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.


Norman Savage
Greenwich Village, 2015

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