Shut Up, Little Man

The squalor and acrimony of the lives of a couple of hard-drinking retirees are dwarfed by the avarice that their celebrity has inspired in others

Turning a corner in the Tenderloin, Henry Rosenthal takes off his sunglasses and wipes his brow. It's a sweltering hot Saturday, and the movie producer has been combing Skid Row streets all day looking for the hard-drinking retiree who's the subject of his latest film project.

Along for the ride are myself and Gregg Gibbs, the Los Angeles playwright, painter, and performance artist who's writing the screenplay. Gibbs is nervous because he's played a central role in creating the worldwide acclaim for the prodigious drinker: Peter J. Haskett. Yet Gibbs has never met Haskett.

"What am I going to do? What am I going to say to him if we find him?" he says, running his finger down a hotel registry on Geary Street looking for Haskett's name.

Haskett is known to thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people as Peter of the Raymond and Peter: Shut Up Little Man tapes, 15 hours of drunken rants between Haskett and his roommate, the late Raymond Huffman, that were covertly recorded by their next-door neighbors in the late '80s.

For nearly five years, the recordings have been copied and recopied and mailed all over the world, creating international celebrities of Raymond and Peter and fans as far afield as New Zealand. The two men's rants have inspired a play, written and directed by Gibbs, and an odd compendium of memorabilia -- a comic book, T-shirts, a compact disc, even a Macintosh screen saver. Rock stars from Faith No More and L7 to the Breeders and Possum Dixon have sampled the tapes on their albums. Actress Martha Plimpton keeps a picture of Raymond on her mantel. And in the next year or so, the outlandish lives of Raymond and Peter may hit the big screen. Three different independent film projects are fighting among themselves for the right to tell the story. The actor Judge Reinhold has told Rosenthal's team that he wants to play the minor role of Tony Newton, Raymond and Peter's sometime roommate.

Which brings us to why a producer, a playwright, and a reporter are spending a sunny Saturday trekking through the Tenderloin.

Gibbs and Rosenthal aren't being entirely straight with me, but I suspect their lawyer has told them to convince Haskett to sign over the rights to tell his story. I later learn that I'm right.

I'm here for a different reason: to figure out what happens when the dark, pathetic lives of two losers are swallowed by pop culture and morphed into an exercise in art, irony, and merchandising.

As we walk in and out of Tenderloin bars, hoping to find some clue about Peter's whereabouts, I can't stop thinking about the merchandising of Charlie Manson T-shirts.

Rosenthal's thinking about a perverse artifact, too.
"You know guys," he says to Gibbs and me. "I haven't had this much fun since I went looking for John Dillinger's penis."

When he was 17, the 40-year-old producer tells us, he went searching the nation's capital for the dead gangster's member. After a furtive search of the Smithsonian Institution and the medical museum of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Rosenthal learned that the story about the FBI cutting off and saving the allegedly awe-inspiring schlong was a canard.

Peter J. Haskett has indeed become a pop-culture artifact. But that's the extent of Rosenthal's metaphor. The object of today's search is no fiction. Haskett's life has been appropriated, edited, turned into absurdist theater, packaged, and sold over and over again. But he is very real, a fact Rosenthal and I will learn when we finally track him down in a lonely Tenderloin hotel room.

There, bathed in the aroma of booze, coagulated cooking grease, and GPC menthol cigarettes, the movie producer will finally meet the 67-year-old former advertising executive and convince him to sign over the rights to his life story for an undisclosed amount of money. Rosenthal will also confront for the first time the imponderable sorrow of the life he's purchased and the story he's committed himself to tell.

"It's much more complex than the tapes let on," Rosenthal says to me the day after we meet Haskett. "It's just so ... sad. The whole thing is just so eerie."

It's not the first time a fan has come too close to the despair behind the phenomenon. Last year, Kelley Deal of the Breeders told Rolling Stone, "Raymond and Peter are sad. The eavesdroppers who recorded it are sad. The label that released it is sad. The people who buy it are sad. And I'm sad for listening to it."

Eight years ago, Raymond and Peter were living off welfare, booze, and corned beef hash in a ratty apartment in the Lower Haight. The only people who knew about them were the neighbors in the 15-unit building at 237 Steiner who were forced to listen to them screaming at each other. Their greatest joys in life -- other than fighting and drinking -- were their two dogs, Chewey and Pierre, a Pomeranian and a Cocker-Pomeranian mix, respectively.

Raymond and Peter got Exxon credit cards in the dogs' names, and Peter once applied to the Bay Area Reporter, trying to get a job for Chewey as a "dog reporter."

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