He’s got a wild Irish rose tattooed on his fist. He used to be a freight- hopping, rail-riding, American hobo, a hard-staring wino up in the grape country around Napa and Sonoma. But somewhere back there in the railroad steam mists of his rotgut past Walter Z. made the decision to stop courting death with booze and became, instead, a healer. At 64, he’s survived a stroke, several heart attacks, cancer, and his boyish gray-blue eyes tell the story of ferocious private spiritual civil war: the alcoholic’s raging battle between life and death, darkness and light. And though light has won, there’s a sorrow in those eyes that will never fully go away, for the loss of the tequila-stained sombreros and the wild fillies and the red-faced wheezing fist fights in dusty towns along the border.
Today, he works as a gardener for a California art school, doesn’t drink, eats right, takes vitamins, practices ti chi and various forms of Buddhist meditation. Most importantly, he’s a practitioner of his own strange brand of holistic body repair that’s like a cross between religious conversion, primal scream therapy and the outlawed Sundance ceremony. When the injured go to see him, come limping in off the street like I one fine June day with paralyzing backpains, pinched nerves, crippled shoulders, disabled leg, stiff neck, he looks up from pulling some weed and, for a moment it’s 1965 again, the sunset is a big orange-colored tattered American flag with a peace symbol where the stars should be, and the only sound in the world is the thwuck of leftover drizzle in a rain barrel.
In this memory snapshot of him there’s a barefoot slender Richard Brautigan-style girl got pretty arms wrapped around his worthless, sunburned neck and he’s in his bare-chested wine-guzzling chino-wearing glory, waving and smiling at you, young and crazy and good and wholly big-hearted.
Wally’s stroke-stunned, boyish grin greets you as his voice rasps: “How are ya?” and before you can say anything, he’s already figured out the problem and taking your two hands in his, he gets right to it, a body mechanic. Doesthis weird ballet and you better keep up or he’ll twist your arms till you howl. So there you are dancing with Wally in the garden of the art school and he knows you can barely stand and that don’t matter. You want to get well, don’t ya? Then rise on your toes now as he lifts your wrists above your knuckles and your arms contort into a posture like that of a bullfighter driving his sword between the bull’s eyes. Only, you’re the bull.
OLE! And it hurts like hell. Then he lets you go and leads you over to a pond. You’re a caveman now and this here, he says — pointing at the ground — is a big pile of rocks. You don’t know no better cause you’re Neanderthal so for no good reason you’re just gonna move this old pile from here to over there, by that wall. Get to it!
It doesn’t matter that clueless gangsta rappa post modern art school girls stand watching and smirking as you waddle in a Flintstones crouch, back and forth between pond and wall, pretending to forklift chunks of cooled- off prelapsarian lava. You’re in so much pain, you’re willing to endure any short-term humiliation for some sweet long-term relief. It hasn’t come yet, but you have faith. Wally is good. The best. Everyone says so. Even the ones too jackrabbit scared to attempt his radical cures. In the days and weeks to come, in exchange for any pittance you’re willing to donate, Wally will visit your home and teach you, among other things, to kneel in a hot bathtub in a bathroom lit by candles, inhaling and drinking sage tea; throw food from your plate at the wall as well as smear it around on your chin and face; lovingly massage each of your toes with aloe vera while speaking to them affectionately; write poetry, cultivate exuberance, verbalize your deepest fears going back to age three and commit for the rest of your life to follow your own eccentric, sometimes lonely path of absolute authenticity. Also, he will stretch your bones to breaking point. That’s what it will take for your back or leg or neck or shoulder to heal without drugs or surgery, and nothing less. The pain, physical and emotional, can be excruciating: the release, when its over, nothing less then ecstatic. And the cure is permanent. I mean, I haven’t suffered back pain in years.
See, you gotta be crazy to believe in Wally’s methods. You gotta hate doctors and hospitals and be too poor to afford an HMO; have sweltered neglected with bleeding guts in hand in too many city-run ER’s to ever submit to their legalized Nazi medical experiments on the poor ever again. For Wally’s cures to work you have to really believe that the late-stageAmerican Empire has Alzheimer’s disease, like Ron Reagan; is on its gasping skinny deathbed legs–become the gun-toting, media-nauseated, Tommy Hilfiger playground of rich dimpled Republican torturers with chiseled faces and ruthless Orange County courtesans with penis envy. It’s a simplistic black and white view of life, true, won’t fly on the People Magazine black tie circuit, but somehow obtains when you’re broke unknown ass is wearing torn 501’s and your sockless feet are in Carolina workboots found in Tuesday’s trash and your inflamed cyatic nerve is threatening to rip from your spine like Vincent Price’s The Tingler.
For Wally’s cures to take you have to have seen your mother on her deathbed, sitting up, at the nexus of a grisly tangle of catheters, tubes, wires stabbed into her, trying, with her last strength, to rip away the painful contraptions and shaming nurses rolling their eyes. Surgeons cut her open, messed around in there, and shortly after, she was gone. You have to have watched your friend Bob die young of cancer in a room so small the nurse kept knocking his food tray over, and the man in the next bed watching the Rose Bowl with the volume blasting, and the morphine injections not the Cancer rapidly killing Bob and the patient telling you to ‘fuck off’ when you ask him to turn down the tube, your neighbor’s dying for cryin out loud. “So am I!” he howled “So am I!” The nurse shrugged, like a character in a Beckett play. You have to understand that shrug. You had to have sat there the way me and my road dog Tenderloin Steve did, at dawn, and asked Bob if he wanted to get the hell out of there, dying or not, we’d carry him if he wanted for cryin out loud to some place of dignity, but Bob too scared and hooked on Morphine to try. To completely abandon modern medicine you have to know my burly neighbor Sher who was killed by a hospital’s negligence, and watched Sandy’s yellowish blotched body rolled like garbage onto an aluminum table with a hole for escaping fluids after AIDS took him, and to have walked out of a lot of hospitals tired and afraid and not understanding why institutions of healing do such things to the dignity and humanity of their dying and innocently trusting customers.
So still back in that art school garden now my man Wally Z. has you rotate an imaginary hoola hoop while your reaching hands writhe orgiastically over your head, like a nasty teen witch at a Black Sabbath jam. The sweet young art school things who have watched, smirking, turn away, embarrassed: saunter off to their easel; grown men just aren’t supposed to perform that sort of motion, in order to heal some dumb geriatric lowerback ache. Dad, where’s your pride?
I have none. He tells me to thrust out my pelvis obscenely: I do so. He commands me to stalk the art school garden writhing and bumping and hoola hooping and I obey, regardless of students –and now also faculty’s — shocked, averted eyes. Yes, there are now educated professorial arty types watching, men healthily in touch with their feminine sides, who shake their bewildered heads and move off. I don’t give a shit. The pain’s started to fade and I’m dancing my obscene mambo all over their fucking school and don’t give a shit who sees my juggling balls. This is millennial post- capitalist medicine we’re practicing here; someday soon, when Y2K kicks in, and crashing computers destroy civilization as we know it, guys like Walter will smear their wrinkled cheeks with berry juice to chant the Doors “Riders On The Storm,” as uninsured heathens like me hop greasy and naked waving rusted scalpels over once astronomically overpriced health professionals pegged spread-eagle to the L.A. sun. Into the big X drawn in peach-colored lipstick on their aerobicized chests I’ll drive plastic sacrificial knives ripped off from Taco Bell. Yeah just call me Buffy the Proctologist Slayer.