Monday, December 30, 2013

The Life Of An Artist

No rhythm in cymbals, no tempo in drums
Love on arrival, she comes when she comes
Right on the target but wide of the mark
What I thought was fire was only the spark
Abc, Poison Arrow. 

Emile was working for Henry, he was one of three directors for the soap opera All My Children. Henry had a little antique shop on 9th Avenue and 19th Street. I was at Bloomingdale’s, 6th floor, housewares, electronics and furniture. I sold Herbs de Provence. That business relationship with the store was on rocky grounds. One day I walked into my department and the herbs were gone, the buyers telling me, you’re good, you can sell anything.

Lunch consisted of a hot dog bought from the woman whose cart was parked on the corner, she kept an eye out for me making sure that I was doing okay, feeding me extra franks or giving me free soda. I was showing to work up hung-over and tired, sharing stories with co-workers, some wanted all of the details, others showed me the ropes and encouraged me to stay out of trouble. An assistant buyer Lori and I would go to Central Park on our lunch break and smoke a big fat joint.

Emile and I would return home, sometimes no food, no money, no going out so we would sit together and draw. There was some scuffle with the gay neighbor and we no longer spoke to each other. The building was pretty quiet except for the drunken brawls between Nellie and her boyfriend, she would always kick him out, he’d then pound on the front door pleading for mercy. Emile began to elaborate on his personal history, would assume new identities and entertain people with his very colorful recreations. I told the truth. Life was far from glamorous, but it was only the beginning and all of our dreams would come true, someday, somehow.     

It was time for the gay pride parade, Emile was never really into it but I was going no matter what. My first experience was the parade back home, with the screaming fundamentalists outnumbering the group of about thirty gay people. I watched my first gay parade in the city filled with joy, so many marchers, all different kinds of people, the politics didn’t phase me, this was my time, overcome I ran into the street behind the disco float, danced all the way to Central Park where the rally was held afterwards. Once there my joy subsided, I was dehydrated and exhausted, someone was selling beers for a buck, my last buck, I guzzled that, headed to the subway, jumped the turnstile and went home.

Emile and I smoked a joint that mom had sent then decided that we would paint mural sized portraits on the wall of one of the bedrooms. It was quite an achievement and we were very proud. He had plans to take a trip back home not long after, it would be my first time alone in the city. There was a pounding on the door, it was Nellie and her boyfriend, they had seen the wall drawings from across the street, they pushed their way in, Nellie was hysterical, which for her meant out of her mind. Stuttering she screamed, you have ruined my house! You will be evicted as soon as possible. Shit! I laid low not even turning on any lights till Emile returned.

He contacted his family friend who lived in the city, she had just passed the bar, a newly minted lawyer, one favor please. She wrote a letter on her stationary saying that we would paint over the mural, desecrate our artistic endeavors and leave when our lease was over. We bought a gallon of cheap house paint, began to rollover the faces, they wouldn’t cover, coat after coat after coat. We got to the point where the heads were ghostly, I wonder if they ever reappeared, it was tense as hell living there but it was time to move.

We began saving our money, working extra hours, not going out and searching the city for a new place to live, probably the best thing that could have happened at that point. We hit the pavement, saw dumps in the city, affordable, like the one at the Chelsea Hotel where the floor moved because of the roach infestation. We came across a listing for a pre-war studio on the 14th floor in a neighborhood called Fort Greene, met with the guy who worked for the building named the Griffin. Emile thought it best to offer him a bribe, we give the handsome young man in his basement office a fifty-dollar bill, he gets up from behind his desk and closes his office door. Are you guys gay, yes, good, I want to get as many of my kind in here as possible, you didn’t need to bribe me but I’ll keep the money anyway.

Soon it was time to move, to leave Nellie, her insanity, Peter the neighbor, sucking up to her for some stupid hole of an apartment, leave the view of the cemetery, the ten minute walk to the train, the hour long ride in graffiti covered cars, and move to Brooklyn. The man with a van showed up, we didn’t have much, my clothes shoved into a duffel bag, a couple of suitcases, the chairs that Emile found on the street, lamps bought at the thrift store, the mattress and then we were off. The driver got lost along the way but we were finally at our new place and it was sweet. Once we sat down I noticed that my duffel bag was missing, fuck, I called the mover from a nearby payphone, no man, ain’t nothing here, shit, come on Emile we gotta go back. We get to Middle Village, Nellie and her man open the front door, I push past them and scour the apartment, nothing, nowhere.

Luckily I had enough clothes to get by, enough for my job at Bloomingdale’s. Then one day the big boss approaches me, says that my look is not appropriate, that I would need to tone it down, but all of my things were stolen on moving day and I have no idea who took them, you still need to step back and figure something out. I did manage, people gave me things and care packages arrived from home.

David would show up at work, stand there and stare, writing in his notebook, just stand there, not saying anything, I asked the boss to help, apparently if David did nothing there was nothing that they could do, it was gossip for everyone. Then it was Christmastime, the wonders of the city, the festivities, the decorations. I was so enamored and loved every second. Of course there was a lot happening in the city that I was unaware of, it was 1982, it was New York City.

Emile’s boss was throwing a small holiday party at his shop and I was invited. Henry was a big man, grey hair, a belly, always the smell of diner coffee on his breath, then me, 21, skinny, innocent smile, big brown eyes. I went with an intention, just to get a walk on, I could be an extra on the soap opera. He was taken in, I found him amusing, I flirted non-stop, Emile hated it. There were a few other people there that night, Don, Henry’s love of his life, in advertising, an alcoholic, old lovers that never leave, Betty, Emile’s co-worker that sold pot on the side, that gorgeous model that lived upstairs, who was he with those green eyes, and Henry. I smiled, played all of my seduction cards, did my best Greta Garbo, was a swell night then we left as Emile scolded me for working it so hard.     

Betty would be fired and I would be offered the position, hell yeah! I give my notice at Bloomie’s, is it about money, we can offer you more, why do bosses always wait till you are resigning? I said goodbye to my department store friends and began selling antique trinkets. Emile and I would go to work together, go out for drinks and then go home together. The studio was large but there was no privacy, we began to get on each other’s nerves. I did well at the shop, cleaned the place up, re-hung everything, really made it sparkle. A group of Japanese investors came in, they wanted to buy hundreds of things and ship them to their store in Japan, it was a huge sale. Henry flipped out he was pissed! Apparently the store was his tax write- off and never made much money. The sale went through but our relationship with Henry began to sour.

I briefly dated a guy that I met at a trendy shop uptown, the place that sold oversized objects like six-foot pencils. He was an aspiring filmmaker, nerdy type. We went to his place in the Bronx one night, he showed us his films, documentary kind of stuff. He gave me an invitation to a gallery opening, Emile and I went, Emile never liked the gallery scene, it was a private event for Jasper Johns, his grey paintings.

Emile and I would go out to Uncle Charlie’s, he would disappear into the crowd, make out with some guy in the shadows, I would go to the Monster. It was there that I met Walter, older white guy, I helped him home one night after he fell off of his stool at the piano as we were singing along to the show tunes. We dated for a while, a sad man who drank too much, we never had sex, he was always too drunk.

One day Emile decides that he will join the Victorian appreciation club, he went to his first meeting and there he met Jack. Jack, very Brooklyn, his family used to own the car dealership on Flatbush, and his lover Jose, Puerto Rican, they dabbled in ephemera, had a shop once, now they sold at the flea markets. Through Jack Emile met that guy from Staten Island, they would date, Emile had a whole new set of friends.

Jack would take us both under his wings, Jose was not too fond of the idea. One day they showed up with a carload of gifts, a real TV, pots, pans, essentials. Emile bought a grey velour sectional with a sleeper mattress, we still slept together. It was all getting very close though, we came home fucked up one night and had it out, the biggest fight that we would ever have, he slammed my head down onto the toilet breaking the seat, I would sleep on the floor after that.

Henry became abusive, there was nothing that we could do to make him happy. One day at work Betty’s drug addict boyfriend showed up, we locked the door but still I had to get Henry’s dry cleaning, I pushed past him, saw a couple of cops eating donuts in their parked car, help, please, there is a crazy man, oh just tell him to leave. Another day a couple of gangster wannabes walk in, they are looking at the antique gold pocket watches, we don’t open the case for them, they pull out a gun, I looked at them, they were scared, Emile was peeing in his pants, I look at the gun, it looked real but I could tell that it was not, just like the cops told me to do I told them to get out.

My relationship with Walter was ridiculous, he’d call, come over, I’ll leave money with the doorman for a taxi. We had a phone by then, a two-dollar thing bought at the odd lots store. I would go we’d go out, get drunk, come home, he’d sob, same thing over and over. I couldn’t take it anymore Walter, give me money for a taxi, I am going home, he stood in front of his building screaming out my name. Then I dated a guy that lived in Jersey City, handsome, my age, an artist. We went to his place one night, the neighborhood another warzone, we fucked like animals, his dick was superb, just the right angle. He came to Brooklyn, we got it on, I was in the throes, he hit all the right spots, then he says, I can’t feel anything. It was over. There was that Brazilian guy, a professional dancer, we sat across from each other on the subway, late night, he was in town, staying at a friend’s place, picked me up, took me home, he was all muscle, black, and hung like a donkey. His posters were plastered all over town, he was performing, would be leaving after his show and would like to see me upon his return.

Emile was suddenly Brazilian and an opera aficionado. He taught himself Portuguese and dated an opera singer who sang at the Met. Dolores came to visit us, another childhood friend of his. Our clothes were thrift-store, a fairy/military look. We all slathered our faces with make-up, our livers with drinks and headed out to Uncle Charlie’s. She would visit many years later, Emile still in Fort Greene, living a few blocks away then. Dolores had become a spinster/matron schoolteacher, her days of going out and dancing were over.

Work became unbearable, Henry was withholding our pay, and he had become a complete dick. We began taking little trinkets, I went for the nostalgic, Emile the valuable stuff. There was a plastic bowl in the basement where Henry kept petty cash, we took what he owed us and left a written account of our unpaid back wages. We waited for him to come to the shop, yeah Emile was the thinker but I was the one who would get riled up and speak out. I told him that we were through working for him, no more mister evil soap opera director, you are an asshole! We pushed past him and ran out the front door, he stood there screaming our names, please come back, I’m sorry!  

It was time again to look for work, I ended up at Macy’s. I sat through training completely overwhelmed by the beauty of one of my fellow trainees. The cash register system at the time was so convoluted, I had no idea what they were talking about, instead I stared at that gorgeous young man. When training was over I feared that I would never see him again, I spoke with mom, she says, go to human resources, tell them that he loaned you a book and that you would like to return it. I found him in women’s shoes. We would bump into each in the restroom at Uncle Charlie’s months later, he was so handsome, I was going through my third or forth punk period and felt embarrassed by my appearance.

I still wanted to be an actor, did some extra work here and there, had a speaking part in Elaine Boosler’s cable comedy show, it was actually a singing part, I could never remember my lines. I thought that I would try out for Julliard, had to memorize two scenes from two plays, I chose Antigone and something contemporary by Isherwood, read and reread my lines during lunchtime in the massive employee dining room, study, rehearse, repeat. I go to the tryouts, they call my name, a large room, a table with four people sitting behind it, they have to love me. I couldn’t remember my lines. I waited with the other kids till the accepted students names were posted, mine was not on the list.

Macy’s was a nightmare. I was in cards and stationary, basement level, the one day sale was brutal, a line of twenty people, everyone wanting to use some affiliate store credit card, each one requiring a whole mess of computer codes. I dated one of my co-workers, funny guy, when he found out that I didn’t have a coat he gave me his. I was also dating a hair stylist who worked at the Hilton, the first guy was fun, the latter a bore. Emile started dating his Walter, an airline host that worked for TWA, they would fuck in the studio with me nearby on the floor. Every time that Emile met a new guy he was a born again virgin with a dirty mind. I would pretend to be asleep then jack-off into a sock while they screwed. Walter stuck around for a while then he disappeared but he would show up a couple of years later. Emile began dating Hamlet, an Ecuadorian pain in the ass, zero refinement, not even a pretense of such. I had to try to like Emile’s lovers, I didn’t care for any of them.

I began going out more with Jack, just he and I, he’d call, I would meet him downstairs, he in his shiny black Camaro, we’d go to the city, hit Uncle Charlie’s, then the Monster. We would get pizza afterwards at St. Mark’s pizza, the best pizza in town. He would pay for everything, we had great times, getting high, drinking, working the bars. We’d dance at the Monster, laughing, letting go. One night he showed up in his red van, a bunch of us went, we dropped purple microdot, it was readily available briefly, went to some warehouse disco, danced our asses off, we left as the sun was rising, he puts the key into the ignition, someone had stolen the engine. Another night we went out, ended up at one of the clubs on the west side highway, they wouldn’t let me in because I had too many clothes on.

Jack called one night, I get into his car, we smoke a joint, something is different, there is a pent-up chemistry that had built up between us. He was in an open relationship, of sorts, I never understood the rules between them, not that I wanted to or wanted Jack, but that night as we were dancing and sniffing poppers, we just ended up in each other’s arm kissing, deep and affectionate. It seemed to go on forever then we backed away and left. Over pizza later we apologized, said that the friendship was the most important thing, forget about it. It wasn’t ever the same.

I couldn’t stand my job at Macy’s, one day I just walked out and walked away. Took the train back to Brooklyn, bought a tres bag at the candy shop got stoned and then realized that I was screwed. Jack suggested that I try hustling, go to the bar where young men sit and wait, the bar was called Rounds. I would have liked to think that I was liberated enough, so off I went. My first trick was a guy who worked for HBO, he had a miniscule dick, I was so tight that I squeezed that thing for three hours, he gave me $60 and a $5 tip. He wanted me to be his boy, started calling, dinner? No, not tonight, I stopped answering the phone. The next guy was an obese wedding dress designer from Staten Island, his friends approached me at the bar and asked if I thought that I could handle it, sure of course. We went back to his Times Square hotel, I had no idea what to do to get him hard, he gave me $125, I bought shoes the next day. Then there was the guy who was staying across the street from the U.N., some kind of diplomat, I had to scurry past the doorman at his deluxe hi-rise. We drank and drank, he couldn’t get it up no matter what I tried. I left without any money.

Most of the tricks just wanted someone to talk with or wanted it for free, the hustlers would talk too, I listened, the boys would say that they were straight with girlfriends on Long Island, let’s go do some coke. I went one more time to the hustler bar and saw it for what it was, a very sad and lonely place, and I was sad and lonely too. I left, started walking, came across a piano bar nearby, not the Townhouse, I can’t recall the name. I met a beautiful man, but was feeling ashamed and broke, I walked out. He followed me, come back in, we’ll have some drinks, meet my friends, relax. I went home with him, he was 36, I was 21, he lived in a cluttered one bedroom, we were drunk, he was too drunk to get it up. He was another of the broken hearted alcoholics, the ones who still had their wits and beauty, but suffered from erectile dysfunction. I felt sorry for these guys, wanted to hear their stories, sat patiently as he would tell me how that closeted actor from the series M.A.S.H. stole the love of his life, I think that that actor finally came out.

During this time AIDS had really hit our community hard, people were dying everywhere, the subsequent gay bashing was brutal, the decimation of our culture vivid and horrifyingly evident. I was at a bar one night when the deejay came on and announced that there were free condoms, please use them, the crowd booed, people died, good people, kind people, smart creative beautiful people.

I went to the Saint one summer night, it was hot as hell out and I was horny as fuck. I met a guy who fucked me in the bleachers as shadows gathered around us, he covered the act with his Levi’s jacket, came inside me, it was over, my lust diffused. I left as it began raining, walking in the gutters as waters gushed. My cheap shoes fell apart, I went to the subway, jumped the turnstile and went home. Some friends were filled with admonishment, others would revel in risky behavior. Still it was a terrifying time and we were all convinced that we had the virus. I went to get the test, there was one place that did it, you would need to wait for two weeks to get the results, those two weeks were hell, certain that I was dying only to find that the results were negative, that I survived.

Emile and Hamlet became very serious about their relationship, Emile began looking for a place of their own, this is when he found the place where he would live for twenty-six years. One day he moved out and I was alone. Nothing was working for me, there was no money, no one who could help, no job, no nothing. As I stood outside on the 14th story window ledge I felt like a bird, I looked down to the street, certain death, a little terrified of landing on the jagged iron fence and spewing blood while still living. I looked down and saw a small group of kids playing a kid’s game in the street, I couldn’t do that to them, I backed up into the apartment and thought that I would just check the mail, it was a Sunday, there was a tax refund check from the I.R.S.

The following Monday I applied for government assistance, welfare, food stamps. The ordeal was a trial but I needed some help and I was terrible at negotiating as a hustler. A little money started coming in, but it wasn’t enough. Emile offered me a room in his and Hamlet’s new place, temporary you understand. I left the Griffin in the middle of the night, Jack threw my stuff into a sheet, rolled it up and drove me to my new life.