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

JL

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 Upper 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.

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 conniving mother (who told me she was sterile knowing she wasn’t) of my son,  that we were going to drive to New York, Kurt and I. She was the mother of my son and she was slightly-sideburned-Kurt’s girlfriend. They were having a mild affair. 

The affair had started while I was still back in Philadelphia, a while after I got the supposedly surprised call from her notifying me (but not before notifying my mother) that she was pregnant. I had gone back to Philly, after a couple of years in The Upper Midwest for college,  thinking I was free at last. I had fled to Philly with a bottomless sigh of relief  thinking I had finally escaped this woman and the Upper Midwest and was now free to start a great new musical life with close proximity to New York and  ideas and happening scenes without the conniving chains of this mousy albatross around my neck but now, oops,  I was preparing for my doomed self-extradition. Right back to the Upper Midwest, counting my final few stress-free days in Philly, 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 Japanophile 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 months 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 here it was the Christmas season of 1980 and Kurt and I were now friends and heading Back East in a car driven by the wondrous and ditzy and well-named Ned from the Whole Foods cork-board. 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 18 hours of vehicular thrills,  having many times seen our lives flash before us on Ned’s windshield, to a Manhattan that was poignant and deafening and half-hellish 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 me in my asinine Chinese slippers, and all we could hear were the ghosts of a million Imagines.

–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. Bowie knew. It was score-settling time as the New Regime took power; Bowie’s Scary Monsters was the last explicitly political thing he ever did; after that it was Modern Love and arch gibberish and tacky choreographed dancing …

–We caught a premiere of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories in a Manhattan cinema where a rat cast a very long shadow up the aisle (causing me to lift my feet) but what everyone gasped at, as one, was the scene near the end of the film. The scene where the deranged fan blank-facedly points a revolver and shoots the Woody Allen character who has obligingly dallied to sign autographs.  What?  Stardust Memories was released on September 26, 1980. Script by Carl Jung. Or G. Gordon Liddy. 

Because I’m no longer 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.  Ever hear of Allard K. Lowenstein? No?

Wonder why.

3-

But let’s 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-yet-undislodgeable 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. 

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 the crypto-conservative 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? That plus her constant threats to kill herself if I wised up.

Listen: I know. Sexism is the oldest ism on Earth. Women, in most societies, since the hominid-infested mists of time, have been crushed by the same brutal patriarchy that crushes powerless men and all 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 or fiercer or harder to call out for help about than being victimized viciously by a victim.

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 so-so and/or grating 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 joke-shop 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, 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 (excerpt below) and I can smell the top of my now- 6’3″ son whenever I read it:

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

 

 

Photo0653-adj

 

4-                                                

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 went straight back to the Upper Midwest 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 across several state lines with an underhanded trick. I was tremendously moved by the thought of my son in her.

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. Choose 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… 

Years later, The Mousy Albatross and Eddie Gorey her husband had an abortion and kept the fetus in a jar.

JLpepper

5-

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. To somebody. 

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!?

6-

AUTHOR 1981

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. When the placenta came out 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 broken Dungeons and Dragons figurines on the lawn, I placed the placenta on that 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 the wonderful basis for a genuinely fun national holiday.

Two months or so later 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. Yoko Ono: uh. Kurt’s banker 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.

7-

IMG0354A

But here’s the time-delayed snicker of the secret twist: my son was born on 9/11/ 1980.

 

 

 

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