Monday, April 6, 2009

Stranger Than Known

There’s something peaceful about the slaughterhouse. In the killing season when the wind stops and everything is still, you can really see the colors, the browns of the oaks, the red maples, the evergreens. Even the dirt is pretty and they're sheep after all, so they line up meekly. You kill them quickly, gut their sacks and put the canvas down on the floor of the barn.

“This was in Canada?”


“Wow, that’s interesting.”

We stood there not knowing what to say for a few minutes. What was left on the canvas was dark and spooky. I didn’t know if I could agree that it was art, but I thought it was a hell of a thing to do. My third roommate on Ridge Street had brought me over to his studio to see his work. He was the only one who was not a doper trying to stay clean. I don’t know where they found him: the bulletin board at the Laundromat I think.

He had dirty blond hair, not much of a build the kind of face you would never remember and might not if you ever saw him again, you could ride next to him on the subway fifteen years later and not even know. Who knows who we see everyday?

He had about fifteen different canvases with the sheep guts on them. He had done them all up in Canada and transported them down. He showed me no other work, so I don’t know what he did with his time in the studio.

I was passing through. That day I spent maybe fifteen minutes with him and it was the only time we talked. I never collected much for my room either, just a few books that I found on the street or took home from the used bookshop slash cokespot on 4th Street. It was on 4th Street just down the block from one of the NA meetings, which was convenient but disastrous, just my style. I had a copy of Sheltering Sky and a few others. When you're boosting the books come and go, depending on what I had been able to get any money for. I remember discovering James Ellroy that winter and going on a binge, also Heretic had turned me onto Blood Meridian, which I would find again whenever I sold one, to pick up where I left off. I told that to Cormac when I met him later; he looked at me funny then laughed.

The last guy had left a mattress and I used the blanket Neal had given me. That was it, a couple change of clothes. When I smoked, I tapped my ashes out the window. The church money took care of the first month, after that it was only a matter of time. The one key thing you have to do to stay clean is to not pick up, so no matter what else I did I was out of control on the first turn.

The meeting on 4th Street was on Wednesday in a spare room at Our Lady of Mercy, a giant church that took up the whole block with an open-air courtyard that belonged in the Italian countryside, but maybe the east village was that one time to someone, when the church was first built a hundred years ago and none of us knew what was going to happen to anything in our exquisite corner of the universe. NA, Narcotics Anonymous was the Battle of the Bold in those days with cop-spots steps away from every meeting place. There was one in an old synagogue on Mondays on Houston Street, across from Ludlow Street. Tuesdays and Thursdays we met at the Cardinal Spellman community center on 2nd Street. This was the best scene of them all, at least a hundred folding chairs spilling over with freaks on the floor and sitting on the counter in the corner of the cellar. I wished I was a part of it and tried to keep track of how much time I was supposed to have. They had asked me to speak that night I got out of jail, so I tried to keep up appearances. I wasn’t the only one chipping away at a habit. We were all making it up as we were going along. Until 1979 it had been illegal for even two addicts to be seen together in New York City. Addicts carried ID and were arrested if the cops rolled up on them in the street. The meetings in NYC were begun by the old dopefiends who were left over from the hippies but were mostly just street toughs, the new breed were rockers, refugees from the Mudd Club, CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. Everyone wore leather and carried guitars, too cool for school wearing the leathers and animal stripes of whoever had gone back to using the week before and sold their finest threads on the sidewalk for a hit.

I was always a stranger in that scene, never dressed the part or learned the chords. I was on my way out from the beginning. Not to say people were not nice to me. There were ten or fifteen of us who went out for dinner nearly every night. I stayed clean for days at a time, never more than three, so it wasn’t like I was high when I went to the meetings.

I stood by the fire and felt its warmth, but I never copped to where I was really at. I didn’t get that was what you were supposed to do. One Sunday night a nice pretty girl named Layla took me to a meeting called Artists in Sanity. I had scored beforehand and I did some blow in the bathroom.

“There are meetings here every day of the week,” she told me. “All day and night.”

I tried to kiss her on the sidewalk outside but she shied away. She had brown eyes and curly hair. She ended up marrying one of the other guys who was around then, they had a kid too, but it didn’t last. I remember how it felt when I saw them holding hands a week or two later when they were just hooking up. I remember thinking that it could have been me.

“This is a good place to come if you’re having trouble getting over the hump,” she told me outside the Artists meeting. I thought it was cool that she brought me there, that she thought it was the kind of place I belonged.

“Oh yeah,” I said. “That’s good to know.”

She knew more about what I was going through than I did.

When it got bad later in the month, I would just buy blow, no H. We had all been taught that coke was the party drug, that it was not addictive. Also the old schools told me that it was out of your system in three days, which was useful when you had to go see your probation officer. Of course it wasn’t true, they were liars and schemers from the get. No one can hold a lie better than a doper.

I started skipping the meetings because I was high earlier and earlier in the day. I went to my messenger job but spent most of the day riding around boosting and selling books. I came home after work, out of money and coke and lie on the bare mattress in the dark, pretending I was not there.

The hours passed. Neal and Martin would come home from the meetings and eat or not. When they went into their room, I would skulk out of mine and wander the streets looking for someone to bum a cigarette from, unable to sleep. I would look up at the lights of the Williamsburg Bridge and slit my eyes until they were like stars.

As it is in New York City when winter sets in there seemed always to be snow swirling in the air and when the snow stopped there was bone-chilling cold when you could see everything with diamond clarity. As one of the conditions of my release from jail the city sentenced me to four weekends of community service. I woke with a start after finally fainting dead asleep for an hour or two as the night waned into morning for the dawn call to Union Square to poke pieces of paper from the ground into plastic bags. It snowed one weekend toward, great big flakes that fell lazily in the wind and hit you like a big wet kiss right in the face. We started a snowball fight that eventually took in the entire square.

Mayhem, brother. It was one of those beautiful spontaneous New York City things that takes on the proportions of an epic. It is the thing about the city that all of us first fell in love with, the sheer possibility for campaigns of enormous size to begin for no one reason and turn into beautiful chance displays of beauty. A tall guy with no teeth who bragged of old exploits on Harlem basketball courts aimed for my back but hit some kids. They got into it and within moments everyone within a five block range was in the fray. It lasted for hours. The snow was too bad for us to work anyway and the truck never showed up. Everyone had a good time together, laughing and acting like seven year olds.

Some nights I hopped the train or even walked all the way up to Times Square. I walked around taking notes, trying to sketch with words the buildings, the way the windows looked that reflected the all night signs, the steam from the manholes, the walk of the stoney-eyed hipsters and painted ladies on the clicking heels. I was among them, but I was invisible. Like it was my destiny, like I could be gone in a moment and no one would ever know I was there.

A few times I forgot my key to the apartment. I went around back and climbed the fence around the public school. There were gates on our windows but I was able to pull it far enough away from the window to squeeze through. I remember wondering what someone would say if they saw me, if they would believe that I lived there. If they did they would have had one up on me.


"Messin' With The Kid" mp3
by The Saints, 1977.
available on (I'm) Stranded

"Some Candy Talking" mp3
by The Jesus and Mary Chain, 1985.
available on Psychocandy

"Here" mp3
by Pavement, 1992.
available on Slanted & Enchanted: Luxe & Reduxe

photograph: © Ted Barron
Wild Dog, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1990
( click image to enlarge )