Wednesday, August 26, 2015
PLUCKING THE FRUITS OF A MISSPENT YOUTH--FROM CHAPTER VII--CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
It was nearly summer, and rather than try to land a gig in the straight world of nine-to five, I decided that bartending, with the double-barreled action of quick money and women, better suited my desires. Besides, I had made many friends from my nights spent at The Other End with whom I played basketball on a concrete slab of a park, on Sixth Avenue and Houston Street, in the afternoon, and I wanted to preserve this day/night dichotomy. Also, I had become friends with someone who would become an important part of my life and influence my thinking for some time to come. One evening I was invited to a crap game hosted by a bartender from The Other End, George, where I met the singer/songwriter, Tom Waits. We became fast friends after our bantering back and forth after we discovered that we had much in common, the appreciation of the writer, Charles Bukowski, with whom he used to play gigs with, being just one.
Waits was carving out a place in the music world that would be uniquely his and enjoying the stress that goes with it. Funny, irreverent, and multitalented, he rekindled the writing bug in me. He’d call me in the middle of the night from places that seemed like outposts in America, small cities in Idaho or Minnesota, that he played in to coincide with the release of his album. We’d usually talk for a few minutes and fill each other in on what we were doing, or reading and sometimes writing. When he stayed in Manhattan, usually at The Chelsea Hotel, a few blocks from my apartment, we’d see each other frequently. We’d bounce ideas off each other and laugh, always laugh about the absurdities each of us experienced and tried to formalize in words. “Savage,” he’d growl, “tell me what you know about Potter’s Field,” or, “what can I do with my strung-out sax player?” One of the most important things Waits told me was during an evening in The Cedar Tavern. I drinking Chivas Regal and he, Wild Turkey, discussing the difficulty of expressing the “truth in confessional writing.” “Savage,” he said, “you’re a writer; it’s O.K. to lie.” He was well ahead of the curve on “creative nonfiction.”
Pat Kenny, a legendary saloon keeper, was opening a place on Bleecker Street. I opened the saloon with him that summer. It was a place that was so old it could have been designed by Margaret Mead. You had to walk down a long flight of rickety wooden stairs to get to the ice-machine and then lug buckets of it back upstairs. You’d do this five to seven times a night. I made all my money in tips from four to five-thirty in the morning when ten to fifteen cops, just having gotten off their shift, would come in to kill a few quarts of Irish whiskey before going home, or wherever it was they were bound.
While working and hanging-out with Waits and Doc, I began writing poetry again and, as if by magic, I came up with an idea for a screenplay. Coney Island, would be about a writer who meets and falls in love with a Japanese woman. However, he is being manipulated by a wealthy socialite who has promised him publication and fame. Does he sell his soul, not to mention his balls, in the bargain? Stay tuned, for a hundred and twenty pages.
At the same time, Handelsman and the group were encouraging me to go back to school to earn a Master of Social Work degree. He thought that I’d make a good therapist, especially in treating addictive-compulsive disorders. I didn’t disagree and, in fact, was drawn to that particular area of psychology and therapy.
The plan that Handelsman had put in front of me was straight forward. The shortest route to being admitted to a psychoanalytical training school would require an M.S.W. He suggested the Adelphi School of Social Work. It was too late to apply, but give me an angle to work on, give me a mountain that is difficult to climb, and I’m pretty resourceful. My father had been friendly with Charles Raffa for decades. Raffa owned a business that sold refrigeration equipment to supermarkets. He had a daughter, Matilda, who was married to the then Lt. Governor of New York State, Mario Cuomo. I contacted Charlie, explained that I needed Cuomo to write a letter asking Adelphi to make an exception to their cutoff date for applications in my case. The Lt. Governor was accommodating, as husbands generally tend to be. I was accepted in the fall term and chose to go at night, leaving a few evenings and weekends open for me to still bartend.
Kenny’s Castaways, the bar on Bleecker Street where I was working, was not throwing off enough money to make it worth my while to remain. A friend, Richie Jossin, whom I met while he was a bartender at The Other End, and with whom I gambled on basketball games (and lost plenty of money, but wrote a poem, Hoops, 3 and a 1/2 Points, which, in a way, while never making it even, struck a sort of balance), suggested that I join him working at another saloon on The Bowery, The Tin Palace. The Tin Palace was an interesting combination of saloon and jazz joint, and pretty soon I had a couple of shifts there.
That September my pop got tickets for the Ali vs. Norton bout for The Heavyweight Championship Of The World, held at Yankee Stadium. I had been an Ali fan since he’d won Olympic Gold. My father, who’d only heard his words from the papers he read, had minimized him for years until I convinced him to watch him fight. Once seeing him in action, my father converted. He acknowledged that even his favorite heavyweight, Joe Louis, would probably have lost to this ring magician. He could punch with either hand, hit hard while backpedaling, dance and box like Sugar Ray for fifteen rounds on a six foot four, two hundred and twenty pound frame, could take a punch and, was one of the great ring tacticians to ever lace-up a pair of gloves. Angelo Dundee, his trainer for all his professional life, had said he was the first fighter he’d ever seen who could go the full three minutes that a round lasted and never blink his eyes. In his prime, I don’t believe there was anyone who could beat him. I remember listening on a little transistor radio the night he fought Jerry Quary in Atlanta, after serving a three year exile for refusing to go into the Army and serve in the Vietnam War. I didn’t hate Quary, but I wanted to see Ali destroy him, which he did; he stopped Quary on cuts in five or seven rounds.
Even though we had ringside seats, the action before the fight was, in many ways, more exciting than the fight itself. Sinatra and Stallone and Frazier nestled among the pimps and women plumed and turned-out in the most outlandish outfits of peacock finery and broad-brimmed hats. They walked in and around Yankee Stadium that night, leaving a scent of sex in their wake. Before the fight, you could see the air pulsating and hear the buzz from the swell. Heads swiveled and turned, and when you looked around, you saw fifty-six thousand other people enjoined in the spectacle.
The awkward style of Norton always presented problems for Ali. He, however, prevailed in a decision that night, but seeing him live and moving in the ring was enough for me. It is enough sometimes just to see them live, working their craft. I used to get a thrill seeing Jordan in his prime, just dribbling the basketball up court.
Waits was back in town promoting his second album, The Heart of Saturday Night, with a couple of nights performing at The Bottom Line and appearing on Saturday Night Live. Doc and I made most of his dates and, after watching Duvall perform brilliantly in Mamet’s, “American Buffalo,” sat in the “green room” while Waits performed on TV. The good times we had though were usually quite separate from those of his professional life.
We would journey to Times Square arcades, catch flesh at some strip club like The Baby Doll Lounge, go to The Cedar or Doc’s pad or mine, talk and laugh and bullshit through the night and then get some food, the greasier the better, at an all night diner or cafe. One night, we even saved a woman, Miriam, in Coney Island. It was after a torrential rainstorm that we decided to journey into Brooklyn, eat at Nathan’s, and show Waits Coney Island where we played some Skee-ball and shot some bears.
In a way I felt that Doc and Waits were the embodiment of the years I’d spent at The New School. Waits was trying to carve out a place for himself in the entertainment industry. He was a triple threat: musician, writer, and singer. Doc, though a psychiatrist, wanted to write and was battling those instincts in his everyday life while attending to people, and I was writing now, while tending bar and going to graduate school.
Things were not nearly as exciting or humorous at Adelphi. After seeing the other students and attending the first few classes, I questioned whether this was the right profession for me. Not only did I feel superior to the students there, but to the professors as well, with the exception of Michael Fabricant, my sociology professor, who espoused the redistribution of wealth as the only real answer to rectify the ills of the ruling class.
The students, mostly women, wore “Have A Nice Day” faces in class that went well with their “reindeer sweaters.” It seemed they were prepared to lie down on the curb’s edge in order for “the suffering masses” to step on their backs while crossing over the puddled streets to the other, and more brightly lit, side. Their maternalism disgusted me. They believed their desire to “help and do good” was enough to warrant their place in the social work world. I wanted to suggest to a few of them, after listening to them espouse their reasons for getting into this line of work, to cut off a tit and hang it on a nail in the caverns of Grand Central Station so any poor person who needed a good suck or two could get one. And the teachers were, by and large, no better. Most believed there was a formula that could and would address any and all existing problems. It was hard to sit and listen to those who so obviously had never been outside a classroom (except, perhaps, in the internship phase of their graduate work), and in the world they tried to represent, theorize. The idea of writing papers for these professors nauseated me. In fact, as far as I was concerned, they should just give me the degree based on my life experiences and accomplishments. Knowing they were not about to do that, I was ready to leave and concentrate on working as a bartender and writing, taking my chances on what would happen next.
Handelsman tried to get me to stick it out and stay in school. He thought I was getting too hung up in the process and was losing sight of the goal. I, however, was enjoying the night life, and all that it provided.
The money I made, working behind the bar, was fast, and so were the women. My only two concerns prior to bedding down with them were: Did I have enough to eat that night to thwart going into insulin shock?; and, did I drink enough not to care what I was doing and with whom I was doing it with? Once I got home, a glass of orange juice would eliminate the first concern, and the drinks I had at the bar would have taken care of the other. Alcohol, like drugs before it, created a wall between me and the women I was with at any given time. All of these things, the money, the job, the booze, the friends, the women, and the writing, allowed me to keep the myth I had of myself and the world alive, and that was not necessarily a bad thing.
The Tin Palace was, as I’ve said, situated right on The Bowery. Across the street were two local dens of iniquity and infamy. The first was CBGB’s, the first pantheon of punk-rock in America. The second, adjacent to it, was The Sunshine Hotel, the home of those who have hit the skids and, consequently, the underbelly of life, transients, derelicts, alcoholics, addicts, and other pilgrims who have discovered an America that exists in stark contrast to the dot.com fever of our age. The Tin Palace had a glass enclosed front that served as a dining room and looked out at the denizens on The Bowery who, at times, looked in. Our patrons would sit in front eating a steak or lobster special, sipping wine or a cocktail, and those failures of Puritanism would come over, press their face against the glass and stare at them as they tried to eat. We had a bouncer, Jimmy Blackwell, who tried to shoo them away or sometimes had to resort to tougher measures. One night, Jimmy was late in getting to work and I, besides a waitress and chef, were the only ones in the saloon other than a few customers. I looked out front and saw a young woman walking her dogs. I knew her because she lived in a loft next door. It was a time when lofts were still cheap and artists, not brokers, could live in them. I saw one of those “Plymouth Rock” dropouts, very obviously mentally deranged, accost her. She screamed, and I leaped from behind the bar and ran outside. I tried to separate them, but he had her by the hair and would not let go. I saw from the corner of my eye some other booze hounds and former jailbirds running towards us. I didn’t know if they were going to help me or him. While still trying to separate them, I heard noises coming from the other side of the street. I quickly turned my head and looked behind me and saw people I recognized who worked at the gas station, and they were carrying pipes, as they crossed the street. I did not want this to turn more bloody then it was already. Try as I would, I could not get this guy to let go of her. Finally, I took hold of his hair that, because of the grease, nearly slid out of my fingers, and lifted his head up to a point where I could get in a clean shot. I hit him, as hard as I ever hit anybody, over his eye and knocked him over, opening a gash above his eyebrow. But he finally let go. The others from the gas station had scared off the other wanderers. I took the young woman inside the bar and let the cops, who had just arrived, take care of the mess outside. I gave her a drink and poured myself one as well.
The woman went with the cops to the precinct to file a complaint and Jimmy, who had just arrived, called Jack, who owned the place, to get another bartender to cover for me because I couldn’t work. My hand had swelled so badly that I couldn’t put it around a glass, let alone pour whiskey. I took a cab to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where the x-rays on my hand and wrist were negative. A week later the young woman found me at work, invited me out for dinner a few days later, and fucked me afterward. I told her it wasn’t necessary, and she said she knew that. I’d say she had class to do that as a matter of course. It simply was something she needed to do to balance the celestial scales.
Bobby, my brother, had moved into my building. Working in my father’s store and living in my parent’s house were too stifling for a lifestyle that favored alcohol, the occasional drug, and women. Although he was tremendously influenced by what my father said, or didn’t say, he still chose to live in Manhattan. Knowing what I did about him, his life in the store and how he’d had to capitulate to most every one of my father’s demands, I’d been encouraging him for quite some time to, at least, live an independent life out of their home. Perhaps, after going through drug treatment, private therapy, and had begun to craft my own life (or so I felt), I was less threatened, jealous and more giving toward him. He had initially found a place near me on Ninth Street, off Fifth Avenue. However, my father rejected it. He waited until my father approved. I introduced him to all my friends from The Cedar Tavern, and The Other End: Waits, Jason Miller, the author and actor, women and the assortment of friends I consorted with at that time, such as Ken Brown, the Pulitzer nominated playwright of, The Brig, Tommy Sig, the actor/director and Dutch, the waiter, actor, stevedore and professor of life lived on the margins. He seemed to enjoy the differences in personality, intelligence, and wit from those friends he knew and grew up with in Brooklyn. In fact, it was like night and day. He was able to enlarge his universe to include those with talent, art, music, and madness in their blood into his own world, enlarging it, and in the process, making him bolder. I did not know, until many years later, that he’d already begun his cocaine odyssey. Knowing what I’d been through, he hid that fact pretty well from me. I knew he liked his alcohol and could drink, but then again, so could I. The only real drawback of having him in my building was my father. He’d call and wake me up early in the morning to go upstairs and rap on Bobby’s door to get him up to go into work. I asked him why he didn’t call Bobby himself and he responded by telling me my brother wouldn’t pick up. They fought with each other all the time and, though I tried to avoid it, involved me too often in their arguments. I have often thought they liked and, in some perverse way, needed it.
Nearing summer, I had finished Coney Island, and the poetry I was writing was beginning to find an audience in small magazines and presses. I was also finishing my run at bartending. The night life was taking a toll on my diabetes. I felt by arbitrarily taking my morning shot whenever I arose and eating at different times, coupled with the amount of booze I was consuming, I had compromised my health. When I saw Dr. Bernstein, for the first time in nearly a year, he confirmed it. Even though my mood was as good as he’d seen in a long time, he didn’t like how I looked, regardless of what the blood tests would determine. Alcohol, he was quick to tell me, is dangerous for diabetics, especially hard liquor; first it cuts blood sugar and then increases it. Who can say how much and when? If there’s one thing the diabetic, especially the insulin dependent diabetic, needs to be is consistent. I was about as consistent as a person running for president.
At the same time, therapy with Handelsman was becoming more intense and painful. I was dealing with identification, or lack of it, with my father. My feelings of being less than a man were compensated by drugs, booze and, to a greater or lesser extent, women. My anger and self-contempt knew no bounds. However, with that pain came rewards. I was clean (if you forget the booze) going on six years, independent (a rationalization at best--for I still depended on the largesse of my parents), and had a social life which rewarded me. Although I had not found myself “professionally” yet, I was sure it would come.
Waits was up for a role in the film version of Edward Bunker’s novel, No Beast So Fierce. It was later renamed, Straight Time, and starred Dustin Hoffman. I’d sent my screenplay to Waits at the motel that he stayed at in L.A., The Tropicana, and he had given it to Hoffman. A few weeks later, while sitting in my apartment, Hoffman called to tell me he enjoyed the script but felt it wasn’t right for him, nor his production company, Sweetwall. We spoke on the phone about what I was working on now, and I told him it was a legitimate play about the offspring of concentration camp survivors, the premise being that the children were enclosed in the barbed-wire of their parents’ experience and the harshness and brutality of the parents’ lives impact greatly on the lives of their children. He told me that that subject had always intrigued him, particularly Hitler, and asked me to share some of what I had read about the subject, which I did. He asked me to keep in touch, should I finish that or anything else. It boosted my spirits and was a confirmation of sorts. Still, I knew it was time for a change.
I decided to leave The Tin Palace at the end of that summer and concentrate on getting a square, nine-to-five job. Besides, jazz musicians don’t tip.
pgs 138-142, From Chapter VII: JUNK SICK: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
Greenwich Village, 2015