Braver Far by George Sparling
The coffee mug screeched at me once too often. I had it with graduate school at he University of Iowa. The instructor of my very first class in American Studies discussed how 1750 Salem was laid out indicated the Protestant values and priorities of its settlers. Had the physical environment of my suburban Chicago hometown contributed to my social disequilibrium, talking psychotic with Chucky after math class? That question I never considered. The leap backwards into Puritan yesterdays proved too great an intellectual challenge. In fact, I took it as a threat to my always-percolating inferiority. That premiere class began the great decline. Grad school demanded rigor I had never encountered before. The effort to walk to classes overwhelmed me, so I gave it up. I withdrew in January, 1966.
I squandered my nights in Iowa City’s redneck bars, listening to Kitty Wells and Marty Robbins. I always drank alone. Dinginess infatuated me, the way those shit-kicker bars had no adornments, no peanut shells on the floor atmospherics like the collegiate hangouts. I eavesdropped on people in the bar, giving me the semblance of mingling, yet too frightened to mix with real folks. Withdrawal would be safer than talking because I felt what I had to say was confused yet incendiary, an unruly combination. Down the highway in a small town, I had attended a Methodist-affiliated college. I used to drunk-talk in a hick bar about the civil rights movement in the South, the Constitution, justice, blah blah. No other points of view mattered except my own. The consequences of my open and frank discussions with barflies: I was arrested twice for unpatriotic improprieties and thrown in jail overnight both times. I would not let that happen in Iowa City.
Once, seated alone in a dark and wooden, straight-back booth removed from the general ruckus of what passed for an Iowa City honky-tonk, an older woman asked whether she could join me, and I said yes. Not bad, her thick black hair falling over one eye, those wrinkly breasts. She asked why I sat alone. I replied that I could hear the jukebox better. She told me I looked like a student. I told her I was. “Why do you come in a place like this?” she asked. “I can think here,” I said. Keeping it remote, my true calling. She patted my hand. It caught me off guard, how warm her hand was. She scooted out the booth, finding me hopeless but respecting my solitude. I put a quarter in the box, good ole Hank’s lonesome whippoorwill among them. She turned on her bar stool, lifting her glass: the high sign.
In a small, off-campus room, I chain-smoked Marlboros, dropping the stubbed butts into a custom-made, ceramic brown mug, the words “Tact Is Absurd” emblazoned in black on the side. I heard many strange voices come from that mug during the semester. One night at one a.m., automatic typing a plotless and themeless story, gluing cutout comic book images onto pages (I wanted to write Pop Art lit), the voice at the bottom of compacted nicotine screamed at me. The mug-voice bellowed about my cowardice, its shame. Hegira would be the only solution.
Walking past Nelson Algren in a university cafeteria would not be enough to hold me there. I saw a cleaner looking character than those I read in his fiction. He taught in the Writer’s Workshop that fall semester. I admired Chicago: City On the Make. My business-executive dad worked in a resplendent office on Michigan Avenue. Algren told
him where to stick it, or so I thought back then. Shortly after watching his enigmatic smile, I caught a Greyhound for New York City. Thirty-six years later, I would return to Iowa for my father’s funeral.
I changed buses in Chicago, making a phone call to my parent’s home in suburban Barrington. My clothes already had that unsanitary bus reek. I walked into the main lobby of a posh hotel, announcing to Austin that all the money he had invested in me to get a college-educated trade had been wasted. When asked what I would do in New York, I stammered. I had no answer. I had read Kerouac, and figured my life would turn around in Manhattan. You know: the red brick and neon. Only I had no working-class imprimatur, no girlfriends left behind, no boozy, talky bars where everyone knew my name. My life had never been lit by orgiastic hope, that force compelling me into desire, experience of flesh and bone. None of that literary pizzazz.
Sterility marked me. I had to flee. I would miss the connection east with more chitchat, so I hung up on Dad. Night-riding through Indiana and Ohio, then daytime in Pennsylvania where a teenage boy above on a bridge threw down with perfect timing a chunk of ice, shattering the window of the upper section in front of me. At the next scheduled stop, the driver stuffed the jagged opening with a dirty blanket. His J.P. Morgan purplish nose disturbed me. Was that how you looked driving the same route for twenty years? I had always declined repetitive behavior leading to marketable job skills. I never visualized myself in any vocation. Blankness saturated me whenever I tried. Literally, drinking beer and staying in one spot was my ideal. What job highlighted sitting down more than driving a bus? To see the battering he endured nauseated me. His face showed fatigue. I thought he would storm out of the bus, screaming, enough, enough. But he roared down the highway with indefatigable determination to continue the journey in spite of the splinters and shards on my lap and at my feet. That had been another example of why I should remain aloof from the fray of real world disasters, i.e., work.
The elation I felt as the Dog passed through the Holland Tunnel and entered Manhattan must have equaled that of the Puritans when they first saw the thick forest hugging the coast of New Jerusalem. I wanted to inject a bit of American Studies, the geographic reality that the primordial forest grew right up to ocean’s edge. Those Puritans must’ve been awed by unlimited wilderness where their theocracy might thrive and disperse. Minus the religion and wilderness, New York City inspired second chances for me, the tense pilgrim. Dark-sooty buildings, some with advertisements in big white letters on their flanks, made me want to get dirty and scruffy as the others must have looked who inhabited those buildings.
As a child I loved placing my hands into some muddy garden, rubbing the miasmic earth over them, holding my oozy paws up, showing others that I had coalesced with something greater than myself: terra nostra. This city would be the navel of my new world. Now, if I could only lug the two gray American Touristers to a nearby hotel without getting bummed for change. Worse, some Times Square junkies ripping them from my sweaty grip. I read about Bickford’s Cafeteria in Howl, Naked Lunch and Lonesome Traveler. Not all the scroungers were harmless types who read William Blake.
I walked across 8th Avenue searching for a hotel. I found one and went up a flight of stairs. A New York hotel with no street-level lobby: funny. The night clerk sat behind a thick wire mesh cage. I signed the register as Harry Black, a modest homage to Herbert Selby Jr., his pitiful dark angel. Home address: Land’s End, New York. I had no expectation the locked-in guy would appreciate this reference. It only mattered that I knew about Harry and his fate. I would not give my own name, for cristsake. My conceit was FOMO (For One Member Only): me. I joined my private avant-garde with that allusion. A minority of one.
The end of the hall looked like something out of Grimm’s fairytales. A cloud of unknowing existed down there, impenetrable and no doubt unmerciful. I looked only once. Were my glasses smeary? Had I seen a huge man lurking there? I preferred the healthier chiaroscuro behind the desk. The light slanted across the man’s scar below his eye. Had he been a nightclub bouncer slashed by a patron? Could not make the vig to a loan shark? I paid $8 for a room. The man hit a bell a few times. A white bellhop bounced down the stairs. He grabbed my bags and started carrying them up the stairs. I looked up the stairwell. The M.C. Escher illusion spiraled into nowhere and everywhere simultaneously. It dizzied me. I needed reality. Fast. Fear of high places staggered me. Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo? Why the reeling? Or had basic primal fear kicked in?
Perhaps New York activated latent phobias not present in the Midwest. I asked for another room, closer to command central. The clerk must have chewed on that cigar for a week because the sodden mess had come loose. Brown leaves stuck to his lower lip and chin. He looked as if he had melanoma in need of medical attention. He said the room across the hall was available. I took it.
It came with a gas oven and refrigerator. Not a bad room, maybe I would make this my permanent residence. The bed felt good after failing to sleep on the bus. But I slept well in a real bed until great yelling and cursing woke me. “I’ll kill that fucker, yes I will, I’ll shank him,” came a drunken voice outside my door. Less than one day here and an assassin wanted to murder me. “Put down that knife, Jerome, put it down. You ain’t going to hurt nobody, you know that. Put it down. Please.” I recognized the night clerk’s pleading voice. Back and forth this went: Jerome’s threats and the clerk’s pleas that he sleep it off, go to his room. By then, I realized he had no contract on me. MurderWold laid no exclusive claim on me. Some other poor soul would get his throat slit, not me. After an hour, knifeman gave up his belligerence. My watch said five a.m. and I could not go back to sleep.
I opened my door at seven and found that checking out time was one p.m. I walked south on 8th Avenue, looking for another hotel. I walked about forty blocks until I got to Bleecker Street, where I headed east. My adrenaline had dropped to zero as I trudged through Greenwich Village. I bought a Catholic Worker for a penny. The seller talked about napalm and burning babies but I was too wobbly and nervous for any of that. When the hotdog man asked whether I wanted sauerkraut and mustard, I told him I did. I grew up with only Heinz catsup, neither mustard nor sauerkraut. I ate three franks quickly.
I walked past the Village Gate. On the corner was the Bleecker Hotel. I saw a man on the stoop. He wore a heavy overcoat with a button missing. He coughed on a cigarette, hacking phlegm out, spitting over the railing. This desk had no protected barrier. The rent was $9.60 a week. My room was 13A, at the bottom of an airshaft. The bed had cardboard between the mattress and springs. The linoleum looked like it had been ripped apart, possibly by a man with delirium tremens. Black patches dominated the floor. A busted umbrella, beer cans, stocking, soggy men’s underwear, dirt-caked
trousers, broken glass, holey shoes, tattered newspapers, flashlight batteries, empty tin cans: these lay outside my window to the world. At any rate, it stunk, even through the pane.
The guy gave me a room smelling like a corpse, though I had never inhaled death itself. The closest to a cadaver I came was during weekday breakfasts, sucking in my dad’s aftershave and those freshly starched white shirts with the French cuffs. Each time he shot his cuffs while eating cantaloupe, the death-stench wafted from his gotta-catch-
that-commuter-train anxiety right into my nostrils. Smells, clean or dirty, exerted equal amounts of deadness. Either version septic, I made peace with putrefaction. And not the effluvium you read about in literary sources, either. I meant the waste outside the bottom of O Mannahatta, 13A. The “A” stood for assholes, all those chumps who had rented 13A. Malodorous garbage had nothing surreal about it. I would never be able to translate that muck into Pop Art novels. I had given up that aspiration.
I sucked it up. Then I asked the guy on the stoop which subway train took me closest to knifeman’s hotel. The man shifted weight from one foot to the other, attempting to stay warm in the January winter, exposed like a jackal. He told me. I had to pick up my suitcases. Coming back on the train, I first realized those two Touristers were all my possessions. I shrunk in my seat, afraid all the passengers knew and loathed my paltriness.
I ate tuna from cans in my room. I gave the leftovers to the cockroaches beneath the bed. I drank V-8 juice, my only vegetable, and smoked Marlboros afterward. I bought the New York Times every so often, reading as I ate Oreos for dessert. The complex ledes made no sense. But one article on Vietnam, how President Johnson and crew decided to bomb the peasants into submission, I understood. Using B-52s to defeat the Vietnamese was a demonstration of weakness, not strength. Without getting the U.S. soldiers’ hands bloody fighting them on the ground, Yankee Doodle Dandy could not expect to win. And I had never read any guerrilla manual to know that. Empathy alone guided me, plus intuiting how vulnerable and fragile the peasants were.
I was in jeopardy like those peasants since leaving academic confines. Rudimentary forces had been unleashed when I left the U of Iowa. Food and shelter problematic, no income, jobless: I felt private B-52s exclusively target me just as they napalmed the Vietnamese into wretched burning deaths.
I attended one SDS meeting in ‘65 on the University of Iowa campus. The room was jammed. A young guy was drafted and called up for his physical. His entire talk concerned the examination process. He told the spectators what to expect when anyone of us got the notice to report. He was well meaning but mentally scrambled. If I got the call, I would never be able talk at all, much less communicate the political and personal tensions of the ordeal. I choked up, mouth getting dry, whenever speaking to more than three persons. He had a stack of news clippings and magazine articles four inches high, flipping through the pile, yanking pieces from the sheath, waving them over his head, going manic.
One man at the back of the room, the classical DJ on the university radio station, asked him what should we make of this draft business, how should we act in concerted response to the draft. The poor guy behind the table fumbled, scatter-shooting his words until he reached maximum perturbation, throwing up his hands. “You had to be there, man,” he finally said. I felt sorry for the rebel. But he vowed never to wear a stinking military insignia and work for The Man. A petition circulated to blow up planes on U.S. Air Force bases. The Secret Agent had not prepared me for this. Clearly, an agent provocateur wrote that alleged petition. The Times piece had been my second encounter with the war, and I no longer had my deferment. I felt the walls close in. It was palpable. I prolonged masturbation, looking at a Bonwit Teller model in the Times, escaping time’s bondage until I exploded.
Afterward, I smoked a cigarette down to the filter, squashed it out in the empty tuna can. On my back, I regarded the ceiling plaster, how it had eroded away. For a moment I thought I saw into the room above. Flimsiness, the feeling that my new life had become jerrybuilt, grabbed me by the throat. I gulped in stench from the airshaft as well as
whatever the guy above dropped my way. Growing up, I had an air purifier in my bedroom because of asthma. That machine would not even fit into 13A. It would break down, surrendering to particulate matter gathered for centuries in NYC.
Nevertheless, I stayed in my room except for doing food and Marlboro runs to a grocery on Broadway. My New York was 13A.
The following night, I walked around, once standing outside the Village Vanguard on 7th Avenue listening to jazz as Kerouac had. I barely heard the music through the traffic and pedestrian noise. A long-haired guy who name-dropped lots of jazz tunes stood next to me, snapping fingers and bopping his head.
“Like Hawk’s ‘Body and Soul,’ isn’t it,” he said to me. I knew nothing about
“The Hawk,” whoever he was. I assented, but had no follow-up, nothing jazz-worthy to chime in with.
“Too cold, I’ve got to go,” I said, and then started moving away.
“This pint of Tokay will make you warm like burning Sterno,” he replied, offering to share the wine. Sharing implied trust, and I had none of that.
“No, I’ve got to piss,” I lied and walked away. Making getaways had always been my specialty. Too close, that friendly stranger, so I exited before connections would be made. The jazz expert would soon find out I had only emptiness inside me. He would be profoundly disappointed.
I wandered around, seeing people drinking at an Orange Julius stand. Too cold a drink for winter. I bought a V-8 in a bodega, which I drank as I walked. Near the hotel, outside the Bleecker Street Cinema, a teenage girl asked my help.
“Mista, could you help me? Please.” She held her stomach, bending over as if to retch. At first, wanted to aid her, figuring she was pregnant. But I quickly suspected heroin withdrawal. What could I do, hold her head when she puked? On the other hand, if I helped her, would not friendship (or better) bloom? I took no chances and walked faster to the hotel.
Glad to get back in my warm room, I ate a can of sardines. I used a church key with a triangular pointed end, running it along the edge, piercing the top of the oval can many times before I bent the tin back and fingered the slimy fish into my mouth. I had never ever, eaten sardines growing up in suburban Chicago.
I wrote in a small notepad about the day’s events, including the messy sardine. Surely a poem could be made out of my new found setting. I titled it, “Village Vanguard,” and began writing. I scribbled many words. When I had about ten pages I flipped the pages and read it. My poetry contained nothing about listening to no-cover-charge jazz and the New York would-be comrade next to me. The writing had neither place nor state of mind. I blamed illegible handwriting for being unable to finish reading it. I ripped out the pages and threw them beneath my bed. Tomorrow I would go to Times Square for the first time since I retrieved my luggage. All I needed was another location, the right subject matter for the words to flow. I would buy a larger notebook, printing each word carefully. Yeah, I needed a little sequencing, moving from word to word, finding my stroke. No more disorder for me.
I tried interviewing the owner of a game arcade and museum. Well, the museum consisted of famous world-class outlaws. Even the most mentally challenged knew their names. If I listed those hombres here, it would bore you to death. Trust me. The middle-aged man, with a coin changer at his belt, opened up as I wrote down his answers to every question. I had read The Kandy-Kolored-Tangerine-Flack-Streamline Baby by Tom Wolfe as I flunked out of grad school. The book was about the new age of the ‘60s, an unstoppable force The Establishment could never turn back. He had a PhD in American Studies and knew what to do with it. I should get serious. I had doctorate envy. After all, the word, student, derived from the Latin, meant literally “applying oneself to.” What stopped me from doing that? This 42nd Street attraction would launch my career. But I lost my concentration. Moving from one question to the next, I saw my unreadable notes, said thanks to the kind man, and walked away.
I ate two hot salty pretzels with mustard smeared on them, and took the train back to Bleecker Street.
I eventually mailed a post card to my parents, giving only my address. I felt as if I had run away from home, when in fact I withdrew from in loco parentis. Once my dad told me his male friends’ sons all had summer jobs lined up. “You don’t,” he said. “What’s wrong with you, bub?” My eyes watered. I grabbed my jacket and told him I was leaving the house. “I’ll hitchhike down Highway 59 to Elgin,” I said. I had $2 in my wallet. I started opening the backdoor. I felt his hands grab my shoulders from behind. I took off my jacket and decided against Elgin, though I had no operable reason
for doing so.
I wanted to leave. I developed a strong rancor against Dad. His sole ambition sought to place me in the social Darwinian pit against others more motivated than me. Yet how grateful I felt when Dad said, “No, don’t go.” Compelled to send the card because I feared they would worry I had been killed or kidnapped or that a cop would bang on 13A and tell me to “Beat it kid or I’ll take you back home in handcuffs.” Sort of a preemptive decision on my part, that postcard. I preferred M.I.A. status, the power to cloud men’s minds as The Shadow used to radio-speak, losing Dad in puffs of chain-smoked Marlboros graying 13A.
That week I received a letter from Dad. His name was on the return envelope. Typed on his personal stationary, the beginning seemed cautionary, saying I had made the option to leave college, though he regretted it. He wished me luck in finding gainful employment. He noted that my college draft deferment would “expire,” and that I had four choices: (1) face up to my responsibility and enlist (2) wait until they draft me and do my duty (3) do what your country expected of you (4) grow up, become a man and join the ranks of the living.
The man in the room above me began coughing, loud and phlegm-productive, probably hawking thick globs onto his floor, my ceiling. He tossed an empty bottle down the airshaft. I jumped from the bed, my desk, forgetting where I was for moment. How many chances had he in life? He had but one, but by delusions of plenty he clung to deceptions of more, always more. But the airshaft stopped outside my window, had you heard your bottle breaking, roomer? Could you even hear with that kamikaze asthma attack? Ever check your sputum for blood and notice you had chronic emphysema, chum? I bet your father told you to get the fuck out of the house, throwing a liquor bottle at your head as you ran for your life, no? In spite of Austin’s folksy double tautology I would not give my changed address to Selective Service. Had Dad informed them of my new home?
That upstairs guy had lost it all but I still had Dad, the sober letter writer, to tell me I had no choice but to sign up for sure death in the jungle. The cougher had no living father, that assumption was indisputable. Privileged to have a father, even a bastard, I had more going for me than the man overhead. Great miles of space existed between the hacker and me. If fate charted my life, magnetic winds whooshing in an observable direction, I would always have more maneuverability than cougher or any other man in this hotel. I would beat the goddamned draft and my current broke state.
Tomorrow I had two watches to pawn.
I calculated that I could pawn them for a month’s rent. Something might come up in the meantime, although my room had perpetuated all the other bedrooms from childhood and teenage years. A place to daydream and erase my existence, to block out time, to focus on the room’s mundane characteristics. 13A accommodated me on all fronts. I might cash in on New York’s largesse and go begging for quarters on 5th Avenue. Perhaps I could hit up worshippers after they left St. Patrick’s Cathedral since they would be in a receptive mood for alms giving afterwards. I dreaded and hated going to the Methodist Church growing up in Barrington, most of the congregation must have been uplifted by the sermon, the music or during what the church bulletin referred to as the “Take Time To Be Friendly” period after formal services ended. I felt empty, depleted, after services. I always hungered for a big meal at home, like sixteen ounces of sirloin steak. Why worship at all if you only become more foul and selfish afterward? Jejune best described my feeling toward those creatures coming from the Altar. From the Latin meaning, “fasting” and “without food.” God’s Finest Hour, for cristsake.
But, now I felt jubilant, well, expectant, holding on to the pole as the train moved to Times Square, the heart of pawnshops, or so I mythologized. I stopped at a pawnshop on 42nd Street near 10th Avenue. I peered through the bars in the front window. That shiny saxophone: Had “The Hawk” played it? That theoretical provenance I had never seen before through any other store window. I looked at my watch for the last time. Austin gave it to me as a birthday present. The other one, a gift upon graduating high school, was in my pocket. Five after ten, the man had just opened up. I was his first customer. The place needed sweeping and smelled moldy. When I looked at the guy behind the counter, I saw not the grandfather who once owned Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop. This man was younger: double-chinned, red blotches on his face, missing teeth, labored breathing, thick glasses, no wedding band on his left hand. Was Fatty too unlovable for any woman to share her bed?
I bet the guy had piles of smut in storage. Pinups of Ann Sheridan, Gypsy Rose Lee and Jayne Mansfield hung on the walls. Had he nine-page bibles? The Temptation: Would I exchange two watches for a naked photo of Deborah Kerr? I once bought in Barrington a movie fan magazine showing her on a set, smoking, leaning back on a ladder, her slip raised halfway up her thighs. Brit actresses were more classy and smarter than American ones. Why was it that intelligent women always had good legs? It could have been the lurid Times Square movie marquees churning my loins. I had no surplus value, no extra money to even see those cheap-seat films.
“I want to sell these two watches.” I pushed them toward him.
“Sell or pawn?” Too early in the day for semantics, I thought.
“Sell. What will you give me?” My hands shook.
My high school chums and I once went to Chicago’s Maxwell Street, known for its rummage and under-culture allure. A man showed us a ring. “It’s a real diamond,” he said. “It’ll cut glass, see.” He scraped the stone on a dirty window of a vacated store. Yep, big gouges meant a true diamond. We each pitched in what we could. Back in Barrington, I told Dad about our $5 ring purchase. The next day my friends and I took it for appraisal. The local jeweler looked without his loupe, declaring it worthless. Ever since that fraudulent day, I had been wary of making deals. I accessed men like fatty as grifters and scoundrels.
In truth, I knew the value of nothing. I assumed a functional universe where, if a viper had to be confronted, my backup, someone acquainted with our reptilian cores, would step in on my behalf. Performing, the gerund, had always been my bete noire. I had not merely disliked performing, but had no talent for it. No actual performing took place. Only imagination permitted. Fatty wanted to deal and that handicapped me. I should have said I wanted to pawn them, getting more on a loan rather than simply selling them.
He, too, had no use for a loupe.
“I’ll give you $10.”
“For each?” I wanted a toasted English muffin with a fried egg on top and lots of grape jelly right then.
“For them both.” His chubby forefinger tapped once on the counter.
“OK.” From his wallet he gave me two fives. I settled for a toasted English and bagel with a smear. I asked for another glass of water before I took the train back to Bleecker Street. Rent was due in two days. I never realized until then the importance of meat protein, its deficiencies leading to poor execution of thought.
The next morning, I wandered around the city, having no destination in mind. If I believed in a higher power, it would be an accidental encounter on a random street with a recognizable, non-spiritualized human being. I would name it, unintentionalism. That would be my religion, one of short-lived but vivid faith. This hypothetical person had in their power whatever it took to get me out of dangerous times. Zazen (sitting meditation) or slumped on a barstool drinking beer never stopped Big Trouble. I expected others to heed my call for help. Walker Percy hit upon it in The Moviegoer: “To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” The most minimal thing I could do was be a walker through the city.
On Herald Square, I walked across the street and stood on an island. Vehicles honked and streamed on all sides. A young black man stood selling Mohammad Speaks.
“Looking for something to read?” he asked without sarcasm or irony.
Yeah, I first heard Ray Charles sing “Busted” when it came out, about two months before JFK’s assassination. I’m broke, no bread, I mean nothing at the song’s end.
“Here, read the truth about America,” he said, thrusting out the paper. I took it.
And Malcolm X’s response after the President’s death about “a case of chickens coming home to roost.” After that remark, Elijah Mohammad suspended Malcolm X from the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X’s point was that the killing of John Kennedy had been a prime example of violence used by whites against black leaders for four hundred years. You killed our best and brightest now see how it felt when yours got slain by the same race of murderers who have been killing black people. Blowback.
At the height of the Watts Rebellion in mid-August, 1965, Austin drove from my undergraduate college in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. I had completed summer school, finally graduating with a sociology degree, English my minor. I loaded the car with my stuff and Dad wheeled down the highway east, back home. The convertible top down on a great blue day, the wind cooling us from ninety degree heat, and Dad asked me would the riots ever stop. News reports came on the car radio as we sped east, which triggered his question.
His mother had lived on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A. for decades until her death and his sister lived in nearby Seal Beach. Thoughts of armed blacks rampaging through white suburbs must have alarmed him. Barrington lay thirty-seven miles northwest of Chicago. What if Southside Chicago blacks armed themselves and shot and killed indiscriminately our neighbors, or Lorraine, his wife and my mother. And rape, that primordial crime, its possibility lodged deep within Dad’s brain, must have surfaced and become starker. So I thought listening to his anxiety. It caught me off guard. I was
surprised he sought my opinion on the Watts upheaval. I had acquired liberal dimensions while attending college and this would be a perfect chance to demonstrate them.
“They’re still fighting for freedom,” I said.
“The Civil War’s over,” he said. “What do they want?”
“They live with the rats and can’t get out of the ghetto white men have locked them into,” I said. I found my chops. Those sociology courses with Marxist tendencies had not been squandered after all.
“Will it ever stop?” he asked again.
“Not until blacks are integrated and get what white people have,” I said.
“They should study and go to college like we did,” he said.
“Do you know Malcolm X got assassinated February 21, this year, the day before Washington’s Birthday?” I asked.
“So. He’s a very violent man,” he said.
“George Washington owned slaves,” I said. “The Great White Father owned slaves on his plantation.” The connection missed its mark. Dad wasn’t big on irony. Back and forth this went, until we stopped for food. I drank a Manhattan and got drunk, too inebriated for any deep or even shallow discussions on racism.
I stood, dizzy and lightheaded from hunger, next to the Black Muslim, a stranger to me then and forever, his newspaper in my clenched fist, the havoc of traffic around us. I thought about the chickens coming home to roost. Not in Malcolm X’s context, but mine. How life with Austin, the pressure to succeed and make something of myself drummed into me from earliest memories, had indeed come home to roost: the middle-class family chickens. The expectations and high promise had come down to asking, “Are you interested in a three-piece herringbone suit used only for church-going on Sundays?” I asked the Black Muslim. He smiled.
“No holes and in your size?’
“Yeah. I can get it if you want.”
“$5,” I said. I knew nothing of secondhand haberdashery.
“$3,” he countered. I agreed. I told him I had to pick it up in my room on Bleecker.
“Will you be here?” I asked.
“Will you be here?”
“I’ll be back as fast as possible.” I took off, coming back sweating and weak from lack of caloric fuel. He looked serious but pleased when I handed it to him. My first suit, too. I bought a kosher frank and a pound of potato salad which I ate with a plastic spoon in a delicatessen. The rest went for train fare back to the hotel.
A day later, I told the manager to hold my luggage and that I would come back soon to pay another week’s rent. He obliged. Too spineless, I failed asking him whether I might stay and pay rent when I found work or got plain ordinary money. He might refuse and I would then go paranoid. I had no conception of work. It was as real as the Nibelungenlied. A heroic epic and a job: Twin Illusions of the Western World. So I hit the streets. I walked to Times Square, finding transients everywhere I turned. I sat in Bickford’s Cafeteria on 42nd Street. Some cups and dishes lay on the table, offering me cover as a customer who just wanted to relax after a good meal. Faking it looked easy, but proved unbearable.
I had not any book to read, not even one I could have checked out at the public library a few blocks away. I once tried to read three volumes of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire but fell asleep like the other bums. “Understanding engrosses in conversation, but solitude is the school of genius,” wrote Gibbon. I had neither associates of any kind I could converse with nor genius brought on by self-enforced study in solitude. Not that I felt capable of understanding but without social partners that reachable kingdom was unavailable to me. Solitude had fields of plenty in which to roam, after putting it to the test all these years, genius seemed as remote as ultima Thule.
I was a true shirker and never consulted the Village Voice for free events or lectures. Yet, somehow I knew a place existed called the Society for Ethical Culture. I read the Voice in the University of Iowa library. Any confined contact with strangers in lecture halls petrified me. One reason I quit college were those damn cramped classes.
They manifested latent agoraphobia. What if a woman spoke to me, asking me questions about Kant or Spinoza? Or even Charles Schulz? I might have to talk and they would find out my stupidity in all matters great and small.
No one even left a newspaper for me at legendary Bickford’s. I had no money to buy one. Reaching for a dumped paper in trash bins along the streets was child’s play I had never considered. In anonymous Manhattan; still the towering fear of being spied on. I had seen the New York Daily News in a bin but snobbery forbade me from touching that rag. I had read somewhere that guys with zipper jackets read that paper, as opposed to buttons, coats expensive and trendy worn by comfortable, educated persons. I despised that buttoned strata in general. I gravitated instead toward the literary intellectuals coming from the dreaded middle and upper-middle classes. Like Athena born from the head of Zeus, I sought the mystique of culture springing from heritage of that lofty realm. Its aura seduced me into reading The New York Times.
I spent the night in the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The passengers thinned out, and I spotted the nighttime invaders easily. The man in the red shirt, shooed by police all night from the men’s washroom. I held out, not peeing until passengers swept through on their way to work in the morning. The drunks endured a poke with the nightstick here, a jab there, until they waddled out onto 8th Avenue. All seats reserved for passengers, the gendarmes never disturbed me for some reason. I shifted from one seat to another, alternating between musical chairs, trying to look alert. Preoccupied with travel, I attained total emotional immersion, complete identification in the passenger role. The junkies, nodding out on inhospitable turf, always got pat searched for their outfits by the cops. They were losers who had no crib where they could stay high without interruption, instead slumping under bright, florescent lights. The guy in the overcoat reminded me of TV’s Captain Kangaroo, Bob Keeshan, with his bowl haircut and walrus mustache. Was this hour-of-the-wolf bus station the new Treasure House, a place where the Captain wandered around, meeting guests and puppets? I saw only one homeless woman, who kept sitting next to me. Every time I moved away from her stench, she traipsed back over and slouched down. Was I downwind from her? I fancied these people stock characters, like those disillusioned on the docks in The Iceman Cometh.
I wore khaki pants, food-stained in front, my only façade of respectability. No cop nudged me with his club the entire night and pre-dawn hours. Only the regulars were poked to move or shoved along out the door. My story if a cop told me to show my bus ticket or leave was that my parents had mailed a money order from home. Hickey had not disturbed my illusions, separating me from others. Only one night of suffering and I could rent an apartment. Hickey had been a softy but had not done his work on me, so I felt my wasp diction would telegraph middle class to working-class cops. They would
understand my plight. After all, Americans believed in upward mobility, no? The lumpen surrounding me had no defenses at hand as I had. The cops never threatened me.
At seven a.m., I walked onto 8th Avenue. That time of the morning only junkies who had failed to score prowled Times Square, or so I figured. On 42nd Street I witnessed a youth, screaming in Spanish and English at a small crowd who assailed him with threats. He flailed a knife at them, effectively holding them off. Whatever they had in mind for him would have to wait for another day.
The mass of bus commuters from New Jersey absorbed their squabble, the sheer numerical superiority immunizing against harm. As the white-collar workers streamed through Times Square, pimps, junkies, hookers, muggers, thieves, panhandlers and murderers disappeared, became invisible. The ordinary routine camouflaged the petty and consequential felons, dispersing them among productive citizens. My empathic mind knew that social truth. Walking down 42nd Street, I wanted to be amongst the vilest and most despicable humanity spit up. I read Jean Genet, and knew what it meant to be outcast and hated.
My vision blurred, my balance failed me, I felt very pale and pasty, my stomach burned from lack of food, and my hip bones felt as if all the calcium had grinded out and trickled down my legs. I ached when I got to Gramercy Park at 23rd Street. Mineral depletion or dehydration?
Pedestrians plotted against me. In one redounding, simultaneous finger-sweep, they would destroy me, leaving no trace of me on earth. I had not eaten in nearly two days. I never saw or cared about the traffic light at corners. When the herd moved through the crosswalk, I followed. I jostled against people, not bothering whether they were suspicious or offended. I needed their physical power to propel me forward, to where I had no idea. The crowds diminished as I walked through Washington Square. I felt the loss of their flow of strength. The lonely crowd had left me alone. Who said “the largest, the thinnest category: being?” Bukowski? Celine?
Walking down the stairs to the Loeb Student Center: Had I sought employment, food or out of reflex sought sanctuary among students? “A triangle whose sides represent in magnitude and direction three forces in equilibrium”: New Oxford American Dictionary. Three forces equally acting together, I descended the stairs. My eyes bounced around in dim sockets. It was noon. Students had filled the cafeteria. What was it about cafeterias? Their institutional food, how comforting the aromas and settings were. I asked the first person I saw wearing an apron, “Are they hiring?” He spoke broken English, and said, “Ask Juan. He’s the manager.” He pointed to a man wearing a neat white shirt and tie. The students seemed to part, making my way easier, as I tried to maintain a straight path toward him.
“Do you need help?” I asked. Help? Who was I, Anne Sullivan? “Are they’re any blind persons who can’t talk and need help?” might have been my introduction to Juan. I stood, smelling my pits: awful. My smeary glasses, stubbly beard, uncombed hair, wrinkled shirt, splotched pants, and my halitosis. I could not even buy a pack of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum, for cristsake. Help?
Sure. One busboy quit,” Juan said. “You came at the right time.” He told me his name. He asked me to sit down.
“OK” I said. I had not rested since dawn. My feet hurt.
“You want some lunch?” he asked. I stared at him. “On the house. Have as much as you want.”
“OK,” I said. He led me to the line and put a tray into my hands.
“Take what you like,” he said. “I’ll tell the cashier, Max, it’s all taken care of.”
I loaded up. I had difficulty putting it all on the tray.
“Go for seconds if you want,” Juan told me. He talked to the cashier. Max looked up at me, then shifted his efforts and tallied the students’ lunches.
“OK,” I said.
After two complete trays filled with food, I signed a small application form. Juan spoke Spanish to a busboy who passed by, then English to me: a seamless transition.
“You’ll start tomorrow at eleven,” he said. “Can you make it until payday next Friday?” I told him I had to pay rent on the hotel, only three bocks away. He wrote out an IOU for $15, and I signed it. I could pay rent and the extra $5.40 meant enough tuna and peanut butter sandwiches until that first check. We shook hands. I walked up the stairs a healthy man.
My job took no executive training and that pleased me. I cleared tables. The details self evident, my real task was to look busy during slow periods. I re-wiped empty tables four and five times, fearful that the predominantly Puerto Rican staff would talk among themselves, labeling me just another white guy who thought he was better than them. I knew no Spanish. I assumed they spoke behind my back. By putting everything I had into the working day, I preempted that from happening. We got along well, though every time they spoke Spanish with each other, I suspected they had nothing
but contempt for me.
One incident occurred. A young Puerto Rican, who bantered a lot with a Nicaraguan, asked me to say something in Spanish to him, which I did but had no idea what it meant in English. Then the Puerto Rican said, “Say it again?” which I did. The
Nicaraguan, a serious and tense looking fellow, talked back in Spanish (he knew no English), rubbed his cheeks, then giving me the jack off gesture. He was very agitated at whatever I said. He kept repeating a short phrase, then the universal, right-handed masturbatory pantomime for shooting your rocks off. I backed down after that. I understood his miming. Yes, I had jerked off all my life and that was how I got acne. Never mind that it could be from not absorbing vitamin A properly or the chemicals in common hand soap, my skin problem came because I never dated females. The busboys’ laughter died out when they heard the Nicaraguan’s response. They must have pitied me a little.
Juan was Cuban, coming to New York City when the revolutionaries seized power. When I ate, he invited me to his table where we would discuss the Revolution and its aftermath. My ideological position: Batista was a fascist, gangsters ran crooked gambling, prostitution and drugs, Cubans died of hunger, disease and murder at the hands of Nazi thugs, illiteracy and poverty flourished, big American business supported Batista at the expense of the people, basta ya! classless society established, dictatorship of the proletariat, long live Che! Down with the capitalistic bourgeoisie,
goodbye to all that profiteering, thank you Communists.
He politely listened, then explained how Castro took away everything from average families who worked hard to have a little middle-class comfort. Juan’s father owned a restaurant, stolen by the Reds (“No,” I said, “you mean expropriated.“) by Communists after the takeover, his dad thrown in prison. Juan told me he came to the States with nothing and now his kids can get a real education, not some propaganda doled out by the Cuban government. He and his family of five had a higher standard of living even though they lived in the South Bronx. He explained how the farmers had land confiscated (“Rich kulak landowners,” I said. “Stalin had to do the same thing.”), pauperized by the revolution. Juan’s uncle owned a medium size rice plantation and now lived in cramped quarters meant for five people with three other families in a second floor above a former cigar rolling shop. His uncle and family risked going to prison for life, or worse, if they got caught fleeing Cuba.
Almost daily, I refined my arguments against America, defending la revolucion. He never mentioned the day he gave me all I could eat. I stood for everything he despised, yet he calmly made his case against Castro and la revolucion. Juan enjoyed arguing, I thought, it made his brain function better. Never had I realized for a moment how ungrateful I must have been in his eyes.
He endured my “crackpot realism,” a phrase sociologist C. Wright Mills coined in his 1958 book, The Causes of World War III. Instead of using it as Mills had to represent U.S. government policy makers, I misappropriated the term. My usage turned “crackpot realism” into Soviet agitprop, with lunatic histrionics and meretricious bombast. The Mills book was about how U.S. militarism and its unjustified Cold War against the Soviet Union would drag everyone into world conflagration. I gave the paperback to Austin as a statement of belief. In reality, the heresy erected a barrier, protecting me from open emotions. He reciprocated, handing me a hardback book titled, The Federal Bulldozer, a right-wing attack against urban development and housing projects. That drove Austin further away than ever, sabotaging our relationship with that Mills tract.
With Juan, I would not relent, victimizing him as well. My tirades should’ve been tempered by subservience as an employee, but white middle class privilege emboldened me. Juan always treated my jeremiads favoring communism with courtesy. What he thought of my arms flailing out like a spastic when I spoke I never knew. I kept cutting him off, intolerant of bourgeois viewpoints. I belittled the family, its historic accomplishments leading to la revolucion. He mentioned that he was one of eight children.
Even though being a busboy had nothing ennobling about it, our ideological war of words linked us far beyond my low standing. I once sat on my bed in the cell, my room, and regretted what I said about him being a traitor to the Cuban people. Juan reacted civilly to my remark, but locked inside 13A I realized I might have gone too far. I preached communism volubly, my passionate words masked cruelty. In 13A after work, eating a sandwich and potato salad Juan had given me, I reflected: I hated myself being so heartlessness. I was a cold, cold warrior.
By May, the self-discipline required for the job wavered. One night, I broke rank, going across Bleecker to a popular tourist bar. It had been my first time drinking alcohol outside 13A. Tuesday night kept the tourists away. Alone at the end of the bar, I drank shot after shot of Jack Daniels. Straight, no chaser. “Straight, No Chaser,” Miles Davis Sextet, 1958. Hey, where was the beat standing outside the Village Vanguard? I toasted him, raised the glass, and looked in the mirror behind the bar.
Shot after shot, I talked to no one. The bartender stood at the far end of the long bar. The only patrons were two police officers eating large meals at the rear. I sat for hours. I got off my stool only once to check the jukebox. I played “I Am A Rock,” by Simon and Garfunkel. I had no radio and never heard of the song. I blurred out its precious angst. A fortress deep and mighty, that none may penetrate. These lyrics seared my brain: the operative word, “none.” Back off, stand down, keep your distance had been my life’s refrain. Refusing to dissolve myself in experience, I would never “find
myself.” I was no Thomas Wolfe; that was self-evident.
I had no recollection of leaving the bar and walking across the street to 13A. I woke up on the dirty linoleum beneath the cobwebbed springs of my bed. I banged my head edging out, slowly getting on to the bed. I flopped backwards but could not get to sleep. What kept me awake were thoughts about having to crawl out from under the rest of my life.
By my second week, I ate lunch with Jenny outside on the grounds of a housing project. She was in another training unit, the woman with the long legs during orientation class. After class, she brushed my hand walking out for lunch, though I ate alone. When I mentioned the Bleecker Hotel, it stunned her. Jenny suggested I leave that stink-hole and look in the Village Voice for a place to rent, telling me apartments were cheap in her neighborhood.
The following week at work, Jenny asked whether I found a place. When I told her no she said to meet her at the corner sandwich shop for lunch. I sat on a stool, eating a corn beef and mustard sandwich, drinking Dr. Pepper, when Jenny entered. She ordered a small container of potato salad and a Coke. A teenager played “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” by the Four Tops on the jukebox. Jenny stretched her legs out as we faced the jukebox at the wall.
Today, caseworkers on my unit’s floor heard an amateur band play “A Rose in Spanish Harlem” at an East Harlem senior center adjacent to the welfare building. The center’s windows overlooked ours. Quite a few caseworkers sang along, lifting spirits from the paper drudge work each did. In my case, I already had a sloppy pile of client
requests from intake downstairs.
“Why don’t you come over tomorrow night for dinner,” she said. A girl did a double-Dutch on the sidewalk, two friends swinging two jump ropes.
“My friend Harriet and her boyfriend will be there.” Levi Stubbs’s rough-hewn voice traveled through my bones.
“I’d like that.” I lowered my eyes, looking at the abstract patterns in the tiled floor. Three blue rhombuses disappeared after a moment. The shock of meeting real people dazed me. The Four Tops lifted me just as music had for the caseworkers.
“Harriet is a part-time painter,” she said, “and Frank’s a potter and welder.”
They both worked with their hands: they must love touching. I looked at Jenny and couldn’t decipher her serious face, the concern she appeared to show. Had she my best interests in mind? She gave me the address, within walking distance from the hotel. Levi Stubbs’s voice sang in my mind. I never saw anything through, hanging around until the mission succeeded. A real threat, this adult world of work and play.
I walked from the hotel to First Avenue, between 7th and 8th streets, and knocked on the door to the second floor apartment. Jenny invited me in. A claw-legged bathtub in the kitchen was from another Lower East Side era. “Nice to see you,” Jenny said. “It’s Frank’s place.”
“You can take a hot bath and make a tub of instant coffee at the same time,” I said. Jenny, Harriet, and Frank laughed nervously. I let out a big laugh. I amassed so much isolation in that tiny, sleazy hotel room, that to real persons my social graces sounded violent and unpleasant. Even threatening: I read their eyes. Spit burst through the air as I laughed. Thankfully, Jenny poured us Chianti and camouflaged my panic.
We listened to Eric Burden and the Animals, Yardbirds, Rolling Stones, Beatles, Them, and the Kinks. “Brits have better music,” said Frank.
I agreed. “They understood the American blues better than U.S. bands. We listened to Jerry Lee Lewis too much.” No one challenged me, so I added, “USA, Union of South Africa, that’s our country.” A hush filled the apartment.
Jenny and Frank danced, while Harriet told me her parents got married with A.J. Muste conducting the service. “He was a famous pacifist,” she said.
I asked, “Could he help me evade the draft?”
She said, “Resist.” My flippancy made serious discussion impossible, a state of affairs I liked to foment. “I volunteer at the War Resisters League not far from here.”
I said, “If drafted to fight in Vietnam, I’d come back in a body bag. When they couldn’t locate my home address, they’d ship me back, marked, Return To Sender. I’d never get out of Vietnam.” They laughed.
“Do I hear Lenny Bruce?” Jenny said. “Pretty comedic, Sam.”
“Protests are happening all over. 30,000 marched against the war down 5th Avenue this spring,” Frank said.
“Muste organized unions in the Depression,” she said. “He organized the peace march from San Francisco to Moscow in ‘60.” Could he organize my life so I could be somebody other than who I am? I wanted to ask.
“They came through the quad in college. They were filthy. I’d throw my life away if I joined them. A fraternity man like me didn’t do that.”
“I’m lucky my parent’s left me a small trust fund. I like good, clean soaks in my tub upstairs.” She wrote something on an stray envelope of Frank’s. “Here’s the League’s address. Stop by if you like.” I folded it and stuck it in my wallet.
She sparkled, throwing off a soft glow. Candles on the table flickered her natural, full-bodied woman’s beauty, as it did svelte and lanky Jenny’s. Both Harriet and her boyfriend Frank were redheaded.
“I get down and dirty sometimes, George, you ought to scrub my back,” said Jenny, her auburn hair, another shade of red, straight down the center of her back. She looked nice wearing a bandanna at work sometimes. Upon opening the door, Jenny should’ve hugged me.
We sat at a table in the living room. We ate pasta, with good sauce, a big salad with radishes, anchovies and olives, along with French bread. Afterward, Frank played guitar, singing two Dylan songs from his second album. Finishing the wine, he and Harriett split to her third floor apartment, leaving me alone with Jenny. I’d never been with a woman before, at least not like this at this hour with nothing that cloaked direct one-on-one experience.
We listened to Murray the K on FM radio. Jenny said her husband volunteered for Vietnam. That quieted me. She was a government agent spying on anti-war sympathizers. Fear, its pain like a rheumatoid arthritis attack, shot through me. I never questioned her or asked about his duties. I wanted to bolt and head back to the hotel. Why did every radio song have double entendres?
She told me I should sleep there. I’m glad she hadn’t said, “If you want.” Given a choice, I would flee, but not fight. I translated her invitation into a command.
“We can go to work together,” she said. Cutting off the angle, the mongoose always defeated the cobra. I was reluctant. “He can run but he can’t hide,” Joe Louis said of Max Schmeling before knocking him out. Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number came to mind. She played a bedridden hypochondriac, who overheard a telephone conversation about two men plotting to kill an unmarried woman. I clearly saw myself as her character when a man entered Stanwyck’s celluloid bedroom, about to kill her in the final scene. The victim, female or male, either fit my situation.
And Jacques-Louis David’s painting, The Death of Marat commemorated his friend’s death by Charlotte Corday in his bath. He had been blindsided no less than Stanwyck’s character had. Both trapped, incapable of fleeing. Marat had written The Friend of the People, justifying violent revolution. Hadn’t I sided with Castro’s revolution, supporting the overthrow of a fascist regime? And couldn’t Jenny peer into my mind, trained by her CIA husband, to read my thoughts? Was her hubby in the Green Berets or Navy SEALs, known assassination outfits? Paranoia, a supreme narcissism, taken it to its ultimate climax was sex, then murder. No slouch when it came to mental disfigurement, my life.
She lay naked and I hadn’t taken off my Jockey shorts beneath the sheet. I avoided foreplay and its offspring, coitus, by telling her about my faux sex life. Too scared to slip the hard dangle into her, I explained that my genitals hadn’t lived up to their full potential. “My Jockey’s kept everything from growing, they’ve been too tight for fifteen years.”
Four a.m. and the boredom of reciting my anhedonia fatigued me. Her breath, Chiati and Dentyne: Lower East Side perfume. She tried to take the Jockey’s off but I fought her, grabbing and twisting her wrist, saying my penis wasn’t large because the underwear was a size too small. I never considered that before, how Jockey’s the world over could stunt male growth. She disagreed and tried again, but I held her off. I figured I could hold out until daylight when we left for work.
But when a boom box below on First Avenue blared Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” a convergence of forces conspired against the status quo. I capitulated and took off the shorts. Synchronicity couldn’t be taken for granted. Dooby-Dooby-Doo: I had no defense against scat. I slipped inside her after she pulled my hard-on toward the promised land, and soon shot my load. I dozed off inside her, wet and pleased.
In the morning, she mentioned Frank was going to Michigan tomorrow, that he’d be away for the summer and needed to sublet his apartment. Did I want to rent it for $90 a month through September? She massaged my buttocks as she spoke, drawing me close to her. Of course I’d rent it, knowing she lived a flight above me. Women on top from now on. I envisioned the sexual astride architecture, our new arrangement. We stood hip to hip, holding the pole in the crowded train, striding in unison as we walked to the office.
When I saw Jenny later that morning on the stairs, she looked haggard, telling me she felt empty. Strange, I had an extra bounce today, invigorated by manhood, hokey as that sounded. I joined the ranks with conquering males throughout history, from the earliest progenitors to the present. But stud-hood quickly flagged after seeing the chaos of files and uncompleted forms, yesterday’s New York Times, stubbed-out Marlboro butts in my ashtray, and unread letters from clients.
Later that day, Kay told me one of my clients was downstairs needing emergency money to keep Consolidated Edison from turning off her electricity. The desperate woman and I walked with fast-paced sweat to 125th Street, and I paid the bill just before the office closed. Her nose bled from high blood pressure. She recovered on a bench and I said goodbye.
I didn’t go back to the office because it was closed so I went to the hotel, packed my things and lugged the suitcases to Frank’s apartment. I drank Rhinegolds, listened to Jean Shepherd on WOR-AM as he extemporized on life growing up in Hammond, Indiana. He was a raconteur of humorous anecdotes on the human condition. But, like everything else, I took him too seriously and didn’t even chortle.
I stroked my putz after finding a passage in Frank’s Tropic of Cancer, jaunty drops of semen wetting the pages. I stayed up late, beer-drunk, and phoned in sick the next morning. I needed a long weekend; this love and work regimen wiped me out.
* * *
I took the Lexington Avenue local from Astor Place uptown to 110th Street. I parlayed my degree, the only requirement other than the civil service test, making over $5,000 a year. As a bona fide salaried man, I felt entitled to carry The New York Times to work. I tried to read the paper on the subway, but the crush of folks gathered at the pole left only one hand free. I hadn’t mastered the double-fold as my father had as a suburban commuter to Chicago.
Farther downtown from my Bleecker Street hotel stretched the Bowery. Its human fetor prodded all Americans to maintain success-dreams, however distant and unattainable, or else be dumped on the Bowery. The Bowery wasn’t an option. If the New York Welfare Department hadn’t existed and the city had no poverty and the American Dream had been attained by all citizens, then I would be a critically accepted novelist. Utopia offered me the only chance for success.
But nightmares were the foundation of the American Dream, and at any moment the entire edifice might crumble, and pulverize all of us beneath its shoddy construction. Maybe I could use the caseworker experience and write a novel. Or maybe I’ll run berserk, stripping off my clothes on Times Square, setting myself alight as monks had in Vietnam.
Though I probably flunked the welfare caseworker test, President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty program needed all the college graduates possible to oversee the poor. An open sore in the capitalist system provided me a job. Otherwise, I’d still be busing trays in New York University’s cafeteria, wiping tables where future attorneys, doctors and investment bankers ate their meals.
I still lived in the bum hotel on Bleecker. I stood on the stoop, watching people go to the Café Au Go Go, the Village Gate, and seeing them walk drunkenly past my roost in Greenwich Village. I showered in the morning, washing off any hint of fear I accumulated over my twenty-four years. Hysteria crawled on my skin and I had to rid myself of the dark odor of failure. I hoped to expunge High Appointment Anxiety. Today, fortunately, I’d no vomit-bedazzled tenant sprawled on the hallway bathroom to avoid.
The first week was an introduction to welfare casework and procedures, pleasing me since I got paid for doing nothing, a condition in which I always aspired. The docent, her well-informed presentation attempted to transform my acolyte standing. While others took notes, I sat and stared through the window, admiring the slum-skyline. I felt comfortable knowing a training unit with an experienced supervisor awaited me. Why bother with hobgoblin abstractions when the actual recipient would be downstairs, requesting emergency rent payment before the landlord evicted her. I’d handle it, no problem.
Damn, the leggy woman four seats away looked great. Every woman wearing a miniskirt was a stewardess. My thoughts turned prurient, another character flaw, and my self esteem plummeted into the abyss, unable to carry the burden of a myriad of other flaws. It would be hard to organize my brain, sequencing what I learned in a concise, orderly fashion to earn a living. But walking through East Harlem pulled me closer towards minority status, if only by association, letting me jettison my wasp history.
Lunchtime, the class broke up in twos and threes, others finding companions, but I struck out alone. I found a Chinese restaurant on Lexington and drank my lunch. I sat in a large booth and ordered shots of Jack Daniels, listening to loud and sometimes raucous diners enjoy their pot-stickers and egg rolls. Drinking solitaires like myself were privy to life’s true values. Those diners over there knew nothing. I read the paper, finally learned the vertical-fold, and creased it with aplomb after three shots. See. Look at me. Watch how serious I am reading The New York Times and the genius of playwright Edward Albee. But I head tripped, leaving the Albee piece far behind. I placed myself in a film with Lisbeth Scott, the B-movie actress featured in film noir, drinking martinis as I leered at her. She touched her hair with a pale, translucent hand, the only light I saw.
No, I wouldn’t make it to an Albee play, though as recently as last Thanksgiving, living in an off-campus rooming complex, eating dinner with other U of Iowa students, one read Albee’s play, The Zoo Story. It was about isolation, loneliness, how I was excommunicated from the human race.
After five shots, my uncertain gait took me to the cashier, who scrutinized me closely. Who got drunk in a Chinese restaurant? Coming back ten minutes late, I interrupted the instructor’s spiel. She cast a threatening look until I flopped into an empty chair. The chair nearly tipped over backward, my neck rolling around, hearing disconnected
Nothing had been written down in my lined notebook, though I saw others turning pages as they soaked up applicable skills, enabling them to service their clients’ needs. My stupor made social interchange impossible; a badge of cowardice, drunkenness. Just as I started dozing off, the final class ended early Friday.
I had a weekend until going to work in the training unit. I drank in my room at the bottom of an airshaft, pissing in quart Rhinegold bottles, leaking all over the ratty linoleum floor, stinking the bed sheets. I made sure my sport coat stayed clean and spit-polished my well-worn Thom McAn’s.
Monday, I walked up one flight to the unit, coffee in cardboard cup in one hand, the Times in the other. I was characteristically early and met the supervisor, Kay, a black woman. Her southern accent, having moved from New Orleans, where she lived all her life, put me at ease. Kay seemed winsome and sweet; too bad the rest of the city hadn’t
Larry, a NYU graduate, sat to my right. I never told him I worked in the cafeteria. I wished my co-workers would be dolts, never grasping the fundamentals of welfare casework. I welcomed incompetence, for then my inferior standing wouldn’t be highlighted in flashing neon.
One of other three in the unit included Patricia, or Patty, big-legged with wild, unruly hair, smoking Winstons. The cigarette’s jingle went, “Winstons taste good like a cigarette should,” purposely ungrammatical. I adored all those smeared lipstick filters squashed in a porcelain cup she brought with her. It meant sloth, a woman unable to get anything done. I watched her sip coffee, a slow morning starter. I surmised she didn’t know whether it should be “like” or “as.” That mindset endeared me to her.
Later, I liked her more because she was lethargic in her work habits, barely keeping up with her clients. But she got more done as a plodder than I could as a fully engaged caseworker. Her brown rumpled hair, squat body, black-framed glasses, her gum mixed with cigarettes in that cup, her large pocketbook. Jenny rarely carried a small purse. Patty’s saggy breasts jiggled when she sat down, imperceptible except for men such as myself.
“You’re messy like me, I see,” I said and Patty said. “You should see my apartment.”
“Where do you live?” I asked. “I hope not in Jersey.”
“Actually, I grew up just across the Hudson. Not now. I live on Tenth Street between A and B. Near Tompkins Square Park.” She took out a pad and wrote her phone number down. “I know Jenny and why not light three on a match.”
“That bit about the match is a superstition about soldiers lighting cigarettes with one match and the enemy finding their position and then killing one of them.”
“I meant common friends, not murder,” she said. I laughed and said, “There’s nothing common about friends.” I laughed again but she looked baffled. I slipped the note in my wallet.
“We should all go to Tompkins and see the Fugs,” she said.
“I read about them in the East Village Other, and saw their photos.” I found EVO in a trash bin.
“Those dirty comics, they go too far, but some I like,” she said.
“Only Puritans think bawdy and clean at the same time.” I sounded so profound.
Kay told her to make a home visit. It took Patty a while readying herself. After she left I would make a home visit to Ms. T. Afterward, I’d take my black notebook upstairs and record my write-up into a Dictaphone. A typist would then work up a report for her file.
Kay explained home visits, periodic appointments to clients’ residences, determining their continual assistance and when to issue special grants. She showed me Ms. T’s thick file. Mother of three, she had a missing “paramour” as Kay referred to him. Roy, a putative father, was responsible for child payments. One department sought these men, though halfheartedly. Before I left, Kay defined poor mans’ fat, persons living in poverty, eating cheap food loaded with sugar and saturated fat. Like a drill sergeant, she prepared me for a caseworker’s line of duty.
I carried my black spiral notebook and walked down the corridor before I reached the stairs to leave the building and saw Jenny grope a handsome supervisor. Hal supervised the unit next to mine and was our union representative. He felt her breasts as her hand rubbed his groin through his slacks. She turned her head a bit and saw me but hadn’t stopped her hand from moving up and down his pecker, unafraid of observers. I hadn’t counted as a reputable observer apparently.
The black spiral notebook made me look conspicuous. Like a schoolbook, I walked to ten o’clock class. The special occasion-sport jacket from fairyland suburbia became a uniform. I got off the train and speed-walked to the 115th Street apartment, never having entered an officially designated home of the poor.
Her railroad apartment, rooms connected to another from the front to the rear, I thought beautiful. Had Ms. T put that framed portrait of John Kennedy of the wall just for white boy me, letting me know her politics aligned with mine? Jesus’ picture next to it, had that been a conscious display of Christian beliefs, allaying my fears? When I looked into her intense and powerful eyes, I saw a hungry, anxious, proud woman of mental and emotional substance. Blacks were people, too, suburbanites, and if it weren’t for welfare programs, black militias would turn suburbia into war zones.
The ur-welfare mother walked behind me as I viewed each room. I saw red and yellow plastic curtains, a single green plant in a cracked pot, photos of her kids scotch taped to the walls, a can of Crisco, a box of Cheerios on the kitchen counter, a dull bedspread tucked neatly under the mattress, an ironing board with a pink blouse ready to be ironed, a yellow, fractured ceiling and fissured walls, a Mickey Mouse windup alarm clock: I wrote everything down as I sat in her living room.
She wanted a “linoleum rug,” so named by the department, for the entire apartment, a household item I didn’t know existed. Kay told me to ask where her husband Roy was. Of course, I never considered him any of my business. Instead, I drank a hot cup of instant coffee Ms.T served me, listening to her talk about wayward and often missing children. I kept writing, as if doing a New York Herald-Tribune feature, trying to absorb a stranger’s life, waiting for a word or phrase from Ms. T that would crack open the heart of the world. I asked whether she needed clothes and, yes, she could use a warm sweater, new shoes, and coats for her kids.
What was the difference between my mother purchasing my clothes with a credit card to a high-end store and Ms. T asking me for them? I had been taken care of by my parents’ bank account. Now I wished to benefit Ms. T with public assistance. Some circuitry wired and connected to us all, and I had the power to make real the linkage. I desired to write “WELFARE FOR EVERYONE” on every surface in NYC. The image of Christ in a business suit, proclaimed by Bruce Barton in The Man Nobody Knows, had been my dad’s favorite read. If social Darwinism prevailed, Christ’s foot would crush me, his eternal boot grinding my face in the gutter. I couldn’t contain my anger as I left her apartment. “Damn white people!” I said walking to the subway station. I sat in the train, picturing myself as an avenger, twisting barbed wire across my father’s chest, bleeding him slowly.
I used a Dictaphone as an successful novelist would. I turned home visits into fiction. I used words such as “indefatigable” describing Ms. T’s face, “accoutrements” referring to the furniture, “impecunious” noting her lack of cash on hand, “lumpen proletariat” defining her economic class, and even some portmanteau words spooled off my tongue.
A real breakthrough, this job, I thought, taking a long piss in the office bathroom, staring at the tall urinal, certain I’d become the American Zola.
Jenny and I ate lunch at a restaurant on Lexington. We sat on vinyl seats in a booth and ate fish, french fries, cottage cheese salad, and two beers each. What could I say after last night? Her hair fell over a shoulder, her long legs touched mine beneath the table, her hand rested palm up near me and I responded, kneading and softly massaged it. I wanted to know about her husband but if she told me, I would again get paranoid as I had last night. I wanted to fondle her small, firm breasts again.
“If you want, why don’t we go out tonight,” she said. “I don’t have any secrets, you know.” If she talked about having no secrets, then she had them.
“I want to. Am I that obvious?” I said. “Sure, I’d like to take you out.”
“Obvious? What do you mean?”
“That I’m jealous of him,” I said. She turned her head and scoped out the room. Did she think I meant her husband or Hal?
“You mean paranoid.” Her eyes rested on a man who looked like Steve McQueen.
“Good looking guys turn you on, I bet.” She didn’t respond.
“If you’re taking me out, then I’ll pay our bill,” she said.
We walked to Slug’s, a bar on East 3rd Street between B and C, found a table in the back, and drank beer, both of us observing the packed house. We talked about comedian Lenny Bruce’s legal persecution and a new Lower East Side band, the Fugs.
Lust swept across her face as she stared past me, watching sexy men hustle females. I walked to the front, put nickels in the jukebox, and played “Sally Go Round the Roses” by the Jaynettes five straight times. That slickness stirred her when I got back and told her to listen to pop poetry.
“This is connection central for dope, you know. Jazz nights don’t have pushers as those guys over there,” she said.
“How do you know?” Was her lover one of them or a heroin user?
At midnight, as newcomers jammed Slugs, we walked out, barely squeezing through tight knots of long- and short-haired people. “It’s a happening place,” she said, our hips sometimes touching as we walked. I never heard that phrase before, though I knew what she meant but changed the subject, telling her Tompkins Square Park shouldn’t have iron railings along its sidewalks. “They’re repressive,” I said.
“There’s lots of space and a band shell’s there now.” How she knew so much maybe came from dating dealers and addicts who weren’t that far gone. We made love again, this time she was on top, bouncing, moaning like a prostitute might with a client.
Work dragged on, and the write-ups of home visits came back marred by the typists’ failure to appreciate my writing talents. They couldn’t spell many “literary” words, and my neo-Faulknerian stream proved impossible to decipher. Savvy workers typed their own reports at their desks.
I asked Larry to help me out since he had organized work habits, buying manila folders for each client, alphabetizing them in his desk drawer. He had time to explain how the system operated, though for me it always remained opaque. “Always keep up to date,” he said, a bureaucratic 11th Commandment. Faster assumed some basic skill level that I lacked.
My dad wrote, saying how brave I was to work in East Harlem, but I shrugged it off, thinking bravery had nothing to do with welfare protocol. I had copied in tiny letters a quotation from Martial on a small card: “The wretched may well despise and laugh at death; but he is braver far who can live wretched.” I pulled it out of my wallet after reading his letter. A Nietzsche was on the back.
On Friday after work, while walking to the subway, Larry invited me to drink wine with a friend who had a studio on the Upper East Side. The living room had a double bed as its single piece of furniture. We finished off the Riesling quickly and I wanted more, or at least a couple of shared six packs. Instead, the two gave me an odd look, as if they expected something. I was surprised, thinking we’d get drunk and ride back to our respective abodes. Larry complained about his old girlfriend, telling me she wanted too much from him. His friend agreed, and said women pressured him. Hell, I just got laid, so what had I to bitch about. They stopped talking, struggling to see some gesture on my part.
I lied, explaining that I’d a midnight date. With a woman, I stipulated. Sorry. I left them in the bare studio, their faces red, shocked that I wouldn’t spend the night together with them, but no pull my daisy. From that point on, Larry and I rarely spoke to each other.
Once, at work, Jenny casually mentioned that she and Harriet had weekend reservations at a dude ranch. That drove me crazy, thinking she’d be away from me with male strangers, all swingers. I bought Playboy, masturbating as many times as I could that weekend, crudding up the pages with neurotic sperm. Between handjobs, I drank Rheingolds, listening to the Lovin’ Spoonful sing “Summer in the City” on AM radio, waiting for Jenny’s arrival Sunday evening.
I stood naked in the hot, groggy apartment, pulling back the curtain a bit to see Jenny get out the car with a guy. A Mercury Comet parallel-parked outside the building: it had to be them opening the downstairs door. The poor angle distorted confirmation. I wanted to know for sure, but couldn’t determine how many feet climbed the stairs.
Doubt rattled me, whether in the real world or the celluloid one as it had in Vertigo. Kim Novak’s character fell from the tower in the Hitchcock movie. Not that I wished defenestration, Jenny’s body falling on 1st Avenue. Though it would be easy to push her out Frank’s window. I would tell her a sexy looking man stared up at the window, then push Jenny to her death below. Jenny starred in my movie, ending my virginity at twenty-four. Was loyalty antiquated?
Later that week, Jenny knocked. Her brows furled as she guided me to the couch, pushing me gently back with one hand, unzipping me with the other. My cock grew in her mouth and I felt the blood-rush of semen move up my erection. The moment before release, my cock lost its stiffness. “There,” she said, patting my softie, getting up and leaving the apartment. Thirty minutes later, I felt horny. I realized she plugged my urethra with her tongue to stanch my pleasure. I ripped out the Playboy centerfold and blew one off. Jenny was quite adroit.
I thought of Leopold Bloom cuckolded by Blazes Boylan but quickly fell from that lofty perch. How many Blazes and beyond had Jenny have?
After reading a tiny notice in the Village Voice about a magazine called Entrails soliciting erotic poetry for its next issue, I sat down at the kitchen table, writing, re-writing, scraping pages, until I had written the opening sentence. “Lady Cunt Vortex Gobbled Cock Forever Off His Feet.” A cosmic fuck prose poem written in one sitting. I mailed it to the editor, Gene Bloom, at a Lower East Side address. Bloom, two blocks away, would read my untitled work.
His geographic expanse from me was greater than the short emotional distance from me to Leopold Bloom, cuckolded by Blazes Boylan. Visiting Gene, something I thought other poets did, entailed familiarity. I wouldn’t do that any more than go again with Jenny to Slug’s. A pickup launching pad wasn’t what I needed. No. I wanted to stay in the apartment where I could have Jenny to myself. Like capitalists, I hated competition.
Larry’s supreme orderliness and a counterintuitive knack for bureaucratic skills rewarded him, and he moved into a regular unit. The guy who replaced him, Joey, had little trouble with casework. He informed me his first day that amphetamine never bothered him.
“The brain cells always grow back no matter how many black beauties I take.” He told me he needed some backing for a light show, that it would be spectacular, “A blast,” Joey said.
“Strobes, speakers, amplifiers, monitors, oscilloscopes, slides, swirls, projectors, trips.”
He talked fast about the venture. “Even if you only invest one hundred dollars, you’ll get double back, at least,” he said.
The following day, I handed him five Jacksons and he invited me to come celebrate at his apartment on East 11th that Saturday afternoon.
“We’ll have a good time,” he said. Daylight suggested a harmless way to kill a summer afternoon. I could handle it. I’d be there. Dylan sang “Sad Eyed…” as I knocked on the door. Joey greeted me, smiling, others laughing and loud in the small apartment. They glanced at me, grinning, moving their bodies to Dylan’s poetry. I was so frightened by claustrophobic Others that I couldn’t even smell pot smoke. Or was it oregano they smoked? I got the feeling they wanted to show that Joey had friends, not just caseworkers in the training unit, that he could be trusted.
They talked about how high they were but I felt nothing. Joey beat me out of Jacksons and was too cheap to share real weed with me. Walking into the kitchen, the six of them left me standing alone. I saw them pressed together, jumping up and down, the Temptations spinning on the turntable, loud and strong. They held pot-cigars over their heads while I stood alone. I forced myself, against my natural solitude, into the kitchen but then they chose to leave, and I smoked a Marlboro.
“The show will be tonight,” Joey said, changing the record to Jefferson Airplane. “I rented a hall off Union Square.” He wrote the address on a napkin.
“I’ll be there,” I said, crumpling the damp napkin into my loose change pocket.
I stood apart, moved quickly to the door and left. I thought Joey played as if he were a hippie, all the while a hustler. Their long hair looked like wigs, the noise emitted from their mouths echoic and indecipherable. I had spoken a few sentences to Joey, the others were immunized against me like I was the plague. I left the door ajar, not wanting the partygoers to hear the click. I didn’t bother going to the light show. I never tripped, so if I went, my isolation would amount to bad vibes.
* * *
Back at my place, I ate Dinty Moore beef stew and a can of green beans, drinking Tropicana orange juice from the carton. After eating, I lay in Frank’s bed reading Lawrence Durrell’s Justine where I’d creased the page. I loved the novel’s introspection as Durrell retreated into the past, autobiography merged with fiction, making clearer personal truth, examining Justine the ex-lover. I sank my hindbrain into the novel.
Frank’s paperbacks lined a small bookshelf at the head of the bed. I wouldn’t have read the Alexandra Quartet had it not been for Jenny. As I turned the pages, I asked myself had Frank boffed Jenny on these sheets? I held Justine over my head, reading on my back, the small lamplight needed since I kept the windows closed. A hot summer afternoon, I forgot Joey and losing Jacksons.
I attended a poetry reading by Peter Orlovsky, Allen Ginsberg’s longtime friend and partner. The reading was held in the basement of St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. Peter read very fast, itemizing everything from sex to cooking, a verbatim yet musical inventory of things personal. He never flinched: all was material. I never understood homosexual lovemaking until Peter’s clinical description, how it was as common as drinking a cup of coffee.
I stood at the rear of the packed space and scanned the crowd, landing upon Ginsberg who looked at me. His eyes locked on mine. My eyes panned back to Peter, watching how emphatically he flipped the loose pages, delivering his lines, barely pausing to catch his breath. I flicked back to Allen, checking his reactions to Peter’s poetry. Still Ginsberg’s eyes stared at me. Was it my wrinkly collared sport coat that gave me away? Had my Midwestern taint been obvious to him?
I wanted to rush over to Allen, detailing my loss of virginity, connecting Jenny, Peter, Allen and myself into one immaculate, explainable skein. I felt his Kaddish-eyes pierce mine, knowing if I approached him afterward, he’d respond and my creative juices would begin to flow, marking a personal genesis. After the audience applauded and drifted towards Peter and Allen, chatting and getting their autographs, I withdrew into my familiar husk, unwilling to shuck old habits, and walked back.
When I told Jenny about the reading, she asked why I hadn’t invited her. We stood outside my door, and she asked if she could come in. I wanted to recite Ginsberg’s “America,” that last line especially: “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” Jenny sprawled on the couch, those bare, gangly legs flaunting me. I threw myself on top of her, grappling with her skirt and found it wasn’t difficult to raise it past her navel, silence except for our breaths.
She resisted, then told me, “No, please don’t,” but I forced myself into her. Maybe if the world wasn’t so personal, if I hadn’t peered into her eyes, I could’ve lasted longer, giving her an orgasm. She gathered herself afterwards, and walked to the door. “Try asking me out next time,” she said.
My second letter I got in the box downstairs was from a friend, Jack, a college friend. He came from a working-class background and when I excoriated the bourgeoisie with frantic-talking rants against the middleclass, we struck a similar discordant chord. He’d been editor of the college newspaper and gave me a column. We shared interest in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He was now broke in Mexico, and starving, living in a small, jerrybuilt apartment atop a roof in Mexico City. Could I send him money?
I sent a $100 money order and explained that I was a welfare caseworker doling out checks to the underclass. I withdrew the money from an East Harlem bank. I mentioned to a caseworker that I had a bank account in East Harlem and he thought I was crazy. Why not bank in near your residence? I countered: Why don’t you bank up here? He never spoke to me again.
I soon received a heavily wrapped package from Mexico. Jack told me to swallow the worm after I drank the slightly psychedelic mescal. “Get out of that death trap and come down where things are really real,” he wrote. He informed me that mescal originated in Oaxaca, the region where the Zapotecs lived nearly 4,000 years ago. People who believed they had descended from directly from rocks, trees, and jaguars couldn’t be more authentic. After slowing draining the bottle, I heard the Lovin’ Spoonful sing “Summer in the City” for the hundredth time. What commercial trash. Mescal wised me
up. I switched it off and listened to the traffic’s musical drumbeats. It massaged my brain. I felt rejuvenated until the office’s realty made me descend into gloom.
* * *
Ms. T was downstairs, wanting to move. I told her I’d write a special grant of $960 for everything. New furniture, everything. I felt proud of myself. I told Kay I was glad to get deferred from the draft. These special grants I requested always came through and it satisfied me because it served the interests of the poor rather than the wealthy class. I felt relieved knowing Ms. T got the money from a caseworker who had stayed out of Vietnam.
Then Fay told me casework didn’t give you a deferment. Fear raced through my belly like poisonous snake venom. My hands shook and I grabbed a Marlboro, sucking its nicotine, a quick fix. Eventually, I’d get that draft notice and have to fight in the Vietnam jungle. I’d been so ignorant, thinking welfare casework would exempt me from murder or maimed by land mines. Special grants were worthwhile, slaughtering peasants wasn’t, but the government had different ideas. The very notion of standing bare-assed naked in a jungle clearing, bathing in front of Americans and the Viet Cong scared
the hell out of me. Vietnam; forget it. How could I squirm out of the draft?
Fay pressed me to seek out Ms. K’s consort, her husband, because the investigative unit pressured her to find him.
I entered a small candy store next door to Ms. T’s apartment building. I asked the Puerto Rican owner behind the counter about the whereabouts of Mr. T. The man looked sacred and remained silent, gazing at a man seated on a folding chair to my left as I went into the shop.
“Hey, you looking for me?” the man said. He told me his name.
“Yeah.” He reached out his hand and I shook it. I smelled liquor on his breath, but he hadn’t slurred his words and stood without wobbling.
“Glad to meet you,” he said. “I hear you’re doing right with my old lady.” I looked at the gregarious face, how many expressions flickered at me in quick succession.
“Want a beer. I can get you anything you want around here,” he said, sweeping his arm towards the window. Clearly, he hadn’t meant eating free chocolate bars.
“I needed something sweet so I came in here. On a whim,” I said. I figured Roy extorted the owner, or maybe ran numbers from his store.
“There’s all kinds of sweetness, if you catch my drift,” Roy said, smiling big. “In this world, if there’s anything you want, I’m your man.”
Both arms spread eagle-wide, taking in all of Harlem. Very tempting, insider Roy. Had his fingers pointed toward Ms. T’s apartment or had that been my imagination.
“Thanks for offering but I only want a tootsie roll.” I paid the proprietor, whose trembling hand gave me change.
“Come back anytime, you hear,” Roy said, sitting back down, relaxed.
“I hear you, man,” I said, walking out into the late morning sun.
When I told Fay I met Mr. T and never confronted him about his legal obligations to support Ms. T’s children, she cried. “How could you do this to me, Mr. Holt?” she said.
I made her look irresponsible to an in-house legal department. My outright admission that I willfully disregarded her instructions baffled her. She stood near my desk, speechless, then regained poise and resumed work at her desk. I assumed she’d report my misconduct to her supervisor, a man who had already chastised me for my “incapacitated reports” of home visits. My only hope lay with the strong employees’ union if it came to my discharge for incompetence.
Jenny taped a handwritten note to my door. She wanted to go out, letting me decide where. The Café Au Go Go seemed right. I phoned Jenny and bought a bottle of Thunderbird wine on the way over, taking sips from the brown paper bag as we walked.
“You can be awkward sometimes,” she said, my right arm clutching her elbow, “but other times you’re gentle. I never know which guy shows up.” How awkward was the rape? I wanted to ask her.
I never had a real date until Jenny. I couldn’t account for my off again, on again spastic moves. Was I an undiagnosed cerebral palsy victim? Rather her elbow, I wrapped my arm around her waist, chugging T-Bird as we entered the club. She removed it before we entered. “Clumsy you,” she said.
Richie Havens and Otis Spann headlined. I sat a few feet away as Havens sang “Handsome Johnny,” a spine shivering anti-war song. Jenny ordered a bourbon and soda and I paid for it. I spilled a little T-Bird on her lap. Jenny scoffed, trying to make the nighttime sparkle. Otis Spann played piano, sipping from a paper cup. More Big T, its explosive chemical high made me talk loudly to Jenny, who rubbed my arm. I ordered two beers, both for myself.
I shout-sang “Drinking Wine Spodi odie,” as Spann sang a blues number. He didn’t appear bothered by my vulgar intrusion. My song came from the forties and I only knew the four-word lyric. “ ‘Drinking Wine Spodie Odie’,” I shouted into Jenny’s ear. She gave me a blank look. “From On the Road, ya know.” I drank from the bottle, not exactly club policy. When Spann finished the set, he walked and sang into the kitchen, all of us clapping and yelling. Jenny got up to leave. I wanted to stay but she helped me out of my seat and guided me outside.
She led the way, clearing a path for me since I couldn’t walk straight and kept bumping into people. She helped me with the key, walking me to bed, telling me to sit down while she took off my shoes. She tucked me in between Frank’s sheets. When I woke up to piss, I hadn’t any memory of what happened after Havens’s set. I couldn’t find my way back to bed, so I slept on the grungy couch, drawing my trench coat over me. I woke up and looked at the radio clock: 10:30. I had to make another sick day call, dialing Fay’s number. No answer. My absenteeism irked her. She’d cover for me but I knew her patience would soon end. I re-dialed until I realized it was Saturday. “What a trouper,” I said, and laughed loudly. Sarcasm and hangovers went well together.
A week or so passed and Jenny hadn’t put in an appearance except during working hours. Then she never looked me in the eyes, and I felt ashamed. My mother’s eyes never looked at me when she shamed me to behave differently. Jenny used that ruse. I was the negative space, holes, in Henry Moore’s sculptures of mother and child. Nothingness incarnate. I took a bath in the kitchen tub, and she knocked. I herd her voice. I could’ve opened the door, wet and naked, inviting her in. More knocks. But wasn’t that a cliché comparable to the pizza delivery guy knocking on a single woman’s door, only with a different rate of exchange than money?
I stopped washing myself, knowing she would hear water splash. Instead of soap, now simple fear sheathed my body. “Sam, are you there?” I took shallow breaths as if she were an enemy combatant, my life in jeopardy. I triumphed: she gave up. One helluva way to win a war. An intern once asked me in NYC’s Roosevelt Hospital’s ER: What are you afraid of? Anything I said would condemn me so I never answered him.
I hadn’t seen Harriet except occasionally on the stairs and then only minor league chitchat ensued. She invited me upstairs to her apartment. I sat down and drank herbal tea. On the wall hung a painting of a naked man.
“Recognize him?” she asked, sipping hibiscus tea.
“No, not without clothes.” I gulped the cup down.
“It’s Frank,” she said. “It’s my first nude and hope it won’t be the last.”
I talked about the difference between nakedness and nudity, heading off the conversational flow. I had powerful negative effects over females, the opposite of Franz Liszt. He even liked coitus with wart women who begged him for sex.
“How would you like to pose for me?”
“You do good work for an occasional painter,” I said. I saw how she gave Frank’s region between navel and upper thighs cubist distortion. No old school, single perspective for Harriet. He looked like he had a few too many lingams.
“See the Shiva print on my door.” I nodded my head, but even Shiva had only one phallus. How could I compete with Frank and Shiva? Harriet and I talked, that’s all.
“I’m waiting for Jenny to meet me downstairs.”
Harriet smiled and said, “She’s worth the wait, I assume.”
“Oh yes.” I sounded so believable, yet living celibate or asexual wasn’t so bad as society cracked it up to be. Lying was easy. I didn’t worry about Harriet corroborating it. Frank probably lied to her all the time.
Later that week, I found a large envelope stuffed in my mailbox. Entrails: The Magazine of Happy Obscenity arrived. I saw my name in the table of contents. I knew only two other poets: Clarence Major and Aram Saroyan. Mine was the only untitled poem. I read my name in the contributors’ page in back, HOLT, THAT’S WHO.
When you don’t socialize and were a basic recluse, you’ll always get capital letters screaming your anonymity.
Suddenly, the end of September: Frank returned from Michigan. I had to look for another place. He went bat-guano when he saw the kitchen floor.
“Why so dirty? Are you that filthy? I bet you don’t wash your hands after shitting.”
“As a matter of fact, you’re right. I use your washcloths.” I couldn’t help myself. He turned beet red and shook his fist at me.
“Why don’t you act real around people?” I blushed. Animal fear pierced the pit of my stomach. People incessantly evaluated me.
“I don’t act, I react,” I said. “John Wayne said that about acting.”
“What about reacting to the filth you’ve accumulated? The place is a mess.” He meant my relations with the Venus flytrap, Jenny, was a mess.
He probably contacted Harriet who knew from Jenny my living conditions. Even though impossible, my ideal life would be to live alone. Neither utopian nor hopeless, I was an Impossiblist. Eternal verities were clichés, lies, but couldn’t I have just one tiny fugitive truth lurking underground, creeping into reality for me alone. Like the equivalent of a guaranteed national income so that no citizen fell below basic emotional self-sufficiency. Was that why I claimed I was a socialist?
We had strong union and we once picketed the department. I walked that line with them. I voted for Hal, the supervisor next to my unit, for union steward. He told me he could see air. When I told him I wanted to try that, too, his eyes lit up, morphing to goofy, unlike his nine to five work face. Apparently, he’d no regard for my opinions about work-related issues, figuring I tripped out on acid too much.
But idiosyncrasy had redeeming qualities. What had Hal known about me other than I was a natural-born free spirit, off all free association charts. Sacrificing coherence for Dadaist thought, I fancied myself a poet, that I had a future. I read Frank’s book, The Ginger Man, Sebastian Dangerfield’s subversive sexual exploits undermining middle-class life. Dangerfield’s aggression appealed to me. I also had affinity for the sociopath Richard Speck, torturer, rapist, and murderer of eight nurses earlier that summer. Of course, aggression revealed itself in many ways, like when I received the Letter of Blood, my draft notice.
I now lived on 7th Street between Avenues B and C. Abandoned and stripped cars were the main attraction. Fires in large barrels: men warming hands another attraction. And kids asking me, “Looking?” another. The super hid out in his first floor, barred-window apartment. My apartment was clean, in a good building. I had a folding chair and a mattress on the floor. I listened to Murray the K on FM radio. Bob Dylan, the Stones and Beatles galore. I heard fights and yelling on the next block south. I left for work as usual.
“Who’s Sparling? Where’s Sparling?” the man said. It was just after lunch and I smoked a Marlboro. A stack of files needed attention weeks ago. I saw a man wearing a wrinkled and sweaty white shirt. It made him look he worked harder than those who didn’t need deodorant.
“Right here,” I said, raising my arm, taxi-hailing style. He waved a file above my head.
“This is outrageous, this special grant to Ms. T. Do you realize this had to get administrative approval upstairs.” He jerked his thumb upward.
“So? Did it get signed?” I said.
“Yeah, it got signed.” He sounded like Moe Stooge from a Three Stooges film.
“Good. Now her family will have new furniture and clothes.”
“What’s wrong with the old stuff? This isn’t Sweden.”
“It should be,” I said. “We wouldn’t be in Vietnam then.” The guy wanted to hang me, his eyes hateful, but dashed back to his office upstairs.
“I don’t know about you,” said Kay, her kind and dismissive eyes watering up. Simpatico tears? How long had I left here? Could the union hold back the saber-toothed tigers from the upstairs mob?
Hal saw the spectacle and said the union would back me if I wanted to contest it when the head of all units tried to fire me. I had choice and said I appreciated the support. I told him to forget it, I’m through here.
* * *
I took a downtown train to Times Square. Winking neon bordered a theater marquee held my attention: Days of Sin and Nights of Nymphomania. Yes, there was a Danish movie called that. “Beyond Booze” the poster read.
After opening credits, my moping phallus stiffened to full alert. But priapic expansion quickly gave way to flaccid boredom. When would I see nakedness? Penetration, spumes of manhood? The dubbed voices out of sync, women stripped down to bra, panties, and black hose. Why the partying without an orgy? Where was the hardcore pornography? I saw hardcore magazines wrapped in clear plastic in unsanitary shops a block away. Towards the end a fully clothed man stood in a corner, back to the camera, and did a terrible rendition of a guy yanking off.
Drizzle fell as I stood beneath the marquee. Lone men walked into the theater. I wanted to pull them aside, tell them the truth. Forget about it, it’s a complete waste of time. Every man had to find everything for himself.
Spanish-speaking passersby reminded me of Jack. Yeah, I’ll go down to Mexico and
drink mescal with him. What would I lose except disappointment?
* * *
I received my draft notice and had to report to the Armed Forces Induction Center on Whitehall Street downtown. I called Patricia, trembling as I told her my problem. Her brother got out for some reason. We ate lunch together in that Chinese restaurant.
She lived nearby and it was Saturday afternoon. She came with a draft-eligible man. He lit up two joints and we smoked them, my first marijuana buzz.
“Ask to see a psychiatrist right away.” Apparently, that would be his tactic.
“What do I say to him?” Jefferson Airplane sang “Volunteers” on Murray the K’s show. Got to Revolution…
“Tell him you’re a drug addict,” Adam said. Patricia nodded in agreement.
They laughed and I laughed too.
Murray the K talked about John Lennon, the volume turned up. Secrets must be kept from the nosy world. We smoked the roaches until Adam swallowed them and then I embraced both of them, non-sexual hugs my specialty.
I raised my hand when the sergeant asked the crucial question. I went upstairs and sat down, a man in civilian clothes behind the desk.
He asked, “What wrong with you?”
“I’m a junkie,” I said.
“Have you ever been in a mental hospital?”
“Not yet. Hope to some day.” He didn’t laugh.
“What drugs are you on?” I could have my choice?
“Heroin.” I pronounced it, “Hero-in.”
“How many times a day do you use it?” About as many as a man pisses, I wanted to say but held my contempt in check.
“At least five times. Six if I get sick.” Like right now, puke.
“That’ll be all.” He wrote down his evaluation.
Three weeks later, I received another notice to report to Whitehall Street.
“I want to see a psychiatrist.” I went upstairs again, this time with a different shrink.
“You’re here for more questions.” He looked stern.
“I didn’t tell the other psychiatrist I’m a homosexual.”
He wrote that down. He directed me back downstairs. A long row of uniformed men sat behind a long tables. They read the first psychiatrist evaluation as well as the homosexual declaration I assumed too hot for the psychiatrist to handle.
“How many times?” one asked. I hadn’t expected that.
“A lot,” I said, conjuring satyrs.
“More than that.”
“Much more,” thinking how great being a real homosexual would be. Ginsberg thrived.
Incrementally, the numbers rose and when he reached five hundred, I gave him a break and answered: “ At least. And I want to kill gooks for peace.”
“Anything else?” His face red, I thought he’d clobber me.
“And the entire Army is homosexual.”
“Get the hell out of here or I’ll sic an interrogator on you. He loves cracking enemy bones.”
Waiting on the platform for the train uptown, I opened my wallet and read through the clear plastic window a Nietzsche quote to ratify what just took place: “At times one remains faithful to a cause only because its opponents do not cease to be insipid.” The cause, resistance, the insipid, the shrinks at Whitehall.
* * *
When I got a 4-F I phoned Patty and told her a Fugs performance was next Saturday, why don’t we go. She sounded gleeful, I visualized her jaw dropping (literally, not a figure of speech).
Hippies, females bare-breasted, face painted long- and shorthairs, congas in one corner partially drowned out the Fugs, cops patrolled the perimeter, we five straights, though not so straight since we smoked pot walking to Tompkins Square Park just before the Fugs played their first number.
Jenny and her beau, Patricia and hers, plus myself, stood among the crowd as Tuli Kupferberg and the Fugs performed “Slum Goddess,” (“won’t you please be my bride”). Stan, Jenny’s friend, spoke into my ear, “ ‘Hal got off especially for you that day upstairs’ Jenny told me.” Jenny then winked, raised her shirt and I got quick look at her small breasts/big nipples on her lean torso.
During the final song, “Kill for Peace,” I pulled my wallet open, took out my draft card, and burned it, nearby onlookers cheering as I raised it over my head until it charred black and then I stomped on it. I hugged the four of them at once, and they said their goodbyes, making their way through the thinned out gathering.
A woman onlooker said that if I really wanted to fight the draft, go to the War Resisters League office. I had the address and walked to their office. I walked upstairs, entered and saw, among others putting out what looked like the next issue of their magazine, Harriet. She appeared startled at first. I told her about “Kill for Peace,” and
torching my card.
I summarized my recent life and she asked where I lived. I told her and we exchanged phone numbers. The next day, I withdrew my savings from the bank and stayed in my place, wondering what happens when my stash flamed out. I called her but didn’t know what to say, so I asked about Frank. She said he moved back to Michigan and that two girls from Baltimore moved into his vacated flat. I was flummoxed when she told me I could move in with her.
“I can pay the rent, as usual,” she said. “You know it’s cheap.” Inwardly I gasped, then agreed. Okay, I said, and called a taxi and loaded my stuff in the trunk. A few blocks later, I walked upstairs to her crib and she gave me a warm embrace.
We helped mobilize for a huge demonstration to be held April 15. I ran out of money and Harriet had only so much left over for necessities. We ate peanut butter sandwiches. lots of ground chuck beef hamburgers, hotdogs, canned vegetables and fruit.
We slept in her double bed. One night, she murmured about painting me without clothes. The next day, after long hours in the League’s office, she decided to paint me standing in the nude. Her apartment seemed so tiny, meant for singles only.
“Frank phoned,” she said. “He’s coming back.”
Three on a match; one got shot and killed by the enemy; three in bed, one got the boot.
I wouldn’t ask where he’ll stay or live, there was a big difference. Stay connoted temporary, yes, if Frank stayed here until he found somewhere else, I could live with that. We could alternate sleep, Frank during the day, me during the night in bed with Harriet. Unless Frank had a graveyard shift, it wouldn’t do.
Think of the sexual tension, then the strife between Frank and me. A ménage a trois? I had traveled far from Jenny’s world, I wasn’t so alien now. But life seemed to hang like dust in an attic.
Time was running out for Harriet to complete the painting of me.
Three phalluses, then, even art would make for combustion between Frank and me. “Dare to struggle, dare to win, serve the people”: Chairman Mao’s slogan. I served the people by help organizing a huge Anti-war march starting in Central Park and heading east to the Plaza at the U.N. Had Frank come east to join her in the protest march? A power struggle existed between an outside agitator, Frank, and a grassroots organizer, Sam. I objectified myself, moving into third person.
The New York Times reported a man urinated on the third rail from the subway platform and electrocuted himself. He should have used his penis for something other than death, i.e., make love, not war. I read my Nietzsche, a victory epigram, the last time I waited for a train, oblivious to the third rail. But being the third man was a mini-death of expectations I had with Harriet. Some idiots believed that deaths of famous people came in threes, but what about the millions who died the same day, the uncounted ones. And the billions of unrecognized ones who had run out of illusions. What about them?
So, depending on what Harriet said or a question I posed, I was back to basic alien status. But I had one thing that Frank didn’t have: a burned draft card.
“And?” I asked. Harriet seemed to freeze up, lingering on my question.
“We’re both from Michigan. I never told you that because it didn’t matter. A.J. Muste was a Dutch immigrant and grew up in Grand Rapids.”
“Our family had a dining table from there. If A.J. worked in a furniture factory, we wouldn’t be here now, right?”
“We’re all connected, that’s why we joined the Anti-war movement,” she said.
“Like I’m conjoined twins with Frank, I bet,” I said. She knew I inflated things, dabbling in non sequiturs as well.
“And?” she threw back at me.
“You’re still connected with him, aren’t you?”
“I’m moving to Ann Arbor. Frank’s got a pottery shop there and does independent welding gigs. He’s highly skilled.”
And I essentially got fired from the welfare office. I can’t type, can’t earn a living writing (one poem doth not a professional journalist make), and will probably never have marketable job skills. I would love to make a good pornographic movie. Nights of Nymphomania I could definitely surpass. Maybe I needed to be mobbed up the Wasp gangsters are in banking and law firms. Harriet, Frank and Jenny could star in my stag film. Harriet could film my exploits of playing a man facing the wall, only really jacking off. Zoom in on the sperm on wall, Harriet.
“Will you leave before the big protest rally?” It’s nation-wide and Ann Arbor has lots of lefty students. Focusing on the one here, I’m bringing her back to my situation.
“Before. I’ll work with the War Resisters League there,” she said.
It was the end of March and rent was due on the first.
“When will you leave?” I would rather ask the question why, but that’s an ontological question. Higher cognitive powers seceded to quotidian questions.
“Tomorrow. I’ll tell the landlord the apartment is vacant,” she said, sounding like a nurse warding away patients the physician hadn’t wished to see.
* * *
I mingled with the thousands who witnessed the draft card burners in Sheep Meadows. Soon began what would be over 200, 000 demonstrators protesting against the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. I was a speck among them, recognizing after the protesters dispersed from the U.N. Plaza I would be without shelter. I joined the chant, “I don’t give a damn about Uncle Sam!” recited over and over until it switched to “I don’t give a damn about that man Sam!” Hell, no, they’re picking on me, driving me into the paranoid void.
I had one more gambit, though. I might call Patricia and tell her my bad news. I had her number, pulled out of my wallet, and put a dime in the slot. When I heard her voice, its lazy slobbering sound, I hung up. I telephoned from beneath Times Square, its huge cavern of subway trains heading to all parts of the city, I standing at one pay phone among a hundred of anonymous ones. I could make connections with nearly anywhere in New York, but lacked a destination. Departures and arrivals swarmed around me, the noise and rumble too intense to bear.
Though I tried to dodge life’s clichés, they overwhelmed me. The world’s first utterance, the origin of speech, of what would later become a world festered with clichés doomed me. I shrank from them, yet society gauged its health by proliferating them Originality had been a fool’s pursuit.
I entered the world from the wrong womb, the umbilica cord literally wrapped around my throat causing oxygen deprivation. Since then, an infinity of tribulations blocked me from the shared experience everyone accepted and needed for genuine life to unfold. Clichés spread confusion and illusion, what Hickey in The Iceman Cometh found and destroyed in the waterfront tavern’s patrons. Reality stalked my every thought, every deed, every fantasy, driving home how superfluous I was.
I clambered out of the cave, dense with spelunkers, and stood at 46th Street and Broadway, begging in front of Howard Johnson’s Restaurant, and for what, dimes?
Filed under: Fiction | Tagged: Fiction, George Sparling | Leave a comment »