Early in the morning of January 15, 1967, I met Damien Martin in Los Angeles. Though the first Super Bowl was still hours away, he seemed giddy with anticipation. “It’s the first time I’ve been involved in an event this big,” he said. “This is how I want to make a name for myself.” He was young, scrappy, and a wild spark flickered in his eyes when he spoke. For the next few hours we wandered around the city, sliding in and out of seedy bars and mingling with the local drunks. His approach was classic: first he’d drop his name to the bartender and ask if anyone was asking around for someone in his line of work. Then he’d plant himself at the dark table in the corner of the room, slowly sipping his beer and reading through the sports section of the newspaper. I watched as people crossed the bar to talk with him. Some were nervous, some were cocky and some were too plastered to fit in any other category. None of them knew Damien, but they all instantly trusted him. He had that quiet calm that you look for in a bookie, and he was good at his job. With kickoff 30 minutes away, I left and headed toward the stadium to cover the game, leaving Damien behind.
In 1975 I ran into Damien again. He was working with Johnny Tatum, world-renown rodeo clown, as a barrel man. Together they were preparing for the National Finals Rodeo, which Johnny had been selected to participate in the following year. They invited me to watch that night’s event in Tyler, Texas, and I accepted. I was amazed to see how much Damien had changed over the past 8 years. His face was smooth and his hands were rough and worn from working with the bulls. His hair was longer now, though you couldn’t tell as much because of the cowboy hat that seemed to be attached to his head. The same flash I’d seen years earlier was still housed in his eyes. While we traveled to the stadium, Damien told me how he had lived successfully as a bookie for a few years before running into trouble. Women seemed drawn to him, particularly a woman named Jacalyn who (unbeknownst to Damien) was engaged to the aptly-named Brutus, Damien’s primary competitor in the bookie business. Brutus discovered Jacalyn’s treachery and chased Damien out of town. He wandered aimlessly around California, broke and desperate for money when he spotted a sign on a lamppost calling for bullriders. The advertisement promised $1,000 to any man who could last longer than eight seconds on Big Bertha, Mendocino’s nastiest bull. With nothing to lose, Damien tried his luck…and lasted seven seconds. This would’ve been the end of the story for him, had Johnny Tatum not been sitting at that very bar. Johnny recognized Damien’s potential and offered him a job, which Damien readily accepted. “I’ve been on the road with Johnny ever since. Right now I’m just a barrel man, but I’ve been working on getting fit to ride the bulls. I’m gonna make a name for myself.”
My work had never taken me to a rodeo before so each competition was a new experience. When it was finally time for the main event, I was on the edge of my seat. The young cowboy lowered himself carefully onto the bull’s back and slowly raised his left hand into the air. We all held our breath and time stopped. The gate opened and the bull bucked and flung his body around haphazardly, trying desperately to eject the rider. The cowboy held on as long as he could, but the force was too much for his body to handle and to the ground he dropped. Damien, Johnny, and the rest of the clowns sprung into action and after a few exhilarating moments, the bronco was back in his cage, waiting for the next man brave enough to climb on his back.
I didn’t see Damien for another 14 years. In 1989 I spotted him briefly during the United States launch of Nintendo’s Game Boy system. Though we didn’t get to spend much time together, I found out that Damien had been severely injured one night in the early 1980s when a bull crushed his left ankle. He now walks with a slight limp and used all the money the insurance company paid him in his settlement to travel around the world. During his time in Asia, he became fascinated with both the people and the culture of Japan. “When I walked down the streets, I just knew this is where I was supposed to wind up. I canceled the rest of my travel plans and took the first job I could find.” That job happened to be with Nintendo helping to design and test the Game Boy operating system. He had been asked by Gunpei Yokoi, Nintendo’s maintenance engineer, to help the American office with the product’s transition from the Asian to American markets. Before he could say much more, the crowd waiting outside of the store rushed in and separated us.
A few years passed and I found Damien in New York City wearing an Armani suit and yelling at a Starbucks barista. It was December 5, 1999, and he was late for an important meeting in his office. It was easier to talk to him a year later when he was living as a subway poet. His face was gaunt and the spark in his eyes seemed like it was about to flicker out. When I mentioned that I saw him a year earlier at a Starbucks on Wall Street, he told me how he left Nintendo to pursue a job in the Dot Com market. When the bubble burst in March, it was over. Without a formal education, the only work he could find was temporary. Assuming he’d find something more “dignified” in time, he accepted a 2-month job as a manager at Ticketmaster. After the two months ended, he did everything from magician’s assistant to parachute tester, crayon maker to jello taster. Each job lasted only weeks, for various reasons. His job as magician’s assistant ended because he refused to shave his legs for the classic “saw a woman in half” trick and he was forced to quit his job as a jello taster when he learned that he was, disturbingly, allergic to gelatin. Things had gotten desperate for him but he hadn’t lost all hope. His eyes glimmered when he told me that his new plan was to be the one who named lipsticks for cosmetic companies. “I mean, ‘Pink’? How about ‘Perfect Petal’?” He looked at me for encouragement but I didn’t have the heart to tell him that naming lipsticks is a job perk, not description. Instead, I threw a few dollars in his cup, mumbled something about needing to be at an interview across town, and walked away.
Six months ago, Damien called my office and asked if we could meet. He didn’t say why, just that he’d be flying down from Chicago the next day and had a question to ask me. We met for lunch and he told me how he’d turned his life around. At some point while he sat on the cold ground in the subway station, he realized two things: 1. his poetry was awful and 2. there was still enough time to pursue a new dream. He enrolled in a community college and started taking courses to preparing him for the one dream he’d always been too afraid to go after: architecture. He told me about how much he struggled to get to where he was and about his new life in Chicago with his wife and two children. When he spoke, I saw the familiar flicker in his eyes, and I was happy for him but wondered why we needed to meet in person and what question he was going to ask me. At the very end of the meal, he said, “I’m writing a book and I want you to write the foreword. You’ve seen me through so many different phases of my life; you know who I am and where I’ve been. It only makes sense.”
“Besides,” he finished, “this is how I’m gonna make a name for myself.”