Friday, February 13, 2015

The Harris


We're on the roof of the old Paramount Theater building stranded on the scaffolding behind the blinking neon Camel cigarettes sign.  We spent the night holding on like leaves about to be blown away any minute.     
It's well after midnight, and the street's quieted.  When the rains came, the crowd finally settled down.  We went for higher ground.  Below us on the roof the Landlord lies on his back where we left him after dragging him, to save him from being trampled in the square.  
Pete served in the last war, got his legs shattered and put back together, after spending a week booby trapped and left for dead in a trench with mud up to his teeth.
"I been on the big M, this heroin, dilaudid, Quaaludes, you name it," he tells me.
"All courtesy of Uncle Sam?"
"That's it."  
Down on the street the scent wafts up from the fires.  Smaller ones still burn in odd corners here and there.  Above the square on the Diamond Vision screen there's a simulcast of the latest Space Launch.  Pete's an expert on this.
"They're carrying a serious payload," he tells me.
"This is one of the plutonium runs?"  I ask him.
"Yeah, one false move and Florida's airborne."
"Why the risk?"  I ask him.
It’s best not to look at it that way, man."
He trails off at the end of his sentence and slips the needle in his neck, right over the collarbone, his eyes glaze in desperate relief.  He looks off at a point in the sky, above the ragged wispy clouds of smoke, above the glare of the great white way, his eyes blinking rapidly.  Sweat forms on his upper lip, his teeth grind.  When he releases the syringe he grabs tight to the cold metal to steady himself.
I look around at all the people up here.  Strangers huddle together in twos and threes, trying to keep warm against a stiff wind.  And everyone's soaked.
"I must have been here a month now," I tell Pete.  "All the while people have been arriving at Times Square."
"Yeah," Pete says.
"I've met people here from every state in the country."
Pete's staring down at his father, thirty feet below us, the blinking lights of the Camel sign alternately turning his face deep sunset red, yellow, green or this ashy white.  He doesn't move at all.  He seems to be sleeping, but his eyes are wide open and he's staring into the sky.
In the empty lot on the corner of 42nd Street and 7th Avenue where our old building still used to be a matter of hours ago, I see the film crew setting up again.  They've pulled up in their great Army transport trucks, ten feet high at the front fender, with the special high power headlights and riot horns.  
They turn on a spotlight and start it slowly revolving around Times Square, pausing at five degree intervals on a perfect circular sweep:  The Coca Cola billboard with people silhouetted against the flashing bright red neon light, the broken windows of a skyscraper penthouse floor never-used; the empty space of sky, swollen somehow, where a forty story hotel building stood for years.  I remember the sign painted on the side, a cartoon drawing of a family arriving for a stay in the hotel.  700 rooms, it said, fully furnished with TV's and kitchenettes available.  The largest hotel on the square no more.
I follow the spotlight on to the outline of a crane against the night, a giant War of the Worlds creature, pieces of its latest kill hanging from its teeth, gently trembling in the breeze.  In another building the spot exposes the only lighted window in the entire place, dusty furniture and a shelf of books.  There used to be publishing houses, sweat shops, accountants, lawyers, private dicks, artist studios, hat makers and barbershop slap strap manufacturers; primp secretaries who rode into the city on trains from all over the country.  All gone.

The Roxy

For a long time I stand on the corner looking up at the bright, giant cigarette advertisement above the square.  The America theme plays on the SONY TV screen.  Pictures appear in sequence of little children on swings, crowds at ballgames, plains, and long old one-lane highways.  Everything moves fast, though you want to linger on the images.  If you don't look away or hold it in your head it's replaced by another and another.  I look back at the cigarette ad, a giant camel with a winking eye and a blond on his arm.

A van pulls up to the head of the bank queue.  Shouts sound, tires squeal, a flaming bottle bomb is thrown through the window and the building bursts into fire.  Panic.  Some in the crowd madly run toward the fire as if unwilling to leave their money behind.  They run into people fleeing the flames.  People are trampled.  The streets, the square, the newly empty lots are all jammed with people.  I see a man on fire careen screaming out of the bank.  He looks right at me as he passes, reaches out to a man in front of me who helplessly tosses his bag of cold soup over the burning man.

The crowd is too large for the space.  It's impossible to breathe.  I claw my way up to the top of a light-pole.  At my feet people grab for my shoes.  Someone gets hold of one but it comes off and he falls back in the crowd.

Everyone runs in all directions at once, trying to get away.  I feel the pole shake and for a minute I just close my eyes.  This horrible sweat of fear breaks out on my legs.  My hands are slippery, my grip unsure.  I open my eyes, holding on, struck by a mad desire to see someone's face, to recognize anyone I know.

 This warm feeling passes through my body, like you feel when you piss all over yourself.  I check and my pants are soaked.  Everywhere people struggle for higher ground, climbing on top of cars and trucks, climbing up scaffolding.

I look at the glowing neon Camel sign and there are clumps of people clinging to it like bugs.  A man climbs right up the side of a wall.  It's surreal, almost impossible to watch.  Like it's all pure adrenalin.   Now he's slipping and for what seems like forever I watch him struggle, scraping his hands, his legs, his chest against the side of the wall.  Then he's fallen into the multitudes.

A huge mass collects at the intersection of Broadway and 42nd Street around the biggest fire.  The flames turn the bronze face of the George M. Cohen like bright burnished gold.  There’s a great open space in the middle of the crowd.  A line of people, commuters, tourists, working stiffs, secretaries with their clothing ripped, hair disheveled, sweat bullets in front of the fire.  The crowd has taken over the revivalists' microphone.  One at a time people keep grabbing the microphone to witness.

I see the Jesus with the cross on his back.  Everyone looks at everyone else like they've lost their minds.  A rumor goes around that people are being thrown in the fire.  People jostle each other, trying to get the best view.  There are shrieks and gasps.  Struggling to make out the face behind the pin-striped suit, I realize it's Downtown.  I can just hear him.  If anyone can talk their way out of becoming a spontaneous sacrifice it's Downtown.  Police cruisers crisscross around the edges and down side streets.

The Cine 42

On the street, the march goes on.  There are people walking fifty abreast, some carrying candles or little cans filled with wax.  Every once in awhile a great gust of wind will catch someone just right, pick him up and hurl him through the air.  A man comes dripping blood from a severed finger he holds in his hands.  It's his own finger and he keeps sucking on his bloody hand.  Another wheels an old spare tire.  The Diamond Vision above the square plays an old America theme tape:  the Nutcracker Suite played before an audience of children in Radio City Music Hall twenty years ago.  I think I might actually be one of those kids.  I was taken once there with a group of runaways to see such a show when I was a kid.  The March of the Wooden Soldiers.

There's a terrible crashing sound and a hellacious boom.  People are tossed high in the air.  A man passes right by me clawing for something to grab on to.  I reach out my hand but he whizzes by as if shot from a cannon.  There's another boom and a third.
A great crater opens in the middle of the intersection.  I see scores of people clinging to nothing and sliding down.  People scramble away, seeking cover.  A pack of dogs sniffs around the edge of one of the holes; one gets too close to the edge, the earth gives way and it tumbles in.

The square goes from a terrible ear-splitting cacophony to a complete awed silence.  I feel something crawling out of my ear and down my cheek and realize it's blood.  We are in a room without walls now, lit by the trembling light of one hundred candles.  Alice sits before the Fortune Teller who is just a pair of eyes, immeasurably dark and the color of amber, emerging from a shadowy pile of shawls, scarves and veils.  Two long fingered slim hands stand out ivory white hovering around Alice's face like ghosts.

Gently, unperturbed, the Fortune Teller applies her enchanted hands to Alice's face.  Alice is visibly soothed by the touch of the old woman's hands.  For the first time she has stopped trembling.

Feeling a tremor from below I turn around in time to see one of the tall glass towers collapse slow motion into a pile of rubbish.  A solitary soul leaps off the roof as the tower starts to go.  You wonder how many people were stuck in there.

Out in the street the march goes on, people too stunned to do anything but walk.  Others stand around the edges of the holes and peer down after the fallen.  Everyone keeps to the crowds.  Everyone's looking over their shoulders.

Behind the Fortune Teller there's a table with everything brought to her laid out:  disembodied eyeballs, odd dog, cat and human hairs and some other hairs I can't tell what.  There's the man's forefinger with the blood still fresh but slowed to a trickle.  There's the head of a catfish with both eyes pecked out.  There's the handle of a child's red wagon, rusted and bent into an l-shape.

A rain starts to fall that’s not wet.  The ash and dust of the explosions makes a strange, eerie, weightless rain that gets caught in the wind and swirls back up toward the sky.  All around are twisters where the wind has caught itself in a pocket and lost control.  The Fortune Teller finishes with Alice, and they both sigh, peacefully.

I hear Downtown, laughing.  He grabs me by the collar and leads me to the window.  There is nothing left of the square but the people.  The air is full of dust and smoke clouds.  A seething, violent electrical fire burning after the explosions and the crowd just keeps tossing things into the hole.  The first trashed police car disappears entirely.  The second one's hood sticks up out of the flames.

 The movie crew sets up its grand spotlight on the roof of one of the glass towers at the north end of the square.  Once again it revolves, panning the scene, highlighting both great and minute snapshots of despair and destruction.  Eventually it moves on, providing the only light after the fires and the full moon.  I see one large building completely filled with people, faces, bodies, pressed flesh, limbs, heads and torsos hanging out of its every orifice:  it reminds me of a giant ice cream cone covered with ants.

A fire burns on several of the building's lower floors.  It's a death trap.  But there are no sirens to be heard, or flashing red fire engines in sight.  Once in awhile the spot alights on a single desperate face.

I turn and Downtown's gone.  On the Diamond Vision screen a great fire burns in the middle of the square.  At the foot of the Times Square tower is the Landlord, passing out his tracts.  I see Cola and Lola, I'm sure it's them, in the empty lot on the corner right below me.  Alice is there and Downtown.

 An explosion of heat, of flames and fire meets me when I open the door, hurls me back against the wall.  A ball of fire seethes at the doorway.  I struggle to the door to look for a way out past the flames, but the heat is too intense.  An intense back draft sucks me toward the flames.  I have to fall to my knees and crawl to get control.  The window's my only chance.  From this height it is about three stories down and the marquee's no longer there to break my fall.

I make it to the window one inch at a time; the fire is ferocious, already erasing the doorway, burning through the wall and filling up half the room behind me.  When I get to the ledge, I see the fires below, the crowds, the smoke.

I am blinded and stunned.  The film crew spotlight has stopped on me.  I hear a great exclamation rise from the mass below, as I take one last glance over my shoulder at the blaze.  The heat is so intense I feel like everything is already burning, like I could burst into flames at any moment.  I feel like I'm already on fire.  I tried to aim for the crowds, away from the fires to break my fall, then I let go.

The Liberty

I watch the giant Child of Africa preacher speak the last rites over Cal Cassidy in the trash, the powder white cover of snow on the man's puffy afro like the white-powdered sugar on a Times Square donut special.  But that shop is gone, no more fresh hot crullers and coffee after a late show at the Harris.

Everything starts to swirl.  I'm overcome.  Suddenly I'm lying on the sidewalk with stars in my eyes, feeling a bump on my forehead.  The giant preacher helps me up.  I sit there propped up against the trash can where poor dead Cal Cassidy rests, with the widow crying over us as she nibbles on crumbs and lint from her coat.  She holds a piece of Cassidy's corduroy collar from his old faded and frayed denim jacket ripped off and clutched as he died, and a piece of newspaper up to her mouth when she coughs to catch the bloody phlegm from her lungs.  The tiny scrap of newspaper is dark and dripping with her blood.

His wife has the children singing again.  I bid the preacher goodbye as he heads back to join the troupe.  I think I played basketball with him once in a t-shirt league in Washington Square back in the day.

I can see he's done a lot better than me and tell him so.  He just nods modestly.
"You know the way," he tells me.
We stand together one last moment, watching the Newsreel over the square.  The time is 9:16, the weather cloudy and blustery with the forecast calling for more snow.  In the trash, Cassidy's face is fish colored: gray red and blue like a rainbow trout with little cakes of blood in streaks all over his face, chest and arms.  I hear helicopters overhead.  They're must be ten of them, swooping down close to the street, dropping leaflets in with the snow like large speckled opaque flakes.

"EMPTY THE SQUARE!"  The leaflets proclaim.
But no one knows where to go.
Up on the Diamond Vision screen it's halftime.  Reagan makes his speech.  He stands in a two foot thick protective glass bubble with cigar-size microphone poked in his face.  He smiles like he means it, and wipes his mouth to great applause.  The speech ends and it's time for a special cheerleader routine.  A marching band of all-star high school kids from all over the country spells out the message on the field.
            PLEDGE YOUR LIFE
                                                                        EFIL RUOY EGDELP

 The camera shot wheels back to the great man Reagan in his bubble for a final wave, but he's already left.  The bubble's empty and an odd long second of silence ensues.  There's just a buzz from the turned on microphone picking up nothing but emptiness.

 The wind's come up again and ashes swirl in the air.  Most of the streetlights are knocked out but a fool's moon lights up what has become the night.  Everyone's standing around outside, as if determined to wait out the dawn.  The only buildings left standing are the new great glass towers and the broken shells of the theaters.  We stand around the fires in the street or in the empty garbage-strewn lots.

Something draws me to the New Amsterdam, the last theater left intact.  When I toss a look over my shoulder at the time it's nearly midnight.  Before the entrance of the theater a great fire roars, flames licking up against the marquee with a car turned up on its end and sticking out of the flames.  I use it as a guide to make my way through the chaos and crowds.

Fires burn and the sky is patched with drifts of smoke.  A large group stands naked underneath the Diamond Vision.  Some of them hold blankets or pieces of curtains and rugs to shield their bodies from the elements.  A blood colored paint is splashed all over them.

All the empty lots are filled with refugees, and on the rooftops of the skyscrapers more crowds gather and fires burn.  People pull carts made up of scrap wood, gathering fuel for the fires, picking up the worthless bullshit like pack rats.  Rumors of real drinking water can bring people running in hordes.  I see a mob hurtling down Broadway at full sprint.  One woman trips, falls and is lost, trampled over by the crowd.  I watch the spot where she fell and after the crowd passes she struggles, first on one knee, then ever so shakily to her feet.

A Salvation Army band with a fife and drums corps plays a sad but sturdy version of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home."
There's a fat man with a bald head playing a hand carved fife.  You can tell by its head that it was fashioned out of a wooden dildo salvaged from one of the looted sex shops.
 The drummer's a kid with a paint bucket and a thick steel spoon.  The flag man carries a rag of bed sheet on which he's scrawled the legend AMERICA.

The Lyric

Above the crowd the Diamond Vision broadcasts the Evening News.  Shots of the Washington Memorial alternate with war footage.  The next one to the microphone is a terrified secretary.  Suddenly I see her face on the giant television screen above her head as well.  The News is here.  Groups of cameramen and reporters have made their way through the crowd.  The picture on the screen switches to a blond ambition reporter broadcasting from the scene.  She wears the same mousse-teased hairstyle as the desperate secretary testifying before the fires.  There's a close-up on the secretary as they drag her away.

On the screen above they switch back to the anchorman who sums it all up smilingly.  I look away, for the secretary, but she is gone.  The rank smell of burning flesh permeates the air.

I look around at the people.  Where did they all come from?

The smell of burning wood fills the air.  A formation of kids is wheeling abandoned cars toward the square for the night's burning.  The smallest ones sit in the driver's seats playing driver.  There is a hot dog vendor set up for business across the street, with his car and his coals blazing hot.  The whir of helicopters sounds over Times Square.  On the sidewalk I watch a child and a dog romping through the crowd.  The child naked, holding up the chewed plastic arm of a baby doll; the beagle mutt yelps happily behind, tongue flying pink.

Ma Cassidy buttonholes one of the sidewalk white-hate preachers from Children of Africa.  She wants him to say last rites over her husband, and she holds him at bay by the ivory colored tassel on his sleeve.  I can see her pointing to old Cal, what's left of him, lying in a trash can.  His battered, ruined head propped up at a broken-necked angle on the rim.  His two youngest kids sit bare-assed on the curb, playing their hand-game with sharp knives to pass the time.  A rat the size of a cat with a loaf of Wonder Bread between its teeth runs right through the middle of their game.  Remember, if you flinch when you bleed you lose.

Unflinching, the girl clotheslines the rat, grabs the bread, takes a handful and passes it around.  Now, the sky is white with snow, reflecting the city lights.  Almost wet, great lazy floating flakes catch drifts of wind and take hours to find the earth where they melt right away.

Next door the neighbors are getting high, Richards Wild Irish Rose cut with gasoline, that you have to gulp down quickly because it burns the plastic cups they pass it around in.  As always, there's more crack cocaine and heroin then they can do or give away.

Tonight the soup queue stretches the length of 42nd Street from the Port Authority on Eighth Avenue past all the empty spaces where the line of theaters and shops stood just days before, all gone in the last week, to the foot of the Times Square tower where the Diamond Vision TV reflects off all the faces.  Tonight is football night, an anniversary for the famous Win One for the Gipper Game.  The Fighting Irish are playing.  A special appearance by former President Ronald W. Reagan is planned.  No one is sure if this is the anniversary of the movie or the actual game.  No one really cares.

It's one of those pep rallies for the war.  The board flashes a phone number to pledge money or just to plug in to the moment.  Pledge Your Life
 They run Coke ads with the same stars that are part of the football extravaganza.  I turn away, I can't bear to watch.  I look up and down the block trying to remember all the names of the theaters:
                                     The Harris   The Selwyn   The Victory
                                The Lyric   The Times Square   The Liberty
                                  The Harem with couples always welcome
                                    The Roxy at both ends of the main strip
                            The New Amsterdam   The Empire   The Cine 42

I remember the faces of the buildings that housed them.  Like old friends you remember the outward features, while the expressions are elusive and haunting.  In the middle of the block I see the mangled wreckage of a classic hamburger and hot dog grill from the Grand Luncheonette.  The wreckers uncovered a stash that crowds are cooking over great fires.  There are no buns though, and everyone has greasy fingers.  A scrap iron band beats out a loud primal rhythm.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Gene Clark's 36th Psychic Break


he beginning of the LA Rock scene dates without a shadow of a doubt to the Byrds extended run of shows at Ciro's.  As a live act they never sounded better.  Ciro's was a legendary Supper Club on Sunset Strip right down the strip from The Whiskey a GoGo.  Once the hang of mobster Mickey Cohen and home of stars like Peggy Lee it had fallen on hard times and in early 1965 it had decided to try rock.  The Byrds had been signed by Columbia as a potential rival to the Beatles.  But after recording their first single with the session musicians later known as The Wrecking Crew in January the record co. Sat on it.  The poetic folk rock sound was so new Columbia evidently had no idea what to do with it.  

With the band cooling its heels their manager Jim Dickson whose idea it was to record the Dylan song over the vehement objections of one David Crosby, got the band the Ciro's booking.  It made LA music history and created the happening scene of the moment. Later Gene Clark was one of the first newly minted rock stars to live in Laurel Canyon in 1965 when he got a place off Lookout Mountain Road to go with his new Ferarri with the first of his songwriting royalties.

The Battle of the Wilderness, fought May 5–7, 1864, was the first battle of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's 1864 Virginia Overland Campaign against Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Both armies suffered heavy casualties, a harbinger of a bloody war of attrition by Grant against Lee's army.

Gene Clark's wilderness was of the metaphorical kind.  It was a battle he fought the rest of his life and lost.  It started the day he walked off the plane, when often unintentionally cruel bandmate Jim McGuinn told him, If you can't fly, you can't be a Byrd.  Ironically the Byrds were on their way to NYC from LA with the acetate of their brand new career highlight single Eight Miles High to appear on the Murray The K show.  

The pressures of the last year had certainly been intense, constant touring, interviews, publicity campaigns.  McGuinn cited a beautiful GoGo dancer from the Whiskey and a bad acid trip.  The other members of the band were jealous of his lucrative songwriting talents; insecure David Crosby constantly needled Clark, Hillman and Clarke. Gene Clark was eternally restless and his solo prospects looked promising.  His leaving the NCM had certainly worked out well.  If Brian Wilson could take a break from touring.  Others blamed Exhaustion & undiagnosed, misunderstood manic depression.  No one really wanted him to leave the singing group, though only Hillman and mgr Jim Dickson tried to talk him out of it. Instead Gene Clark escaped LA to go stay with his family in Bonner Springs, Kansas.  He had not been home since leaving to join the New Christy Minstrels.  He was barely 21. 

He had dropped acid with John Lennon, discussed songwriting over weed and speed with Brian Jones and dated Hollywood starlets. He was a Mid West Country boy where word was bond who found out that the star eat star ethos of Hollywood acted very differently.  The Byrd who would not fly angle that dogged him until his death made good fanzine copy but the context is misunderstood. He was white knuckle flyer who'd been forced to fly on a weekly sometimes daily basis for the past three years.  And it had all happened so fast: from August 15, 1963-Feb '66, from Missouri kid to #1 and back in the time and exactly at the age when others his age spent in their frosh & soph years in college.

Back in LA by March, he tore his telephone off the wall, and would not fly again for a year.

The Amsterdam

  The Landlord's worst day of all.  From some pharmacy's Dempsey Dumpster on Park Avenue, he got prescription cough medicine.  He would cough real ceremoniously before each swig, and by twelve noon he's passed out, head lying on the tar bucket, the empty cough syrup bottle falling out of his torn coat pocket.  When it's time to go, I yank him up and the bucket sticks to his head.  He just yanks it off.

 "I thought I was being eaten by some big metal trash machine," he tells me.
A clump of his wooly gray hair comes off stuck to the side of the bucket.  We get ten bucks for the day, the enigmatic Cassidy fifteen.

Down on the street a great booming explosion sounds, then another and a third.  A manhole cover shoots into the air, churning black smoke and sparks thirty feet high over the cheers of the crowd.

 They make a move for the wrecking ball and crane.  The great black skeleton is toppled over and dragged along toward the fire.  Someone jumps into the tractor, revs it up and drives it right into the heat of the fire.

“What a rush, man,” says Downtown as we watch the tractor explode.  The boom rocks the block and shakes the buildings.  The police cars, one by one, turn on their lights, turn around and leave the scene.  In the crowd people grab sticks and scrap metal and set upon the liquor store which is two storefronts away from the OTB.  Fire trucks sound in the distance.

"They won't be coming here," Downtown says.  "They always just let things burn in Times Square."
We five nod solemnly as Cal Cassidy comes in from the terrace after another session outside this time with Cola and Lola together.  We watch the latest war reels on the Diamond Vision screen, backed with the classic rock n roll of the Stones, Beatles and the Who.  I hear helicopters outside as I go to the window one last time to watch the fires.

At three in the morning I awake again, I can see the time across from the National Debt Clock and the murder count.  The neighbor's radio rebroadcasts the news.  Cassidy and the girls are still out on the terrace.  Below straggled groups stand around in circles, smoking and talking in low voices.  Smoke rises from still smoldering fires; I watch the shadows play on the walls and try to get back to sleep.

I get off work at the messenger house late, come home and the building's gone.
The Landlord walks around with this far-off look on his face, his shadow, his knit fisherman's cap outlined against the darkness, the bulk of his coat flapping in the wind.  When I call to him, he won't answer.
"I was here," is all he says.

It's been two hours now, I had to drag him away by his coat.  We stand in line underneath the Diamond Vision TV halfway down in the queue before a handout table.  A chilling mist falls, alights on everyone's clothes and skin, and gives everyone a fresh glow.  The Landlord's son is here too.  The Landlord looks at him and sighs.  A group of cops stands on the corner together drinking coffee and talking.  Once in awhile one will stroll over here to the line to keep us in.

They took down an entire corner of buildings today.  From what I can piece together from others it was over early in the morning.  I had just left before sunrise broke open the sky.  By noon, everything was over.

"The Landlord was in there."  One of the Cassidy kids tells me.
"He started throwing potatoes at the wreckers."  This is the older kid.  "Said he was going down with the ship."

An unhealthy scent catches my throat and makes me cough.  I think it must be something in one of the fires.  The entire square is mobbed and people stand in groups around small fires in the empty spaces where buildings once were.  They talk about the best places to go.

The Landlord still clutches one potato in each hand.  At first I tried to pry one away but he looked at me with this horrible groping stare.  His lips start to move, the muscles of his jaw quiver; his eyes look pasty and unseeing.  He keeps sniffing the air, like a wounded wolf might sit in a mall parking lot where woods used to be, dazed, wounded, with a soul still pulling toward heaven.

The Harem

   The building's all in tatters now.  The afternoon commuters suck by.  Each time the crane strikes the building wreckage across the street the whole block shakes, and I'm already shaking.  The Landlord was so little help on the job.  He just slept, standing around leaning on his shovel as I picked up bricks one at a time, balancing them in the belly of my sweatshirt.  They must have had fifty of uS. 
Outside over the square the giant Sony Diamond Vision TV screen broadcasts as
The hordes on the street chase down a dog.  Snarling, biting and growling they toss it into the flames.  Smell the burning flesh.  Two more police cars pull up and are pelted away.  On the radio next door it’s a war bonds testimonial from a veteran out in Iowa sending in his fifty dollar check.
"It's the least I can do to support America," he says.
In local news the New York City Health Commission has declared five more Times Square sites Health Emergencies.  The Landlord lets loose a whoop and a cheer and we pass the bottles around.
A squad of police cars surrounds the fire mass.  The kids kick out the windshield of a van parked nearby, let off the brakes and wheel it toward the fire.
I take a couple of slugs of water, listening to the radio broadcast of the Daily Environmental Hazard Report as the whores get out the crack pipes.  I don't participate in the begging that goes up.  The father from Jefferson City talks up Lola and Cola, coaxing them out on the terrace as if his wife won't see.
He's out there with Lola; I can see their silhouettes black up against the smoke from the fires down on the street.  Behind them, the neon sign blinks on and off:  Roxy Triple XXX 3 Smash Hits for One Price.
The Landlord treats me with great respect and keeps telling me about his son, Big Pete, passing chicken to me as he chats it up with Cola about the fires.  Downtown chuckles, takes a hit off Cola’s, and swigs from a quart of High Life in a brown paper sack.  I call him my lawyer and he chuckles.  

The father from Missouri, Cal Cassidy, comes in sweating great sheets.  Every day he has a different job.  Spends like there's no tomorrow.  Lately he's been working out on Staten Island.  You can smell him coming down the sidewalk.
"Working in the shityards, again?'  Downtown laughs, loosens his tie.
"That's it."  Cal beams.  He takes a bottle away from his wife passed in a heap on the floor.  In her sleep she's coughing, a terrible scratching bleat that sets her to trembling from breastbone to spine.  They say she's got the TB.
The enigmatic Cassidy is always picking up these terrible jobs.  The other day was one that paid by the day to pick up bricks from a building they're tearing down across the street-- a strange spaceship-like building with wraparound aviator glass reflector windows on the second floor, a revolving square block Maxell audio tape ad on top.

The Clark Highway 11

That night in the dark van, as the stark winter night trees made shadows on the old winding and cracked highway, Gene told us of how writing songs and singing them, sometimes performing even made him feel something like he did as a child when he played Indian in the woods from his friends. He told us he was of Apache origin and that the name Clark was an English name given to an ancestor by an overseer, Like a slave name, he said.

According to Clark’s biographer John Einarson, Clark’s sister said that their father never pursued his heritage because, when I was growing up, Indians were just another form of nigger. His sister also believe he had a manic depressive personality. It was the hereditary thing, she said. The in-marrying.

Gene Clark, however spoke proudly of his Apache heritage. His celebrated & and infamous friendships with Keith Carradine and Jesse Ed Davis reputedly included knife-throwing exhibitions that never failed to make mixed company fearful. 

Something else that Gene Clark told me about was what I want to call the whiteness of the spotlight (apologies to Melville) and what Gene referred to as the class or curse of 1966. It was not clear to me which word he used to refer to it, maybe he used them interchangeably. I could have asked him for a clarification but I never got the chance.

He told me he wrote Eight Miles High after a conversation with Brian Jones, either in Pittsburgh about England or in England, about Pittsburgh. This also wasn’t clear. I think we were both a little stoned on Diz’s old Thai weed and my notes reflect that. When he wrote the song anyway he was still a Byrd, for the moment.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Selwyn

The Landlord stands in the line, dead weight hanging from my hand.  Once in awhile he casts a glance to the space of the sky that was occupied by our building.  On the other side of the square, another queue, longer than ours, waits in front of the bank.  In the empty lot the Christ actor walks around with a great wooden cross strapped to his back.  It must be eight feet tall built of railroad ties.  It drags along the ground.  At the OTB across the square there's just smoldering ruins now except for three cash windows untouched by the fire.  Everyone’s standing out in the open air, action goes on as if nothing happened.

Behind it is an old fortune teller storefront where they sell crack and heroin.  People of every stripe hurry up to the door, rap on the metal and then hustle away clutching their habit.  Two men light up just a few steps away from the door.  One, a tall skinny black guy with no shirt, just one tooth and a skeleton key chest takes three hits then coughs.  Although he must be a hundred feet away you feel the rattling cough in his chest echoing throughout the square.  He coughs for three full minutes.

Paper cups, posters torn down, discarded scaffolding, brick fragments, pieces of wall mortar, plastic spoons and forks, an empty box of Marlboros, a crushed Yoo-Hoo can, plyboards with nickel nails, half a pair of sunglasses beside the broken out bottom of a brown glass beer bottle, a pile of rat feces next to a plate of poison pellets, the feather of a bluejay and half a plastic straw with red, white and blue stripes.

It's past rush hour and all the people who work in the area have passed through and are gone.  Once in awhile you see someone walking quickly to the bus station or the subway.  A few people are looking to score.  Mostly it's just others lost, wandering around or standing in line.  There are handout lines, bank lines, the OTB lines and then down the street around the corner the people hanging out by the crack house, hovering around waiting their turn.

Someone in the crowd starts coughing, this wracking dry cough, like the end of an alcoholic hack when there's only guts.  It's an old woman, dressed like a bank teller with a bun haircut and a pinched face.  Her skirt is tattered and strands of her iron gray hair stand out, bloody pink spots on her cheeks.

A crowd forms around her.  People reach out to help.
"She's choking on the smoke!"  Someone shouts.
"Get her some water!"  The call goes out.
When the Landlord's reaches out to comfort her, his efforts are met with a withering look that stops him cold.

"I don't want any help," she coughs.
"I saw this happen to someone else," someone’s whispering.  "That same smell was in the air.  We were all standing around and suddenly Charlie starts coughing.  In a few minutes it was over."
"The coughing?"
"No, Charlie."

 The woman hears this, scowling at all of us, twitching terribly, like a cat trying to walk on snow.  Finally the Landlord's son grabs her, forces her mouth open and pours a cup of water down.  She spits in his face, wetting his chocolate-colored cheeks and turning his snowy white beard pink a bloody pink.  Flecks of bright pink blood dot his face, but he tries again and finally the woman stops coughing, and collapses.  Her head hits the sidewalk with an audible pop.

The Landlord's son hoists her up over his shoulder then sits her down, propped up against a wall.  On the newsreel above the square there are international and local headlines:
                         49 DIE IN MEXICAN CHURCH STAMPEDE

Kids run by, laughing, knocking into people in line, they shout and grab food out of people's hands.  The Landlord's son takes a swing at one.  But there are ten more, with bricks.  I dive in and try to pull him away but he's swinging and hollering.  Finally the storm passes.  The whole thing lasts fifteen seconds tops.  By the time the Landlord's son lies down the old woman we're engulfed.  You don't see the faces.  It's just fists and arms and feet, grunting, and all through this energy of panic that leaves you shaking, rubbing yourself all over to warm the chills that bite into your skin.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Paramount


In my bare room over Times Square I sit with my back to the wall, hands on my knees looking out my dusty sun streaked picture window.  My bicycle leans against the wall.    

In my room I have a postcard with a picture of the President tacked up.  His coat is blue, his skin hot pink.  He holds his hands out before him like he's coming clean.  I wash out my clothes in the sink.  I listen to the news one neighbor keeps blaring.  He keeps the radio on when he's gone.  He’s got his radio plugged into a cord spliced into the sign below the window: girls Girls GIRLS.  We're all squatters here.                                              

Looking around the square you can the execution pattern, the war plan on Times Square, and count on your hands the number of buildings left.  They're selling out all of the old theatres and everything else is dead.  The crane and wrecking ball keep working.  Every night the fires are larger, the crowds more mad.  The banging of the scrap metal, the roar of the mobs, and the heat of the fires grow.

I arrived sick with visions, crawled out of the transit, two days on the sidewalk at 42nd Street, others huddled under an old movie facade with a great chunk taken out of it, a crane with a wrecking ball standing idle beside.  The crane went back to work next day.

Some old bum dragged me away.  After a week I was okay but he had gone.  I saw the ad for messengers in a week-old newspaper I picked up off some poor bundle of coats and bad dreams passed out against a news stand on Fifth Avenue.  I found my bike at the bottom of a canal in Hell's Kitchen.  I spent many days that only come back to me in flashing kaleidoscope glimpses when I cannot breathe.  You go out and walk the streets searching for air.

The Landlord comes by crashing the door with heavy knuckles.  The old man will be back in an hour or so with who knows maybe a half gallon of liquor.  He takes a percentage for the peepshows breaking down in totally unnecessary but strangely endearing crying jag confessions.  A bastard half-Cherokee with the deep set blue heartbreak eyes of a preacher, he goes to some greasy spoon diner on Tenth Avenue under the old West Side Highway and begs for what they're going to throw out, moldy rolls and hairy carrots.  Some days, bad days all he gets is potatoes.

There's a family living out of an broken down Country Squire Ford station wagon from Jefferson City, Missouri.  They will be here with a bunch of farm kids in feed bags for sweaters running in and out of the halls of the old hotel.

Tonight the Landlord's back early with a few quarts of Night Train Express and chickens in greasy aluminum foil baskets.  The two whores who live above me both dying of AIDS come in through the window.  I can hear them chattering though I don't take my eyes off two of the country kids, red haired, freckle faced.   They've got a knife out and hold their fingers splayed on the floor moving the knife through the spaces as fast as they can.  If you flinch when you bleed you lose.  I turn away when one plucks the blade through his knuckle.

Outside below us blocking traffic kids stand around a car set afire in the middle of the street.  Every night around this time there's fires:  movie facades, abandoned cars, tables, desks, and chairs end up in flames.  Earlier I watched a horrified hot dog man get his cart taken away.  They swooped in on him trudging home as sunset turned excruciatingly into dusk.  There’s an endless supply of gasoline.

I can stick my head out the window and see another fire on the corner.  Lola, the guy whore who comes on like a lady says she saw it start today.

"Wh-why'd they do it?"  Somebody, maybe the Landlord asks.
"Is he kidding?"  Lola says.
He scratches his breast, pulls a wad of stuffing from his shirt, lays it on the floor as he sips a slug of liquor passed to him and sucks off a place on his arm.
"It’s the OTB," adds Cola, the woman who comes on like a guy.
"There were some guys still trying to lay down bets even after the place was on fire,” Lola’s laugh is laced with an ugly rasp of a cough.
Lola and Cola are thin as smoke, like the next good wind could blow them away.  In here now it's stale and close.  Everybody's sweating.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Freeman Alley

I was awakened before dawn when a squad of SWAT cops in vests stepped into the alley to talk over their day. One of them saw me and gave the courtesy of a thumb signal to vacate the premises.  I brushed myself off and complied, walking across Roosevelt Park to a row of tenements slated for destruction.
Some of them were inhabited, some not.  I went around back and looked for an open window. The first building was all locked up.  I scaled a homemade fence made entirely of plastic bread palates. The first floor storm door was wide open and I walked in. It got real dark real fast. I felt along the hallway before I came to a door that gave. When I pushed it open, there was a guy I knew standing there.
Voila, he said.
He gave me the quiet sign and motioned to a couch in the corner. A skinny guy that I knew from basketball in Tompkins Square, and as a dealer over on Ludlow Street. This came to me as I was standing against the wall, still half in the nod-world. My day was beginning before I had planned with less than 20 dollars to face it with. There was a pack of cigarettes on an old side table with an opened bottle of red wine. I lit a smoke and took a pull from the bottle. An adjacent door opened and the room filled with other young men of the Spanish persuasion.
My man Flaco sat down and palmed me two bags, smiling. I kept my money in my pocket. As he watched benevolently I took the pack of Newports from the table as if it were mine all along. I offered him one and slipped the pack into my shirt pocket. Someone came out of a small bathroom and I took his place. I pissed, snorted half a one of the bags then retook my place on the ratty, overstuffed couch.
Flaco pointed me out to his friends with a smile.                                                                                                                                                          You want a job? one of them asked. He passed the wine around. We lit cigarettes. By now there were nearly twenty other guys in the small room. I bided my time, careful not to make the wrong move.  One man skinnier than the rest read a book to his three year old child.  I saw your wife the other day, another kidded him.                                                                                                      Shut up, the skinny one said and motioned to the child with his chin.  He kept reading all the while.                                                                                           She was on the street, the other said, a chubby man with black curly hair and greasy lips.  The father reached over and punched the other in the nose and blood spurted.  The kid read quietly to himself, repeating the words he knew them all with the concentration and focus of the early damaged trying to hold onto the ship going down, so he could swim away when it was rent to splinters and he could survive on his own wits on the open seas.  You might think I am off on another tangent, but I was that kid and in my exalted and desperate state I saw him everywhere.  A railroad apartment, a head would appear and each man in turn was motioned into the next room. Each of them disappeared for a few moments then came back out and left. Flocko watched me watching them and raised his eyebrows. He patted his pants pocket and winked.
I raised my own eyebrows.
He winked again, smiling. You couldn’t tell if he was laughing with or at me. Reality had already been outstripped by something stronger and more intoxicating.
A faint knocking sound could be heard. One man went into the hallway. Another shut the door. Suddenly the door burst back open and hurled him into the wall, where he slumped to the floor. I was just starting to nod. I remember noticing that the ash on my latest cigarette was at least an inch long, a clear sign of a pretty good high. I blinked and looked around.
I came to with the room full of SWAT vests and drawn weapons. The exit was blocked. In the next room police were shaking down dealers. There was a table full of dope and beyond it an open window, but no way I could get to both, so I ran for the window, climbing through with a quick hop and dashing up the fire escape. They were the same cops as the alley, I was sure of it.
Crazy.                                                                                                                                                                                                                           No one followed after me. After a few moments of breathing hard two floors above, I climbed to the roof and lit a cigarette. The sun had just come out and you could see the river in shades of beautiful silver yellow and blue-green, like the side of a big rainbow trout.
But, I was still feeling stetchy. What if the cops came up the stairwell to look around? I could jump to another building rooftop like you see in all the movies. But when I looked, the gap was almost seven feet by and we were six stories up, a little too far for me. I looked down to the street and saw that there were two police vehicles in front of the building, a truck and a squad car.
But neither had their lights on.
It was a double building with wings of apartments on each side. I mounted the opposite fire escape and began to climb down. The first window I came to was locked. A rose-haired woman in a bathrobe sat over a cup of coffee with a newspaper. Fresh lipstick on her cigarette. You could smell it through the window. She had bacon in a pan on the stove. She turned, saw me and waved, scowling, like I was a nuisance pigeon. Maybe I was.
What I really wanted was a vacated apartment. I could chill for a couple hours then walk right out in a few hours if all went well, counting my blessings.
I climbed in the window and sat down at a chair at a kitchen table. I smelled coffee and heard a shower in the next room. I took a cup down, turned and sat just as an old man came into the room. He was wearing a bathrobe that hung open to reveal a graying, scarred chest. He burped and sat down at the table, pulling the robe over his knees. He was cold. When he looked up, straight at me, I saw that he was blind. My grandmother had cataracts but I had never seen anything like this. Both of his eyes were a blotted gray. You could tell he knew someone else was in the room but he just nodded. Whoever he thought I was he expected to be there.                                                                                                                                                                                                  I could have jumped up and ran out but something kept me in the chair. I don’t really know what. The whole day was a surprise, maybe I felt untouchable, maybe just because I was high, but I sat right there. I sipped off my coffee. There was an ashtray on the table so I lit a cigarette. When I did, he smiled and felt for the pack. I pushed it toward his hand like we had done this before and upon grasping the pack, he smiled and winked not at me but toward me. You would have had to be there to understand what I mean exactly.
When in a few moments the shower went off I stayed where I was. An old woman came into the room, toweling herself off. She wrapped the towel around her head, Nefertiti-style and sat down. She paid no mind. It took me a moment to realize she was blind too. She didn’t have the eyes like he did. She was wearing only a damp slip that evidently she had put on in the bathroom. She made a show of waving away the smoke from her face.
She turned to where she must have known the old man would be. He had gotten her a cup of coffee and poured her juice.
Did you hear those sirens Abe?
Woke me up. Always does.
Did you sleep well, sides that? she asked in a lilting, wifely voice.
 The man grunted and drank from his cup.
I heard it might turn toward snow later.
Wouldn’t that be nice? he smiled and blew smoke towards the window.
They both had those old-timey New York accents you don’t hear anymore.
Do you have to smoke so early in the morning? she asked, the slightest nagging edge to her tone.
Oh that’s not me, he winked my way. That’s Jimmy.
She smiled and tugged her slip higher toward her breastbone. Oh Jim, I didn’t think you were up.                                                                                               So to them, for now, I was Jimmy. Whoever he was. I finished my coffee and rose to leave.
When I turned I saw a rather big man filling the doorway with his frame. Dark circles under both eyes and his tongue jutted out from his lips. A chalky film whitened his lips. When he saw me, something flashed in his eyes and his whole body tensed. Brother was a little tardy by the looks of him, but he had six inches and maybe 100 pounds on me. I lurched for the window.
From the fire escape when I looked back, he just stood there, a patch of drool darkening his shirt front.                                                                                     I climbed down two more levels. A siren sounded from the street and then two more. I slipped through another unlocked window: the apartment was empty and dark, and something smelled foul. I opened a door, just dust bunnies and something small crawling into a corner. I sat down in a corner, lit a cigarette and closed my eyes.
I have no idea how much time went by. Part of me is still there.  We leave parts of ourselves everywhere.  It could have been twenty minutes or two years. A loud noise awakened me. It took me a minute to come back far enough into the world to get that there was an exchange of gunfire on the floor below me.
In the bathroom there was an old shower curtain over a claw-foot bathtub. When I touched it the plastic felt brittle, like it was made of seashells. I lay down in the bathtub and pulled the curtain back tight, then took out the half-bag and snorted it down. Closing my eyes with another cigarette. It was really great dope. It slowed down everything.
More shots sounded and with my eyes closed, I counted them in a soft whisper to myself.
On the fire escape, where I came to, it was dark and the wind was blowing. I climbed down, with coast clear, leaped to the dirt and climbed the bread palate fence again. In the park a twitchy dealer sold me two more bags. I still had ten cigarettes. I headed toward Sophie’s where I knew the barman would take my check and I could drink black and tans and smoke until the bars closed.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


The thing was that through everything that happened I kept writing and it was the first time in my life that I relinquished everything else. For good or ill I come from the school that believes that writing is neither a choice nor a career, but a solemn and ridiculous vocation. Whenever someone has given me something to read I have always done it as soon as possible and given my honest appraisal. This got me into some trouble in Hollywood but that’s a story for another day.

I was riding east on Houston when for whatever reason I swerved slightly to the left. The oncoming car, a Chrysler Caravan with a low scoop in front, did not see me. The car struck my rear wheel and shot me into the air above the intersection. I might have reached a height of fifteen feet and a distance of twice that before I came down sprawling and scrambling out of the way of the honking oncoming traffic into the gutter, where I belonged.

The East River is half a mile away, the southern tip of Manhattan Island and the great sea beyond less than a mile. Avenue A has always been the border between the real and the unreal, the border between the cool and uncool, the authentic and the decidedly bogus, the exact meeting point of latitude and longitude for every aspiring and neglected weirdo reading a fanzine, Rolling Stone or the Village Voice in some far flung provincial backwater; at least for the generation of artists I have known and lived among.

Now this is crucial. When I lost control of the handlebars, I was struck in the side of the head by their whirling metal, sans grips, and this must have been when the adjustment of my sensory perceptions occurred, when I was in the air. This is what occasioned the release of my mind in the high above. Picture someone in a parachute who is knocked unconscious while in the air by a passing great bird or something falling from the outer atmosphere, except even the parachutist has the purchase of the chute. Except that according to my recollection I never went out of consciousness: it was like another eye opened up, or something.

I would submit as well that height must not matter. I had nothing. My mind was altered and I was up in the air and 0ut of control: this is what I had been looking for my whole career as a stoner. It did not disappoint.

I had been researching my story, going to Times Square to look around, taking notes one night while on acid with the hippie where we started watching the hookers and the lonely men on Thanksgiving. At Jimmy's Corner Bar on 43rd a former prizefighter with the knuckles to prove it had a spread of turkey, stuffing and sweet potatoes to salve the wayward souls of the men who had come there from their families. I had gone to the VA at the other end of Houston and found out about my ancestor August, the last man to be arrested in my family, the last felon, the last abandonist before me. I had found his last known address was somewhere along the Bowery, another on Times Square.

I had descended further into the Alphabet City we once knew and loved, and my book went with me and to my mind, it must have improved it. In the sense that it must have improved Dostoyevsky’s future work for him to stand on the dirt in the middle of the Peter and Paul’s fortress facing a firing squad, as it must have improved Melville’s work to bob in shark-infested waters beside a mammoth bleeding whale, as it must have improved Orwell’s work to wash all those dishes and take out the cigarettes extinguished in congealed cake frosting as I had in my first job. Whether it might have improved Burroughs work to shoot his wife in the head while drunk and then chase and bugger little Arab boys is work for someone with a sensibility monitor more greatly acute than mine but I would hope you get the point.

Thanks to the impact of the blow from the speeding vehicle, I had taken flight, like a bird whose brain is the size of a pea, like a fly whose eyes are bigger than its brain who can see everything but discern nothing. I was like the scrap of paper caught up in the wind. I and all of my aspirations had come to nothing and were part of everything, like the word that the Indians had for America before our great great grandfathers killed them all and put up all the fences.

Imagine the sensibility of Crazy Horse when he finally came into the reservation to be chained to a post like an animal, spit at until so greatly provoked and unleashed he was killed like some rabid dog. What must he have been thinking? That this happened on the same scrap of land where his grandfathers walked, where they had massacred the yellow-haired colonel’s cavalry and left them sprawled and gory on the dirt hills above the Little Bighorn River in the hopes they would all go away and leave them alone, as it had been for thousands of years.

When I was a graduate student at Hunter College I had the occasion to visit the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library, the Fifth Avenue branch with the famous lions out front. I signed in and was handed a box which I unwrapped and found within Kerouac’s nickel notebooks from traveling in Mexico. From reading this I learned that voice comes from landscape + subject matter. You tell the story and take notes of physical impressions.

Since then I have written in the same notebooks. You can still get them for less than a dollar. Even bodegas carry them. You can store them in any of your pockets with a pen and whip them out anywhere. What I learned was to start writing down the story and then find places that you can see and write down what they look like. The imagery of physical things will carry whatever sort of lies you can think up.

When I landed, I was attended chiefly by the driver of said van. He came to my aid, helping me across the intersection to where he had parked. He was a blond haired man, maybe 32, with a fudgy build, who looked destined to sell real estate or insurance, a future scoutmaster who had not yet discovered his calling.

In the back of the van I spied a copy of the Narcotics Anonymous basic text and was hit with an undeniable spate of dopefiend inspiration. I realized in the flash of an instant that if I played it right in moments this man would make it possible for me to get high that day.

“Is there anything I can do for you,” he asked. It was like I was pulling a string to his tongue.

“You’re trying to get clean too?” I parleyed, gesturing coolly at the blue-covered book on his back seat. A little abashed, he admitted he was having a hard time getting any time together.

“What’s your pleasure?” I asked, as knowing and world weary as possible.

“Pills,” he said.

“That’s a tough one.”

“Tell me about it,” he nodded and shrugged. It was really cold that day and we could see our breath in front of us as we stood there. He had pulled over upon impact backing into a parking spot a few feet from the front of Katz Deli and Ludlow Street. I was looking in that direction and thinking of what cop spots might be open early. One of my favorites was on Eldridge below Delancey, only moments away.

“There’s a lot of good meetings around here,” I said.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I’ve been hitting them mostly in Jersey. This is a bad neighborhood for me. I envy anyone who can stay clean around here.”

“It ain’t easy,” I nodded.

I was walking a very fine line. The thing was to get the money from him without lying. And the other thing was that I had been going to meetings again.

I could never put more than two days together, but you could get food there, cookies and coffee with the occasional after-meeting dinner paid for by the crowd; and there were kind, pretty women who would listen to your tale of woe, look for your eyes as you looked away and make you feel like when and if you decided to come back and rejoin the human race there might be a welcome place to fall. Honestly, it was all that was keeping my body and soul together.

I looked at my bicycle, dragged out of the gutter with me, he had picked it up and laid it against his car. He looked at it with me, his neck pulled marionette-like by the string I held.

“The thing is the frame is bent and the front wheel too.”

“What’s it going to cost? I can pay for it.”

“Shit I hate to ask you, man.”

“It’s the right thing,” he said and I was nodding. He was already reaching for his wallet.

“Seventy-five, I guess. For the frame and the wheel.”

He counted out the money, three twenties, a ten and a five. At least five bags, a pack of cigarettes and money left over in my pocket. Any good junkie street person slash writer should be able to last a week on that. It might last me a few hours if I was lucky. It was transporting to stand there, to take his money, in all good conscience, dazed as I was, blood on my temple.

I shook his hand.

“Maybe we’ll see each other at a meeting some time.”

“Yeah man, easy does it.”

I watched him get in his car and drive away toward the Holland Tunnel, I thought about locking the mangled bike to a street sign, but I was never going to fix it, so I left it in the gutter and headed over to Delancey Street to see a man about some horse.


"Bike" mp3
by Pink Floyd, 1967,
available on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

"Trust" mp3
by The Pretty Things, 1968.
available on S.F. Sorrow

"Big Sky" mp3
by The Kinks, 1968.
available on The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society

"The Journey" mp3
by The Small Faces, 1968.
available on Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake

"Flying" mp3
by The Beatles, 1967.
available on Magical Mystery Tour

Houston Steet, New York City 1985.
(click on image to enlarge)
© Ted Barron

Thursday, February 12, 2009

European Son

Did you ever sit in the kind of rickety chair you found in the street and brought back home into your apartment because this is where we all got our furniture back in the day, cast off from someone else’s life?
Did you sit and look at the place in the wall where the paint job was peeling and you got up, picked at it and found another layer, a different color of off yellow, off green or off white, even red than what you had since the day you moved in because that was what landlords did, they painted over and threw out the old broken down chairs when someone else moved in and painted layer upon layer of paint on the wall, on the pipes, on the door jambs, on the exposed brick, on the bathtub in the kitchen with animal claws.
Did you ever get out a butter knife and gently peel off the layers of paint all the way down to the original color?  If the sun hit just right through your window as it set in the west, you realized it must have set the same way over 100 years ago when the original European son gypsy family lived there, and for just a fleeting moment, as the magic hour of sunlight lit up all the bricks and the ivy on the rusty fire escape outside your window, you believed you were the youngest bawling son of that gypsy family and for a minute you stopped crying and all your aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters looked at you?
Did you ever think that?
Not really, I told John Dakota.
Well then you really don’t have much of an imagination, do ya?
I guess not, I shook my head.
We are here because John Dakota’s girlfriend threw him out, and he talked me into helping him put up a tent there, more of a lean-to really, a blue tarp that we tied to the branch of a tree that hung over a fence from someone’s backyard plot on Bowery.  We’re between Bowery and Chrystie.
Did you happen to check a weather report? I asked him.
Why? He was looking over his shoulder at Gypsy.
You don’t feel that wind blowing in?
What wind?  I don’t feel nothing.
It’s just I heard it might snow is all.
Don’t be a square, man.  Lou Reed made this town.
Lou Reed made this town.
I didn’t know what he was talking about.  He shook his head.
It’s February, bro.
Everyone knows it never snows after January at this latitude.
John man, what are you talking about?
He knew better and he had a tent to put up.
Why were we here?
Because John Dakota was proud.  He was too good to sleep with the skeavy crowd in Tompkins Square in the city of the homeless and lost there.  The Tent City came after the riots, and got worse and worse until the cops came in to kick everyone out.  They closed the park for months.
We were just feeling the first snowflakes as the sun was going down in the west.  Strangely there was still a yellow streak of sunlight atop purple clouds in the northern sky.  The night before John had emceed a talent show that I had been lucky enough to attend, at a particularly memorable and bizarre place called Save the Robots on Avenue B, I think between maybe 3rd and 4th Streets.  The first act was an old friend of ours who came in with a live pig, wearing a black leather zipper mask, our friend that is not the pig.  He led the pig onto the stage and the pig sat down.  At the end of the performance he took the pig away.
The second act involved a chain saw and a man in a full body cast.  You could smell the fear in the air as the chainsaw was switched on.  What you smelled was the sweat that we all broke out in as the chainsaw cut through the plaster cast toward the man’s skin.
I went to the bathroom to get high; it was too much for me.
I came back and John Dakota was holding up the cast and the room was filled with applause.  No one was bleeding.  A man in a tutu held out his arms and threw kisses.  But they did not win first prize.  This was a young woman with an amazingly detached air about her, who took off her clothes bent over her lap and sewed her sex shut with a needle and a thread.  Fifty dollars first prize.
After the show I talked to John Dakota, a big long-haired Indian in a black t-shirt and beaded headband.  I told him about the problems I was having with my life.
I’m going away, I told him.
You need a place to stay for a couple days?
No problem, just meet me here at the bar, tomorrow noon.  I get paid then.
I had no where to go and a train to catch.  But I wasn’t ready to go to the station yet.  I had left Alice on Thursday, gone to the Village Idiot, then walked the streets for the rest of the weekend.   Alice came and found me on Broadway sometime on Saturday afternoon, selling books from a table.  She handed me twenty five dollars. You can still come home, y'know.  She was still trying.  But it was like she was a passing train and I was a closed station, like Cortlandt St. after the towers went down, something sad to look at as you passed, but that you could not touch, a ghost.  She walked into the night with the books under her arm.  She was the kind of woman who looked really nice walking away.
On Thursday night we had dinner together.  She had met me at the Benny’s in the dining room across the street from the takeout.  She wore a shirt with a plunging neckline and a look on her face and in her eyes that belied her pert jokery.  I told her everything she wanted to hear, spent the night in her arms and left. I thought she was asleep, but when I got up to leave, she yelled at me and threw my shoes out the window.
I walked out in my stocking feet, and put the shoes on one at a time while still standing, balancing on one leg.  I looked up and saw she had come to the window.  Her posture said she was crying. The next night she met me in a restaurant all dressed up.   We ate dinner and talked and I went back home with her.  I was all fucked up I think on both coke and dope.  The next morning I got up at dawn to go back into the city.
When she found out, she confronted me at the peace march in front of the United Nations in front of this crowd of thousands of people.  The protestors were lined up on two sides of the street with the cops in between.  She saw me and started to run.  I ran into the street, dodging policemen and caught up to her on the sidewalk west of First Avenue, in the shadow of the tall rectangular United Nations building.  She hit me in the chest, yelled at me and then ran off.
I chased after her for like twenty blocks cross-town.                                                      It was snowing when I caught up with her at home.  She told me I could stay or leave but not both.  She thought it was about getting high.  I didn’t know how to express it.  There was that thing in my chest, hollering.  It was hard to talk past it.  She said if I went out that I shouldn't even bother to come back.    She stood in the doorway when I tried to leave.   I just physically pushed past her and ran down the stairs.  I had no money at all so I jumped the subway turnstile and went to Delancey Street on the F train.                                                   I walked through the pouring rain to Eldridge Street and went to this doorway where I copped.   I asked  for five bags and when the guy handed them  to me  I  took off and ran away through the pouring  rain.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Dakota’s lady had kicked him out and that was what found us in the empty lot on Houston.  It was a giant space, where an entire block of tenements had been torn down.  In the tall grass lay parts from a carnival that had been held years before and then for God knows what reason abandoned there.  You would be walking around and suddenly there would be a rusting gondola from a Ferris wheel at your feet.  John Dakota told me to meet him in a few hours.                                       When it’s getting dark, he said.        Meet you, in the lot?                               It’ll be fine, man.  I got to get the tent. So things are over with your wife?Girlfriend.  You’re not going to believe this, but she’s pregnant and she wants to have the kid.                 Congratulations, man.                                                                                                                  We had come out of the dark bar into the daylight and we were both standing on the sidewalk of Avenue B blinking at each other.  He held up his finger to his mouth like to say keep it quiet man.                                                      I already gave her the money to have an abortion.                                              You don’t want to be a father?
I’m a guitar player, man. He looked around like someone passing by might be listening and lowered his voice.  We’ve been through this before a few times and….                                              How many times, John?                         He held up some fingers.  Not more than four.                                                    You can’t blame her.                                Sure okay, he said gesticulating wildly with his hands.  But she took the money and had an ultrasound.       Sounds reasonable.                                 How is that right?                                     He shook his head.  He pulled off his headband and smoothed his long black hair.  He had a thing about his hair.  His claim to fame was that when he was a mere teenager he had played drums in a jam session with Johnny Thunders.  I asked him once why he had not played guitar and he assured me.  No one played guitar in the same band with Thunders, man.                      What about the Dolls?                             You just don't understand.                    Understand what, Dakota?                   How He showed up at the lot at dusk astride a horse.  I could not believe it when they came through the tall grass.  It was like a movie.  It was a miracle.  He jumped down and yelled.                     Grab the reins and help me tie it to the tree.                                                                  I must have jumped back at least five feet and he stood there holding the horse’s reigns laughing at me.          Where the fuck did you get that?          It’s a male, man.  Gypsy.                        By then I had seen the blanket under the saddle and recognized the NYPD emblem.                                                   Don’t tell me where you got that, John.  I don’t want to know.                                The stable is down by the Holland Tunnel.  The door was open.  I walked right in there and took him.                How did you get it here?                     Rode it, man, he said proudly.  I’ve been riding horses since I was a kid. He tied the horse to the tree.  It looked around and its eyes looked wide and shiny.  That horse did not look too happy about being kidnapped by the likes of John Dakota.  We set to work on the lean-to.  John Dakota turned on a portable tape player.  The first song was an unreleased version of European Son by the Velvets.  He turned it as loud as it would go.  The snow was falling hard and we were shivering.                                                    For just a minute though, it was beautiful:  the way the snowflakes hit the strands of tall grass and stuck on the tiny gray pods, the way the horse looked in the gloaming there in the empty lot east of Bowery.  You could see it breathing, the heat that came off its flanks in the wisps of condensation.  John Dakota bent over a post he was hammering into the bare earth.          Then it was over.  Thank God for Downtown.  We didn’t hear him, the guitar solo was too loud and screechy.  He pulled my sleeve and there he was, looking as he always did as an Okie version of Bogart’s long lost illegitimate son.                                      Let’s get out of here man.                   What about John?                                       I looked over and tapped his shoulder.  He turned down the music.                What are you going to do with that horse, man?                                               He looked at me and Downtown then at the horse.  He shrugged.  The look on his face was the most forlorn thing your ever saw.                               Downtown took me by the sleeve and dragged me toward the hole in the fence on the Houston St. side.    We left John Dakota with the horse in the empty field & headed East toward the River.