EXCERPTS FROM “THE VELVETEEN GULAG” [a memoir]: CHAPTER 16: A BOHEMIAN BESTIARY

 vick

—-In 1978 I moved into a one-bedroom flat with my best college friend and the mousy albatross who had bound herself to me with the rank epoxy of suicide-threats and lies which only adheres to rookie surfaces in the sex game. To which category I cheerfully admit to having belonged at the time. Rookie: oh yes.

I had lost my virginity 18 months before that and I  ran away from college a year after losing my virginity and here I was in my first real flat, working in a department store by day and experimenting with LSD in the evenings and on weekends, augmenting my Bohemian record collection with hallucinations so intense I still recall a few, in enameled detail, 34 years later.

I was also learning the guitar and doing an awful lot of drawing in 1978. The drawings were very good and I wish I had examples or photos, still, but very little material survived my first move to Europe 12 years after the year we lived in that working class flat along I-94 from which the department store in which I plied my trade as an electric razor repairman was a twenty minute walk, two whole years before Reagan.

No one had ever bothered to do me the favor of letting me know that one could earn a living (good or otherwise) with a talent in the Arts, so I had gone from working a loading dock in this department store, sorting pallets of cookware or bedding from all over the country, to selling and repairing electric razors in the basement of the same store, where my immediate boss and co-workers were Fundamentalist Christians named Dean and buck-toothed Chuck and scary-dumb whatshisname with an oafish red face and curly hair… and my best college friend TAD. 

All the Creative Arts Jobs, of course, while appearing to be imaginary, were very real and were actually going quietly  to Upper Middle Class Kids, whether they were talented or not, in discreet subsidies from the global network of their fathers’ masters, a gratuity for the recreational use of their fathers’ wives and daughters and sons.

The living room of the working class flat we had moved into after signing a rental agreement we never bothered to read featured a functioning fireplace and a mannequin we purchased downtown at a fire sale. The mannequin, nude but for a straw hat, stood beside a curtainless window like an armless sniper with a pretty face. She embodied our semi-Dada notions of poetry and beauty, the two birds we loved killing with one stone called Sex. The mannequin had a name which I forget.

We took LSD there and gave dinner parties for our college friends, painting our faces and playing home-made shakuhachi flutes. It was the end of the disco era for everybody else but for us it was the end of Psychedelia. I would never take LSD and watch the Mousy Albatross metamorph into a butterfly again (though I did drop acid at the Funeral Home in Philly a few years later, in TAD’s presence, what was he doing in Philly?… and that really was the last time I dropped acid, for a good reason, it was terrifying, more on that in a chapter to come).

And sometimes we gave each other haircuts and taped the dust-panned fluff to the mannequin’s crotch and armpits. One night we tripped and TAD and I were flying in tandem through a sequence not unlike that experienced by Cmdr. Dave Bowman in 2001 (23 asymptotically-receding years away) as he tooled through the Stargate and I said, with quivers in my voice, TAD, where’s The Albatross? 

And TAD said I don’t know Stevie.

And we walked sort of holding each other down the long hall to the bedroom and before the bedroom came the bathroom and I noticed upon the floor of the dark hall a slender yellow wedge of bathroom light and I thought: oh god she’s in there. And I very reluctantly opened the bathroom door a bit and peeked and flinched and closed the door again and said TADdon’t look, TADdon’t look. The Mousy Albatross was standing on the toilet with her eyes bugged in gothic eyeliner and her head angled down hard to the left in a simulated snap as though she’d hung herself.

manni

I was sometimes fucking a girl called Katrina and sometimes a girl called Sonja and less satisfactorily fucking, with pity and panic and boredom-laced resentment, in tear-smeared duty-fucks, the Mousy Albatross from Ohio I was later gulled into impregnating. I saw a childhood picture of her posing with a giant color television set she was given for Christmas one year and believed it explained a lot.  She had the nerve to dress like Annie Hall. There was incest, I hear. Her executive-type coon-hating father later went to prison for mistress-murdering. The Mousy Albatross was fucking an Artie Johnson-look-a-like named Bradford and another baby-faced boy named Dan, both students from the private college we’d escaped from. She seemed to have a Woody Allen fetish, focusing on nerdy Jewish types, so I suppose her decision to adhere to me and depress my life is puzzling on some level, though maybe the idea was to diddle nobly with social inferiors and fuck one of them up for decades.

My best friend TAD was fucking Sylvia, the well-read, alcoholic, dishwater blonde who idolized her schizophrenic older brother and relentlessly compared her family to the Glasses of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Katrina (a Modigliani) was tall and thin and nervous with krinkly long blonde hair and Sonja (a Renoir) was easygoing with long straight brown hair while the Mousy Albatross (a Dix) was mousy with an unconvincing bob and inverted nipples. Not to be indelicate. But delicacy will not convey the feeling. But fuck me with hedge-trimmers:

…how did a boy from the ghetto become responsible for the health and happiness of an upper middle class bitch from a segregated suburb of Ohio? The crappy hand jobs?

Sylvia was the one I sort of wanted but not because there was anything even remotely sexy about her lunar pallor or her lazy, center-parted, Wednesday-colored hair. Her father was a disgraced airline pilot and she had lived in Berlin in the early 1970s. She was impossibly cool and alluringly cynical and she quipped between bemused little side-lipped jets of self-rolled-cigarette smoke . I’m fairly sure I was still blowing myself that year, more to keep in practice than for the quality of the orgasms, and I couldn’t imagine Sylvia doing it for me, or me wanting her to. What I wanted was the fuzzy woolen sleeveless peat-green jacket she wore like a talisman from Berlin. And to share unspoken bullshit of a literary nature. 

My White, Lefty-ish, middle class college friends were a self-dramatizing lot tending toward doomy funks and too much booze. They were rarely happy and they were ill at ease and not entirely committed, I noticed, to the duties of the office of Bohemia. As time went on the women fucked more and more the men with cars and responsible jobs and the ones who could… the really pretty ones… began angling for good marriages. Men who had never written a poem in their preppy lives were appearing on the periphery of our dinner party commune with worrying frequency.  The males of our original group drifted into shitty jobs or back to college and then some shitty jobs that paid a little bit better. 

I was busy with one project after another, learning to paint, learning to play the guitar, writing thinly-veiled pseudo-French poems about Sylvia and other girls I wanted to fuck or just touch and I was  f-f-fucking happy. I have a fair amount of European DNA but not enough, it seems, to make me a Nihilist or a Depressive. I wake up every goddamn morning in a good fucking mood. Perhaps it’s not entirely genetic; or, that is, perhaps it’s indirectly genetic: as a non-White, I already knew at 5-years-old what my college friends were suddenly getting whopped in the face with at 19, 20, 21: you are of no particular importance, despite all that bullshit your mommy told you… To which my response is inevitable.

 

I’m of no importance? Fine. I’ll just enjoy Existence instead, then.

What made me want to sit with an arm around Sylvia while she chain-smoked on a secondhand couch in a friend’s apartment at a dinner party with Joan Armatrading records playing in the background in that weird green jacket was her bookishness, which was more adult than mine.  And I cared for her belief in, or tacit acceptance of, me as some kind of fetal writer. I was writing poems, some of them long, and Sylvia was reading them and quibbling with the bits she felt were lame, as though there was a point, as though improving these typings was necessary… as though they were poems. 

portrait of sonja, 4'x5', acrylic on canvas. the humanoid figure in the upper left, with the sphere for a head, is my reading a poem to sonja. sonja's face is red, her left arm is raised, her boobs are huge and their actual size
portrait of sonja, 4’x5′, acrylic on canvas. the humanoid figure in the upper left, with the sphere for a head, is me reading a poem to sonja. sonja’s face is red, her right arm is raised. in front of her sits a flower in a red vase

I wrote an Apollinaire-influenced poem for Sylvia that is horrible with the horny lyricism of youth…

to sylvia
distance wave an airy drape
up rush of greening blaze
of high french window frame the
brief harmonic cadence
of embrace
…and more embarrassing blather in that vein.

When I came to college I brought a list of preferences I thought of as my personality, the unique accretions of my soul. I and so many others like me.  Salvadore Dali, Eugene Ionesco, Italo Calvino, Morton Subotnick , EE Cummings, Anne Sexton, John Coltrane, Marc Chagall, Federico Fellini, Fluxus,  Gertrude Stein, Pablo Neruda, the Tao Te Ching as a coffee table book, an LP of Claude Bolling and Jean Pierre Rampal called Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano it was bad form not to play on a Sunday morning in bed with a girl you’d seen Last Tango in Paris (plus two other Bertolucci films) at an art house cinema the night before with.  It never occurred to me that these preferences were not unique and had been fed to me (and thousands of others of my age) in order to type, stabilize and track me psycho-politically. What was unique, in my case, was that I had jumped race and class to take the bait.

dorm room polaroids 1
dormitory buddy of ’77 who now headlines in Vegas as a magician

One fall evening I attended a party in the opulent F. Scott Fitzgerald-associated Summit neighborhood which was near campus, a place rented by wealthy students I knew from the senior dorm, and there was a TV at this party and on the TV appeared a proto-New Wave, post-Futurist group called Devo, Devo on Saturday Night Live. Seeing Devo play Satisfaction on Saturday Night Live made me realize I was wasting my life at 19 and it inspired me to quit my job at the loading dock at the department store, I just didn’t show up the following Monday. I called my immediate superior on Monday morning  and said, “I saw Devo on Saturday Night Live a few days ago and I can never work on the loading dock again.” Or I wish I had said that.

Devo were playing live at the Walker Art Center a few weeks later and I went. The thrill they shot through me with that jump-suited solo on a wireless-guitar on the song Mongoloid made me realize I needed a job to buy equipment so I got a job at the department store again. This time in the razor sales and repair department.

 
dorm room polaroids 2
dormitory buddy of ’77 who taught me the Parisian mayo-on-french-fries thing; she later served briefly as a stripper in Portland, to where I traveled in a share-a-ride van in ’81 with strange hippies, hoping to save her. the only time I have ever set foot in a strip-club. please note “The Alan Parson Project, I Robot” sticker on the corner of her desk.

TAD and I were tripping one evening and I decided to eat hot dogs. An unearthly experience. But more than the psychotic sensuality of eating four or five hot dogs on LSD was the epiphany I had when I went to look for a fork at the trip’s zenith and pulled open the silverware drawer and saw dozens of forks and spoons and butter knives and can-openers and cork screws and whisks and egg cups and whatnots, literally enough silverware for a banquet for everybody in our apartment building, though only three of us lived there at the time, all that shit, what’s was the point, how ridiculous, and I laughed for twenty seconds or maybe it was an hour, a lesson I learned on LSD that I have carried with me down the years.

2.

Standing with my perma-smirk behind the counter one fine Friday I served a Polish-American girl name Sue F. Sue was a self-described strawberry blonde of 16 who was looking for a top-of-the-line electric razor for a man in her family. This is perhaps a good moment to note that if I were 19 now and diddling Sue I’d go right to prison in an America which has, just like those memory-plastics they advertized in my youth, those plastics you could twist into whatever cool new shape you wanted, only to watch the memory-plastic revert to its original rectangular chunk-shape with the application of heat, reverted… reverted to its original thin-lipped Puritan shape… I’d be doing five or ten years in the New Old Puritan American slammer for fucking a 16-year-old at the age of 19 in 2012. With extra years tacked on owing to the transraciality of the intercourse. But it was good.

Where was I?  Sue and her little pink parrot lips.

I recommended a Braun, a sleek little German machine with a foil head, far superior to the Norelco, despite the Norelco’s effective advertizing, for a cool ninety-nine dollars, I must have been doing some kind of slyly-self-satirizing Henry Miller routine as I handled the floor model and recited its various stats and fine points as I had been drilled to. I realize now with retroactive dread that the man she was shopping for was her brother, a Marine on his way home for the holidays, a jar head with socio-economic grievances to spare, it was either around Thanksgiving or Christmas and it was 1978 and I was 19 and his little sister was 16. She was wearing a dark coat and a very smart Russian-style fur hat that I had a little photo-booth picture of her in, looking like a countess on a train in the ’30s, until I lost it about twenty years ago.

I invited her over to my place later to look at some drawings because she’d mentioned that she was good at drawing. She excelled at her High School Art Class.  She was a kind of blue collar Bohemian who spoke of Dali and wasn’t afraid to flirt with a non-White but was otherwise a little, shall we say, ditsy.  She came over that evening and met TAD (the Mousy Albatross had moved into her own place by then: biding her time, biding her time) and smiled at a few of my framed pieces on the wall, sketches and water colors, girls and girl faces and nudes and details of nudes featuring tits (I was great at trompe l’oeil breasts, I can do a trompe l’oeil breast that would fool a new-born) impressed by the raw talent but underwhelmed by the technique, probably, the eternal battle between the technically-trained mediocrity and the autodidact with talent. Sue fished from her purse a photograph of a life-sized alligator she’d done in charcoal using the grid method. I told her I was intimidated. I took her into the bedroom by her waxy hand while TAD strummed Beatles songs between our mannequin and our functional fireplace and I closed the bedroom door and I pushed the bed (it was the Mousy Albatross’ bed, she hadn’t fetched it yet)  up against the bedroom door so TAD wouldn’t wander in on us while finger-picking Blackbird.

I pulled Sue’s disco pants down and slurped her shaved vagina, burning my tongue as though licking a sailor’s chin, another first.

The following week, Sue F. invited me to dinner.

Dinner at her mother’s depressing apartment in a wind-scraped zone between Minneapolis and Saint Paul, a semi-industrial tract criss-crossed by train tracks worn by bearing megatons of taconite and lutefisk. Out there were factories and warehouses protected by hurricane fences but mercifully covered and almost beautified with feet of snow under the obligatory blizzard that evening. They lived on the second floor and I remember having to wait until her mother left for the night-shift before I could come over and climb those ringing stairs for the canned spaghetti dinner by candle light. I’m doing my best to recall my first impression as I entered the place but the only really vivid thing is the butterscotch plaid of the sofa-bed’s corner,  wedged too close to the front door. So close in fact that snow twinkled across the door-dinged corner of the butterscotch sofa when Sue, in her kimono, let me in. What Sue had in spades was the sweetly smelly allure of cheap perfume and unwashed private parts and a precise hand for drawing. She was tiny and lithe and ignorant but hip in her way.

Several times during the meal and after, when were wrestling and joking and cooing inanities half-naked on her bed, Sue would pass the grape juice or pull a breast out of my mouth and warn me that I had to be out of the apartment no later than 10 or 10:30 pm,  tops, when her brother’s Greyhound was due to bring the surly fuckwit home. But then we started screwing and diddling and half-napping and screwing and diddling again until I woke with a jolt to the sound of her brother letting himself into the apartment, cheap china chiming with his massive footfalls in their pressed-wood cabinets. And I shook with fear. The Marine was a giant racist Polish-American blue-collar whore-baiting hate machine and I had fucked his little sister. I was even darker than the Vietcong had been for his long-gone father. Sue whispered wait until he woofs down his crude meats and gluggeth down his cheap beers and falleth to sleep and so we did. 

Shortly after midnight I crept into the living room in my parka with the hood up to hide my face and looked upon the giant asleep on the fold-out couch the foot of which was but inches from the door. I prayed to the Old Ones and swore I’d never fuck again if they let me survive this and I tip-toed across the tacky Polish-American living room in the ghostly snow-light that bled through the curtains and I eased the door open and went softly down the snow-and-ice-covered stairs in the brilliant freezing night.

The major thoroughfare of the Saint Paul side of Lake street was about a mile from where I stood looking across snow fields and hurricane fences in a dwindling blizzard and my main concern, after having survived the trial of the sleeping ogre, was to make it to the last bus of the night or face walking ten miles home in sub-zero weather. And so I began running through the snow and when I was about half there I saw the tiny red bus turn the distant corner and slowly make its way toward the stop. I dug deep into the super-humanity of youth itself and grunting and huffing and cursing my own stupid dick I hauled my fucked-out ass through knee-deep drifts like some kind of Dostoyevskian serf cum Jesse Owens pursued by hounds and Cossacks  to catch that bus, giddy and foot-numb and lung-burnt as I stumbled aboard, the lone passenger, crossing the finish line, fumbling wet coins into the pay-slot as the driver chuckled, having witnessed my desperate race across the tundra. The driver felt like a mythological figure bearing me across the Mississippi, back to the land of the sometimes-living. It astonishes me to think that Sue F. turned 50 this year.

3.

I was the only non-White in my little cohort of Bohemian smart-asses and the non-Whites I’ve come across who assumed that lonely role in subsequent generations were invariably Queer.  The James Baldwins and Langston Hugheses. I’ve known a few. I seemed to be the only heterosexual of my kind: brainy smart-assed and tall and handsome and conversant-with-books and in possession of a very large bronze sort of jazz-type dick.  Maybe real jazz dicks are black as coal and uncircumcised. I remember seeing uncircumcised dicks in a row at my ghetto kindergarten urinals during piss-breaks and thinking some kids have pointed penises, imagine that.  Being racially ambiguous (on the actual level of genes, if not by law) my dick gets rather reddish when hard. What was I saying about Bohemian race and gender patterns?

I have never met a genuinely Bohemian Black chick (I’m sure they’re plentiful now, but, back then? Rare as polonium; you need a sizeable, traditional middle class in order to make Bohemians); I’ve never met a beautiful Black chick who would deign to fuck anyone less “socially promising” than a law student; I have never, therefore, fucked a Black chick. One of those pomo twists.

winged-bull

The closest I got was in High School, in Philly, on some trip with some group pertaining to the Episcopal Church my great Aunt and her husband (with whom I lived in Philly) attended, the high-yellow church featuring the finest examples of long-form miscegenation on the East Coast. Freckled mocha darlings and green-eyed blondes with caramel skin, marbled bloodlines dating back to the Prussians of Germantown, on every aisle of the congregation, an incredible cookie box of bisque and brown and walnut creme fantasies. I wasn’t forced to attend this church often (most of the churches I visited during those years I visited as a professional working with the family undertaking business, black-suited, helping to roll some casket down some narrow passage in some Baptist church) but the exotic splendor on display was always interesting and somehow matched the bizarre detail of the Chaldean Bull… in gold, with its crowned, bearded head and wings… high on the curved wall over the great doors of the entrance behind the pews so resplendent with bourgeois mulatto pussy.

The black chick I was grinding and snuggling against was not a mulatto-type but her family was well-off  (that’s why her family attended that snobby little starchy-white pseudo-white church) and she was witty and smart and lithe and if I’d known her a few years later she may well have turned out to be the mythical Black Bohemian Chick, the cross-cultural unicorn of Modernist liberalism with kinky hair and suckable lips and flaring nostrils and sienna skin who might actually be into Cassavetes, or maybe I could have turned her into one for a while until she snapped out of it and married a white lawyer… ?

Carol, skinny Carol, who laughed at all my jokes and let me push my polyester-covered hard-on against her polyester-covered thighs and cunt (this was before the total triumph of denim) and nuzzle her little black holstered tits with my nose and closed eyes and playfully bite her darting tongue. I was 16 and Carol was 14. I came this close to coming this close in my pants on that school bus. But that was as close as I ever got to fucking a Black chick in my life and that was 1975. Despite my date that one time, in the mid-to-late 1980s, with an ultra-materialist Miss Black Minnesota. The only naked Black Pussy I have seen in real life was on a very pretty dead girl on a steel table in the Funeral Home I lived and worked at in High School. I am relieved to report that I can no longer retrieve that memory with clarity.

Variation
wistful libido-driven drawing of Indo-Caribbean chick capable of getting into william s. burroughs, ink on paper

Imagine how excited I was on my Nth day on the job at the Razor Repair counter in the basement of the Department Store, late in 1978, when a stunning girl from the Caribbean, a big-eyed girl with black skin and fragrant, ass-long LP-colored hair (some kind of Afro-Indian hybrid), invited me to lunch, smiling over the counter with man-eating confidence. Anne! I no longer remember your last name!  Petite Anne with her sharp nose and her shiny big brick-red lips. As I wrote in a song I wrote the afternoon I first saw her:

Anne with your face like mine

And your hair like wine

Drunken by the moon

I, as a child of five

First  unearthed  your eyes

In a dream of the planets

She wouldn’t have looked out of place on an aspirational Earth, Wind and Fire album cover, beckoning from the back seat of a Rolls Royce.  Anne with her shoe-obsession. Standing behind my Razor Sales and Repair counter in a brown smock and a secondhand paisley tie that could’ve passed for cutely quirky if everything else about me had been right, 19-years-old and dashingly fit and handsome yet weird as fuck, I had a profound secret. I kept that secret until the moment I stepped from behind the counter to accompany the Bourgeois Beauty to lunch. See? I wasn’t wearing proper footwear. I, ever the prankster, was wearing heavy-duty green rubber thigh-high wading boots: that was my secret, my ta-daaa moment. Some kind of Black-Pussy-Sealing Dada manifesto right there on my feet.

Ah, the look on her face.

Variation1

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