You are hereEssays on Life / Chalmers Here
from the upcoming book DRIVING ME CRAZY...
I don’t even have a photo of him.
When I recently thought about Tom Chalmers, who left New York City nearly 20 years ago to return to his roots in Texas, I realized that I had never taken a photograph of him. That’s strange because I have hundreds – no, maybe thousands – of photos of family, friends, and acquaintances.
But no photos of Chalmers.
That’s odd and yet I certainly didn’t need a photo to remember him. Physically, Tom was nondescript: a short man with close-cropped hair, a small pot belly, and an impish grin, who spoke softly with the trace of a southern accent. He rarely talked much about himself – although he loved to listen to anything you cared to tell him; he called it gossip, but I now see that it was Tom’s way of connecting with life. He was a shy, private man, who loved to laugh and loved to help.
He would always answer the phone in the same way, “Chalmers here” – which always sounded to me like an affirmation: Chalmers was always there when you needed him.
If you asked him what he did, he would always give you a jokey response; although from Texas, he had none of the flamboyance normally associated with the Lone Star State. If pressed, he would tell you he practiced Alexander Technique “table work,” mixed in with Shiatsu. He was a healer, although he never called himself that. To everyone who knew him, he was just Chalmers.
I first met him in 1982, when an actress friend of mine, Kathy Fleig, suggested I see him because I was having stiffness in my shoulders and pain in my back, “See this guy,” she said, handing me his phone number scribbled on a page. “He’s wonderful.”
I went to the address on 14th Street and Fifth Avenue, a 1960s era building, bland on the outside, with an elegant lobby inside. I went up in the elevator, not knowing what to expect. He was waiting to greet me at the door of his apartment. The place itself was one of those low-ceilinged cookie-cutter apartments that was typical of a 1960s era building, so without character, so unlike Tom.
He offered me a quiet “Now what can I do for you, sir?” as he led me into what had been a bedroom but was now a “workroom.” The floors were carpeted here, as elsewhere, wall to wall, and the nearly empty room was dominated by a bed-like table sitting near the window. He had me sit on it, and as my legs dangled over one side, I told him about my pains. Then he stood behind me and pressed what I later learned were pressure points in my head. As he pressed them, I felt pains in my back (“Everything is connected,” he said when I asked him about it). He showed me then how to hold out my arm in a way that gave it support, told me how to sit properly (not to cross my legs because that would throw different points in my back out of alignment), and then, after massaging me on the table, he played his “Sherlock Holmes game,” telling me, “You had something sweet to eat earlier today.” After I expressed my amazement, he told me everyone has a “sugar line” in their leg and it was sensitive to the touch when the body had taken in too much sugar. “How elementary!” He also had me massage the bottom of my feet with a tennis ball.
It was a singular experience – and I did feel better – but that night one of my feet went into a painful spasm. I called Chalmers and he saw me the next morning, genuinely puzzled by my foot’s reaction. In fact, over the years that I saw him in that nondescript, empty room, he would often comment on the strange twitches and jerks that my body would make as he worked on me, complimenting me, in his own way, by saying, “You should leave your body to science. It’s reactions are so unusual. You’re just wired differently.”
That was the beginning of my friendship with Tom Chalmers, whom I would visit once a week for an hour-long session. For years, he only charged me $20 a week. I’m guessing his rates were as idiosyncratic as the man, who was more interested in a rich yarn (I would often do much of the talking during the session) than getting rich off you. I remember one session he asked me: “Have you heard the music to Out of Africa? It’s beautiful.” I told him it was composed by my favorite film composer, John Barry. “Could you give me a tape of it?” I did, and he gave me a free session. He asked me if I had any more John Barry recordings. I said yes. He said: “If you bring me a new John Barry tape each week, I’ll trade you sessions for them.” I told him that was unnecessary – I’d just give him the tapes. He wouldn’t hear of it. Consequently, I got about three months of free sessions – until I ran out of John Barry.
He would rarely talk much about himself, but I did learn that he grew up in a big house in Texas, that he was happy to get away, that he had even worked in an office for a time, I think as an office manager, and that he had once suffered through a mistaken identity case, in which he was misidentified as another Tom Chalmers, a deadbeat dad.
Like most of his stories, the “deadbeat dad” tale was told briefly – almost matter-of-factly – as though it had happened to someone else. He was always guarded about his past and his feelings, but his actions frequently betrayed him. Early on in our relationship, I told him about an improv show I was appearing in at the Duplex, a downtown club. He was non-committal, but near the end of the show, I saw him sitting at a table at the back. He smiled at me, but before I could speak to him, he was gone.
Chalmers was like that, the classic “enigma wrapped in a riddle” type of guy. Even when he sold his apartment some years ago and moved to Texas, he did it so casually, as though he were taking a walk with one of his many pets.
His pets! How can one talk about Tom without remembering his pets? When I first knew him, he had a dog and maybe a cat. By the time he left New York, his apartment had become a menagerie of variously crippled pets (most of whom had been given to Tom by friends and clients on a kind of “permanent loan”). There was one – I don’t remember if it was a cat or dog – with its mouth partially wired shut; there was also a three-legged dog, and cats, different breeds, different sizes, and different ages: cats, cats, and more cats. You’d find them everywhere, with bowls of dried food laid out for them all over the apartment. (Years later, I learned he had left instructions that, after his death, he was to be cremated and buried with any of his animals that had died.)
Besides the pets, his friend Rebecca Elmaleh, recently reminded me of his sweet tooth and unconditional love for Coke. And, then he had a habit of roaming the streets of New York while walking the dogs finding good furniture that had been discarded in the trash to bring home for him to use. “That's how he furnished his whole apartment,” she recalled. “And then he was always rearranging the furniture in his apartment. He just would move large pieces around all the time.”
What I didn’t know about him until recently – and which was so typical of the man – was that, during the time that the AIDS epidemic was in full force, he offered shelter to many young young men and a few women. But he never said a word about it.
After Chalmers moved to Texas (and later to Florida, then back to Texas), I would talk to him occasionally, usually on my birthday, which he rarely missed celebrating with a phone call to me. When that date rolled up, there would be Tom, usually opening with: “Chalmers here.”
One year, he called me a day late, and left this recording on my machine: “Oh God. Chalmers is a day late. I wonder if you’re at a rehearsal or a performance, out with that lovely looking girl. Well, at any rate, I hope you had a great one and maybe your parents gave you a lovely birthday party and maybe all your friends came. At any rate, I’m thinking about you. I’m just a day late because in Florida, things move at a slower pace. Lovely talking to your machine. Goodbye.”
So, when I didn’t receive the customary call from him in late 2014, I grew worried. In my recent conversations with him, he had related, in his matter-of-fact way, what must have been tremendous struggles for him to get around, at first dragging himself to the grocery store with a walker and later struggling with a wheelchair.
In an e-mail to Rebecca, he related one scary incident. He was having strange reactions to drugs that has been prescribed for him and he said: “I figured my body was rejecting it as it used to do with vitamins when I would try to take them. The big decision-maker with me is when I had a flood of a nosebleed which frightened me. I was in the grocery store with people surrounding me, offering advice such as “Call an ambulance,” “Put his knees up,” “Put his knees down,” and their excitement caused me to be more excited, which I knew wasn't good for me. Anyway, I [subsequently] stopped using [the drug] and though my breathing isn't much better it certainly isn't worse.”
He told me about bizarre hospital visits, strange-sounding advice from doctors, and comments that made him sound loopy (or, perhaps, more loopy than usual). By this point he was either 81 or 91, depending on which story you believed, and it seemed crazy that he was living alone. He – and the pets that he still cared for – were ultimately rescued by Chalmers’s nephew, who took him back to Texas and gave him the kind of attention he needed but for which he would never ask.
It was there, on May 5, that he died. I had spoken to him a couple of times briefly in April. During the first call he was raspy voiced and quite weak, apologizing for his condition. (Typically, as he confessed in an e-mail to Rebecca, he was mostly anxious about the concern his voice caused to others: “E-mail is going to be my salvation for communication with friends who must have shuddered whenever they heard me try to stammer out a sentence.”) Consistent to the end, he asked after me, my health, my writing, and I told him, “I’m fine, Tom. I’ll send you my latest book.”
Later, after I mailed him the volume, he left me a message thanking me for it, and after I played some phone tag with him, I received a last message on my answering machine, in which he again sounded raspy but still recognizably himself: “Tom – it’s Tom Chalmers returning your call, a day late. I went to the doctor to see about a pacemaker – but call me whenever you can.”
I spoke to him once more after that, and he was obviously in pain. I tried to find out more about his health, but he was as elusive as ever, saying the doctors were doing their best – but then I knew, Chalmers had never had much faith in traditional medicine. I remembered, then, what he had said to me a decade or so ago, when I had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease: “What really matters is the belief you put into something. I believe in the Aleve,” he said about the muscle relaxant which he had started taking every day, “so it works.” He told me not to label my illness, just to treat it. “Go for what works for you, be it Western, Eastern, or whatever,” he observed. “If you label it, you are lumped in with all the other people in that category and are expected to react in a certain way. Don’t put so much energy into believing you’re sick. Focus on healing yourself.” His words inspired me in a way I can’t explain. He was the first person to give me hope that I could survive.
That was Chalmers’s way. He was an odd man: a healer, a cynic, a true believer, and my friend.
June 9, 2015