July 15, 2011
Joel Wayne Birney: 8/25/54- 7/15/08
The following tribute to my late roommate, who passed away three years ago today after a four year battle with cancer. It seems like yesterday to me. This was originally posted in two parts on June 20 and June 22 of 2008, a month before Joel left the building for good. I am reposting this edited version for the second time in memory of my friend. We had made a pact that since I was his “caregiver” he would reciprocate and help me out when I had my hip revision surgery. The poor guy didn’t make it. I just paid off my hospital bill for the hip surgery this month. A workmate who had a masectormy over 20 years ago because of the “Big C” had a mammogram today. When I heard about it, I immediately thought about Joel, and then I remembered he passed on the 15th. I miss him all the time. I don’t expect anyone to actually read this. Longtime readers have seen it already. It’s an honest recounting of my friendship with Cancerboy, a true original who is no longer around to hear me bitching about him. In love and with respect, I offer my reminiscence, as tears flow down my cheeks. MFN 07/14/11
One hot summer afternoon in 1979 I was entertaining my friend Jim. I lived in a small one bedroom apartment in a small building with only 16 units. Next door was an apartment building with a pool. Jim suggested we go swimming. “What if we ‘get caught’?, I asked. Jim told me that he knew a guy who lived in the building, so if anyone wondered why we were splashing around in the pool, we’d just say that we were visiting Joel.
We changed into bathing shorts, grabbed a couple of towels and jogged across the street. The building had dozens of apartments, yet nobody was using the pool. After about forty five minutes, we felt refreshed. Since nobody had been around to question our being in the pool, Jim asked me if I’d like to meet his friend Joel. We toweled off and arrived at Joel’s doorstep. At the time, I was 26 and Jim and Joel were 23. The guy who answered the door was Chin, Joel’s roommate, a thin Chinese guy. Jim and I entered an apartment filled with piles of newspapers and books. Dust was everywhere. I was not the greatest housecleaner in the world, but Joel and Chin’s place reminded me of those stories about what is found inside the homes of deceased old people who were packrats for most of their lives.
Joel was tall, over six feet, and pretty skinny, with a “chicken neck”, partially disguised by a black beard. He had long hair, and somewhat wizened skin for somebody so young. Chin disappeared as soon as he opened the door, but Jim, Joel and I went back out to the pool, where the atmosphere was more inviting, and I was introduced to Joel. Almost immediately, he became one of my group of close friends. He worked with Bob, a guy whom Jim had introduced me to some time earlier. Bob had an early projection television, so sometimes the three or us would go over to Bob’s to watch a movie or sporting event.
During the early 80s, I was evicted from my one bedroom apartment, and had to move to another apartment. Eventually Jim moved in with me to share expenses. My apartment manager was replaced with someone else, and the previous manager was similarly forced to move. Her son Kevin then needed a place, and he, his buddy Moe, and Joel moved in together into another apartment. Kevin was our principal drug dealer at the time, so I frequented Kevin’s, Moe’s, and Joel’s often.
Eventually Joel moved from Torrance with Kevin and Moe back home to Long Beach when he lost his job. I met Joel’s mom and dad, and would visit him quite often at his family home. Other times, Joel was part of our “backyard buddies” group, which gathered at Bob’s house for cookouts, beerfests and football games
Joel couldn’t hold on to a job for long, it seemed. He was fired from one place after another, usually because he failed to follow directions while inventorying or some other inconsequential task. He didn’t make friends easily, and was a bit antisocial. He didn’t get along with other workmates, and reguarly peeved his managers. Although he was included in our group at Bob’s in Lomita, because he had worked alongside Bob, he wasn’t really a “regular”. He usually remained alone, and had even been prescribed Prozac by his doctor in an attempt to socialize him more and raise his spirits. Joel suffered a mild form of depression.
Bob was an only child who still lived with his mother. In his late 30s, he was the oldest of our group. In 1988, Bob’s mother died, and I and another friend of Bob’s were asked if we wanted to move in with him, sharing his three bedroom house. I was living with Jim at the time, and we split up as roommates. Jim found a small apartment in Lomita, and I moved in with Bob. One evening I got a phone call from Joel. He knew I was a movie fan, and he had just signed up for a film series to be shown in an antique single screen theater in Long Beach. At the time, he was living in a bachelor apartment in North Long Beach. The series showed classic black and white films, like “The Third Man” and “The Lady From Shanghai”. Always eager for a new adventure, and because I loved most of the films being showcased, and salivated at the idea of seeing them on “the big screen”, I agreed to accompany Joel to these Tuesday movie nights. After the movie, we would go out to dinner somewhere, and I got to know Joel on a one to one basis a little more closely. He wasn’t familiar with most of the movies shown, and I am always filled with movie stories and lore, so I told him backstage stories about the films and the actors.
After the film series ended, I hung out with Joel more regularly. Usually I would drive the fifteen miles from Lomita to Long Beach to visit him, and then we would go out to eat or hang out somewhere. When the third roommate moved out of Bob’s house, we invited Jim to move in, and Joel started dropping by the “frat house” where Bob, Jim and I lived more often as well.
I met Joel’s old friends from high school, Dave and another Jim, and sometimes we would go out to a bar together. During 1990 and 1991, Joel was getting some high quality cocaine from a source near to where he lived. After I finished work on Friday nights, I would hop on my motorcycle and head over to Joel’s place. I would give him some money, he would go over to his source’s, and score some cocaine. Joel and I would stay up till the wee hours of the morning, fueled on liquor and cocaine, discussing everything under the sun. I felt I was breaking him out of his antisocial shell, and we found we had a lot in common. A lot of this centered on our shared love for music. Joel had a live Sam Cooke album, for instance, which really impressed me. I only knew Sam Cooke singles from the 50s, and his presence on the live album was much more raw and energetic.
One evening Joel, Dave, and the other Jim met at a Chuck E.Cheese pizza parlor in Long Beach for a night out. I got incredibly drunk and was eventually kicked out of the place. Sadly, I was blacked out during the time and don’t remember a thing, but the event soured Dave and the other Jim from hanging out with me, and I wasn’t invited to any more of their gatherings.
Joel never stopped ragging me about that evening.
One other night, Joel and my buddy Jim were bar hopping when Jim met a couple of gals at another table. One of them, Claire, became Jim’s girlfriend and eventual wife.
Jim soon moved out of “The Frat House” and moved into another apartment with Claire. Bob needed another roommate and I suggested Joel, who was still living alone in North Long Beach. Joel agreed to become our third roommate.
I got involved with Pat, a gal who worked at the same place I did, in December of 1991. By mid 1992, I was spending more time at her apartment than at The Frat House. She and I decided to move in together, and Joel was ecstatic that he was going to get my suite of rooms in Bob’s house. He warned me that if I “made the mistake” of moving out to be with Pat, and things didn’t work out, when I had to move back in with Bob I’d be getting the small bedroom of Joel’s because he would be ensconced in my old rooms.
My relationship with Pat lasted three years. It became a disaster, just as Joel had predicted. Pat and I had a lease on the rented house in Bellflower where we lived with her two kids, and when I found out she had been cheating on me, I “moved” to the garage from our shared bedroom, and began to spend weekends back at The Frat House until the lease expired, at which time I would move out altogether.
Bob died of a massive heart attack at age 47 one weekend while I was staying there, sleeping on the couch in the living room. Becuase Joel didn’t have any legal claim to the house, Bob’s far away relatives came to town to claim the house, and Joel found himself without a place to live. As soon as the lease expired to the house Pat and I were renting, I suggested that Joel and I find a place together “temporarily”.
“I know what you’re bringing to the party”, I proclaimed. We spent a couple of weeks going around the South Bay looking at rentals, and eventually found the house in which we were to occupy for more than a decade. The rent was cheap for a three bedroom house, and there was enough room for all my “collections”. I would occupy the back two bedrooms, Joel would get the “master” bedroom, and we would share the kitchen, dining room, and living room. We signed a rental agreement, I rented a U Haul, boxed up my belongings, most of which were already in the garage of the Bellflower house, and easily packed them in the truck, swung by The Frat House, gathered Joel’s belongings, and headed to the new house.
Our temporary arrangement was to last the next fifteen years.
Joel Birney was born in Southern California, but spent his early youth in Guam and Hawaii. His father worked for a shipping company directing and managing longshoremen, and this position took him around the world. By the time the family got back to Long Beach, Joel had already “seen the world”. His younger brother, Dale, is now a retired police lieutenant for the Westminster Police Force. Joel grew up in Long Beach when the family settled down, and was part of the “stoner” clique in his high school. He never was particularly ambitious nor did he stand out in a crowd, even though he has always been pretty tall. During the first couple of summers after high school, Joel found employment at the Disneyland amusement park in Anaheim as a “character actor”. The park had a parade back in the late 60s and early 70s called “The Main Street Electrical Parade”. Joel played a monkey from The Jungle Book and Winnie the Pooh, among other costumed characters in the parade.
Disneyland eventually retired the Jungle Book monkeys because Joel and his coworker monkeys would nearly molest some of the more attractive young women in the crowd during thier scatterbrained “antics”. They would maneuver their “tails” in phallic poses and do what they could to “cop a feel” when getting close to good looking gals for photos. The monkeys thought this was good clean fun, but some of the park guests complained. Joel spent three years at Disneyland, and then began a career which included many different jobs. His last job was as a parts salesman for a Honda dealership in the South Bay. Before that, he drove the parts truck for the dealership around town collecting parts from other dealers and vendors for use in the shop. His had the job at Honda for over 15 years, longer than any other he previously held.
Joel didn’t really have any hobbies, although he was the type of person who tried a few experiences, only to fail to keep up an interest. He was, at earlier times in his life, a bicyclist and a scuba diver. Probably he gave in to urgings from his more active friend Dave, who spends his afternoons following pursuits like bungee jumping. Although Joel was a bicyclist in the past, and owned bicycles, I hadn’t seen him take a spin on a bike for the 15 years I lived with him. He talked about scuba diving, getting his certification, the fun of finding undersea life, for years, but I never saw him even go to the beach. He was pretty much content to watch television, flipping the channels endlessly, or to listen to his record and CD collection, or to read. He read voraciously, mostly pulp sci fi paperbacks, and he always remembered the plots of the books and the characters. He never really got into films, but those he liked he could remember clearly even having only watched it one or two times. He was able to remember most of the films we watched together at that Long Beach film series. He was very good at “guessing” the end of a film, and his predictions astounded me, since I’ve seen thousands of movies, yet still cannot spot a lot of the cliched plot turns Joel could when we would watch a film together.
When we moved in together I told him I knew what he “brought to the party”, but I was a bit more naive than I knew. I laid out the furniture in the living room, a wild mix of whatever styles either of us had in our previous living places. Our couch would be the 9 foot long uncomfortable ugly gold monster both of us had used at Bob’s, which we had moved out from where Joel had been living. A dirty old chair and the sofa bed that was in Bob’s living room also were placed along walls in our new living room. I added my lazyboy chair, a couple of bookcases filled with videotapes and vinyl records, and my entertainment center, which at that time included a 32″ tube television, laserdisc player, and both Beta and VHS players. We placed some of the artworks which used to hang in Joel’s family home, and some of Bob’s old rock and roll posters from the San Francisco music scene back in the 60s on the walls. I had the rock and roll posters framed. We first used Bob’s old washer and dryer until the dryer broke a belt, at which time I purchased a new washer and dryer. Joel had usually washed his clothes at laundromats, so he loved the convenience of having a washer and dryer in the house.
We were astounded to realize that although our new home had three bedrooms, there was only one bathroom. We had to align our schedules so that we didn’t collide with each other in the mornings while accomplishing our “toilette”. Either Joel or I would awake first, use the facilities, and then go to work. I didn’t like the mess Joel would leave in the bathroom, with water all over the floor, so I kept getting up earlier and earlier, Part of why I always get up at real early to shower began because I wanted to make sure I was in the shower first. Joel worked on the parts counter from 9:00am to 5:00pm, and I got off work at 3:00pm, so I would get home first, then spend a couple of hours watching a movie or television show before Joel came home. Then we would turn the TV to the news, and try to find shows which we both enjoyed. Or else we would play music. In the early years in our shared existence at home, I and Joel would sometimes have music nights where each of us would in turn play one selection from our collection we liked, followed by the other’s response. We welcomed our friends into our home, and frequent visitors included Jim, the other Jim, and Pete, an earlier member of Bob’s backyard buddies group. The other Jim was dealing drugs from his family home, where he took care of his ailing mother. Joel and I would drive over to his place most Friday nights, buy a little methampehtamine, and party till the sun came up. Before my ex girlfriend Pat left Southern California to go live with some guy she met at a bar sometime after we broke up, she came over to visit a few times.
For the first year or so, Joel and I would share meals. A coworker of mine, Annie, had given me a lot of cookware and household devices as a housewarming gift when I moved into the new house, because Pat had taken most of the kitchen stuff after we broke up. But eventually I grew disgusted with Joel’s kitchen skills, or lack thereof. I also chided him regularly for only washing two or three pieces of clothes in the large washer I had purchased. I have a large wardrobe because I don’t like to wash clothes, and I usually only have one “set of loads” a month. Joel only seemed to have a few changes of clothes, so he was constantly washing. I began to find myself “retiring” to my own bedroom or the middle bedroom where I set up my computer right after Joel came home each evening. I just didn’t want to “be” with Joel most of the time. Although he was a slob, never picked up after himself, and didn’t seem to have any real interests, he had some weird “rules” he liked to spring on me, usually relating to his two cats, whose comfort he put before everything else. One of the things which really irked me, and which I discussed with other friends and with Joel himself, was his propensity for saying hello to his cats before even acknowledging me when he came home from work in the evenings. He brushed his lack of greeting me to the fact that he has always been antisocial, and is just not comfortable saying hi to people.
We spent most of our time in our house apart, even though we lived together. First, our shared entertainment vehicle, the TV, only had regular broadcast channels. I didn’t necessarily want cable, and Joel didn’t seem to care. After we’d been together for about two years, I purchased a 60″ projection television and began subscribing to DirecTV satellite service when it first became available. Immediately Joel became a channel flipper. When Tivo became available, I got one of those too, so I could prerecord favorite movies off the Turner Classic Movies channel. I set the 32″ television in my bedroom, along with one of my videotape players. That way when Joel came home, I could either go to my bedroom, where I had the other TV, or to the middle bedroom, where I had my computer. I got internet service in 1997, and my new hobby took up lots of my time. I’d get disgruntled about Joel’s packrat ways, and I’d clean up after him constantly. I began to call us “the odd couple” in online correspondence with my newfound internet friends. By 2003, I was so tired of both Joel’s growing lethargy, and the neighbor’s kids, who yelled and screamed constantly from the moment they got home from school, that I decided to create for myself a “media room” in the center bedroom, complete with another bigscreen television, this one an HDTV. I spent the early aughts buying lots of electronic gear and spending lots of money I didn’t have on vacations around the country on my “internet lovesearch” so my credit cards were a bit overloaded. That didn’t stop me from using those cards to get my “new life” set up in my media room. I placed another big comfy lazyboy chair in the middle of the media room, and before long, I had transferred DirecTV service into the media room as well. I essentially had “moved out” of the main house, and had set up my own “rooms” so that I didn’t have to “live” alongside Joel.
We both started our shared living arrangement as pretty big beer drinkers. Each of us could pack away a 12 pack (or two ) a week. As the years passed, I began drinking less, but Joel kept drinking at least a six pack a night. This further kept any endearment away from me. I used to be the bad drunk, but when I sobered up and he didn’t, I began to like Joel’s drunkenness less and less.
My tolerance for letting Joel pile up newspapers and not clean up the “shared rooms” increased as I neglected to share the rooms. He wouldn’t clean, and neither would I. I would tell others that I hated my roommate, and would love to get out and live on my own. Our “temporary” arrangement was stretching into nearly a decade as the calendar turned to 2004. High living costs prohibited our splitting up. Neither of us could afford to rent alone in Southern California. Neither of us were getting any raises at our jobs. So we stuck together, grinned, and beared it.
In February of 2004 Joel went to his doctor’s to complain about constipation. The doctors found a large fist sized “mass” in his large intestine. Apparently, the cancerous growth had been sitting there growing steadily for ten years, which means Joel had the disease back before we moved in together. However, he wasn’t one to go to the doctor’s regularly, so he didn’t know about this until he went in for a colonoscopy ordered after his complaints to his doctor. He had to be scheduled for an operation to remove the cancerous growth, and spent over a week in the hospital afterwards. I visited him each afternoon after I got off work. He returned after his hospital stay a changed person. He tired more easily and became even more lethargic. He was scheduled for chemotherapy, to stop the growth of the cancer throughout his system. The first round seemed to have been successful, and he spent six months on chemo, another six months off, then went in for a checkup and the doctors found the cancer had returned.
This happened five times. For the first couple of years, Joel hardly noticed any of the usual side effects of the chemo. He kept his appetite, which was never voracious in the first place. His hair remained in place. His doctors kept ordering chemotherapy, he would go through it, be given a clean bill of health, only to find the cancer return, swimming around his lymph system. The doctors begrudgingly gave him three years to live.
I’d ask Joel all the time if he wanted to go out with me. I liked to go to Las Vegas every year, so I asked him to accompany me. I asked him if he wanted to see films playing in the theater. I asked him if he wanted to go see the airplane and train museums with me, knowing he liked airplanes. He always begged off. Jim, my sometime roommate for most of the late 70s, once told me that he was disgusted with Joel’s promises to him to go someplace, until up to the last minute, when Joel would always beg off. Joel never could get up the gumption to do anything. He would “think about things” until the thing passed and he didn’t have to think about it. If he made a promise, it would most certainly be broken. I figured that he would at least try to formulate some kind of bucket list, but he stayed content as always, listening to records and flipping channels on the television.
The last year the chemotherapies finally caught up with him. Joel weighed about 130 pounds, and never seemed to be hungry. He couldn’t keep any food down even if he were hungry. He spent most of his time in bed. There is a small pharmacy of pills he was taking on a regular basis. He took a real turn for the worse the in the last months of his life. He was going into work as long as he could, but took most of the month of June off, and was thinking about just going on disability.
During his waning days, I watched a movie called “Two Weeks” which is about the grown sons and daughter of a woman played by Sally Field gathering by her during the last stages of her cancer while she’s in hospice. I began wondering exactly what Joel could expect during the final stages of his disease. The movie gave me some indication. It seems that eventually, the chemo is just hooked up to the patient full time. As the cancer spreads to vital organs like the lungs and the liver, the pain increases exponentially, and a morphine drip has to be added to the chemo. The pain gets so intense that the patient eventually just sleeps most of the time, lulled by the morphine. Food is replaced by another IV drip, and the last embarrassment is the addition of a catheter. Eventually either the cancer, the chemo, or the morphine kills the patient. It isn’t a pretty way to die.
In his final days, it pained me to look at his frail body. He had thinning hair, but in places his skin just seemed to hang on his bones. His bones almost showed through the skin. He looked postiively skeletal.
One Friday, his doctors told him he was too sick to take that week’s chemo treatment, so he was up and around. He spent a lot of time in bed, but each time I emerged from my media room to go to the bathroom or go get a glass of water, Joel was on the couch flipping channels on the TV, which meant he was feeling a bit better. I told him I really needed to get out and give the living room a good cleaning. He apologized to me for not having the energy to clean up. “I understand, Joel, don’t worry”, I told him. I don’t care how much vitriol I might have spewed at him in the past. I didn’t want his final journey to be filled with images of me screaming at him for being a sloth. I was forced to see if I really am as tolerant as I say I am, and this proved to me that I can take a lot without breaking. I’ve always said I’m good in a crisis, and while this “crisis” had been steadily building for years, it finally came to it’s dreaed conclusion.
Joel was my “last real friend”. My best buddy Tom died following a 20 foot fall at the age of 37 back in the early 80s. Bob perished at 47 of a heart attack while both Joel and I were living with him. Our mutual friend Dan, who lived in Toronto, but visited California each and every year, staying with Joel and I when he was here, passed away after a long and bitter battle with lieukemia. I stopped seeing Jim regularly in 2007 after getting discouraged that he always seemed to be playing World of Warcraft and wasn’t interested in going out and doing anything else “right now”. I wasn’t seeing my ex girlfriend Liz that much either and she was currently in another relationship.
Joel bought a computer a few years back, and he was online for a few moments, but like everything else he just couldn’t hold the interest. I was attempting again to hook him up to the internet in the days before his death.
In the final weeks of his existence on this earth, Joel reconnected with Dale, his brother, and was to spend his last days in Dale’s care at his home. Joel developed jaundice when the cancer finally attacked his liver, and he went into Emergency, then was transferred to a transition care facility. He didn’t make it past a week, and passed away on the evening of July 15, 2008. I was listed as emergency contact, so I got the call and immediately called his brother with the terrible news. He wanted to make it to his 55th birthday, and didn’t survive long enough to celebrate his 54th.
Posted: July 14, 2011 8:19 PM