There is a holy stupidity to youth, the necessary lack of wisdom, which makes copious Experience possible. I’m grateful for the memories of the things I’ve done and seen, when young, which I am now far too experienced to do or see again, precisely because I have done and seen them. The knowledge I derived from these metaphorical pratfalls stayed with me.
The first hominid to ever not know that it shouldn’t be able to walk upright was probably a teen.
“Is that a chick or a dude?” was a popular, mildly satirical, question in 1969. In the 2020s the question became a feature of the dating process of the West while gratitude, among the over-50s, for being old, became a common feature of Western life.
In 1978 I was 19 and sat in a reputedly racist, blue collar, bar, in Saint Paul, with college friends, listening to live music. The bar was packed and loud and the air was smoke-filled. A blue collar couple to my immediate right, inebriated, mid-thirties, he with a blue collar mustache of the era, she a bleached blonde in a low-cut blouse, were in the middle of what was obviously the latest in a long tradition of feuds so well-rehearsed that the pro forma skirmish lacked passion and was being carried out, largely, in each of their respective heads. He would gripe and take a swig from his beer bottle and stare into the middle distance and she would quip and take a swig from her beer bottle and stare at me. They were so near to me, with her chair actually touching mine, although we were seated at separate tables, that I could almost hear what they were saying. The disgruntled wife or girlfriend began to stroke my hair, my face and right arm and comment, over the music, how pretty I was. My friends, who were drinking and whooping it up and stage-facing, seated much further from me than she was, didn’t notice. I was the only non-drunk (I am a teetotaller) in the vicinity. The stroking and cooing continued, her husband or boyfriend looking on with an unreadable facial expression, for quite some time. I didn’t enjoy it, I wasn’t titillated, I was afraid the man in a mustache would lunge across the table or throw his beer bottle at me. I was socially paralyzed and didn’t know how to make it stop. The couple finally staggered out of the bar, after about an hour, another inscrutably ominous sighting of the adult world.
Listening to an album from 1973, on the dreaded YouTube, I came across this comment, which is, surely, The Comment of the Month:
“Remember how blacks use to dress back then in America. They looked so cool! “
Yes, I remember it as though it were yesterday: all the Whites in leisure suits and ball gowns, all the Blacks in floppy hats and elephant bells! And all the Asians in silk pyjamas! Those were the days.
In 1980 I was on a night walk with a friend and I stopped in an all-night convenience store, because I was very hungry, and I bought a large bottle of Coke, a packet of six fat Vienna sausages and a large bag of nacho Doritos. I ate all the sausages, I ate the entire bag of Doritos and drank the large bottle of Coke and very soon, thereafter, went to bed, at approximately 3am. I woke up at approximately 4am and vomited, with the sudden and involuntary force of an extremely violent sneeze, into the waste paper basket near my bed. I wiped my face and mouth in the sink and fell back into bed. Every ten or eleven minutes, for the next 90 minutes or so, I vomited, uncontrollably, as if I were shouting the word “hoof,” into the waste basket.
Greg Mulcahy was in my circle of college buddies after most of us left school; there were about half a dozen of us plus three significant others and we dabbled in communal living a couple of times (not sure if Greg actually ever lived in one of these crowded flats or was just around a lot). Greg chain-smoked and cracked cynical jokes out the side of his mouth like a thin-faced Henry Miller with stand-uppy hair and impressed me by having an affair with an older, “blue-collar” woman who had a kid. He irritated me once by dissing Wilhelm Reich (that’s how young I was).
Greg got a dusting of literary notoriety by going under Gordon Lish’s lush wing for a while in the 1980s and ’90s. Greg and I were in contact briefly during the golden age of the Lit Blog (c. 2006), during which a few of us were going to start a multi-media magazine online and I asked Greg to donate an original piece and, of course, the multi-media (dyslexic cat-herding) project skittered away to all corners and I was left feeling a little stupid for having pestered Greg for the piece. As often happens… (nothing, I mean)…
I credit Gordon Lish’s The Quarterly with the most insufferable rejection letter I ever received (and that’s a lotta letters!). A form letter, moreover, so maybe a copy exists online. I’d look for it but I have PTSD associated with that era of my life.
Did the rejection letter have an “ordinary life” (with hidden depths) minimalism to it, Comrade?
No, it was an oddly baroque, almost Jamesian put-down printed on a card like a wedding invitation.
Being as this Faceboot account is private, I can say, Comrade, that your novel is orders of magnitude better than anything of Greg’s (that I’ve seen), which is all sort of DeLillo-under-the-weather-after-prostate-surgery lackluster, imo… the attitude is there but the genius is missing.
Which is to say: so effing what if The [defunct] Quarterly said you can’t play with their marbles. It’s all just school yard social psychology (my essential beef with most zines).
Oh thank you — you know that rejection was from ages ago when I really WAS trying to write like . . . Raymond Carver.
(peeking from between splayed fingers)
Nothing of that period remains to embarrass me, I might add. Although plenty of other things, since the invention of the internet!
Mental image of you late at night by neon, wearing a skinny tie and a blazer with shoulder pads and… shredding documents…
In 1978 during some wintry school vacation I decided to get a ride, with a fellow student, bearded short semi-Hippie, Rob, who was headed back East, rather than fly or use Amtrak or the dreaded Greyhound, and we had a sleepover in Ohio, in Shaker Heights ( “the designation of Shaker Heights as the wealthiest community in the United States reaffirmed the ideals associated with both suburban living and the American dream”), spending the night in guest rooms at the mansion-adjacent home of Rob’s chum Darin. “Darin” was her androgynous-sounding name but she wasn’t androgynous, she was what is called a Rich Bitch, perhaps a JAP, and rather a hottie who had, of course, friend-zoned Rob the moment they first met, only Darin hadn’t warned her parents, until the moment we rocked up at the end of their winding driveway, that night, that a tall, slender, muscular Black kid (me) and a short, Manson-like Rob would be there that very night to rape and kill and steal silverware and scrawl misspelt slogans of have-not ressentiment on the dining room’s silk wallpaper by spitting profligately stolen and wasted Château Lafitte Rothschild 1970 on it.
Rob and I didn’t see the parents that night but the next morning I staggered down the stairs toward the kitchen after five hours of disoriented sleep (I kept waking up to see inexplicable doilies in the gloom) and there was Mrs. Van Der Derbyrshire (or some name pretty close to that) sitting on a pedigreed loveseat on the landing between the first and second floors. She was something out of a Kubrick film, dressed for a formal occasion, big hair in an upswept bouffant, pearls around her neck, magazine in her lap, formally introducing herself. I realize now that she was probably guarding the estate. I felt like something the cat had dragged half-way home and changed its mind about and left twitching on the landing.
Next thing I knew I was at the breakfast table with Darin, her Mom, her Dad, Rob and Darin’s little brother, call him Chip, who was in High School. The father (at the head of the table: perfectly cast) at some point asked me (as the Black kid who, he probably inevitably assumed, was the first in my family to attend college: erm, no, my mother, father, two uncles and grandfather had all attended and graduated from various colleges, my grandfather in Phi Beta Kappa glory) to talk some sense into his son regarding his son’s infuriating plans not to attend college the following year of 1979.
“Well, to be honest,” I said, swallowing some orange juice, with no plans to return to school the following year myself, “I think that’s great.”
Dad looked at me like I was the SLA all over again… in his breakfast nook.
Few things are more tragic in Life than throwing away the irretrievable hours of that Life over someone else’s pursuit of obscene profits in one’s own pursuit of owning a golf cart in one’s senescence as a reward for the waste: I wish I had said that exact sentence in the breakfast nook that sunny morning. I’d have been a legendary Hero of de Bergeracian panache instead of the awkward, intermittent Hero of crudely ebullient Life Force I have become.
Not that I’m complaining.
In 1980 I lived in a communal hippie flop-house (converted from a mansion) and while spending time in the communal basement kitchen, it was suggested to me that I try frying Ramen Noodles. Later that day I filled a frying pan, to an inch’s depth, with cooking oil, cranked the heat and added an un-boiled white block of Ramen Noodles to the sputtering oil. I ate the greasy hot crispy block of fried Ramen Noodles. An hour later I vomited, with the sudden and involuntary force of an extremely violent sneeze, into the toilet. Every ten or eleven minutes, for the next hour or so, I vomited, uncontrollably, as if I were shouting the word “hoof,” into the toilet.
In a recent letter (email) to an old friend/acquaintance I haven’t seen since the 1990s, I described myself, winningly, as being “bald as a freshly dusted light bulb” and went on, to describe a mutual, much face-lifted, acquaintance as “looking like she only allows herself to be photographed upside down or on the International Space Station” and I thought: what great put-downs to bury in an email to someone who probably won’t even respond? He still hasn’t responded but not because of the two great put-downs… one of them aimed at me, after all… but because my catching-up letter had no tragic news (no tragic news specific to me, that is) in it, no news of divorce or unhappy marriage, no awful medical condition, eyes still fine, dick still boinging, no drug-addicted children or financial threats, blunders or terrors. Long lost acquaintances, I have learned, have no stomach for reading such chipper, buzzing, antisocially good news shit, from old friends, with their morning coffee. Well, I do… I have the stomach for that stuff, definitely, but I never get any of it. I am getting lots of Cancer Divorce Emails instead.
The only problem I have with getting old is how old my friends are getting.
Nearly twenty-five percent of the people I attended two years of High School in Las Vegas with are already long-dead and that was a solidly middle, to upper middle class, school.
Jesus Fucking Christ: I feel great.
What’s the twist?
When we are young, many of the identifying personality defects we ascribe to our friends turn out to be merely a function of being young, ironically, and the same mistake is made, regarding us, by them.
In 1980, still living in the communal hippie flop house (converted from a mansion), I was talked into taking a ride on Wild Bill’s motorcycle. Wild Bill ran an auto repair shop out of the hippie mansion’s carriage house garage, which stood at the end of the long, cracked concrete driveway on the other side of the hedge bordering the north side of the hippie mansion. Wild Bill was a jolly hippie Santa Clause wearing the same, grease-stained, mechanic’s jumpsuit every day; he had curly dishwater- blonde hair, a dense beard decorated with crumbs, scraps of paper and unidentifiable detritus, and bright red cheeks. Wild Bill’s friend and assistant was tall, glum, white-haired ex-con Larry. It was drizzling when I climbed on the back of Wild Bill’s motorcycle and he took off down the driveway, banking hard to the right and accelerated through a hair-raising, mile-long sequence of yellow traffic lights, all the way to Lake Street, with such force that I gripped his jiggly sides, with all my might, holding my breath, I must have left stretch marks, to remain on the motorcycle. The first and last time I have ever been on a motorcycle.
In 1981 I hung out, for a couple of hours, on some outing, with tall, glum, white-haired ex-con Larry. I have no recollection where we went or what we did or why Larry invited me to do so.
Quoting Andy Warhol’s Diary from Monday, March 28, 1977 (the day I turned 18):
“Burgess Meredith came with his date. Rocky got Best Picture. Peter Finch got Best Actor, but he’s dead. Nelson Lyon was in the audience as the date of Mrs. Finch, Eletha. She’s very black. The Academy asked Paddy Chayevsky go up to accept Peter Finch’s award. Burgess and I talked about his ex-wife, Paulette. Brenda Vaccaro was upset because her ex-fiancé Michael Douglas was there with his brand-new wife that he met at the inauguration. James Caan was there with his boyish wife, a beauty. They’re all marrying younger girls who look like they’re thirteen, the Hollywood thing. Roman was there, he’s out on bail now for the thirteen-year-old-girl. He jumped on Alana’s ass and said he was going to rape her.”
Hi, I’m an “Underclass Intellectual,” ask me anything!
Be a sweetie, Ipsithilla,
joy and charm personified,
invite me to join in your afternoon nap.
But merely inviting is not enough.
Make certain that nobody locks the door.
Resist your desire to wander the streets.
Stay in the house and prepare to engage
in nine continuous copulations.
If this is agreeable, tell me at once.
I’m lying on my back, digesting my lunch,
and boring a hole in my tunic and cloak.
That time I “unfriended” a world-famous old Science Fiction writer (who is approved of by famous friends like Neil Gaiman) because he was proudly displaying certain kid-defiling … longings, I guess? It’s a big club, folks (as George Carlin once put it) and (thankgoodness) you ain’t in it…
I mean, the many people in this guy’s feed must be A) incredibly inattentive, B) too sycophantically content to float in the in light of reflected literary Fame or C) sharing in the inclination. The first time Famous Sci Fi Author dropped an approving reference to a famous kiddy-fiddler’s Org (an Org famously championed by Ginsberg, btw), I commented:
“Hard to imagine a rationally defensible pro-N–BLA argument, I have to say. What adults feel they need to do to one another is up to them, obviously, but if a child is not considered self-aware/ experienced enough to sign a legally binding contract, how can a child possibly be said to give consent to an adult’s more experienced, self-aware, desires to exploit a child’s body? And what sort of primevally opportunistic adult would choose to prey on that sort of vulnerability? There’s a lack, in the soul, in evidence there that no high-flying, or euphemistic, rhetoric can hide. That was one of the darker sides of the Do What Thou Wilt ’70s… the other strand gave birth to the triumphalist narcissism of the New Age industry…”
My comment ended up being right in the middle of the thread. Response? Crickets, of course. Perhaps they tut-tut-tutted at the Provincial and his quaint morals. I didn’t realize, at the time, that this writer is notorious for his “transgressive” (and not just having to do with adults) beliefs. Neil Gaiman, father of a grammar school age boy and a big fan of this writer: what is he thinking?
Lots of evil-enabling sloth-Ethics out there, at the very least. And sometimes you have to wonder about the mechanisms of Fame and who, exactly, you have to please… which mafia, which coven… to get there.
In 1982, the last year I lived in the hippie flop-house mansion, I stole a girlfriend from the curly-haired, Jewish, cute, middle class, hyperactive musical theater student with whom I shared a bathroom. This was perhaps a year after Suzanne Verdal, of Leonard Cohen’s famous song Suzanne, had attempted, and failed, to seduce me, on the occasion that I had visited her borrowed apartment to lend her thirty dollars.
The musical theater student was two years younger than I and self-obsessed in a theater student way and this girl, Penelope, who was 17 or 18 when they met, a freshman at the nearby (six blocks distant) Art College, rapped politely on the door of my side of the bathroom. She asked if we could hang out while she waited for her boyfriend, with whom she had a lunch date for which he was already an hour late.
Penelope was tall, blonde, buxom, tan and very fit (working as a life guard every summer). She was freckled and fluffy-haired in a Wisconsinoid way, with a charming gap between her front teeth, but she was also strangely awkward, with an odd gait, as though she’d been raised on a planet with something other than Earth gravity. I was delighted to discover that she was a talented artist. Her High School portfolio of pencil, ink and charcoal sketches were intimidating and I looked at each one carefully. One self-portrait, in particular, in which Penelope sketched herself gazing into a mirror, was haunting. But the Art College was turning her into a Performance Artist, a purveyor of Installations, a deployer of Art Chat, exposing her to “radical” theories and teaching her to wire electrified “installations” for which there would turn out to be no market, no Earthly purpose, no attention or even much empty praise. She was being re-designed, month by month, from an Artist to an i-don’t-know-what capable of provoking jaw-dropping indifference on an incalculable scale. Not that I saw that at first.
Even more attractive than Penelope’s physical appearance, and her talent as an Artist, and, as a dark corollary, leaving her more vulnerable to the above-mentioned indifference of the world, was the fact that Penelope was an orphan who’d been adopted by her aunt and uncle. This detail appealed both to my Rescue/ Protection Gene and the nascent Realpolitik of my canny feeling that the last things I wanted to deal with were any lover’s parents.
I was more charming than solidly middle class P., more naïve (being no womanizer: always looking for love and never feeling superior to the women I slept with; never seeing them as interchangeable, or as tradable knick knacks or surfaces, I always, sometimes to my regret, dug deep, asked questions, worked to comprehend). I was more interested in long hours of late night talk and I was much more, as was revealed by P., many years later, heterosexual.
I’m not sure if P. suspected he was Gay, at the time, and was struggling to repress the urge to confess this to himself but soon after Penelope left P. for me, P. was dating a girl of 15 or 16 named “Krystal” (everyone in the post-Hippie, pre-New Age, co-op shopping milieu of that neighborhood seemed to have a pseudonym, some of which were unintentionally amusing, as in the case of “Willow,” the short, stocky Earth mother who lived on the second floor of the mansion). Krystal threw herself at me, one night, in my room, after gaining entry by knocking on P.’s side of the bathroom door and stating that she desperately needed advice (I suspect her father was abusing her sexually under the transparent cover of some awful Hippie or Crowley-ist ideology; she was a classic example of the pretty and psychologically devastated kind of very young girl that the Upper Midwest exports to the larger cities of the coasts in a steady stream of sex traffic). She was draped across my bed and I sidestepped her attempted seduction and countered by answering a fortuitous phone call from Penelope, long-distance (she was back in Wisconsin for a wedding or funeral) and by declaring, to Penelope, right in front of Krystal, that I loved her, Penelope. To which Krystal’s eyes glazed over and to which Penelope responded, on the other end of the line, by opening the second story window of the farmhouse she was in and shouting, at the top of her lungs, across the countryside’s twilight, that she loved me.
Soon I was moving out of the Hippie mansion, sharing a small apartment with a limping poet friend, the friend who had informed me who Suzanne Verdal was, the evening she appeared at one of the Hippie Mansion gatherings, the friend who had moved out of the Hippie mansion months before I had. I painted a mural on an arched passage from dining room to kitchen, at his request, a Chagall-like-thing, that he loved until he realized how impasto the paint was and how difficult it would be to scrape it off in order to get his deposit back.
So then I was staying with Penelope, “illegally,” in her dormitory at the Art College.
There was an impulsive road trip to Chicago with three other Art School students in a big black ironic Art School Student car and I was dressed in khakis, a black leotard under an open green plaid shirt and Chinese slippers and one of the students asked me if was a dancer and that compliment stayed with me for a week. We arrived in Chicago after dark and I remember walking along with Penelope near State Street and feeling apprehensive (Chicago was the primal setting of the Ghetto childhood I had escaped a decade prior, after all) and then we were gazing upon Buckingham Fountain in its floodlights and then we were crossing one of those lift-bridges over the Chicago River and Penelope looked down from where we stood overlooking the river on this bridge and saw there was a footpath, down there, along the river, in the dark, leading under the bridge and Penelope ran gleefully back off the bridge and toward this footpath and I was shouting Penny! Penny! What the fuck are you doing? People get themselves killed doing impulsive retarded shit like this in this city! Penny! but she just laughed and ran right down the stairs and I ran after her into the dark, heart racing.
I can’t imagine having the nerve to stay in an all-female dorm with a girlfriend (and her two roommates) now but that, again, is the holy stupidity of youth that makes a retroactively colorful past possible. I was too Youthfully Stupid (in my holy way) to see how colorful, and preposterous, my life was at the time I was living it. I shall never forget sitting in a circle of girls, in some common space in the dorm, as some girl from the dark continuum of the Punk-community/Art School overlap held forth on demons and possession and protective spells and when she finally left I said “What a flake!” and the girl hadn’t really left the dorm, she had come back for her backpack and while half the circle laughed at my comment and added their comments to it, the half of the circle facing her as she re-entered the room were all suddenly and bafflingly red in the face like a Special Effect in a movie.
Soon Penelope and I moved into a room of our own (in a place called “The Cupola House”) and we did what clueless young Bohemian lovers do: we ate, we fucked, we talked and talked and talked. We were happiest in private, at home, because I wasn’t really into calling attention to myself… yet… and Penelope would wear the most ridiculous outfits, conceivable, in public, including butterscotch plaid pants with tartan vests and a tartan tam o’ shanter plus golfing shoes… I am far from making this up… because she thought, as an Artist, that that’s what she was supposed to wear. She was an angelic hayseed from Hicksville (versus my brooding Hick from a Chicago Ghetto) and she never got the code book. Not that I had, then, either but I was too far under the radar for my unworldliness to matter. I was not being charged thousands of dollars per semester to find myself; I had walked out of just such a scenario three years prior to meeting Penelope. Nobody was telling me I was an Artist; nobody was telling me I was anything.
Penelope brought a bulky, cutting-edge Betacam rig home from the Art School and filmed our lower halves fucking and I was fascinated with how natural and involuntary and autonomous the humping looked. This clip was a big hit in Penelope’s video class the next day.
I filmed scenes from brand new TV hit St. Elsewhere directly from the portable TV in our bedroom/ dining room/ Kitchen space and improvised a bizarre dialogue voice-over, between the various characters, in different scenes using a different voice for each character, and Penelope said the whole class was in hysterics when she showed it the next day.
Penelope was “dressing like an Artist” and trying mightily to inhabit antiquarian apothegms from Tristan Tsara but she wasn’t doing Art, she was being diverted, she was being encouraged to wire clunky-looking electrical installations festooned with motors and buzzers and flashing lights. She had one called The Vagina Box, I remember, that was like something from the set of Pee Wee’s Playhouse, with mechanized puppets popping out of its holes. My frankness regarding my opinions on these objets led to some friction, not because Penelope was hurt by the honest expression of my critical POV but because she was smugly impervious to the critique: she was the one with Art Instructors, after all, and these Instructors of hers were omniscient. She had become an honorary member of some strangely self-described “Above It” class. Penelope forgave my touchingly provincial and common sense ignorance on such refined matters as her ART and this grated but we continued to fuck.
I am hazy on the details of the topic but Penelope may have been the first woman I had anal sex with. My contribution to that possible milestone was choosing to perform it in the Missionary Position and very (hold-your-breath) gently.
HOW TO: Basically you slide in with the help of generous dollops of the usual suspect (Vaseline, though I later learned that water-based lubricant is healthier, though I later later learned that anal sex just isn’t healthy, for the passive recipient, in general, because it’s not as though the rectum is just a hole opening into a hollow cavity [which I always somehow, despite knowing better, visualized] : there’s a delicate lining on the interior side of that iris and poking at this lining, in the wrong direction, with a big dick, no matter how gentle, is not the best thing for it. A decade later, my first Wife’s best friend, a homely Rich Bitch named Annette, whose set of absurdly-expensive wood-and-iron three-legged designer chairs I somehow inherited, sitting in my kitchen at this very moment, uncomfortable and unstable as they are, confessed to first Wife, with whom I never had anal, that she had been to the doctor over what turned out to be a fistula, which required stitches, a perforation of the rectal lining caused by the pounding dick of a working class one-night-stand the thrillingness of which was measured, retroactively, in terms of numbers of stitches required. I had given up the gentle version of this piquant and somehow Biblical perversion entirely by 2001, when I learned it was bad for my lovers, soon after doing it for the last time, forever, with my Persian girlfriend, but I do miss the scalding heat and gritty vice-grip connection and pagan drama of sucking at a lover’s mouth while anchored in her anus) and keeping very still. The movement is not about thrusting, it’s about a sort of male kegel in which, by contracting or flexing , or whatever, the muscles of the pelvic floor, one forces more blood into the dick and the dick balloons a bit and she feels this, exciting for you both.
Penelope could have been another Jenny Saville (the only famous living Artist I respect) by now but she ended up being another bamboozled and diverted and discarded child of the non-ruling classes who walked into a tatty velvet trap designed for rich kids. She didn’t know that Art School is only a launching pad or harmless luxury for the children of the middle and privileged classes (though, for the extremely privileged classes, the Arts would be a step down, in most cases, no?). The only thing anyone really got out of that Midwestern Art College in those years was the sex the instructors were getting by fucking the cuter students.
I won’t name the instructor I’m thinking of, specifically, because he’s still alive (I just checked) and I don’t need to be sued for slander by a bitter old Hippie-turned-hipster, but I know he was fucking Penelope’s best friend Casey and I got the scoop, from another student, that the same instructor was trying to maneuver Penelope into a ménage-a-trois with Casey. A photography instructor at the college took these arty nudes of her and the neon artist and the photography instructor had an overhead conversation about Penelope’s body. I’m no Puritan but I think the students should have gotten more for the secret services rendered than shitty jobs after graduating and worthless degrees in Feminist Deconstruction of Patriarchal Architecture and/or Performance Art and years of student loan debt to carry. Art Schools should print Disclaimers on their seductive catalogues like cigarette packets display pictures of a stoma or charcoal-pickled lungs. Did the “neon Artist” ( whose stuff is laughably, modernly, successfully, shitty: it’s all just interior decoration for corporate spaces; the wealthy don’t even want that bullshit in their private homes) even ever give Casey an orgasm?
Penelope and I broke up but continued fucking for several years after the break-up.
I remember bumping into Penelope one evening in the Uptown area and she looked amazing to me and I looked amazing to her and though I had a girlfriend at the time Penelope and I had sex outside, near the lake, in the one area we could find that wasn’t raked regularly by headlights from the traffic. Youth youth youth. Now that I’m 63, and as old as the Universe (ah, but I always have been, haven’t I?), nothing feels better than fucking my Wife on crisp clean sheets…
Penelope got a place, with a Gay Art School roommate, downtown, near Loring Park.
Now it was my turn to be attention-getting in public and I began to bleach my hair blonde and wear fashionably un-tucked-in dress shirts with khaki midi-length shorts shorts and white knee-socks. I would ride my bike by a basketball court near the Loring Park pond and there would be jovially derisive shouts of Yo! Grace Jones! Yo! I enjoyed semi-intense local folk-fame as a visual phenomenon around the Uptown area. Women followed me into shops or waved from automobiles, some clearly thinking I was Gay and fun, some clearly thinking I was Straight and edgy. I walked into a bank for a meeting (about a gig, ironically, that involved writing blurbs for the catalogue of the First Bank System’s Modern Art Collection) and the receptionist behind the glass desk in the high glass tower notified her powerful boss that I was on the couch in the reception area and then the receptionist smiled at me and told me she’d seen me near the lake that weekend.
I was now making shockingly good (60 dollars an hour for interviewing artists and writing three paragraphs per catalogue-page) money at an Art World-related job while Penelope was making no money for her whimsical post-Feminist Vagina Box installations but I have rarely been as angry as I was the time I came over and her Gay roomie had scribbled, “mischievously,” on the kitchen chalkboard, “Steven and Penelope—- have a conversation?” I read the spike-haired suburbanite the riot act, as they say. I pointed out the liberal racism at the heart of his baseless assumption. Yes, I said, “Penelope and I fuck every single time I visit, but the fucking usually lasts about 20 minutes whereas the talk before and after always totals at least like three or four or six hours, okay? Who do you talk to that much?”
“My roommate,” he answered, grinning shyly.
Then Penelope moved to New York City (the inevitable Big Mistake Number Two for any real talent who gets suckered into Art School in the first place) and ended up… shit you would I never… working exactly nine jobs, at the same time, to pay rent in a filthy Brooklyn second-floor warehouse space. I visited Penelope there during the Xmas-to-New Year’s week of ’88.
The first day there I looked out her tall, sooty, early-20th century windows upon the snowy Dickensian thoroughfare of shops below and watched as a gaggle of Black kids, of roughly Junior High School age, all dressed up so cutely like Santa’s Little Helpers, surged along the street shouting Ho Ho Ho snatching tracksuits and whatnot off the sidewalk racks. A guy in a brown leather jacket came bounding out of one of those discount apparel shops swinging a baseball bat at the scattering elves. Merry Xmas!
Penelope showed me the place she liked to go swing dancing (a typically supposedly ironic pleasure in which the would-be Cognoscenti indulge), later in the week, soon before I was to leave, and it was full of widowers for whom Penelope’s presence was a miracle worth combing-over and talc-ing up for. I found the situation both repulsive and heartbreaking but I kept that heartbreak to myself (it’s harder to hide repulsion). Penelope was wearing some sort of red silk Chinese-import dress … she was taking a Tai Chi class she must have missed sleep to attend, considering the crazy quilt of her work schedules, and I recall now how she had adopted the affectation of using the Chinese word or phrase “Ni ya” as a conversational tic instead of “my goodness!” She was gliding around the disco-ball-lit room, statuesquely beautiful, the dress gleaming provocatively on the contours of her body, her hair held high in a bun of spun gold affixed with chopsticks, saying Hi here and there to her liver-spotted pals and the occasional fat old busty widow she was in competition with for dance partners, sheer goodness radiating from her eternally child-like face.
I loved Penelope but she drove me crazy.
I didn’t yet know exactly why she was wrong about almost everything, at the time, but I somehow knew she was. All the friends I knew, back then, who did as they were told to do, back then, following the square crowd or the popular “hip” media instructions of the day, ended up sort of betrayed by both cultures and doomed.
Penelope didn’t have any paintings or drawings on the walls of her warehouse space, which was a jungle of sawhorses and open boxes of copper wiring and electrical components, because those Art School frauds she once considered Gods had definitively separated her from her strengths. In the dark it looked like an abandoned wartime puppet theater in her place. After a night out at the Swing Dancer’s Union (swing dancing I did none; I drank Cokes with slices of lemon and thought my thoughts) we climbed the rickety “Little Rascals” tree-house stairs to her self-made loft bed and its piles of fur coats, blankets, flags, pillowcases, ball gowns, tarps and unfinished crocheted serapes and we fell into a deeply affectionate embrace, me holding her perfect little skull from which radiated her futile dreams like a fever at the center of the cooling tresses of that leonine (though I know it’s the males of that species with the big ’80s hair) profusion of blonde.
We fell asleep snuggling and I awoke with Penelope’s hand on my already ready to go cock and, again, I swear to you, my hand on whatever tome or pamphlet or knucklebone relic you consider holy, I heard my mother’s voice, very clearly, in the grainy Brooklyn dark and the voice said unto me “Be careful, Stevie!” and I took the manifestation seriously, at the very least, as an expression of my own subconscious wisdom. So I made my Byzantine excuses for keeping my thing out of her stuff and kept my thing out of her stuff and kept the spurts in my cauldron and maybe I kissed Penelope on her forehead goodnight. I don’t know if my mother’s spectral advice then (mother didn’t kick the mortal coil-can until 2011; I phoned her later that week, the weekly call from Minneapolis to Chicago, told her what had happened and it made her proud of her “powers,” whatever they were, not that I believed in them but making her feel good felt good) saved me from another unwanted pregnancy or an STD of some kind but it’s not as though Penelope eventually died of AIDs or anything. Maybe my mother’s supernatural voice saved me from a dose of Bohemian Chlamydia? Or post-Structuralist crabs? Or, yeah: another pregnancy.
Penelope now teaches science (her students probably do fun things with small electric motors, never guessing the dreams of Fame and Fulfillment Penelope once attached to small electric motors) in a private school. She has a couple of kids of her own, too, and it’s obvious she adores them, I think I remember her talking, once, in the 1990s, about a heroin-addicted boyfriend who may be the kids’ dad. Maybe not. I know she was close friends with the New Yorker’s Hilton Als with whom she refused to make a writerly connection for me because she didn’t want to “impose” on their “friendship” (ah, there it is, that naïve provincialism, rearing its ugly head one final time in our story: the upper classes do nothing but make connections for each other, all the livelong day, recommendations and connections, at parties and brunches and during trysts in Lofts and borrowed hotel rooms and gallery cloak rooms: cronyism and nepotism are the beating hearts of NY’s “cultural” scene but not for lower middle class Vagina Box Girl from Politeness, Wisconsin and her haplessly underclass Ex! Ach, she drives me crazy still… ).
Penelope appears to be single these days and she is extremely fat. Her original face is now a tiny face in the center of her new big face but her hair is still thick and wild and flowingly beautiful.
In 1980 I lived in a communal hippie flop-house (converted from a mansion) because the woman I had left the Midwest to escape, six months before, turned out to be pregnant. So, back from my brief flirtation, with freedom, on the East Coast, I came. Co-parenting my son, at the inexperienced and un-wise age of 21, helped to age me rather quickly, in the end, but not before I bore the brunt of the experience with the eroding cushion of my clueless youth; it was exhausting, I was tired all the time, although I was intoxicated with absolute love for my son. I was more of a mother to my son than his mother, who couldn’t, or didn’t, breastfeed and rejected the “conventional” role of motherhood after a pregnancy she deliberately (by lying about her supposed “sterility”) engineered. I heated his bottle and gave it to him when he woke up hungry in the dead of night and I danced him back to sleep while he drank. I changed the overwhelming majority of his cloth diapers. I strapped him to my chest and we walked around the neighborhood.
My son’s mother and I initially lived together in a little room in the northern, front corner of the mansion, which had been a library during the mansion’s golden age, the room my son was born in, but by the next year she was sharing a room, upstairs, with a lover and I was in a larger room, downstairs, on the other side of the building, in the rear of the mansion. The room was long and narrow and shared a bathroom with the adjoining room (occupied by a musical theater student named Paul I still know, to this day); on one long wall I painted a mural of the woman I would like to meet one day, larger than life, naked on a chair, her arms in a heraldic position. Son’s cradle was at this wall and I often put him to bed, for his afternoon nap, under the heraldic gesture of this lyrical dream-woman mural, which I can still just about see in my mind’s eye.
On June 14th, 1981, I had just gotten son to sleep after a long and cranky morning; it was early afternoon and soon after I got him sleeping, having draped a blanket over the top of the cradle, to dim the light for him, somewhat, a tornado siren went off. The siren was not unexpected: it was tornado season, it had been raining most of the day and the light through the one side-window of the room had turned that eerie grey-green I always associated with a twister’s visitation. Hearing the siren, I knew I was supposed to grab son and get him into the mansion’s cellar (which had been refurbished into what was probably called a Rumpus Room, with wall-to-wall brown carpet and a cedar-lined Jacuzzi) but I had just gotten him to sleep after a difficult day, I was beyond exhausted and I knew if I woke him he’d be insane. I literally heard the F-3 tornado as it churned, sounding like ten parallel freight trains clashing in concentric spirals, across Lake Street, about 20 blocks away, uprooting old trees and hurling a red MTA bus through the storefront of a Sears, my son sleeping peacefully through the lurid action.
That weekend I told my college friend, Mary H. (who died, along with her mother, decades later, on August 11 of 2005, as reported in the LA and Moscow Times, in a Baltic helicopter crash, in a last-chance attempt to make it to a wedding in Estonia and I recalled, reading the news, the time, in 1978, that Mary and I and three or four college chums were naked in a big communal bed together and I was kissing Mary on the lips and Mary laughed and said What are you doing? and I said I have no idea); I told Mary H. this tornado story and she chided my extreme stupidity. What could I say? She was right, I knew she was right, but, also, she had no idea what it’s like to finally get a child to bed after a long and difficult morning.