Jason Batzer was my friend. After a long battle with depression, he killed himself last week.
I guarantee that if you met him, you remember him – he was funny, sharp, and just a little too over the top to be real. When he was at the height of his powers, reality seemed to bend around him. You could see it warping, turning into an impossible caricature when it got close to him. He repelled it and all of it’s structure. I’ll never forget watching him napalm his typewriter while dressed as a nurse and feeling like I’d been pulled into his world for just a little bit. And I liked it in there.
And if you met him, there’s a good chance you have a story like that, too. At least one. Cutting bread with a jawbone, showing you how zippos work, or confounding you for an evening, only to evaporate into the night without saying goodbye. He always made an impression.
He was also a total pain in the ass much of the time. So, you know – the complete package. Just because he’s dead doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten him farting like a gatling gun, screaming inappropriate gibberish, violently sucking the mucous back up his nose (“skorking” was his term of art), pissing everywhere, and generally making a nuisance of himself. And if you got past those first impressions and wanted more, you could look forward to endless marathon phone calls in which he repeated the same stories over and over even after you’d pointed out that you’d heard it a dozen times – once he started telling a story he had to finish it, out loud. You’d be treated to bad behavior on the regular, obsessive behavior just as often, endless chatter about minutia you don’t care about, constant insults, and belches where he mouthed the word “BELCH” just in case you didn’t know what he was doing.
Putting up with that was the price of admission, and his friends paid it gladly. Because what you got in return was worth double and more.
Jason was a gusher of creativity. Even though I knew him well, he was constantly surprising. He could do things with language that nobody else could. The way he put a sentence together and the words he used to construct it outlined the entirety of the world he lived in. Everyone I’ve talked to since he died has at least one phrase of his stuck in their head. “Nobody can take your dignity from you, you give it up willingly. I learned that from women. I learned a lot of things from women, all of them bad.” “Coeds: the other white meat.” It goes on all day.
You couldn’t get him to do something creative on demand or actually work at it or god forbid revise it, no matter how much you encouraged or cajoled. I took a stab at starting a band with him because it seemed like a natural fit (he had phenomenal taste in music), but it never quite worked out, and when we had an actual show on an actual date with an actual time we needed to go on stage he panicked. He made it up on stage, but tried to cut every other song so that we would be done sooner. Eventually we relented and cut the set short, ending the band in the process.
Because that wasn’t how he worked. If he was going to do anything creative or funny, it had to be immediate and off the cuff. Pure improvisation. Editing, revisiting, rehearsing – all of those things filled him with panic.
Perhaps his finest medium was the answering machine. Jane and I burned out a motor or two (back when answering machines existed and not voicemail) playing Jason messages back for each other or friends who’d come over or just because. I wish I’d saved every single one, but it always seemed like an infinite resource. Here are a few I’ve managed to save:
He was also a master of notes left behind, postcards, and the occasional package (usually preceded by several months worth of telling you he was going to send you a package). Quick gestures that captured their moment: that was his forte.
I realize that the person I’m describing comes off as a drunken lunatic. And there’s some truth to that. But there was more to him than that, maybe most importantly the fact that he was a great friend and indiscriminate about it. Anyone willing to stick by him, well, he had their back no questions asked. That was his only standard: accept him and you’re friends. Unpretentious, open to everyone who was open to him. I wish I were more like that.
He was also the smartest person I’ve ever met. It seemed like he knew everything about everything. For a while in the ’90s there was a trend of non-fiction books that explored the history of mundane objects – History of the Zipper, History of the Screw, etc. Jason could have written any of them, which would have improved both the research and the prose. He was a walking talking (farting) history of everything. He could go into great detail about faucets and fixtures or the uniforms of Austrian officers from WWI or quote from memory from the Watergate tapes; He could tell you everything you could ever want to know about the Butthole Surfers or when the Oliver Typewriter Company was founded. He just knew. All of the inscrutable details that make up history were there on the tip of his tongue.
Now all of that’s gone.
It seems like for the last decade he’d been waiting out an inevitable decline in all aspects of his life. He was trying to hunker down and hold on, hoping against hope that things didn’t get worse. But they inevitably did. I wish someone would have hired him to just sit around and be funny all day. I think he was hoping for that as well. It seemed like it should be so easy to harness that talent and knowledge – as a history professor, a radio host, a voice over artist. He had the sort of mind that could have succeeded at almost anything. He had so much raw talent it seemed like success should have been like falling off a log for him. Instead, he was a security guard for years. Then, he found out that his dream job was hiring: the railroad. It took him several years to churn up the will to apply, but they were looking pretty regularly, and when his will and their need finally coincided, he was hired.
And he hated it. The hours were horrible, the bureaucratic structure was oppressive, and much of his time was spent walking around in the rain. He wanted to leave from almost the first week. Even after he got some seniority and could start choosing his shifts, the oppressive dullness of the work made him miserable. For a while he was laid off with pay, and even during that period he couldn’t get it together to start sending out resumes.
In the same way he would freeze when he was expected to edit or revise, looking after the details of life would completely ankle him. Writing his senior thesis at college involved months of anxiety being ratcheted up, followed by a few weeks of not sleeping or eating (but still not actually writing), finally culminating in him banging it out at the last possible moment and hating the result. The same overwhelming anxiety hounded him in all aspects of life. He’d wait until just before his phone got shut off to go down to the office and pay the bill. The rent was always paid on the 5th of the month, the last day he could legally do it without getting a penalty. And if there wasn’t a deadline, nothing would happen, so taking the time to type up a resume and send it out to potential employers was all but impossible. Something about deadlines and expectations absolutely destroyed him – he would completely unravel with anxiety.
But enough of my armchair Freud routine – tell more stories. Once, back in 96 or so, he fell into a terrible funk. I didn’t hear from him for a few days, and my repeated calls weren’t returned. I was worried. After a week he finally picked up, and apologized for not getting back to me. It was all he could do to go to his job he said in a voice that sounded like it was a huge act of will to push air out. I felt completely incapable of helping him, but wanted to try to distract him. I went down to the store, bought a big log of cheddar and some aerosol cheese and fashioned it into a bust of him. It looked nothing like him – I’m not a sculptor and cheese is an unforgiving medium – but when I showed up at his place and gave it to him (after leaning on his buzzer for 20 minutes to get him up off the couch) he smiled bigger than I’d ever seen. “Thanks, baby.” It’s no panacea, but a fine Tillamook can part the clouds for a few hours. He kept it in his fridge and gave me regular reports on it’s level of desiccation.
In 2007, while he was trying to get off of effexor so that he could switch to another antidepressant, he experienced a horror known as “effexor psychosis.” It was ugly. He was house sitting for Jane and I when it started coming on. When we got back into town, he told us he hadn’t left the house because private detectives hired by the railroad were following him. I told him private detectives hired by the railroad were not following him and why the hell did you eat an entire half-pound bag of pistachios? He knew they were following him because he kept seeing them everywhere, and one of his union brothers had confirmed it by signaling him with a lantern as he drove away from his place towards ours. There was a lantern by his side on the table, I assume for signaling back if need be. He ate the pistachios because he didn’t want to leave the house and they were the only ready-to-eat item in the pantry. He went home instead of staying here, figuring they’d watch him wherever he was anyway.
A month later he was taken into custody in front of his apartment building, carrying a loaded gun to protect himself from the witch in the apartment down the hall from him who was trying to control everyone’s mind. He was taken in on a 5150 (involuntary psychiatric hold) and put in the county mental health facility (John George). None of his friends knew what had happened, but he left all of us enough creepy answering machine messages that it was clear something was up. I was working a few blocks away and went over to his place to try to find out what was going on. The building super told me about the gun and the police and how they’d taken him away in a cruiser late that night. A little more digging and I found out where he was and when the visiting hours were. A couple of friends and I drove down to see him.
He was sullen. They’d put him on Lithium, which had gotten rid of the mania, but left him in this horrible facility with it’s fluorescent lighting and poly-blend sheets and rules and schedules. And no TV or books. He was miserable, like a caged animal, wanting to demand that he be let out immediately, but knowing that was pointless. I told him to stop worrying about the thread count and take some time off, but he didn’t even crack a smile. I knew that meant it was bad. J always quoted his friend Doug who once said, “I know you’re really depressed right now because your suicide jokes are even funnier than usual,” but now there weren’t even jokes. No self-aware comedy, no prolix rants. Just grim, unblinking eyes, floating on an expressionless face. That’s what depression looks like.
There was an orderly at John George who was glad to see some of Jason’s friends drop by. Like us, he’d been charmed by the guy from the moment he came in (strapped to a gurney and gibbering, a classic Batzer first impression). There wasn’t much he could tell us, he explained, because the law in California is very explicit about patients having the right to privacy. “People get fired immediately if they say anything. And worse, nobody would insure us and we’d have to close down.” But he could legally tell us what he saw and heard personally, and did so eagerly. The cops had told him they’d decided to search J’s apartment after picking him up, and were taken aback when they saw the arsenal of weaponry therein. Granted, much of it was decommissioned historical artifacts (landmines, hand grenades, artillery shells, all with the explosives taken out), but they didn’t know that. They assumed that J was a potential mass murder (the Virginia Tech massacre had been earlier that year), and that they had walked into some Silence of the Lambs type scene. “Then,” (and you could actually hear the hair on the back of the orderly’s neck scraping against his collar as it stood straight up) “they opened his fridge… and there was a head in it!” He looked around at us, expecting to see shock but instead only got me stifling giggles. “I guess it was carved out of cheese, but man – they were convinced this guy was a psycho.”
The orderly insisted on writing the number of the payphone in the hallway down for me, even though I already had that number and told him not to bother. But he was adamant. I didn’t understand why until I unfolded the sheet of paper he’d written it on and saw the back of the paper. It was J’s intake form, full of detailed notes about his state when he came in. Manic, shouting, worried about the CIA. He had quite clearly gone around the bend.
He’d always managed to make light of his “skewed brain chemistry,” but I finally understood how serious it was. I teased Jason mercilessly up until that point, but stopped after that. I wanted to do everything I could to help him make sure that he never ended up in there again, and belittling him even as a gesture of camaraderie wasn’t working in that direction.
Jason and I had a falling out a few years ago, in large part because things didn’t improve for him, and I was convinced that there was nothing I could do to help. I don’t know whether that’s fair of me, still think about it a lot, and still don’t know how I feel about it. At the time, I knew I was watching him kill himself passively, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. That’s a tough situation to be in, and I chose one of the many bad options available to me. Still, I’ve always secretly hoped I would run into him some day, and we’d have a chance to patch things up. Or else I’d see him out on the town with his fabulous new girlfriend, or out at a bar entertaining dozens of friends. Even if he looked at me as if to say, “See – I’m fine without you hanging around,” I’d be grateful for that. Because I always – always – wanted him to be okay. Unfortunately, that’s not how it ended.
Mutual friends always kept me updated on what was going on, and it was never good. He’d been struggling for a long time, not able to find steady work after being fired by the railroad, not able to afford his medications, and not able to come to grips with his profound depression. His mother, whom he loved dearly, passed away a few months ago, and in the end he couldn’t escape the depression that brought on.
I don’t know how he killed himself, and won’t go out of my way to find out. Part of me is curious, if only because I’m sure whatever implement was used had great historical significance. But I also know that those kinds of details really only bring a false sense of closure. And as grateful as I’d be for any kind of closure right now, I’m okay without it. Things can stay unresolved. What I do know is that it’s a goddamn tragedy that this great, great person felt like suicide was a good option. I can’t imagine that windowless world, and I wish he couldn’t either. The fact that this happened makes the how irrelevant.
Some day, someone brave citizen of the future is going to want to know about Jason Batzer. I don’t know why or when, but I know this to be true. I’m leaving this here for you, future person. Hopefully it all makes sense in the future, because it sure doesn’t now. Hopefully this stands as some kind of memorial to this amazing character.
He was my best friend for a very long time, and one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. My friendship with him was inspiring and infuriating and defined a huge chunk of my life. But he just wasn’t made for this planet.
Adendum: Rupe sent along some more photos and video. I remember how excited he was about Rupe coming out to Wyoming to visit, and what a relief that had been for him. It shows in the Wyoming pics. Thanks, Rupe. It’s good to see him smile.
Adendum 2: Dave B. put together a video as well. You can find it here.