The night before I met Jason Handelsman at the Sports Grill on the Green (the one at the Palmetto Golf Course off U.S. 1), I was pacing in my bathroom and brushing my teeth when, out of nowhere, I felt like Jason and I were communicating somehow -- both of us in our respective lavatories, toothpaste burning our mouths, and that tingly feeling in the back of the skull that comes with what people sometimes think of as telepathy.
Handelsman -- writer, poet, musician, performer, and ordained pastor -- is glowering proof that our identities and lives are not cohesive, straightforward things. Not because of all the creative capacities just listed but rather due to the fact that before becoming a man of God, Handelsman was Azar Alcazar. He was also the Ghost of Dirty. Not to mention, The President, a practicing freemason, and more.
Harder things first, though: In 2009, Handelsman was writing for New Times, interviewing countless luminaries such as Rick Ross and Lil Wayne and growing an audience for his out-there, Dadaist style of writing and humor. It was then, while rising in the sordid ranks of South Florida's cultural journalism circuit, that everything came to a bloody halt. On Halloween night, on assignment in South Beach, Handelsman struck a man with his car while driving drunk.
By Rob Goyanes
This was a pinnacle moment in Jason's long struggle with drugs, alcohol, and the various forces within that more or less everyone has but that Jason experiences (and controls) more forcefully. "Born and raised in the County of Dade," as he says, he went off to Europe as a young man and lived in various punk squats, doing things like snorting Polish speed with his then-girlfriend. There was also his visit to Auschwitz while on psilocybin mushrooms, where the two of them cried the whole way through.
After a few years in New York in the early 2000s, Jason moved back to Miami. He started going by Azar and lived the life of wandering crust punk. He lived on a houseboat in Biscayne Bay, where he was visited not only by extraterrestrials but also by the ghost of Ol' Dirty Bastard shortly after the MC's untimely death by drug overdose in 2004. Azar was then inhabited by the ghost of ODB and started rapping semi-eponymously as the Ghost of Dirty.
Always a keeper of notebooks, jotting poems and doodling effigies, Jason lived an inner life that is creatively rampant and intellectually vibrant, even when it was dangerously itinerant. As a kid his favorite books were Crime and Punishment and Naked Lunch, and he was a student of the characters of the world that you and I only read about.
Jason had been living under a bridge near Dadeland Mall before he started writing for New Times in 2006. The work brought him off the street, and a newfound sense of purpose invigorated his drive to get his life together. It was during this time that Rick Ross told him that if he worked hard enough, he could do whatever he wanted.
As mentioned, though, the excess of the entertainment industry spurred his self-admitted proneness to addictive tendencies. It got the best of him, and he nearly ended a person's life as a result.
The judge in the case against Jason gave him a very lenient sentence of probation. Filled with regret, his life was in a shambles -- yet Jason recognized that he was given a second chance. He felt a new spirit enter him: the Holy One. Jason listened over and over to the 16-CD box set of Johnny Cash reading the entire New Testament and set about to his new obsession. This was around the same time he started the process of becoming a freemason.
Throughout this, Jason developed a new music persona. As The President, Jason crafted songs that recall the best of Guided by Voices or Captain Beefheart, with lyrics that bound between pop culture, Masonic doctrine, LeBron James, and a nearly Nietzschean will-to-redemption. It was a radical, Handelsmanian turn, but to positive thinking and clean, compassionate living.
I've known Jason on and off since he moved back to Miami more than ten years ago. As of late, he's had me over to his church, the Upper Room Assembly of God, where he gives sermons and hosts a church group (he teaches his students how to memorize Bible verse with a method he learned as a Mason. It's very effective.) He's self-released several books of his poetry and illustrations and has a new zine of haikus released just in time for National Poetry Month -- the O, Miami poetry festival -- brilliantly titled Jimi Hendrix Dies, Jason Handelsman Is Born, By Anonymous.
Whereas his other books are unadulterated scrambles of his life and interests, Jimi Hendrix Dies is a concise, pitch-perfect distillation of Jason's surreally confessional artistic practice. Bizarrely eloquent, hauntingly yet sharply designed, and genuinely funny, the haiku form seems to have constrained and reined in Jason's mind -- for the better. But more important, it might be indicative of a new phase in Handelsman's life.
Earlier this month, Jason interviewed David Lynch, the auteur of Blue Velvet, The Elephant Man, Twin Peaks, et al. Lynch, since the release of his last major film, Inland Empire, has been focused on his David Lynch Foundation, Transcendental Meditation (the former and latter being intimately intertwined in a [obviously] Lynchian, pyramidal way), his David Lynch Signature Cup Espresso brand, and, presumably, his hair. Lynch liked Jason so much that he offered him a grant to start studying TM, which Jason took him up on.
I asked Jason if Transcendental Meditation (which nowadays is a weirdly cultish organization of wealthy Hollywood types such as Jerry Seinfeld) was going to be at odds with or supplant his commitment to the church, he said he wasn't sure. "I'm a believer and am filled with the spirit of God, but, you know, there are some problems with the church too. I saw a member get sent to 'therapy' for his homosexuality, so, you know, this sort of thing."
Jason told me that he'd written the haikus for Jimi Hendrix Dies while working as a beer vendor at this year's Ultra Music Festival. As a felon, it's one of the few side gigs he can get, besides tutoring people with developmental disabilities, a job he's done for many years.
He described being taken aback by the drug-fueled debauchery and people "dropping like flies" at Ultra. As one of his new haikus poignantly states,
Each generation br>
has a large batch of dirty br>
hippies, using drugs.
Jason's life has changed a lot. He's happily married to his wife, Catherine; they live a quiet life in Cutler Ridge and are expecting a baby soon that they've named Timothy. Jason is sober, active in multiple communities of faith and discipline, and working on a concept for a reality show based on his own life. (When Jason asked David Lynch if he'd be interested in directing the show, Lynch responded in his unique, Jimmy Stewart-on-acid cadence, "You never know!")
As we hit some golf balls at the driving range of the Palmetto Golf Course, Jason spoke of his relationship with golf, which is much like his relationship to everyone and everything. He described the rush that comes with "making contact," the experience of striking the ball just right, which produces a distinctly satisfying, thwacking sort of sound.
To get Jason Handelsman's new book, Jimi Hendrix Dies, Jason Handelsman Is Born, By Anonymous, contact him at 786-227-9486. For Rob Goyanes' book on the subject, Jason Handelsman: A Partial Archeology of Otherworldly Conformity, email email@example.com.
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