By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
When he answers the door, he is shirtless and unshaven, an old man with a bulldog's underbite but no front teeth. "Ah, shut up, you!" he growls at his barking dog. The dog shuts up but leaves a puddle between its legs. "Ah, now you peed on the floor!" he shouts. And the dog pees some more. There are dog and cat puddles everywhere, all of which account for the choking smell. "Don't step in that," says the old man, and I follow him into the living room.
The television is the most expensive piece of furniture in the house. Now and always, the television is on. Here, with the blinds drawn, the old man's habit is to lie on that long, stained couch, gazing at the television until he falls asleep, sleeping until the television wakes him. Sleeping with the cats that never see daylight. Sleeping with that cowering, incontinent dog.
His brain waves flow more freely at night, he says, so that is when his best ideas come to him. One of them has transformed his living room into the headquarters of what he hopes will become a great philanthropic organization. With this in mind, he dials the number for the homeless mission. Scratching his belly, he waits for an answer.
"Are you the lady in special projects? My name is Alan Berrent," he says. "I got a program that can raise about $100 million a year. I want to come down and show you what we're doing."
Thinking it might get him some pull, he also mentions that a reporter from the Houston Press would be there to document the occasion. He tells the Houston Food Bank the same thing, which prompts Jackie Pontello, the Bank's associate director, to call the Press.
"Who is he?" she wants to know. "What is he?"
Well, ma'am, I tell her, he is not nobody. Alan Berrent has a fine reputation, as a pornographer. And not just any pornographer, mind you, but one who claims to have coined the phrase "taking it pink," if you know what that means. He says he did just that as a crack member of Larry Flynt's team, back in the early days of Hustler magazine.
If not for a bit of Flynt treachery, Berrent believes he'd be a rich and possibly famous pornographer now. Instead, he went on to other glory, winding up his career in adult entertainment as the manager of a live sex show in New York. About 12 years ago, after a heart attack, he came to Houston to live with his son. Sixty-eight years old now, Berrent works as a telemarketer selling living trusts. His body is a bag of things that don't work. As lonely people do, he'll tell you all about it. There are heart problems and prostate problems, a spastic colon and diabetes. Perhaps cruelest of all, he's impotent.
Three times Berrent almost died, and when he didn't, he became convinced that Someone had work for him to do on earth. He didn't get overly religious or anything, but Berrent did resolve to perform one good deed before he died. He believed the sex business had wrecked him, and he began to feel that sex was wrecking the world. Wishing to undo the damage he believes he caused at Hustler, he conceived of an elaborate plan to salvage the lives of young unwed mothers. Lest anyone think he's just scamming to get these mamas naked, he decided to come clean about his past. Coming clean was the main thing: The more he talked, the more it seemed he was working not just for the salvation of despairing mothers but for the sudden metamorphosis of himself, the miraculous end game that would make him a respectable man. But it hadn't happened yet. To the question, who is he, the answer was still, a broken-down old pornographer.
Taking this in, Jackie Pontello was disappointed. How rare it is that someone offers large sums of money to help people who need it. She had hoped the caller was an eccentric millionaire.
In Meyerland, the lawns on his street are a uniform carpet, dappled with flowers of many colors. But there are no flowers in his yard, and the lawn is patchy. Surely, the neighbors know there's something irregular about the man in the brick house. He keeps the blinds drawn, but still he's exposed.
Inside, Alan Berrent lay on the soiled couch, with his head propped up so he could see over his belly. "There is nothing you will ever do, or even think of doing, that I haven't done," he said.
His parents owned a jewelry store, and the family split time between a Manhattan apartment and a summer home on Long Island. Berrent attended private schools and grew up believing that one must give back to the world. That was his intention, after he became rich.
About a year before graduating, in 1951, he dropped out of NYU and married his 16-year-old girlfriend. He invested his grandfather's inheritance in a silk-screening business that flopped. He took a job overseeing the production of direct-mail advertisements, which led to another job helping to create catalogs for department stores. He gathered the art, wrote the copy, did the layout and took everything to the printer. It was just like putting out a magazine. There were even models. Sex with models was not very interesting, but it was expensive: The wife he loved left him in 1959, and he lost touch with their two children.