Dock Ellis

September 2, 2007


Chapter 7 (continued from Tom Burgmeier)

Where do you see yourself five years ago?

Five years ago I was living in Brooklyn. It was less than a year after 9/11. I’d been in New York, New York for most of a decade. If you can make it there you’ll make it anywhere. I hadn’t made it there. I wanted to leave, try somewhere new.

My girlfriend and I had spent two weeks that summer on a road trip, in many ways the best trip I’ve ever been on: I was in love and I was loved, and we went to baseball game after baseball game. In Chicago we also went to the Art Institute and spent a lot of time looking at the museum’s large collection of Joseph Cornell boxes. You have to bend down close to look at Cornell’s work, like you’re leaning in to hear the words of a person whose voice is almost gone. Below the glass tops of the wooden boxes are miniature dream worlds built from thrift store objects, sand and glass, shreds of newspaper, maps. These little worlds whispered to me. I said to myself: there’s life here, and everywhere, everywhere a mystery, the future wide open. I said to myself: I could live here.

Where do you see yourself five years before that?

In 1997 I was in my first year of grad school, writing stories, essays, going into loan debt that I still haven’t dug myself out of. I was paying my share of the rent on an apartment I shared with my brother in Brooklyn by writing young adult books. I wrote Revenge and Retribution and Confucius. I think my brother was still working as a travel book editor. Before long he would quit that job in order to write a travel book about adventure sports (kayaking, mountain climbing, etc.) in the mid-Atlantic region. I learned years later that the months he spent writing and more significantly not writing that book (he never finished it) made up what he considered to be the “rock bottom” period of his life. I didn’t think he was having a great time or anything, but I had no idea it was that bad. My brother and I had been sharing apartments, with a couple short interruptions, for about seven years, and on face level were closer than most other adult brothers. But we never really talked about anything. We talked about sports. Basketball, baseball. It had been that way all our lives. Sports was what bound us together. As we got older this connective tissue seemed more and more incidental to our increasingly separate albeit adjacent lives.

I have few specific memories of 1997, but I do remember watching the Yankees get eliminated in the playoffs with my brother. When the Yankees were champions, as they had been the year before and as they would be in the following three years, New York, New York seemed even more than usual like the city where we weren’t making it. In our beleaguered imaginations New York, New York was a food chain with happy successful world-smashers in Yankee caps on top, and the useless and lonely on the bottom. Guys like us. In the ninth inning with two outs Paul O’Neill got thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double, and that was that, the Yankees were done. My brother and I exhaled.

“Thank god,” I said.

“Amen,” he said.

We clinked our Budweiser tall boys together, finished them. A few minutes later, no more sports to discuss, my brother got up and went into his wreckage-filled room, his rock bottom, and closed the door.

Where do you see yourself five years before that?

1992. Our first apartment in Brooklyn, my brother and I. We’d been priced out of Manhattan, having to leave an apartment on Second Avenue and Ninth Street. The apartment in Brooklyn was so close to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway that the floor shook. Because our mom was in France working on her PhD dissertation we had inherited her cats, two sweethearts, one thin and gray and the other an older fat black and white longhair. They lay together a lot, sleeping in one another’s arms. My mom had gotten the gray one, Alice, in 1988, which I am able to recall because I remember the Red Sox going on their long “Morgan Magic” winning streak after the All-Star break when she was a kitten. The older one, Annie, dated all the way back to my childhood. I’d been in seventh grade, working on a report on lions, when a friend of the family had come to the door with a black and white kitten in his arms. He was trying to give the kitten away. Nobody else was at home.

“She’s real cute,” he said. He held her out to me. “What do you say?”

“OK,” I said.

She was wild at first, darting all over the house, hiding, almost unpettable, but over the years she got sweeter and sweeter and fatter and fatter. In that apartment where the floor shook I didn’t have a bed, just a thin roll-up mattress on the floor. Every morning Annie would come over and lie on my chest, waiting for me to get up and feed her. She was heavy by then, but it felt good. I was 24 years old, had nothing going on in my life, a man just floating nowhere. So it felt good to be pinned down once in a while by love, or at least a purring facsimile of love.

But at some point that year she started puking and shitting all over our highway-shook floor. We took her to the vet. He gave her steroids. It slowed things down for a while but eventually she started shitting and puking again everywhere. I was young, wound-up, frustrated. I mean in general. Given to tantrums. Screaming at myself, punching walls. One day I got mad at Annie for shitting on the floor. Screamed at her. She scuttled under the couch, frightened.

The next day my brother and I grabbed her, stuffed her in a cat box, and took her to the vet. He told us there wasn’t much else he could do.

I held her. The doctor inserted the needle. My brother petted her on the head with just his thumb. She was purring.

When it was done we walked out onto Carroll Street with the empty cat box. Two grown men in the bright afternoon, the younger one weeping.

Where do you see yourself five years before that?

1987. The end of summer. I was barefoot and tan.

And like Dock Ellis in the story most often associated with him, I was tripping my brains out.

My brother and his friend Dave had picked me up in Santa Barbara, the two of them at the halfway point of a boomeranging cross-country road trip. They’d driven out together and I was going to join them on the way back. To this point we’d just traveled a few hours north, to Calaveras County, to see a concert, Santana and the Grateful Dead. The line getting into the parking lot was immense, neverending, long enough for us to purchase three hits of acid from some guy, long enough for us to talk it over, weigh the options–we didn’t have tickets to the show that day, but did for the next day, so it made sense to wait to take the hits just before the concert, but it also was true that at the present moment we were bored out of our skulls, inching along at a mile an hour if we were moving at all. Finally we decided, fuck it, we’d just go ahead and drop the acid while still paralyzed in traffic.

It was a long night devoid of stories. Dave had a particularly bad trip and he kept saying that he was cold, so cold. Even after we got into the parking lot we spent a lot of the night in or very near the car. For an eternity I sat on the ground against the car, leaning on a tire, and stared at my pant leg. I remember feeling happy when the pant leg finally began to reflect the light of dawn. As the sun started to rise my brother and I left Dave in the car still shivering under all his clothes and went to an open area and threw a frisbee.

To be alive is to be adrift. Before you are born you are one with the universe, after you die you’re one again, but when you’re alive you’re like a piece of the whole that’s come loose and is falling. That’s how I felt for most of that acid trip: A chunk of flesh plunging through the dark. But when I played catch with my brother I no longer felt that way. There was just a connection, the disc a bright shared pulse in the dawn.

(continued in Steve Henderson)


  1. 1.  One of the things I love about Josh’s stories is that they often bring different meanings to the person reading them. Kind of like a great song. I read this and it makes me feel melancholy about how so many talented people never get the big break that will push them over the top. It happens to writers, comics, singers, and ballplayers. Timing is part of it, but so much of it has to do with having some kind of marketable skill.

    In my business of comedy, I see some lesser talents rise, even if they are well-known thieves, as they know how to market themselves and are tireless self-promoters. It makes me angry on one level, but I also realize that I’ve never really tried to make things happen on the scale of a Mencia or Cook, as they have worked harder than myself. I never had dreams to be a big star and thus have stayed on the periphery of the entertainment world. I guess I’m generally comfortable about this, but there are times when I get a bit frustrated, even though I know that I can only blame myself.

    Josh’s pieces make me often reflect on my own life, which is amazing in that I think his pieces are very self-absorbed. I guess that what makes him such a great writer. Being so honest and reflective about himself that these personal details can connect with a larger audience. Some might see “self-absorbed” and think that is a bad thing. Not when it comes to artistic fields.

    Many times when I read Josh’s work I feel frustrated about how he is not getting paid to work full-time as a writer. Sure there is romance in being a struggling artist, but I’ve got to think the most romantic part of the creative field is being able to have some autonomy over your work, while making enough dough that you don’t have to concern yourself with trying to make ends meet. I hope Josh gets to that place.

    NOTE: It must be weird to read other people rooting for your success. It also must be very rewarding.

  2. 2.  still reading. still enjoying 🙂

  3. 3.  1 : “I think his pieces are very self-absorbed.”

    I realize you were using “self-absorbed” in a complimentary way, and I really appreciate it, but it’s funny that you put it that way because I was already worrying that I took my usual self-absorption to a whole new level in this meandering wordspew that barely even mentions it’s “subject” Dock Ellis.

    I hope Dock Ellis fans can forgive me. I figured there was already plenty out there in the universe about Dock. The article I link to has some pretty good stuff about the no-hitter and about Dock in general, but people who are interested in learning more about one of the great characters (and a damn good pitcher, too) of the Cardboard God era should check out Donald Hall’s book Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball. It’s a beauty.

  4. 4.  2002: Unemployed.
    1997: Heartbroken.
    1992: Broke.
    1987: Clueless.

    Throw that frisbee.

  5. 5.  If anyone understands self-absorption, it is at my blog. Your work sometimes reminds me of Augusten Burroughs, except without the Gay Sex. Well, that is unless you are saving that story for the Billy Bean edition.

  6. 6.  Scott-So true, so true. How many times have you heard a band or a comic or read a book or saw a ballplayer and said, “My God-this can’t miss!” And it does, and it does.

    Perhaps because of the democracy of the Net, it is so much harder to find the true gems, because the Powers That Be still say, “Well, lots of people write on the Web. So what?”

    Josh deserves success more than a lot of memoirists I’ve encountered.

  7. 7.  I read Josh’s stories and I always think “Our band could be your life”.

  8. 8.  If I could write like Josh, my fingers would never leave the keyboard.

  9. 9.  this josh honors the josh writing this comment with a link to his blog. I’m capable of writing shit like this, but if I actually put it online, I’d be worthy the honor of that link.

    but dock’s an all-time favorite of mine. his battles against real racism (I only need qualify this because gary sheffield keeps cheapening what it really is) are unfortunately overshadowed by the LSD no-hitter. but what wouldn’t be overshadowed by that?

    considering how similarly wild he was in his own no-hitter bid, I’d say we’ll find out a few years from now that a.j. burnett was on hillbilly heroin or somesuchshit during his no-hitter. just saying.

  10. 10.  It is a telling observation that you (Josh) lived with your brother as an adult for seven years and found that “Sports was what bound us together.”

    I find that this is a general pattern in relationships between men of our generation (and probably before). Men seem to want to talk to each other about things that happen to other people (sports), or other common interests that any third party could ostensibly be interested in, too (music, movies, technology, science, finance, cars, etc.).

    And that seems to be the connective tissue…

  11. 11.  That last paragraph resonates with the graceful zen philosophizing that was part and parcel of the legend that preceded you prior to our meeting and becoming friends a few years later.

    – All I knew of you back in those days was that my high school pal had gone on a road trip with your brother (whom I knew only vaguely –we had met once or twice and each thought the other was gay, but that’s another story) and that HIS brother, (Josh Wilker), a quiet, reflective, spiritual sort, referred to in passing as “Krishna,” was joining them for a leg of the journey.

    It was related to me that on occasion the three of you would be driving in near-silence, somewhere-in-the-middle-of-nowhere, listening to Bob Dylan’s ‘Biograph’ as the sun set over a the empty mesas, when your brother would soundlessly pull the car over to the side of the empty highway.

    “It’s 7:30,” he would say.

    And that meant one thing, which was accepted ambiviently by all… A piss break and a chance to stretch the ol’ legs perhaps, but more specifically, “Krishna” had to meditate.

    In my mind’s eye I see you chanting on a rock 50 yards away; eventually your brother or my friend would gaze at their watches, look at each other, nod, and gently herd you into the backseat as dusk approached.

    A legend in the making, you was.

    And that’s to say nothing of the yarns I could spin about Dock Ellis….

  12. 12.  11 Hilarious and also not too far from the truth. I was never so holy again.

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