Coming Of Age In A Mausoleum

When I was 15 years old, I lived for a while in a mausoleum. It was a very short while, less than a week. But it was actually an ecstatic time, this summer of honeysuckle and fireflies and stars, and the deep education that I got, being alive in there. I was desperately in love with a girl who was dead, and with a man who was living but psychotic. And it was the happiest time of my life.

This is how I came to be there. I had come there from a place where I felt dead, which is my hometown of Brunswick, Georgia. Everything was grey. The skies were grey, the Spanish moss was grey. That part of coastal Georgia, everything is covered in Spanish moss. The people are covered in Spanish moss. It’s hot, and it’s slow. And the cicadas sing that one note. All the time. That one note. Constantly.

It was like being buried alive. I was lonely, and my parents were drunks. I’d wait for them to go to sleep, and then I’d turn on the light, and stay-up the whole night reading–about exploration, mostly, arctic exploration, or searching for the source of the Nile, or really anything that was about getting as far away from Glynn County, Georgia, as one could get. And of course, because I stayed up all night, mornings were torture to me. Glynn Academy was torture to me. My grades went into a death spiral, down through the thirties to the twenties to the teens. And I actually kind of longed for the perfection of absolute zero, but I didn’t have the stick-to-itiveness. So I dropped out of high school when I was 15, and I hitch-hiked north. I got a job in New York City as a messenger, and I got to wear this really sharp tie and jacket. I loved being a civilian–I sneered at all yellow school buses.

For a while I lived in some flops around Manhattan. Then one Saturday I went on a drug run with a friend of mine on a road trip up to New Rochelle, New York, which is a little suburb. But anyway, we wound up hanging out at this divey apartment full of drug dealers and derelicts. At one point I went back to the bathroom, and I saw in a back room a man sitting at an upright piano and singing an operatic aria about a dying king cobra. It was this writhing, beautiful, heartbreaking song. And I was mesmerised. He turned around after the song, and he looked at me and said, “Do you play chess?” Hi name was John. He was about 30. If you can imagine, he kind of looked like a slender Alfred Hitchcock. We wound up playing chess for a week, and John’s strategy for chess was to gather all of his pieces into a kind of fortress in the rear of the board, on the left side, which he called “the west.” From there he would send his knights out on these long, gallant expeditions, from which they’d never return. It would take me hours to pick my way in there and find his king and kill it. And the whole time, John would be laughing hysterically. Afterwards, I could never really see the point of competitive chess. I just wanted to play what John called “chivalric chess.” But why was this original man living in this flophouse with drug dealers? Well, the rent was very cheap, and it was split eight ways. And when I moved in, it was split nine ways. I used to commute to my job down in New York City and then come back on the train to this drug den every night. I didn’t do … all that many drugs. But I did happily help to sort and clean, and it was an utterly depraved life for a 15-year-old. There was a girl my age who used to come by. She was this beautiful redhead and just exploding into her sexuality. Of course she came by for the older guys–she didn’t even notice me. But I was painfully in love with her, and just the smell of her would cripple me.

Downstairs lived this little old lady Irene, who used to worry about me and tell me that I had to go home. She would bake me lasagna. I would tell her that I really had no home, because my parents were drunks. I loved her. I loved talking to her. And I loved John, who was unbalanced, and who would sit up at that piano all day long working on that opera about the Bronx Zoo, where he had once worked. He was making all of the zookeepers and all of the animals sing these arias. I think this opera was driving him insane, because one day I remember walking up from the train station, and John was coming toward me, and he had on this fedora. He didn’t really see me, and he sort of walked almost past me, and then he stopped and said, “Mr. Glow, there’s a four-ply fozy flying out of here at five o’clock. Get a line on it.” And then he just walked away. I was in love with him. I mean, I’m not gay, but this was a physical love. When I was around him, I couldn’t breathe. I felt like he was the world. I loved him the way that a worm loves its apple. And I think he loved me, too, because the drug dealers were always trying to throw me out. They were always saying, “John, this punk kid, he’s 15 years old, he’s gonna draw unwanted attention.” And John would say to them, “No, George stays. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but George has one amazing thing about him. It’s that he doesn’t buy into anything. He just floats through life. I want to see what he’s going to buy into. He stays.” So they threw us both out.

And then we had nowhere to go. We were homeless, and I wasn’t going to get paid for a week, and John never had any money. But he said that there were these mausoleums in the back of the local graveyard that were in disrepair. So we packed up some blankets and some pillows and some wine, and we went and broke into one of these mausoleums. It had two marble shelves on either side, and under one was the mortal remains of some man, and under the other was his wife. John and I sort of made our beds on these marble shelves, and we felt so safe there. The caretaker was old and never came around at night. And the police never would go into that graveyard at all. We wandered around and got to know our neighbors. There was a dead nineteen-year-old girl buried there. She died in 1928, and her name was Hazel Ash. Her inscription read: she lived for poetry. I immediately forgot the sexy redheaded girl, and when we went back to the mausoleum, I said to John, “We have to write poems for Hazel Ash tonight.” He wrote these horrible, disgusting, obscene verses. I had to tell him to shut up. He just laughed at me, and his laugh echoed in that mausoleum.

People ask me if it was spooky in there, and, you know, it really wasn’t spooky to me. I will say that if you don’t like spiders, you would not have liked living there. And I will also say it was clammy and grey and lifeless, and I probably would have been scared out of my wits if John hadn’t been with me. But he was with me every second, because he wouldn’t spend a moment in that graveyard alone. So if I went out at night to take a leak, he would come shuffling out after me, and sort of stand behind me. And in the morning, when I got up bright and early and put on my jacket and tie and went to my job, he went out of the graveyard with me. And then when I came back on the train that night and walked up to the graveyard, he was waiting there by the fence. We’d always be hungry. We were hungry to the point that we had to do something.

John had a friend, and we walked to the friend’s house. And as we walked, we made up a poem about John’s friend. When we got to his house, we recited the poem to the man, who in exchange gave us supper and a few dollars. Later, when John and I were walking home to the graveyard, John said to me, “Now you’re a professional writer.” I said, “Oh, come on, John. He just gave us dinner and five bucks.” John said, “That’s what the hooker said. You’re a pro.” And I was so proud. I had a little piece of pie that I saved for Hazel Ash, and I put it on her gravestone. Then John and I went into the mausoleum, and he sang his songs of the elephants all night.

Every now and then, he would let out these amazing farts that he called “El Destructos,” and we would have to evacuate the mausoleum. Then the sprinklers came on in the middle of the night, and we ran around buck naked under the sprinklers. And I was so happy that my scalp ached. John saw this, and he said, “You know, you’re buying into this, aren’t you?” I said, “Into what?” He said, “Living in a graveyard.” And I laughed, but I wasn’t buying into that. I was buying into being with somebody who turned every moment of his life into art. Then, a few days later, I was on my way home from work, coming up the graveyard lawn, and I saw that our mausoleum’s door had a brand-new lock.I immediately turned and ran. I went to Irene’s house, and she said to me, “So now you have to go home.” I said, “I can’t go home until we find John.” So I went looking for John every day.

About two weeks went by, and then one Sunday morning someone came to get us and said that John was at the chapel on Mayflower Avenue and that he was singing songs about zoo life in the middle of the Mass. I ran as fast as I could, and when I got there, they were putting John into a police car and taking him to the mental hospital (from where I don’t think he ever came out, as far as I know). But as he got into the car, he saw me. And he tipped his fedora and said, “Mr. Glow. I got to go.” And then so did I. I had to go home.

This story is cross-posted from The Moth for a special edition of HuffPost UK’s Life Less Ordinary blog series. You can buy the book here and listen to George tell his story live here.