Literary San Francisco. A book I’ve always treasured. It’s a large hardcover book signed by the authors, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Nancy Peters. I remember the day Carla got it for me. It was my 23rd birthday, September 8, 1980. Gregory Corso and I were sitting in Vesuvios drinking pints of Anchor Steam Ale discussing why Gregory would not go with me to a San Francisco Giants game. To him the matter was cut and dry: “They sold us out man… they left New York ‘cause they got no heart.” Carla came running into the bar and pulled this book from under her sweatshirt. She gave me a kiss and handed me the book. “Happy Birthday Sweetheart!” The ink from Ferlinghetti’s signature was still wet. Apparently he signed it for her and she walked right past the cash register, out the front door, and across the street to where Gregory and I were drinking. I was concerned. Corso was impressed. “Don’t worry, that fucker makes enough money. He won’t miss it.” I borrowed a marker from the bartender and wrote my name in the back. I asked Gregory to add his name to the San Francisco literary canon, but he declined, saying he was probably already in the book. Sure enough, he opened the book directly to a page bearing his likeness. In the photograph, he’s holding his young son Max. I’ll always remember Gregory Corso this way, sitting at the bar at Vesuvios, his hand on an empty beer glass, looking at a picture of himself. His lower lip trembles, he grips the glass tighter, and I can see a type of sadness wash over him, as if the New York Giants are forever leaving him, as if he’s afraid that Carla and I will now leave him alone, broke, and thirsty at the bar.
One of the better things about my stay in San Francisco was hanging out with Corso. I owe it to my best buddy Eddie in an indirect sort of way. Eddie spent the summer of 1980 at Naropa College in Boulder Colorado studying with Allen Ginsberg. He came to San Francisco flush with plans and ideas. As always, Carla and I were delighted to see him. Eddie introduced us to many San Francisco literary types who had summered at Naropa, including Paul Martin and Matthew Oldfield, two younger poets who had also studied with Ginsberg. These two were somehow taking care of Gregory Corso. I’m not sure exactly what taking care of Gregory Corso entailed, but it had something to do with regulating the amount of dope he was allowed to consume.
Gregory recognized kindred New York spirits in Carla and I, and for a short while we became partners in crime. Because we were not users, Gregory often offered to share his stash. It was only after Carla said yes for a second time, that Gregory started making himself scarce. Corso was however, the perfect mid-day companion as I whiled away the hours before work at the United California Bank. I would meet him and 4 year old Max at noon at Grant Park. We would drink beer out of brown paper bags, or when I felt rich, we would take Max along with us to Vesuvios or Specs. Occasionally, Jack Micheline would stumble by and we’d share our brown bagged beer with him. I wish I could report that we had deep soulful conversations about poesy or metaphysics, but more often than not we talked baseball, ways of Gregory getting money (Micheline had many opinions on this matter), and the physical attributes of the women who passed us by with nary a glance. Sometimes Carla would pedal by, and we’d buy food at the market for Carla, Gregory, Max, and I to have a picnic lunch. Once or twice, Gregory left Max with us when he went out to score some dope. On the second occasion he didn’t return for a long while. Carla, for once offended by someone’s irresponsible behavior, said fuck it and rode off to work. Finally, after about an hour, Gregory came back bedraggled, looking as if he’d just been beaten up by the infamous Officer Biggarini (of Beat bashing fame). I was reluctant to leave Max in Gregory’s charge, but he assured me everything was okay. I didn’t see him for weeks after that.
Eddie also introduced me to another poet he met at Naropa, Dick Ramirez. For this I am not eternally grateful, and as a matter of fact this introduction serves as the lone blemish on Eddie and my 3 decades long friendship. I don’t know exactly how things transpired, but Dick was looking for a place in San Francisco, so we rented him the spare bedroom in our apartment. Maybe we needed the money. I was dismayed by the response of our new friends Paul and Matthew after telling them that Dick Ramirez would be staying with us. Paul said, “In San Francisco? Don’t let him stay, he’s like cancer. He’ll eat away at your peace of mind until there’s nothing left. Tell him, Matt,” Matthew reiterated the theme. “He’s bad news I’m telling you. My ex-girlfriend and I got along great, we were going to get married. Then Dick Ramirez moved into the empty room in our apartment. Within weeks we were at each other’s throats over tiny inexplicable things. Then the marriage was off.” Jade, Matt’s new girlfriend was more succinct, she burst into tears upon hearing Dick Ramirez’ name. Uh-oh.
I can’t pinpoint how Dick Ramirez ended our relationship, but he did. Upon first meeting him I was surprised because his physical appearance did not betray an aura of menace. Quite the opposite. My first impression on meeting Dick was one of pity. He was the classic nebbish, stoop shouldered, slightly balding, wearing thick glasses, head lowered while mumbling unintelligible salutations. Obviously there was nothing to fear.
But he was always there. In our apartment. And he had some annoying habits. First of all, he was constantly leafing through gay S&M magazines and leaving them around. Carla once found one in our bed. I didn’t care that much what Dick looked at, but when a friend would come to visit, and see Fist Fucking Leather Boys on our kitchen table, it was a tad embarrassing. Dick ate only one meal a day, at twelve midnight. He usually began preparation at around 9 p.m., and used virtually every pot and pan in our kitchen to prepare his vegetarian feast. He never cleaned up after himself. That task was left to Carla or me, usually me, because for some reason I felt responsible for his presence in our lives. He could not utter a complete sentence, make that word, without clearing his throat in a phlegmy harumph, sort of like Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade, but not nearly as charming. I fully understand that Dick suffered a speech impediment, comparable to a stutter, but that did not make it any less displeasing to the ear. Carla was less understanding. “Spit it out,” she would shout in exasperation, “I don’t have all day.” He just gave Carla the creeps. She refused to be in the apartment alone with him. Somehow, she too held me responsible for Dick’s presence and it became an unspoken hobgoblin in our relationship. Carla would go out to a movie, or over to Matthew and Jade’s place, timing her arrival home with mine at 10:30. Sometimes we would meet at Mahbuey Gardens (local punk club) or some other club to get lost in the music. Anything to not be alone with Dick.
Then Carla got pregnant. Again. Damnit, I should have learned. We should have learned. In California the procedure was different. Instead of the cutting and scraping favored in East Coast clinics, something resembling a piece of seaweed on a long Q-tip was inserted into the uterus causing cramping, contractions, and miscarriage. After a night of discomfort (and listening to Dick’s never ending meal preparations followed by what must have been a game of paddle ball played in the solitary confines of his room) and a wasted Saturday spent lying around sweating and sleeping, Carla was back at work on Monday morning. But things were different.
The next weekend I took Carla to Lake Tahoe for her birthday. We arrived Friday evening at the Harrah’s Casino resplendent in our freshly purchased Salvation Army threads. Carla was gorgeous in her Marilyn inspired black sequined cocktail dress, and I was none too shabby in my copper colored sharkskin suit and matching two tone (red and black) roach killers. Okay, I’ll admit that since childhood, my vision of fashionable elegance revolved around George Shakiris as Bernardo in West Side Story. But we looked good. I gave Carla $50 dollars to gamble with, the plan being to hang around the blackjack tables for a couple of days as the casino plied us with drinks. I was determined to hold my own for the night on $20 dollars. Wouldn’t you know it, Carla was at my side in about 5 minutes, having exhausted her bankroll in a few large bets at the craps table. My first drink hadn’t yet arrived. I hung in at my table for about 20 minutes, losing only 8 dollars, but it wasn’t any fun playing cards with Carla standing next to me, bored and thirsty.
We bought a couple of bottles of wine and headed back to our room. During the next 40 minutes of drinking, Carla revealed to me how disappointed she was that we didn’t even consider keeping the baby. All I could say was, “I didn’t know.” She said I was the only man she would ever have a baby with, and that she knew I would make a good father. Then she passed out.
As I sit in at the white plastic table in our backyard trying to write, my nine year old son is yelling at me, trying to get the last word in an argument I wish I never started. I told him that I thought Spiderman was a much better movie than Star Wars 2 – Attack of the Clones. To further stoke the fires of his pre-pubescent soul, I told him that if I was single, I’d much rather have Kirsten Dunst as a girlfriend than Natalie Portman (Queen Amildala). I know, not exactly responsible parenting, but what can you really expect of a father whose idea of family time consists of us all sitting together on the dusty couch drinking Diet Coke, eating popcorn, and watching The Osbournes? Come to think of it, Kirsten Dunst looks like Carla. Then again, she sort of looks like my wife Elizabeth also.
Things started going bad after the second abortion, but they started going worse after Election Day 1980. I remember turning the t.v. on (back then, Election Day was a holiday) as we were getting ready to go out to vote, and Walter Cronkite announcing that Ronald Reagan had been elected our country’s 40th President. I couldn’t believe it, I hadn’t even voted yet. I always associate the name Ronald Reagan with missed opportunities, and in a way, I hold him responsible for the course my life was to take.
The day after Election Day I was to meet Carla at some new club after work. I was to perform my poetry along with Gregory Corso, Jack Micheline, Dick Ramirez, Paul Martin, Matthew Oldfield, and bands like Wall of Voodoo and Oingo Boingo in a kind of countercultural San Francisco Arts Festival. I still have some posters and programs in a box in the basement. My bio lists me as performance poet, vending machine repairman, and original member of the seminal New York City band, Raymond and the Exploding Garbage Can Band. I was scheduled to perform at 10:30, directly before Wall of Voodoo was to take the stage. I smoked a joint on the 5 block walk from United California Bank to the club so that I would be in a proper California state of mind as I stood in front of the crowd. After finally convincing the doorman that I was indeed a performer, I proceeded to the green room with the notion of grabbing a beer or two before getting on stage. Upon entering the dismal backstage room, I noticed Jade sitting by herself weeping, and Carla and Matthew passionately making out in the far corner of the room. I grabbed two beers, chugged them down, and walked onto the stage to deliver a vitriolic, stream of consciousness rant that I only remember shards of. Bits of misanthropy, misogyny, homophobia, anti-California diatribe, and apocalyptic blood splattered imagery.
The audience loved me. Wall of Voodoo followed with a set of uninhibited fury. Two days later, I quit my job at the cafeteria. A week later, I took a plane home.
Did I really leave Carla alone, far from home with Dick? I honestly don’t remember. The memory of my last week in San Francisco has been reduced by time and maybe self preservation to a blur. Judging from what I know of my character these past twenty years, the answer is no, I would never abandon Carla alone with Dick. I just wouldn’t do that. But, I can’t think of any other possibility.
I am so sorry.
Eddie picked me up at Newark Airport. I settled in Hoboken with Ray, Malcolm, and Steve the Pharmacist in a raw brick and wood loft with grimy industrial windows. An overhead heater was so inadequate for the job, that it would shoot flames when starting up. The bathroom was an unpainted plasterboard box that only reached three quarters of the way to the ceiling. However, there was a lot of space. I was a guest, not a roommate, but my friends were more than gracious. They could tell things were not right with me, but it went unspoken. If there really is such a thing as a broken heart, mine was broken for sure.
Ray had a new girlfriend whose name was Cindy, but we all called her Cinful. She worked as a hairdresser at the E-Clips Hair Salon in New Brunswick, and she was cool in a townie working class punk rock way. From the moment we met, she acted as if I was important, and I was flattered to receive her attention. She’s here with me right now. Her picture really. It’s on the wall over my computer. She’s sitting behind a small table littered with empty beer cans and liquor bottles. She has lots of black stuff around her eyes, her skin is pale, and her hair stands up in a 1980 New Wave do. She is wearing ripped fishnet stockings, a black sleeveless top, one arm draped demurely over her head revealing her underarm hair shaved in the shape of a lightning bolt. She liked to brag that she could drink milk fed college boys like Ray and I under the table. She couldn’t. Like me, Cinful possessed no internal shut off valve. And like me, she was a sloppy drunk. Often, when I went out with Ray and Cinful, he fell into the role of surrogate baby-sitter, whose job it was to steer a couple of juvenile alcoholics away from danger to the safety of home. Ray and I would come home from a night of club hopping one hundred percent broke, while Cinful would empty her pockets of a barrage of crinkled, wadded up dollar bills. While Ray and I were buying drinks, Cinful would be collecting all the loose bills left on the bar. “Where did all this money come from?” she would inevitably exclaim the next morning in mock horror. Ray and I could only smile.
I spoke to Carla on December 8th to tell her that John Lennon had been killed. She was basically indifferent to the news.
“Guess what?” she asked.
“I’m coming home.”
“Oh. Where will you stay?”
“At the loft. Malcolm said I could.”
“I’ll be home the day before Christmas.”
Carla came to me tonight in yoga class. Yeah, it’s true, I take yoga class. Why? The short answer is: because I can. The more complicated answer is: Elizabeth thinks it will be good for me to learn how to relax. I think I’m one of the most relaxed people I know. Whatever.
What I like best about our yoga class is that it’s not at all pretentious, it’s yoga with a Hoboken twist. The school is called Yogacabana and Nick, the instructor guides us through the positions with a new age baritone tinged with Hoboken intonation. He says things like, “Ya did your best, now fugget the rest” or “it’s over now, if ya didn’t get it, fugget it.” I never was that flexible, but at 44 years of age, my lack of flexibility borders on the ridiculous. But I do my best. After about an hour of yoga poses we do something called Vedracina: Deep Relaxation. Nick talks us into a state of meditation, guiding us with soothing words. “Meditate on a word, a phrase, a face of a loved one, a calm peaceful place. Relax, you do not need to be on top of a mountain to do this. Focus on your mantra, surrender yourself to the mat. If you think you’re not doing it right, then you’re doing it wrong. It’s simply spending time alone with oneself. Relax.”
Okay, I’ll admit it. I often fall asleep at this point. But sometimes I don’t. When I don’t, time comes to a standstill, or at least very close, and I guess I am meditating. To get into this meditative state, I begin thinking of a place. The place that gives me the greatest feeling of serenity is the 10 by 12 foot patch of green in our backyard that passes for a lawn. There’s not all that much green space in our city, so this spot behind our house serves as a gateway to my meditative practice.
To be honest, I’m not always positive if I’m dreaming or letting my subconscious thoughts float to the forefront of my mind. It doesn’t matter. I picture the green space of our backyard, then Carla sitting under the striped umbrella at our white plastic picnic table. She is wearing a blue silk tank top, a straw hat, and is stirring a colorful exotic drink. She smiles at me, not the smile of a long lost 25 year old woman, but a 44 year old womanly smile. She does not look like Kirsten Dunst, nor any other actress for that matter. She looks like herself. “Where have you been?” I ask, “I’ve been looking for you.” She answers in song – Chet Baker’s “My Funny Valentine,” and her voice is Chet Baker’s voice, and his voice is her voice. Unity: mind, body, spirit. Tears stream down my face.
I hear Nick’s voice. “If ya didn’t get it, fugget it.” I sit up and stretch, determined to free my mind of spirits.
Things were bad from the start. Carla was resolute in her desire not to lose her share of our mutual friends. The loft wasn’t big enough for the two of us. Hoboken wasn’t big enough for the two of us. She moved her sleeping bag into a far corner of the loft. We spoke to each other, but it was a forced stunted type of exchange. I was still in love with her. I didn’t exactly plead, but I made my sexual needs clear enough. Okay, I pleaded. When I went out to the Mudd Club with Cinful and Raymond, a new companion would drag along. I was jealous that Carla was diverting Cinful’s affectionate attention away from me. As might be expected, Cinful and Carla got along famously. Besides spurring each other on to new heights of alcohol consumption, Cinful introduced Carla to the joys of cocaine.
The unspoken tension reached a head some time in February. Steve the Pharmacist had brought home a couple of boxes of amyl nitrate poppers from the pharmacy where he worked, and was graciously sharing them with Ray, Cinful, Malcolm, Carla and me. These poppers were the real thing, not the fake butyl nitrate bottles like Rush or Locker Room favored in gay bath houses and sold in head shops. Nope, these were state of the art, heart stopping, hallucinatory, medicinal poppers. We were already drunk. The amyl nitrate brought a psychedelic edge to the party beginning with a pulse quickening, pounding of the heart, which took on a filling physical presence, expanding and contracting with the breath, the rhythm of life, before making its way to the brain and exploding in a rush of orgasmic rippling vibrations. I don’t know exactly what happened, but when I came to my right mind, Carla was sitting on Ray’s lap kissing the side of his face. I punched Carla in the jaw with all my might, knocking her off the couch and into the wall. She glared at me with pure malevolence. “C’mon hit me again if it makes you feel better. You can’t hurt me.”
“Hey,” Ray protested as I hit him smack dab in the center of his nose.
This drill was well rehearsed. “If any of you don’t like the way I treat my woman, say so now so I can kick your ass.”
Nobody said a word. Ray’s nose was bleeding. Carla’s eye was turning a bluish purple. The situation was spinning out of control. For dramatic effect, I kicked over the coffee table overflowing with empty beer cans, grabbed my leather jacket and walked out. To this day, my biggest regret in life, is having punched Ray in the nose. He was, and continues to be, my best friend. He might also be the most peace loving man in the world. Except for Eddie. The two best men at my wedding. Blood brothers.
I walked the entire twelve or thirteen miles through the freezing night to my mother’s house in Dumont, arriving at sunrise, shivering and delirious.
It didn’t get better. I picked up my duffel bag of clothes and moved back in with my mom. A few days later, Carla moved in with her sister somewhere in Westchester. Thus begun the darkest 3 months of my existence. I still have nightmares. I did nothing but sleep for the first week of my homecoming. I didn’t eat, watch t.v., read a book, masturbate, or want to see anyone. Mom was concerned and insisted I see a doctor. He told me I had mononucleosis, which came as a relief, because had he told me I was suffering from severe depression, I would have believed him. I spent the next five weeks sleeping and replaying over and over again what had gone wrong in my life. By all counts, I had failed in every measure of manhood. I was 23 years old and living with my mother, I had no job, no money, and the love of my life was cutting a self-destructive swath that I was powerless to stop. I lost twenty pounds, reaching a post-pubescent weight of 115 pounds. If I just died quietly, faded into nothingness, I wouldn’t have minded. The only thread that kept me alive was the thought of how much my death would devastate my mother who had already lost her first son to the nazis.
Carla tried to see me, but I wouldn’t let her. I didn’t want her to see me like this. She had moved to New York, got a job as a waitress, and rented a dingy one room flat on Ludlow Street. One day I woke up to a wet kiss on my forehead that I knew to be from Carla’s lips. She was crying. “Please forgive me for all I’ve done. I can’t go on knowing how you feel about me. I love you, do you understand that? Even if we’re not together, I’ll always love you.” I smiled, made the sign of the cross and said, “I forgive you. I absolve you of all your guilt. I will love you no matter what happens. Always and forever.”
Good loyal friends are what give us our worth. Family is what keeps us alive. Sometimes. Carla had a family, an older sister and two baby stepbrothers, who all looked like they were cast from the same mold; blonde hair, large green eyes, upturned noses and a devilish smiles. My heart breaks again when I think of the precocious five year old twins running around at their sister’s funeral, unaware of what was going on. They are men now, and they never really got the chance to know their beautiful, crazy, self destructive sister. Ray and Andrew are their names. Wait a second, let me face my chair towards the wall. There are people I know in this cafe. I don’t want them to see me crying.
Carla didn’t get along with her stepmother. She called her manipulative and controlling. All I saw was a plain middle-aged woman who simply wasn’t her mother. Her real mother died of cancer when Carla was 15 years old. Ironically, Carla’s mother died in the same week of October 1972 as both Ray’s father and my father. Sometimes, family or lack thereof is what bonds friends together.
Ray Carlson was a hardworking, unassuming man who loved his family dearly. After his wife’s death, daughters Barbara and Carla kept his spirits up. They cared for their dad with daughterly love and devotion. After Carla left for college, he married a secretary in his office, a betrayal that Carla could not forgive. She often told me that the happiest time in her life was Senior year of high school when it was just her and her dad. I wonder if he’s still alive. If he is, I wish him peace. As a father, I can think of nothing more agonizing than to outlive one’s children.
I got better. After a few months of convalescence, I moved out. With Eddie’s help, I found a room in a rooming house in New Brunswick. I got a job as a forklift operator in an electrical parts warehouse. The rest of 1981 was spent making up for lost time. I hung out with Cinful and Eddie at the Melody Bar. As a matter of fact, Eddie and I made the Melody a popular place to hang out. It started at the Bull Pen. We were drunk as usual. Eddie put a quarter in the jukebox to hear a Talking Heads song. Somehow the record got stuck and wouldn’t allow itself placement on the turntable. Eddie gave the jukebox a sharp kick. It just so happened that Chris the owner was behind the bar and he saw Eddie kick the jukebox. He made his exaggerated Ralph Kramden you’re outta here gesture and Eddie was 86’d. About 20 minutes later, I received a phone call at the bar. It was Eddie. “Dean, I’m at this great old bar on French Street. These young guys own it and they say I should bring my friends. They say free drinks for anyone who arrives in the next half hour. It’s called the Melody.” In a few minutes me and about fifteen former patrons of the Bull Pen walked through the doors of the Melody to be reunited with Eddie. And sure enough, the drinks were on the house. There was no jukebox in the Melody, but a real live DJ playing music we actually wanted to hear. The Melody took over, quickly establishing itself as the most popular bar in town. Eddie and Cinful and I ruled. We never had to wait on line to get in, and we rarely had to pay for more than half our drinks. Until the day the Melody closed its doors last year, I was always a welcome guest.
If I had the wherewithal to make it to closing time, I usually had a choice of who to go home with. If there was no one to go home with, I just didn’t go home. After months of lying around hoping to die simply to stop the incessant self torture, I refused to sleep alone. Ray and I called it “The Power.” This gift lasted about a year and during that year, I slept with more women than all the other years of my life combined. I harnessed “The Power” from all the malevolent self loathing nestled in my soul, turned it around, and focused it outside myself. In other words, I was charming. And I refused to be alone.
Occasionally Carla came to visit. She was not about to let me lay sole claim to our mutual friends. Usually she’d stay with Cinful, or over at Eddie’s place, but sometimes she spent the night in my room. And yes, we had sex. I couldn’t help myself. I don’t think she could either. Neither of us wanted to, but desire won out. Maybe it was memory. No, let me be honest. I don’t think she really wanted to have sex, but my will to go at it was stronger than her will not to. I know it sounds horrible, but sorry, it’s the truth.
Carla had come down to New Brunswick to attend a poetry reading that Eddie had set up at the Rutgers Student Center featuring poet Eileen Myles and punk icon turned poet Richard Hell. After the reading, at the party in the Melody upstairs lounge, I noticed Carla kneeling at Richard Hell’s feet, her arm draped over his knee. Clearly she was his, and this was her way of telling me. I went home alone, destined to be tortured by inner demons who had been quiet as of late. For the next couple of months, Carla was Richard Hell’s girlfriend living the life of a New York scenester. The life I had imagined for myself. It was also during this time that she started seriously using heroin, a habit that stayed with her for the rest of her life. It would be easy to say that after her initial romance with Hell, and dope, she became aloof and withdrawn. But it wouldn’t be true. Carla had money. Don’t ask me from where. Sometimes I’d meet her as she was getting out of work and she’d take me to an after hours club. After scoring some dope, she’d hit me up, then herself. This was before AIDS. Barely.
Ray and I moved into our apartment on East 12th Street between Avenues A and B in early 1982. The apartment, costing the princely sum of $350 dollars a month must have been the smallest space two men this side of Eastern Europe ever shared. It was located in the rear building of a turn of the century tenement. The bathtub was in the kitchen which was also the livingroom which served as my room. If you sat on the couch (my bed) and put your feet up, you could rest them on the bathtub. The couch took up half the kitchen/livingroom making it impossible to open the oven door for cooking, not that we ever wanted to. I’m not sure if we were plagued by mice, or rats, but throwing out the glueboards holding the squeaking defeated rodents, proved a constant source of anxiety. After a while, Ray took to going at them with a hammer, but the consequences of this activity were somewhat messier and no less stress provoking. We used the shower curtain rack as our closet so personal hygiene had to take a back seat to necessity. Both Ray and I became maestros of the kitchen sink sponge bath. Since Ray had a girlfriend, he got the back room, a thoroughly unspectacular white sheetrock box that had no room for anything other than a double bed. The water closet was just that, a 3’ by 3’ room housing a turn of the century toilet that suffered water pressure problems. The Boy George poster above the toilet brightened the ambiance considerably.
Malcolm got me a job at Macy’s, where I was promptly assigned to work in the china department. If the personnel department placed employees according to the principle of cutting down on the likelihood of workplace theft, they did well in my case, because I had no interest in china whatsoever. What I needed was a new wardrobe, but it wasn’t going to come from Macy’s. Carla continued as a waitress, working in a trendy East Village all night eatery called 103, because it was located at 103 Second Avenue. As a waitress and sometimes bartender, she came in contact with an assortment of underworld characters and late night creeps; musicians, clubbers, drug dealers, transvestites, prostitutes, and sundry actors, actresses and models climbing up and falling off various rungs of the career ladder.
Sandy was my official girlfriend at the time but she moved to Houston Texas to live with her brother. I can’t remember why. I pledged my faith and allegiance to her, which was a noble gesture made easier by the fact that there is no place on earth lonelier than New York City. The poet Robert Bly who grew up on a farm in desolate northern Minnesota once said that the loneliest year of his life was spent in crowded New York City. It’s like being a freshman in high school. You exist, but nobody sees you. There’s always someone better dressed, more polished, more mature, more handsome, more confident whom the ladies fall for. Never mind that us guys (or freshmen) can see these poseurs for what they are. It doesn’t matter.
… So we started a band, a rather unconventional one at that. Cinful was our singer, but she couldn’t really sing anything other than “Tears On My Pillow.” I played guitar, but I couldn’t really play guitar. We thought we’d slip past that hurdle by letting me play slide guitar in the tradition of Bryan Gregory from The Cramps, our then favorite group. Ray played bass, though he was an excellent guitarist, and helped out with backing vocals. Carla, who had been taking drum lessons from a friend of Richard Hell, played the skins. She had a new boyfriend whose name was Donny. His brother was a drummer in a local band and Carla could use his drum kit.
Our band was beyond dysfunctional. Poor Ray, not only had to teach us how to play our instruments, he had to monitor our drug use. Cinful and Carla were the worst offenders, but impressionable me was easily led. With the 3 of us high, practice was hopeless. We fought about everything. Starting with our name. First, we were The Amazing Skycocks, but Carla didn’t like it and Cinful backed her up. I thought Rain of Terror was a good name, but Ray thought it was too hard edge for our actual sound. Ray and Carla liked pre-LSD, but I thought it somehow made us sound like we had small penises. Cinful and Carla seized my words and came up with The Small Penises, but I would have none of that. Finally, we compromised on The Love Searchers.
The only feminine presence in my life besides Carla and Cinful was the sales staff at Macy’s. Being one of the few heterosexual salesmen on the eighth floor (home of Santa Land – read David Sedaris on this topic), I probably had my choice of eligible young bachelorettes, though I’m sure they assumed I was gay. Elizabeth worked the crystal department register across the floor from me. Mutual curiosity turned to desire which blossomed into love. We became an item. Our budding romance became the talk of the eighth floor. “It’s like a Macy’s Christmas story,” sighed Curly the Mikasa salesman over lunch in the employee cafeteria. There were tears in his eyes. Elizabeth and I blushed, then laughed. When Lizzie and I got married two years later, pretty much the entire eighth floor was there to cheer us on. We were their star crossed lovers who managed to elude our fate and escape the dungeon of retail sales. So many of them are gone now. AIDS.
The Love Searchers debuted at a club called A7, so named because it sat at the corner of Seventh Street and Avenue A. In New York, a simple declaration of address is often enough of a push to give an establishment a certain hip aura about it. We were The Love Searchers minus one. Cinful had left both Ray and the band to check herself into a Pennsylvania rehab clinic. Singing duties fell to Ray… and me. As you might imagine, most of my mental faculties were focused on not making my guitar sound horrible. Also, a strong melodious singing voice cannot be counted among my positive attributes. When Carla gingerly took off her overshirt, I was amazed to see deep blue tracks covering both her arms. I looked closer. Her eyes were unfocused. She smiled at me and her eyes rolled up in her head. Shit. Ray got us started with a count one…two…three… tinkle, plinkety, plink, plunk, plunk. Carla was hitting the drums with all the force of an anemic 6 year old. “Play louder, more aggressive!” Ray yelled, but Carla was in her own groove, a groove that had nothing to do with the music we were attempting to make. “Sing louder!” Ray screamed, and I screamed out two songs at the top of my lungs. By the middle of my second song, the crowd had diminished by three quarters. Elizabeth was still there, watching intently from six feet away. It was at that moment that I knew I was in love. Ray sang a few songs and the two of us established something resembling a beat. Carla was a nonfactor. It was easy to tune her out because we couldn’t hear her.
We played a couple more dates as a band, only because we had made the commitment previous to our on-stage meltdown. I saw Carla a few times over the next couple of months, but Lizzie had replaced her as the leading lady in my life. Carla moved in with Donny, up the block on West 12th Street, but I still didn’t see much of her. I ran into Donny and he looked frazzled and tired, as if caring for Carla was wearing him down.
May 23, 1983
Hi. I just talked to you on the street. You sounded confused. Drugs? I know dope takes the sadness and boredom out of life. And I know that at times you can get pretty damn depressed. After a while of doing dope, there’s no more pleasure, you just need it to feel like a normal living human being. You sound like you’re at that stage now. Dope is an artificial thing, designed to deaden the pain. It’s better to be depressed sometimes and be yourself Carla, than to be a zombie. When we used to go out I always worried about your moods and worried that you would kill yourself. We don’t go out anymore, but I still worry about you. Shooting heroin is a slow way of killing yourself. If the only way to get attention is in a negative way, then you’re going to be a drag on those of us who care about you. When we’re old and gray, you don’t want to still think of yourself as a self destructive little girl. You got to get a little tough. I know I’m preaching but I don’t care. I also realize I got lots of problems myself, but that’s not the point. I also know how down a person can get, because I’ve been there.
You should be saving your money for a drum set, not drugs. Which reminds me, your drumming sucks when you’re high. Ray asked me if you were doing a lot of drugs. I said I don’t know. But take my word for it, your drumming is really lackluster when you’re high. You better stop doing dope now, because you’re not going to amount to much of an artist. Besides not being able to afford art classes, you need to feel something to be a successful artist. Dope strips you of your emotions. All these drugged up pretty boys walking around the Lower East Side who call themselves artists ain’t going to amount to much in the long run. Most of them won’t even be around in another ten years. I could be wrong, but I doubt it.
You must feel pretty dumb by now for giving me the impression that you have such a drug problem that I need to lecture you about it. Please, don’t kid yourself, you do have a problem. I know you don’t have great self esteem (neither do I). You are a beautiful, alluring, wonderful person. I need you around. If I never saw you again, I would still care about you always and forever. A part of you is imbedded deeply in my soul. For purely selfish reasons, I don’t want any harm or sadness to befall you. I can’t spend my whole life worrying about your moods and self-destructiveness. You have to make an attempt to be happy and take care of yourself. I’m sorry if this letter is sappy and stupid. Although I can be difficult to get along with, just remember you have a friend in me, and I’ll always be around to lend a helping hand if you need it.
Love, (always and forever)
Carla died on September 26, 1983. It was a Sunday and I was hungover. The previous night Lizzie and I had been to a dress up party at Malcolm’s loft in Hoboken. At around 1 a.m. the lights went out, the power blew and we had to leave. The next morning, Ray called me at work. “I’ve got bad news. Carla’s dead. She had a heart attack, she died last night at the hospital.” I couldn’t believe it. I had just seen her a few days earlier and she was doing better. She thanked me for helping her father and Donny. She told me she loved me. “Always and Forever,” she said. The following day I had a job interview for a managerial position, or white flower, as we called it at Macy’s. I failed magnificently, answering each probing question with a variation of “because I’m smart,” or “I don’t care.” Needless to say, I didn’t get the promotion. My days at Macy’s were numbered.
The funeral was on Tuesday September 28th. I was a pallbearer. So was Ray. Malcolm was there. So was Cinful. And Steve the Pharmacist. Eddie was stuck in Boulder with only a bus ticket home. Gwen was there. Nan. Donny. His brother. Her sister. The twins. Her dad. And stepmother. And the priest. It was a Catholic funeral. It wasn’t a suicide. She had attempted suicide, but died of natural causes. Heart attack. Heart. Break.
Her coffin was placed in a hole in the ground behind the church. Everyone went into the church to eat the chocolate funeral cookies, talk about the lovely weather, comfort Donny who was acting every bit the grieving widower, and to dawdle over the twins. I remained out back with Carla. I poured a shot of whiskey from my flask onto the ground. Maybe the dead get thirsty.
I know that by writing this story I run the risk of forever losing the parts I choose not to tell. Maybe that’s for the best. That’s how it is with writers, what we put down on paper becomes the reality and all else gets lost in the ocean of forgotten memory. This is the story I had to write. Sometimes we must leave a piece of ourselves behind before we can move on. And I guess it’s time to move on.
If this story was a Steven Spielberg movie it would end with me placing a single red rose on Carla’s grave. But she’s not Marilyn. And I’m not Joe Dimaggio. Or Arthur Miller. This isn’t a movie. Instead, I continue to pedal my exercise bike, trying to burn away middle-age flab while scratching away in a spiral notebook and listening to Joey Ramone’s newly released posthumous album.
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I say to myself, what a wonderful world.
Bright sunny days, dark sacred nights
And I think to myself, What a Wonderful World.