Laura Dominick
remembers
Gus
 
"We don't do anything to keep from going crazy"
 
    My mother warned me about corresponding with jail inmates.  She said you never know what kind of lunatic you might be dealing with.  The lunatic I dealt with was Gus.
    We became pen pals while he was serving time at the San Luis Obispo County Jail, after my friend Bob Bayer asked everyone he could think of--occasionally stopping people on the street--to cheer Gus up by sending him mail.
    I decided to comply, and it seemed to work.  In his first letter back, Gus described my letter as "a yellow rose in a black and white movie."
    Wow, I thought.  How vivid.  How expressive.  How poetic.  That was before I knew Gus very well.  Now I realize that was probably one of his unabashed plagarisms, which he collected like a squirrel collects nuts.
    Anyone who hung around with Gus knew that whatever you said or did was fair game for the little leather-bound notebook he always carried with him.  "Wait a minute," he would say, "let me write that down."
    I remember the first time I saw him.  He scared me.  This was maybe a year or so before he was in jail, during a visit to the San Diego newsroom of the L.A. Times.  Gus was standing near Bob's desk--Andre the Giant in a flak jacket--not saying a word.  He looked pretty intimidating, and I decided I'd just as soon stay out of his path.
    That was before I heard him speak, of course.  Once Gus opened his mouth, he seemed more like a giant stuffed bear with a good vocabulary.
    Gus was probably one of the gentlest people I've ever met.  Despite his torrent of opinions on every possible subject, he was an incredible listener.  He never seemed to be waiting for you to finish talking so he could get back to what he was saying.
    And he had a great gift for picking out the humor in life. Once while I was fuming and ready to blow a gasket because the peole behind me in a movie theater wouldn't stop talking, Gus sympathized but pointed out that at least they weren't playing musical instruments.
    In the four years I knew Gus, he always seemed optimistic.  I think his friends did the worrying about him that he didn't seem to do himself.  How could you not be worried about a guy who could spend $500 on microwaveable meals to take to Greece, but had a car he couldn't drive after dark because the headlights drained the battery?  Or a guy who could come downtown to meet his friends with $1,000 in his pockets, and two hours later have to borrow money for dinner?
    We worried about his diet, his finances, his naivete about the practical side of life.  We worried while Gus was busy enjoying the adventure.
    Gus was a lunatic you couldn't get mad at.  Or at least couldn't STAY mad at.  He never did anything so annoying that you couldn't laugh at it later.
    Except maybe dying.
    I'm mad at you for that, Gus.  I'm mad I won't get to eat some deep-fried meal with you again and listen to your quirky take on life.  I'm mad I won't read any new brilliant turn of phrase you've written and wonder if you stole that one, too, or thought it up yourself.
    But I'm glad you made it to Greece, even if it didn't turn out so well.  Something tells me you would've wanted to die in uncommon circumstances.  Something befitting an eccentric novelist.
    Do the plagiarists and the people who forget to return library books and never bother to grasp the concept of a checking account get to go to heaven?  I think they probably run the place.
    I think you wore your lunacy like a badge of courage, Gus.  I remember asking you once in a letter what you did in jail to keep from going crazy.
    You answered:  "We don't do anything to keep from going crazy."
    Well said, Gus.  Let me write that down.
 
written by Laura Dominick
February 1993
 
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