About a year ago, I got a call from a man with a deep, husky voice.
"Tom!" he said. "This is John Clear!"
I thought it was a joke, but not a fake joke. I thought it was John just being funny again.
"Everything's different for me now," he said. "I'm turning things around."
I remembered this small kid with beach-blonde hair whose speech didn't match this trucker voice. I remembered this kid who couldn't utter a sentence without telling a joke - and every time, he was funny.
I remembered a kid whose voice was like his name - clear, not the throaty kind you get when spend a lot of time gaining street cred in a state prison cell block.
I remembered him as the funniest person I knew. I think everything I learned about being funny, I learned from John Clear. At dinner with the family, I'd repeat things he said or did, and even my straight-as-an-arrow father would laugh. "I think John Clear is my kind of guy," he'd say.
It wasn't always what he said that was funny. It was the goofy context. "Hey Tom, did you ever shave your face with a lawnmower?"
I would laugh; he wouldn't. He said it as a straight, serious statement, even if it was utterly ridiculous. If he laughed at it, he'd cheapen it, as if he was trying too sell it, and beg for affirmation. He was too smart to ruin it.
John never had to beg for affection. It came naturally. But life has ironies: Of all the people from my 1985 graduating class at Point Pleasant Borough High School in New Jersey, few have had it harder.
He fell into a world of drugs and hardship that can destroy a life, and destroy the soul. In that world, the person you knew long ago often disappears. The person who was always funny was now a straight man on the street talking about recovery but showing his pain.
The man who called me last year was, in a way, begging. He was as desperate as he was hopeful. He wanted me to write about him, and tell his story about how he was trying to win custody of his kids. He wanted me to write about people who spent time in state prison with him, and how they were getting screwed and mistreated by the state.
I wanted to do what he wanted. But I got busy, and I let it go. I'm sorry, John.
I'm finally writing about him now, but not because of what happened to him. He just seems to have disappeared, at least from my life. I called his cell; it was disconnected. I called his dad - no answer, no reply. I emailed; it bounced back.
Hopefully, somebody who knows where he is can see this, and can let me know how he's doing.
I want to write about John because he could have been any one of us. And, because of hardships in my own family, I could have been him. If possible, I want to help him find the person he was. He doesn't have to be funny. I'd just like to see him return to being the kind of guy who made everybody who knew him better.
John had fallen into heroin addiction. He was nailed for impersonating a police officer, or something like that. He was in state prison, and he was photographed. His mug was on the Internet; the big white smile with the small fangs was gone. The blonde hair was reduced to a receding hairline and stubble. His look was dark, and his frown was deep.
John had married right out of school, and had kids. Family strife, drugs and God knows what else brought the marriage down, and him with it.
A support system, one rooted in family, didn't exist: His mother died; his father long was estranged from him. After graduation, he called me a few times, and actually wanted to hang out. But his drug-addled life was too hardcore for me.
I roomed with him and another buddy, Ken Winne, on the senior trip. That's when I first noticed the funny guy I knew slipping away. John was more interested in scoring something than he was entertaining others.
I used to hang out with these guys, and do stupid but small stuff for kicks. There was no Wii, not even Atari at the time, so you had to make your own fun.
I was with John the day the Jamesway department store opened in Point Pleasant in the spring of 1980 (it closed in 1995). John was pulling Hot Wheels cars out of their packages and running them under the clothing racks. I was his nerdy alter-ego, so my nervous reaction was probably funnier than his.
I kept trying to stop them with my feet, but John had me beat. He unwrapped nearly ever car that was hanging in the racks, each packaged neatly. Then he turned the floor into LeMans, and turned me into a dancing monkey.
One car made it all the way to the cash register. I leaned down, picked up the car and looked up. My Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Gilbert, was standing there, glaring at me and shaking her head. "Oh, shit!" I said, right in front of her. Then I took off and hid in the clothing racks, peeping through a rack of blouses until she walked away.
At school, we drove Miss Mason crazy, the Point Pleasant Boro employee posing as a music teacher. We always had some quick answer for her erratic behavior. It was a coming-out moment for me, compelled by John's humor and his daring to make you go over the edge.
Once, he and I pretended to be John Travolta when we were supposed to be square-dancing. "Stay-in alive! Stay-in alive!" we sang while Miss Mason played country-western. She got so fed up, she grabbed my hair and threw me out in the hallway. I turned quickly toward John, who flashed his white-as-nails smile.
That was back when John was good at getting out of trouble. After he left high school, his support system was gone, and so was John.
On that day, in January 2008, hearing him was the surprise. Hearing from him was not. John had been trying to reach me for years. He heard I was visiting prisons, and writing about people who do drugs to self-medicate from mental illness. I was trying to explore the history of my family, and how mental illness was pervasive with every generation.
He knew my mother, because my mother sold Avon to his mother. He knew my mother died after she was overwhelmed by the effects of obsessive compulsive disorder.
In 2005, he was in state prison. At the time, I was writing stories on the prison system, and I knew my way around. I sent him a picture of our 20-year class reunion in 1985, as well as a story I wrote on my mother. "That made my year," John told me over the telephone.
When he returned to life after his prison stint more than a year ago, he called me to reminisce about the Mets, about being a Republican (my card-carrying membership for that party expired about 1992). He then sent me court documents related to custody cases with his children.
John was taking responsibility for himself. I felt good. Maybe what I sent him in prison helped bring him back. If you give a man rope, 10 times out of 10, he's going to grab it.