I was halfway across the Richmond Bridge when my phone rang. His voice was shaking and he ping ponged back and forth from laughter to tears so quickly I could only make out one sentence. “I’m out!”.
For most people, that usually means a myriad number of benign mundane things. I’m done with work, done with a party, done with a sentence or a relationship, etc. Sometimes we say it instead of goodbye. But he wasn’t most people and he didn’t use the phrase lightly.
I met him on a fall morning after a night of heavy rain. Telegraph was littered with leaves and finally smelled clean. I was reading a book of Rimbaud poems when I heard someone whistle. I ignored it and kept walking but the whistle got louder and more insistent. I lowered my book, and there perched lotus style on top of a garbage can was a Gutterpunkus Americanus in a green hoodie. He lifted a book from his lap and it was Baudelaire. We laughed and I bought him a blueberry bagel. He told me he went by the name Exit because that was the greatest magic trick he had yet to perfect. We had both already read our books so we traded and I walked home reading his Les Fleurs du mal.
Every once in a while you meet somebody that has no starting point. It almost feels like you continue on from a place that you don’t remember. A place without any of the awkward getting-to-know-you introduction of barriers and guards being lowered. Sometimes it lasts for just a moment while other times it extends for a lifetime. There’s an expression in Italian “colpo di fulmine”, or lightning strike (which is usually used for romantic love)- but I think it applies to anyone that comes along who is instantly a kindred spirit. Exit was one of mine.
He was a brilliant and prolific writer. Kind of a strange cross between Burroughs, Thompson, and Kerouac. He’d spent so much time on the road that his stories had the same free feel to them. No word was misused or misspelled but they all snuck up and kicked you in the gut when you read them. We used to meet at the little brick wall on the abandoned lot at the corner of Telegraph and Haste. He came armed with napkins, coasters, flyers- anything he could fill with words- and he read them to me out loud. One day he came with both of his arms wrapped in bandages. He said that he’d been working on magic but hadn’t gotten it down just right. He said they’d shut his theater and locked him up for a few days for trying.
He eventually left Berkeley and meandered east again. Every week (usually every 3 days), I’d get a stack of letters and writing from him or knick knacks he didn’t want to lose on the road. The postmarks were the only things that tracked his journey. He settled in the Midwest briefly and got a good job as a garbage man. He loved the empty streets of early morning and digging through the treasures some people called trash. One morning he found an old typewriter, so then all of his letters came typed. He fell in love and got his teeth capped and finally seemed happy for a while. He never mentioned what happened, but the postmarks began to change at some point and off he went again. But the letters always came, along with chapters of a book he was writing, and sometimes t shirts or patches or cards he’d gotten at Comic Con.
We touched base on aol when he could get to a computer. Clunky car phones turned into cell phones so we actually got to speak again because he hadn’t returned to Berkeley and didn’t intend to come back. Certain bits of his book told me why he hadn’t and wouldn’t but those are his story and not mine to tell.
Once I got to the other side of the bridge, he’d calmed down a little. Enough so I could understand what he was saying. He’d contracted something from a needle. It wasn’t treatable. He said it finally helped him figure out the magic trick once and for all.
At that point, I understood what he meant. I pulled over to the shoulder of the freeway and we both cried for a long while until the phone went dead. I thought I’d lost the signal and waited for him to call back, but he didn’t.
A week later, I got a package in the mail with a cd in it and a note saying it was the soundtrack of his story. On the cd he’d written “Nexit”.
I never heard from him again. I checked the mail for a long time thinking maybe he’d just found a place to hide. The cd was the last of it.
Todd overdosed in Santa Monica on April 13, 2008. He’d finally perfected the magic of leaving. He was 38 years old.
I’ve never had another friend like him. He was gentle and sensitive in a way that left him without armor. The world sharpens its knives and salivates when people like him come along. The funny thing is, his goodness and pure goddamn way of moving through life left him stronger than any of it. His writing and his sparkle made him a force of nature and a teeny sunbeam that were untouchable. I only know that now in retrospect but I wish he’d known it then. I don’t think his war was with a world trying to stamp out his spirit. I think the war was with himself, for thinking that’s what it would take to really feel like he belonged here. And he just wasn’t willing to do that. But he brought beauty and kindness and that made him belong here more than anyone.
For some reason, there is a piece of his book that planted a BLT toothpick flag in my heart all these years. It was a scene where a boy is trying to show off for a girl at the beginning of their silly love story. He tells her, “Real men eat raw Pop Tarts”. When she isn’t impressed, he says “With enough duct tape, I could save the world”. She responds, “so, do you want a Pop Tart or some duct tape?”.
Exit was the duct tape. In my little world anyways. I miss him every day. Every once in a while he sneaks into my pen and I write something he would’ve said. When I read it to myself, I hear it in his voice. Those are the moments when lightning lingers.