Growing up in Lawton, Oklahoma in the 1980s, I always heard stories about a guy named Crazy Larry who huffed paint and rode a bicycle around town. They said he wore a jacket in triple digit temps. They said he’d been a genius who ruined his life huffing paint. They said a lot of things.
I never saw him as a kid, though, and I didn’t until one day in 1996 when a friend of mine told me that he’d found out where Larry lived.
We went over there, us two stupid beer-stealing, prank-calling 19 year-old college freshman knuckleheads and found him sitting on the porch of the trailer he shared with his mother, huffing silver paint out of a bag. There were discarded bags, cans and various other containers with silver paint all over them littering the yard, which was mostly gravel with a few patches of crabgrass sprouting up here and there.
He played us a Beatles song on an out-of-tune acoustic guitar with a couple of missing strings and silver fingerprints all over it. He sounded a little like Bob Dylan when he sang, but off-key with a severely out-of-tune guitar. I thought it sounded cool, though. He told us that the only modern artist he liked was Sheryl Crow.
I remembered that we had a disposable camera in my friend’s truck, and I went and grabbed it and took some pics.
I’m not sure what level of self-awareness he was on, but he seemed pretty incoherent. Nice, though.
We weren’t mean to him or anything– we were just curious kids studying this strange urban legend we’d grown up hearing about.
We came back for multiple visits, listening to him ramble on and play his guitar, tambourine and harmonica and huff. His mom would answer the door sometimes if he wasn’t out on the porch.
“Larry, your friends are here,” she’d call, and he’d come stumbling out moments later with so much silver paint on his glasses that I wondered how he saw anything through them.
Did he know we viewed him as some sort of strange curiosity, like an exhibit in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum? I don’t know. I hesitate to say we were making fun of him, even though in retrospect, I don’t believe treating another human being like a circus freak is acceptable, even when it’s polite and respectful.
When I later saw him on the TV show Real Stories of the Highway Patrol, he was getting out of jail after drying out for a couple days, walking down the street fully cleaned up with no paint on his face, clothes or anything else.
They did that periodically–took him in and cleaned him up and let him go.
On the show, though, the cops(Lawton PD and not Highway Patrol, for whatever reason) were taunting and making fun of him as he walked down the street, and even though he was fully coherent and shouting back at them in full sentences with no slurring, the things he was saying were cryptic and weird.
I felt bad for him, seeing him treated like that. They were taking pleasure from getting him to say crazy stuff, and I realized we’d done the same thing. We were nice to him, but we’d hung out with him for the spectacle of it, and then joked about it all later on while we chugged Surge and looked up pics of Tanya Harding naked on Netscape Navigator.
One day, many, many decades ago, a woman gave birth to a child and named him Larry. She probably had high hopes for his future, and thought he was really special and loved him to pieces. He wasn’t born a paint-huffing misfit–he became one, probably gradually.
He died in 2013, I heard. When I got word of his passing, my initial reaction was surprise at his having lived that long. I then started to feel regret again, about how I’d treated him, even if I didn’t recognize it at the time.
Life is full of characters who are much more interesting than any found in books, movies or TV shows, and Larry was certainly one of them.
I always imagined he was miserable, a genius inside of a fried mind screaming to be let out, but as I get older I realize that following the paths society deems acceptable isn’t the only way to happiness. Maybe he just loved huffing paint. He was always high on it except for when the cops would take him in, and he lived into his sixties. He lived nearly 20 years after I’d written him off as being at death’s door, and he’d maintained his huffing/bicycling/bike riding lifestyle since the seventies. It was just him–it was what he did. He may never have come down long enough to be miserable.
I’m glad I got to meet him.