Thursday, September 20, 2012

# 17 by Peter Nolan Smith

One wintry night December of 1976 I was stumbling home from a derelict bar at the corner of the Bowery and Houston. The icy wind slashed through my thin clothing and I was about to hail a taxi, when I felt the thump of a bass emanating from a white stucco building. The accompanying music was rock and roll at its purest and I pushed open the heavy wooden door.

The leather-jacketed quartet on the stage were covering the 45rpm version of The Rivieras’ CALIFORNIA SUN. The audience was heaving up and down, as if the floor was pulsating in time to the 3-chord progression.

I stepped forward to join the frenzy.

A huge hand blocked my way.

“$5.” The monstrous bouncer wore a yellow construction.

“Who are they?” I handed over the fiver.

“The Ramones.”

The next song was I WANNA BE SEDATED.

By the end of their set I was hooked to the musuc and like that I became a regular at CBGBs.

The next day I bought a leather jacket and cut my hair with my own scissors.

Every night I hung out at the bar. None of the stars of the scene were my friends. They played music and my one talent was playing pinball, so I was a nobody, which was okay, since being a punk was all about not caring about being nobody.

Not everyone felt the same way.

Blondie was getting noticed by major record labels, the Talking Heads toured coast to coast to bigger and bigger crowds, and almost every girl loved Richard Hell. His BLANK GENERATION was a punk anthem and he created a look of nihilism to be emulated by hundreds and then thousands. None of us knew how to be different, but we had a good idea about how not to be 'me' anymore thanks to Richard.

Our devotion to this faith failed to translate into record sales and the Voidoids' attempts to break into the top 40 were disasters summed up by a power-pop trio mocking the iconic singer with their song RICHARD IS A FORKHEAD. My own personal lack of success gained me nothing and in 1981 I left New York to work as a bouncer at a Paris nightclub.

One night a New Wave girl band from the East Village appeared as the club's headliner. The lead singer had a crooked nose and bedraggled hair, but once the ugly duckling hit the stage, Claudia emanated a savaged beauty meant for a dark room. Her lanky body encircled the mike stand like a boa crushing its prey. In some ways she was a female version of Richard.

After the show I introduced myself and offered her a drink. We spoke about CBGBs. New York was close as her body. Claudia's husband played for Richard’s band. She laughed upon hearing about RICHARD IS A FORKHEAD. After closing the club, we ate at an African restaurant in Les Halles. At dawn she said, “I have to go to Lille.”

“Like Cinderella.”

“I don’t think Cinderella ever went to Lille.”

“I guess not.” The fairy tale never mentioned the name of Cinderella's hometown and I walked Claudia to the band's van. She kissed me on the cheek and drove off at dawn. No glass slipper marked her departure, then again I wasn't Prince Charming.

Several weeks later I met a tousled-hair French singer. Lizzie was promoting her new record. The African influenced single was climbing the charts. A friend introduced us.

"I know him." Her eyes were filled with accusation.

"You do?"

Lizzie had lived in New York during the late 70s and said that I had thrown her out of an after-hours club on 14th Street.

"Now I remember." I had a vague recollection of frog-marching a crazy French girl onto the sidewalk. "But not why?"

"Because I was having a fight with my boyfriend. You were trying to break it up. It was all our fault. "

"It was?"

"Ouais." Lizzie didn’t hold the forceful eviction against me and that evening in bed she told me about the spike-haired singer in the East Village.

“Richard?" Forkhead had a long reach.

“Yes, Richard.” She lit a cigarette and the tobacco turned her kisses into ashtrays. Lizzie loved her smoke. "Don't be jealous. Richard and I were never boyfriend and girlfriend.”

“And what about us?”

“We are a one-night stand."

"Those are the best kind of affairs." I expected her to disappear for good, but the next evening she showed up at the nightclub with her Fender Jazzmaster guitar. She had just appeared on TV. Lizzie was famous and I kept our affair a secret. We lasted until a Christmas vacation on the Isle of Wight.

I said good-bye on Boxing Day.

She flew off to Africa and I took the ferry to France.

I remained in Paris another two years before returning to the USA to write screenplays for porno films in North Hollywood. Within a month the quasi-mafia producer fired me for being too intellectual. This accomplishment would have made Lizzie proud.

Back in New York I rode motorcycles and worked at the Milk Bar.

Richard came to the door. I had never spoken to him before, but he said, “I think we have a mutual friend.”

“Who?” I knew exactly who.

“Lizzie in Paris says hello.”

"She's a great girl."

She is at that." I offered him a drink and was surprised by how friendly he was. After the second drink he said, “Lizzie told me about some American in Paris calling me Forkhead.”

“I said it, but the first person to call you that was Marky, the lead guitarist of the Ghosts.

“I know, but it’s a better story that way.” Richard no longer sported spikes. “By the way she called you ‘suedehead’, which is funny coming from someone with a hair like a crow’s nest.”

“More a bird’s nest.”

“Depends on your perspective.” Richard was taller than me. He tipped the bartender $5 before leaving the bar. She smiled at him in recognition of his legend. Punk wouldn't be punk without him.

“I’ll see you around.”

We lived in the East Village and occasionally ran into each other on the street. He invited me to poetry readings at the St. Mark’s Church. Someone said that he edited several alternative magazines. I submitted short stories to each one. He never mentioned them afterwards. I didn’t blame him. My typing, grammar, and spelling were atrocious.

I returned to France in 1989.

Lizzie was going out with an art dealer. We played squash in Les Halles. She was beating me without mercy, despite wheezing after every shot. I spoke about Richard during a break.

“Richard is so funny. I think he was jealous of you.”

“Jealous for what?”

“For you being with me.”

“You told him about that?” Our affair was still a secret on my end.

“Maybe, it isn’t important anymore.”

“No.” I had been in love several times in the interim. None of my affair had been a success.

“Then let’s not worry about the past.” Lizzie served the ball against the wall for an ace. We went to dinner in the Marais and I said, “Loser pays.”

“It wasn’t much of a game.”

“Not considering that I was once the 17th-ranked tennis player in the USA.”

“You were?”

“Yes, my friend lied to his father about my ranking.”

“So you weren’t the 17th-ranked player in America?”

“Do I look like I could have ever been the 17th ranked tennis player in America.” I said it so she wouldn’t believe me and added, “I let you win fair and square.”

“I’m not sure.”

“Up to you.”

We said good-bye in Les Halles. Neither of us suggested a nightcap. We had become just friends.

In the 90s I started taking around-the-world trips.

Richard was fascinated by my tales of opium dens on the Burmese border. I thought about writing a down-and-out travel book. I gave several chapters to a literary agent. He hated my typing and I started selling diamonds on 47th Street. It was a 9-6 job. I wore a suit and tie. The money was good. I went out at night, but not late.

One night at a party at the St. Mark's Church I spotted Claudia at the bar. I hadn’t seen her since Paris. She was happy to see me. Richard kept looking at Claudia and I asked, “Are you two a thing?”

“Richard’s no one’s thing. You have a girlfriend?”

“No, I had a Spanish girlfriend, but I thew her out for being unfaithful. My next-door neighbor loved her and she cursed me.”

“Curse you?”

“A Santeria curse and I haven’t had sex since then.”

“Really?”

“100%.” There was no other explanation for my celibacy.

“Maybe I can help you change that.”

We left for my place and he spent the night. Her divorced husband was taking care of their son. She had to leave before dawn.

“Like Cinderella.” I joked with a towel around my waist.

“Cinderella didn't have a kid.”

Claudia walked down the hallway to the stairs. Mrs. Adorno opened the door. The old bruja had witnessed more than a few women come and go in and out of my life. Her one good eye squinted in my direction. She spat something in Spanish, then mumbled, “Sex not love. Siempre.”

“Not always.” I said, but I wanted more from a woman than sex. We went to the movies, made love, took holidays, and hiked with her son, so I wasn’t prepared for her saying after two months. “This isn’t working out.”

“What isn’t?” We saw each other several times a week. The sex was good.

“You and me. I want something more from a relationship than this and someone wants to give it to me."

"Who?" I had to ask.

“Richard.”

"Oh." I was used to coming in second place.

“Yes, he called to say he really wanted to be with me. I have to give it a chance.”

“I understand.”I stood no chance against the aging rock god.

Mrs. Adorno’s curse was stronger than both of us.

I gave her my blessing and started drinking on my own. It wouldn’t take off the curse, but stopped my thinking of Claudia. Of course Richard wasn’t forever and a month later Claudia phoned to say it was over. “Can I come over?”

“The answer is yes, but I’m leaving for Thailand within a week.” I had sold a 5-carat diamond and bought a round-the-world ticket with my commission.

“All you men are alike. You leave when the going gets tough.”

She hung up before I could defend myself.

Six months later I returned to work the Christmas season on West 47th Street. I bumped into Richard at an art opening. Neither of us spoke about Claudia, but he said, “We should play tennis sometime.”

“Tennis?”

“Lizzie said you were good at squash. You must be able to play tennis. I belong to the club over on the East River. We can play whenever you want.”

“It’s wintertime.” I hadn’t been on a tennis court since 1975.

“The cold scare you?” This was a challenge.

“Not in the least.” I was from Maine. We had two seasons. Winter and preparing for winter. “Name the day.”

“Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny in the high 40s.”

“Sounds good.”

“Say noon.”

“Noon it is.”

I stopped drinking the cheap wine. Showing up sober was the only advantage I could gain by an early departure. I went to sleep dreaming about overhead lobs.

Not only Richard regarded with our match as important.

The next morning I called in sick. My boss Manny let his employees have ‘drunk days’ and I slept for another hour.

By noon the temperature warmed up to almost 50. Richard was waiting by the riverside court. He had brought an extra racket.

“Your choice.”

I selected the one more tightly strung without knowing if that was better or not. I was no Arthur Ashe and lost two sets in record time.

“You don’t play often, do you?” Richard smashed an ace to my left.

“Not for years.”

“Lizzie said you were once the 17th-ranked tennis player in America.”

“That was a joke. I was once down in the South of France during the Roland-Garros tournament in Paris. I was watching Yannick Noah's set and my friend told his father that I was once the 17th-ranked tennis player. I denied the claim, but his father thought I was being humble and scheduled an exhibition at the local tennis club. I was presented to the town’s mayor and the club president. My friend whispered that they expected me to play the provincial champion.”

“And did you?”

“No way. I said that I was under contract and couldn’t play anywhere without signed agreements. A little later his father found out the truth. He didn’t think it was funny at first, but everyone else did. I felt the same way as him. You always do when you’re the punchline of a joke.”

“Now, I feel the same way. I really thought you a good player.” This was not about Claudia, but Lizzie.

“Maybe I am. Maybe I was taking it easy on you.” I knew the truth.

“What about another match?” He wanted to know it too.

“Sorry, I’m under contract.” I handed back the racket and walked away from the court with a smile on my lips.

After that day Richard and I didn’t see each other for several years. I was either working or away in Asia writing novels no one wanted to publish. At least my typing was getting better. Finally I left the States to live in Thailand. I had a baby with my wife. Maybe it was mine. I didn’t ask too many questions.

In April 2004 I returned to New York. My Israeli subleasee had squealed to my landlord in hopes of getting my apartment. An eviction notice was issued in both our names. I threw my tenant out on the street.

Mrs. Adorno said nothing this time. My landlord paid $8000 to speed up my departure from the flat. I was 50 and New York was a tough city for the old. The day before my flight to Bangkok, I spotted Richard on 1st Avenue.

He smiled upon seeing me, then frowned, “I got bad news. Lizzie died this week. She was buried in the South of France. Her ashes floated out to sea with the flowers.”

“Did you go?”

“No, I only heard about it after the fact.” He shuffled several folders of manuscripts between hands. “That leaves only you and me.”

We had nothing else in common and his words died out like a fire left unwatched. I told him that I was leaving the city for good.

“No one leaves the city for good.” He had been living there for over 30 years.

“I am.”

“No, you’ll be back, if only to prove you’re the 17th ranked tennis player.”

“Yeah, there’s always that. See you around Forkhead.”

“You too, Suedehead.”

I waved good-bye. We would see each other another time, because none of us were leaving New York. Not even our ghosts, for the dead lived forever in the past for those stuck in the present.

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