Monday, August 31, 2015
Five card draw
poker, dollar, no limit.
Not for the timid
or weak at heart--
I was both,
I knew the game
when I sat down:
Women always had
the stronger hand
how to play it.
and raise a cunt,
the weakest looking
replied, hardly able
as it was,
was no match
for the most slushy
I got up
Greenwich Village, 2013-2015
Near Christmas, the real estate market, after years of unprecedented growth, tightened, much like the noose around our necks. My emotions, sloppy and unwelcome, found relief only when soothed or silenced by drugs and alcohol, in great quantities. This time, I went back to using heroin in conjunction with all other types of medications. Everyday, I’d go down to the alphabet blocks and find what I needed which would be bolstered by what I had at home, or could get from Paul. Each day presented a consistent configuration of misery, remembrance, anger, regret and avoidance--not necessarily in that order.
There were times when Jean would come into the bedroom and I’d be out cold, the needle still in my arm, blood trickling down from my vain and curling around my arm. At first, she’d run down to The Cedar Tavern and bring Dutch upstairs to discern if I was in trouble or not, but soon she’d become expert at being able to decide that on her own.
It was bad and it was ugly in the same and different ways. It’s grimly ironic that the outer world resembled my inner one. Sometimes, when I was able to stand outside myself and watch, it was hard for me to believe that it was me waiting under a bucket that contained mine, and the ten or twenty other drug addicts’ dope. The bucket would descend from the highest point, dropped by a person who balanced himself on a beam, inside the skeleton of an abandoned building of broken brick and wooden planks, and I’d watch myself watch the bucket as it came down from heaven with dollars exchanged for bags that honored the request for nepenthe. My inner world had become wizened and my imagination, my means of escape, lost the playthings so necessary for me to take flight: humor and music. I stopped listening to the latter and had subverted the former, the first and, for me, most important benchmarks in my spiritual decline. I became as boring and as predictable as bad writing. Don Quixote had wandered off, not to tilt at windmills or twirl golden curlicues of language, but to waste away in rigid habit and was tracked, not by Sancho Panza, but by Detective Joe Friday and his partner, Nurse Ratched.
My diabetes was addressed every day in this way: I’d take an insulin injection each and every morning, sixty-five units of NPH-U100 and then I’d ingest sugar, and heroin, and Luckys (“if that ain’t love it will have to do, until the real thing comes along,”). Processed love. Sugar, heroin, and nicotine coated my system and, to me, it was as important as breathing. In fact, one allowed the other to happen. If I thought that a giant condom would’ve protected me from the world in the ways that those substances did, I might have worn that as well, although I’d have probably put on my Floyd Patterson disguise. I’ve often wondered, and still do, that had I not used alcohol and drugs the way I had, would I have been alive to tell this, or any other tale. There is no way of answering that question, of course, but I’d be hard pressed to deny, out of hand, anyone’s desire to keep their life free of mood altering chemicals because of the problems they eventually cause if used in quantity over long periods of time.
My piss was white, thick, and heavy. When it mixed with the water in the toilet bowl, I could see it as a separate entity. I tried to discern how I was doing diabetically by the color of my urine; slightly yellow, or yellow meant I was better balanced than if it was white. Frequently, I’d develop what I labeled “junk hiccups.” I’d remember my first bout of heroin addiction when after a few days of constant use I’d hiccup furiously. The hiccup was sometimes accompanied by the “dry heaves.” Little did I realize that my system was so saturated with glucose that I was dehydrated. My body, having little nutrients to sustain it, coupled with a very high blood sugar count, was beginning to feast on its own proteins and fats, drying out my system. Hyperglycemia in its most crippling form. The body eats itself up. I’d drink ice water continuously to no avail. Only when the symptoms would cause me abdominal pain or other concerns like that would I slow down from my route of self-destruction and try to eliminate my use for a day, perhaps two, and eat something healthy. Even that, however, meant a bottle of wine with dinner in order to assuage my emotional brittleness. After the symptoms receded, I’d pick up where I left off. “What marvelous recuperative powers I still have,” I thought.
Periodically, Jean would reach her own point of saturation. She’d demonstrate that to me by throwing various things around the apartment in brief displays of frustration and anger, accompanied by a scream, yell, or curse. I’d ascribe various psychological determinants to her make-up depending upon the time of day, month, or year it was. She was tough as nails, a gun moll, and a man’s woman when I wanted her to go to the Lower East Side for me on a drug run. She was loyal if she covered for me, had great insight if she believed in my abilities to eventually right a listing ship. Or, she was a controlling bitch, doling out dollars to a suckling infant. Consumed by her own failure, she nurtured mine and truly believed in Hollywood’s sucker punch: love conquers all.
Jean would come home and ask me what I wanted for dinner. It would depend. It would depend on what drug I had, what drug I was shooting, what drug I wanted to get and when I wanted to get started. “You have to eat,” she’d say. I would confirm that but say I’d eat later. “Later,” sometimes meant never. “Eat” could mean a slice of pizza or Swanson chicken potpie or chocolate pudding, pie, cake or ice cream at six in the evening or three in the morning depending on nothing except circumstance. Often, after sleep would take me, I’d snap up in bed as if someone stepped on a dry twig, sweat sealing the blanket to me, dizzy, knowing I was in the grip of insulin shock but too disorganized to get out of bed and into the kitchen. I’d wake Jean. She took one look at me and knew what it was I was experiencing. She’d come back from the kitchen with soda and a Milky Way and stand over me as I ate and drank it down. She’d implore me to see Bernstein, and I’d shake my head affirmatively. She’d ask when, and I replied soon. She’d say I needed to stop, and I again nodded my head. We were all right. We were all wrong. We were helpless. Then Jean, who had never threatened to leave and who had never gave me ultimatums, did.
It was a day much like any other of recent months. I’d awakened with a knot of fear in the pit of my stomach and a sense of existential dread. It sounds (even to my own ears now) overly dramatic. It is not. Anyone who’s lived the life of an addict for any period of time can recollect what that fear felt like and, though words are more often than not inadequate to express that sense of dread I felt, it is enough to say that each moment I had to spend without the benefit of a buffer or analgesic was fraught with more than just a belief of impending doom. It was doom. An addict alone, especially an active addict, is in bad company.
Jean, I thought, had forgotten to leave me money for my day’s fix. I called her at her office, and when she told me that she was not going to do that anymore and that I should call Bernstein or anyone else who I thought could help me and take care of myself and by so doing would be taking care of her as well. I hung up on her. I was furious. The fucking nerve she had in telling me that shit now! The fucking nerve in telling me anything! Who the fuck did she think she was? I took in the sonofabitch and I can throw her ass out. I called her back and began to tell her a few of the things written above. She hung up on me. I thought for another moment and decided to change tactics. I called her up and told her we’d talk about this when she got home. She told me that wouldn’t do. Instantaneously, the fury returned. I called. Again, she hung up.
Jean had run the limit on her credit cards. I’d already kited enough checks to merchants and friends in my neighborhood to hold my own Ben Franklin convention. I walked upstairs and knocked on Paul’s door. Judy opened it and invited me in. When I asked where Paul was, she said he had gone to see his parents. She invited me to stay for coffee, but I had other things I had to do and thanked her. I left quickly. I made a few more calls but to no avail. Left with very few options, I called Jean.
After pleading, cajoling, lying, and wearing various guises masquerading as the truth, I convinced Jean that after hanging up on her I’d call Bernstein, level with him, and ask him to get me into Lenox Hill Hospital as soon as a bed was made available. It was only after that that she told me where she’d hidden some money in our apartment. Once Jean had divulged where that money enzyme was, my being turned to the broom closet, or couch, or mattress, or garment, honing in on its next task, breaking down the substrate so that digestion could occur. It could not wait to get her off the phone and fulfill its biological destiny.
My teeth brushed and money in hand, I went down to Eighth Street and Avenue D. They were selling a pretty good bag of dope there, Executive. It was cold but I hardly felt it, having my hand around the bills in my pocket.
I had enough money to buy a “deck” of heroin. It cost a hundred dollars and you’d usually get an extra bag for that amount. I gave the money to Willie, waited up the block for ten minutes and when he returned I gave him two bags from my purchase and we went our separate ways. Just having the scag in my hands the tension began to ebb. There is most definitely a physiological response before you ingest the dope; my bowels would loosen a little, a layer of sweat began to dry, my mind, geared for disappointment, betrayal, or apprehension, slowed down to where I could think of more than what I’d been obsessed over a second before.
Now, however, the walk back seemed too slow and unreasonable. There was a car service located near Tenth Street and Avenue B. Usually, a few cars were available, and for three bucks I had one drive me back to my apartment. Once inside, I thought for a few moments of all I could possibly do to delay dialing the numbers that would signify the beginning of the end of this drug run, before I decided to call Bernstein. After weighing the options I thought I had, I decided it would be better to play and manipulate this angle than any other. I’d fuck her, fuck him and fuck them! No one was going to tell me what to do without them paying a high price! The world had fucked me long enough, I thought. They’re not going to do that again without a fight from me. His receptionist told me he’d call me back within the hour. I’d be somewhat embarrassed to talk to him on the phone in an hour but I couldn’t wait without doing some of the dope. I proceeded to do what I’d hungered to do since I awoke and then waited for his phone call.
Bernstein had me come in the next day. This time I wasn’t sitting atop an examination table staring at the fish on his map, nor was I thinking of an opening line to say to him when he entered. This time, I was waiting to be called into his office like a wayward child or student about to be chastised. I wasn’t ready to give up the life, but I couldn’t let on to that. I needed to feel my way around this new set of circumstances while I figured out how it could best serve my demon.
After telling him what my life had been like these past few months, trying my best not to stink up the room with the stench of self-pity, I laid bare most of a rather boring and predictable life, which the life of a drunk or drug addict is when his habit supersedes all other entities of concern. The only facet of it that I embellished was the amount of junk I was using. I did this in expectation of his suggestion that I be hospitalized. The more heroin he thought I was using, the more methadone I’d be given to detoxify which would keep me sedated very nicely for a few more days.
Again, without criticism or judgment, Bernstein looked at me sitting across the desk from him and suggested I go into Lenox Hill Hospital. There wasn’t much more to say. I was eager to get from his office to Jean’s where, once I told her the process had begun to get a bed for me, she’d give me money to score more dope.
They got a bed for me two days after I saw Bernstein. In anticipation of that call, I waited and tracked down Paul. He supplied me with a few grams of coke which, I knew, would not be affected by the methadone they’d give me like heroin would be. Yet, on the day of my hospitalization, I was in the East Village getting as much junk as I could before reporting to the admissions office of Lenox Hill. I was supposed to be there at one P.M. but didn’t arrive until almost three because the connection I had took me and a friend of his to Williamsburg in Brooklyn to cop. He told me that the dope, which he’d had the night before, was much stronger there and the bags were bigger. We got into his friend’s car and drove over the Williamsburg Bridge. By the time we copped and drove back, I had snorted two bags and Jean, who had taken off from work that day to accompany me to the hospital, thought I’d gotten arrested or had died.
While Jean was in the living room calling Lenox Hill Hospital and telling them we were on our way and waiting for me to finish shooting a speedball into my arm and then throw some stuff in a bag to take with me, I secreted syringes, a spoon and Q-tips to go with some of the coke and the few bags of dope I had left, to the hospital. I joined her, lit-up by the cocaine pulsating through my body, wanting to do more but unable to, and we left for the hospital.
Lenox Hill Hospital is located on East 77th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. I had no idea of what I looked like in the the admission section filling out one of many forms but, if I thought about it at all, which I didn’t, I couldn’t have looked all too good. The heroin was as my connection said it would be, strong. My head was nodding forward as I wrote, no longer buoyed by the cocaine. With this knowledge came some skewered self-consciousness. I put the pen down and went into the bathroom where, after making sure the door was locked, I proceeded to shoot some of the cocaine I’d brought. It did what it was supposed to do, and I went out and sat down and tried to finish the questionnaire without getting up and going back to the bathroom.
Finally, I finished the forms and was taken up to a room where I was told someone would come into see me shortly and to get undressed and into a hospital gown and pajamas. I’d brought my own from home and once again went into the bathroom to inject more coke and the last of the junk before being denied the opportunity. I don’t remember how long I spent in there but I heard Jean’s voice asking if there was anything wrong and that a nurse was here to take my vital signs. Quickly, I placed the syringe, spoon and drugs in a pocket of my pajamas. I was sweating some by now and when I emerged, it took me some time to adjust to the light. I looked at Jean and then the nurse looking at me and felt humiliated. The nurse, in her early thirties I thought, came over to where I stood, unable to decide where I should go or sit, and said in a voice so low as to be just audible for my ears, “Have you ever tried N.A.?”
“Huh?” I replied.
“N.A. Narcotics Anonymous.” she said.
“No, I haven’t. Should I?” I said. By this time my eyes were closing without my ability to stop them while the coke was pushing the roller coaster the other way. Here I was being asked questions and trying to conduct a conversation, about what I had no idea.
“We’ll talk some other time,” the nurse said and guided me towards the bed where she took my blood pressure and left. Jean stared at me and finally asked, “How much did you take?”
“I don’t really know,” I replied, “but obviously enough,” and smiled this ridiculous smile.
“I meant how much did you take with you? Norm, maybe you should just get dressed and leave. I know I’m going to.” And with that, she got up and left.
For a few seconds, I sat on the edge of the bed watching the empty space that her body left. I thought for a few moments before deciding to go into the bathroom and use what remained of the coke. The last shot elevated my jitters and I, with syringe, spoon and empty vial in my pocket, left my room to find a suitable place to dispose of the evidence. It wasn’t too difficult and when I returned, a young doctor, probably a resident, was waiting for me with the same nurse who was there before. I knew she’d ratted me out, but I had nothing left to feel frightened about but was frightened nonetheless. He asked me the questions I expected him to, and I invited him to search the room and my belongings, which he did. I’d secreted my last bag of heroin underneath the tongue of my sneakers for use later that night knowing that by next day I’d have gotten the first dose of methadone, negating the properties of opiates. I was pretty manic while talking to this doctor, and he must have ordered a sedative because a few minutes after he left one was brought to me and, a few hours later another one was administered as well. Late that night, while the room was dark and only the little T.V. that was hooked-up next to my bed was playing, I did the last of the drugs I’d brought with me and began thinking of who I could call that would bring me more.
Bernstein came to see me early the next morning, but I was so out of it from what I had ingested and the other doctor ordered, that he took one look at me and said he’d be back later to talk. When he did return, I’d been given methadone and some other drug to help detox me and was pretty high from that. He told me that he planned to complete this process in ten days and then release me. He suggested that I take this opportunity to speak with someone in the hospital, a psychiatrist, whom he thought would be better able to help with this problem than he could. I thanked him but did not take him up on his offer. Instead, I spoke with the nurse about what she’d told me during the first time we met. She told me about N.A. and its antecedents. It was the first I’d heard about groups like that being for people like me and not those Bowery bums that I thought A.A. was designed and designated for. I told Jean about my plan for attending those meetings and did manage not to call anyone else to bring drugs in and, in a few days, when the effects of the methadone was no longer acting like another narcotic and my blood sugars were stabilized, I felt good enough to begin thinking that I could basically do this on my own and would get a job after they released me. I told this to Jean, and she was relieved that I was finally thinking this way and sounded committed to making our lives together work.
It was a wintry snowy day when, with Brasz, I went to an agency located somewhere in the garment district, to apply for a bartending job I’d seen advertised in the papers. I was depressed and miserable but, even though I was smoking a little reefer and drinking again, didn’t look too bad. And, as usual, we needed money.
The employment agency had one long and thin rectangular room. It had plastic folding chairs on both sides of a water cooler which had no water, although an empty bottle perched on top of the mouth. Mostly Hispanics sat on the chairs while others tried to find room by standing at odd angles. Most were smoking. I pretended I had an appointment and walked into the door that had the name of the gentleman I’d spoken on the phone with earlier. He was slightly perturbed when I pushed my way in, excusing myself, but saying we’d spoken. Maybe being white had something to do with his subsequent generosity, but whatever it was, he gave me a clipboard and a card to fill out and then directed me to the restaurant that was hiring staff. It was a new Lindys, once a revered name in Broadway’s legendary eateries, but now a chain store of many different restaurants and saloons owned and operated by the infamous Riese Brothers. They were known by those who worked in their restaurants or competed with them as bastards of the first order. Their ways of doing business were cut throat and how they treated their staff was supposedly worse. I needed a gig and, as mom used to say, when you’re hungry, really hungry, a shit sandwich tastes like filet mignon.
Their new entry was located in the corner of The Port Authority, facing 42nd. Street and Eighth Avenue. Brasz and I went there and I had a talk with Mr. Avinash, the General Manager, after I filled out more forms they required. After Avinash reviewed my application, he asked me what shifts I wanted and after I told him he gave me the job. It seemed too easy.
New York’s infamous Port Authority was a refuge to America’s lost and disenfranchised, was home to our nation’s homeless, was where runaways ran to, was a hub for those who worked in New York City but lived in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and all points between to enter and exit, was a way station, pit stop, and bathroom for the prostitutes, transvestites, addicts, hustlers, pimps and degenerates of all stripes and colors. The Port Authority. I was getting closer to Hell, at ground level. I could smell the sulfur.
The Port Authority provided enough street level drama to host it’s own television series. Like any port offering the exchange of people and goods and services, it operated on a 24/7 basis. This bred and fostered a culture of predators and victims, a brief and illusory haven for those who’ve left their own particular rendition of hell, and all manner of peoples who operate outside the boundaries of man or god. It was a place where I could practice what I was good at and attuned to, the observation of any and all manifestations of madness in, and outside, myself. The illusions, or delusions, that I had of myself were rapidly being punctured by the reality of where I was and what I was doing. No longer could I say I was here doing “research” on the underbelly of New York’s tapestry. No longer did I think that bartending was another form of the rough and tumble night life or food for the poet in me or vehicle for romantic interludes, each so necessary, alone or in consort, for me to believe I was Savage, somebody. Yet, here and now, there was no mistaking this for what it was and, what I was. I was working in a bus station, the lowest form of commercial transportation, in an area that could be described as a urinal or armpit. There were no beautiful ladies sidling up to the bar for a drink, no athletes, performers, entertainers or artists having achieved notoriety or struggling for some. Here, I was unable to dream. Here I was “somebody,” but all in lower case. Here was nowhere for me.
Having lived in Project Return, the next block over, during the early Seventies, familiarized me with Times Square and its habitués. My eyes, from the earliest of ages, were attuned to seeking out and finding the unusual, the perverse and, the illegal. They didn’t have to look too far.
My shift began at six and I arrived at four-thirty. I wanted to eat, look over the bar and get comfortable with how it was setup. Luckily, I had no pains in the ass beer kegs to tap. We sold only bottled beer.
The restaurant section of Lindys was adjacent to the bar and could be entered from the bar by a narrow passageway than ran the width of both or from two other entrances, one on 42nd Street and the other on Eighth Avenue. Windows wrapped around the entire establishment. The saloon could also be entered by a door on Eighth Avenue or directly from a door inside The Port Authority.
Mr. Avinash welcomed me that first night and showed me my locker. They required the staff to wear uniforms. I was given a bartender’s vest with a Lindy’s logo and a name tag. I’d always despised wearing anything that smacked of orthodoxy which smelled, to me, of stupidity. If I wanted you to know my name, I’d tell you. If you wanted to know my name, you’d ask.
I was allowed to order anything from the menu except steak, lobster tails, or roast beef cuts. I ordered a bacon cheddar cheeseburger, fries and, for desert, the famous Lindy’s cheesecake and coffee. The food wasn’t bad but tasted pretty much like the standard fare you’d get at a Greek diner except, here, you’d pay double the going rate. The waitress, Beth, was a willowy dyed blond, fortyish, with bad skin and dull brown eyes. She brought me my food and, with a tired air, welcomed me into The Riese Brothers’ family by saying, “Good luck” to a person about to walk his last mile. As I ate, I watched people peer in and enter Show World across the street. Show World was a multi-floored emporium of sex shows, peep shows, massage parlors, “Hot Lesbian Sex” shows and “Chicks With Dicks,” performances by transvestites. I’d never gone inside but was always curious. .
After I finished, I left a tip larger than what I knew most patrons would leave. Beth noticed and tried to give it back to me saying I didn’t have to do that. I know that, I told her, that’s why I did what I did and to stop in for a drink after she got off from work. It wasn’t that I wanted her to return the favor, which she did, but I wanted her to bring in her friends and coworkers if she could. She couldn’t.
Some people, as soon as you lay your eyes on them, you know they’re “wrong.” You realize that in their hearts some form of depravity beats. Tony, my partner behind the bar, had multiple forms. “DEVIANT” in that beautiful old faded technocolored neon was written across his forehead, with one or two letters half-gone or missing. No bigger than five foot four or five, he seemed like Kong behind the bar. He was the kind of bartender who served you but, if you paid attention at all, knew it was not him who served you, but you who, he believed, served him. You were there merely to either pay him or have your money taken.
Tony was an old time, died in the wool, drug addict and thief. In the two weeks I worked with him, I saw him do some wicked and disturbing things. The first thing he asked, after we were introduced, was whether I did any dope. He looked at me as if he were doing a personality profile and, without any wariness, asked that question many would not, even after being acquainted for a long time. When I put that observation in front of him, he waited a beat before saying, “It’s in your eyes. I know I can trust ya.” And that was that. After that, he told me he was stepping out for a bit to cop at The Peerless Hotel, a place on 43rd. Street, off Broadway, and a known heroin spot. He brought back a few bags for me. His other actions were, how can I say this without sounding like the hypocrite I sometimes am, fucked-up. When a woman would go to the ladies room, he sometimes snatched money from inside her purse if no one else was watching. When a man would leave for a few minutes to take a leak or call someone, the money he’d left on the bar would be a little light when he returned. One evening, he said to me that if business ever picked up in this “fuckin’ hellhole” to where they were raking in some “long green,” he was thinking about bringing in his own cash register to help divest them of some of their profits. I’d heard about another bartender doing that at an East Side saloon years ago and wondered if it was him.
Mr. Avinash would not change my hours, except to the graveyard shift. I’d have to come in at eight and work until four in the morning, even though we hardly had customers there until midnight. When I tried using my diabetes as an excuse not to work those hours, he answered me with a one word expletive, “Quit.” Fortunately, I didn’t have to. Tony announced to me the evening after that, “This fuckin’ bar is a drag. Can’t make enough bread to support a habit of a flea, you know what I mean?” I shook my head indicating that of course I knew what he meant. “But I’m goin’ outa here with my guns loaded, you know what I mean?” This time I did and didn’t know what he meant, but shook my head anyway. That night, besides going out to get his dope, he didn’t ring up one sale, (not that we had many of those), and, while saying goodnight and goodbye to me, he loaded five or six bottles of booze into a duffel bag and took them with him. I never saw him again.
Hardly anyone had made this a place to stop by for a drink except those who arbitrarily came in or those you didn’t really want to see after you saw them once. I used whatever money I made on drugs and left it to Jean to pay our expenses. My world had shrunk to this expanse of habit and, without sex, without music, without humor, was fast becoming necrotic.
One evening, towards midnight, I had one person sitting at the bar. He was one of my few regulars, a big, burly construction worker from The Grand Hyatt, then being built on 42nd Street and Lexington. He seemed nice enough, although we never spoke much. He was on his third or fourth J&B when a guy straggled in and, with nineteen empty stools in front of him, sat next to the construction worker. As he did, I could see the construction worker’s neck tighten, his shoulder’s haunch and his eyes lower. I went up to them and tried to position myself in such a way that I simulated a wedge between them and leaned forward and asked the guy if he wouldn’t mind taking another seat. The guy made no motion to move nor did he acknowledge that I’d even spoke but instead asked for a vodka tonic.
“You might have had enough,” I said.
“No, no I haven’t. I’m all right, I am,” he said. “Let me have one and then I have to be going.”
I looked to the construction worker who seemed as immovable as the buildings he worked on, and turned and made the drink. When I’d finished and turned back, the guy was trying to say something to the construction worker who was trying to pretend he wasn’t there. “Shit,” I said to myself, “this is not going to be good.”
“Hey Norm, get this fuckin’ guy away from me,” the construction worker said. But the drunk, if he heard anything, made no move nor did he respond. “Norman, I’m gonna hurt this fuckin’ guy,” he said again. “This motherfucker is lookin’ to get hurt.” I placed the guys drink three stools away from where he was.
“Hey pal, let me buy you this drink. Take a seat over here, would you?” I requested, but to no avail. I then went around where they both sat. The construction worker gripped me by the crook of my arm and brought me to his left side, furthest away from where the guy could see. He then opened a gym bag he had on his lap and lying on top was a .357 magnum pistol. He placed his ham-like hand around the gun and inserted his finger into the trigger, gripping the arm.
“If you don’t do somethin’ I sure as hell will,” he said in a voice without inflection.
“Don’t do nothin’, wait here. I’ll take care of this in a second,” I instructed. I hurried to the other side of the bar to the restaurant where we employed a security man, who had about as much desire to perform his duties as anyone would who earned minimum wage to protect profits and property that had nothing to do with them. Quickly, I told him the scene around the other end and to avoid something terrible just follow my lead.
We hurried to the other side and saw the guy still trying to say something to the construction worker who now had swiveled around in his stool with his back to the other guy. The security guard and I hurried over to where the guy was sitting, put our hands on the edges of the stool, picked it up with the guy sitting on it, and carried him down to the furthest end of the bar. The security guard stood over him, not letting him off the stool. When I turned around, the construction worker had gone, leaving some money on top of the bar and a bullet, standing straight up, next to his untouched J&B.
I couldn’t live any closer to Hell without taking up permanent residency. What money I was making was going into feeding my fiend. I decided not to go back to work there except to collect my thirty-six dollar pay check. Mr. Avinash asked why I hadn’t given them notice. “Notice this,” I said as I turned my back and walked away.
My fantasies of dying would present themselves at times that were often predictable but sometimes shocking. I’d lie in bed at night wishing to be diagnosed with an incurable disease that would legitimize my eventual death like cancer, or help explain my aberrant behavior, such as having a brain tumor. But then, while standing on a train platform I’d see the lights from the impending iron horse approaching and, in a instant, imagine myself caught, in flight, across the light’s beam, splattered against the face of the oncoming beast. Sometimes, I’d laugh at the romanticism I’d given my demise but too often the truth of my despair had soiled whatever humor or irony I could generate. These thoughts, or fantasies or what some psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers or watchers of Oprah, would call suicide ideation, were not new to me. I’d had them at least since puberty, after I became diabetic. I’d never had anyone in my family offer words or actions that showed empathy or understanding in regard to my diabetes while cancer, brain tumors, leukemia and the like were fawned over, loved, understood and respected. I’ve no idea if that fact alone shaped some of what I’d become, but certainly I am sure that diabetes was, at that time, too slow a death for me and not nearly romantic enough for me to appreciate.
Perhaps, it’s not the flash of brilliant intuitive insight that lights the inter cranial sky like lightening across a hot dark humid summer late afternoon day, but the slow, almost imperceptible, accumulation of knowledge that prompts one to action. Or perhaps it was instinct; perhaps, it was just animal, protean instinct wrapped and honed in Twentieth Century human garb that appeared when my sixth digit disappeared.
Unfortunately, my mind, maddeningly ambivalent, made it difficult to decide and act, even though the evidence was overwhelming. Fortunately, money, always a prime motivator in my decisions, once again came to the fore. Having little of my own and Jean having money only to keep our bills paid and relatively up to date, prompted me to call Bernstein’s office and make an appointment. This time, I did not ask to speak with him. This time, there were no discussions weighing the merits of this and that. This time, I was not sanguine about my life after I cleaned myself up. This time, I didn’t know what came after “this time.”
Sitting opposite Bernstein I tried not to lie. I laid out for him, in detail, my diet of heroin and processed sugars, my constant depression but left out my thoughts of suicide. As I was talking, I could feel being tugged at by my demons who didn’t want me to let go of my sickness. That’s how they get paid. “Tell him this, but not that; offer to go into a hospital, but not right away. Bargain with him; negotiate this. You’re smart, see what you can arrange to stay out, just a little bit longer.”
“I wish I knew more about addiction,” Bernstein began, “but I do know something about diabetes. I’d like to put you in Montefiore Hospital, consult with some doctors there who do know about addiction, detoxify you and get your diabetes stabilized. After that if you feel, after speaking with some people up there, that you need a drug program we’ll discuss that, or if there’s outpatient alternatives, we’ll discuss that. What I do know is a program that’s just come to New York City, The Diabetes Self-Care Program, and I think it’s something you’d benefit greatly from, once we get you stabilized.”
“Yes, it’s something I’m interested in, but geez Jerry, Montefiore, the Bronx?”
“How far would you go to get some heroin Norman? C’mon will you,” he said impatiently.
“I’m sorry, I sound like an asshole. Get me a bed, please.”
“It might take a little time, but hang in there.”
Jean came home and I told her of my decision. “I’m relieved,” she said.
There was nothing to do now except wait for the phone call...and use drugs.
pgs 179-186: From Chapter VIII: JUNK SICK: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
Greenwich Village, 2015
Sunday, August 30, 2015
“Is that you, Norman?” a voice asked.
“None other,” I replied. I was back in my apartment in Greenwich Village and happy to be there, though things would become desperate soon enough.
“Do you know who this is?” the voice inquired.
“I do now; it’s Leslie. How’ve ya been?”
“Excellent. I’m down in Florida packing and I came across your poetry and I wondered...”
“Still here, still slugging it out. Where ya moving to?”
“California, lock, stock, and barrel. I’ve gotten remarried. O, of course you couldn’t have known...”
“Known what?” I inquired, but this time my back stood up a little straighter and my ears attuned themselves to listen closely.
“Ron, it was a tragedy. One day I took the kids to the beach and left him sleeping and when I came home...when I came home and went into our room he was dead.”
“Dead. He took an overdose of...whatever he took an overdose of...I don’t know. The kids took it hard at first, but they’re fine now, just terrific. And I’m a new bride. Wish me luck.”
“Yes, sure, good luck. Who’d you marry?”
“I’m sorry, I wish I could tell you that, but I can’t. I can tell you he’s a very powerful person who guards his privacy, and mine.”
“Hey, say no more...if you’re ever in town gimme a call...if he won’t mind. I still value all my parts in working order.” She laughed and said goodbye and I never heard from her again. Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good.
Shortly thereafter, I had my own brush with death. I was tossing and turning in my bed, trying hard to avoid waking up. Jean had left for work hours before and I had literally nothing that I had, or wanted to do at any point that day. And so when the phone rang I was pissed. I grabbed the receiver and growled into it, “Yeah, what is it?”
“Hello Jack, this is Harry,” said the voice sounding like he knew my voice and me.
“You got the wrong number,” I said and hung up.
No sooner did I cradle the phone when it rang again and again; more pissed, I picked it up. “Hello,” I barked.
“Listen, Jack, don’t hang up on me again, you hear? This is Harry, and we’re comin’ up!”
“Hey, Harry or whoever the fuck you are, you got the wrong fuckin’ number, Do You Hear!? This ain’t Jack. Now leave me the fuck alone,” I said, and hung up again. This time I swung my legs over the side of the bed and sat up and cursed the emptiness. Within seconds the phone rang for the third time. “Yes, who the hell is this?”
“Listen, you idiot motherfucker, don’t hang up again. We know you’re inside and unless you open that fuckin’ door in five minutes we’re gonna break it down and come through. Now, open up!”
I began to get concerned. “Now you listen, whoever this is,” I began, my voice more modulated and reconciliatory, “I am not, nor have I ever been, Jack. My name is Norman, Norman Savage. Do you hear me, do you understand? You have the wrong number.”
“I don’t hear shit,” the voice who called himself Harry said, “but hear this: You’re surrounded.”
“Surrounded!? What the hell are you talking about?”
“Yeah, surrounded, just look out your windows, both directions and then pick up the phone again and do it quickly.”
I got off the bed, put on some clothes and peeked through the blinds, first on University Place. Sure enough, the entire block, from 10th. to 11th. Streets was lined with police officers who were not only looking up at my windows but were pointing rifles and guns at them as well. I went and checked the other window. There were cops in the street, behind cars, in the windows of the office building across from my apartment and, when I looked up, they were on a rooftop as well. They all had guns pointed at me. I went back to the phone. “Listen, first off you got to know this is a mistake.”
“Mistake my ass. Open up, now.”
“O.K. just give me a few minutes to rinse my mouth.”
“Ya got two.” And this time he hung up.
I got out of bed and quickly took my insulin shot. I didn’t know what to expect but knew whatever was going to happen was not going to be a testament to my bravery. I went into the bathroom, rinsed my mouth and pissed. My mouth felt like it was stuffed with foul-smelling cotton. I went as silently as I could to the front door and looked through the peephole. There were six or seven of them, all in plainclothes and all of them in the classic stance, bent at the waist, arms outstretched, one hand secured the wrist while the other hand clutched the gun pointed at my door. I took a few steps back to think of what I should do in the best and safest way. Obviously, they had made a mistake, but they didn’t know that! I knew that many mistakes found their way onto a coroner’s slab. I went back to the peephole. This time, they had put black masking tape across the opening. Uncontrollably, I began to shake. “All right,” I shouted, “I’m going to open the door now, and I’m putting my two hands on the side of the door.”
I unlocked the door, turned the knob, opened it slightly, put my two hands on the side of the frame and pulled the door, slowly, toward me. The first guy who saw my face said, “That’s not him.” As soon as the door stood ajar however, they rushed toward me, pushed me aside and stormed into the apartment. My place, not exactly The Palace of Versailles, took all of a few minutes to search. They still opened up my two closets, checked the shower, and even opened drawers, without finding who it was they were after. After the initial reaction by the first person saying it wasn’t me they were looking for I was able to calm down a bit and take in what was happening to me and by whom. I could discern that there were at least three levels of law enforcement there, city detectives, and what I took to be F.B.I. and D.E.A. I thought I could tell the F.B.I. by their dress and demeanor which was conservative and reserved. The D.E.A. reminded me of cowboys. One of the guys wore a buckskin jacket with tassels and a western hat with a feather in the brim. A few had beards and one a mustache. Later, before they left both the F.B.I. and D.E.A. gave me their business cards while the city dicks just went away. Both groups were upset with the results. The city cops did not seem that interested, although they all looked disappointed that they couldn’t kill someone. They were certainly primed for it.
I sat down at a table I used to eat my meals on. Sweat had broken out all over me.
“Do you know this man?” a tall guy said to me who wore a suit, white shirt and tie and showed me a photograph.
“No, I don’t.”
“How about him?” He showed me another picture of the same man, this time without a beard.
“How about this one?” This time he showed me a picture of the guy walking down a street with Jean.
“I know her of course; we’re living together,” I replied, the pieces starting to fall into place.
The cops were still looking into everything in my apartment, even turning over papers on my desk. One cop had noticed a scale in the kitchen, and he was holding it in his hands. The scale was one that Paul used to measure cocaine on and there was, I knew, some residue of the drug on the lid.
“What’s this?” he asked.
I looked at him holding it and said, “I’m diabetic, I need the scale to weigh my foods.”
“You gotta be fuckin’ kidding,” he said and laughed.
“Is it his?” the one questioning me asked.
“No, I don’t know him, or what you’re talking about or what this is about.”
“She’s never mentioned him to you?”
“Well, she should have. He’s a sick and dangerous man, very dangerous. He hurts people. Hurts them in ways they don’t recover from, ever. I’d suggest that should she get in touch with, or see him, you should get in touch with me right away. That is if you like life as you know it now.”
I looked up at him and in my most believable voice said, “Sure will. Don’t want nothing to happen to me. I will, right away. Let me have your card.”
He looked around at the people in my apartment and said, “Sorry we had to do this, but we thought...Anyway sorry. And like I said, do yourself a favor and call me should he come into your life.” With that he started to walk out of my apartment followed by the rest of them and the last one to go out closed the door. I waited a few seconds before I went to the refrigerator and drained some orange juice. I didn’t know if it was fear or whether I was really having an insulin reaction. I decided not to take the chance. After I got showered and dressed, I went out to use a pay phone to call Jean.
It cost the city, State and Federal governments a lot of money that day but that shows how badly they wanted him. It also cost me a job. Jean had become friendly with a person who managed a restaurant/jazz club that, at the time, was on University Place. I’d interviewed well for the position, before I became Public Enemy #1. An incident like mine has a tendency to spread quickly. When I went in to see him a few days later, he was much more invested in my status as a desperado than my value as a keeper of his cash. He wanted to hear about what happened but when he didn’t respond to my question of whether or not I got the job, I merely turned and left, without describing it or threatening him--something he too might have liked.
No matter how much my heart and mind were telling me how misguided and foolish it was, I was desperate, desperate to effect something, anything, that would help me change the course my life was taking. And so, when my father suggested I accompany him and my brother down to their new place in Miami to look for a business venture, I went with them. Primarily, we looked at two food stores, both in Miami Beach. They were a gourmet shop that enjoyed a stellar reputation and catered to wealthy customers and a kosher delicatessen that also was well known, had a sizable following, and sold excellent provisions. Each was doing very nicely but could do more business, my father thought, if the “right people” watched over the proceedings. In my heart I knew I was not the “right person.” And I told them so. Each for his own reason, tried to convince me otherwise. I would have been hard pressed to turn it down if it came down to an immediate decision. Luckily, for all concerned it didn’t. Each of us is selfish, and driven by fears and demons of our past and present, we’re ill equipped to help ourselves, much less each other. Secretly, when I saw that the negotiations for both stores take turns for the worse, I was pleased. One day, when we knew that this endeavor would bear no fruit, I was sitting smoking a cigarette with my father on the terrace of our apartment. My brother was not there, and he and I had a chance to talk for a moment. I’d always hungered for the kind of honesty that I felt had never been achieved between us and tried to begin by saying that I felt it really was the best thing this had not worked out. I was struggling with my own demons and tried, before my mouth would work, to order then in some kind of comprehensible logic so that he’d finally understand what I’d been experiencing since I was old enough to remember. But then it gushed out. I could never say, “no” to him, I began, which didn’t serve either one of us very well; feelings of never measuring up to him; my difficulty in carving my own way in this life and with him being an overpowering presence in business would restrict if not inhibit my life; a love I craved but never felt had put me on an impossible road of trying to balance everything before I would act, which had led me back to a fool’s safety of alcohol, drugs, and inaction; my competition and mistrust of my brother and that if I now had only him to rely upon it would lead to “no good” and disaster for us all.
My father kept trying to interrupt and each time he did it made me all the more anxious, trying to speed up my thoughts and explanations. I’d always felt, around him and later my brother, that I needed to say what I wanted in the briefest amount of time and then indulge both of them with their usually long-winded explanations or counter-arguments or outright dismissals of my feelings. When I stopped to catch my breath, he asked if I was through. I just looked at him knowing I could have spoken for the next hundred years and it would make no difference. Inside, I felt what I’d felt so often when trying to do this sort of thing: defeated. He took my silence as his cue to begin. First, he said, he would not be in the store all the time, but would just be involved when he wanted to be; he enjoyed the challenge of enlarging the business and would busy himself with doing that; he wanted to sell his store in Brooklyn, but still have a steady source of income in Miami; and he thought I’d be perfect to do the public relations necessary to increase profits while my brother ran the day to day retail operation. He knew the differences between Bobby and me and was not worried about this working out for all of us.
Inside of myself I knew that most of what he said was bullshit. What he probably wanted as much was to have a business and us down there so he wouldn’t have to be with my mother twenty-four hours a day. I decided to reiterate some of what I’d just told him, and that I disagreed with his belief about “this all” magically working out. “You mean,” I said, “Bobby is going to do the back breaking day to day grind of being in a store while you and me go to have lunch with some people or organization that will, maybe, choose to do business with us? You think that that will sit well with him? C’mon, will ya.”
“Maybe you’re right,” he finally said. And then, in the next breath, he told me about a business he’d seen in Boca Raton that could be a real, “moneymaker.” I looked at him, a bit incredulously and replied that if it was money he wanted to make, he’d be better off investing in Chrysler. It was when Chrysler was contemplating bankruptcy. I told him that there was no way the government would let that happen. He asked how I could be so sure. I stated the obvious: Reagan was the president, Ioacoca the chairman of Chrysler and Frank Sinatra, the chairman of the board, and the world, was a friend and common denominator between them all. There was no way, I felt, that the government, declaring some kind of national crisis was not going to offer Chrysler the sweetest deal going to get back on its feet and, “for the good of the country,” right itself. Buy a chunk of it now, I advised. They’re a Holy Trinity of sorts. You didn’t have to be brilliant, you only had to know how the world always worked. He looked at me interested but decided not to pursue the opportunity. Coming from anyone other than a bona fide millionaire (let alone coming from his crazy kid) was advice not worth even looking into.
Before I’d left for Florida I began to experience pains on the soles of my feet. As soon as I returned to Manhattan I saw Dr. Hazan, my podiatrist there. The thought of any physical malady stemming from my diabetes was enough to throw me into a panic. Enough to know I had diabetes. Enough to suspect and fear that one day diabetes will kill me, probably prematurely, but an infection that could lead to amputation through me into a tizzy. It forced my head to go into my body, a dirty messy diseased ridden place, and, although I never allowed it to stay too long, it still exerted a powerful hold on what I thought about, felt, and ultimately did or didn’t do.
The fantasies that began with a little white dot under the calluses on the soles of my feet worked its way up the ladder until I was in a hospital ward with my toes first, then my ankles, and finally my legs chopped off. In a matter of seconds, I saw myself being wheeled by some dull and bored nurse down a sidewalk. I’d be wearing a piss bag and ask them, beg them, to turn off any life support system, or not bring me to my next dialysis appointment or, preferably, administer that shining narcotic to allow me to comfortably fade away.
Dr. Hazan was not that dramatic, nor was he an alarmist. Trained at The Joslin Clinic, he knew diabetes well. He understood that the more a diabetic gets upset, the higher the blood sugar has a tendency to rise, inhibiting the healing process. Circulation is a major issue with diabetics, especially to the extremities such as the hands and feet. Amputations are alarmingly high in diabetics. Diabetics can also develop what is called neuropathy, a numbness in the extremities which makes the feeling of discomfit or pain more difficult. If one isn’t vigilant in checking for cuts or infections, they might not be able to feel there is anything wrong. Since not enough blood containing white cells needed to fight infection gets to those areas, the chance of that infection turning gangrenous in a short period of time is great. Then, if that happens, the only thing to do is say “goodbye” to part of yourself. Believe me, that’s not even funny.
Dr. Hazan told me how he wanted me to treat these ulcers and he wanted me to see Dr. Bernstein. I told him I would, and I did. He had me coming back once a week until the infection cleared.
One week before I was scheduled to see Dr. Bernstein I was home, reading The New York Times when I noticed an article about the craze of video games. For some reason, I read it with great interest. Perhaps, it was the fever of those “hooked” or the dire warnings and predictions from the staid brand of psychologists and sociologists that they trot out every time a new fad is mentioned or a new drug ingested, that got my juices flowing. Whatever it was, I wanted to know more.
That evening Jean and I went to Chinatown for dinner where, among the throngs of dinner patrons, stands one of the oldest video parlors in Manhattan with, at that time, the only live dancing chicken who, for a quarter, played tic-tac-toe with you. On a weekday night, the joint was packed. There must have had between fifty and seventy-five machines in a store no bigger than fifteen hundred square feet. Through the cigarette fog, all you could hear were the sounds of Pac-Man, Space Invaders and Defender, and the quarters upon quarters that were dropped into them. “Let’s eat,” I said to Jean, “I’ve worked up an appetite.”
I was beginning to show Dr. Bernstein more “looks” than an ambivalent chameleon. Each time I had a higher “high” and a lower low than any previous visit. “Present a moving object, it’s harder to define.”
“They’re not really what I’d call “diabetic ulcers,” Jerry said after I told him what had been going on with me, and he took my vital signs. “If they were,” he continued, “you’d hardly be able to walk. The podiatrist whom you’re seeing, who is he and what did he tell you to do?” He seemed satisfied with what I told him and then called in one of his nurses to draw some blood.
“I’d like to speak with you after,” I said.
“I wouldn’t dream of letting you go so easily.”
When I was called, I jauntily went into his office. I still had a tan from Florida and was focused and confident. “How am I doing?” I asked smiling as I sat down facing him.
“You look better than the last time I saw you, that’s for sure. What happened?”
I told him of the aborted business query in Miami Beach, with one result being the cessation of drug taking and the near elimination of drinking. Then I ran by him the new adventure, a video arcade. He listened patiently and smiled. Though I wanted to justify my desire, I saw no need to go further but finally said, “Maybe it will be another chapter.” I felt so easily cornered and defensive, even, or especially, by silence. “Jerry, I’m nervous enough, say something.”
“I wish you luck. Just stay out of my neighborhood. Seriously, you look and sound good, I wish you luck. On another note, are you still taking the Mellaril?”
“I never really started. Besides, right now I’m nervous, not depressed. I’m nervous nervous nervous Jerry, you hear Nervous. When I wake up and when I try to go to sleep. Can you give me something for that? Valium? What?”
“No, not Valium. I wouldn’t want you to start taking any benzodiazaphams, but we have had success dealing with anxiety with a newer tranquilizer, Ativan. Take one in the morning, one in the afternoon and you can take one or two an hour or so before you go to sleep.” He paused. “Have you read anything recently that you’ve liked?”
“Yeah, Selby’s latest, Requiem For a Dream. It’s fucking terrific. Great stuff. It’s about three junkies, four really if you count this Jewish mom of one of the characters, all chasing their own gods of fame, of money, of memory and the impossibility of actualizing that dream their way. Powerful stuff.”
He wrote down the name and asked, “Have you been writing?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“I’d like to see you in a month or, if something comes up before that, call.”
I took the prescription and left. Seeing him in a month was not going to be a problem, and I couldn’t see myself having any other problems before then.
It took quite awhile for the brakes to take hold and work, but once they did I was determined to make my life work as well. And so, I pushed. And pushed. And pushed harder. I gathered energy that I knew was there all the time, only now I turned it around. I was able to throw the switch from a negative to positive outlet. I “cooked.”
Months before, Tommy Sig had introduced me to Happy, a man who ran/owned an Italian Social Club in the West Village. Knowing how men like him looked askance at drug taking, I limited myself to alcohol the times I met Sig there. Recently, since I’d stopped that downward spiral, I began to stop in there regularly, after becoming friends with him and some of the others who patronized the club.
Happy was a short rotund man in his early sixties who, from years of smoking cheap cigars and drinking expensive whiskey talked with that sound of phlegm gurgling in his throat. He was quick, smart, and had a wonderful sense of humor which he was free with in dispensing comments upon those who found a home with him and, occasionally, his family. I met people like Tony Tires, a man who owned a gasoline/tire exchange somewhere in the neighborhood. The exact location was never disclosed. I played gin with Johnny the Bug, said to have something to do with the demise of Bugsy Siegel. John was in his early eighties, and no one really enjoyed playing gin with him. He still had that competitive streak. But I played with him and, one day, I asked John if he knew of a place I could take my parents for dinner. He suggested one in Little Italy and told me to, “Have the brains; they do brains good there. Ya want me to make the call for you kid?” I brought the phone around to him and watched as he said a few words into the receiver. When I did take my family and Jean for dinner there, no check appeared after our meal. Happy, who watched each transaction, whether monetary or those between people, wryly observed me. After seeing me over a period of time he said to me, “I can tell you don’t have to run things by you twice.” I looked at him and didn’t say anything. He smiled and added, “You don’t have to say nothing but I know.” I smiled and shook my head to acknowledge that I knew he knew.
Jean and I obtained cost breakdowns for the machines between buying them outright or leasing them. I called Stretch, my uncle whom I still owed the hundred and, since he owned a commercial real estate agency, thought he’d help in obtaining property. He didn’t. Instead, he told me all the things I couldn’t do. I moved on. The hardest obstacle to clear was New York City’s zoning laws. It seemed that when Mayor LaGuardia hammered to death a pinball machine, the city zoned only two areas, Times Square and Coney Island for video arcades. A video arcade consists of any establishment having over four machines, the one in Chinatown being “grandfathered” in. In order for a place to be profitable, you needed to have over four machines. You needed to create “a scene,” a spot for people to hang out. The profit margin was so large that when we spoke to those who defied the zoning laws to open places anyway, they told us that going to court to battle the city was well worth it, despite their lawyer fees. This country’s built around “due process” and I wanted my “due.”
After traveling to places in New Jersey and Connecticut and all over New York City and the surrounding boroughs, we found the ideal spot sitting in our own backyard, The New York Studio School on Eighth Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. It’s one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city, connecting the East and West Village. There are stores end to end, a movie theater, tourist trade, New York University and it’s many dormitories in and around the street and, young people having the potential to be or who already are, video fanatics who clutch their quarters like hot rocks.
The Studio School, once a thriving province of artists in the Forties, Fifties, and early Sixties, was now a dismal dwelling holding few students and less cash. The administrators of “art” are only snobbish when they have the bread. This school didn’t and the president faced facts. No more parties in The Hamptons until his profit picture improved. Enter us. The school had two entrances. One led into a duplex retail store on the street level and the other led downstairs into a basement. I knew I could put at least a hundred machines there while the upstairs store could sell comic books, which were just beginning to come into vogue again at the time. It would be a cash cow that could be milked by more than Jean and myself, which was part of the plan.
The same attorney whom I was in Handelsman group with and who had helped get me the job at Oren & Aretsky, introduced me to an attorney who represented other owners of video arcades. It was his opinion that because it was Eighth Street, we could get a license as a movie theater, much in the same way as those twenty-five cent porno movies in Times Square. Instead of throwing a quarter in and seeing “tits and ass,” you’d see a Martian battling a spaceman. A movie’s a movie, the reasoning went. We could fight it in court for three to five years and probably win, but even if we didn’t, the profit would far outweigh the liability.
Brasz had gotten very friendly with the Graffiti Artists, like Crash, Lee, Daze and A-1 of the early Eighties. They had begun to get artistic legitimacy by having shows in the rising indicator of social style, a gallery in the Bronx. Also, they were becoming noticed and represented the owner of the more prestigious galleries on East 57th Street in Manhattan, Sidney Janus. Brasz took me to the Bronx for one of their shows and introduced me to them. Instead of using canvas to paint on, they used the sides of trains and buildings and handball courts and abandoned schools, such as one in particular that held one of the most striking paintings I’d ever scene. Houston, a conceptual artist, had gone into an abandoned school and, after you navigated the debris that led into the auditorium in the basement, you came upon a three dimensional painting of The Hulk. It seemed to be coming at you. We spoke and arranged to meet at our location and, after seeing the potential that the space held, agreed to design the interior for us. It would be his New York showpiece.
Our next problem was money, personally and otherwise. For the first problem, Jean borrowed five thousand from a bank to see us through a few months time. The second problem took care of itself. The attorney friend I had asked if we needed a financial backer for our venture. If so, he was the one, he suggested. We looked no further, but there was another hurdle which was not articulated but I knew was the most important, permission.
I knew enough from my father, and growing up in Coney Island and being friendly with some tough kids that there was a tariff or tax that was extracted from those doing business in their neighborhood. I also knew from my father how those in power acted and expected those doing business with them to act as well. Since the video machine business reminded me of jukeboxes, cigarette machines, and other coin operated ventures, I knew that somehow, some way, those who profited off them could not be far behind.
Happy said I showed good judgment by coming to him. He wanted no part in the operation and, although he was trying to put one of his kids “in action” didn’t suggest to me I take him in. He did say that a gentleman, who was said to walk around from time to time in his bathrobe, might have something to say on the subject, whether or not he knew what that subject was. All that was really important was that he be given due consideration when trying to open a business of that nature in his back yard. As Happy once said, “You don’t have to run things by you twice.” Not wanting to do anything ill-fated or ill-advised, I’d call my father first.
My father and I had not spoken since we came back from Miami Beach. After we’d gotten back, I knew he’d spoken to my brother about various business opportunities he thought he should pursue now that the ones in Florida had not materialized. With me, as in the past, there wasn’t much he could offer and so had not even thought to call to offer any encouragement. Once again, he took care of more important and immediate concerns, like solidifying his cash flow from Brooklyn and trying to secure gainful employment for his younger son. This time though, I’d be coming to him with a business proposition in mind, one that I discovered, thought through, nurtured and, with one last piece of the puzzle to be put in place, ready to be actualized.
If he was surprised to hear from me, or glad, he didn’t say. He was, however, interested. He was always a better poker player than I was. We met at a restaurant near my apartment where Jean and I explained how this idea took hold and grew. After I explained the next level it had to go to for it to be approved and finalized, he suggested he speak to one of his old friends who owned a business with an old and valued Italian surname. My father, before we finished dinner, asked if there was room in this operation for my brother, should he be interested. If he wants, he can ask for himself, I replied. At that time, my conscience would have had to make room for him, even though my brain shouted, no fuckin’ way.
A few days later, my old man called me back with a date and time for meeting his friend at a restaurant in Little Italy. More and more it began to resemble Coppola’s, The Godfather. I put on a jacket and tie and arrived fifteen minutes early for the appointment. I saw no one I knew so I took a seat at the bar, took out my pack of Luckys and ordered a Chivas on the rocks and waited. The bartender, who probably looked at every new face two or three times, thought I might be all right since I laid the cigarettes on the bar like I should, ordered something without frills, and put a five dollar bill on the lip of the bar, indicating it was for his tip cup.
My father showed up with my brother. I thought that was wrong, but I didn’t say anything. Then my father’s friend and his friend, the owner of this restaurant, came in from inside the dining room and greeted us. I stood up, shook hands with them, and we sat down at a table in the outside lounge to talk. The owner called over a waiter, drink orders were taken, and I proceeded to tell them the idea and the location I thought would be profitable, if it could be obtained. My father’s friend stood up and said, “We’d like to talk to Norman, Mickey, if you don’t mind?”
“No, I don’t mind,” my father said.
I stood up and the three of us (the third being the restaurant’s owner), went through the dining room and into the kitchen where I saw one of the chefs boning a piece of veal. “Best veal in the city,” said my father’s friend. The owner placed his hand on the shoulder of my father’s friend, an indication of warmth and union. I was concentrating more on the dexterity of the chef holding the knife. They steered me around two long metal tables used for prep work and into the mouth of a walk-in refrigerator.
“Who knows about this idea?” my father’s friend asked. I told him those who I thought were important enough to tell him about. When I mentioned Happy’s name and the man who walks around in a bathrobe, my father’s friend looked at his friend who nodded that he knew Happy in a way that suggested he would not present a problem and respected that I knew about having to get the man in the bathrobe’s permission in order to do something in his domain. When I told them about the attorney who wanted to become our partner through his financial backing, my father’s friend said that my friend the attorney was, “inconsequential.” They were, however, interested in meeting the attorney who said he could get a variance as a movie theater to exist there. I should setup a meeting with him and them as soon as possible. My father’s friend put his hand around my shoulder, and his friend offered his hand to shake once again. “Some of what you heard about us is right,” my father’s friend began, “but most is bullshit. We will help you with what you need to put you in business. I’ll do it because I’ve been friends with your father for over thirty years and I’d never jeopardize that friendship with this, do you know what I mean?” I shook my head indicating, yes. “He’s a good man and he knows good people, some of whom I know too. I believe we can work together on this.” We walked out and returned to my father and brother who waited at the table. I wanted to rub my arms to warm them from the cold of the box but I resisted the urge to do so.
“Come on, let’s eat,” my father’s friend said when we got back to them. They got up and followed the owner into the dining room where a table was waiting. “You got a real smart kid,” the owner of the restaurant said to my father.
“Yeah, always knew that, sometimes too smart for his own good.”
“Well, they always are,” my father’s friend said, “try the veal paillard. They make it terrific.”
My father leaned in closer to his friend and said, “Speaking of my kid, he’s going to be all right in this, isn’t he?”
“Mickey,” his friend said, “I’d never do nothin’ to hurt you, or your kid, nothin’, ever. Ya hear me?”
“I hear you, and thanks.”
“No, thank you. We’re all gonna make money on this.”
I ordered the veal. My memories of the chef and the icebox were still vivid. Also, I saw the handwriting. In situations like this, I did like I was told.
Perhaps I should have been, but in fact was not, afraid of these men. Yes, I was respectful. Yes, I knew that their involvement would necessitate financial adjustments but, no, I never considered that they would use me as a front, or as a fall guy, or someone who did the brunt of the work without being compensated which, in reality, they would if they had or wanted to. Perhaps, my arrogance played a part. More likely, my self-destructiveness did. More to the point was my wish that this enterprise happen without regard for any voice, tiny though it might be, that might try to dissuade me from realizing my dreams. Money, though I am loathe to express it, was very much part of what drove me then and, to a lesser degree, now. I’d thought, since I was old enough to separate myself from my father and his world, that his values were not mine. His worth, measured by what he had in his hip pocket and his bank account, said all that needed to be said about him, but not me. When he’d describe others, either friends or those he’d casually meet, it began and ended with a numerical number or adjective placed before or after their name. I inherited that as well. I wanted to be “hipper,” or at least what I then imagined “hipper” to be.
In the next few weeks, I’d meet with those people at the restaurant to discuss how the negotiations with the school was progressing and how much money I thought needed to be gotten to startup this venture. There were times I went with my father’s friend to the racetrack or to pickup his girlfriend and then go out to dinner, with Jean, at another restaurant. We became, over the course of time, friends. We decided, given the work that was needed to be done, we’d open The Space Cave in April of next year. It was now October, near my birthday.
We celebrated my birthday in an unusual manner, with a bunch of people. I never liked to call attention to myself, especially in ways demonstrative or traditional, such as a birthday party, picture taking, or public speaking, without the blood of a coward (scotch, gin, vodka, cognac, or heroin), in me. This time, however, Happy, Jean, Tommy Sig and Marie, the daughter of Vito Genovese, and some of the boys from Happy’s social club took me to Chinatown for dinner. Afterwards, we trooped over to Teddys, a night spot in Tribeca for after dinner refreshments. They toasted and ribbed me about everything from my age to my girlfriend to my business venture, and I loved the attention.
For the next few weeks, we were kept busy with appointments concerning our business. We kept up with the latest video machine craze by reading magazines and calling distributors. Houston came down to the location often to plot his designs. Brasz met us on weekends to discuss his role and how best to generate excitement from where he lived and worked.
In November, it fell apart. One by one, the arcades that had been opened in the past three years started to be shut down by Bess Meyerson, the Commissioner of The Board of Consumer Affairs. Mayor Ed Koch and Meyerson were getting tough. Sometimes stances like the ones that Koch and Meyerson took were just for show and were short-lived. If you hung tough and were willing to wait for their display of “meaningful forcefulness” to run its course, you could get back to the business of making money. This was not one of those instances. I, but especially my partners, saw the handwriting on the wall. One of them consulted his attorneys who advised him against proceeding. When I met with him shortly before Christmas at the restaurant where our partnership was forged in the icebox, he politely declined to go any further. He asked, just between us, whether I needed any money. He must have seen, and gauged, just how effected I was. I told him no. He excused himself and went to the front of the bar as I ate. He came back and pressed an envelope into my hands, over my protestations. When I got home and opened it, it had thirty one hundred dollar bills with a note that read, “For Services Rendered, Much Thanks & Good Luck” without a signature. Even with that display of generosity, I landed hard, on the balls of my ass.
pgs 170-179: From Chapter VIII: JUNK SICK: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
Greenwich Village, 2015
Saturday, August 29, 2015
Jean left for California and took with her a fur coat that she’d bought for her mother with some of the money she’d made selling apartments. I could tell from the way Jean described her mother that this gift to her was as much a wish for her love and respect as it was a token of Jean’s belief that somehow she’d let her down. Her mom, according to Jean, sounded somewhat like my father’s mother, fiercely loyal to, and protective of, her family and, ruling that family with an iron will which, in part, she’d handed down to Jean. She learned no English in the considerable time she’d been here and, as far as I knew, had no love affair with the customs of her new country, including her daughter’s propensity for being with those of a mongrel race, Americans.
The day after New Year’s day Jean flew out. I met her eleven days later. I’d left Bistro Pascal after working New Year’s Eve knowing I, and the saloon, were going downhill fast. That night, New Year’s Eve (after scoring coke from Paul with Frankie, a friend of Garcia’s and one of the managers of the legendary gin mill, P.J. Clarke’s to begin the evening), was one long death knell for us at work. We tried (and some of us didn’t try too hard) to pretend otherwise, but it was a low point for all of us there. Garcia, though, with his charm made it work somehow. He did away with the customary staff meal and allowed us to order off the menu and kept feeding us what we desired. I made sure to have the prosciutto and melon, rack of lamb, French green beans, and lyonaisse potatoes, with a glass of red wine, before I consumed any drug that was on the scene that night, and there were many drugs that were being passed around. In a peculiar way, I was happy that we weren’t busy, even though on a night when bars, restaurants, and saloons and those who worked there made much money, we didn’t. New Year’s Eve, like many other “drinking” holidays, is a night for amateurs. If I had my druthers, I’d rather be with another person, preferably in my apartment, with the shades pulled down and doing anything or nothing, then being outside, at a party or in a bar that evening. If I couldn’t manage that, I’d then rather be working, having a thick piece of wood (in this instance, marble), come between the revelers and me. I’d then serve up fun and desperation in equal measures while keeping out of the fray.
Jean met me at The Bistro just before it struck twelve and produced a few grams of coke, which I had her pick up from Paul earlier that evening. We closed early for the kind of evening it was and made our way to P.J. Clarke’s where the night was just hitting it’s stride. We drank for another few hours, but I felt pretty hollow doing it and could not wait to get back to my place where I could just shoot the coke until it was gone. To that end, I was able to convince a few of the people I knew to give me what they could, said my New Year’s salutations to them and went home, where it got uglier.
Drunks and drug addicts are solitary, isolated people who become more so when in the act of drinking or using drugs, especially shooting them. We got home, and I immediately began using up what I’d brought back with me, with a compulsion born from a coagulation suffused with grief and riddled with the most corrosive feeling, fear. Grief for everything that had and hadn’t happened and fear, for what I’d turn into should I stop. When there was no more coke left, I opened up a bottle of wine and began drinking. The sun was up by now and Jean had quietly drifted off and I, looking around at the culmination of another year, was beginning to feel the wine work and was just grateful for that.
Jean met me at San Francisco International Airport. We stopped at Cafe Trieste, one of the oldest coffee houses and distributors in America, and had a wonderful cup of espresso amid the signed photos of Ginsberg and Kerouac among other beat writers who adorned the walls. We sat on the old rounded scarred wood chairs underneath a corrugated tin ceiling, sipped our coffees and smelled the rich aroma of roasted coffee beans. We didn’t talk much then, but rather just stared out the windows. I remembered being there well over a decade ago on a young odyssey into Southern California and Mexico with San Francisco being the first stop in my attempt to win back Corinne, whom I did, but at a price. How much of a price to her I’d never know. My mind always had a difficult time staying in the time I was in but would much rather fasten itself to where it had been, or where it was yet to go. We walked the few blocks to City Lights Books, where I hadn’t been since the late Sixties. It was as beautiful and as chaotic as I remembered. I inhaled deeply the wonderful smell of the flesh of books and it was here, in this environment, I browsed aimlessly for an hour before we made our way to her parent’s home. I was feeling better than I had felt for months, having stopped the cocaine binge New Year’s Day and had also cut down on the amount of booze I was putting into my system. I’d willed myself to stop and was lucky there was still some brake fluid left in the drums.
Her family greeted me warmly and was generous to me throughout my stay with them. Her mom eyed me suspiciously, yet showed me as much hospitality as anyone ever did and, when I ate with them, made sure my plate was filled first and kept filled with the most delicious of Chinese foods. She was a wonderful and seemingly effortless cook, and I ate her homemade dumplings and wontons and soups with tremendous enjoyment each night Jean and I dined with her and Don, Jean’s father. Don was the opposite of his mate. He was quiet, shy, and gentle, quite unlike his wife, the matriarch of the clan who, though I could not understand a single word she said, seemed to have a comment about everything, and everyone. Don was a retired medical lab technician who puttered around the house, tending his garden and plants and reading. We didn’t speak much, and he did not try to force the issue in any way but instead, just by his glances and acknowledgment of me, made me feel very welcomed.
Jean, however, was upset. Her mom had refused to take the fur coat she’d bought her, and no amount of reasoning could persuade her otherwise. If the coat was bought out of love or out of guilt or, as gifts like that sometimes are, bought out of a complicated childhood necessity made that much more important by the perplexity of unresolved adult hunger, parental acceptance, I didn’t know. What I told Jean was that I thought her mother should have just taken the gift and moved on, but now that she hadn’t been very gracious about receiving it, it was time for Jean to move on. Easy for me to say, I know.
After dinner that night I called Yarber, my old crony from my New School days, who had converted an abandoned Bar & Grill located near a whorehouse, across from the bus terminal in Oakland, into a studio where he painted and sometimes, if the painting was going good or the relationship with Hilary bad, lived. He had left Tulane in New Orleans where he’d been teaching painting primarily and was sometimes painting and relocated to California where he was primarily painting and sometimes taught. He’d been enjoying having his work shown in San Francisco and Los Angeles and was slowly, but steadily, gaining recognition as an artist to be reckoned with. He was supporting himself through his craft, which, as anyone who’s tried to pay his bills by way of his art knows, is triumph enough. We spoke and made up a time to meet. Jean was eager to meet him as well, after being regaled with my tales of the old days and her own desire to encounter a world she hardly knew.
It was dark with a light rain falling when we found the terminal for some of Oakland’s bus lines and Yarber’s place. I looked around as we were slowly searching for a spot to park and noticed the whorehouse that Yarber told me about across the street, on the second floor, with it’s curtained windows and dim yellow and red lights looking as sinful as sin.
Yarber, this tall, lanky, one-eyed Texan, stood at his front door apparently waiting for us to arrive. He peered at our car, trying to discern if I was in it, as we cruised to a stop in front of him.
“Hey, Savage,” he said in his half-drawl, “glad you could make it man.”
“Me, too. What’s shakin’?” I asked.
“This and that. Come in. You must be Jean.”
“Yeah, yeah, sorry. Bob Yarber, Jean,” I hastily said.
“He has the manners of an alley cat. Good to meet you.”
“You too,” Jean replied.
“Can we go the fuck in if this Love Fest is over?” I said, laughed, and moved past both of them, through the door into this yellow lit, ground floor of an abandoned saloon. To my left were the bar proper, broken in sections, so that the skeletons of old plumbing showed and the mouths of cabinets, once holding the booze and glasses stood ajar. The wood had layers of dust, while the mirror behind held the spider veins of random fractures. The wooden floor pitched and sagged and there were pieces of lumber scattered throughout while a few hurricane lamps, hung over doorframes or strung over a beam, provided whatever light there was. “How ya been man?” I asked.
“Makin’ it, ya know,” he replied. “You?”
“Can’t complain. I missed you man.”
“Missed you too Savage; how’s Brasz?”
“He’s cool; he’s painting a little and getting in trouble with chicks.”
“Who isn’t...oh, sorry Jean.”
“That’s O.K. you two guys catch-up. I’m going to look around, is that all right?”
“Sure, go ahead, just watch it. Hey guys, I got some beer upstairs.”
“Sounds good. Show me what you’ve been up to since I saw you last. Brasz tells me they’re finally starting to pay you some notice...and bucks.”
“Yeah, yeah, got some nibbles. Let me show you around.”
Yarber grabbed one of the hurricane lamps, with a long extension cord, and we followed him up a knock-kneed, doddered, decrepit, wheezing staircase to the second floor where he had his studio, but not before we paused to look at two of his older works. Each, I believe, was done in the early to mid-Seventies. They were huge canvases. Each measured roughly six by eight feet. One, facing the staircase directly was, “Mao Descending From Heaven.” It showed Chairman Mao, dressed in his military outfit, floating earthbound, with his little Red hat slightly askew. The colors, reds and browns mostly, were somber. The other, a gigantic portrait of Clifton Chenier, the Zydeco king of New Orleans, was Mao’s opposite. Chenier, showing a mouthful of teeth, some of which was inlaid with gold, was joyously playing his accordion while various crustaceans danced at his feet. Here the colors were dynamic, striking, infused with a rhythm of colorful joy.
The paintings in Yarber’s studio and the canvas he was working on, were much smaller in contrast to those just described, the colors just as vivid but the content addressed a more Southern Californian subject, the culture of swimming pools. The execution of this subject was funnier, and more vicious. He had bodies lying on chaise lounges in various states of repose, isolated in their own world, around a swimming pool while The Pillsbury Doughboy was about to either fall or jump into the water.
“Well, Yarbs, I can see you’re in some fuckin’ shape,” I said humorously. I was standing on his paint-splattered floor, a can of beer in my hand, looking at his painting. The studio was large, with canvases leaning against walls in various stages of completion. A small refrigerator and sleeping mattress was in one corner of the room, a large picnic like table holding his brushes and paints ran almost the length, while a sink stood alone in another corner. Windows, on two sides of the studio, overlooked the street and an alley.
Maybe it was looking at Yarber’s work that triggered it, or perhaps it was being in a strange and unfamiliar landscape that unleashed the desire, or maybe, as Toni Morrison suggested in her novel, Sula, if an artist doesn’t practice his craft that craft will eventually turn against him, that was the final arbiter in my cortex which prompted me to ask, casually, “Hey, Yarber, you know where I can get some coke around here?” And just like that, my stutter reappeared.
Bi-coastal mania. This time, however, having to live in Jean’s parent’s home prevented a full-blown episode of anarchic, perhaps nihilistic, addictive behavior. I settled for a part-time insanity assuaged by being able to travel outside myself and into Jean’s world of family considerations and San Francisco’s world of culture including it’s food, art, and literary Bohemia. I was relaxed enough to allow Jean to take me, and not my compulsion, around town and was thoroughly taken by her ability to understand what I was mostly fighting, and allowing me ample opportunity to work through that most formidable of enemies, myself.
My devil overtook me the night Jean and I were going to attend her Uncle Doon’s 60th birthday party. Jean’s mom had planned, and was the force behind, a banquet for 150 of their family and friends at a restaurant in Chinatown. When her parents left, I was free to pursue my mania without imposition or guilt. It was as if my parents, after days, weeks or months of imposing their peculiar brand of stricture, had abdicated their parental roles leaving me to do what I secretly desired, in this instance shoot coke. I had a gram and too many hours to kill. After I exhausted what I had, I called Yarber’s contact to get more and being that it was Sunday, it was more difficult, but not impossible. With each passing hour, Jean’s concern grew longer and her patience shorter. Again, I managed to call a halt to this run, and we arrived just a little late to her Uncle’s party. I was indeed an infant, and she indeed mothered me. I arrogantly thought my intellect and what I could show her, compensated for the work, time, and money she put in tending to my ass. Now I realize it’s anything but fair. For the knowledge I had was locked away upstairs while she’d had to rearrange her emotions everyday and, sometimes, from hour to hour, minute to minute. Not an enviable job.
Luckily, there were many toasts to Uncle Doon before any food was brought out and after I consumed enough alcohol to calm my being, I was able to eat and enjoy myself. On each table in the middle sat bottles of Johnnie Walker Red & Johnnie Walker Black scotches, and bottles of Remy Martin and Hennessy cognacs. If they noticed me pouring enough liquor into my glass to hasten my metabolic balancing act, they didn’t say. The foods that appeared at our table never seemed to end. There were various kinds of fish and also shrimp and lobster, soup was served in the middle of these courses and the meat, including pork and steak were served afterward. All during the meal, beer and booze were consumed amid the talk and laughter. Jean’s parents stayed to the end, but she and I left to meet Yarber and his girlfriend at a bar in North Beach. The next day, we left in a rented car for Malibu. I was going to see Jason Miller at his home there and also see someone I played basketball with in a park on Houston Street and Sixth Avenue, Bob Madero. He’d gone to L.A. to seek fame and fortune and, as yet, found neither in sufficient quantity, but he did land a job, through a relative, on a low-budget horror film. He’d mentioned to me that should I get out there within a prescribed period of time that he’d do what he could to get me some work on the film as well, as a writer.
We drove the magical coastline down to Los Angeles from San Francisco, taking us through the small towns that dot Southern California’s Big Sur. We purposely began our trip before sunrise and planned to be hitting our stride when the fog lifted off the lower depths of the earthbound highway and sea, exposing the majesty around us and skyward. We’d been able to score some good reefer before we left and, with the radio alternating between Bird and Beethoven, it was a wonderful journey. I do not hesitate to say that I believe that that stuff (smoking reefer) and doing that stuff (smoking reefer and doing anything else that reefer tends to augment) never grows old or stale and, if I were able to consume marijuana with what Dante says in The Inferno, XXVII, without fear or infamy (or in my case, leading to self-defeating drugs or drink), I would be sorely tempted.
We breezed into L.A. and when I called Madero he welcomed me with open arms, imploring us to visit him in his offices as soon as we could get over there. It seems there’s a heated competition between the East and West coasts that was going on long before I got here. The East coast is believed to be smug while its opposite holds an industry that provides untold riches, hostage. Whether it’s an arrogance borne out of New York City’s belief in our primacy in the universe of authenticity, or our aversion to anything sunny, is something I don’t profess to know. But whatever it might be, Madero warmly introduced me to those who were the money behind the film as a terrific writer from New York City. When he asked where I was staying I casually (but purposely) replied Jason Miller’s place, knowing he knew of Jason and his work and, as importantly, so did they. I met Jason through Tommy Sig (Signorelli, the actor and Tony nominated director of Lamppost Reunion), in the early Seventies while Jason was putting on his play, That Championship Season, for which he’d later win the Pulitzer. We spent many nights in The Cedar Tavern drinking and talking about writing and literature and the sometimes bane and balm of our existence, women. I called him at his office and he invited me to stay with him.
Madero’s producers, after I cradled the phone, asked if I wanted to help rewrite sections of the film for seven hundred and fifty dollars a week. They envisioned the changes would take between two to three weeks. I asked them to pay for a round trip ticket and, when they agreed, I told them that after cleaning up some business in New York, could be back in two weeks. I was secretly elated. I felt that finally I was getting paid for what I wanted to do, write. I’d come back, write and get healthy and then, who knows, check out other opportunities. A door had opened.
We drove the treacherous Pacific Palisades Highway and found, almost by accident, the little opening that proved to be a narrow dirt road leading to Jason’s home. The road eventually opened on his place, a two storied Mediterranean looking dwelling, sitting on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It is something that, if you’re unaccustomed to seeing, which I was, you never forget. There were wildflowers growing around a patio with wooden chairs and benches to the left. To the right were windows looking into the downstairs living room and, on the outside, a staircase leading up to Jason’s apartment. Directly behind the patio was a staircase which descended onto the beach and its rocks, some on sand and others in the surf, carved by time and the pounding of the Pacific Ocean.
The smell of brine and salt was in his apartment. He was listening to Waits’ Blue Valentine when Jean and I came in and we spent a few minutes talking about him and me cavorting in Coney Island and Greenwich Village. His apartment brought no attention to himself. You’d never know he’d won the Pulitzer or played one of the leads in one of the highest grossing films ever made, The Exorcist, in which he played Father Damian.
We sat on sofas in a space adjacent to the open kitchen on the left drinking beer and catching up on each other’s lives. Behind us was a large workplace with a desk, chairs, and fireplace. You could not mistake this space for being anything other than what it was, a writer’s room. For, above all else, he was a writer. Books lined the walls and were piled on the floor in stacks arbitrarily designed and placed, it seemed, in any location that presented itself. The atmosphere reminded me of some places I’d been in Provincetown and Gloucester Mass. It felt like the sea. Leading from this room, to the left, were three bedrooms and bathrooms, designed like the old railroad apartments in New York City. Jean and I were given the bedroom that faced the ocean.
I told him of the offer I’d just received and he cautioned me to be careful. “We’re mostly whores out here,” he said and quickly added, “try and lift your skirt only for those without disease or duplicity.” It’s said that the powers that be in Hollywood know they really have you after you’ve received your first jolt of fame. Like the first rush of junk into the brain and body of the neophyte, you try to reproduce it (and while in the hunt are willing to do just about anything), again and again and again. He was in the process of trying to get That Championship Season made into a film and we spoke about that and other projects he was working on at the moment and those he wanted to begin. I told him of my last screenplay and he seemed interested. Once back in New York, I told him, I’d send him a copy so that we’d be able to talk about it when I returned. Jean looked on and enjoyed the afternoon as well. We had brought some pretty potent reefer with us, and we went outside and sat on his patio and smoked it and watched as late afternoon turned into early evening.
That evening we piled into our car and went to a restaurant for dinner called, I Love Sushi, in Malibu. Jason introduced me to the owner as, “This is Savage. He might move here. He wrote parts of Francis’ Apocalypse Now.” The owner, now deferential to the point of my own embarrassment, proceeded to buy all of us sake before we ordered our dinner. Soon we were in our cups and began to talk about writers who influenced us. I said as weird as this might sound, coming from a person who’s lived near the exhaust fumes most of his life, Eliot had impressed me the most early on in my pursuit of language. Without missing a beat Jason began, Let us go then you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherized upon the table;. I picked it up from there: Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,/The muttering retreats...And so on until we finished the poem. The other patrons, by this time, had stopped eating and were watching and listening as we played off of and on each other until we reached the final stanza, which we recited in unison: We have lingered in the chambers of the sea/By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown/Till human voices wake us, and we drown. We then looked at each other, laughed, and heard applause from those in attendance. Our meals and after dinner brandies were bought for us, and shortly afterward we left. The whole day seemed too well timed to resemble anything like life.
We stayed the night at Jason’s and then drove back to Jean’s family in San Francisco. After saying goodbye to them, we dropped off the car and flew back to our pad in New York City. I didn’t really have much to do and, after speaking to Madero to confirm my job and sleeping arrangements, I began to gather the things necessary, like diabetic supplies, for my stay in California. I’d hoped that this would be a chance to “start fresh.” I had the same feeling each time a new year would start in elementary school. I’d buy a new notebook or loose-leaf binder and those tiny white and round reinforcements I’d glue to the holes in the clean lined, white paper in order that the pages wouldn’t tear away and get lost. Usually, after a week or two I no longer cared.
Madero picked me up at L.A.X. “There’s a little change in plans,” he announced, with the kind of a smile that tells you, you’re fucked. I felt like turning around and boarding the quickest jet back to Neuva York...and certainty. Perhaps, I should have. The person who Madero was sharing space with in a huge house refused to have company, and so he’d made arrangements with a woman he barely knew to shelter me, temporarily.
I’d taken, for security, five grams of coke and an ounce of potent pot from Paul before I left. As it turned out, that was hardly necessary. After making introductions he left, telling me he’d pick me up at eight the next morning. If he knew Nancy was a coke dealer, he didn’t tell me. It seemed she supplied every Mariachi band in Southern California. They were arriving at her home through the night. Sometimes, they stayed to play her a song or two before journeying to destinations unknown. The music wasn’t as bad as her coke, with which she was pretty generous. I found myself augmenting her supply with some of my own. Though I did so with, and by, myself.
When Madero picked me up the next morning, I explained the situation of last night and he promised he’d find me another place to lay up. My trouble deepened when, at the studio, one of the executive producers asked him who I was and what I was supposed to be doing on the picture. Madero, with some embarrassment, explained the chronology of events to him and who had approved my hiring. We moved to the office I’d be working out of and, after the door was closed, Bob explained to me what had transpired recently. His uncle, who had placed him, was fired, and the picture seemed to be in jeopardy of not continuing production. He tried to reassure me that he felt reasonable secure that the film would go on and I’d be O.K. as well, though I felt none too safe.
Madero moved me from house to house, apartment to apartment, that week while I rewrote parts of the script. I carried all my baggage with me and, early one morning, was stopped for jaywalking while going to work by a motorcycle, sun-glassed L.A. cop. In the bright sunshine I was wearing a raincoat, shades, and trying to balance, what must have looked like goods from a heist, in my arms. He let me go after I explained why I was in the shape I was in.
Most notable in all I was rewriting was the scene about a telephone cord unraveling, slinking up the leg of a chair and wrapping itself around the throat of a character whose name I have long forgotten. In fact, most of it was forgettable. At the end of the first week, when I went for my pay, the bookkeeper said there was none for me. I went to Madero who went to them. After he came back to me with that same embarrassed look on his face, I went into their offices and asked for what they’d promised me. They tried to play it off like they didn’t know what I was talking about. I went into Madero’s office, picked up the phone and dialed a number of a friend of my father’s in Brooklyn. He asked if I knew who they were and who, if anyone, they were “connected” to who might matter. I told him that some of their money was coming from a person involved with the garment center in Manhattan and gave him his name. He asked me for their names and telephone numbers. A half hour went by and the heaviest set guy walked into Madero’s office. He apologized and gave me an envelope with two weeks worth of pay. I took it and didn’t work the second week.
Instead, I got in touch with Jason (who’d been out of town) and stayed with him for the rest of my stay. He gave me a bedroom and the keys to a car. It was difficult to get the taste of defeat and failure out of my mouth. I knew that I’d be going back to New York with no more of an idea of what to do than at any other time in my recent past. When I spoke with Jean and she told me that she was working with a person I knew who owned a bar in my neighborhood, I asked her to see if I could get a job there. I was sorry to leave Jason, his home and some others who I met, but I needed to work. He drove me to the airport.
pgs 164-170, From Chapter VII: JUNK SICK: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
Greenwich Village, 2015