A Homer's Odyssey
Thursday, August 24, 2006
Every community that doesn't have a Mark Opsasnick needs to get one. He is a tall and obsessed man from Greenbelt who quietly rages against forgetting. What he rescues from collective amnesia are not the big things. One of his favorite phrases is: "miscellaneous and unknown."
He's the guy to ask about, say, Patsy Cline's seminal gigs at the Dixie Pig in Prince George's County. Or James M. Cain hard-boiling his last novels in a house near College Park. Or the true story of the local "haunted boy" who inspired "The Exorcist."
This morning Opsasnick is driving down a winding street in Alexandria. Anybody else would have seen just the tall oaks and blooming crape myrtles shading neat Tudors and Colonials. Opsasnick looks more deeply and sees something that isn't here anymore.
"We're entering Morrison country," he says dramatically, like a tour guide to a secret landscape. "These are the streets he walked on, these are the fields he played on, the sidewalks he traveled to visit his friends."
That would be Jim Morrison, lead singer of the Doors.
"There's his girlfriend's house where he went around back and threw pebbles up to her window to get her to come out," Opsasnick continues. "Here is the corner where he would hold court and act crazy. . . . I can almost visualize a teenage Morrison shuffling from his house."
The house is a stone-fronted Cape Cod in the 300 block of Woodland Terrace. Opsasnick started with the relatively well-known fact that Morrison lived here from the middle of his sophomore year through graduation from George Washington High School in 1961. Then he gave his subject the full Opsasnick treatment: He investigated those 32 months as if they involved the birth of the nation or the fate of the Earth.
The resulting brand-new opus -- "The Lizard King Was Here: The Life and Times of Jim Morrison in Alexandria, Virginia" -- fits well with the other five volumes that make up the author's investigations: another encyclopedic search-and-rescue mission down offbeat byways of the local past.
This is what social historians are supposed to do -- except Opsasnick isn't one, not by academy standards. For 17 years he has toiled for Montgomery County. His job title is "Income Assistance Program Specialist 2" -- he's a welfare caseworker.
But he's a caseworker with a cult following, a Walter Mitty who didn't just daydream.
All six of his books are self-published (but available on Amazon.com); in total he has sold maybe 7,500 copies. Yet those volumes land on influential shelves.
"I keep his reference books right in my office," says writer George Pelecanos, who acknowledged Opsasnick as a source of local music lore in his 2004 novel "Hard Revolution." "He's like an archaeologist. . . . It is an antidote to all those things people write about Washington with a capital W, saying, 'This is Washington, that's Washington.'