EXCERPTS FROM “THE VELVETEEN GULAG” [a memoir]: CHAPTER 2: IMAGINED

 

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1-

I can’t remember if it was Kurt’s idea. Maybe it was mine. Ideas come out of the air at that age. As you grow older they have to be created. Also the idea of driving to New York before Christmas was more of an impulse than an idea. Though, again, at that age, ideas are impulses. They are hormones. Wait… that’s right…

…It was Kurt’s idea. He didn’t want to spend Xmas with his mother. He thought that by driving out there a couple of weeks before Xmas day he could avoid the highest dose of a toxic family experience while being dosed just enough to please his sister, two brothers and poetically-neurotic mother. The mother who used to be a showgirl who looked like Shelly Winters who impressed me by driving down the exit ramp of the highway to get us to the airport so we could return to the Midwest after the devastating circumstances of Manhattan.

This recollection is not in chronological order.

I will type it out as it comes back to me.

We didn’t have a car. How did we get to New York?

It was 1980. I was 21. At the entrance to the Whole Foods Co-op was a cork-board pinned with every service or good or offer or desire imaginable to our limited imaginations. Yoga Lessons. Reiki Lessons.  Dulcimer Lessons. Bolivian hammocks. Tai Chi. Tarot Readings.  Tantric massage.  Past Life Regression.  Astral Projection.  Learn to juggle. Chinese midwife. Free Futon.  Free painting. Free Leonard Peltier. We walked over to the co-op that very day. And there it was, on a three-by-five card in Ned’s insecure handwriting: driving to New York, want riders to share driving and gas money. Leaving tomorrow.

What a complicated zig-zag (or jagged graph): I went from birth in LA to a childhood on the Southside of Chicago to an adolescence in Las Vegas to a college-prep academy in Philadelphia to a private college in the Midwest, from where I escaped back to Philly, only to be yanked back to the Midwest, with a quick trip to New York and back to The Midwest again.  Ten years of misery under the mood-swingy totalitarian soul-control of The Mousy Albatross in the Midwest. Then freedom in London. Freedom in Stockholm. Freedom in Berlin. With that ten-year chunk, missing, like a kilo of chest-flesh, from my Life. I’d wake up from dreams of my son in London, floating in tears. I’d wake up from dreams of my son in Berlin, floating in tears.

All because of one mistake.

The goddamned moment I met her in that dormitory hallway

2-

Father and Son
Father and Son

I had quit school a couple of years prior and was now firmly lodged in a surrealist subset of The Real World. Kurt and I walked back to Leary Hall from Whole Foods and I told the human who is the mother of my son (hereafter to be known as The Mousy Albatross) we were going to drive to New York, Kurt and I. She was slightly-sideburned-Kurt’s girlfriend. They were having a mild affair. Kurt was Woody-Allen-tall but she told me once he had a wildly-disproportionate cock the size of mine and I still want to know if that’s true. About which Kurt remains mum. The affair had started while I was in Philadelphia, preparing for my doomed self-extradition back to the Midwest, enjoying my final few madness-free days, knowing only of Kurt and Leary Hall from the Albatross‘ letters. My return-letters to her always included a check for a hundred or so. Kurt’s affair with her started in her fourth or fifth month.

And Kurt was far from the only one: I remember a Paul (a rabid Zionist these days) and a Bradley and a Mike and a guy with the improbably amusing name of Dan G[redacted]. On my side I was seeing a Katrina and a Sonja and, later, a Virgin Art Orphan and Jo the minister’s daughter. The Mousy Albatross had engineered her pregnancy before ever meeting Kurt, so I guess that makes Kurt smart. All of the sex, none of the blame. But wasn’t that what The Pill was for?

So Kurt and I went Back East in a car driven by the ditzy Ned. If Ned hasn’t been charged with vehicular homicide by now it can only be because there is a (part time) god. We arrived, after having seen our lives flash before us on Ned’s windshield half a dozen times, to a Manhattan that was poignant and deafening with a thousand out-of-sync renditions of Imagine: a holy nightmare echo chamber of Imagines. We walked up and down the Uptown and the Downtown and around Central Park on slushy sidewalks, freezing in our light jackets and my asinine Chinese slippers, and all we could hear was Imagine.

–We caught David Bowie in his one-man performance of The Elephant Man (and fuck if I could concentrate on the play because John Lennon was dead) and Bowie refused to sign autographs at the stage door after what had just happened to Lennon.

–We caught a premier of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories in a Manhattan cinema where a rat cast a very long shadow up the aisle but what everyone gasped at, as one, was the scene near the end of Stardust Memories. The scene where the deranged fan blank-facedly points a revolver and shoots the Woody Allen character who has obligingly dallied to sign autographs. Script by Carl Jung. Or G. Gordon Liddy.

Because I’m no longer stupid/naive enough to think Chapman did it. The patsy is never the actual trigger-man: don’t they teach you that in kindergarten these days? Shooters are valuable, patsies are cheap. The patsy is disposable. In the late-70’s to early-’80s, prominent Leftists were dropping like flies. Phil Ochs? Bishop Romero? Harry Chapin? Bob Marley?  John Lennon?  John Belushi? The list goes on. 

Wonder why.

3-

But roll that bloody calendar back from the winter of 1980 (or from Reagan‘s famous 1984 “New Morning in America”, aka The Lefties Are Dead, commercial) to the fall of 1979.

Some time before my son was conceived, his mother and I and three or four other friends went to see Milos Forman’s Hair at the Grand, on Grand Avenue, not far from the campus we had until recently attended college on. It was ten years after Woodstock. The movie, with its photogenically-hygienic Hippies and clever music and very modern dance numbers, electrified us. Some more than others. When we walked back out into the sunlight after the final credit had scrolled and the curtains closed on the screen, my mousy then-girlfriend did an embarrassing little dance on the sidewalk in front of the movie house.

She often embarrassed me with her embarrassing little things. She had no trouble whispering to me in the presence of others, for example.  She once sang a song about me at a party, to an audience of all of my friends and several strangers, her own words to one of Joni Mitchell‘s melodies, with a key line about me being a “holy man”, while I sat beside her, wishing I was anywhere else. I was having trouble breaking up with her because she had been quite clear about her intentions to kill herself if I ever left.  How old do you have to get before being able to call that kind of bluff? I still don’t know. 

I’m a New Man of the 1970s, Baby.

I once dreamed I was a member of The Beatles. The Poor One. I said to the rest of The Beatles, in this dream,  with a flat Midwestern accent, Yes, but the rest of you make so much more money…

She turned me on to Yoko Ono‘s records, in college. I had been a Beatles fan since the early 1960s, with a special emphasis on Lennon, but it was the Mousy Albatross who got me into the Emperor’s-New-mindset required for defending Yoko Ono, a talentless daughter of the upper-middle-class. Not terribly unlike the Mousy Albatross herself. I was the penniless, outspoken, hornily-creative, prank-prone, charismatic brown quasi-rocker of a very small world of a few dozen post-Hippie drop-outs, famous to them in my way, known in all the shops and co-ops we frequented, and the Mousy Albatross made herself into my Yoko. She couldn’t sing or dance or paint or write or play any instrument and neither could Yoko, while both of them considered themselves artistes with a special flare for cosmic insights.

Just as I had instinctively parodied The Beatles as a child (more on that near the end of this chapter*), I suddenly found myself parodying Lennon-the-house-husband, with the gruesome twist that Lennon was dead and his son was half an orphan. I did all the bottle-feedings late at night (those perfectly-apt inverted nipples on Albatross came in handy for avoiding the chore of nursing) and did all the (cloth, with safety pins) diaper-changing. I even wrote a poem about the birth and the house-husbanding experience:

eclosion   

 

 

my son was born 8:30 a.m. on

the first of many

last days of my

youth, a

secret self his

mother longed to

confess to our futon. ecloded on that

 

pillow on that

threadbare bedspread amid a million

coins of temperatureless sun, he

gushed out when the

midwife slathered

Kyra’s cunt with

lanolin. half

 

rich white trash, half

poor black poet the

child cried just like

he knowed it

 

2.

 

that one-room flat near Franklin

in a flop-house converted from

a mansion; in a

corner of that

one room where the

floor is lit by moon: the nigger bard administers

a dithyramb of formula to

baby bard and winces like

the nipple’s an extension of his

milkless flat black

bosom. while baby sucks they waltz around

 

the trapezoid of light: a

window in the hardwood floor, the

corner where he

writes

 

by day they walk the dollar path, up 26th to

Nicollet, where foodstamp booklets gutted strew, mixed up with

old brown leaves and stamped by muddy

shoes, with

philatelic beauty at

the bus stop by the

corner shop like

thousand-Zloty bills

 

the bard (at 21) and the bard’s own

half a year of

son, strapped up

on his back like a

second chance of doing things the

bard himself’s not

done, or not done right, or done all wrong against

his will (or for)

(the fun) (one)

(night)  

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                                               ****

Yoko and Mousy belong to a post-War, cross-generational movement. They are Frenemists.

frenemism

[fren-uh-miz-uh m] 

noun

1.

the practise of idealizing unilaterally destructive relationships based on the doctrine advocating the bizarre notion that any woman is the equal of any creative husband or lover in any regard, regardless of actual qualities or qualifications, by dint of having a vagina, and is therefore obligated to fuck him up

2.

(sometimes initial capital letter) an organized movement for the attainment of passive aggressive dominance for women who consider themselves to be the default equal, in all disciplines, of any creative male they choose to partner themselves with (by appealing to the male’s saviour and/or orphan complex), despite an obvious lack of specific talent or general virtue on the woman’s part, while also inextricably fusing a targeted male’s capabilities with their manifest lack of same,  with the express purpose of fucking the male up, to the extent that he is rendered incapable of freeing himself

-Word Origin and History for frenemism

n.

1851, from French frénemisme; see frenemy + -ism.

Not to be mistaken for Feminists. Listen, if you tell a Feminist “I don’t want children”, will a Feminist deliberately get pregnant by you, using subterfuge, in response? If a Feminist gets pregnant by you and you’ve moved to another city to start a new life, wholly unaware she’s pregnant, does a Feminist tell your mother she’s pregnant before she tells you? If the Feminist who’s pregnant by you tells you, to coax you a thousand miles back to where she is, that she only wants you to be there for the birth and you start sending her all your money and then return a few months before the birth to attend birthing classes and then assist the midwives in the home birth and you fall in love with your son when he finally emerges (with the Feminist’s boyfriend in the room for part of the labor) and hang around for ten years, putting your own dreams on hold, to help raise your son in a bizarre situation of his mother’s design, putting up with the Feminist’s mood-swings and plan-changes and boyfriend-dramas and suicide threats/attempts… will the Feminist, after ten years, threaten to have you tossed in jail for not paying enough “child support”?

Rhetorical question.

4-

The Author at Five: already a Beatles fan
The Author at Five: already a Beatles fan

It was soon after I watched Milos Forman’s Hair that I decided to slip out of my suffocating relationship with this neurotic daughter of the upper middle class (she had grown up in a segregated suburb of Ohio, next door to Earl Butz‘ house; if you know your banal late-mid-20th century American media history, you know who Earl Butz is and what he said about Blacks) by moving back to the East Coast. I realized that if I didn’t explicitly say, “I am breaking up with you,” my girlfriend couldn’t, in all fairness, kill herself as a result. So clever. Right? (So clever I allowed a woman, whose coon-hating father later did serious prison time for killing his mistress, to trick me into knocking her up).

I was only back in Philly a few weeks when my mother called. 

Is there something you want to tell me? my mother asked.

I was standing in the kitchen of my own fully-furnished, three-storey row-home, clutching the neck of a beautiful black Ibanez electric guitar in one hand and the phone with the other. My great-aunt and uncle lived in the house on the other side of the driveway. What was my mother talking about? She sounded like someone who’d been drinking. But she didn’t drink and the call wasn’t funny. Brain tumor?

What are you talking about, Ma?

I got a little electrical shock by leaning against the metal trim of the Formica counter top in my kitchen while clutching the neck of the electric guitar. But it was my house and my guitar and my electricity. Finally: free! I could come and go as I pleased after doing a certain amount of Undertaking-related chores every day. Have I mentioned The Family Business? The Funeral Home? We’ll get to it. 

I was writing songs. I had a striking, materialistic, half-Korean, half-Afro-American girlfriend named J___ (who wasn’t about to give It up frivolously, btw), later to be one of the first girls to graduate from Westpoint.  J___ who often pestered me to fuck her in one of the plusher models of coffin in the show-room on the floor under my bedroom… she always had expensive tastes (I never gave in and never therefore fucked her). She had been my almost-consummated-relationship in high school and she was my almost-consummated relationship again. I was all set to conquer the East Coast. I felt like an arrow that had finally been released. My target was everything. I had no time for my mother’s weird phone calls. When she got off the line after a short-as-it-was-oblique exchange between us, a dissonant chord seemed to hang in the air until the phone rang again with theatrical timing. 

Now it was The Mousy Albatross on the line. 

As it turns out, our “goodbye sex”, the liberating sex which had symbolized, for me, a lyrical full-stop to the bother and anxiety of our deranged relationship, symbolized, for The Mousy Albatross, a last-ditch opportunity to bind me haplessly to her unethical ass forever. The Mousy Albatross called me in Philly. But not before calling my mother. Puzzle solved. If male mammals were any good at avoiding that trap, I wouldn’t be writing this now and you wouldn’t be reading it and there’d be nothing where you’re sitting but primeval forest.

Author-upper left; Sylvia-upper-right: Mousy Albatross and her devious eyes lower-right
Author-upper left; Sylvia-upper right: Mousy Albatross and her devious eyes- lower right

My quick-thinking mother had talked The Mousy Albatross out of having the abortion she had no intention of getting. I was no longer feeling like an arrow finally released. I was no longer the arrow at all. The arrow was a toy in a trunk full of imaginary childhood treasures I finally had someone to pass them on to. My astonishing son. Born 9/11/1980.

[ed.’s note: I told my son some of this story when he was roughly thirty. It was all news to him.]

And this is what I said to her, verbatim, when she called me with the news she was pregnant:

“I won’t abandon you.”

“I just want you to be here for the birth,” had said the Mousy Albatross, her fingers crossed.

Ten years later she was threatening to have my idiotic arse thrown in jail for not providing enough child support. Co-parenting my son was not considered adequate child support. She was married by then. Had a house and a car. As a last resort, because I was by-then broke, I gave my guitar to the brand new husband of the Mousy Albatross (he was a weird fuck who looked like an Edward Gorey drawing and liked playing rape games with her; they’d handcuff her to the radiator and then pretend he was a burglar and black, no doubt, and they indulged in “concentration camp” sex games as well, no joke, I am not making that up); I gave him my only guitar as a payment (metaphor?) and after that I had very little.

A few books.

Fucking cnut. She: for being so sneaky. Me: for being so stupid. And she will never be brought to any kind of justice. She will never even say a simple “I’m sorry” to me. 

“Aren’t you going to use your diaphragm?” I’d asked.

“Oh, no, you know, the doctor told me I can’t get , you know, pregnant because, uh, there’s too much scar tissue on my, uh, cervix etc and so forth you naive fucking manchild, don’t you know the world is full of traps and this is the easiest of all to pull off?”

Or something to that effect. When I had seen Milos Forman’s Hair, it inspired me to return to the East Coast and look for someone like Beverly D’Angelo (the upper class untouchable dreamgirl who is not so untouchable after all). When The Mousy Albatross saw Milos Forman’s Hair, it inspired her to trap a wide-eyed, 20-year-old dork into a poverty-stricken Hippie pseudo-family with her in the Midwest so the dork couldn’t fuck Beverly D’Angelo. It was obvious that we had seen the same movie.

A subtle tale of Nemesis.

Not for children.  I took the snickering train back to Tinyapolis.

5-

Author years later on a mountain in So Cal
Author years later on a mountain in So Cal

 

Listen: I know. Sexism is probably the oldest ism on Earth. Women, in most societies, since the hominid mists of time, have been crushed by the same brutal patriarchy that crushes weaker men and children. Women, as Lennon put it, are still being forced to paint their faces and dance. Women are still being dressed like frivolous presents and mass-brainwashed into obsessing over the empty goal of the grandiose wedding and still trained to feign cripple-weakness or air-headedness to heighten coded protocols of rapey allure. But I am not the oppressor. I am the co-oppressed. And there’s nothing weirder than being victimized by a victim.

****

She had a strange way of sort of tucking her chin back and swallowing her words when she spoke. She had inverted nipples and a proportionally-inverted way of walking, pelvis first. She was furtive and aggressively insecure, mocking hayseeds and fat people and, with an ecstasy bordering on the amateur-satanic, fat hayseeds… also doing these supposedly-obviously-ironic jokes about “darkies” and singing “mammy” and all that which was a direct expression of the rococo tension between her lividly-racist family background and her generational “hipness”, the parameters of which (the “hipness”) were defined by the sociologically-ambiguous Woody Allen of the early ’70s. Where did Woody Allen really stand on the topic of Race? Will we ever know? Do we glean much from the passage in ANNIE HALL in which his character’s mother-character fires “the colored maid” because “she was stealing” and his character’s father character says “who can she steal from if not from us?” She affected to dress like Diane Keaton and carried a clarinet case with a clarinet in it wherever she went, a case with travel-stickers all over it, what a fantasy, a clarinet she never learned to play. She told me she’d been raped by her brother. How could I leave her after that?

We met in the halls of my dormitory. My college was full of rich kids. How rich I had no idea until about four years after I left and I saw an edition of Warhol’s large-format Interview at a corner newstand and a guy I had hung out with, occasionally, a guy with the unimprovably Waspy handle of Tucker, was the cover of the magazine. A picture of him sailing. I can’t even fucking swim. My prank-playing college friend TAD was not rich and neither was I and he had raided my dorm room (somehow) and scattered my Art (mostly watercolors of tits) all over the three-storey dorm. Three storey or two? I think it was a four-storey building. I went looking for my Art, fuming. What did TAD’s prank really mean? How much aggression was it masking? The Serf’s revenge on the Serf he sees reflected in the Serf? I was poking around in a stairwell and back through a fire-door into a dormitory hallway when The Mousy Albatross came up to me and said, “You’re Steven Augustine. I hear you’re crazy.”

This is the part where the 55-year-old me of the future screams at the 19-year-old me of the past, at the top of his lungs, on his tip-toes, on the swivel chair at the table on which he’s typing all this,

 

TELL HER TO FUCK OFF

6-                                                

I met Kurt the day I returned to Tinyapolis after that brief escape to Philly (Kurt who I lost track of for seven years after all that; had no idea where on the planet he was until bumping into him on a street my first winter in Berlin, 1990). Kurt was one of about a dozen tenants in a mansion converted into a Hippie flop-house called Leary Hall. Kurt was living on the second floor when The Mousy Albatross, with her baby bump barely showing, moved into a one-room apartment on the first floor. Looking like a cross between Woody Allen and John Lennon, Kurt was a prairie porch-light to the cloud of moths that was the Mousy Albatross’ mind.

Kurt in front of his Experimental Radical Warehouse Loft c. 1981
Kurt in front of SNAPORAZ THEATER, his Experimental Radical Warehouse Loft c. 1981

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leary Hall featured:

—a sauna in the basement which featured a broken toilet someone kept shitting in

—a cult (called either The Family or Children of God) who camped out in the brown-carpeted basement for a while at somebody-or-other’s invitation, wearing white robes and center-parted Jesus hair

—a retarded guy, with a speech impediment, named Ralphie, in the attic, whose every molecule reeked as though he’d been soaked in pot, which he had

—Dobie and Sapphy, the trust-funded, caretaking twins scheduled to inherit the Mansion and a small fortune many years down the road

–Byron, a body-building poet-clown with one small polio leg that was shapely as a girl’s

—A hulking, refrigerator-shaped, volatile, middle-aged, heathcliffless woman named Kathy, with mental problems and learning disabilities, living in the crawl-space behind the sauna and on whom I seemed to have a magically calming influence, as I seem to have with some animals and most babies

—Misc. Artists, Clowns, Poets, Beatniks, Refugees, Druggies, Babies, Dogs and Freaks

I left my three-storey home and decent salary and electric guitar and half-Korean girlfriend and imagined future on the East Coast and moved into The Mousy Albatross’s dark little wood-trimmed room in that Hippie Mansion in Tinyapolis. From a three-storey house of my own to a room. A one-roomed room. Her room looked like it had once been a library or sitting room in the mansion. It had its own little bathroom and it came with a mouse we started calling Peety. Late at night, Peety would cast a tremendous disc-eared shadow from the night-light in the bathroom as he/she stood in the doorway, sniffing to see if we were okay. See: I was tremendously moved by the fact that she was pregnant. Despite the fact that I had tried to escape the sickness of a relationship with her and she had yanked me back with an underhanded trick. I was tremendously moved by the thought of my son in her.

The flighty, slumming, upper-middle-class Yoko-like-idiot had us on Foodstamps! I loaned thirty dollars in Foodstamps to Suzanne Verdal of the Leonard Cohen song Suzanne and Suzanne, who really was gorgeous enough to warrant a song about tea and oranges coming all the way from China,  tried to seduce me in gratitude, but that’s another story!

We brought in two midwives for the home-birth. The Mousy Albatross also brought in one of her lovers for the event (the rat-faced Paul) who sat on the edge of our futon near the end of the exhausting 36-hour labor (an accurate reflection of her psychological problems, I will always believe)… and what Paul got as the perfect reward for sitting there was a squirt in the eye with amniotic fluid when the Albatross’ water broke. Chose to disbelieve me if you must. I was there. I saw it. It was cosmi-comic and Paul fled the room in half-blind horror and my son came out an hour or two later. I cut the umbilical cord and put the placenta in the fridge for a New Age Hippie ceremony that was to go badly awry but that’s another story.

Years later, The Mousy Albatross and Eddie Gorey her husband had an abortion and kept the fetus in a jar. But that’s another…

Photo0104

7-

Back to the cork-board at Whole Foods Co-op (this was before the branded chain of the same name) :

driving to New York, want riders to share driving and gas money. Leaving tomorrow.

Kurt and I walked back to the Hippie Mansion from the Whole Foods Co-op with Ned’s three-by-five card that day. We were excited about the idea of a drive to New York the next morning. I took it for granted that The Mousy Albatross wouldn’t mind taking care of our three-month-old son on her own while I was gone for a week. There were plenty of New Age Hippies in the house to help her. Most of them were pseudonymous. People who think that the widespread use of fanciful pseudonyms began with the Internet obviously never knew any New Age Hippies. The Mousy Albatross’s best friend was a short, waddlingly-pregnant spheroid in a kaftan named Willow. Because Life is most of all funny.

Speaking of which.

When son was about nine months old and the Mousy Albatross’ affair with Kurt was at its peak we had a blazing row, the Albatross and I, and I yelled this is bullshit I’m not your boyfriend we aren’t together you tricked me into this I’m moving out I’ve had enough of this and I left and caught the bus across the river to a party in Saint Paul, a party of old college friends and I was exhilarated, I felt free again, I had broken the spell and gotten my life back. I was having a grand old time at this party, 21 and feeling like 20, flirting and dancing and telling tales of Albatross when the phone rang and it was goatee’d Dobie, the trust-fund Hippie whose family owned the Hippie Mansion… Dobie calling to notify me, at roughly 12:15 in the morning, that the Mousy Albatross had taken an overdose of aspirin (ferfucksake) and had to be rushed to the hospital to have her stomach pumped. I ran to the bus stop in a panic about my son but the last bus of the evening had already left. I won’t pretend that I didn’t entertain an at-least-fleeting fantasy that the Albatross had finished the job on herself. Raise my son as a single parent? Would have loved to. There was a blue-black guy in a cheap suit standing there who’d also missed the bus and we got to talking about splitting a cab and that’s how I got within a few blocks of Leary Hall, running the rest of the way there to find my son asleep in his little bed guarded by nobody. Kurt went to the hospital and helped sneak the Mousy Albatross out of her observation room (attempting suicide is illegal, you know) and managed to turn it into another romantic adventure. Kurt, you had a fair amount of free-spirited fun on the back of my tragedy, chum! Kurt and I do lunch nearly every week in Berlin but the only thing we ever talk about from “the old days” was the time we both took a piss in one of her flower pots. And the Ficus thrived.

Author's mother, LA in the '50s
Author’s mother, LA in the ’50s

Dickensian divagation in our tale:

The Mousy Albatross, Willow and I were walking around downtown in the dead of an upper- midwestern winter, making a spectacle of ourselves, I suppose, and a cop car with flashing lights pulled up and the cop said, “Excuse me, Sir, can we have a word with you?” He then handcuffed me, searched me, pulled a dark blue watchmen’s cap out of my parka-pocket and held it aloft for the other cop to see. I assumed they thought I’d shoplifted the cap. But what it was was I was suspected of robbing a bank. Mousy and Willow were freaking out. I told the cops: please forgive them, they’re freaking out. I was preternaturally calm. Calmer than I’d be if it happened to me now. Cops weren’t killing people as copiously back then. I was in the back of the squad car as a description of the dark-blue-watchmen’s-cap-wearing perp came over the radio and I had to admit it sounded like me. “Looks bad!” I quipped. I actually said that. I could tell the cops were baffled. A) I was too articulate. B) Why the fuck was I so calm? I was either a master criminal from another land or an innocent freak, too wrapped up in my own surrealist kingdom of whimsies to apprehend the gravity of the situation the wailing Hippie chicks seemed to apprehend too well. The cops drove me to the bank I had allegedly robbed. I was instructed to approach the teller and say exactly this: “Give me all that money you got there”. I did as instructed. Luckily for me, the teller was Hispanic… she wasn’t super-white… she could tell one darkie from another. “It wasn’t heeem,” she said. Well, see you guys later, I said, when they finally unlocked the cuffs…

The Mousy Albatross said okay to the notion that Woody Lennon and I would be heading Back East for a week so I picked up my son and put my cheek to his forehead and sniffed his scalp. It was a cold December day in Tinyapolis, but no snow. Kurt had two tickets to see Max Roach at the Art Institute. The idea was let’s pack most of our stuff now, go see Max Roach then come back to a late dinner and turn that into a little going away party. A hippie feast. With all the colorful, jobless, promiscuous, defective, creative, sex-mad, drug-gobbling, flea-bitten tenants of Leary Hall.

There was a big table in the carpeted basement for feasting. We pictured it laden with quesadillas and humous and tureens of lentil soup and Sarah Lee orange cake. We pictured Simianoid playing his monotonic flute and Allende playing his Chilean tablas and Willow doing her neckless belly dance and Suzanne Verdal, using her actual name,  might come over and dance, too. Byron and Dobie would declaim poetry. Sapphy, Dobie’s twin, might show off her carefully-cultivated whisker. Wild Bo, the motorcycle mechanic who kept his workshop in Leary Hall’s garage,  would tell tales and stuff his big belly and rake the crumbs out of his beard with his oil-stained fingernails and dandle his peachy little blond girlfriend on the oil-stained knee of his overalls. Tim would paint our faces and Ralphie would reek and spazz and The Mousy Albatross would read our palms. We were slightly anachronistic. R. Crumb would have rubbed his eyes with disbelief. Not again!

8-

Now, about that placenta-burying ceremony…

Some special Hippie among us seemed to think that burying a placenta near the roots of a freshly-planted sapling would be the Native American thing to do. As it happened, Leary Hall was not more than fifteen minutes on foot from a notorious Native American Ghetto of mean-drunk, fighting-mad Ojibwas but nobody thought to walk over there and ask. So when the placenta came out and I snipped the cord and sealed the little stub with golden seal and put the placenta in some Tupperware in the communal fridge outside the door of the room in which my son was born (very different from the room in which he was conceived, which happened to be at a diagonal, across the street, from Bob Dylan‘s historic apartment in Dinkytown, the setting of Positively Fourth Street and the place I lived during my summer of love, often playing guitar on the roof while smiling coeds sauntered by on the sidewalk below). The placenta was stored for about a week, right next to a half-eaten torpedo of Oscar Meyer bologna (pron: baloney). When the day came… a sunny-bronze autumn day with the rat-bag, rainbow-stained hippies gathered like Dungeons and Dragons figurines on the lawn, I placed the placenta on the lawn beside the sapling and went to fetch a shovel. Which was a mistake. Because Zephyr the unwashed collie, who’d been a vegan all her miserable Hippie-distorted life, seized the opportunity and lunged like natural justice from the bushes, scooping the placenta and dashing across the street trailing the umbilical cord from her foaming jaws. She hunkered down and growled at a circle of freaked-out hippies as she chomped and we only managed to save a purple chunk for the ceremony, which suddenly shifted from being about some pseudo-Native American Earth-magic to being about The Day Zephyr the Unwashed Collie Went from Barley-Fed Vegan to Tasting Human Flesh. Which would make a great school holiday.

Kurt and I went to that Max Roach concert.

Despite the fact that my father had been a Jazz DJ for a radio station in LA, in the late 1950s, with the fantastic moniker The Jazz Prophet, Max Roach didn’t mean much to me at the time. Kurt was an aficionado who heaped nearly-audible scorn on the piccolo player in Max Roach’s warm-up act, is what I vividly recall. I sat through about 2 hours of Jazz feeling fairly fine and re-emerged into the fizzy twilight around the Art Institute and walked with Kurt back to the mansion.

A major, if unspoken, reason for heading out in a stranger’s car to New York for Xmas was the shared fantasy of seeing John Lennon on the street in Manhattan. It was just one of the things you’d want to see on a trip there. Statue of Liberty: check. John Lennon: check. Kurt’s sister lived in a building a few blocks distant from the Dakota and had seen Lennon around quite a bit. We weren’t planning on anything as corny as asking for an autograph but a picture with our hero wasn’t unthinkable. Was it? We were out of the jazz concert around 9pm, Central Standard Time, December 8, 1980.

As Kurt and I approached the mansion, we saw The Mousy Albatross waiting for us in the cold without a coat on. She wasn’t even wearing a sweater, just hugging herself and shivering. I thought that was ominous. She always loved delivering bad news.

****

Kurt took it much harder than I did. I’ll never forget entering a communal room in the basement of the Hippie Mansion the next morning and finding Kurt sitting on the dingy brown carpet, chin on his knees, staring through his Lennonesque glasses at something deep in the dingy brown carpet. I remember backing discreetly out of the room. I was feeling grimly giddy myself: a sense of the Utterly Unreal ruled the day.

9-

 

*[In ’64, at the age of five, when the recess bell rang in Kindergarten at our school compound on the South Side of Chicago, my best friend, Alvin Alexander, and I, following a bizarre routine we repeated so often that our Kindergarten teacher had to lecture us, finally, about the blatant impropriety of it, would burst through the fire-doors that opened on to the vast expanse of the asphalt playground and run for our lives with ten or fifteen five-year old girls running behind us, screaming at the tops of their lungs, in a parody of Beatlemania, the news of which had reached even us, black kids, on the very outskirts of the Empire!]

The evening of the assassination we’d kept the radio on all night. I still have a tape of a relevant broadcast with some talking head’s authoritarian voice lending gravitas to Lennon’s slow escape from the earth’s atmosphere and stately ectoplasmic trek beyond the moon’s orbit and out into deep space to catch up with comforting early radio transmissions of Twist and Shout and Julia and A Day in the Life while his song Imagine lent banal pathos to the authoritarian radio-narration about his death and my son’s three-month-old crying, in the foreground, puts it all in context. The next morning we had to face the awful irony of the car trip to New York we’d unwittingly planned to undertake the day before Lennon’s murder.

And then we grabbed a couple of laundry bags full of provisions and walked out the front door of the Hippie Mansion and got in a car being driven very poorly by Ned and took that trip Back East.

 

Son was conceived on a fateful evening after a viewing of The Buddy Holly Story, near the upper window, far left; at a 60-degree angle, to the right, approximately 100 meters was Bob Dylan's old apartment, when he was unknown and clever enough to avoid the Albatrosses
Son was conceived on a fateful winter evening in 1979 after a viewing of ERASERHEAD, near the upper window, far left  / at a 60-degree angle, stage right, approximately 100 meters away, was Bob Dylan’s old apartment, when Dylan was unknown and clever enough to avoid the Albatrosses

 

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