One morning as I was walking up First Avenue, a dog ran past me with a dollar bill in its mouth. A few seconds later a fat man came puffing by in hot pursuit.
Preparing to go do laundry, I accidentally knocked a box of laundry detergent off the windowsill. I dashed downstairs to retrieve it, but by the time I got to the sidewalk it had already vanished.
For years I bought my produce at a place on First Avenue called The Poor People’s Friend.
My friends J and P worked at an agency located in the basement of the Empire Hotel, across from Lincoln Center, that assisted foreign students traveling in America. They often had to come to the aid of travelers who had spent all their money and lacked carfare to the airport. Frequently students would barter small items for bus tickets; one day somebody traded them a car. It was a tiny car, maybe Japanese (I don’t recall the make), and clearly on its last legs. It was ugly in an unobtrusive way, its body freckled with rust spots. The argument against possessing a car in New York City has mostly to do with parking problems, but this car was immune. We merrily parked it on corners, at crosswalks, in front of churches and fire hydrants, secure in the knowledge that it wouldn’t be towed, let alone stolen. Tow truck operators would take one look and realize that nobody would be paying ransom. We kept the car for almost a month, until, probably, some dutiful cop couldn’t stand it any longer.
Second Avenue, south of 14th Street, was at that time deserted after sundown. One of the few sources of illumination, apart from streetlights, was the row of spotlights shining down on the sidewalk from the East River Savings Bank branch between 6th and 7th Streets. One night J and I were walking along when we saw, carefully lined up in the glow of the spots, the complete works of Wilhelm Reich, in chronological order of publication. We each took two books, feeling a bit guilty about it, since they seemed intended for some purpose. We joked that they were meant to greet visiting flying saucers.
One day, walking my dog on 13th Street between First and A, I noticed that among the sidewalk habitués every man, woman, and child was wearing identical Kenny Rogers T-shirts. Few of them would have figured among the singer’s target audience. The shirts had perhaps, as they say, fallen off a truck.
Among the many curious enterprises on Elizabeth Street was a grocery store that only opened at night, approximately between midnight and dawn, and only stocked a handful of items, chiefly canned garbanzo beans. The store was run by an old woman dressed in black. We never managed to catch her eye, and never heard her speak.
There was a shoe store on First Avenue that you couldn’t enter. It was down a short flight of steps in what is known as a French basement, and you couldn’t enter because it was crammed to the ceiling with shoeboxes in a sea of dust. Only the owner could negotiate the narrow alleys between the towers. He would bring out the shoes and you tried them on and transacted business on the stoop. It was in effect a vintage shoe store, but it had not originally been one; the stock had been acquired new and then, for some reason, been left to sit there for a few decades. I still have the store’s business card, which is not only illustrated with an engraved depiction of a man’s lace-up boot, circa 1914, but also lists the telephone number (GRamercy 7-5885) and address (New York 3, NY) in ways that suggest it was printed no later than 1962.
I sometimes bought shoes from a man named Jerry, from whom I sometimes bought drugs, too, mostly pills. Those were his twin enterprises. When I arrived at his apartment, he would invariably be wearing a sleeveless undershirt and pegged trousers, and just as invariably he would be ironing something on a board identical to my mother’s.
If you sat in the right bar long enough, sooner or later someone would offer to sell you something–a tape recorder, say, or a supply of disposable diapers. The vendor would move from table to table with exaggerated stealth, opening the brown paper bag under his arm just enough to permit a glimpse of the item’s packaging. Once I scored a portable hairdryer at the Gold Rail on 111th Street and Broadway and presented it to my mother on Christmas. A few years later, my friend D. gave me, for my birthday, an 8-mm movie camera and tripod, as well as a film cutter that was, however, meant for Super-8 stock. I knew instantly that he had purchased those items in the men’s room at Tin Pan Alley, a bar we favored on 49th Street.
Everybody envied M his job. Once a month he traveled to Kennedy airport, where, at a set time, he would receive a call on a particular pay phone. A voice would read him a list of numbers, which he would note down. Moving on to an adjacent telephone, he would call another number and read the list to whoever answered. A few days later a courier would bring him an envelope full of cash.
For many years there were numerous commercial establishments that sold marijuana. Some were candy stores, some social clubs, some bodegas. What they had in common was a slot in a rear wall into which you would push your money, generally $10, and from which you would collect your little manila envelope. The most famous were probably the Black Door and the Blue Door, which glared at one another from opposite sides of 10th Street. One was an empty room; the other featured a pool table. One marked its bags with a Maltese-cross stamp, the other didn’t.
By the late 1970s, the fabled Fourth Avenue district of used bookstores had dwindled to fewer than half a dozen, most of them no longer even located on Fourth Avenue. One of the most venerable, Dauber & Pine, had moved to University Place, where it was selling off its remaining stock and no longer acquiring anything new. One day the store suffered a fire, which was quickly contained but left residual smoke damage. The damage was heaviest in the foreign-language department. The store owners tackled the problem by filling shopping bags with afflicted French books, each bag priced at $2. The books, however, not only were varyingly charred and smelling of smoke, but they had been in poor condition to begin with. Furthermore, they were almost uniformly nineteenth-century yellow-backed boudoir trash, the works of Paul de Kock and Xavier de Montépin–Madame Bovary’s reading material. Nobody ever bought the bags, as far as I could tell, though they constituted merchandise so ineffably conceptual they could have commanded thousands in a gallery setting a few blocks to the south.
One day I was sitting in the pastry shop, in a booth. I could hear every word being spoken by the large party at the table in the center. They were reminiscing about racetrack scams of the past. A small man with a raspy voice deplored modern telecommunications. At one time, he recalled, he and his brothers had rented a house overlooking the finish line at Pimlico, or maybe it was Hialeah. One of them hung out the window with binoculars. The instant the winner came across, he flashed a hand signal to another brother on the phone. Their man in New York would then signal to a confederate standing in line at the pari-mutuel office, who would bet large, since the official results would take another two minutes to be posted.
Until the 1990s I never paid more than $180 a month in rent. Still, given the condition of my crumbling building–of all the buildings I inhabited over the years–I felt that anything over $100 was high. I knew that R kept an apartment (he seldom visited it, spending his time in other beds) on 3rd Street, in the Men’s Shelter block, which because of that street’s annoyances and perceived dangers was only $50 a month. My colleague H, for that matter, had inherited her lease from a dead aunt; her 7th Street apartment was a mere $38. And I once met an old-timer who paid $30, but he was bitter about the annual increases imposed by the landlord lobby–when he had originally moved into his 2nd Street tenement in 1960, the rent had been $10. We agreed that ten bucks approximated the value we derived from the neighborhood and its housing stock.
Once, while visiting my parents in New Jersey, I ran into a high-school classmate I hadn’t seen in years. When he found out where I lived, he told me he visited the neighborhood sometimes in his capacity as a freight agent for a large-scale marijuana importer. The outfit rented an apartment a few blocks from mine that was employed as a depot for goods being moved from one distant city to another. Years later N, a friend who was a musician and a carpenter, told me he had spent the previous three months refitting a nearby apartment for a pot dealer. The circumstances were different, though. Prices had increased significantly and so, correspondingly, had apprehension. This dealer, a wholesaler for local traffic, had engaged my friend to put in numerous false walls and invisible compartments and sliding panels, as well as a booth by the door for the guard, with a hole through which he could poke the muzzle of his piece.
For years there was a general store, of the most traditional sort, on 9th and Second. I did my photocopying there, bought aspirin, string, drywall screws, mayonnaise, and greeting cards on various occasions. You could not imagine that they could possibly carry the exact spice or piece of hardware or style of envelope you needed, since the place was not enormous, but invariably an employee would disappear into some warren and reemerge with your item in hand. In my memory I am always going there during blizzards. Another sort of general store stood on the corner of 14th and Third. It may have had another name, but its sign read “Optimo.” It was cool and dark inside, with racks of pipes and porn novels and shelves of cigar boxes and candy. Of its two display windows on 14th Street, one featured scales, glassine envelopes, and bricks of Mannitol–the Italian baby laxative favored by dealers in powder for stretching their merchandise. The other held shields, badges, and handcuffs. I often wished that Bertolt Brecht had been alive to admire those windows.
Once after leaving the World, a club on 2nd Street, I was riding in a taxi with J and R. Rounding a corner, we saw a mutual acquaintance, using a coat hanger, breaking into a parked car. We knew he did things like that, but none of us had ever seen him in action. It was like watching a nature documentary — or better: It was exactly like looking out the window and seeing an egret building its nest.
Usable objects not worth selling could be disposed of easily. You just put them out on the street and they would disappear, within minutes, as if they had been thrown into a river. Depending on the building, a similar result might be obtained by putting the stuff in the lobby or a stairwell. When I finally threw out my old green couch, though, nobody would touch it. I felt personally insulted. It was admittedly a little ragged, but its springs were all present and intact, and it was long enough to serve as a comfortable spare bed. The cushions, of course, were nabbed immediately, but the rest of it lingered on the sidewalk until someone stuffed it awkwardly through the back door of an abandoned car and set it on fire.
Bodegas sold mysterious little bags of dime-sized cookies decorated with pastel florets of frosting. The bags cost a quarter, and every time I went to a birthday party I would buy one and tape it to my present. As far as I know, nobody ate even one, and no wonder: while they looked soft, they had all the resilience of marble.
For years the local bookie occupied an actual hole in the wall: a storefront only as wide as its door and maybe ten feet deep. He didn’t hang out a shingle reading “Bookie,” but then he didn’t need to. For some reason he abandoned this space in the early ’80s and relocated to a back table in the pizza parlor.
When I felt that prices in Manhattan were getting too high, I would cross the river to Hoboken, where you could still find $1 shirts and $5 suits long after those items had risen tenfold in price at home. One day I passed the window of a residence on the main drag in which two or three old paperbacks were displayed along with scrawled sign saying “For Sale Inside.” I knocked and was admitted. In addition to a couple of revolving racks of fantastically gaudy crime novels from the 1940s and ’50s, the room also contained three generations of a family, apparently Southern, from a babe in arms to a grandmother sprawled hacking and gagging on a couch, with a sheet twisted around her middle. Something was cooking on a hot plate. No one spoke. At least five pairs of eyes regarded me hollowly. I browsed in record time, paid, and fled, feeling like a census taker.
Down the street from me was a store called Coffee and Dolls, run by two blond brothers in their forties to whom we referred as “Jimmy Carter” and “Billy Carter.” The store’s name was accurate, apparently–the window displayed dolls and sacks of coffee beans. No one was ever seen buying either item, however. The fact that the storefront provided a thin cover for the permanent ongoing poker game held in the basement could not have escaped the attention of many people, perhaps not even the police.
When I walked my dog around the block we would sometimes meet a German shepherd and his walker on 13th Street. The dogs liked each other and would play, not a small matter since my chow did not like many other dogs. The owner of the shepherd was a thin guy with a mustache, about my age. I don’t remember much conversation, although he was pleasant enough. One day I found myself on Fifth Avenue, near St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Up ahead I spotted a mendicant in a wheelchair, with a blanket covering his lower extremities, his neck and torso contorted by cerebral palsy or something similar. When I got close enough to see his face I was thunderstruck–it was the owner of the German shepherd! I thought I must be mistaken, that there was really no more than a general resemblance, but when I walked past him–carefully keeping a line of pedestrians between us so he wouldn’t see me–I was sure. It was definitely the same guy. Had he been in a terrible accident and lost his livelihood? As it happened, I had just been reading about the “cripple factories” of the early twentieth century, where able-bodied men and women were taught to fake blindness and other handicaps to increase their take as beggars. The very fact that I had been reading about such things convinced me that I couldn’t possibly be witnessing a present-day equivalent. I felt guilty for not reaching out to him or giving him money, although I couldn’t persuade myself to go back. A few days later, however, when I walked my dog around the corner to 13th Street, there was the shepherd–and there was his master, as hale and cheerful as ever.
Z had come from Germany to make his way as musician, and after a few years his career was progressing rapidly. He played in three or four bands, all of them admired, some measurably in advance of what the other outfits on the scene were doing. He had also, over the years, become a heroin addict. As addicts will, he was driven to ever greater exigencies to raise money to support his habit. His musical employment gave him little financial advantage; as far as I know, none of his bands was ever recorded. He therefore became a burglar. One night he set out to rob the apartment of a former girlfriend. She lived on the top floor of a tenement, her bedroom window–which Z knew to be unlocked–located on the rear, about four feet from the fire escape. Grasping the railing of the fire escape, Z swung his legs over to the window ledge. He inserted the tip of his right sneaker beneath the top of the frame of the lower sash and pushed upward. The window, as he hoped, slid gently open. When he had raised it as far as he could, he dangled his feet inside and gave a mighty push, hoping that momentum and gravity would propel him in. He had fatally miscalculated, however, and dropped five stories to the concrete surface of the back court. A day or two later, the Daily News covered the story in an inch-length column filler. “Romeo Falls To Death,” it was headed. It told the poignant story of a young émigré musician who was such a romantic that he contrived to slip into the bedroom of his beloved as she slept. Sadly, he had met with misadventure.
Sooner or later everybody I knew tried to buy something from the deli on Spring Street, and everyone had the same experience. Usually it was a hot day, and the store hove into view just when the need for a can of soda presented itself. So you’d enter, go to the cooler, pick out a cold one, and take it to the counter.
“You heard me.”
Some people left meekly; some tried arguing, to no avail. If the owner didn’t know your family, he didn’t want your business, and that was that.
The Late Show was one of several $3 clothing stores that flourished in the neighborhood in the mid-1970s. Everything in the store cost $3, whether it was a T-shirt or a three-piece suit in cut velvet. The place was run by Frenchy and Angel, surviving holdouts from the methamphetamine culture that had ravaged the area half a decade later and driven out the hippies. Frenchy had once been wardrobe manager for the New York Dolls; he walked with a cane and moved as if he was fifty years older than his actual age. Angel was so thin she could have hidden behind a telephone pole. She wore ordinary dark glasses that looked outlandishly oversized on her. One day I took my ditsy friend F, visiting from out of town, for a shopping trip there. Since she had arrived unprepared for the weather, I had lent her my brown leather bomber jacket. She carelessly threw it in a corner and went to work, stepping up to the counter hours later with an enormous haul. After she paid we looked for my jacket and couldn’t find it. It turned out that, while our attention was elsewhere, someone had come in, tried it on, and bought it.
Among the peddlers on Astor Place, the same set of the works of Khrushchev (Foreign Languages Press, Moscow) circulated from hand to hand for at least a year. Nobody ever bought it, but every day it would appear in someone else’s stock.
Inflation. On August 6, 1979, I hit the street clutching a $10 bill. With that sum ($9.98, to be precise) I bought three slices of pizza, a can of Welch’s strawberry soda, a pack of Viceroys, six joints, two quarts of orange juice, two containers of yogurt, and a pint of milk. For some reason I was moved to enter those details in my notebook. I often revisited the entry. On May 29, 1981, I noted that the shopping list would cost around $12 at current prices. On March 24, 1983, the sum had risen to $13.50, and a year later to $15. On August 2, 1986, I calculated the cost as $39.35–loose joints were rare on the street, and by then a dime bag of marijuana yielded about two joints. On December 1, 1990, the cost had reached $72–$12 minus the pot. On March 28, 1993, I figured it had attained $92.75, or $22.75 for everything but the marijuana.
One day when L went to buy heroin on 3rd Street, as he often did, he was hijacked. That was not unusual either, but this time the thieves maneuvered him into an abandoned building and took not just his money but also every shred of his clothing. He was forced to make his way home naked. Fortunately he only lived about ten blocks away.
The last time I saw W, he was selling records on the sidewalk on St. Mark’s Place. He told me he was disposing of his property to raise funds for a trip to Asia. I don’t remember buying anything from him–his tastes tended toward the impressive-looking but unlistenable–but unless I was broke I must have thrown some dollars his way. His travel plans sounded so grand–months apiece in Kashmir, Thailand, Bali, etc.–that I wondered whether he would ever realize them. A few weeks later I got word that he had committed suicide, in his apartment.
“My dream,” V told me more than once, “is to come upon a parked truck transporting Kodak film. Think about it: Film is small, light, untraceable, easy to dispose of, and proportionately expensive. A find like that could set you up for years to come.” I lost track of V, so I don’t know whether he ever fulfilled his dream.
When S inherited his father’s estate, although it was not a major sum, he promptly retired. That is, he quit his job, moved into a room in the George Washington Hotel on 23rd Street, and took his meals at the donut shop on the corner. He read, wrote, strolled, napped. It was the life of Riley. He might have continued in this fashion indefinitely had he not made the acquaintance of cocaine.
“We Got More Soul,” by Dyke and the Blazers (Original Sound OS-86). Ex collection “M. Scale.” Found circa 1977, Passaic, New Jersey. Estimated plays 50-60. Gritty but serviceable, the grooves still evincing a satiny surface sheen. The silences are not too loud; the stop-and-go percolates nicely. Former owner Scale was in his middle twenties then, still healthy, still socially integrated, still employed. He played the record on Saturday mornings, finding in it an analogue to the optimistic cheer that filled him as he contemplated the possibilities of a weekend that seemed as long and promising as the unwinding highway of his future life. Now he has no recollection of it.
“Soul Power Pt. 1,” by James Brown (King 45-6368). Ex collection “Suggs.” Found 1976, New York City. Estimated plays 200-250. Label rubbed nearly raw, with white bands at outer edge and edge of inner declivity; title nearly illegible. Shines nicely when held at an angle, but the surface is a skating rink. James’s shouts are nearly lost in a forest of brambles, and seventeen seconds before the end groove the finale is hijacked by a fatal skip. Suggs was a teenager, a serial attendee of house parties, a pest to the ladies who imagined himself a hit with the ladies, a loud kid with a big smile and a six-inch Afro who carried his records in a brown paper bag. Today he recalls this side a bit ruefully on certain empty summer nights.
“You Got What It Takes,” by Marv Johnson (United Artists UA 185). Ex collection “Fran Paul.” Found 1984, New Rochelle, New York. Estimated plays 75-100. Sounds better than it looks. Asphalt-like undertone actually contributes to record’s lapidary impact, shaves a bit of the new-car ambiance off typical Berry Gordy production. The single hiccup by Marv fails to develop into a full skip. Former owner was fourteen at the time, the record stolen by her soi-disant best friend Debbie, who had it stolen from her in turn at a church-sponsored event, and who knows how it traveled all the way to Westchester County? Today the original owner has a pop-music memory that only goes back about ten years.
“I’m So Glad I Found You,” by Linda Jones and the Whatnauts (Stang ST-5039A). Ex collection “Brenda Vernon.” Found 1994, Oneonta, New York. Estimated plays 20-25. Like watching a ship sailing through mist, the music emerges from a wide but translucent cloud of tiny skitterings, although the surface was abraded by poor storage rather than overplaying. The former owner was sixteen, bought the record because of its title because she thought she was in love. Disillusionment with boy in question led to abandonment of record in back of closet; it was found decades later by new owners of house. Brenda today is a successful businesswoman, who disavows any knowledge of the details of her youth and insists on the empowering quality of staring fixedly forward.
“Angel Baby,” by Rosie and the Originals (Highland 1011). Ex collection “Aline” and “Rozier.” Found circa 1974, New York City. Estimated plays 300-400. As thickly impastoed as a late Rouault, the record is simply unplayable; surface abrasion is compounded by extensive chipping of inner ring–spindle insert barely clings. Aline, in her middle teens at the time, was a careful owner who filed her records in a carrying case (label bears a small sticker reading “18”). Rozier, a friend of her older brother who “borrowed” it and marked it as his own, presented quite a different picture. Not only did he subject it to numerous playings at late-night rumpuses where the tone arm would regularly be dropped bluntly and carelessly on the surface and taken up with similar lack of finesse, but he also, impishly and regularly, sailed his records through the air, aiming for friends’ unsuspecting heads. Eventually it traveled out the window and was rescued by a scavenger. Nothing is known of the subsequent fates of either Aline or Rozier.
“Just One Look,” by Doris Troy (Atlantic 45-2188). Ex collection “Pearl.” Found 1977, Brooklyn, New York. Estimated plays 100-150. Gives the impression of an imperfectly tuned radio: the song is clearly audible, but apparently competes with an entirely separate musique concrète, perhaps a little-known Luc Ferrari composition. White streaks between grooves on the B-side provide evidence of long-ago spillage of a liquid substance. Former owner purchased record at sixteen and continued to play it at home and at parties for much of the following decade. Donated it to the church bazaar on the eve of her marriage. Today she is twice-divorced and sad, misses her records, misses her old friends, misses her mom.
“Who’s Cheating Who?” by Little Milton (Checker 1113). Ex collection “ES” and “D.” Found 1973, New York City. Estimated plays 200-250. Very little remains of the music on this record, which now sounds like an electric coffee grinder on low speed. ES and D were siblings who agreed to share their records in a rare instance of youthful idealism and economy. Within a year or two, however, hormonally-driven tensions between them had escalated their former jocular rivalry into a state of war. Records became bargaining chips, then hostages, then weapons. ES, who was very attached to the music, attempted to handle them with care, but D, for whom records were social markers above all, treated them with contempt. Eventually their mother settled things by just throwing the whole mess out on the street. Today the brothers have reconciled. ES enjoys smooth jazz, golf, the occasional drink or three, while D has become a Buddhist and prefers the sound of his own inner harmonies.
“It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” by James Brown (King 45-6035). Ex collection “Authur” [sic]. Found 1972, Jersey City, New Jersey. Estimated plays 400-450. An unlistenable platter of French-fried worms, this record has been loved to death. Authur (pronounced “Arthur”) spent his teenage years consumed by this record. He lived surrounded by females: mother, grandmother, three sisters, and a girl cousin, all packed into a two-bedroom apartment; Authur slept in the pantry closet. He obtained a small portable record player through a complicated series of swaps, stole the record from Woolworth’s, and listened to virtually nothing else between the ages of twelve and seventeen. Perhaps because man made electric lights to bring us out of the dark, he went to work for Consolidated Edison in New York City, where he remains. Today he listens to the song on CD in his car on the way to work.
“Crying,” by Roy Orbison (Monument 45-447). Ex collection “Laura Weiner.” Found 1986, Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Estimated plays 15-20. Superb condition, beautifully maintained, sounds nearly new to the ear even if it does not necessarily appear that way to the eye. Laura bought the record because she was sad, because a certain boy failed to offer her a Valentine’s Day remembrance. Then she forgot that she was sad, and forgot the record, and it sat in a box in her old bedroom for two decades after she married and went on to raise four children in a suburb of Atlanta, until the death of her mother, when the house’s contents were disposed of by professional estate managers. Today she couldn’t pick the song out of a lineup.
“Rockin’ Pneumonia Part I,” by Huey “Piano” Smith and his Clowns (Cotillion 45-44142). Ex collection “Clasic” or “Clasie.” Found 1980, Brunswick, Maine. Estimated plays 35-40. Another record in excellent condition, albeit presenting a label marked with various letters, numbers, and glyphs, mostly in felt marker. It is a disc jockey copy, on which the A side is inscribed “Plug Side” (perhaps redundantly, since the B side is Part II). Clasic or Clasie has here, as on several other records found along with it, daubed his name or handle on a stub of masking tape and covered the brand logo with it. He seems to have been an itinerant deejay who worked weddings and graduations and possessed a great many records, most of them with little emotional investment; he played strictly to the crowd’s tastes. He died in 1979 from choking on a pretzel stick. Vic Damone’s version of “My Way” was played at his funeral.
“So Much in Love,” by the Tymes (Parkway P-871C). Ex collection “Victor Heinrich.” Found 1971, Brigantine, New Jersey. Estimated plays 175-200. The Tymes here sound as if they are heard singing deep in a forest at the lush height of summer by a wanderer on the trail above who cannot quite locate the source of the music. Birds and insects and rustling branches can be heard in three-dimensional detail–for all that they are really just scratches–giving the song even more of a poignant, elegiac quality than it initially possessed. This is apt since Victor played the record unendingly in commemoration of his love for Hazel, who never even knew he was alive. He kept the song secret from his parents, who might have laughed, and from his friends, who certainly would have. He went so far as to try to become a priest to assuage his broken heart, but the order knew better than to sign him up. Today he is an angry drunk, and no longer remembers how he got there.
“Cool Broadway,” by the Fantastic Johnny C (Phil-L.A. of Soul 315). Ex collection “Tina.” Found 1978, New York City. Estimated plays 175-225. The grooves’ rocky road here becomes a sonic analogue to the scratches and blots and blemishes on an old strip of film. The Fantastic J. C. is high-stepping along Broadway through an electric haze you could mistake for gnats or snow. Those were the good times–each pop representative of an occasion of fun, each flurry of crackles a reminder of the enveloping embrace of that old gang of friends. They played it and played it and played it some more for the duration of the summer of 1968, even though it was just the follow-up, even though it sounded like a bare retread of the original “Boogaloo.” They didn’t care. It was Tina’s record at first, but it found its way to Beverly’s house, and then to LaVerne’s, and then to Tracy’s, and Tracy’s mother was the one who gave all the records away to a neighbor one day after all the girls had gotten pregnant and the records, just a couple of years old by then, might as well have been relics of earliest childhood. Today each of the three survivors of that time will, if questioned, recall a certain brass-section color, a certain parade-drum bounce that stands in for 1968, unspecified and indistinguishable from the sodas and chips and hair-care products and magazines that wove with the music to create the fiber of those afternoons and weekends, still close to their hearts but an unimaginably vast remove away.
One night in the 1980s, a low period for me, as I slumped on my regular stool at Farrell’s, in Brooklyn, staring into my fourth or fifth of their enormous beers, the gentleman to my left struck up a conversation. Like nearly everyone in the bar but me, he was a cop, a retired cop to be exact, and unlike most of them he looked like a churchwarden, lean and grave and puckered, definitely on the farther shore of 80. He had much to say; his proudest accomplishments had gone unrecognized. It seemed he had been the first to put together a numbered list of the most-sought reprobates from justice. He’d gotten the idea sometime in the late ’40s, he recalled. He had been listening to Symphony Sid, his favorite radio disk jockey. It was the week that “Twisted” by Wardell Gray moved into the pole position on the chart. The idea of a Top Ten was itself new.
There were some good cases on tap that week, too. Someone had stolen all the sacramental vessels, worth many thousands, from the sacristy at St. Patrick’s; someone else had apparently scaled the sheer face of a skyscraper to murder a diplomat in his heavily-guarded 35th-story bedroom; a gang of miscreants in fright masks had walked off with the gate receipts during the seventh inning of a game at the Polo Grounds. My friend deplored these crimes, naturally, but still felt they deserved something more than the usual tabloid-headline form of appreciation. He imagined a Top Ten of crimes–the Most Audacious Felonies. He saw himself announcing the list on the radio, becoming a personality, a sensation. There would be a spin-off comic book with his name and face at upper left, “presenting” the felonies to an eager public. In the meantime he got himself some sheets of oaktag and posted a list in the squad room.
His superiors were not amused. He was informed that as a property clerk his job was to keep track of evidence and exhibits and not go inserting his nose in places where it did not belong, and he was furthermore forcibly reminded why at age 45 he was still nothing more than a property clerk–my new friend did not enlighten me on that particular score. Not a week later, however, a list appeared on every bulletin board of every precinct house in the city. Nicely typed and roneographed, it was headed “The Ten Most Wanted Men.” Immediately my friend knew just which ambitious, sniveling lieutenant it was who had stolen his idea, but there was nothing he could do about it. Adding insult to injury, the FBI caught wind of the list and called the plagiarist down to D. C. to advise on the creation of a nationwide Top Ten. By the end of the month the rat was heading up his own Special Squad.
Right away the list entered popular culture. It was just as my friend imagined it, down to the comic book, although J. Edgar Hoover was the personality charged with “presenting” it. The FBI list–the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives–garnered the lion’s share of publicity, but the New York City version, which evolved into the Thirteen Most Wanted, more than held its own. My friend, who was not short of contacts on the other side of the law, had any number of stories about crooks vying for a position, gunning for the number-one man in order to take his place, becoming depressed and allowing themselves to be arrested when they were bumped down to number fourteen, and so on. The public, for their part, were intoxicated–the number of wanton misidentifications and groundless accusations of bosses and neighbors and rivals in love more than quintupled, and so correspondingly did the number of false arrests. Even more than during the “public enemy” craze of the 1930s, law enforcement had become a spectacle.
At some point in the late 1950s, my friend made the acquaintance of a boy, a “bohunk” from Pittsburgh, who had come to town to become an artist. He didn’t say how they met, but they seem to have become rather close, although he didn’t think much of the boy’s attempts at art. The boy liked to draw “fruity” things, like women’s shoes, and serenely ignored my friend’s attempts to steer him toward something more substantial, such as true-crime comics. Still, they had some good times before the boy started becoming a success, designing greeting cards and wallpaper and shopping bags, and began thinking himself “too good” for my friend. As the boy became ever busier attending fancy cocktail parties on Fifth Avenue, their acquaintance languished. My friend was sad, but moved on, and had put the boy well out of his mind by 1962 or so, when like the rest of America he was made aware of a huckster who was making a fortune painting pictures of soup cans. He laughed when he read the story in the Daily News, but the laughter caught in his throat when he saw the picture next to it. It was the boy.
My friend had drifted through a couple of decades as a property clerk and, despite his early dreams of derring-do, had come to rather enjoy it. The job was steady, undemanding, and allowed him plenty of time to do the Jumble. He was a department fixture, almost synonymous with his job. That same year, though, his longtime nemesis, the plagiarist, became chief. And it could only have been his decision, made out of pure malice, to kick my friend down to patrol duty–my friend was nearing retirement, had been a model employee, had fallen arches. Anyway, it so happened that my friend was on the street in uniform on an unseasonably cold autumn evening, guarding a movie premiere, of all stupid things, when he saw the boy again. The boy now looked like an apprentice hoodlum: leather jacket, sunglasses, need of haircut. He was walking with that old movie star–what was her name? The boy spotted my friend, said nothing, but the two locked eyes for a second. Even through the sunglasses, my friend could tell.
Cut to Spring, 1964. My friend, inches from retirement, had been patrolling the World’s Fair. One day he was called to the New York State pavilion. There might be trouble, he was told. As he approached he kept looking up at the piston-shaped towers, imagining a jumper. Only when he got close did he notice the lower building. It was covered with a row of enormous portraits of men. To his astonishment, he recognized them: the Thirteen Most Wanted. He stared at the faces in disbelief. But the instant he recognized the face of Salvatore Vitale, workers began obliterating it with white paint. One by one the faces disappeared. It was his dream–both realized and short-circuited–all over again. Somehow he found out, eventually: it was the boy! He did that! But was it an act of love, or an attempt to kill him?
One day very soon it will happen that our heroes, having searched and studied ancient property maps on file at the bureau of records, having rented a basement storage space on the opposite side of the block, having pretended to be a punk band and carted in instruments and actually played them very loud before switching to recordings of the same stuff played just as loud, having under cover of the loudness drilled a series of guide holes in the rear wall and then chiseled out the space between those holes, having collected the rubble in small cloth sacks and carried them out to the car and dropped them off a bridge under cover of night, having at last located the rear wall of the bank vault, having clipped all wires leading from the vault, having set off a series of fire alarms to distract the authorities and blown up a succession of metal trash cans with M-80s a block or two away to further confuse interested parties, having under that combined cover blown a hole in the rear of the vault with Semtex, having made their way into the vault, will find it as empty as Mother Hubbard’s refrigerator. No cash, just an assortment of worthless securities, a few blackmail-potential photographs, an A-Rod rookie card, and somebody’s collection of Beanie Babies.
Above, a poem drawn from the depths of The American Gun Mystery (1933) by Ellery Queen (joint pseudonym of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee). The extraction was the work of an anonymous member or members of the Resurrectionists, a shadowy group devoted to finding the poetry hidden in the works of the most prosaic authors. The members never made their identities public, although rumors flew during their heyday, from the late 1950s to the mid-’70s. This anonymity, which seems to have begun as a whimsical cloak-and-dagger affectation, was before long cemented by threats of lawsuits from touchy authors. In one of their manifestos the Resurrectionists noted that they had derived their initial inspiration from Blaise Cendrars’s Kodak (1924), every word of which was taken from the novels of Gustave Le Rouge, and which was threatened with a lawsuit–although the plaintiff was Eastman Kodak, and the complaint was over the title (which Cendrars changed to Documentaire, and the suit was dropped).
The Resurrectionists, who enjoyed waxing militant, calling for the abolition of “simple load-bearing literature, which trucks ideas from the factory and dumps them at your door” and the exposure of “functionaries who pretend to be writers,” were actually menaced by a few of their famous victims. In 1965, Green Berets author Robin Moore was apparently set to take them to court in Florida on grounds of plagiarism and libel, although at the eleventh hour the court balked at a case directed at an undetermined number of John Does. Even earlier, Ayn Rand was said to have hired detectives to flush out the poets’ identities in advance of a harassment campaign; evidently she failed. It may be hard at this late date to understand how wealthy best-selling authors could become so exercised by a marginal avant-garde prank, but the Resurrectionists seem to have had a way of exposing raw nerves, “psychoanalyzing” the books they selected and uncovering unconscious residue the authors would rather had not been noticed. Their takedown of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969) was so devastating he allegedly confessed to friends that he was done with writing altogether.
The Ellery Queen poem illustrated was one of their first published pieces (in The Creedmoor Review, 1956) and shows them at their most lyrical and even affectionate. In the following decade, in the climate of rebellion of the time, their work grew more pointed and aggressive. Their victims included many of the biggest names of the day: Allen Drury, Fulton Sheen, Taylor Caldwell, Leon Uris, James Michener, Bob Hope, Arthur Hailey, Erich Segal, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum. That most of them have sunk into obscurity today was predicted by the Resurrectionists again and again. “By 1980 it will be as if [James Gould] Cozzens had never been born!” they crowed in a 1957 press release. In their valedictory manifesto, issued in 1976, they foresaw the eventual end of bad writing. “Best-sellers are the preliminary step for those who are forgetting how to read,” they wrote. “Soon those followers will drop the pretense and give themselves over to television and thumb-wrestling. Of course, they may take the publishing industry down with them. But that is a risk we must face. After all, almost anybody can afford a mimeograph machine.”
Just about as rare as if it had never been published at all, this may be the only extant copy of Dave Carluccio’s only book–typed, photocopied, folded, and stapled by its author in 1980 in an edition of fewer than a hundred, maybe fewer than twenty. The title and the cover image both refer to Aleksei Kruchenykh’s Against Hooliganism in Literature (1926), cover by Gustav Klutsis. That work in turn, which has never been translated, is to the best of my knowledge a polemic by the veteran cubo-futurist directed against some rival Soviet avant-garde gang. But that didn’t matter much to Carluccio, who most likely just saw the cover reproduced in some book and ran with it. “Hooliganism”–a word strangely omnipresent in Russian and ultimately derived from a slur against the Irish–was to him something desirable, especially in literature, which he persisted in seeing in early-modernist terms, as a genteel tea party much in need of being forcibly invaded and broken up.
I knew Carluccio’s brother slightly in high school. We weren’t friends, and I didn’t even know of Dave’s existence until half a decade later, when he showed up at my apartment one day with a group of people who were looking for a party. I wasn’t giving a party and wasn’t in a hospitable mood, which is probably what impelled them to hang out somewhat longer than necessary, opening the beers they had brought, lighting joints, and putting records on the turntable. While most of the five or six of them were having a high old time and I was calling around trying to find the party, or any party, to get them out of my hair, Carluccio was looking through my books. Finally, when their beers were drained and before they could go for seconds, I pretended someone had given me an address on the other side of town and sent them on their way. A week later I received an envelope from Carluccio containing a sheaf of tiny stories typed on the backs of pink “While You Were Out” notes. It was the first of more than a dozen such envelopes.
As it turned out, I was to meet Carluccio only twice more. The first time was about a year later. I was coming out of a party in Tribeca, one of those huge, brawling things where maybe ten percent of the guests had actually been invited. I had no idea who the hosts were and didn’t know anybody there, but on my way down the stairs some guy I didn’t recognize rushed to catch up and immediately started talking at me. He had sent me the stories because I had Bataille and Artaud and Mayakovsky on my shelves and he knew I’d understand. He talked from Franklin Street up to Canal, east to the Bowery, north to St. Mark’s Place, and would have talked me all the way home if I hadn’t suddenly ducked into a tenement behind somebody who had just been buzzed in. His talk was all very much checklist literature–you know, the kind of thing young guys do, like throwing names of bands at each other in lieu of conversation. He was very excited about Lautréamont and Cendrars and Traven and Burroughs and Ballard and Iceberg Slim. He wanted to celebrate murder and burn down churches and throw up barricades and liberate the zoos. He wanted to invent a new language, a new literature, make the future happen today. He was talking as fast as a sports announcer in a foreign language, sweating even though it was February. But I already knew the song by heart. I had been there.
His writings were not the unpunctuated breathless screedlike verses you might expect, but on the other hand they weren’t much better. He had apparently decided that the crime novel was the essential building block of literature, the constituent unit of its DNA, and he had set about reducing and recombining it–I could just about see the wheels turning in his head–much the way punk rockers had cloned and distilled and chopped up the standard Chuck Berry guitar riff. Each story, if that’s what those things could be called, was a paragraph long, titled and signed, and each resembled a page of a crime novel if you were trying to read it while it whipped by on a conveyor belt.
It wasn’t much, I thought. Oh, he had a good ear and all–maybe he should have been writing song lyrics. And maybe the French would appreciate it. But it hardly amounted to any kind of revolution, literary or otherwise. I can’t say that I was really disappointed. What more could you expect from the typical punk-rock overgrown juvenile, too hopped up to sit still long enough to write more than 150 words? On the other hand, he was writing something, which was considerably more than I was doing at the time, for all my knowingness and jadedness and the seniority of my 25 years. Maybe Dave Carluccio was onto something, however long it would take him to get there.
As the envelopes kept coming, their contents changed. The stories grew in length, formed series, were incorporated into collages. And Carluccio, who always wrote in the first person, became a character of his own devising, the hero of his stories, addressed by name by the other characters. One envelope consisted entirely of a sheaf of author’s bios: he was variously a rogue CIA agent, a Vietnam War deserter, a drug trafficker operating out of the Golden Triangle, a con artist masquerading as a movie producer, a public-relations expert simultaneously working for and working to undermine every unsavory public figure in the world, a chameleonic and indiscriminate traitor to all sides.
I published some of Carluccio’s work in an occasional zine I put out then, but I never managed to run into him again. My friends, who never met him at all, became convinced that I had invented him and was using the name as a pseudonym. I laughed along at first–if I had wanted a pen name, wouldn’t I have come up with something more clever? But it started to grate a bit. I wouldn’t have admitted it then, but my condescension toward Carluccio began shading into a feeling of rivalry, gradually deepening into jealousy. Meanwhile, the envelopes, which at first had all been posted in Manhattan, started appearing with more far-flung and even unlikely postmarks: Lincoln, Nebraska; Guelph, Ontario; Truckee, California; Guadalajara, Jalisco; Merida, Yucatan; Punta Gorda, Belize; Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Was he attempting to enact the character he wrote about? Or was it that his writing in some way reflected what his life had become?
1980 was an insane time, at least for me: drugs were spiraling up, romance was spiraling down, and melodrama was abundant. I had gotten a job in the mailroom of a prominent literary journal, a job that permitted me to arrive at noon–since my co-worker had to leave early to attend music lessons–and then not return after taking the mailbag to the post office, which I usually contrived to do before four o’clock. I was not serious. I was fucking around heavily, not writing, pretending to be a musician but not managing to practice. I walked around in a daze of self-kidding. Late one night in early summer I was perhaps on my way to or from a party, probably high, when I happened to pass the 24-hour copy shop on Mercer Street just south of Eighth. I glanced in briefly–it was the place where I had put together my zine, and I knew most of the employees. A few doors south I felt a hand on my shoulder. Once again I didn’t recognize him. I’ve never been good with faces, but this time there was an additional reason. Carluccio had grown, broadened, darkened–he was very nearly a different person altogether. He led me back to the copy shop, where he was collating and folding stacks of sheets laid out in a row. He finished assembling one, stapled it, signed it, and handed it to me. We must have made some sort of conversation, but I remember none of it. I didn’t even remember the chapbook until days later, when I picked my jacket up off the floor next to the bed and discovered it sticking out of the side pocket.
The book collects all the contents of all those envelopes, along with a sampling of other matter–letters, pronouncements, manifestos, poems, all of it strung together apparently in chronological order. It is hasty, confused, random, jejune–and it is bursting with every kind of world-beating youthful energy. It would have made a fine first effort for anybody, the sort of thing that sits unsold on the consignment shelves of bookstores for months and even years, and then suddenly is changing hands for four figures, and eventually cannot be obtained at all unless some major collector dies. But Carluccio’s slim volume is both exceedingly rare and exceedingly obscure. For all intents and purposes it doesn’t exist. He will never produce a follow-up. It was my friend G., then working for the AP, who spotted the item on the teletype in 1983. I’ve managed to lose the printout he sent me, but the gist was that a corpse of foreign appearance, found at a border station near Antombran, Guatemala, just across from El Salvador, had been indentified as a certain David Carluccio, 24 years old, of Scotch Plains, New Jersey. He had been killed with a machete. Local police were investigating the matter.
Like the ant, the teenage stoner labors ceaselessly and uncomplaining, pursuing an arduous task that casual onlookers would dismiss as pointless, yet which is essential to the little creature’s survival. Like the ant, the stoner lacks an animating concept, but sets to work at one corner and emerges, hours or days later, at the opposite corner. Like the insane who express themselves visually, the stoner is drawn to symmetry, to altars and monuments, to murky quasi-spiritual allusions, and like them, too, the stoner abhors a vacuum. Like Manny Farber’s termite, the stoner “leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity,” although unlike the termite the stoner is unlikely to be rediscovered by the French. Like the ant, the stoner can carry many times his or her weight, often traveling through dense undergrowth or over endless arid terrain, and appears to enjoy using outmoded or simply impractical tools–in this case a Hunt’s Crow Quill pen, hence the blots. Like the ant, the stoner endures the contempt of family and friends in stoic if sullen silence. Unlike the ant, the stoner will require eyeglasses–if not now, then soon. Unlike the ant, the stoner works to the accompaniment of music, typically some carpetlike stream of psychedelic monotony. Like the ant, the stoner is as yet innocent of carnal pleasure. Like the grasshopper, the stoner–as the name would indicate–is on drugs.
Very late that night, riding home on the train as it shoots past the graffiti-washed vacant stations on the local track, they stare straight ahead, unable to explain or articulate the sense of dread that fills them both except by reference to the lateness of the hour, or the ebbing of the drugs, or the onset of a cold. The nearly empty train is going too fast, and it leans around curves as if the wheels on one side have lost contact with the track, and the lights periodically wink off for as much as a minute at a time. They sit slumped in a double seat next to a door. Whenever the train stops at a station the doors open and nothing comes in, an almost palpable nothing. Neither bothers to look because they can feel it slide in and take its place among the already assembled nothing. The air is heavy with the weight of an earlier week, when it was still summer in the streets above. The light breaks up into particles. Down here the night could last forever. The song is “Florence,” by the Paragons.
Mind if I play it for you? Here it is, on The Best of “Winley” Records, volume seven of “The Golden Groups” on the Relic label, an ancient copy with varicolored stains on the back of the sleeve and a skip in the middle of the cut in question. The skip is annoying, but it also feels like a part of the fabric, along with the hollow-centered production, the dogged piano like the labor of the accompanist at a grade-school assembly, the groans of the four supporting Paragons, and the agony of Julius McMichael’s falsetto lead. It’s a daredevil performance, a miracle of endurance–he sounds as if he will dissolve into coughing and retching or perhaps even drop dead before the end of the track. The song wants to be a ballad but keeps turning into a dirge. It’s so ghostly you can’t imagine it ever sounding new. But then doo-wop is a spectral genre. It actually happened on street corners; what transpired in the recording studio, afterward, might sound posthumous.
“Florence” happened below street level. It happened in a cave, in an abandoned warehouse, in an unknown room eight stories under Grand Central Station at five o’clock in the morning. Probably it took place in an impersonal studio off Times Square panelled with that white pasteboard stuff gridded with holes, with folding chairs and ashtrays and demitasse-size paper cups of water and a battered upright piano. Probably the Paragons got a twenty-dollar advance apiece, if that, and then they took the subway home to East Tremont or wherever it was they came from. “Florence” has reached our couple two decades after its release through the medium of oldies radio–a medium of chattering middle-aged men, audibly overweight, short-sleeved even in the dead of winter, who are capable of putting on the spookiest sides without seeming to notice the weirdness as they jabber on about trivia before and after. Doo-wop became “oldies” in 1959, when it was still kicking, a premature burial but a phenomenon that allowed records that had sold a hundred copies in the Bronx when new to suddenly go nationwide and become phantom hits a couple of years later. But “Florence” cuts through the format with its breathtaking weirdness. The piano, the groans, the keening falsetto–it comes on as Martian. “Oh, Florence, you’re an angel, from a world up above,” raves the singer in a dog-whistle register that symbolically indicates the purity and intensity of his passion, while an Arctic wind blows through any room where the song is played.
Naturally our couple don’t know that each has “Florence” playing on the internal soundtrack, not that either would be surprised. The hour, the chill, the sticky yellow light, the vertical plunge from a high–all call down “Florence.” The moment could feel merely depressed, small-time, pathetic, but “Florence” in its strangeness lends it magnificence. They feel heroically tragic in their stupor. “Florence” places the moment in the corridor of history, makes it an episode, emphasizes its romance and fragility and proximity to heartbreak, suggests that a contrasting scene will follow directly.
Now they have emerged into the weak pre-dawn light of the street. The place is empty except for garbage trucks. The traffic light runs through its repertory of colors to no effect. They still haven’t spoken, not in an hour or more. Words feel too huge to shovel onto their tongues. The lack of traffic is convenient, since their reflexes are too slow to negotiate any. They walk, side by side, down the street of shuttered stores, each plodding step a small conquest of space. The apartment seems impossibly distant, their progress the retreat from Moscow. At this hour time doesn’t exist, actually. The hour just before dawn looks like night, but with all of night’s glamour stripped away, and although habit assumes that dawn will soon arrive and peel back the sky, there is no real evidence of this. Darkness clutches the world and will not give it up. The calendar year is an even flimsier proposition; only the 24-hour newsstands maintain it, here and there shouting it into the void like street-corner proselytizers. The year is a random set of four digits that may or may not coincide with the information imparted by the posters wheat-pasted on the windows of empty storefronts. In all probability, “Florence” has not yet been composed or recorded. Our couple has imagined it. When they awaken the following afternoon, they won’t remember how it visited them.
Historically, she got off the bus. Most of the rest is conjecture on my part, but she did get off the bus, in the aquarium depths of the lowest platform at Port Authority, a bus of the Pallas Athena line, from someplace in New Jersey–western New Jersey, she insisted, out near the Red River declivity, where the mesas begin, “the biggest sky you ever saw.” West of Trenton, even. She claimed there were fourteen people in her family and that she had to leave because they needed her room to lodge hands for the pea harvest. She carried a large plastic suitcase and an army duffel bag reinforced with duct tape. They were too heavy for her, so she dragged them along, past all the chaotic intersecting lines of people waiting to get on other buses, past the black nun with a basket on her lap at the foot of the escalator, past the lunch counters and drugstores and necktie displays, past the hustlers and the plainclothesmen and the translucent figures who came to the terminal just because they liked the smell of people.
She marched through the main hall and out the glass doors onto the avenue, and then, I imagine, she unhesitatingly turned right and started downtown, because she wasn’t one to dally. I can see her plowing down the avenue with her twin cargo containers angling out behind her, scattering the lunchtime crowd like bowling pins. She cut quite a figure at five foot nothing in boots, although I don’t know if she yet had the black leather Perfecto jacket she was to wear in every possible kind of weather. Her hair was long then, gathered in one braid like the heroine of a Chinese proletarian opera. She hadn’t yet started on her campaign–spectacularly unsuccessful–to make herself unapproachably ugly, so her glasses were delicate wire things rather than welder’s goggles with perforated side-pieces. She looked about fourteen, maybe even nine in certain kinds of light, and yet there was something about her, some kind of juju she emanated, possibly the adamantine stare that seemed to precede her into a room, that caused grown men to tiptoe around her. Whatever she was wearing, nobody would have given her any guff about running over their toes with her ten-ton bags.
“Finally have enough ideas for my own things to work on that I can see the advantage of not having to work. Not that I ever wanted to have a full time job but it was a little mysterious to me what I’d do w the free time besides get fucked up etcet. On saying that I suppose I’ll promptly dry out. On the other hand, sometimes I get sick of imposing myself on my environment. But I console myself by saying its merely a matter of degree since you can’t stop that jazz except by getting dead anyway. All trottoirs lead to the junkyard.”
“Got offered a job in Montana as cook on a ranch–explained my job situation, was told to call collect in the spring if still interested. May vy well be. What passes for the advantages of the city don’t impress me. Meantime I start teaching Monday, me and S. planning an interior house painting biz, may have silkscreening/photo jobs freelance. Lots of film to mess with and some collage ideas still intact. Got a Greek dictionary the better to write to my grandmother. D’ like to start making casts, finish my videotape, learn how to use a gun, buy a bicycle, play better pool, do more architectural drawings & keep my dirty socks out of my work room, my newspapers & bus transfers out of my bed, & myself out of shitty klubs. Am going to try vy hard to have no more catatonic afternoons/hung over mornings (starting day after tomorrow). The odd dates are all New Year’s Day, the evens the day of atonement. Well, no, I really am in more control of things. Don’t give a shit about any particular end pts as long as the process is satisfying. One life to live–organ break here. Then ad for disposable razors.”
“I hope I don’t get dull out here. I consult myself periodically to see if I’m ‘done,’ ready to leave. I’m anxious in a way to have this period behind me, to be frivolous is a social embarrassment. But at the same time the theme of the period is to wish away nothing so I can’t regret it.”
“Walking to work through the neon in the Stockton tunnel at 6:30 A.M. it occurs to me that I’m a PRODUCT OF EVOLUTION. But I’m not satisfied. I suppose its no better than even odds you’d believe I’m working the morning shift in a restaurant in the financial district for minimum wage.”
“Someone gave me a blue black pearl earring so I got my ear pierced & am wearing it. Its vy beautiful & looks good but makes me look vy fem(me) (?) & seems unnatural almost perverted to me for me.”
“So a new legs been added to the graph of moods & it’s a goat’s leg. Expect to be bored to death today at the liquor store. Had a marvelous day of filling a brick wall w cement yesterday.”
“I have an outrageous calligraphic scar on my ass that I got fr accidentally leaning on the grill of the beloved Sahara heater when it was red hot & I was stark naked. Its one of my favorite things abt myself along w my gold tooth.”
“The birds are singing, the 4:30 A.M. ones.”
Let me play you “Arleen,” by General Echo, a seven-inch 45 on the Techniques label, produced by Winston Riley, a number one hit in Jamaica in the autumn of 1979. “Arleen” is in the Stalag 17 riddim, a slow, heavy, insinuating track that is nearly all bass–the drums do little more than bracket and punctuate, and the original’s brass-section color has been entirely omitted in this version. I’m not really sure what Echo is saying. It sounds like “Arleen wants to dream with a dream.” A dream within a dream. Whether or not those are his actual words, it is the immediate sense. The riddim is at once liquid and halting, as if it were moving through a dark room filled with hanging draperies, incense and ganja smoke, sluggish and nearly impenetrable air–the bass walks and hurtles. Echo’s delivery is mostly talkover, with just a bit of sing-song at the end of the verse. It is suggestive, seductive, hypnotic, light-footed, veiling questionable designs under a scrim of innocence, or else addled, talking shit in a daze as a result of an injury: “My gal Arleen, she love whipped cream/ Everytime I check her she cook sardine….”
General Echo, whose real name was Errol Robinson, was prominent in the rise of “slackness,” the sexually explicit reggae style that began to eclipse the Rastafarian “cultural” style in the late 1970s; his songs include “Bathroom Sex” and “I Love to Set Young Crutches on Fire” (“crotches,” that is), as well as “Drunken Master” and “International Year of the Child.” He had his first hit in 1977, put out three albums and a substantial number of singles–an indeterminate number because of the chaos and profusion of Jamaican releases, then as now. Along with two other members of his sound system, he was shot dead on the street by Kingston police in 1980; no one seems to know why.
I bought the record at the time it was on the Jamaican charts, from some punk store in downtown Manhattan. I first heard it at Isaiah’s, a dance club that materialized every Thursday night in a fourth-floor loft on Broadway between Bleecker and Bond. This was a few years before the enormous wave of Jamaican immigration to the United States, which was mainly a phenomenon of the later ’80s and a result of the kind of violence that killed General Echo. Nevertheless the club regulars were more than half Jamaican transplants, nearly all of them men. The walls were lined with impassive types wearing three-piece suits in shades of cream and tan, and broad-brimmed, high-crowned felt hats that looked at once Navaho and Hasidic, with their locks gathered up inside. They danced as if they didn’t want to dance but couldn’t entirely contain themselves–the merest suggestion of movement: a shoulder here, a hip there. It was hard not to feel judged by this lineup; I kept ratcheting down the enthusiasm level of my dancing. But they didn’t even see me. Whatever else might have been going on in their lives they were, in immemorial fashion, bachelors at a dance, and this gave the club a taste of the grange hall. Sometimes I went there with a girlfriend, sometimes with a group of people. We smoked weed and drank Red Stripe and sometimes inhaled poppers, which would lend you huge brief bursts of euphoric energy and then foreclose, leaving you in a puddle. I hardly ever made it to the 4 AM closing because the next day I had to work, and four hours’ sleep made me feel sick. As a result I missed all the incidents involving guns, which invariably occurred at the end of the night. The club would have to shut down, for weeks or months at a time–it was anyway unclear what went on in the loft the other six nights and seven days; maybe people lived there. Eventually the owners installed a metal detector, the first one I ever encountered, little suspecting they would one day be ubiquitous.
We went there for the bass, and the trance state resulting from hours of dancing to riddim that stretched forever, the groove a fabric of stacked beats fractally splitting into halves of halves of halves of halves, a tree that spread its branches through the body, setting the governor beat in the torso and shaking its tributaries outward and down through shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, feet so that you couldn’t stop except when you collapsed. Most often I went there with E., who danced like a whip, and who could keep on well past my exhaustion limit, and because I needed her I did so, too. Dancing was our chief mode of communication, an intimacy like two people sleeping together in different dreams, our bodies carrying on a conversation while our minds were in eidetic twilight. Neither of us really trusted language with each other, so we found this medium of exchange that trumped it, precluding silence and misunderstanding. She had a small body whose axis was set on powerful hips with an engine’s torque, while above the waist she was all moues and flutters, a belle minus a carnet de bal, so that the sum of her was exactly like the music: the massive horsepower of the bass below and the delicate broken crystal guitar and plaintive childlike melodica above.
We lived in that place called youth where everything is terribly, punishingly final day by day, and at the same time tentative and approximate and subject to preemptive revision. We broke up and got back together, again and again, we lived together or we lived at opposite ends of the island, then she moved west and didn’t come back, and I went out there but elected not to stay. Then her body betrayed her. She became allergic first to television, then to television when it was turned off, then to inactive televisions downstairs or next door, then to recently manufactured objects, then to so many various and apparently random stimuli she became her own book of Leviticus. Then her muscles gave way and she couldn’t dance, then couldn’t walk, then couldn’t speak, and in the end became just a head attached by a string to a useless doll’s body before she stopped being able to swallow and soon after to breathe.
I went over to M.’s to retrieve my letters and whatever else from the four big crates of stuff she salvaged from E.’s apartment when E. entered the nursing home a few months before she died. It took me a few years to work up the courage to ask. I wanted the letters, I justified, because they were probably the closest thing to a diary I ever kept, in the key years 1979-1983. In other words I was exercising my usual dodge, which is to turn all of life into research materials. M. was game if not exactly eager. One corridor of her apartment is choked with boxes–the rest consist of her father’s belongings, and they will undoubtedly soon be joined by her mother’s. She hadn’t opened any of the crates since hurriedly packing them more than four years ago. Late in the evening, after dinner, we began to dig. It was quite literally like entering a tomb. There was E.’s Perfecto jacket; there was a small box containing a gold tooth and a lock of her hair; there was a whole box of her eyeglasses. There were boxes and boxes of collage materials, of her photographs and negatives, of notebooks. There was copious evidence of her study of botany (she took university classes in the subject at some point), of her various pursuits of therapy, of her adherence to Buddhism (much more serious and longstanding than any of us unbeliever friends realized). And there were many bags and boxes of letters. This was just the stuff M. kept–I understood firsthand the harshness of trying to make those sorts of decisions, in a hurry and under major psychological stress, and my parents’ house didn’t even reek overwhelmingly of urine.
Going through the boxes caused me to enter a state that I suppose was not unlike shock. I took my letters and nothing else, went back to my hotel and read all of them, then couldn’t sleep. On the one hand I wasn’t wrong; the letters are indeed the only real record I have of those years, and I have nothing to cringe about concerning their style or expression–E. always brought out the best in me that way. They are full of detail about those days, that is when they don’t consist of naked pleas. Reading them felt vertiginous, like being admitted back to that apartment on First Avenue for fifteen minutes of an afternoon in 1979 and experiencing all over again the despair and optimism and boredom and love and fun and heedlessness and anguish of that time. And it brought her back into a kind of three-dimensionality that I’d forgotten–my jealousy rushed right back. There were a few unmailed letters from her to me, too. One of them, from after her last visit to New York in 1990, may be the most romantic letter she ever wrote me. I can’t help but speculate on what would have happened had I received it.
She was getting crazier and crazier as well as sicker at the time. Photographs of her from before she became immobilized by her illness show her grinning wildly with a missing front tooth, aggressively unkempt, looking like someone who’d hit you up for spare change in Tompkins Square Park. Could I imagine myself nursing her until her death? But she wouldn’t have permitted that anyway. M. reports that at her memorial the room was crowded with people, few of whom knew any of the others. She needed to compartmentalize her life, and that was one of our chief stumbling blocks as a couple. Of course I understood, since I have similar tendencies, but that didn’t stop me from wanting her exclusively. I can’t begin to account for the chaos of emotions this has all raised in me, the sheer number and variety of them. Part of me wanted to take those four crates–M. doesn’t know what to do with them. They are E.’s life, her complexity, her unbelievable array of talents and their utter dissipation. She’s going to haunt me for the rest of my days–do I wish I’d never met her? But that’s like trying to imagine my life as another person. She changed me, totally and irreversibly.
Interesting to hear M. say that as far as she’s aware E. cracked at some point in her last year of high school, and was never the same again. A banal incident–she backed over a row of metal garbage cans while trying to drive (she was always an awful driver)–sent her over the edge. M. dates E.’s cruelty to her (she was consistently vicious to M.), among other things, to that time. That sounds too neat, but who knows? In my experience she didn’t start seeming or acting weird until we’d been together about nine months, maybe sometime in the spring of ‘75. Here’s a random snapshot of E.: One time during her next-to-last New York visit (’87?), M. and her boyfriend of the time were going to a club and invited E. to come along. She insisted on stopping to get some takeout food, and then, to M.’s and boyfriend’s dismay, insisted on bringing it into the club to eat. You didn’t do things like that in clubs by that point. To me the story graphically illustrates an aspect of her. She specialized in the inappropriate. You’d constantly be wondering: What’s the deal, exactly? Is it that she wants to accommodate her own needs and conveniences regardless of whatever social codes are in effect? Does she mean to provoke? Is she oblivious to the reactions of others? Does she want to reorganize the whole world, starting here and now? Is she deliberately doing something gauche as a way of wrestling with her feelings of inadequacy and gaucheness? It may have been that all of those things were true, and that even ranking them in order of importance would be irrelevant. I could go on, but I won’t.
“Sally Go Round the Roses” is a strange song that can seem as though it is following you around. A writer somewhere called it an ovoid, and that seems apt. The instrumental backing is functionally a loop, a brief syncopated phrase led by piano and followed by bass fiddle and drums, that repeats as often as a rhythm sample. It makes the song float, hover like a cloud. Sitting on top of the cloud are girls, a lot of girls, at least eight of them in multitracked call-and-response, at once ethereal and obsessive. The chorus tells Sally to go round the roses, that the roses can’t hurt her, that they won’t tell her secret. It tells her not to go downtown. It tells her to cry, to let her hair hang down. It tells her that the saddest thing in the whole wide world is to see your baby with another girl.
The record is credited to the Jaynetts, although that seems to have been a label applied by the producers to various aggregations assembled in studios on various dates with varying results. There were other songs with that attribution; they left no mark on the world, nor did they deserve to. This one made it to number two on the charts in 1963. Even the first time you hear it, it sounds as if you’ve always known it. It comes over you like a glow or a chill. It comes over the couple as they sit, shivering, on the rooftop of an old building in Chinatown. It is August, but that does not prevent the air from feeling glacial. They’ve been talking all night, at cross-purposes. Each feels that only a personal failure of rhetorical skill prevents the other from embracing the correct view. But every clarifying or corrective word widens the gulf.
How many Jaynetts were there? Did they ever appear before an audience? What did they look like? Did they wear bouffantes and long gold lamé dresses, or kerchiefs and sweatshirts and three-quarter-length pants? How was the song heard by its first listeners? How is it heard today? Did everybody but us mistake it for an ordinary anodyne pop song? Where did the song really come from? Was the song actually written by someone who sat down at the piano one day? Was it sung to the pretended author in a bar by a stranger who thereupon dropped dead? Did it just somehow materialize, in the form we know today, on a reel-to-reel tape with no indication of origin? Why does it seem to resist the grubby quotidian context from which all things come, particularly pop songs aimed at a nebulously conceived teenage audience? Is it simply a brilliant void like those that periodically inflame the popular imagination, which allow their consumers to project any amount of emotional intensity upon them and merely send it back in slightly rearranged form, so that it can seem to anticipate their wishes and embody their desires and populate their loneliness and hold out a comforting hand, when it is in reality nothing but a doll with mirrored eyes?
Now they’ve stopped talking, from fatigue and futility. They’re drained, and that in concert with the cold air makes them feel as if they’re drifting, carried by breezes far from their rooftop and away over the city, over its skyscrapers and bridges, flung this way and that, speeding up and slowing down, weightless as a couple of feathers. There are trucks moving below them, and pigeons at eye level, and up above is the contrail of a jet. There are few lights on in windows, no visible humans anywhere. They sit, or float, atop a dead city, enmired in a darkness that does not even manage to be satisfyingly black. Just then the sun’s first rays point up over the horizon and begin to describe a fan, each separate ray distinct, almost solid. It is the dawn as represented in nineteenth-century anarchist engravings: the advent of the new world. Silently they regard this phenomenon. It seems cruelly and pointlessly ill-timed, purely gratuitous and designed to mock them. It is the earth’s epic ritual enactment of beginning, and they are at an end. They become aware once again of the song, hovering over the rooftops, emanating from some unseen radio. Sally goes round the roses and keeps going around them: it is a circle. It has no point of entry or exit. They have no purchase over it, no more than they have power over the sun. It, whatever it might be, will continue beginning and ending, over and over and over again, per omnia saecula saeculorum.
“Cats,” I said, “Let’s get real, real gone”–and the rest is history. Or it should have been. Because no one outside my immediate family has ever heard this legendary performance, recorded in a rickety booth on the Rockaway midway on August 16, 1952. My sidemen, Carl Jr. and Bip, were sadly caught in the eye of a multi-vehicle pileup on Cross Bay Boulevard on their way home, and their talents were claimed for the choir eternal. And neither my family nor myself have heard the recording since the evening of that fateful day. The minute the tone arm came down on its grooves we trembled, realizing its revolutionary significance. We knew that if anyone were to release its contents, the course of history would be altered and the youth of America–nay, the planet–would never be the same again.
Aghast at what I had wrought, I immediately arranged to meet with an agent, a fancy man from one of the Sixth Avenue talent farms. He summoned me to his office steam room, where he smoked a panatella while one sleek beauty buffed his toenails as another marcelled what was left of his hair. He didn’t want to hear the recording; he wanted to hear my pipes. I tried to explain; he waved away my concerns. He wanted me to sing “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” there and then. And I could have, you know. I could have capitulated, and warbled right there in the steam room, and signed a lucrative contract, and endured a career as the next Danny Kaye or Mario Lanza. But I gagged at the prospect. He was not a man with a vision. I left, dejected, and went to sit in a booth at Jack Dempsey’s, barely able to choke down my double order of banana cheesecake.
Oh, I tried other agents, with similar results. I called record companies cold and was offered a typing test. I called radio stations and was taken for a subversive and visited by government agents and compelled to sign a loyalty oath. I called a legendary all-night disk jockey whom I will not name, and he was amenable to meeting me and hearing my recording. He even sounded enthusiastic at the prospect, and arranged for me to come to his table at the Hotcha Room, in the Hotel Murray on 44th Street. When I presented myself, though, his face fell. Perhaps it was because I was over forty and a slight bit out of shape. He abruptly gave me the gate, with no apology or even a drink. And so it went, a veritable calvary, a trail of tears. I could not get anyone in a position of power and influence to so much as listen to my recording. Eventually I gave up. I faithfully went to work each day in the mail-sorting facility in Woodmere and tried to forget. My family was sympathetic, and plied me with baked goods to assuage my sorrows.
Now, however, I am at peace, living here in quiet comfort, gently swaying in the sea breezes not very far from the beach in Palm Shallows, Florida. I’ve been traveling every day to my self-storage facility nearby and sorting through eighty years of precious memories. I’ve found many, many irreplaceable relics from a life rich in love and laughter and have systematically sold them on eBay, gradually assuring further monthly payments on my trailer lot. Then, just yesterday, I turned up my history-making record. I had actually managed to forget it; for a few minutes I wasn’t sure what it was. Then the memories came flooding back. Reconstructing the events of that day, I could hear its unprecedented sound in my mind’s ear. I instantly knew that even today, after so many rotations of the earth and so many changes in fashion, my recording would still sound like nothing else. And so I will be listing it on eBay, with a modest opening bid 0f $10,000, with free shipping, insurance included. The buyer should beware, though. Should it be released to the wider world, thrones will topple, beliefs will be scrambled and the very conduct of life will be upended. I will retain copyright. And if you leave me positive feedback, I will do the same for you.