Monday, August 17, 2015


Barbara, my conjugal hospital visitor, lived in Brooklyn Heights, near the promenade, facing the steel and concrete view of Manhattan. Nearly six feet, blue eyed and beautiful, she was razor quick and very crazy. As I said before, she was never one to refuse a favor, and she met me on St. Mark’s Place in The East Village the night before I was to begin work. She knew a junk connection that lived across the street from a pizza parlor where, at a little past midnight, we met. I got her out of bed, and she looked it. She wore a fake fur coat over a nightgown and boots. She handed me ten glassine bags for which I gave her a hundred. “You’ll like it,” was all she said. I got up and left.
Once that dope is in your hands, your stomach starts doing flips whether you used yesterday or years ago. Those butterflies are racing, and you can’t wait to get to that private place where there are no distractions and no unsolicited intrusions. I bought a soda from an all night market across the street from The Navarro, went upstairs, and emptied the bottle in the sink in the bathroom, giving me a “cooker” for the junk. My nerves were tapping against my skin as I emptied the bag into the cap, licked the bag clean, mixed the junk in the cap with water, lit a cigarette and, from a book of matches, twisted together three of them which I lit from a cigarette. I held them under the cap and cooked the mixture until it liquefied, and dropped in the tiny cotton ball and sucked it up through the syringe’s eye. I belted my arm, found a vein, shot it, and waited. I felt the first rush, took a drag from the Lucky, booted it, and shot it again. It was good, but it didn’t put me where I wanted to be. I immediately thought of what they said at Areba. “No amount of dope would erase what I had learned about myself there.” “Fuck it,” I said to myself, and shot another bag. That worked.

Bloomingdale’s, always an intoxicating mix of expensive and more expensive wares, had geared up for Christmas. The store was in its sartorial splendor. Going through the front door was like opening a florist’s refrigerator and being greeted by the moist fragrance of rose petals. The women, young and old, looked beautiful behind their counters catering to, and putting make-up on, those of equal beauty but separated by their moneyed and, on occasion, storied lives. I worked upstairs, on the sixth floor, in the book department where there was another twelve to fifteen full and part-timers with me. Quickly, I learned the system and, just as quickly, learned how to steal from it, but stealing money from the cash register was nothing compared to the money I racked up by stealing Bloomingdale charge cards. The customers there, usually women, would give you a card for the smallest of purchases. I would try to engage that customer in conversation, and depending on how that conversation was going, I would, or wouldn’t, return their card to them. With card in hand, I would wait for an hour or so. I’d then punch their numbers on the machine. If I got a green light I’d request a break, put on my sport jacket and go to Men’s Furnishings, where I’d purchase hundreds of dollars in clothing. I’d go back the next day, before work, dressed up, and ask for a refund for some concocted reason. They’d ask if this was “cash” or “charge” and I would, of course, say “cash,” and that unfortunately I’d lost the receipt. They’d never question that, ever. If the merchandise were under three hundred dollars, they’d give me that back in cash. They’d say “sorry.” I’d say, “thank you.” Afterwards, I’d go to work.
Shortly after meeting Barbara that second night, I renewed my contact with Carol. At her apartment I met Raymond, a bald headed black dope fiend who was quiet, intelligent, and could get a lamb chop past a hungry wolf. One night, after talking about how we weren’t too thrilled with the quality of her dope, we decided to go uptown to Harlem and score. He took me to a joint on 128th Street and Eighth Avenue, The Sahara Lounge. The Sahara was a notorious spot for drugs in Harlem in 1972. It took awhile before they thought that he and I weren’t undercover cops. At first, I waited in the shadows while Raymond copped. Later, I drifted inside with him and waited there. We then either went back to my hotel or his apartment on East 23rd, where he lived with his wife and two kids. His wife was a lovely person who didn’t know how to make him stop, and I certainly couldn’t tell her.

One late afternoon, on the main floor of Bloomingdale’s, in the men’s furnishings department, I was in The Polo Store, charging cashmere sweaters. I left, angled right and saw, behind the glove counter, a woman with whom I fell in love with at once. It happens rarely, that a force so strong hits your body that rearranges your being, and you proceed, not because you want to, but because you must. I knew only one thing at that instant: I needed to buy gloves.
The closer I got, the more incredible she became. It was not so much that she’d won at genetic roulette, which she most obviously had, that fired me up, but the fact that she was working there meant, to me, in my skewered way of thinking, that she was single; she had not yet cashed in her chips. She was tall, 5’9” or 5’10”, with an hourglass figure underneath the wool's and tweeds that draped her body. Her chestnut hair fell in waves upon her shoulders and was tied with scarf-like bandanna that accentuated her forehead and face. Her posture and the way she applied cosmetics was practiced and assured. She greeted me with a smile. I looked at, and fell into, her eyes. They were brown with flecks of green and hazel. I smelled her perfume, and what I imagined to be her flesh. Her hands, bracing the counter, were long and delicate, manicured and her nails, salmon-colored. Electrical charges surged and swirled inside me. Rarely do I fantasize about a woman while I’m with them, but I did on this occasion: I saw her legs leading to the most miraculous pussy in the world. I imagined taking her on the glove department’s glass case. “Can I help you?” she asked. Her voice was mellifluous and educated.
“You most certainly can,” I replied, “I’m looking for gloves, warm and luxurious gloves, gloves I can live in comfortably. Do you know what I mean?”
She laughed easily. “Yes, I think I do. What size are you?” she inquired.
“Large,” I replied. We sounded like two lovers, plotting, and I began to buy gloves, black and brown leather gloves, cashmere and sheepskin lined gloves, two in one gloves--Merino wool inside, leather outside--and two pairs of racing/driving gloves. I would have bought every goddamn pair of gloves in the case.
“Cash or charge?” she asked with the slightest hint of amusement as she looked down at collection of gloves I had amassed on the counter.
“Charge,” I answered and handed her my card. She went to the credit card machine as I peered at her legs wondering and praying the green light would go on. She returned, holding the card like there was a question dangling from it. In that instant, I decided on how to proceed.
“This says Mrs. Seligman on it and I knew you’re not...” she almost whispered.
“No, I’m not, of course,” I answered just above her whisper. “No,” I continued, “but Mrs. Seligman should I say it, very generous in her own particular you know what I mean?” trying to hold her gaze with my own. Her face flushed, but not out of embarrassment I was sure. It piqued her interest. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“Diane,” she responded and added, “Would Mrs. Seligman get upset at our talking like this?”
“I hope not Diane, but I wouldn’t care if she did.”
“Excuse me, I have to take care of that customer, don’t go away.” She left and I was seized with jealousy until she returned.
“What do you do besides this?” I inquired as my arm grandly swept the counter.
“I’ve been doing this most Christmas’ for the last few years for extra money. I do art collage,” she said and added, “And you, what do you do, besides charming older and vulnerable women?”
I smiled and said, “I write, poetry mostly.”
“I love poetry. I don’t write but I read. Have you heard of Mark Strand, John Ashbery?” She was coming into my territory now.
“You mean The New Yorker school of elitist, educated, sophisticated, woven rug, tea-time, powder each other’s asshole, type of poet?” She was clearly taken aback but I could see those eyes sparkle. I leaned in closer. “You aren’t the type who only likes to fuck symbolically are you?” I pressed on, going in for the symbolic kill. Again, there was that smile in her blush. “Good, I didn’t think you were. I mean enough; enough of that self-portrait in a convex, concave, upside down, inside out, underground, to the moon the stars and beyond, Bellevue type of mirror stuff. Good for the academies, good for the academics who eat each other up and make a shit load of money. But damn, I can’t get full on that stuff, can’t relate to that stuff; even Eliot that grand prince of cold, is hotter than those fucks...and he’s brilliant besides.” I shut up, paused and let it absorb. Then continued, “Poetry has to be bloody, don’t you think? Get off that plasma hookup of yours and let me help you get some real juice into your system. Where can I reach you? Quick now, before you get scared. What’s your number?” I began to take out my pen.
“I’m not frightened. Where can I reach you? I’d prefer it that way.”
I gave her the name of the hotel and my room number. I left, nearly forgetting to take the gloves and Mrs. Seligman’s credit card. I weaved my way between the Christmas bodies of buyers, not feeling the marbled floor under my feet, or the eyes following me.

A week later, she called. We made a date for the following day. We walked through the park and went to Rumplemeyers, where I’d been going most nights, for dinner, cheesecake, and coffee. I brought her up to my room where I played her Monk’s, Straight, No Chaser, and read her my poem, The Nuremberg Egg, all 32 pages. Afterward, drinking from a bottle of scotch, we talked about all manner of things, as those on the verge of falling in love are inclined to do. She asked if women had a difficult time saying, “No” to me. I answered by asking how hard would it be for her to say, “Yes” to me now? Not hard, she said, but would not like it to happen so quickly. Me neither, I lied, but I drew her to me and kissed her. Her hand found my cheek and held it lightly and in that moment I took her in, her smell, and touch, her womanhood. I found her ears and neck and throat and stopped before it went further. She remarked that she knew she was in trouble. Writers for her were worse than artists or jazz musicians. I said this might be worse than that and saw a perplexed look come into her eyes. I told her about my drug use. She had had no experiences in that world. She had few benchmarks, and even less desire to travel that road herself. However, at this writing, it would be less than honest for me to believe she was not attracted to this side of life that was virtually unseen by those growing up in the shadow of Princeton, finishing schools, and manners. She often said, “Love between people is a matter of having compatible neuroses.” I knew she was smart. I didn’t know how prescient she was until I saw, years later, her words come to fruition.
Can you stop using heroin?, was the question she asked in a way that implied her limited exposure and knowledge to drugs, and drug addicts. Yes, I lied, I can but not right now. She was living with me three days later, but had the good sense not to give up her apartment.

As bad as it had gotten for me, it had gotten worse for my first real love, Corinne. Near Christmas I received a call from her mother who had gotten my number from my parents. Corinne, she said, was in terrible shape and was coming in from San Francisco to visit. Would I, she asked, see her and perhaps persuade her to stay here and enter a psychiatric hospital. They had, through my folks, known a little about what I had gone through and felt I could reach her in ways that not everyone could. Of course I would see her, I told them. I had not had any contact with Corinne for at least three years, but felt I could help; I wanted to help and, in a way, in a big way, needed to help.
But I was not prepared for what I saw. I had been in the bathroom, shooting dope, when I heard a knock. It was a soft, unobtrusive knock. I yelled out to wait a second, finished what I was doing and went to the door. I opened it and saw, what had once been, Corinne. Her face cut through the junk I’d just taken. It was round, bloated and her hair was in disarray, seemingly cut at odd angles. I took my arms and placed them on her shoulders. Her coat was many years older than she was. I took her by the hand and led her into my room. Her hand felt clammy. Her flesh, all three hundred pounds of it, was soft, and had an odor that smelled like sour milk. I had to stop myself from gagging.
She did not want to take off her coat, nor did she want to sit on the bed, but instead sat on the only chair in the room. She immediately informed me she had “the crabs” and laughed the kind of laugh that was really not a laugh, but served to deflect whatever self-knowledge she might have had about what she had been through and was currently experiencing. My heart sank. I tried to be funny and upbeat. I tried to probe, to find out how and why this had happened to her, and how she felt about being back and being this way, and really, how she felt about just being who she was now. She was not able to tell me. I saw that somewhere in there, inside her head, was a place I was not able to visit, or, perhaps, not allowed to go. I was not at all sure that she was able to go there either, at least not with any regularity. I suggested we go and have something to eat. I took her to Rumplemeyers, where she said she was not hungry but managed to devour three pieces of cheesecake. Outside, I put my arms around her and kissed her goodnight before putting her in a taxi. I gave the driver 20 bucks and told him her address in Brooklyn and watched as the cab went down 59th Street heading for the bridge. I had not mentioned her parents, her plight, the hospital or anything else.
I learned, many years later, that she had decided to remain here. However, “here” meant in a psychiatric hospital. One Spring day, she stopped by a window and looked out. The trees were just beginning to bud, the flowers below were spilling their fragrance, and the warmth was pushing the cold from the bones of winter. She began walking away from the window and down the corridor. She saw the walls framing her walk. Perhaps, she was never more lucid than in this moment. She could not help seeing her pendulous breasts inside an ill-fitting bathrobe, her belly swollen, her ill-proportioned face and body. She might have seen the way she looked at spring’s renewal, so long ago. Perhaps she saw herself and her life as clearly and as rationally as she’d ever seen anything else. She turned around, back towards that window, and began to run, as if her life depended on it. At least I’d like to believe that that’s the way Corinne saw it, and acted upon it. I’d like to believe she was stronger for doing that than most of us. I’d like to believe that, I really would.


Norman Savage
Greenwich Village, 2015

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