Monthly Archive for November, 2010


Reprint from Nov. 2008

Soho, 1974 BC, Before Coach…(Prada and Gucci.) Old cast iron buildings, half sweatshops, half artists’ lofts. $500 a month gets you 5000 feet of raw space.

Spring Street Bar, the hippest place in the city, just ask us. On a good night you can see Johns and Cage, Raushenberg and Cunningham. Richie Serra comes in to punch people out, Andy Warhol shows up with his entourage after a Castelli opening. John and Yoko nurse beers. There has even been a “Clyde” Frazier citing.

But on Thanksgiving everyone dutifully turns into good little bourgeois and eats turkey en famille. Restaurants offer special menus, but only tourists and those with parents in elder care show up.

It’s the slowest and most hazardous day in the bar business. There’s no money to be made and you risk mutilation at the hands of some resentful reject who is drawn in by the lights. There had been a bit of a rush around noon as the locals fortified themselves for dreaded dinners. But now at 3:30 it’s dead. I’m using a lemon to show Mei, the Chinese busboy, how to throw a knuckleball when a guy in a green car coat slides in at the end of the bar.

He answers before I can ask. “Any kinda beer.”

People who don’t care what they drink just want to get loaded fast and act out their drama. This guy is white and blotchy with a sloppy red comb- over that starts under his ear and hardly covers his freckled bald spot. He’s got a blunt chin and a fighter’s caved-in nose. His watery blue eyes seem focused somewhere else even when they’re looking right at you. He’s the kind of holiday wacko who sets the alarms off , but for some reason I’m not concerned. He raises his glass. “Cheers, fellow outcast…”

I never speak to customers, even regulars. “No confessions please,” is the standard line. But the holiday has loosened my defenses. I pour myself a Remy.


He chainsmokes and stares into his beer while I chug Brandy Alexanders at the service end. When I go to empty his ashtray he puts down a fifty.

“Is there a magic cocktail that’ll put me in a festive mood?”

“Nothing that works on a holiday,” I say. “Holidays are God’s way of telling us we’re having too much fun.”

It’s a half-smart gloss on the cliche mantra of the decade: “Cocaine is God’s way of telling us we have too much money.” But he looks up at me like it’s the Sermon on the Mount.

“That’s really true, man,” he says. “Christmas is a total ordeal, too. Nobody ever gets what they want…”

“Because what they want can’t be bought in department stores,” I say. “Like the song says: All I want for Christmas/Is my two front teeth. But they’re lost forever like your youth and your innocence…”

He slaps the bar “That’s so profoundly true, Man. Christmas in a nutshell. But look at New Year’s. It starts out so great, but ends in disappointment.”

He wants a guru. Not usually my thing, but for some reason I rise to the bait. “That’s because people aspire to an ecstasy that is only available to the insane.”

“Then let’s get crazy,” he says. “Let’s have a double Bacardi 151.”

It’s the strongest booze in the house, 75% alcohol. I never touch it, but now I’m filling two rocks glasses. My new best friend throws down his drink with a practiced flip and waits for me. I follow suit. The rum burns a flaming trail of lava from my throat to my rectum.

“There’s three houses I”m not welcome in,” my pal says. “My parents, my ex wife and my girlfriend who just threw me out because I’m always stoned. How about you?”

Sirens wail in the distance. Everything here is totally under control.

“I’m past unwelcome,” I say. “I’m not even an afterthought. I’m only here today because they need somebody to turn off the lights.”

He gets up quickly, knocking over his stool. Through the mist I think I see him smiling.

“Man, you’re in worse shape than me,” he says. He pushes a hundred at me. “Thanks, you really cheered me up.”

“Any time,” I think I say.

I watch him go out and turn the corner. A hundred and fifty bucks is more than I make on a good night. “Nice guy,” I say to someone.

There’s a plate at the end of the bar. Turkey breast and glazed ham with pineapple…Brussel sprouts… Sweet potatoes with marshmallows…

“Thanks, maybe later,” I say.

Mei is at the bar, tugging my arm. “Come outside…”

A cold gust brings the smell of burning rubber. My friend is shivering in a storefront across the street with Jimmy the Irish cook. He offers me a thin, tightly rolled joint.

“Here, man, Happy Thanksgiving.”

I’m not a big reefer man, but I take a toke to be sociable. It’s harsh and unfamiliar, but I’m not a big reefer man so I take another when it comes around.

There’s a lot of hugging and hand clasping.

“You guys got me through,”my friend says. “I love you guys.”

Back in the bar, Mei’s face is very big.

“He your brother?” he asks. “He looks like you.”

“You think all white people look alike,” I say. “You guys…one billion twin brothers.”

“And you, two hundred fifty million,” he says. “So we going to crush you…”

And that’s the funniest thing we’ve both ever heard…

How did I get into Van Gogh’s yellow room? It feels so good to wash my face with soapy dish suds.

I realize I’ve turned myself inside out and got stuck into my brain.

“I have to get out of my head,” I say.

I ride my tricycle down the long, dark foyer. Can’t ride your bike in the house, grandma says.

In the bedroom I open the closet door. My mother is hiding behind the dresses, holding a handkerchief to her mouth, tears pouring out of her eyes.

The radio says it’ll go below zero today. I’m waiting for the 41 Flatbush Avenue bus. There’s nobody at the stop, which means I just missed it. The wind goes through my black leather jacket. My feet are so cold they’re burning.

“Hey, you okay?”

“I’m waiting for the pus,” I say. “That’s funny, huh ’cause that’s what I really am waiting for.”

My feet are sliding along the cold ground. In the sudden warmth of a car, the rum burns a lava trail from my rectum back to my throat…

“He’s puking…”

My head is in the cold air. Yellow vomit runs down the side of the car.

“We found you in the schoolyard in Thompson Street.”

It’s the owner. They had called him when I bolted out of the bar, screaming “I have to get out of my brain!” I had walked across the street to the schoolyard and had been there for hours.

“That guy slipped you a joint laced with PCP,” he says.” Mei freaked out. They had to give him Thorazine in Bellevue. Jimmy ran his car into a lamppost, but he’s okay.”

Mei was too humiliated to return to work. But I heard he had stopped losing all his money at fan tan games in Chinatown and bought into a takeout in Jackson Heights. Jimmy joined AA and went back to Dublin.

I ended up with pleurisy and had to wear a belt around my chest for two weeks. In the doctor’s mirror I saw the booze flush starting to spread through my cheeks.

“I can’t live this way anymore,” I said to someone.

When I was better I made the rounds looking for the guy. I had bloody fantasies of beating him with a bar stool. Never found him. For years his face was fresh in my memory. I knew that if I ever saw him again I would easily summon that vengeful rage that still festered.

But then, his face began to fade. The rage subsided.

Now I think he might have been sent to make sure Mei stopped gambling. Jimmy took the pledge and I never spent Thanksgiving alone again.


Another Physical

It’s 1963 and the word is out: there’s a war on.
It’s in a small country I’ve never heard of—Vietnam. A former French colony in a part of Southeast Asia, formerly known as Indochina. Previously portrayed in Hollywood Geography 101 as a place where slit-skirt Eurasian beauties seduce world-weary Soldiers of Fortune at the behest of devious Oriental spies.

The French are gone now, worn down by a ten year insurgency , which ended in a humiliating defeat at a place called Dien Bien Phu by a Communist revolutionary named Ho Chi Minh. Ho rules North Vietnam and has launched a guerilla force called the Viet Cong to conquer the south.  All this is news to me.  And to the orators in Union Square Park. They’ve been so busy channeling Mao, Trotsky and Che they didn’t even notice this slight man with his wispy beard and black pajamas creeping out of the jungle.  

South Vietnam is ruled by a family of decadents, druggies, orgiasts and dragon ladies. Christians oppressing Buddhists. Despised by everyone, including its C IA handlers. But they are fighting Communists and JFK launches  an uncertain military adventure to prop up their regime.  His strategists  are anonymous for the moment—the  Bundy brothers, William and McGeorge; Robert McNamara, Walt Rostow, Dean Rusk, William Colby. Soon their names will become anathema. They’ve been sneaking troops and dirty tricksters into Vietnam for over a year. Now the force has reached critical mass and gotten the world’s attention. Peter Arnett, an AP reporter, is  on the scene when American “advisors” suffer their first defeat at Ap Bac. When the dictator Ngo Dinh Diem invades a Buddhist pagoda, slaughtering a thousand monks and nuns. When a monk sets himself on fire to protest Diem’s persecution of Buddhists and sets off an epidemic of immolations across the country.

I’ve been a radical by style, not conviction. I’m good at alienation. I find the role of the disaffected rebel a successful romantic strategy; you can’t get laid waving a flag in Greenwich Village. But secretly I believe Americans are the Good Guys. We provided sanctuary for my grandparents.  Beat Hitler and freed Europe. We gallop to the aid of the oppressed.  Overthrow dictators. Restore democracy and freedom of worship. I get chIlls at ball games. when I hear the Star Spangled Banner. 

Now I’m confused. Are we supporting dictators who kill monks? Who torture dissidents and fix elections? Union Square is a circus, but suddenly, the clowns have become prophets. Morris Krieger, the ancient anarchist in the Florida shirt with alligators chasing bathing beauties, gumming his wife’s cheese sandwiches while he predicts that “Camelot will have its war.” Lonnie, the one-eyed wino in the fatigue jacket, guzzling Gallo sherry and talking about the “secret assassination missions” he undertook in Guatemala and Lebanon for the “Special Forces.” The Nation of Islam preacher who says the war is a plot “to keep restless black men under military control.” The twin brothers with deranged grins who walk through the park talking in tongues and brandishing signs reading USEFUL IDIOTS FOR THE CIA. 

The pimply kids at the Communist Party bridge table, who everybody says are really FBI agents, have a new speaker—a crew cut Southern boy with a US ARMY tattoo, coiling snakes, screaming eagles…

“Who is the most expendable person in the world?” he demands in a strident twang. “The common soldier. They give you forty days of trainin’, but most of that is learnin’ how to make your bed and about face and obey orders no matter how dumb. What good is marchin’ in step and havin’  a neat foot locker when you’re in combat against troops who have  spent years under arms on their own terrain? The Army’ll drop you in the jungle and hope you outnumber the enemy ’cause you sure ain’t gonna outfight him. Oh you’ll get good at it if you live long enough. But you can’t win. You ain’t  fightin’  human beings, you’re fightin’ history…” 

I’m  working as a copyboy at the New York Post. I come in at 8am, just as the trucks are pulling out with the Late City, the first edition. The lobster shift editors and rewrite men shuffle blearily past me  The city room is the size of a factory floor. It fills quickly as the day shift begins. The clatter of a hundred typewriters, the voices calling, the rumble of the presses bringing the news—and I’m part of it.

Every morning I sharpen a few hundred thick, black One H pencils. Make hundreds of “books”–three sheets of copy paper, two of carbon paper for the reporters. Run down to the luncheonette on the first floor for breakfast orders. Saul, the owner, knows everybody’s breakfast; all I have to do is say a name. Run stories from the city desk to the copy desk. Run page dummies to the printers in the composing room. Pick up the galleys from the proof readers. Run up to the mail room to get a stack of the next edition– fifty papers which I deliver to all the offices all over the building, ending up at the 15th floor aerie of the publisher, Dorothy Schiff. The paper changes eight times a day, stories added or rewritten, front page recast, until it is “put to bed” with the “Final Market” edition, which gives the closing prices on the Stock Exchange. On my first day I was told: “everybody in this room is your boss.”  I go on personal errands. Get clippings from the library or the “morgue.” Run last minute headlines or rewrites out to the composing room as a new edition is going to press.  I change typewriter ribbons for lady reporters who don’t want top get smudgy. Make liquor runs; get soda and ice for the editors’ cocktails. Get lunch orders: it’s amazing how these people eat the same lunch every day as well and Saul knows them all. I bolt a turkey sandwich with Russian dressing while I’m waiting. 

At 4:30 I leave work with a copy of the last edition still warm from the press. I’ve got carbon paper and graphite smears on my face, blisters on my fingers from the pencils. If it’s hot I sweated through my shirt and smell myself on the subway. I go to the Cube Steak House on Sixth Avenue for meat loaf with mashed potatoes and baked beans. Spread the paper on the counter and read every word. Then after rice pudding and light coffee with four spoons of sugar I hit the street. Within a half hour I run into someone I know—sometimes it’s even a female. We go to one of the four art houses in the Village to see an old movie. 

It’s not the war. It’s not the capitalist oligarchy. I just don’t want this life to end. 

Curt, the chief copy boy, got himself declared 4F, “permanently unfit for service,” which means they’ll never bother him again.

“Tell ‘em you’re queer,” he says. “My girlfriend gave me a good idea. Polish your nails and then scrape most  of it off so it looks like you were trying to hide it.”

I get the polish, but chicken out at the last minute. Ditto the eye shadow and the cheap perfume.

Selective Service Headquarters on Whitehall Street has  a fortress vibe. Broken pickets are scattered on the sidewalk, along with scraps of signs and a torn flag, the remnants of an anti-draft demonstration the day before. Two Shore Patrol guys (Navy MP’s) stand guard at the door checking draft cards. There are more  non-coms inside, walking up and down the line.

The first time there was silence. Now there is nervous talk in the ranks. One kid who enlisted says the recruiter told him to volunteer for the paratroops. “You get special treatment,” he says. “Plus 16 dollars jump pay the Sergeant told me.”

An older guy in gray-green Army underwear shakes his head. “You won’t make it, you’re too short.” 

Another kid says he and his friend are going in on the “buddy plan” where they’ll get to serve together.

“That’s just a come on,” the older guy says. “They’ll put you were they need you…”

“But they signed a contract,” the kid says. 

“You have no rights in the Military,” the older guy says. “You’re under the Military Code of Justice. Bend over, spread your cheeks and kiss your ass good bye…”

He is approached by two MP’s. “You back again?” He turns away.  “This is a public building,”he says. They tell him to step out.  He refuses. “I wanna see the OD,” he says. “I wanna speak to an officer. I have a right to express my views.” They grab him by the arms. He breaks away. “Don’t fall for their lies,” he shouts. Two more MP”s run down the corridor. They carry him, flailing and yelling: “Don’t give them your lives…Resist…Resist!” Then he’s gone behind a slamming door and we move on in uneasy silence. 

I had stared at “homosexual experiences” on the form for  minutes until a Sergeant prodded me, “let’s go” and then hurriedly checked it off. Every medic along the line sees it and gives me a quizzical look. 

They send me to cubicle at the end of the corridor. A kid brushes by me with his head down. An old man in a white coat, looks over my form, hands trembling. 

“You live in Greenwich Village?” he says with a slight German accent.


“This is the homosexual quarter, no?”


“They have special bars with code names, right? A color and an animal means it is a gathering place for homosexuals. Like Pink Pussycat. Or Green Parrot. Right?” He looks up at me with beagle-brown eyes.” Do you frequent these places?”

He’s trying to trap me. “I can’t afford to go to bars,” I say.

He nods, appreciating my answer. 

“So…Do you do fellation?” he asks. 


“Do you take a big penis in your mouth?”

Say yes, what difference does it make?

I shake my head.

“Do you like a cock rammed up your anus?” he asks. 

Say yes, for God’s sake, you have to say yes to something.

I don’t…”

“Maybe a fist?” he says. “This was a popular practice in the Turkish forces…”

Can’t do it.

“Foreign objects? In the military hospital we found the most amazing things in rectums…”

“No,” I say.

“So,” he says, tapping his pen on the table. “Sado-masochistic? Devices of restraint and punishment. Whips…Cock rings? Very popular with the SS… Do you know what a cock ring is, Mr. Gould?”

“I uh, am not, uh…”

He looks past me, irritably. A small line has formed outside his door.

“What is the dream of many homosexuals, Mr. Gould…?”

“I really don’t…”

“To be surrounded by young men, correct? To train with them, eat with them, sleep with them, take showers with them. To be at sea with a thousand handsome young men in sailor suits. In other words, to be in the military…Wouldn’t it make sense that some homosexuals would pretend to be heterosexual so they could get into this wonderful paradise?”

“I don’t know…”

He cuts me off, impatiently. “Have you ever considered a career in the theatre? Don’t.”

I rise, sensing the interview is over. The old man writes on my form, saying: 

“The American military has a theory that any young man who is so anxious to avoid military service that he will pretend to be homosexual, should not be given the privilege of serving. So, anyone who walks through my door is automatically exempted. But soon there will be a need for manpower and so the theory will be modified to fit the necessity. In other words—” he waves his pen and says loud enough for the kids outside to hear:

“Next year this little trick won’t work.”