Tuesday, August 11, 2015
SPINNING THE BOTTLE WITH THE DEAD--FROM CHAPTER 5: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
During registrations that fall, there was a table set up with students soliciting for people who might be interested in the school’s literary magazine. I was feeling good about my writing. Actually, I felt ballsy and went over to find out what I could. I learned that a professor, Dr. Bruce Rosen, was the faculty member in charge of the publication. I decided to take a few of the classes he was teaching. A short, bespectacled man, who had a pencil thin mustache, wore sport jackets and shirts and ties, all worn and aged from use, with little or no regard for the fashions of the times. He turned into a colossus for me. He breathed life into whatever he taught. Finally, I began laying the foundation in American and European literature on which to build my own edifice. He was the first man who validated my writing; the first man who cared not one wit about appearances, who had no “con” in him; the first man who was not a faggot but loved writing and literature and who made no bones about it. He was my substrate; he unlocked, and gave vent to, my talent, curiosity, and a spirit that was mine and needed only to be owned.
“Appreciate the genius in voices, in different voices. Recognize those who, even if they contradict your beliefs, do it in ways of brilliance: Eliot’s Prufrock and Steven’s complacency of the peignoir for example.” He told me about his taping of Dylan Thomas and his inability to say, without stuttering, his line about “sailing on.” Ah, what more can I say about Rosen without it turning so sugary that even I would overdose from it?
Rosen liked my work and I was getting better. If you keep at it, you always get better, at least for a time, until age, or fame or natural decay takes you out. The lucky ones never succumb to that, the ones who have a choice that is. However, I was writing with a fluency I never had before and, for the first time, seeing it in print. I became one of the editors of the magazine and appeared on radio debates between the colleges. I was, in this small time college environment, getting known. Getting known meant that those women, women who shared an affinity for trouble in that feigned way that rebellious artists share, found me and I them. Before classes, in between classes, and after classes we’d get high. Marijuana, Mary Jane, reefer, boo, pot, grass, weed, gold, red, black, opiate, permeated, surrounded, infused, imbued, colored, shaped, formed, informed, and pole axed us. We listened to radical or counterculture radio, wrote, read, dreamed, saw, talked, and loved. There was Midnight Cowboy and The Velvets. We heard Richie Havens opening for Cream at The Cafe Au Go Go, Hendrix at The Electric Circus. It was New York, man, and the buzz was in the air. You felt it; it was inside you. We went to Max’s Kansas City and The Chelsea Hotel. There was Burroughs, Andy, and Allen. We got high to Sgt. Peppers and The Goldberg Variations, and Trane and Miles. The feast was always in front of us. It seemed we always ate and never got full.
Most “art” I believe is about “absence” and “desire” and how that “absence” gives rise to any form of creativity that addresses it. Unconscious or otherwise it’s an attempt to fill that emptiness with what is thought to be desired and keep the past alive.
“There was another world I lived in” implies a fracture, a schism, or space travel from one planet to the next, but it wasn’t. Those two worlds were seamless. Life was a progression of semicolons. I simply put one foot in front of the next until the light shifted, gradually, one way or the other. This other world however, was one of convention, obedience, lies, fear, anger, confusion, conformity, and ease. The ease of athletics, home, girlfriend, friends who were going straight ahead to wherever they were bound, and even though the inner map of ourselves is hidden to those outside, there are some, most, who get there with only minor detours. This does not imply they are without character, intelligence, sensitivity or originality; only, that perhaps they have had less doubt, and I was selfish and egotistical, and cruel, and childish. I placed little value on human relationships, but if you were to tell me that, I would have been greatly hurt, perhaps astonished. I always had my own good reasons for doing anything I did. Though other people certainly must have, I never spent too much time believing I was a sinner.
Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were singing, Dancin’ in the Streets. They predicted, with uncanny accuracy, the race riots in practically every city that that song mentions: New York, L.A., Detroit, Philly and more, much more. Our TV souls were lit with the fires of romance and the ecstasy of righteousness. Ah, that beautiful, pure, blissful, and transcendent rage! And just when I was burning from my own brilliance, Corinne decided to go to California.
She had had enough. Her mother had split, moving in with their next door neighbor, and her younger sister was being sent to camp as was her even younger brother. Her father, remote to begin with, had retreated further into himself. She was anxious and upset at my inability to make a commitment, not only to her but also to a life outside of this straight, square and shallow, life of surfaces. In fact, my behavior towards her suggested my interest had waned, and it had. Yet I had no intention of telling her the truth. I did not know how to tell the truth, especially to a person for whom I still had strong feelings and was not yet ready to lose. She had a friend in San Francisco who was a year or two younger than her. He had already moved from his parent’s home and into the Haight-Ashbury section. “If I had any balls,” I said to myself, “I would have already moved myself.”
“Well, go ahead, if ya haveta go. Just keep in touch, willya; let me know where you are, how I can reach you...maybe I’ll get out there too. How would that be?”
She thought for a second while she looked at my eyes in which I must have seemed lost, and said, “Norm, I don’t know. I’m not going to sleep with the guy. He’s just a friend. I mean that, a friend. You don’t have to worry about that but I need some time you know, to sort through all this stuff, you know. It’s just been so hard so, so fuckin’ hard, so hard.”
“All right Core, all right, come here, lemme give ya a kiss, c’mon, get your ass over here.” I put my arm around her waist and that beautiful sense of being that only comes after doing something so simple and so natural yet so intimate hundreds, thousands of times that, for a brief moment, you know where you are on this earth. You’re not this creature without an address, let alone a home.
A few weeks after she had gone, my friend Steve and I decided to go to California. He too had a girlfriend, Ginny, living in L.A. that he said he loved who was living with her sister. We decided to stop first in San Francisco, pick up Corinne, drive to Los Angeles, pick up Ginny, and head for Mexico. My conversation with Corinne long distance was not encouraging. She maintained that “time” and “separation” and “thinking” trilogy. The more she repeated that mantra, the more anxious I became, until finally, I just told her my time and flight number and said “if I see you, we’ll take it from there. If I don’t see you that would be a drag, but we’ll take that from there too.”
I was really going to California determined to bring her back. There was no doubt in my mind about that. Yes, I thought, I loved her. But I was incapable of feeling that love unless I could see and touch her. Yes, I knew from a mutual friend who had seen her and her new living arrangement that acid was beginning to play a part in her life, and I construed that as “bad,” but I didn’t know “bad” from “good” from shit. I could rationalize anything I wanted about it, but the hard cold fact is that I didn’t care why I was bringing her back. Of course, parts of me loved her, but my colossal and rather fragile ego could not accept her being with another man. That really was the deal, and I did not have a suitable replacement. You don’t have to call me a prick, except if it makes you feel better. I’ll do it for you.
The day I was ready to leave for San Francisco, my father came home to tell me that my mother had tried to throw herself out of the car on their way home from The Catskills. My bags were packed in the living room. A friend was arriving in a few minutes to take Steve and me to the airport. “Whatdayamean she tried to throw herself from the car?” I asked, with a look of disbelief.
“We had a terrible fight and she opened the button and tried to throw herself out the door while I was doing 80 on the Interstate. I grabbed her hands and held them in one hand while I steered the car. Scared the shit outa me.”
As he was telling me this I was trying to process the information. I didn’t ask what the fight was about because they always fought. She’d scream at him, he’d scream back and, with almost a hint of physical violence, the argument would end. He’d say something to intimidate my mom or make her question her sanity or her feelings. There was not a single time, that I can remember when anyone would discuss, much less reason, the different places we protected as our own and our very real reasons for protecting them. Besides, I figured, he’s telling me this now, to keep me here as a buffer between him and my mom. Not expecting him to tell me the truth, even if he knew it, I said, “Why you tellin’ me this shit now?”
He looked spaced. “I uh, really don’t know. I thought...”
”Thought what? That I’d cancel this trip and stay home and do what?”
“No, no, go ahead and go, it’s all right, go. I just thought you needed to know about it, that’s all.”
“Why the fuck would I need to know about that now!? Christ! Is she O.K.?”
“Yeah, she’s all right now...Listen just go ahead. Enjoy yourself. Say hello to Corinne for me.”
I looked at him for a few seconds, trying to discern what was real and what was not; trying to understand my place in all this and, more importantly, my obligation to it. With the slightest amount of resignation in my voice I said, “I’ll call you.”
Corinne met us at the baggage claim at the airport. I breathed easy. She slipped her arm through mine and, at two in the morning, we found ourselves in Berkeley looking for a place to crash. A guy was coming out of a movie theater. I went up to him and asked. “Sure,” he said. We followed him to this large Victorian house where Corinne and I were given our own bedroom. After doing what young people do who haven’t seen each other in weeks, we lit cigarettes and spoke to each other like a couple comfortable with each other’s ways. She told me matter-of-factly that acid had become a part of her life in San Francisco, and while she didn’t know if this was particularly good for her, she knew that it was something that released her in ways that other drugs simply did not. I listened but didn’t comment. I was instinctively afraid of acid; pot was enough of a trip for me, and after hearing that she had planned to travel with us down to Mexico and go back to Brooklyn with me, I had heard all I needed to hear. I had her back. My ego grew bigger than my dick, and that was enough for me.
The next day we hit Berkeley to score some pot. We did, got high, and watched Ginger Baker, the drummer of Cream, play his traps in a fountain on the Berkeley campus. The sun beat down on our heads as we watched this mad drummer drum through the water that cascaded through the sunlight, and fell on his body.
That night we stayed in a draft resisters’ commune. The next day we dropped Corinne in the Height, scored some more pot while she picked up her stuff and once she was done, we all journeyed down to L.A. by way of Big Sur. The first time driving that route was miraculous. We drove, hugging the coast line, and saw the Pacific breaking upon the huge rocks that jutted out of the sea. Being high for most of the trip didn’t hurt either. The lights on the Sunset Strip twinkled and blinked their way into our stoned consciousness. We picked up Ginny, and drove to her sister’s house in the hills where she put us up in her fallout shelter, underneath her home. We lived for 3 days with 3 Great Danes, a harlequin, brindle and black. Stoned, and on our own Fantasy Island, we went to Disneyland. After getting what we could out of the frozen mouse, we went down to Mexico, smoking reefer and drinking white lightening. We stayed in a hotel on a beach where we rode horses and swam and laughed and thought about nothing at all.
We returned to Brooklyn like new lovers. It lasted for a few weeks, and no more. It dragged on for two more years. Corinne’s parents had officially split, and her mother took the kids to their new residence on Eastern Parkway, across from The Brooklyn Museum. The next summer, she would return to San Francisco, the guy, and L.S.D., this time in depth.
Near the end of that summer I consummated a love affair that had begun the previous fall, with a married women, Suzanne. The wait was excruciatingly wonderful. She happened to be married to a friend of mine. She was beautiful. She was an artist and writer; she wore black sweaters and dresses and leggings. She was older than me. Nothing else mattered. She was my Beatrice. It was the kind of love that I would have done anything for. I wanted her to have my baby; I would have had her baby if she asked. I would pull my teeth out, shave my head, do handstands, walk on coals, pluck out my eyes, any fuckin’ thing to be next to and, more importantly, inside her. Taboos sure do raise the heat, don’t they, and marriage? What could be better initially than sneaking around, waiting, savoring each moment of sin? Sounds so fucking hokey, doesn’t it? Sin? But what could be better, except more sin? And one night there it was.
She invited me over. I went up to her brownstone in The Village and the front door was left ajar. I walked in, closed the door, and went into her living room and sat down on one of the Moroccan cushions thrown about the parquet floor. She came out of the bedroom wearing black panties, nothing else. I thought we’d smoke some of the strong pot or hashish she usually had on hand and then make love. She had other ideas. Bringing her hand from behind her back, she opened her clenched fingers to reveal a white envelope, a stamp collector’s bag. “Smack,” she whispered, “have you ever done it?”
My heart raced. I wanted it; I feared it; I desired it. ‘Yes. No. Yes. C’mon, go ahead. Fuck it. I wanted to fuck her, fuck me, be a man, fearless, deep, connect, yes. The high, the degradation. Yeah, it’s cool. Yeah, no problem; yeah it’s a problem, it could be a problem but you’ve done so many bad things why not one more? Just try it. What the fuck’s the difference--go on, go ahead, just once, no big fuckin deal. Just once.’ All this in an instant; all these feelings and thoughts like the lighting and incandescence of a magnesium strip. I thought about Burroughs’ Junky, Bird, and Selby: all idols, all heroin addicts. “Sure,” I lied.
She handed the bag to me. “Be careful,” she cautioned, “it’s very strong. It’s uptown dope.”
I clumsily opened the bag, dipped a finger in, brought it up to my nose and sniffed, snorted was more like it. It hit the back of my throat. I swallowed. It tasted like quinine, though I didn’t know what quinine tasted like then. My stomach felt like someone punched a hole in it; I felt queasy.
She must have seen the blood drain from my face. “You’d better sit down,” she said and took my arm and led me to the couch.
“Don’t worry about it,” I answered, but was happy to have something under me. Not to look scared, I did a little more.
“Careful,” she repeated.
Within a few minutes, I felt it begin to work. It crept up the small of my back and trickled up my spine, like a hot river reversing itself, working itself over my shoulders, extending to my arms and fingers and finally running up through my neck. I was incredibly warm, but scared. I had never in my life experienced this, a soft warm wave breaking over and over and over against the outsides of my insides. I felt slightly nauseous, but that was quickly subsiding. In its place, there was a peace I had never felt. It was draining every ounce of anxiety from my body and allowing my brain for the first time since I don’t know when to forget about anything and everything that had ever caused me to question, doubt, challenge or fear anything that I suspected my scared self to be. It left, in its place, dreams of heroism and safety. I felt my forehead break out in a sweat as my eyes began to close and my head began to nod. She lit a cigarette for me and that drag tasted like nothing tobacco had ever tasted like before. It was rich, sweet, luxurious, and although I was not to become physically addicted for another two and a half years, I was hooked from that moment on. We never did make love that night--it was beside the point. I was, finally, home.
After much talk about divorce, marriage, how wonderful our children would look and be like, places we wanted to live, cars we wanted to drive, movies we wanted to make, poems we wanted to write, dreams we wanted to realize, she left with her husband for a teaching position outside of New York that Spring. When next I saw her, she was pregnant and pretending she didn’t like her marriage but loved her unborn child. I let her pretend and moved on as well.
That previous spring, Professor Rosen and I discussed where my next move should be. He suggested a school that had recently begun a program for just the junior and senior years of college. It was an experimental and innovative approach to education and Rosen felt I could benefit from it. Besides, there were no “required” courses I’d have to take. It was The New School for Social Research, located on 12th Street in Greenwich Village. When it had begun in 1919, it was dubbed “the university in exile” for all the European radical political scientists and their literary, philosophical, and artistic brethren; intellectuals who were leaving a hostile Europe to live in America. That was all I had to hear. I applied, was accepted, and began that following September. I also managed to persuade the woman who had bought me the Grand Prix to allow me to trade it in for a Porsche. I explained it was more fuel efficient. As I said, I was ready.
I picked up my Porsche in August and spent the next few weeks getting to know her. She was forest green with a saddle leather interior, wood steering wheel, five forward gears, and fast. If you haven’t downshifted a Porsche going into a right angle corner at 50, you haven’t lived. Lenny Bruce once said this about The Pope: “How you gonna listen to a guy who never downshifted a Porsche, who’s never made it with nobody?” He’s got a point.
The rest of that summer, besides playing softball with a team comprised of Seagate and Coney Island athletes, was spent perfecting another craft, lying to women. I never thought I was particularly good looking, sexy, or strong, and I secretly thought, besides my dick being too short that I climaxed too soon. However, I knew I was real smart. I knew I knew a ton of things that guys my age never knew and never would know and knew I had bullshit that just wouldn’t quit. As important, if not more so, I knew what I thought to be my weaknesses. Anybody with a buck could get laid in a whorehouse, I thought, but to get laid without a buck, that was saying something. You needed a mind and a gift of gab, that was getting sharper as I went along. Yet, I was pretty indiscriminate. In fact, I’d fuck a snake if somebody held its head down. Besides, at that point in time, who wasn’t beautiful? I liked them old and young, black, brown, yellow, or white, either with creases of experience, or as smooth as a cue ball. Usually there was something that grabbed me, a scar, a turn of a phrase, eyes, legs, fingers, a kind word. There was only one rule: Be back before sunrise to the earth of my ancestors to take my morning shot. Bela Lugosi had nothing on me. In truth, for whatever it’s worth, I was uncomfortable taking my shot anywhere else; not that I wouldn’t, but I wouldn’t like to, and would lie and manipulate so I wouldn’t have to. In a sense, I appealed to their maternal instincts gone haywire. Actually, I was doing absolutely nothing, except taking my morning shot, in controlling my diabetes. I was waking up when I wanted to, eating what I wanted to, never testing myself, and not too concerned about seeing Dr.Z. If they’d ask if I could go to their home or apartment after getting my insulin, I’d stress how much easier it would be for me and “us” to go to my house where my father had built an extension, a private den that I had converted into my room, and I wanted to show them, if they never had been exposed to Coney Island and Seagate, the geography of romance. Usually it worked. Many mornings, my mother would bump into a strange woman going into or coming out of my room. My new friend would often times say, as if she knew my mom a hundred years, “Good-morning Mrs. Savage,” and my mom, in her own early morning stupor, would warmly reply, “Oh, hello, good-morning to you, too. Would you like something to eat?”
My father held the bets, and sometimes the guns as well. We got up a team that summer, The Sanders, comprised of the best softball players that Seagate and Coney Island had to offer. We would play in a field that was in back of my old junior high school, Mark Twain. If the ball was whacked hard, which it sometimes was, it landed in Gravesend Bay. Also, we traveled around to different parks in Brooklyn to play the same team in their park. My old man enjoyed everything about it: the money, the bets, the games, the action, and the guns. Thankfully, it never got to the point where the hardware came out. In fact, I only remember one or two fights, and they were just the routine run-of-the-mill stuff: You wuz out! Safe! Out! Safe, motherfucker! Out, cocksucker! Bang, a few Booms, and it was over. The guys in Coney Island liked, respected, perhaps loved, my pop. They knew (or thought they knew) he knew tough guys. He had a tough guy morality and the tough guy ethic. He talked like a tough guy, spent money like a tough guy, and bullshitted like a tough guy, but he was definitely not a tough guy. Not in the classic sense. He was not tough enough to be a tough guy. I remember being sixteen or seventeen when he was indicted for coupon fraud. He, like many owners of supermarkets, would cut out coupons for products that supermarkets would carry, and those coupons would be redeemable for the purchased product. He’d cut out hundreds of extra coupons and forward them to the maker of the product and get a rebate check for many times more than the amount of the product actually sold. It was fraud.
The federal government had put in a fictitious item, Breem, (supposedly a soap detergent), and when these brilliant operators sent in the coupons they had their criminals. They had my father. Not The Brinks Job, but illegal nonetheless, and I wasn’t embarrassed by this. The day he had to go to court, he asked me to keep him company. I saw him sweat. He was nervous. He was scared, scared shit. Even though his attorney had assured him that the case they had against him would not be going to trial, my father could neither contain nor conceal his anguish. It was felonious penny ante, light stuff. I’ve seen, and he knows, guys who were facing long stretches for murder, loan sharking, hijacking, armed robbery and other serious felonies give themselves parties the night before they had to turn themselves in. Whether they had balls or no consciences is not for me to say, but they were not scared. My pop was not them. My pop had heart, a twisted, misguided, loving, manipulative, judgmental, critical, ambivalent, divided, bleeding, granulated, diseased by hurt and betrayal heart, but he had a human, a very human heart. I still could not reconcile my inner life with his outer one. I knew relatively nothing of his inner life. I still felt in his shadow, but, Goddamnit, I liked being around him. I enjoyed his humor because it was my humor as well. I was informed by him. They said we could have been twins, even our voices were eerily alike, and we were both superficial sonsofbitches, but we still fought like mountain lions. Only this summer we seemed to have a truce. We met on the playing field of boys/men and held our differences at arms length.
I dug Eileen whom I’d met at my last school. She was very sexy. She had that long lanky body and deep brown eyes and pouty lips and those long wonderful educated fingers (you know the deal). I lusted after her but she was hung up on this guitar player that pulled her in and threw her back and reeled her in again and let her run (you know the deal). Only one day it was different. If I had written a poem then about what transpired, it might have gone something like this:
“and we found ourselves together on the weekend that cars were backed up 50 miles outside of Bethel, NY and clouds were breaking and mud was flowing and electricity was infusing the air and we were breathing hard and I had just persuaded a cousin to advance me a thousand to buy some coke and cut it and deal it and make a few bucks and have some fun as well and she was riding in my forest green Porsche digging Prospect Park’s curves percolating with sound from the Blaupunkt I found my hand on the inside of her thigh slick with sweat and she began fumbling with my zipper and then her mouth was down there her head and body twisting around the gear shift and before I knew it we were at my house and went through the back way into my room and we made it somewhere around 3 a.m. and she wanted to drive up to where the music was playing but that was not gonna happen with me because I don’t like mud and I don’t like too many people getting naked around me and doing things that I don’t see myself doing and so I said to her do more coke we can sit here and dig whatever you want and make love again and smoke some pot and listen to the music but she wanted to be there and I was too beat to stop her and she left and my summer was nearly ended.”
Her summer did end when that guitar player she was glued to moved in with her, and she came home one day to find him sitting naked in the middle of the living room with his guitar cradled in his lap, and he poured gasoline over his body and lit a match.
pgs 56-60: From Chapter 5: JUNK SICK: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
Greenwich Village, 2015