Hap Peralta: 1942 – 2003
“It’s not far, Hap. Straight through the next intersection, then we’ll hang a left on Fairmount Avenue.”
“NEVER SAY ‘go STRAIGHT’!” Hap screamed at me. “Say ‘go forward’ instead.”
We were driving one Friday afternoon from St. Pete to my family’s place in Lakeland. It was probably a holiday weekend and Hap, neither shy nor fond of social niceties, no doubt invited himself because in the early days I was always embarrassed to be seen with him in public. Lord knows what my conventional middle-class parents and siblings were going to think of Happie (Hubert Albert Peralta, Jr.), a character whose personality often seemed crafted to irritate.
I was sweating when we pulled into the driveway. My mother opened the back door and waved. I jumped out and nervously rushed around the car to introduce her to “my college friend,” but I never had a chance.
“My BAGS, please!” he commanded in a haughty voice with a delicate flick of the wrist and an imperial nod toward the trunk of my little red VW. The look on my mother’s face was one of complete astonishment as without another word Hap folded his arms across his chest and with shoulders hunched marched inside.
Outrageous can be charming, and Happie was both. At some point during the weekend, after announcing that his mother “owned a mountain in North Carolina next to Elvis’ mountain,” he solemnly confided that he was “Vice-Pretender to the Regency of Spain, thrice removed.”
My mother couldn’t get enough of my new friend.
Happie took a liking to me from those very first days on the Old Campus. And what developed over the next 40 years was a remarkable friendship, all the more so because he could be pretentious and abrasive, I was quiet and self-effacing. He was frail and clumsy, I was eventually to be nominated for admission to the Alumni Athletic ‘Hall of Fame’. [I never heard back from the committee and presume I didn’t make the final cut.] His was a mind attuned to the poetic and at ease with nuance, whereas it was years before I accumulated the wherewithal to understand Professor Satterfield’s famous “Myth & Symbol” lecture.
And, of course, equally improbable as far as long-term friendships go, I was girl-crazy, Happie was not. He introduced me to his gay bars, I dragged him now and then to my pick-up joints.
It was an education, on my part at least, that no Psyche major should ever forsake.
If Happie was cursed with the temperament of an artist, he was also blessed with prodigious talent. Poetry, prose, music, even forays into film and television – Hap was at home in diverse media.
I wish I had at my fingertips a poem he wrote for me not long after graduation. But I travel full-time now, am currently meandering through the Northwest hoping to spot some eagles migrating down from Canada, and my most precious items are locked away in a storage unit in Florida. I do remember, however, a quote from the preface to his collection of short stories, “Sonata in Six Movements.”
“I cannot tell you the meaning of the stories; they do not have to have a meaning. I cannot tell you the intent of my stories; they do not have to have an intent. I cannot tell you if the stories have any significance at all; but they must have some, if I am to have any.”
Hap claimed for himself the honor, which I have no way of verifying, of being “the first published writer” (in a non-college venue) from FPC. One of his stories appeared in a local magazine I think during our senior year and although I don’t recall the title it was about Hap and three companions driving all night to the East Coast to watch the sun rise up out of the Atlantic, drinking and carousing all day, then arriving back in St. Pete in time to watch the sun sink back into the Gulf of Mexico. There was no plot, no Freytag’s Triangle, just Existential ennui, a soggy black and white snapshot of the Absurd, ending with the line:
“Four fools, each in his place, each knowing that he was.”
Also in storage these past 40-odd years, in addition to the poem and our correspondence, are perhaps six to eight reel-to-reel tapes of Hap pounding away on Fat Mrs. Broadie’s plunky upright piano night after night at The Blinker. (Mrs. Broadie and her blind husband Conrad owned The Blinker, corner of 49th Street & 22nd Avenue South in Gulfport, and I say “fat” because she had a tumor in her lower abdomen the size of a beach ball.) His music, ranging from catchy Bert Bacharach tunes to heavily-orchestrated movie themes (“The Cardinal,” e.g.) to saccharine originals, was an anomaly in that redneck bar. But bless their working-class hearts, most not only tolerated Hap but welcomed him, and the rest of us snotty college kids as well. And I remember, too, when I stayed with him for several months in Richmond, how he somehow had a key to the back door of a large Presbyterian Church. We would sneak in late at night with a jug of wine and he would play for hours on a shiny black Steinway up near the choir area, rich melodies cascading out over the pews where I would sit with my feet up. He would always end a piano session with “Unchained Melody” by Alex North. I was never able to embellish that song with arpeggios like Hap could, but I still remember the basic chords he taught me.
[I do not know how well these analog tapes have held up over the years, as I have not been able to convert them to digital to listen to them again.]
I do happen to have on a small backup drive I carry with me on my travels a digital jpeg of a piece of music Hap wrote in 1966 for our December birthdays. “AlCraig” is a haunting and sweetly lyrical piano solo whose title is conjoined from our two middle names.
Happie was briefly enrolled in some kind of graduate degree program specializing in RTMP (Radio Television Motion Pictures) up in Philadelphia at the Annenberg School of Communication. He had always envisioned himself in bright lights up on a marquee as a “Director” and he got the chance to do just that directing the first episode of a pilot TV series.
All I know about the project was that it bombed, and when asked, Hap would say: “They love me in Puerto Rico!” Apparently that was where the episode/series ended up after failing to make it in the USA.
Over the years I roomed with Hap (& other friends of his) for weeks or sometimes months at a stretch in Richmond, Va., Covington, Ga. – and, of all places, Zephyrhills, Fl. Add to that our visiting back and forth when one or the other of us lived in St. Pete, Atlanta, Chapel Hill, Cincinnati… Well, I’ve lost count of the times we were together.
It takes more than a sound bite or a snippet to do justice to a “living legend,” as we affectionately referred to Happie, but here are a few random memories spanning four decades.
Hap got offered a salaried position as the PR Director of a Museum in Cincinnati about the time I went to Basic Training and then MP School at Ft. Gordon. It was his first “real” job, and he was rightfully proud of it. He was pulling in over 14K a year, twice what entry-level college graduates were making back then, and insisted that he was surely the “highest paid FPC graduate” to date.
“They even paid my moving expenses, Johnny.”
“Moving expense? What did you have to move?”
“Nothing… But I took the money anyway.”
At roll call one morning the drill sergeant pulled a manila envelope out of a floppy canvas mail bag and tossed it to me with that look of disgust that Army NCOs are born with. Inside was a glossy black & white portrait of Hap which had just been published in the Museum’s Annual Report.
A sticky note attached to the photo politely asked how I was doing and what I was up to. I couldn’t resist. I sent him the following snapshot with the most totally disgusted look on my face that I could muster, along with a blank piece of paper ‘detailing’ my “accomplishments”. To his credit, he got the sarcasm, and humbled himself a notch or two in his next letter.
Happie stayed at Jim Black’s house near the golf course in Lakewood Estates the year that Dr. Black went on sabbatical. Hap’s was the obvious responsibility of looking after the place, including Gilgamesh the cat and Marco Polo the shaggy blond dog.
And he tried, he really did.
The cat had a mean streak and totally unprovoked would come racing across the tile floor and go for your throat. Hap was afraid of him, as was I, but I think they negotiated something of a truce. It wasn’t until years later when I had to teach the Gilgamesh story to freshmen that I read it for the first time, having skipped that assignment in Western Civ, and learned about the demonic energy of the cat’s namesake.
Hap managed to feed the cat fairly regularly but he was much more of a dog person. For as long as I can remember he had gushed over his childhood canine companion, “Candy Mandy Lou”. And there were a succession of other dog-loves in Hap’s life: Maimonides, Madge, and he even kept my little mutt for me up in Cincinnati while I was in the Army.
But Jim Black’s dog, Marco… Marco one day just up and died out in the back yard – mysteriously at first, but later determined to be from ‘bloat’ – and Hap was devastated. He dreaded having to tell Dr. Black when he returned.
And then there was the little matter of the utilities. Hap was in one of his long stretches of unemployment and when he did have money it went for “necessities” other than lights and water. Both were shut off. My wife Juanita and I would always take candles when we visited, and we helped him set buckets under the rain gutters to collect water for bathing and flushing.
Happie had an uncanny knack for showing up on my doorstep in St. Petersburg after years of absence. I never had a phone so there was never any advance notice, he just opened the door and walked in. Usually around midnight, and always after a college reunion, which in my self-imposed isolation I would be unaware of.
And it didn’t matter where I lived, he would find me. My girlfriend Jeannie and I had just turned out the lights one night and crawled into bed in my little one-room apartment out on Sunset Beach when I heard the faint crunch of footsteps on gravel in a driveway down the street.
“Johnny…!” came the plaintive cry through thin walls. Hap was lost, blindly walking around the neighborhood in the dead of night, calling out my name.
After astonished pleasantries from not having seen each other in years I gave him my rumpled bed and Jeannie and I drove into town to her place for the night.
In college we would all regularly sleep until noon, and I don’t think Hap ever lost that habit. When I returned to Sunset Beach the next morning I had several hours of busying myself at my desk before Hap struggled out of bed.
And when he did I have to say that he looked better than I had ever seen him. He had put a few pounds on that thin frame of his and stabilized his drug intake to what, apparently, for him, was a mere maintenance dosage.
“A couple in the evening, one or two to get out of bed in the morning.”
“Hydrocodone, which is generic for a morphine substitute.”
“Oxycodone. Or, Percodan.”
“Norflex, for the heart.”
“…and those pink things.”
He talked differently, too. Not in his typical affected biting ‘theatrical’ rant but more subdued. He was in a long-term relationship with Billy now, called him back in Tampa from my place every hour on a clunky cell phone for the kind of inane conversation I never thought Hap capable of. (Hap loved using that word to describe others, “inane.”) I knew Billy, and liked him. Nine years earlier when I was broke and aimlessly drifting they had unhesitatingly allowed me and my THREE German Shepherds to room with them in Zephryhills. Billy & Hap could bicker like any other couple but there was also a tenderness between them that was sweet to watch. Whatever the reason, the swagger from the 60s and 70s when I saw Hap again in the 80s had been drained from his psyche.
“I just had a complete physical,” he confessed, “including a sperm count. Everything is normal but I keep a PDR at my bedside, you know.”
He laughed. Happie was always the first to acknowledge his hypochondria. “I’m just hoping to hit 50,” he added, almost as an afterthought.
“Johnny!” he suddenly screamed from the bathroom.
“Where’s the talcum powder? Bring me some powder!”
“I don’t have any powder. I never use talcum powder. Why the fuck would I?
“‘Cause my balls sweat! And I need some lotion, too, for my hands!”
I of course didn’t have any lotion, either. But Hap rummaged around in my kitchenette and managed to find some cooking oil which he proceeded to rub both on his hands and his elbows. Then he shaved; he dressed; he patted himself down with sweet smells and said, just before leaving:
“I work part-time at Maas Brothers now. Yes, four hours every Saturday. It keeps me in touch with humility.”
I suppose I should include this self-contained anecdote of Happie trying to rescue me late one night while I was nearly drowning in choppy waters off the seawall at the Old Campus.
It was written 40 years ago and reeks of juvenescence but with your indulgence I will leave it as is.
The main characters, pictured below, are Hap Peralta, my dog Wendy, and my red VW.
THE LATER YEARS
I don’t remember how I found out about Billy’s suicide, Hap’s partner of nearly 20 years. I was teaching at a University in Michigan, so it must have been in the early 90s.
Billy was a delight to behold. A philosophy major from UNC, he was boyishly cute and outrageously funny. He was the “promiscuous” partner in their relationship, Happie told me, and thus the one to catch the virus. Opting out of the consequences back in a time before AIDS victims had any hope, Billy leaped to his death from their high-rise Tampa condo near Bayshore Blvd.
Happie was more than devastated. He was hospitalized for I don’t know how long, and told me later that he had absolutely no memory of the next year and a half. The trauma was so severe that he totally blacked out a sizable chunk of his life.
About this time Happie somehow “fell out of bed” and shattered numerous tiny bones in his face, delicate ones around the cheek and eyes. I was trying my best not to laugh – I mean, like, how many people just fall out of bed? – but apparently it was a serious matter.
His FPC “sweetheart,” Jane Arbuckle – now Jane Arbuckle Petro, MD a Cosmetic Surgeon in White Plains, NY – flew him up to a clinic and arranged to have the very best doctors patch him back together.
The Prodigal Son
The Last Visit
It seems obscene to me to think that as close as Hap and I were, the last time we were actually together was in 1986. Those were my avant-garde days and I lived in a fashionably unkempt upstairs garage apartment in the Crescent Lake area of St. Pete. It was around 1:00 in the afternoon and after a long night Happie had just emerged. I was in the main room at my writing desk and Hap was shaving, a long drawn-out ritual for him using the old fashioned brush ‘n lather technique. He always left the bathroom door open.
“I’ve returned to the Church, you know,” he said.
“Yes, Catholicism. It means a lot to the Spics, to the Latin side of the family.”
And he had stopped drinking. I have no way of knowing if or how long that lasted, but he seemed sincere, and was in the process of “making amends” to those he had wronged over the years.
The Last Conversation
Bill Cobb and his wife Sandy and I had been getting together every summer for years, either in Alexandria, Virginia, or at Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina. And our Christmas night ritual was to meet in Tarpon Springs for dinner at Louis Pappas.
In 1997, the 26th or 27th of December, Bill and I were driving from Clearwater down to the college, where we had arranged to meet up with Happie, who lived in (or perhaps was just visiting for the holidays) Tampa. The phone rang in the car; it was Hap, and Bill put him on speaker.
His dog Madge was sick and he was distraught. Madge was old and feeble to begin with, which worried Hap, and she had been throwing up and acting listless; furthermore, it was a Holiday weekend and Hap was having trouble finding a Vet. I had been a Vet Assistant out in LA for George Bernard Shaw, DVM (distantly related to his namesake), but that was more than 20 years prior and I was not able to offer Hap any advice or much consolation.
Hap cancelled our meeting, and that was the last time I heard his voice.
Florida Presbyterian College…
I suspect there were other reasons for Hap’s no-show that day. “My psychiatrist won’t let me cross the bridge,” he told me once. The ‘bridge’ being the Gandy or the Howard Franklin or the Sunshine Skyway, the implication being that getting anywhere near the college conjured up emotionally-charged memories from the past that played havoc with his fragile mental health.
Hap was terribly conflicted about FPC. How I wish he would have attended the year 2000 reunion! I’m convinced it would have been for him, as it was for me, a cathartic experience of heroic proportions. Yes, I was emotionally and physically drained for days afterwards, but in a way that I can only describe as ‘spiritually uplifting’.
Where were you, Hap?
Next year is our twentieth reunion, Johnny, and I won’t get there early, of course. But you goddamn know it’ll be a grand entrance I’ll make… Sometimes I dream the ultimate, everyone gathered in the auditorium and suddenly the lights go out, pitch dark, the audience buzzin’, wondering – what’s going on, they ask, and then in one electrifying moment the bright round spotlight floods the stage and there l am in black tails at the grand piano not even taking a bow but launching immediately into, why, ‘Spring,’ of course… into a full throttle Peralta-version of ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.’
- Conversation w/ Hap Peralta, 1984
Okay, Hap, we’re here. Waiting, listening. Work your goddamn magic on us one more time.
(1) That a “living legend” dies unbeknownst to me for 9 years is not easy to stomach. I can only hope Hap was content those last years and that Dylan Thomas notwithstanding, he went gentle into that good night.
(2) Forty-plus years is not kind to memory. Corrections and comments are more than welcome.
(3) If you are wondering about the conversations, I jotted them down (the anecdotes, too) as they occurred and have kept them in a notebook all these years; hence, they are reasonably accurate.
H. A. PERALTA
PERALTA, Hubert A., Jr., 60, of Melbourne, Fla., died Sept. 21, 2003 at Holmes Regional Medical Center, Melbourne,. Born in Tampa on Dec. 11, 1942 to Hubert Albert Peralta, Sr., and Myrtle Surrency, he moved to Melbourne in 1995 from Tampa. He was a former public relations manager for the Democratic Party for Hillsborough County. He was a graduate of Eckerd College, and a member of Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church. He is survived by his sister, Jacqueline Jo Stephenson of Atlanta, Ga., and a close friend, Ebba King of Melbourne, Fla. Private services will be held at a later date. Memorial contributions may be made to your local coalition for the homeless. Brownlie- Maxwell Funeral Home
Tampa Tribune, The (FL) – September 24, 2003