Waters The Fake Plants
I met Biff and Marnie while I was teaching drums at a summer camp in Lenox, Massachusetts. They were attending with their daughter. A friend of mine had suggested to them that perhaps I could go out there and stay sometime. I was truly grateful to my friend; I’d wanted to see California for a long time. It was a beautiful summer afternoon in the Berkshires when I sat down with them. We met on the ground floor of a residential building: cool from the cement foundation, sunlight streaming in.
“We have people staying at our house right now,” Marnie said. “We don’t mind that.”
The couple portrayed themselves as if they were charitable, relaxed, and wanted to help out a young man who worked with special needs students, and was interested in the West coast. I thanked them sincerely, mentioned that I’d always felt attracted to the place.
“You have to be ready for cultural shock,” said Biff. He struck me right away as having a negative slant on life. I wondered if he knew the phrase was ‘culture shock’ and felt slightly embarrassed for him. But no worries. I was thrilled at the thought of driving to Cali, with a place to live for a time in beautiful Orange County. I spent the next eight months working, recording, and planning a trip to California. I was excited.
When I finally left I took the Southern route, drove all along Route 40 through Tennessee and Arkansas, and toward the Southwest. I took a detour north and landed in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, where I spent some time volunteering with rescued animals at a huge sanctuary set underneath high-tension power lines.
I landed at their place in the middle of the night, in San Clemente, California, a wealthy town in Orange County. I made it in, punched in the code for the alarm, met a cute gray kitty named Kona, and dropped my bags. I was dusty, beat up, but I had made it.
The next three weeks in that huge house were glorious, and I am grateful to whatever angelic forces delivered them. I found the beach, and soon found work in Los Angeles. I drove up north three times a week or so to record and play music for people, and when I wasn’t doing that, made food in that spacious kitchen, and walked the beautiful beaches of San Clemente. I loved the pier. The cat was happy, the house was safe, and I was intrigued with this new life in California. This is when I committed my one infraction against Biff and Marnie and their home, a well-intentioned one, but a mistake just the same. They’d instructed me to water the plants, which I had done faithfully if a bit too zealously: it turns out they were the proud owners of fake plants. Models of electrochemical engineering these were, the leaves green enough to imitate the color of chlorophyll. Sincerely intending to do good and thorough work, I watered them. Unfortunately, with no soil to absorb it the water seeped down to mildly soak a family photo album Biff and Marnie kept in their stately living room. The water by no means ruined it; but the outer photo that made up the cover warped a bit. Boy, did they get angry about this later. I really was sorry and still am; I hadn’t intended to harm a single thing in their home, and otherwise did not. In fact I even cleaned my own bathroom and vacuumed my rug several times. I just watered the plants because they’d left a note requesting it. I’d never dealt with fake plants before.
Reality set in three weeks or so into my thrilling life in this exquisite home, as Biff and Marnie came back from their vacation in Greece. I heard them at 3 a.m. one night, shuffling around upstairs as they unpacked and chattered to one another. I went back to sleep. The next morning I went out, shook hands, and thanked them profusely for the opportunity to stay in their house. It really had been fun.
Biff revealed the negativity I’d seen that first day at the summer camp in Lenox, Massachusetts right away, saying to me. “Ah, music. Tough racket to make it in. Tough.”
I wish I had a dollar for every time someone who has absolutely no experience with the world of music has told me this. In fact, I had traveled all the way from the Berkshires, knew virtually know one, and within days had made a connection with a platinum awarded music producer from Sweden, recorded for him and his crew multiple times, had made friends with and become nearly the resident drummer and keyboardist for a group of guys who ran a pro studio on 7thStreet in Los Angeles, and in general, wasn’t doing badly. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but social connections come easily to me, and there were a lot of people interested in making music. Biff’s fantasy of difficulty… well… that was what he wanted for me I guess. That would have vindicated him. Biff had made his money as an executive in the pharmaceutical industry. Now there's a noble legacy.
A few days later Michael Jackson died, and Farah Fawcett had passed away within days of his death as well. Biff came downstairs and called out gleefully,
“Well, lot of people dead in entertainment today!”
What a total douche this guy is!, I thought to myself.
Marnie took the time to correct my dish washing, and let me know I hadn’t set the dryer correctly when I did a load of laundry. The weirdness continued, and I quickly developed a strategy for the days I wasn’t working in LA. I made food quickly, threw it into a bag, drove my Pontiac Torrent to the beach, and spent the whole day there. No Biff, no Marnie. Just that beautiful pier, girls in bikinis, surf and sand, the smell of salt water, the hot sun… and seagulls screeching overhead. I missed the forest, but I found I could get my nature fix like this. I liked it.
Still, they had me in their home. I continued to work with Maya, give her rides home, and in general, experience life under the influence of their poisonous machinations. Even on the days I wasn’t, they tried to intervene. They had asked me to meet with them one late morning. They got out their calendar books, and generally attempted to appear to have some kind of plan, when they clearly didn’t. This had made me late for an appointment with a lady in West Hollywood for whom I’d been playing music, hanging out and making plans to record. The next time they asked me to meet, I told them I was busy.
I was, in fact, I had a meeting / audition with a minor Hip Hop legend named Mad Lion. I’d showered, gotten ready, and while I was about to grab my keys off the hutch they kept by the door, found them missing. I felt myself panic.
Maybe the cleaning lady knocked them behind this thing, I thought, and checked carefully. I rushed back into my room, looked all over, yanked the comforter off the bed. They were gone. Finally I called Biff and Marnie, asked if they’d seen the keys. It turns out on that on this day in particular, after I’d refused another pointless meeting in order to make my audition, Biff had grabbed my keys off the hutch, and taken them with him. Coincidence? I was two and a half hours late. Looking back, Biff was a deeply frustrated, passive aggressive man, and this move revealed it.
The worst behavior I observed on Biff and Marnie’s part was probably not toward me; it was toward their long time music teacher. They attempted to use me as ammunition and leverage. This part of the story is not pretty.
Biff and Marnie expressed a number of times that they weren’t pleased with their music teacher. I wondered why. They openly griped about and criticized her in front of me, and even worse, involved their daughter Maya. People with Williams Syndrome are highly agreeable. They will tend to go along with most anything socially, to please others in that context. Thus it was a poisonous thing to do. I would soon find out, there wasn’t a thing wrong with their young music teacher. The issue was that she had bucked their narcissistic control fantasies and pitiful ego machinations. I would soon do the same. I was going over to work with Maya one afternoon, at the upscale, Spanish style group home in which she lived. She had her own apartment, and a keyboard.
“Now, I want you to be very stern with Jessica,” Marnie told me, describing a situation in which she wanted me to come in, dominate, and embarrass the current music teacher. I was appalled. I’ve never done anything like it, and there was no reason to. She was obviously a fine music teacher, in fact I’m sure more capable than myself. They were just indulging the ugliest kind of egotistical machinations. I arrived early at Maya’s, and then her music teacher walked in. I felt my heart burst with empathy. She was around twenty-six years old, carrying a music stand in one hand, ten pounds of books in a bookbag in the other, and nearly nine months pregnant. I felt my heart melt.
I asked her how she was.
“Well I’ve just been informed that I’m fired,” she told me, keeping it together, but clearly emotional. Bless this young woman. I would not have done a thing to oppose her, and never did. I hope she’s well.
This is one of the things I’m most proud of in my tenure with these toxic people. I chose a book from Maya’s bookshelf, and sat down and read it. Jessica proceeded with the lesson, and clearly did excellent work. She was kind, professional, and nearly nine months pregnant. What in God’s name was wrong with these people?
I read for another ten minutes or so, and then announced to Maya and Jessica I was leaving. I did nothing, not a thing, to the end of degrading that young woman, and I’m proud of it. I don’t know how sick a person would have to be to want such a thing. But clearly they were. Even looking back on this, years later, I am still shocked at how petty Biff and Marnie were, and how they were willing to hurt and disrupt the life of a hard working young pregnant woman just to gratify their putrid egos. What’s more, they were willing to manipulate me, despite that I’d just driven three thousand miles in trust with them, to do it. I hadn’t seen anything like this before. I had not known people who had more wealth and comfort than they needed, but toyed with other people’s lives just to assuage their own misery.
The emails from Marnie escalated, as many as five in a day for ridiculous small details, despite that I was living in her house. I think it’s weird that everyone pretends she’s not sick, I wrote in my journal.
Human beings make choices, and over a lifetime, those choices solidify neural pathways. Biff and Marnie were deeply invested in egotistical control. It seemed to me a sort of defensive posture, one the helped them avoid themselves. It goes to show you that money does not make people happy. On the contrary, one of the worst positions folks can find themselves in is one of financial freedom but emotional misery, because there seems to be little to jar them out of it.
I had seen plenty of manipulation in my life, but more due to lack of resources, and the fallout from the trauma of a poor working class childhood, the scarcity of resources, the urgency with which we pursued pleasure and gratification, this sort of thing. I hadn’t yet met people who played with others’ lives for a much more pathetic reason: just because they could, because they were bored, because they desired the ego gratification of cheap power over others, and worst of all, to project their own negativity rather than face it. This woman had brought me three thousand miles to punish her music teacher, a perfectly capable young woman, all of nine months pregnant, for not bending to her will often and enough.
One afternoon, their daughter was going to the animal shelter to volunteer. I was highly interested in this, so I rode along. Biff and Marnie seemed to be in a disagreement though.
“I wasn’t real thrilled about seeing the animals!” Biff finally ejaculated at her. He seemed embarrassed that this was the reason, that the situation had pushed him into revealing it. I wondered, what kind of person wouldn’t want to see adorable kitties and pups, and share love with them? Was I ever naïve.
I got in the car with Marnie.
“Go and tell Biff to hurry up,” she said to me. “Just stick your head in there and yell to him.”
There was no way I was going to do that. I went and put my head in the door of their palatial home, and didn’t see the guy. I went back to the car.
“I couldn’t find him,” I said.
“Just go and yell at him!” she told me.
“No thank you,” I said. Finally, exasperated, she did it herself.
We picked up their daughter Maya, and drove to the animal shelter. In a town like San Clemente, I assumed it would be well-financed. I was excited.
Maya had taken the bus earlier that day, and began complaining about the bus driver. “He keeps hitting bumps,” she said. “He’s a really bad driver.”
This is how folks with Willliam’s Syndrome are. They tend to have heightened sensitivity: to loud noises, thunder, etc. Her mom and step dad reassured her, in a sort of way that told me they’d had to do it before, that the bus driver was perfectly safe, that it wasn’t some conspiracy to annoy her. Later, they would attack me viciously for her similar complaints about my own driving. They could apparently not extend to me the same decency they’d extended to the bus driver, despite knowing me, and despite that I’d driven three thousand miles to be with them, and up and down Interstate 5 many times a week without incident. They did this because it served their odious, egotistical purpose. But we’ll come to that. They discussed Maya’s plan to fly to Georgia, for a special needs camp. They were planning to be away that weekend, so had a conflict.
“I’ll take her,” I said. I was happy to help out.
“Oh, that’s not necessary,” they both said. Soon after though, they asked me if I would. Of course I agreed.
I got up at 6 AM, drove to Maya’s complex and picked her up. We drove in the commuter lane, parked, and got there in time. Maya seemed happy, excited about the trip. Things were going smoothly. That is, until her mother called. I don’t know what she said to Maya, but I could hear her vocal tone and it was frenzied and anxious. I watched this poor special needs woman’s anxiety go into the red. Marnie asked to talk to me. “I told you, you had to be there on time!” she said. That was odd for two reasons: she’d told me nothing of the sort, and we werethere on time. But next, I discovered something astonishing. Biff and Marnie had sent their daughter to LAX airport with a photocopied ID, and an outdated passport. The security stopped her. They wouldn’t let her through. It was my first time at LAX, and despite that this was potentially intimidating and that I had not been the one to send her off with such a ridiculous complement of credentials, I stepped up.
“I’m this girl’s caretaker, and whatever happens I need to stay with her,” I told them.
The guys at LAX were good. They seemed to understand that she had special needs, and perhaps assumed I was her brother. I think one of them referred to my ‘sister’. Either way, they truly were reasonable, and Maya finally got through, running for the plane with the intercom calling out her name. I didn’t comprehend then what a complete fuck up this had been on Biff and Marnie’s part, how irresponsible it was to send their daughter with Williams Syndrome to a major airport without proper ID, and worse, to call her before she even got in and provoke her anxiety, but I see it now. I wonder if people like this swim in so much misery, they unconsciously create difficult situations like this, reflexively, again and again.
After that, and with Maya gone, I tried to avoid these toxic people as much as possible. It was clear to me there was something wrong here, and I didn’t want to step into any more pitfalls.
Soon after the incident with their talented and capable music teacher, Biff called me out to the patio to talk.
“This arrangement isn’t workin’” he said to me. “We were expecting help with dog care from you… and we’re just not pleased with how things are going.”
They had wanted me to arrive to help care for their son’s dogs, whom they were charged with watching while he was on vacation. He lived in Newport Beach, drove a BMW, had a beautiful girlfriend, and seemed to be in all respects a healthy and successful person. I would have been happy to help them with dog care for this gentleman; I love dogs. I had elected instead to land myself in Broken Arrow, OK, for an absolutely thrilling experience volunteering at a wildlife sanctuary with ducks, geese, swans, an African porcupine, goats, Siberian tigers, lions, bears, a pack of wolves, an adorable house cat, and much more. I feel that was the right decision.
Biff and Marnie had gone there to spend a night with Marnie’s son, just after they got back from vacation. I’d already met him, and when they came home, I told them, he seemed like a really together guy.
She rolled her eyes. “He’s not,” she said.
I wondered what it could be. Addiction? Identity crisis? Whatever it was, he’d seemed fine to me, and she was a nightmare. I wondered why she would sell out her own son to me, a man she hardly knew.
But here was Biff, bringing up the dog care. I thought of the two hundred needy animals I’d cared for at Safaris in Oklahoma, how I’d picked up trash and scraped shit from cages, how thrilling it had been to walk in the enclosure with a mountain lion and feel my hand on her chest as she purred with gratitude and kindness, how wild it was to spend a night next to a pack of wolves, and how my choice to visit them and volunteer had precluded dog sitting in Newport Beach for this well healed man and his healthy dogs. I thought of how I’d come home the first day bloody, my shirt covered in wolf and skunk shit, how I’d dived into the mess and in some small way helped a needy and worthwhile organization. I felt so grateful I hadn’t skipped all that just to watch the two dogs in Newport Beach. I was sure they had made out fine. Biff brought up the watering of the fake plants, that I’d warped the cover of their photo book doing so. He was still angry about it. I was genuinely sorry.
Biff made every attempt to isolate me, implying that not only he and Marnie were displeased with me, but that everyone I’d met there was. I doubt that was true, but looking back, I’m astonished at what a cold and pitiful narcissistic move that was, when he was comfortable in his palatial home and hometown, and I was far from mine, and in such an insecure situation.
Biff brought up the airport incident, and through some kind of mental contortion, found a way to blame me for the episode, despite that I’d gotten up at 6 a.m. to pick up Maya, driven her to LAX, walked her right to the gate, and onto her flight on time. I had faced down security for him and his wife, and for a young woman I hardly knew. The astonishing thing? The guys at LAX were quite decent. They seemed to think Maya was my sister, recognized that I was her caretaker, and respected it. It was Biff and Marnie whose incompetence caused this unnecessary incident and whose arrogance prevented them from seeing it, and who were so abusive afterwards. I wondered why they had sent their daughter, in a post 9/11 world, to a major airport with an outdated passport and a photocopy of an ID. If it was my daughter, I would have been grateful and apologetic. Biff tried all the pitiful narcissistic tricks: isolating me, criticizing every move as if I should have done better, etc.
I reminded him that he’d sent his special needs stepdaughter to LAX with an outdated passport and a photocopy of her state ID. I opposed him clearly, easily revealed his arrogance and he reacted, in conversation anyway, quite forcefully:
“Shut up Tristan. Shut up.” He seemed frustrated, and embarrassed at himself for losing his cool. He was powerless, and behaved like an angry dishrag of a man. Unfortunately, he had my security to play with, and he made every attempt to manipulate.
I had a strong sense that Biff and Marnie each had lifelong failure to relate to others: their former spouses, their children, etc., and that they had brought me in with the unconscious intention to somehow resolve all of this and redeem themselves, but with the same unwillingness to look at their own role in it, the same arrogant demands and ego machinations, the same inability to see how their own behavior had repeatedly created misery and failed relationships. In the case of such a wide economic disparity, the potential for mistreatment is even greater. They felt very little responsibility to be decent human beings. They revealed themselves to be conniving and negative people who, when I failed to assist them in their plan to punish and degrade their current music teacher, allowed their egos to explode all over the place. We all make a choice in this life, one of opening or closing, and they’d made theirs decades ago. I shrugged it off and moved up north.
I am an agreeable person. If there is something I can do to please people and keep things positive, I will usually do it. In fact I spend a good deal of time trying to find ways to be helpful to others, without them even knowing about it. This is one of the first times I can recall in which Biff and Marnie’s machinations were so manipulative and offensive, I just put my foot down and refused. It is alarming to realize that they brought me all that distance to their home, with the unconscious intention to manipulate and use. With Jessica for example, their desire for me to subjugate her in order to vindicate them in whatever petty grievance they had against her. When they asked me to take charge of a music lesson she was teaching, an appalling thing to request, I simple refused. I want to be clear: this is the ugliest behavior I witnessed on Biff and Marnie’s part, and it still makes me angry that they would use such nasty and conniving tactics on a sincere young woman who was eight months pregnant, that they would play with her life and my own like that, just to gratify themselves in such a cheap and lowlife way. My choice not to participate in this certainly got me expelled from their home, and quite forcefully on Biff’s part (pointing his finger and saying 'shut up' etc.), but it was one of the first cases I can remember where I simply refused to play along with creeps, despite being three thousand miles from home, with all the insecurity that implies. Until I set all this down and published it for you to read, in fact, I’ve not done a thing to reveal their sick behavior, even though this was some eight years ago.
I want to add one more thing before we close. In my first week in Orange County I came to the attention of a truly talented producer from Liberia, now based in Sweden. Simon was in California producing music. He was staying with a friend, last name Marquez, and when I drove up to work with Simon, just north of LA, that’s where I landed. This was not a mansion in the heart of conservative San Clemente. These were working class folks, and Mexican. Their treatment of me was beautiful. Eric’s dad was a chef by profession, but despite that it was his day off, he cooked us a feast! He made me several ten inch trout he’d been keeping in his freezer, grilled them with delicious results. He said to me ‘Anytime you’re nearby, you come here; this is your home.’ So there’s a contrast for you. People with little to give, who have huge hearts. The more I see of the aristocracy, and of this recent era with people like Betsy DeVos and Brett Kavanaugh coming to light, the more it strikes me how arrogance and misery are the emotions these people swim in. It does not make them happy. In fact, it seems to stew them in their misery, with no recourse and no intervention in sight.
I don't think wealth has to make people unpleasant or miserable. It's just that it can keep them in it; there is no impetus to change. My experience, for what it's worth, is this: if you get involved with people who have a lot more money than you but are in a lower condition spiritually, they will bring you along to the extent that you serve their needs, but if you displease or defy them their attitude is how dare you!?, and they will begin to treat you abusively.
Human beings have social and emotional needs, and that includes even those human beings who’ve made a lifetime of choices that has rendered them coarse, selfish, demanding and thoughtless. They may try to bring you into their life, for any number of reasons. It doesn’t matter how sincere you are; they’ve chosen negativity too often, and the neural pathways of denial, dominance and coarse narcissism are well established. Try if you like, but in the end, you may find you too are watering the fake plants. Nothing grows from that.
Tristan L Sullivan