When my college roommate graduated he left me two things. The first was his campus job delivering The Lariat, which is the Baylor University newspaper. Rob said it was the best campus job because they paid you three hours of work to deliver the paper, but you could do it in an hour and a half with practice. The other thing he left me was a 60-year-old man with a gray ponytail and serious hygiene issues.
The man’s name was Steve S. Alexander. We called him SS. Rob didn’t know his middle name and I never found out what it was either. Rob did odd jobs for SS and got $3 an hour for his trouble. He also got to hunt on SS’s family farm, which meant he came home occasionally with some rabbits that he would fry and serve for dinner. It was without a doubt the toughest meat I ever ate, but we were in college, didn’t have much money, and were up for adventures. So we ate Rob’s rabbits. Yes we did.
Here’s what Rob told me about SS:
“He’s not like anyone you’ve ever met or will probably ever meet again. He’s a character. You’ll see what I mean. He’s really just lonely and wants someone to talk to. He’ll pick you up in his car, drive you around, maybe give you a job to do, then pay you in cash when he brings you back. He’ll never stop talking, but you’re getting paid so who cares.”
SS picked me up a few days later in front of the Student Union Building in a white 1973 Cadillac Eldorado. He was about 5’10” and weighed, I would guess, 275 pounds. His weight was perfectly distributed around the center of his mass, like an orb. If you imagine a giant beach ball with thin arms and legs attached, you’re getting the idea. He wore jeans held up by suspenders, a flannel shirt, and a tie. His gray hair was in a ponytail that trailed about halfway down his back. A muted scent of body odor followed SS wherever he went. It wasn’t strong enough to be too much of a problem, but you definitely did not want to sit close to him, at least if you were eating.
His car was a complete mess. The back seat was filled with debris almost to the roof. And this debris looked like it had been there awhile. Long enough to have developed its own reality. If you looked closely you could distinguish individual items, but the mass of it seemed to have melded itself into a single entity – SS’s back seat stuff. Over time I noticed the debris seemed to shift and change. Sometimes it was vaguely farm and ranch oriented stuff. An old saddle, some rope, rubber boots, a sack of oats, and some tool boxes. At other times it was more city junk. Newspapers, piles of clothes, three or four typewriters. It was months before I realized he had two identical cadillacs, each with its own unique back seat collection.
SS was a hoarder, though I don’t think there was an official name for this disorder back then. He lived in the house he grew up in. After his parents died he left the upstairs as it was and moved downstairs where he lived amidst a growing collection of junk. He slept on a small bed by the kitchen, accessible by means of a winding trail from the front door. At some point his possessions had spilled out of the house and into the rear seats of his cars. I learned to discern what we were going to be doing based on which car he arrived in. If he came in the farm car, we were going to work. If he came in the city car we were just going to drive around and talk.
And dear sweet Jesus that man could talk. SS could talk for three hours without a pause. He rarely asked questions and didn’t seem to need much response. Sometimes my attention would wander and I’d stare out the window or lose myself in whatever job we were doing. When my attention eventually returned to him, he would still be talking.
So for two years, my junior and senior years at Baylor, I was paid $3 an hour to listen to SS ramble about his life, his loves, his disappointments, and his beliefs. There was no particular order to any of it. I eventually pieced most of it together into a basic life story. It was fascinating stuff, even if he was lying and I suspect he was about some of it. Sometimes Rob and I would compare notes and discover that he had told us different versions of things. He told me he had a girlfriend in Austin he went to see a couple times a month. Maybe he told me that because I was a religion major and headed to seminary. He told Rob she was a prostitute, which seems more likely. In any case, he seemed to have had genuine affection for her.
SS was born around 1925, as best I can figure it. His parents lived in Waco but had a small family farm outside of town. At one time the family lived on the farm but at some point had moved into town and taken up trades. They kept the land though, mostly for sentimental reasons. They must have had a little money, for SS had no job and was able to live on his meager investment income, though based on his clothing, hygiene, and eating habits, I don’t think he had much to spare.
His father was the Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Waco. I saw the robes and an engraved sword as evidence of this the one and only time he allowed me to go upstairs in his house.
He was one of a few young men voted most handsome at the University of Texas sometime in the 1940s. This seemed incredible to me when I first heard the story because he was about as far from attractive as you can get when I knew him. But I saw the picture in the yearbook for myself. Later he dropped out of college and went to California to try to make it in the movie business – probably hoping to cash in on his good looks. For a time he roomed with Spanky McFarland of Little Rascals fame, and he claimed to have been an extra in Bonnie and Clyde with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Things didn’t work out though, and he came back home after his parents died and took up residence in the family home.
He was a passionate Christian Scientist and talked a lot about Mary Baker Eddy, whom he thought was a genius. He made his own mayonnaise because he didn’t trust that bottled shit they sell in the stores. He was a libertarian, particularly around sexuality, where I might even say he was a libertine. But as regards property rights, government intervention, and guns, he was a proud and fiercely independent Texan. You can imagine the state of his yard, and I’m certain the neighborhood kids thought the house was haunted. But if you ever got close to the door you would read a large sign lettered in his own hand.
“Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be prosecuted.”
And he owned a horse he called “Little Jack,” that he kept at the farm. Little Jack was every bit as crazy as SS was. I have no idea how he acquired this animal, but SS was convinced he was going to win the Kentucky Derby in 1985.
That first day, when he picked me up in front of the Student Union Building, he was in the farm car. He said we were going to get started training Little Jack.
“Who’s Little Jack?” I asked.
“He’s my horse! And he’s gonna win the goddam Kentucky Derby in three years. You and I are gonna train him.”
“Okay,” I said.
On that first day I had not yet divined the real purpose for my employment and felt obliged to mention my lack of experience in matters of horsemanship and such.
“Uh, you should probably know I don’t anything about horses.”
SS stomped on the accelerator and tore down the center of 5th street right through the Baylor campus. You could still drive on 5th street in those days, thought they have since closed it, perhaps due to SS’s driving for all I know.
He laughed. “That’s okay. I’ll teach you all you need to know about it.”
I turned around and looked at the pile of junk in the rear seat and the campus disappearing in the rear window and wondered what Rob had gotten me into.