by DA Rist
Recollections of Matt Mitchell. In Memoriam.
|Laibach took the stage for their final encore. The lead singer took the microphone and said, “We would like to dedicate this concert in memoriam to Matt Mitchell.”
I was uncomprehending for a moment. Laibach is a Slovenian Industrial band. This was their first tour of the USA. Matt Mitchell was the first friend I made after moving to Portland. He had passed away about a year prior. I will always remember our first meeting.
The Galleria is a mall in downtown Portland. It is a white building on the last stop of the train system. It was frequented by goths and punks who disliked all of the street kids who plied their scams a few blocks down Morrison Street at Pioneer Square. Exiting the MAX train, I saw a tall, lanky figure. He was dressed in black with his hair in the “Twin Fin” style of Mohawk. Sensing a kindred spirit, I crossed the street and struck up a conversation.
“What’s there to do in this town?” I asked.
“Nothing tonight,” he said. “Where’re you from?”
“Eugene. I just moved here.”
“Oh, do you have any acid?”
At this time, Jerry Garcia was still alive and The Grateful Dead still regularly toured Eugene. The primary source for LSD in Oregon was thus Eugene, which was called “Little Berkley.” His question was logical given the drug situation in 1987.
Matt and I would often have coffee. It wasn’t planned, but he never had his own place and it was important to have a spot where people could find you. Typically, we would hang out while waiting for our respective clubs to open. I preferred The City Nightclub, an underage gay nightclub with an attached gothic dance floor. Matt preferred The Quest, the straight underage gothic club. I suspect that Matt had some latent homophobia. He was never rude or disrespectful to homosexuals, but his reason for not going to The City, even though that was where all the best drugs were, was because he did not “want to get hit on by guys.” He had his niche and he filled it perfectly.
Laibach started playing their cover of “Life is Life” which they titled “Opus Die,” after the band who originally recorded it. It is one of their anthems. Skinheads and black homosexuals moved to the music. I do not know if the skinheads at the concert were Nazis or not. The Nazi Skins had been a problem in Portland since the 80s. They peaked in the early 90s, during the Metzger trial. Downtown would occasionally be overrun by WAR Skins trying to recruit and purge the world of degenerate whites. Matt, being a goth who was fond of drugs and alcohol, fit the bill for a degenerate white to the tee.
One day, my partner in crime, Clayton, and I were in the Galleria when Matt showed up. His arms were wrapped in bandages.
“What happened to you?” I asked.
“Some Nazis threw me through a plate glass window,” Matt said.
“What? How?” Clayton said.
“I was drinking some 40s in the park with John. The Nazis asked us to join.”
“Yeah?” I said.
“I told them to fuck off and they jumped us.”
“I had to wait forever in the Emergency Room.”
Matt was unfazed. I would be angry. To Matt it was just a part of life. “Life is Life” indeed.
This kind of thing ended with the Metzger trial. Life went on. Clayton and I picked up a job at Club Portland, the Gay bathhouse. We were sitting around one day and decided on a lark to try something that had never been done before. We would get Matt a job. Further, we would get him a job that he could keep long enough to get his own apartment in his own name. We were not driven by any grand plan, nor desire to do good. We just wanted to see if we could do it. Since we liked Matt we decided to try something that would benefit him as well.
The idea was simplicity itself. We already knew where we could get Matt a job. Matt was an attractive young man. Gay bath houses loved to hire attractive young men. Even better, you could be rude to the customers. In Portland, gay culture seemed to put a premium on snarky behavior and bitchy replies. As an added bonus, we were forbidden from sleeping with the customers while on duty.
It worked. Matt and I were often on the same shift. Since I was better at wheedling tips out of drunken men, he usually let me work the cash register while he took care of things in the back office. Since the clientele would aggressively flirt with the staff, he was uncomfortable patrolling the floors. When it came time to check the labyrinthine corridors and mattress-filled, closet-sized rooms, he would take over the front desk. We had to ensure that the few rules we had were not being violated. A big problem was people turning off the light by the radiator in the glory hole maze. This would result in some serious burns, so we had to turn it back on. Some things cannot be unseen.
Women were not allowed on the premises. This prohibition extended to drag queens. One night, while I was on break and Matt was working the front desk, he came back to tell me that a drag queen was asking about someone. Matt was a bit flustered and seemed at a loss. I was confused since one of the few things that the bath house promised, besides a place for anonymous sex, was confidentiality. Matt was an essentially decent man and he was having problems dealing with her since she was not accepting “I can’t tell you” as an answer. I went to the counter. I immediately recognized her as the new prostitute on Stark Street. She was pretty and convincing as a woman.
“Is Mark here?” she said.
“I don’t know anyone’s name,” I said.
“He has black hair, a mustache, in his twenties.”
“I haven’t seen him.” I was lying. I knew exactly who she was talking about since I had seen them talking when I came in for my shift. Mark was a regular. I knew he was inside. I even knew what room he had rented.
“I really need to see him. Can I come in?”
“No, but I’ll tell you what. It’s time for a sweep anyway. If I see him, I’ll tell him you are looking for him.”
“Thank you very much.” She looked so relieved. I almost recanted and told her the truth. Like most men, I am a sucker for teary-eyed cute women, even if they are really men.
She went outside to wait and work. I grabbed the keys and the list of rooms to check.
“You’re really going to look for him?” Matt said.
“Yeah. He’s in a deluxe double on the second floor.”
Matt looked surprised.
“It might be real. Either way, I’m sure he wants to know she’s looking for him.”
When I found Mark, he was not using his bondage harness, which is good since it is awkward talking to people suspended from the ceiling and being flogged. Not surprisingly, he wished for me to keep his presence a secret. I agreed, not telling him that I would be fired if I did tell. In appreciation, he drew out a couple of lines of methamphetamine.
I went back downstairs and told the girl that, as far as I could tell, Mark was not there. She looked sad, thanked me and went back to ply her trade. I quelled my feelings of guilt and told Matt all the details.
“God damn it!” he said, punching the wall. “Why don’t they offer me drugs?”
I was surprised by his outburst. Being unable to effectively flirt, the customers never offered him drugs. Neither did they tip him much. It was starting to cause him stress. He was a straight man surrounded by homosexuals who were in an environment where anything moving was fair game. The one perk, at least as far as he was concerned, was the rampant drug use and he was not able to take advantage of it.
There was nothing I could say to console him. The truth would just piss him off more. I left him at the counter and finished cleaning the rooms. Someone had lost their pipe behind one of the mattresses. It was not uncommon for drugs and paraphernalia to be left behind. When I looked in the bowl, I saw that it was full and the bud was covered with white crystals. I put it in my pocket, blessing my luck, and finished the rooms.
When I got back, I made a big show of gifting the pipe to Matt. He snatched it and went to the basement to smoke it. This was the workplace policy. You could not smoke pot in the office. If the police came by, they could use the smell of pot smoke as an excuse to enter. When he returned, he was mollified. Perhaps the greatest trait Matt had was his inability to hold a grudge for any length of time. He did manage to rent an apartment, one of those pay by the week studio apartment. Matt was proud of himself. Sadly, it was short lived. First, I lost my job, then Clayton. Matt quit shortly thereafter. It was not surprising, since the people who ran interference for the straight boy were gone.
As Laibach took their bow and left the stage, I remembered the last time I saw Matt. Heroin had come back into vogue during the early 90s. Matt and a friend of his, Joe, had started doing heroin. He would be gone for days, then weeks. Already gaunt, he seemed emaciated. Even homeless, he had managed to keep his hair styled and clothing clean. That care was gone. He had the nervous twitch that everyone seems to develop when using heroin. It is hard to describe. Imagine someone’s reaction if every spot on their body itched at the exact same moment. Even worse, he had developed the drawling speech that afflicts heroin addicts. It is like someone took the Southern drawl and replaced the twang with a whine. Looking at him was hard. Listening was even harder.
“Matt, what happened to you?” I said.
“I can’t handle it anymore,” he said.
“The heroin, I’m afraid I’m going to die.”
What could I say? We both knew people who had died of heroin, and those who might as well have died.
“I’m leaving Portland,” he said.
“Where?” I said.
It was weird, he was the third person I knew who had decided to go to Texas in order to clean up from drugs. To my mind, being in Texas would make you want to do drugs. However, it worked. Matt cleaned up and in a few years, he came back to Portland. Before I could see him, he ran into Joe. Joe had not quit heroin. Being the same easy-going pleasure-seeker that Matt had always been, Joe talked him into doing heroin just once more — and it was just once more. As I heard it, Joe divided the heroin in half. Joe got high. Matt’s tolerance was gone and he overdosed. Matt nodded off in a bar and died while Joe freaked out and ran away. Matt was gone. I would never be able to tell him how much I appreciated his friendship, nor thank him for all of the people he introduced me to.
The lights came on. The concert was over.