But we laughed it off, and it became our anti-motto.
One of the things Joe and I got into was James Lee Burke novels. We’ve both read them all. In his last email he wrote that he’d applied for a job and that he had “dry-gulched one of Clete’s bail skippers.” Burke’s characters Cletus Purcell and Dave Robicheaux formed some of the geography or the code of our conversations. I think Joe was saying his bad boy was still pretty much in charge but his intentions were good, like Clete’s. I gave him a copy of Burke’s novel Rain Gods when he was staying at Royal Avenue Shelter Care, and he tore through it. Maybe it was the last book he read.
Royal Avenue is a shelter for folks in crisis. Three squares, a clean room, a place to rest, make phone calls and fill out forms and applications if you are motivated, even while life plus your own bad choices are kicking you square in the face. The staff there liked Joe and liked that he had a support team, people calling and visiting. We wanted to be sure that they saw it, too. People with a team have a better shot. I’m grateful to that place because I got to have a lucid conversation with Joey there. I met him out there on Hiway 99 with our friend Steve. We had teriyaki at food cart across the street. I even earned a new rude nickname: Double Meat, because I got extra chicken. Steve was nudging, nudging—goals, think goals—what are you goals today—did you make a list? Steve and Eilleen got up close to Joe in the last weeks, so fearless and giving, almost every day. They demolished my entire library of Buddhist books with their relaxed, intimate way of being present with Joe.
The big goal was to get Joe onto the Oregon Health Plan, so he could detox and go into residential treatment. He knew he was too far gone for anything but residential, but it also scared him, so he would fudge around that, maybe not get the paperwork quite right. Moments of fussiness made it clear he wasn’t quite committed, head on. I ragged on him to go to 12-step meetings. He hated them, but he went, at the Catholic church near the library. He had thirty days to wait to find out about OHP…on a waiting list for housing, a waiting list for a place to park his trailer. It was cross-your-fingers time for Joe and his support team--Steve, Eilleen, Russ, Eric, Dena, plus lots of other people doing what they could.
I didn’t do much of the time-consuming, social service work for Joe. Steve and Eileen did. It’s a full time job, and it’s not by the book. You have to press hard, ask questions, find the opportunities. There’s luck and relationship-building involved. Advocating for someone in Joe’s position is more like petitioning the Catholic church to make your aunt a saint. It’s a long shot. Your aunt WAS a saint. So was mine. (Aunt Shirley--paid me two dollars to kiss her goodbye once.) But there’s only so much room at the inn, especially for someone ambivalent about getting in.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Greg Brown because Joe and I shared that, and sitting in the front room with “The Live One” was the first thing to get through the shock and fatigue, down into the loss and old memories below doing normal stuff. “Brand New Dodge,” “One More Goodnight Kiss,” “Boomtown.” I was wanting to write Greg a devil-may-care email and ask him to sing a song for Joe because I told Joe I’d take him to the concert at The Shed in October. I wanted Joe to see something on the horizon that would be nothing but delight and music and goodness for his soul. Not some white boy like me bugging him to go to NA, AA, and whatever other A’s there are. I wanted him to feel surrounded by that spooky baritone and hear the stories. I told him he was my date and to put it on his Google calendar.
Joe wrote back and said he wanted to go to The 19th Street Cafe for fries and malt vinegar before the show because we saw Greg Brown there once, before a concert at Agate Hall, writing in his journal at a table by himself. We were eating fries and malt vinegar and drinking pints. That was a big deal, because Greg Brown was doing the kind of thing we did but felt embarrassed about: writing alone in a café. Greg Brown, a solitary nerd? That was hardcore.
One time I went out to Joe and Michelle’s farmhouse on the ridge and we tried to cook a goose. I think maybe Michelle had a women’s group or something and so we were having boys’ group of two. Joe stuffed it with hazelnuts and dried cherries, we drank some beer, listened to Tom T. Hall. (One late message from Joe was him singing a verse of “Turn It On, Turn It On, Turn It On.”) We were in our mid-to-late twenties. We had time, we were making time—hanging out. Precious time. The goose was greasy and tough and I don’t think we quite got it right but it felt like a Jim Harrison thing to do. I may have gone to Wendy’s on the way home.
That farmhouse, that land up on the long, wooded ridge outside of town—Joe went there for whatever resembled security, at the end. Homeless no more, he had a little trailer, and a lot of good memories of good years there. I was scared about him going up there to die, haunted, alone, and lost. His old landlord said he could stay there for six weeks. And he did die there. He had books by Michael Connelly and James Lee Burke and Gabriel Garcia Marquez on a shelf above his bed. And his meds and his vodka in plastic bottles and his Noodles In a Cup. He had a Bi-Mart tarp and his coat and sweater were hung on pole. There was an old wooden chair in tall grass. I figure he took some sun there.
I know Joe’s soul was good and the trees were dark and quiet up there and there’s some comfort in that, but I’m also scared that he was scared to the point of crazy, and out of it. That’s hard to shake, the isolation of it, and the huge tree that spanned the driveway, crushing the top of one of the outbuildings. In the first days after he was gone I hoped that his soul would find its way out of those woods--that he would feel all the people crying in town, that he’d come down off the ridge. Then again, if his soul is dark and earthy and old, maybe up there in the trees is where he wants to be. When I went up with Steve and Eilleen I got angry, then subdued, nauseated, then angry again. Then I just tuned in to Joe trying his best. It is a senseless loss, a failure of community. We’re all in this together but people slip off to the margins when there really are no margins. It’s just too fucked up to think about, most of the time. Not having money is no reason to go without necessary medical care.
Another time, I made him and his then-girlfriend Amelia spanish rice casserole,
in my first apartment on 13th, next to Andy’s Guitar Shop (gone) and Pipin’ Hot Bakery (gone.) I went to therapy twice a week for a while when I lived there. The hippie kids upstairs had pachouli-and-incense sex all the time, probably more in one week than I had known in my entire nerdular life. She looked like Joni Mitchell, he looked like Cat Stevens. I took them cookies once, but I think they were getting it on, or doing the kind of yoga that was almost like, or preliminary to, getting it on. I read Neruda and Robert Bly before going in to work alongside Joe, usually around 6 a.m. (Whoever got there first made a brain-crushing pot of melita drip coffee.) Lonely, reading love poems while the neighbors made love upstairs. Joe has always remembered the spanish rice. That was the year he gave me a mix tape “24 and So Much More.” Neil Young, David Crosby, stuff like that.
Somebody partied with Joe the night he died, and I’ve wanted to yell at them and think of life-direction-changing things to say. They also found him dead the next day. So if the direction of their life doesn’t change, then there’s nothing for it. There are cold territories of spiritual self-abandonment that people get stuck in, like partying with someone dancing with death, on methodone, the week he gets his prescription filled. Maybe Joe lived there, part of the time. Maybe they went back for more of what he had and found him. There aren’t many books you read in college about that. The books that claim to be about such things are usually for vicarious kicks.
One time in the kitchen where we worked I split out my pants doing air guitar kicks to Glass Houses-era Billy Joel and Joe never laughed at anything quite like that. We were making big batches of potato salad and udon tofu noodle. He used to come in and say about the kitchen what his mom used to say about his room when he was growing up—“smells like feet and ass in here!” When Joe was really laughing he would put his head on the prep table and his shoulders would shake. He used to laugh when I was nervous talking to girls and making jokes. He would laugh at my jokes twice as hard as he needed to but there was something in the way he laughed that made me feel okay. The jokes were funny but I was trying too hard by telling them to girls who didn’t laugh.
I sat on a porch swing with Joe at a party before I got up the guts to sing for the first time in semi-public, a Buck Owens song with a living room bluegrass combo. “Love’s Gonna Live Here.” Joe said I looked real scared, then sort of glazed over and just started sawing like crazy on the guitar. Joe was a sharp flat-picker. One thing about the gout was that it made his hands swell up and hurt so bad, he couldn’t play guitar. I remember when he bought a new Laravie at Musician’s Friend. That was a sweet ax. He played it at the Oregon Country Fair with our friend Matt in their combo, Broken Homestead.
Joe had a lot of support, and the good choices were there for him to make at the end. I think he knew he was loved, and he had clean clothes, and food, and encouragement. But he was really sick. And he would lie, cover up, and that made me mad and I would retreat to some sort of lofty place where I hang out when things are bothering me. My therapist told me the joke, how do you know an addict is lying? His mouth is moving. That’s sort of the baseline you have to deal with, and remember you’re not a babysitter or rescuer or anything. I think maybe he knew how to say what particular people needed to hear. He was the baby of the family, like me, and that’s what you learn to do.
Joe called me at 6:30 a.m. a couple days before he died. He needed a ride, he was walking into town because he left his wallet somewhere, and I made the choice to let that slide. I called him later, said I’d meet him for lunch or at the library where he hung out a lot. Phone tag with Joe was funny—sober on the voicemail, then blotto if he managed to pick up later, quoting Cletus Purcell lines and Steve Earle songs. That made me mad sometimes—MY precious time, MY precious lunch hour, ME being lied to. I can be such an asshole sometimes. Joe said “I love you Danny” at the end of every pretty much every e-mail and voicemail. And that’s what I needed to hear, and he knew it. But it wasn’t a lie, it was true.
When Joe got married and had kids, we didn’t see each other as much, and our friendship became more about oblique voicemails full of one-liners only we understood. (“Soaking a pot overnight doesn’t do a goddamn thing.” Click.) Later, I would drop off books at the store where he worked and we’d chat. I got into music, was always chasing that around. I heard fragents about his descent into addiction, his bouts with debilitating gout, no doubt exacerbated or brought on by drinking and a crappy diet, in one of those obvious cycles that isn’t obvious to the person suffering. Six years ago he was hospitalized for it, and the death dance with prescribed oxycodone began. That was probably the beginning of the long, bad trip.
Michelle said once that Joe said on his birthday “I don’t care about a big party, I want to go to Wonderland with Danny and play video games.” We used to play that arcade football game where you can easily pinch the hell out of your hand on the rollerball controller. But you gotta roll that thing hard to advance the guy down the field. Anyway, I’m proud of that being Joe’s birthday wish more than a lot of stuff I am supposed to be proud of. I think we did that for one of his birthdays. And when Joe was deep in the weeds Michelle would tell him to call me. But he didn’t. Or maybe he did, but I was busy. What does that word mean, “busy”?
I’m also glad that I sent Joe a couple in your face emails about pulling his head out of his ass and getting into treatment. I called some of our old friends too. But I wish I had been better at showing up when I was scared of his lack of control; using, being fucked up; lying, being at the library, high. That scared me. Now I think, who cares? I could have had one more moment with my friend and we could have discussed, again, who is gonna play Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell in the movie?
Hollywood made a movie, and Clete wasn’t in it. Joe never saw it. A James Lee Burke movie without Clete is about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of. Like a Don Quixote without Sancho Panza. Still, it was okay. Tommy Lee Jones was great. But without Clete he was in a weird vacuum. My vote is for John Goodman. The pork pie hat, the Budweiser shorts. I can see it.
Maybe we were just two knuckleheads with low self-esteem, but I always felt loved and accepted and entertained and inspired by Joe, and his Facebook memorial page is full of posts by people saying the same thing. I was an intellectual kid from the suburbs of KC. He was an Italian-American, upstate New York farm kid whose dad once caught him trying to smoke dried strawberry leaves. I liked to watch him dancing and levitating and transcending during a good Dead tape, knife in hand, chunking up red potatoes. Wearing those kind of baggy Guatamalan hippy parachute pants and a Scrap Iron Gym hat. If he had a good tape on, he was on his way for a while. I like the Dead now, like how warty and unpredictably good and bad their music can be; I couldn’t deal with it then. I sort tolerated it. Joe was okay with Husker Du. He didn’t mind that I liked the hard stuff. I was pretty snobby. Joe never was.
Nostalgia is a way of backing into the future, and no one wants to do that, but it is how my days roll right now, coming back to the precious present without Joe in it. I did the dumbest stuff—poured turkey drippings through the top of my Chuck Taylor pulling a hotel pan out of the oven. We laughed, I peeled off my sock, put my foot in the prep sink and ran cold water on it. Or maybe that was him. I can’t remember now, like one of those family stories where you can’t remember who did what.
Up on the ridge, Steve and Eilleen and I cleaned trash out of the trailer. Well, Eilleen did and we helped, because Steve and I were pretty befuddled. Joe’s last stand was okay, and people should know that. Joe had twinkle lights and books, some instant food, spaghetti, a hot plate. The house where his first baby was born was pretty much abandoned but there was power, snaking over in an orange cord to Joe’s temporary home. Inside the house the floor was buckling and warping from the heat and cold but I could remember warm gatherings, food piling up on the counters and a fire in the stove. Big youthful gatherings of people who tended to feel like orphans on major holidays.
I took one thing from Joey’s trailer--a battered, unplayable cassette tape. Greg Brown “In The Dark With You” on side A and The Freewheelin’ Dylan on side B. There are chunks missing from the plastic and the tape is loosely spooled inside the casing where it broke. Everyone should have the full picture of Joe--his music, his big heart, his sense of humor, his Sicilian disgust for anything foo-foo, and his secret love of things foo-foo. It’s encouraging to see Joe memorialized on Facebook by people from his hometown, even grade-school friends. I especially like the posts by someone calling herself Myrtle Lifeson. “Myrtle” because Joe spontaneously gave her that nickname in grade school, and “Lifeson” because Joe introduced her to her personal gurus in the band Rush and the mind-expanding genius of their guitarist, Alex Lifeson.
I had a total space trucker dream with Joe last week--he had written "I love you Danny" on a child's drawing of the universe...but when I looked closer it WAS the universe and the words were stars and comet trails and fiery space dust. Still, I'm mad at Joe and pissed off at something vague I’ll call “the system” (which only gets crappier as Republican cynicism about the human commons gets more and more prevalent. Catalyzing insecurity and greed.) Alot of us on “the Joe team” are like burnt pots, right now, soaking overnight. Which sort of helps, a little bit. It does, along with songs and stories and, by now, hundreds of Facebook posts for Papa Joe and his family.