Thursday, August 27, 2015


New York City is saturated with dreams by people of all ages. Everyday, those dreams are crushed out, if they’re lucky, or shit rubbed into them if they’re not. Numbers are big. Lotto is big. People are working at what they don’t want to be: There are actresses as waitresses, writers as bartenders, actors as cabdrivers, dancers as horticulturists. All of them are making the rent while waiting for a phone call. When the phone rings, it could be from your agent, a publishing house, Vegas, Hollywood, Broadway, or God. Usually, it’s your mother complaining about her hemorrhoids and why you haven’t called. It’s such a tough town that your dreams have to be tougher, more tenacious, and harder to extinguish. If you give them up you’re no longer a child, you’re just an adult with an asshole and an opinion, and Christ, everybody has those.

I opted out of group. I felt I had had enough. I didn’t want to hear the same people with the same voices enunciating the same problems, including myself. “Shut the fuck up and get on with it,” I said to myself. Perhaps the decision to leave group was evidence of a further withdrawal from humanity where everyone was allowed to be human, painfully human. I, however, was leaning away from that. My next screenplay, A Case of Insanity, would testify to that. What is closer to the truth, and what I believe today, is that the addict (me) on an unconscious level always desire a substance or substances that will allow them to return to the fantasy. They are never neutral and each and every decision or rationalization that turns you away from a structure or situation that represents “health” or the possibility of staying in “reality” is a step, perhaps a small step at first, back to the abyss.
A Case of Insanity was a fictionalized recounting of the Son of Sam murders. In it, I tried to sum up the narcissistic and dangerous 1970’s. It was a cold, ice-like work that should have been directed by Fassbinder, in black and white. There was no one in the work that the audience could root for, let alone identify with. It was self-interest that paved the way for the decade of mergers, consolidations, ice, cocaine, and money, that was but a prelude to our run toward shallowness and homogenization.

The latter part of September, a thin strip of magnesium was lit: flash/poof. When that happened in science class, a blinding flash occurred and then, like The Lone Ranger riding out of town, you Hi-Ho’d Silver’d it to another class. However, when that flash occurred in my life, it lay smoldering in my brain for weeks, sometimes months.
A friend to whom I’d given my first screenplay, Coney Island, had in turn given it to a big-time producer, and he called me. He told me that my script was one of three being considered for production. He was to have lunch with him later that week and, since he’d done many favors for this man, was sure that he could push my interests further. The flash occurred, and I was not to wait. I wanted to work harder on A Case of Insanity. I went out for coffee to fuel the effort.
I bounded down the flights of stairs and out the door into the afternoon bustle. Nothing could go wrong. I was invincible again, a king in spite of myself. There, parked in front of my building, sitting in a blue, beat-up Kharman Ghia reading, was a beautiful Asian young woman. “Jesus, this is too good to be true. Everything fits,” I said to myself. Fate grabbed me by my balls, and led me toward the car.
She looked like my alter ego sitting there. She was tranquil, self-contained, and absorbed. I was like an inert gas possessing no valance. “Ah, excuse me,” I said, bending my knees slightly to get on a level with her window. Her face turned slowly toward me. “Christ,” I said to myself, “she’s more beautiful full-face.”
“Excuse me,” I said again, “are you an actress?”
“No, I’m not,” she replied pleasantly enough, with no hint of being put off or arrogant.
“You’re not, huh?...Well, maybe you should be.” I pressed on. “Listen, I know this might sound a bit strange but I just finished a screenplay where my protagonist meets and falls in love with a woman of Asian background, and I’m not sure whether some of the scenes I wrote work. Would you mind reading it and maybe we could talk about it later?”
“I’m not an actress, and I’ve never read a screenplay before.”
“You read; I see you reading,” I said, and we both laughed. “That’s all you really have to do. Either it will sound right to you or it won’t,” I continued, pushing her.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so,” she said, trying to let me off easily and without too much discomfort for either one of us.
I was not to be deterred. “Why don’t you give me your number?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Stop saying that, will you? You’re not married, are you?”
“No, I’m not,” she answered.
“Well, I’ll give you my number. How’s that?”
“No, that won’t work. Let’s just leave it at that.”
“Do you live in the neighborhood?”
“Yes, not far.”
“Good, think about what I said. I’m sure we’ll meet again or, if you change your mind, you can contact me through The Cedar Tavern across the street. Everyone knows me there. My name’s Savage and,” I turned around pointing, “I live right here, 2-A.” I looked back at her, smiled and said, “O.K. take care of yourself.”
“You too,” she said. I turned and walked away. By the time I returned with a container of coffee it was after six p.m. (the time when those who play the alternate street parking game in Manhattan can safely leave their cars without getting a ticket or towed), and she was gone. As I was going up the stairs, I thought about being out there the same time tomorrow, but, once I got upstairs, I couldn’t wait for tomorrow. I wrote a note and put it on her windshield with my phone number, asking her to call. I got upstairs and it began raining. It was the kind of rain that stopped and started again. When it stopped, I changed the note. It began raining, again. I changed the note. Again, it rained. “Fuck this,” I said to myself. I set my alarm for six a.m. I woke up, wrote the same note and left it under her wipers. I forgot about the trees, they leak. The Kharman Ghia and wet note was still there; I ran upstairs and changed the note.
Two weeks later, I saw her again. I went up to her car and leaned down. “How come you didn’t call?” I asked, trying not to startle her.
She turned her head slowly in my direction and said, “I’m still deciding.”
“It’s a good thing I didn’t need open-heart surgery. Well, how about it? Will you read it, or what?”
“I’m going away to my sister’s in Cape Cod. I guess I could read it then, up there.”
“Wait, don’t go nowhere. I’ll get you a copy. And call me when you’ve finished. My number’s on the first page,” I turned to go but quickly added, “What’s your name, by the way?”

A month later and I heard from no one: not Jean, not the producer, and not from my friend who gave it to him. I decided to call him. I’ve learned, most painfully, that when you have to call “them,” “them” being jobs, producers, women, in short, any person that you want or expect something from, it’s usually no go and no good. The answer you were hoping was “yes” is invariably “no.” This time was no different. “Norm, I’m sorry,” he began, “I made a mistake. I’ve been meaning to call you back, but I’ve been busy, ya know? Anyway, I misinterpreted what he had said to me initially, I’m sorry.”
“That’s O.K.” I said to him. “You only heard what we both wanted to hear. Anyway, at least you tried for me. Most wouldn’t have done that. I appreciate it.”
After two years of waiting and hoping, I resigned myself to the fact that Coney Island, was a dead issue.

I needed a gig. I continued writing A Case of Insanity, but needed to make rent. I was friendly with a guy from Handelsman’ group who was a lawyer, whose family owned banks, who wanted to fool around with television stardom, and thought with the rise of cable and public access stations, he could become a TV talk show personality, eventually being picked-up by the more traditional networks. Really, he enjoyed fucking society dames and this segued nicely into that. He asked me to write for him for nothing until he made it, and he’d give a few bucks as a stipend per week. When I asked him if he knew anyone in the bar business that he could introduce me to he said, “Yeah, sure my cousin has a very successful spot he just opened. It’s right around the corner from the studio. We’ll go after the show for a few drinks. I’ll introduce you.”
Steve Oren, was a half partner in Oren & Aretsky’s. It was one of the more successful watering holes on Third Avenue, between 84th and 85th Streets. It was the saloon of destination for The New York Yankees, Knicks, and Rangers from the late 70’s until the early 80’s. Oren, once the male model for Winston cigarettes, had been married to Jennifer O’Neal. After meeting me, he introduced me to his other half, Ken Aretsky, who hired me. He started me at first with two shifts but shortly expanded them to include brunch on Saturday and Sunday.
Where there are high-priced professional jocks, there are beautiful women, and where there are beautiful women, there are guys spending lots of money to be seen with them and, if they’re lucky, bed some of them down as well. It’s synergistic and combustible, while it lasts. Everyone who’s associated with the saloon makes money, and I was no exception. In fact, I made a lot of money because I knew what to do behind this kind of bar. I was fast, funny, but aloof. I remembered the customers, not by their names but by what they drank and how much they tipped. I manipulated most by knowing who they were and what they wanted and purposely crossing up their signals in conspiratorial exchanges and intelligent and funny repartee; and, like most bartenders I knew, stole. I poured generous amounts of whiskey into their glasses, bought the tippers drinks, and averaged between one-fifty and two hundred dollars per shift, cash. I also ate and drank for nothing during the time I spent there. The food was terrific, and the liquor top shelf.
My three compatriots, Kenny, John, and Barry had been working there for quite some time when I arrived. Kenny and John were bartenders and Barry was the head chef. There were many other people who worked there. There were two Chinese men who worked in the basement, for instance, who did nothing except peel potatoes for the hundreds of orders we received each night for French Fries, but it was those three with whom I grew close. Both Kenny and John were working to support themselves while they tried to do other things. In John’s case it was acting, in Kenny’s, writing.
It did not take me long to make the “Savage Rules” at the bar. No one, no matter how attractive the man or woman might be (unless they were regulars who left a large tip because they were hip to the fact it was your stool they were sitting on, and you needed to see a return on that piece of property), was allowed to stay at the bar waiting for “somebody” to come in without drinking. No one, was allowed to remain at the bar nursing a drink, or worse, a bottle of Perrier, for a period determined by how busy the night was; and no one could drink without tipping. At first, John and Kenny were amazed at some of my actions, but it made them money too so they didn’t complain.
The management was making so much loot they didn’t much care what we did. As long as they heard the cash register ringing, they usually backed our play. Aretsky, a slick Jewish boy from Long Island, dressed in Armani, always had his hand draped around the jocks who hung there, and was the public relations force behind the saloon. The athletes did make the saloon their home, and why not. They were treated like kings and “comped” for what they ate and drank. They made hundreds of thousands, in some cases millions, of dollars a year and never had to reach into their pockets to pay for anything. Interestingly enough, they tipped worse than jazz musicians. At least most jazz musicians had a reason. They worked sparingly and when they did, usually it was for “short money,” but these athletes, Christ! At first I tried to be humorous with them. “Hey, it’s O.K. to tip, I won’t say nothin’,” I’d say to those who would belly-up to my bar, but they were a dense lot, with a few exceptions, like Pinella from The Yankees and Esposito from The Rangers, who tipped and tipped well. Two incidents serve to illustrate their arrogance and density. The first was with Mr. October, Reggie Jackson. He’d come into the place, and we’d have to hang his white fur coat in a room in the basement and, store bottles of Miller Light just for him because he was one of their spokesmen. We’d lug it upstairs to serve him and whomever he happened to be with that evening. He would point to people he knew and motion for us to buy them drinks, which we did, of course. He never got a tab, and he’d leave us nothing. Finally, one evening, after running around for him for hours, he was getting up to leave and I went downstairs to bring up his coat. Handing it to him I said, “Reggie, I know the booze and food are free, but the service isn’t. That’s how we, I, make a living.” He handed the coat back to me, reached into his pocket, and handed me a buck. I handed it back. “Keep it,” I said to him.” He turned and walked out, shaking hands with a few people as he went.
The second incident happened during a Sunday brunch. It was kind of slow that day. I had the TV on to some football game and a few regulars were at the bar, drinking beer and eating some fries. There was one attractive blond woman, who I didn’t know, sitting further down, alone, sipping on a white wine. I had a seven dollar tab for her behind the bar. I ran tabs for everyone. Walt Frazier, or Clyde as he was known, double parked his Rolls outside the saloon and sauntered in. I said hello to him and he to me as I watched his eyes light upon the comely thing at my bar, fingering her wine glass. He went over to her, said something I couldn’t hear, and she rose to leave. Frazier began walking out of the bar when I stopped him.
“Clyde,” I began, nearly whispering, “she has a seven dollar tab here.”
He turned to her as she was going past him, obviously going to his Rolls, grabbed her elbow and said, “Pay your bill, I’ll wait in the car.” He rounded, and left.

Jean called and apologized for the time lapse between her taking the script, reading it, and getting back to me. I asked her to meet me at The Cedar Tavern where we could discuss it over drinks. I did much more drinking than talking about the script. I didn’t have much interest in the script at that time, but pretended, as I often did at any time, especially with women, that I meant what came out of my mouth. She told me that a ten year relationship was coming to an end. When I inquired further she was, I thought, purposely vague, although she did intimate that the guy she was seeing was wanted by many law enforcement agencies for questioning. When I probed, she resisted and said it would be better, for both of us, if she didn’t say anymore. I usually took what other people said, especially about criminal enterprises, with a grain of salt. Coming from the background I did, it was hard for me to imagine how this diminutive, cultured, and very attractive Chinese woman could be involved with real tough guys. Besides, by not telling me too much she was being loyal, which I admired and respected. I walked her a few blocks to where she was staying and kissed her goodnight, and we said we’d continue this at a time in the very near future.
Being involved with so many different things on different levels did not stem my anxiety from escalating. I began asking the types of questions that smack of self-pity and lead, eventually, to the short and sweet anthem sung by the many drunks and drug addicts that I know, “Fuck-it.” ‘All those years that I’d worked, for what? All those years that I’d abstained from drugs, for what? Where had it all gotten me?’ These questions led to more shallowness. It had just made me more aware of what people had that I didn’t. In fact, it was more painful. Self-pity is one of the more nauseating indulgences that a person can perform, whether silently or for public consumption, it smells of the worst kind of sentimentality and corruption. I have engaged in it more times than I like to remember. It usually is accompanied by a drink or a drug which serves to ease the slivers of razor blades as they cut the memory of recriminations and regrets.
Handelsman, sensing my deterioration, cut down on my sessions rather than increase them. He saw I was no longer able to concentrate for long periods of time without getting distracted. I would say to him that I was feeling like a woman who goes to the seashore and tries to put just the amount of shells she can carry in her apron and take them back to her home to get through another day. My days were being lived only to get through. The constant drinking had begun to take its toll and wither away a resolve that I’d spent a great deal of time and energy to secure.
I began to think: If I just smoke a little reefer again it would take less of a toll on my body.
I was about to unlock a bolt.


Norman Savage
Greenwich Village, 2015

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