A Homer's Odyssey
Writer Mark Opsasnick, Filling in the Blanks on Our Pop-Culture Map

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.'

"He's the guy saying, 'No, man, this is Washington.' "

Sticking Close to Home

Some people live their lives a mile wide and an inch deep. Mark Opsasnick has done the opposite.

Born in 1962 -- the year after Morrison shook the conservative dust of Alexandria from his boots and lit out for college, California, stardom and finally death in Paris in 1971 at age 27 -- Opsasnick is the ultimate homer.

He lives with his parents in the Greenbelt house the family moved into in 1965. He types his longhand drafts into a computer in the front room that his father, a retired lawyer, once used as a home office. The only adornment on the walls is a picture of Opsasnick's 1980 graduating class from Eleanor Roosevelt High School, where he was a basketball star.

Part of the reason he stays close to home now is to take care of his aging parents. But even before, he says, nothing ever came along to draw him away -- not a woman, not a career. He graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in urban studies.

"It just never went in that direction for me," he says. "Most [friends] got married and moved away. I just stayed in one place while everything changed around me. I don't question the way things turned out. I just accept it as life's destiny."

He doesn't especially like his job, but he expects to be at it for a while. It will be more than a decade before he'll qualify for a pension. What he prizes are the regular hours, leaving him nights and weekends to pursue his journeys into the past.

His road wanderings are ritualized. A trip to the beach: First stop, eggs and pancakes for breakfast at the Harrington House Restaurant in Harrington, Del., then a prowl through the Rehoboth Kmart, "a magical place" where, he says, he buys most of his clothes -- the XXL blue plaid Basic Editions shirts, the baseball caps. He always stays at the Francis Scott Key Motel in Ocean City and hangs at the Purple Moose Saloon, where he is king of the saloon's afternoon rock trivia contest, and where he wrote part of the Morrison book (he tells readers all the local spots where he did his writing).

It is as if the prescribed geography of his existence, and the predictability of his routines, set him free. They allow him to plunge deeper into his subjects than anyone else. What he is after is the bedrock, the gritty essence that made a place different from any other place, before the great cultural sameness began settling over the land.

"He is just totally obsessed, as am I, with documenting the denizens, the vibe, the atmosphere," say filmmaker Jeff Krulik, a fellow Prince Georgian who made "Heavy Metal Parking Lot."

"When things get bulldozed, there's a facade job, all of a sudden when things are cleaned up and made to look nice and nobody has the appreciation . . . [he] verifies and validates that it existed."

Friends have watched Opsasnick's metamorphosis into a bard of the obscure with a that's-just-Mark acceptance.

"He likes dates and names and stuff, and he just remembers them," says Julie Ward, a friend who's a licensing management systems analyst at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "Once he gets interested in something, he just goes to town."

Take the amateur men's basketball team he formed in the early 1990s. Characteristically, Opsasnick wasn't content with pickup games in some high school gym. The players were stunned to find themselves going on the road to play Harvard, Providence, Holy Cross, Xavier. "Once he starts digging into something, he goes all the way to the top," says Ken Adrian, who coached the team and now is athletic director at Neuse Baptist Christian School in Raleigh, N.C.

To do this research, he haunts libraries and historical societies, performing such prodigiously tedious feats as reading every edition of the Prince George's Post from 1932 to 1984, and every entertainment section of the Washington Daily News from 1950 to 1971. He chats up old-timers in bars and records hundreds of hours of interviews.

Lately he's been giving bookstore readings, to an audience of nearly 50 in Kensington, more than 100 in Alexandria. He wears a beatnik beret he picked up at that Rehoboth Kmart. Bands play Doors tunes while he signs books.

He has a routine for preparing for the readings. He writes his speech on notecards. Then every evening for a week he walks from his house to the woods by Greenbelt Lake.

There, he stands on a log and lectures to the squirrels about the Lizard King as the sun goes down.

'The Exorcist' Revisited

On a Saturday afternoon in his writing room, he pulls one of his favorite books from the shelf, a volume so precious he keeps it wrapped in plastic. It is "Washington Confidential," the sensational, noirish 1951 classic about the dames and pols, rogues and bums who run the capital, and about the baroque subcultures they inhabit. Some lines about his county especially delight him:

"Prince George's is a long strip predominantly devoted to gaiety, night life, gambling and whoring. . . . There are more floating crap-games, illegal bookies and after-hour spots in Prince George's than there are in Reno."

"This is one of the reasons I got inspired to write about local music and history," he says. "I got interested in the forgotten subjects. So much of the culture just gets washed away."

He started in the mid-1980s specializing in what he calls "unexplained phenomena" and "cryptozoological" study. In other words: Bigfoot sightings. He had caught the Bigfoot bug at age 11, seeing "The Legend of Boggy Creek" at the Greenbelt Theatre.

He really wanted to believe in unexplained phenomena. "It makes the world a more exciting place if you have something to believe in besides God," he says. But he never could find evidence, and remains agnostic on the hairy beasts. He compiled "The Maryland Bigfoot Digest: A Survey of Creature Sightings in the Free State," which listed 300 claimed encounters from 1666 to the present. He interviewed police and witnesses and wrote essays on the more recent cases, including the Beltsville Beast, the Cecil County Gorilla, the Harewood Park Monster, the Harford County Bigfoot.

An impassioned rock fan since the days when he was watching "The Legend of Boggy Creek," he had noticed that some of the same joints featured in "Washington Confidential" -- including the legendary Dixie Pig of Patsy Cline fame -- evolved into the grungy but hallowed roadhouses of the country and rock era. As the last of those places were closing and the characters were burning out, Opsasnick interviewed hundreds of musicians, club owners and promoters to document that world in "Washington Rock and Roll: A Social History" and "Capitol Rock."

"Someone in the store once referred to him as 'Mark Obsessednik,' says Joe Lee, owner of Joe's Record Paradise in Rockville. "You gotta be, to gather that amount of data about what was happening in the clubs."

Meanwhile, Opsasnick lavished special attention on his home county in two books -- "Miscellaneous and Unknown: Cultural Souvenirs From Prince George's County, Maryland" and "The Cultural Badlands Tour: An Outsider's Guide to Obscure Landmarks and Offbeat Historical Sites in Prince George's County, Maryland."

One of his most celebrated feats was unearthing the back story of the 13-year-old Prince George's boy whose strange torments in 1949 inspired former Georgetown student William Peter Blatty's 1971 best-selling novel, "The Exorcist," which was made into the film in 1973. Using old-fashioned tools like city directories, property records and neighborhood canvassing, Opsasnick corrected five decades of news accounts. He interviewed a church witness and people who knew the boy and his family, and he reported a brief conversation with the now-grown subject of the exorcism, whose identity he did not reveal.

It turned out the boy's house was in Cottage City, not Mount Rainier -- since confirmed by Blatty; that all the exorcism rituals were probably performed in St. Louis, none in Georgetown; and most of the alleged supernatural phenomena were witnessed only by the boy's family. His 24-page article, "The Haunted Boy of Cottage City: The Cold Hard Facts Behind the Story that Inspired 'The Exorcist,' " was published in Rockville-based Strange Magazine in 1998.

"It was a kind of masterwork of following the clues to some kind of local mystery," says Norma Tilden, assistant professor of English at Georgetown, who teaches literary nonfiction. "He's like the detective of the absolutely mundane detail, and I just love that about the 'Exorcist' article. . . .

"One thing I thought was completely great and charming was that most of his research was done at the Hyattsville branch library."

Jim's Room

The tour of Morrison country continues.

"This is the route Morrison would take to school," Opsasnick says, arriving at George Washington Middle School -- formerly the high school -- an art deco pile on Mount Vernon Avenue.

Next, the public library on Queen Street: "It was one of Morrison's favorite spots." And the Torpedo Factory on the waterfront, which in Morrison's day was near the site of old industrial buildings and rotting piers: "He would come out on this pier and talk to the fishermen."

Opsasnick interviewed 60 of Morrison's classmates and 90 other sources, including Morrison's younger brother, Andy. Opsasnick argues that Morrison's "overall creative process and the identity as an artist he developed had their origins here."

Is it plausible that Morrison's high school years mattered so much? In an interview quoted in a forthcoming Doors oral history by former Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres, Morrison said "Horse Latitudes" was a Doors song that "I wrote when I was in high school. I kept a lot of notebooks through high school and college."

Anyway, high school never receded too far into the past of a guy who died of heart failure in a Paris bathtub before his 10th reunion.

The nomadic Navy-career Morrison family moved to Alexandria when Morrison's father was assigned to the Pentagon. Opsasnick's portrait of the artist as a high school student describes a well-read, charismatic kid who could be something of a cruel jerk.

Morrison's basement bedroom on Woodland Terrace had its own exterior door that let him come and go as he pleased. When he moved into this teenage lair, he owned only a handful of books. By the time he graduated, Andy Morrison told Opsasnick, he had 1,000 volumes. Nietzsche, Kerouac, Camus, Joyce -- bought, borrowed and stolen on trips to used bookstores in D.C. and the Alexandria library.

Morrison was the temperamental star of senior English class. When the teacher, who honored his literary interpretations, challenged him on a point about Joyce's "Ulysses," Morrison exploded. He "yelled at the teacher that he'd spent 'a full summer reading that book!' " said Stan Durkee, senior class president, as quoted by Opsasnick.

Later, Morrison wrote a poem:

Walks in D.C. in

Negro streets. The library

& book stores. Orange

brick in warm sun.

The books & poets magic

So Opsasnick tracked down the buildings in Georgetown that had housed used bookstores in Morrison's day and noted, for what it's worth, "I looked down at the sidewalks that led to their front entrances and marveled that in each case the walkways were made of distinct orange and red bricks!"

The last, and most important, stop on the tour of Morrison country is a small parking lot on the northeast corner of 10th and K streets NW.

The scruffy Coffee 'n Confusion was here, in the basement of a Victorian rowhouse. One night in the spring of his junior year Morrison got up onstage and recited some of his poetry, and beatniks banged their spoons on the tables in approval.

Now Opsasnick stands in the void of the parking lot -- seeing the present and feeling the past. Across K Street, a new office building and a hotel. Nearby, the last crumbling rowhouse is covered with a Heineken billboard.

"There should be some kind of plaque or monument on this site, commemorating Morrison's first public performance," he says.

For now, the only monument is self-published.

"I feel compelled to honor some sacred sites from this wondrous homeland," Opsasnick once wrote of why he does what he does. "Trivialized for existing outside of mainstream society, they are now in the process of vanishing before our very eyes."

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