Friday, October 22, 2010

Travels with Craig

[Early 80s Craig Laubert, perhaps in Los Alamos or on the old Sandia Crest before its renovation]

I have only snippets of knowledge about Craig's childhood and early adulthood in Ohio. I know he at various times worked in construction, for a tire factory in Akron (the city made a big impression on him) and at a state facility where he worked mostly with mentally retarded residents. He loved to tell stories of deepest, darkest Ohio.

In New Mexico he was good for an occasional roadtrip to Santa Fe or Hemez. He took great pleasure in moving easily among the dives and seedier sections of Albuquerque ("My people," he'd declare with a grin and a chuckle after an encounter with a person in particular disarray).

But many of his travels were inner journeys. This inner-life expressed itself in compulsive collecting. He was a religious music fan, with an enduring passion for a select group of musicians. He loved dark, witty lyricists - Warren Zevon, Randy Newman, Jimmie Buffett. He enjoyed women vocalists like Linda Ronstadt and Emmilou Harris, and harder-to-categorize artists like Van Morrison. And he had plenty of Rock and Roll standards - Rolling Stones, Doors, Led Zeppelin. In his more withdrawn years he devoted enormous energy and time to burning hundreds of discs of his favorites. He clearly sought out re-mastered works. Always looking to avoid being a sucker, he loathed to pay retail for these - instead he borrowed recordings from libraries and friends and made copies that eventually rose to great columns. In sorting through his collection after his death, I was overwhelmed by the numbers. Some went to his friends and mine who helped clean up his house, I saved some of our shared favorites, but most I didn't know what to do with them, and they either got picked up by strangers at his estate sale or, sadly, thrown away.

For more than a decade, comic books compelled him. Every week he diligently harvested the first editions and select series from Newsland, meticulously packing each one in a protector sleeve with a cardboard back. By the time I saw his collection in the early 90s, it numbered well in the thousands. He also bought and displayed resin and stoneware statues of comic characters, mostly Marvel. When my son Avi developed a taste of comics, Craig gave him gifts of Green Goblin and the Thing figures. Sadly, Avi's full-blown fanboydom didn't blossom until a year or two after Craig sold off his collection in mass, apparently to pay tuition for his educational projects, first to earn a degree in chemistry, latter to earn a degree in nursing.

He also loved film. We saw plenty together, but after I left Albuquerque, he forged another circle of people. In time he developed a (characteristically) obsessional passion for Film Noir. Again, his video library, much of it pirated, numbered into the hundreds. In later years I found giving him a book on Noir genre film making was the easiest way to give him something he'd appreciate. He also collected movie ephemera, mostly posters.

Alas, most of these collections that were with him at the end I've sold off to pay his bills. I hold a small selection still, a couple of boxes really, as a rememberence of his passions and pre-occupations.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Code of Craig

[Craig in repose - his favorite posture, reclining on the floor in front of a TV. Based on his weight, hairstyle and what appears to be a Commodore 64 in front of him, this photo was taken between 1984-87]

If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out - Code of Hammurapi, #196

Craig Laubert was an archly anti-authoritarian character. As such he was the bane of supervisors, officials, and other authority figures, and the delight of co-workers, co-conspirators, and by-standers. He rarely hesitated in mocking real or perceived inanities of the workplace, the legal system, or human nature itself. He was also pretty cynical. But these qualities did not mean that Craig was in any way a nihilist. An anarchist, perhaps, but not a man without values. He lived by the Code of Craig.

Nowhere was this more evident than when it came to the issue of his drinking. Craig was way too smart to deny that he had a problem with alcohol. He knew that he was a danger on the road under the influence, He also knew that he could be an obnoxious drunk in a crowd, something that in time alienated most of my friends and most all his women friends. But for more than 20 years he was also utterly unwilling to give up something that daily soothed and medicated his inner-torments.

So, like many problem drinkers, he developed a set of self-imposed rules to keep these dysfunctions at bay. I have to say, his rules were the most elaborate and rigidly enforced of anyone I have ever seen. He made it a rule to avoid large gatherings, especially when alcohol was being served. He also minimized the amount of driving he had to do, and set many parameters around the times when he did. Driving was for to and from work, or for big projects hauling things. He would gladly help others, such as my mother-in-law, for whom he developed a deep attachment, but his attention or willingness to make public appearances was whimsical and unpredictable at best. In time this meant that Craig fell into what amounted to a semi-hermetic existence. He had an evolving small circle of friends, but kept his relationships pretty simple and bare-bones. Except for going to movies (a major passion), it was hard to get Craig out of his condo. Hanging with Craig mostly meant kicking back at home and watching TV, or browsing his comic collection.
But he went even further, often refusing to communicate with the outside world for long periods, except on his own initiative. One could be the focus of his intense interest for weeks, only to have withdraw suddenly and go incommunicado for months, or even longer. In going through his property after his death, I found that he studiously held on to letters, cards, and invitations I had sent him over the years, but I can't recall more than one occasion (when he came to my ordination in Cincinnati) that he responded to any of them.

This self-imposed isolation seemed to create its own strange dynamic. He could spent a great deal of time ruminating on the past and on the relationships he did have. And he would analyze - I would say over-analyze - discrete interactions and episodes. Often he would conclude that a significant trespass had been committed in what others would consider casual interactions. Yet when he decided to act on the issue, he brought this peculiar coyness/caginess to resolving it. He would get cryptic, talk around the issue, assuming the the person was as conscious or as haunted as he was about what had transpired. Of course, as often as not, the episode was minor and insignificant in the mind of the other person, if even remembered at all. He would just look at you, wide-eyed and Cheshire-cat-like, waiting for you to acknowledge what was on his mind, even if you had no idea what he was talking about - "Oh, you know." It often seemed to be a kind of test. If you didn't know what the issue was, well then it wasn't his responsibility to clarify. Just know that he had one up on you in this mysterious engagement. Strangely, I was only rarely the object of this kind of exercise, but I observed it or discussed it with him concerning others many times.

Craig's greatest personal code - and it seems weirdly sentimental given everything I've said - was to protect children. He never wanted to do anything, he would tell me, that might endanger children. He talked about this not only in matters of his lifestyle, but also in his devotion to work. Thus, he took his last and longest-held job as a vaccine manufacturing technician with utmost seriousness, because what he did might help or hurt children. His biggest pre-occupation was with himself and his potential to cause mayhem on the road. He most often framed this in suicidal terms, "If I thought I could ever hurt a kid, well, I'd just end it."

By his own account, this ethic flowed from a traumatic event in his early adulthood, when he was witness to a child-murder. Though he only discussed this tragedy directly with me on perhaps three occasions over the nearly three decades we knew each other, I sensed it as a constant theme underpinning many conversations and I came to feel that this was the defining emotional experience of his life, the moment the Code of Craig was born.

Desparado under the Eaves

Don't you feel like desparados under the eaves/ heaven help the one who leaves
[Newsland, under the eaves of the Yale Park mall]
Like a character from a song by his beloved Warren Zevon, Craig was, from the very beginning of our friendship mad, bad, and dangerous to know. He was also an drinker. Increasingly he made adaptions in how he lived to better accommodate this part of his lifestyle. He switched, for example, from driving a car to driving a motorcycle.

He was frank with me about this change. While he vowed not to drive intoxicated, he theorized that if, heaven forbid, he should operate a vehicle under the influence, being on a motorcycle would increase the likelihood that the only fatality would be himself.

This strategy proved to be more than a macabre fancy. Shortly after I moved out of our shared mobile home, Craig called me from UNM hospital. He had wrecked on his bike. Fortunately he suffered little more than a dramatic road rash. Unreceptive to any suggestion he should seek treatment, he checked himself out of the hospital AMA. And it being NM in the early 80s, official mechanisms for dealing with DWIs were few and the courts permissive. Despite the dramatic nature of his accident, this was his first offense (in NM) and I think he walked away with probation and no requirement for counseling.

His addiction also created some dissonance between his own lifestyle and his formal function as a counselor at Hogares. In time he left and took a job at Newsland, a magazine shop on Central Ave. across from UNM. It was, in all honesty, a job where he didn't have to worry about being responsible for anyone but himself. And it was there that Craig developed another addiction: comic books. Craig worked there for quite a number of years.

While I still lived in Town, I would frequently visit him at Newsland and at my place. But it wasn't until I moved away from Albuquerque that I discovered the true scope of his obsession. Staying over at his condo the first time when I returned from Jerusalem in 1992, we spent the first hour of my visit shifting mountains of comics and comic figurines around so there would be a large enough space on the floor for me to sleep. As for Craig, his mattress literally rested upon a block of bank boxes stacked three high.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Full-Blown Jesus

Align Center
[Craig sometime in 1981, at the apartment of his friend from Ohio]
As I mentioned in the first entry, I met Craig the summer of 1981. Having just graduated university, I took a job at Hogares Inc., a social service agency that provided residential care for high risk teens. I had been working only a month or so when the director hired a new male counselor (male staff were a precious commodity at Hogares. I was told on average male counselors lasted an average of 6 months) who had just moved to NM from Ohio. He had worked in a state residential facility there, so he was actually qualified for the job, a rarity among our male staff.
It was about that time that one of the residents, a "pre-schizophrenic" (we didn't diagnose anyone as schizophrenic before the age of 18) teen began a pattern of agitated mutterings. He became markedly more paranoid, with the frequent refrain, "Jesus has come to get me." It took about 36 hours before we figured out what was going on. It was Pat, the senior staff, who noticed the boy's reaction when Craig came down for breakfast. She started laughing, and whispered her amusement to me across the table. Of course. With his long, blond hair, his beard, his piercing eyes and his long features and French nose, Craig looked the very incarnation of a 19th Century representation of Jesus (see above). Only his chain-smoking broke the effect.

Craig was a striking presence. Good looking, acerbically funny, and oh-so-cool, he was immediately attractive to all the female staff (who weren't gay - we would later joke that to get hired at Hogares, you had to be lesbian, Jewish, or preferably, both). He had evidently found his way to NM following the lead of a female friend (see above), though their relationship was not clear to me, and she seem to fade out of Craig's life after a year or so.

We buddied up almost immediately. And shortly after meeting, we decided to share an apartment. This made good sense, as we lived at the residential centers 4 days in a week, meaning that each of us only needed a place to sleep 3 days out of 7.
That very week one of the senior clinicians at a staff meeting gave a pointed speech about how it was psychologically ill-advised for counselors to share digs off-duty. Both Craig and I burst out laughing simultaneously. We couldn't help ourselves, because we (like everyone else in the meeting) knew that this disapproving clinician was then engaged in a secret lesbian relationship with one of the other staff members. The "special" protocol was taught to every live-in staff - if you couldn't reach Maria at her home after hours, just give Maryann a call at her home and Maria would return your call in the next five minutes.

He proved to be an excellent, if subversive roommate. Over the next two years, Craig and I shared three apartments, one on the corner of Girard (we got thrown out for keeping a dog[1] in violation of our lease - Craig's idea), then a former tuberculosis cottage[2] facing Central Ave., right next door to the Blood Center (Craig loved to take his morning coffee outside and hang out with the men who lined up outside our door to get paid for their blood), and finally a mobile home off 4th Street, where we got free rent from Craig's uncle in exchange for doing maintenance work for him on the mobile home park he managed (another Craig idea)[3]. We only broke up the team because my new job within Hogares was located in the Monzano Mountains, many miles from 4th St. and the Rio Grande valley, so I moved to a place in the NE heights. Craig went on to an apartment in town, then made his first move to ownership, purchasing a condominium off Montogomery Blvd.
Stylistically he continued the full-blown Jesus look for a couple of years, surely the most ironic first impression many people would ever experience. Truly, the contrast between his angelic appearance and his impish personality made a big impression on many who knew him.
[1] a Samoyed pup he dubbed "Roland: the headless Thompson doggie" as an hommage to the Warren Zevon song, Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.
[2] In the 20s and 30s, the dry mountain climate made Albuqerque a destination for those suffering from consumption. A sufficent number of infected university professors came for the cure that it seriously raised the standard for UNM faculty at this previously backwater state college. Central Ave south of the university and across from Presbyterian hospital was once lined with scores of these shotgun-style cottages rented by patients and their families. Craig found one of the last three standing for us. A great place.
[3] Certainly the best of his ideas, as the back door of the caravan faced the kitchen door of Garduno's New Mexican restaurant. We just called in our take out order, and told them to bring it to the back door.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Lost Link Found

In the aftermath of his death, I attempted to contact everyone I found listed among his effects. One contact I could not find was for his sister. Last month she contacted me, having tracked me down through the Albuquerque Office of the Medical Examiner. She has just established an online memorial site. It is at

I encourage you to give it a visit.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Death and Taxes

[Vantana Ranch, Craig's last neighborhood - he loved the view of the Rio Grande Valley and the mountains beyond]

On April 18, 2010 I was in Denton at the University of North Texas speaking to a student theology group sponsored by the Methodists. My cell phone rang, but as was my practice, I ignored it while I was in a face-to-face meeting. But the caller was persistent, and after the third call in 4 minutes, I picked up. It was my Robin calling to tell me I had received a letter from Craig. This was so unusual (He generally remained incommunicado for months at a time. It normally took multiple calls and e-mails before Craig would respond), she had a premonition this was bad and opened the letter. It began, "By the time you get this, I will be dead...."

My first response was to be doubtful. Craig had tried to kill himself once before, but he had also mused on the idea of suicide the entire 28 years I had known him. I told my deeply distraught wife I could imagine he meant to do it, but then changing his mind. I called friends in Albuquerque to go out to his house in Vantana Ranch and see if he would answer the door. Then I went back to finished my presentation. But even as I began to speak, I knew it was true. Unable to continue, I apologized and made my departure.

As the letter revealed, the date he chose to die by his own hand, on April 16, was significant. The day before before he died was "tax day." That was the day, I think, that the dire abyss of his financial situation (no job, a mortgage in arrears, maxed out CCs) drove him to despair about his future.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Overture: Craig's Anthem

[Craig photographed at our house on Mountain Rd., probably about 1989]

This blog, for however long I feel compelled to write it, is dedicated to the life of Craig J. Laubert. Craig never married and died childless at the age of 58. Irascible, difficult, and inclined to self-destructive behavior, he was also sardonically funny, smart (too smart for his own good), and true to his own peculiar code. He was my friend for over 28 years.

In this first entry, I invoke Linda Ronstadt in order to capture the attitude of the man I knew. When Craig and I first met in 1981, we were both staff at Hogares Inc., a social service agency serving high-risk teens. Ronstadt was a shared passion we bonded over. Having decided to share an apartment to stretch the appallingly small salaries we earned that this shoe-string non-profit organization, we spent endless hours of our free time swigging beer and listening to her LPs. Of all her songs, it became clear to me that Craig regarded "You Tell Me That I'm Falling Down" from Prisoner in Disguise to be his personal anthem. I agree. There is no song I know that better captures Craig and his outlook on life. So here it is:

You tell me that I'm falling down
A drifter with no role
You tell me that I need a friend
To help me take control
Well let it be I'm not alone
I'm only lonely see
And you can't tell me where to go
Or what or who to be
I am exactly what I am
And not the way you'd like to see me be
I look outside long as I can
Then I close my eyes and watch my world unfold before me
I may not lead the simple life
I've no love of my own
If no one gives me all his heart
I'll manage with a loan
I'm very used to feeling sad
It doesn't make me cry
And yes I do know how to love
And what you say's a lie
I am exactly what I am
And not the way you'd like to see me be
I look outside long as I can
Then I close my eyes and watch my world unfold before me
You tell me that I'm falling down
A drifter with no role
You tell me that I need a friend
To help me take control
Well let it be I'm not alone
I'm only lonely see
And you can't tell me where to go
Or what or who to beI am exactly what I am
And not the way you'd like to see me be
I look outside long as I can
Then I close my eyes and watch my world unfold before me.

I invite readers who knew Craig to send me memories or entries they would like to be included on this blog.