Archive, CultureSo It Goes

Archive: James Franco in So It Goes Issue.1

Archive, CultureSo It Goes
Archive: James Franco in So It Goes Issue.1

This piece originally appeared in print in So It Goes Issue.1, Spring 2013.

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I grew up in Palo Alto, California, in the shadow of Stanford University, 45 minutes down the 101 Freeway from San Francisco, and cut off from the Pacific Coast by the humble Santa Cruz Mountains. I spent the first 18 years of my life living in a one story Eichler- style house on the south side of town; a boxy design that was built in profusion during the suburban boom after the war. My friends were the sons of doctors, professors, dentists, landowners and businessmen; the University and Silicon Valley towered large in influence.

One friend was a boy whose parents were from Russia, although his father was long out of the picture. He had preternaturally white skin and hair, everything short of pink eyes read albino. Of course he was teased for it, and of course he soured mean as he grew older, so that by the time he was expelled from school as a senior he was a violent miscreant with a weighty drinking problem who had been in at least twenty fights, hospitalised twice, and - unless the rumour that he had been treated to a Russian prostitute from The City by another boy horrible beyond his years, was true - he was still a virgin amidst a group that had long been fucking. Ivan turned the pan-high school girl rejection of his looks and person - he was actually not a bad looking guy, he simply suffered from the teenage prejudice against peculiarity - into a broiling hatred for all women that manifested in poisonous explosions of “bitch” and “whore” laden invective on any given occasion, drunken or not. It was no longer clear if his behaviour or his looks were the negative magnet pushing away the opposite sex.

Ivan was my excuse. No matter how much trouble I got into, Ivan was always in more trouble. On Monday mornings during our early years in high school, it was no surprise to hear that he had gotten drunk at the party de semaine and been beaten by a posse of five or six or seven upper classmen. In the early days probably at his own instigation, but as the behaviours turned into patterns it became a thing to wreck the drunk, angry albino at the slightest prompting. I found myself in the back of plenty of cop cars because I was foolish about my underage consumption, pushing the limit and then going out in public so that I was often picked up wandering the streets with a stomach full of vodka, and a head full of attitude. But as often as it happened, it was never as bad as Ivan’s pearl skin, bruised purple and black from frying pans and kicks to the face, so I continued until my junior year when my actions took me to a crossroads: shape up and your life will still lead to a good college and beyond, or go to juvenile hall and suffer major damages to your future. I stopped. Meaning, I stopped doing what I was doing, and sadly ended my friendship with Ivan and others of his ilk.

Ivan was expelled for a number of reasons, the last being a failing grade in English class. I lost track of him as I became a studious loner whose only companions were my poor girlfriend, burdened with my confused climb back to civilised behaviour and maturity, and the books of the big three: Steinbeck, Hemingway and Faulkner. Six years out of high school, after I was a fairly successful actor with an acclaimed show about high school under my belt, I heard from an old Palo Alto friend that Ivan had killed himself. He had jumped off a parking structure in San Francisco. I was shocked. At that point, a couple students from my high school class had died: one from a car accident and one from a drug overdose, but I hadn’t been very close to either. Ivan was someone who at one point had been in my close circle of five.

What made his death more upsetting to me was that it had happened years before I heard about it, so what was fresh to me was already long buried for everyone else. I wanted to mourn for him, but there was no one to mourn with. I eventually learned that Ivan had been going downhill for years. In the time after I lost touch with him he had started to go insane. Often schizophrenia hits men in their early twenties; after high school the people that had stayed in Palo Alto for school or otherwise told stories of Ivan visiting Stanford dorm parties, spooked because he was being followed by the FBI. Probably on crystal meth, he confided that white vans were tailing him and that he was bugged by the government. His eyes signaled a man whose soul was consumed. He pushed the last of his friends away. And then one day leaped into oblivion.

I didn’t want to lose my memories of Ivan. He was dead a couple years and already he was disappearing. There were jokes that only he and I had shared, and now I couldn’t recall them. I wanted to go back and talk to the Ivan who was having trouble with life and tell him that everything would work out eventually. It seems that all the drunken nights in high school had been his self-medication, a way to calm the early voices that got louder after school.

I started to write about him. I wanted to preserve his person in a book because I knew he would eventually evaporate completely. My first book of stories, Palo Alto, started as a way to remember Ivan, but eventually other characters came in and the sections about Ivan were pushed to the side because his voice, like in life, didn’t fit in with the chorus of the others. But I continue to write about him. He is a huge engine for my work. When I think about Palo Alto, I think about Ivan, the mad one, my friend.

1. This is a painting I did of Ivan while I was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. He had been dead for a decade at this point but he still haunted me, like most of the people from high school. When I look at this painting I still can’t believe he’s gone.

2. This was my first car. To save enough, I worked at a coffee shop before I was falsely accused of stealing and at a golf course, before I was fired for reading on the job. That’s my grandfather in there. I bleached my hair myself.

3. The house I grew up in. The rose bush is trimmed here so the place looks bare. It’s an Eichler design, pretty common in Palo Alto, or it used to be.

4. I was always in my own little world.

5. This is me dressed as a punk for Freaks and Geeks, I was out of high school , but I was playing a character in high school. The show was a chance to do a few things over again. Playing the role made being a screw up in high school fun, rather than painful. That’s the thing about acting, it’s enjoyable to go through experiences that are painful in real life. My grandmother came to visit the set, an old bar in downtown LA, I think it was called Al’s Bar.

6. My high school graduation. I’m smiling but the last year or two were pretty hard. I had only one friend, my girlfriend. I won best smile, but I had braces, so I didn’t show my teeth for a whole year.

7. This is obviously later, probably at one of the Spider-Man premieres. I had to play another high school student in the first of the trilogy. I went to Choat and Andover to research boarding school kids because my character came from privilege. Those kids were a little different than I was, but also similar.

8. The living room couch in Palo Alto. The Franco brothers home for the holidays. This is before Davy began acting. The book has a bittersweet, religious ending. Everyone is looking strange.