Sunday, October 4, 2015

KLAUS NOMI LIGHTNING


A blizzard struck Manhattan on February 4, 1978. The snowstorm closed the city within the first hours. The streets became impassable for cars soon afterwards, as 100 mph winds buried the sidewalks under 5-foot drifts. My hillbilly girlfriend and I were trapped in our East Village apartment for days. The gas stove's four burners prevented our freezing to death and we lived on bagels from the corner bodega and Chinese take-out. Those deliverymen saved our lives. After a week the sanitation department cleared the avenues, then the streets, and finally Manhattan approached normalcy.

Our cabin fever ran in the 100s and I suggested to my hillbilly girlfriend that a drink at Max's Kansas City might cure our too-much-homesickness. Alice agreed with this plan. The Heartbreakers were the headliners that night. and the West Virginian had moved to the city after seeing the covers of the New York Dolls LP. I could't blame her. Johnny Thunders was punk's Jimi Hendrix.

Our only winter clothing was ski jackets. Max's was the antithesis of apr├Ęs slope, so we dressed in black leather. I was lucky enough to wear engineer boots. Alice had no option other than high heels. She was thin. Her skin was polar white. Many of our friends said that she looked like Shirley MacLaine. Alice hated hearing that comparison, but I had fallen in love with Warren Beatty's sister in THE APARTMENT. It was a long-running obsession.

That winter I was working at the New School registering students. Alice was acting in an ensemble theater. Her money came from her parents. My salary barely covered room and board. She paid for the taxi. We arrived Max's minutes before the opening song. The door person let us in for free. I had saved him from a beating at Disco Donut. The upstairs was packed with punks and Heartbreakers fans. The stars of the scene sat up front.

The band took the stage and Johnny Thunders shouted into the mike, "One two three."

The Heartbreakers performed an extraordinary set.

MILK ME, CHINESE ROCKS, GET OFF THE PHONE, LONDON, TAKE A CHANCE, ONE TRACK MIND, ALL BY MYSELF, LET GO, I LOVE YOU, CAN'T KEEP MY EYES OFF YOU, I WANNA BE LOVED and DO YOU LOVE. The encore was BORN TO LOSE.

The two hundred of us wanted more and they gave us TOO MUCH JUNKIE BUSINESS. Our applause was the appreciation of a thousand, but I understood how a single record company didn't wanted to risk their reputation on the Heartbreakers. They personified trouble.

The crowd divided like an amoeba in two directions. Groupies and Heartbreakers fan headed for the dressing room. Alice regarded the stage with an unnatural yearning. I nodded my release. She was only 21. We had all come to New York to be free. Within two steps toward the dressing room I was history. Alice wanted bright lights and fame. Same as any actress straight out of Appalachia.

My happiness was a little easier to achieve and I descended to the downstairs bar for a drink. The bartender put a vodka-tonic in front of me. We played pool at Julian's on 14th Street. I pushed $5 across the bar. The tip covered my drinking for the rest of the night. The staff at Max's and CBGBs knew how treat the regulars.

I nodded to several other drinkers. Some were musicians. Others were artists. We liked liquoring on our own. Across the bar a raven-haired punkette was staring at me. A vintage leather catsuit covered her zombie-lime skin. Her eyelids were smeared with raccoon mascara. Chains hung from her neck. She was a working girl slumming for trash. A hotel room was too good for her. She had seen plenty of those with her johns. She blew a kiss and glanced back to the bathrooms. This was going to be a short romance.

I looked over to the stairs. They were empty. Everyone upstairs was upstairs. Everyone downstairs was downstairs. Five minutes were more than enough. I checked the bar. A thin man in black leather was watching the girl and me. He could have passed for Josef Goebbels' nephew. I didn't like the way he was looking at me and I walked over to him.

"You have a problem?"

"Me a problem?" His accent was German.

I had struggled with the language in high school and college. My best grade was a C+. My worst was a couple of Fs, but I retained more than a rudimentary grasp on the language and spoke to the young man in German.

After a few exchanges it was obvious that he was gay, but he laughed at my apprehension.

"Don't worry. You are not my type. Ich mochte niche Neanderthal menschen."

It wasn't the first time that someone had mentioned my resemblance to homo sapiens' predecessor. My family hailed from the Picts. We were an ancient race. Alice called me a caveman. She said that I grunted when we made love.

"Viele danke. Ich nicht bin ein Schwanzlutscher."

The German punk threw back his head and laughed like Goethe on amyl nitrate.

"That is very good. Where did you learn such language?"

I explained that my Bavarian teacher in high school chain-smoked during class and swore at us in two languages. He failed me twice. My Boston accent ran roughshod over umlauted German. "Bad as I was as a student. Bruder Karl still sends me a Christmas card."

"You are probably the only one of his students still speaking Deutsche."

"Verleicht." Perhaps was a good word in every language.

We discovered that the both of us had worked at Serendipity 3, the famed gay ice cream shop on East 60th Street. The waiters gave everyone a woman's name. The German had been Marlene. My monicker was Bam-Bam.

"Like the Flintstones."

"Yes, they thought I was Missing Link."

"An animal." The German looked over to the girl waiting by the bathroom door. "Perhaps you like this Strichmadchen. The whore looks like she is Sado."

"More Maso than Sado." I had read THE STORY OF O dozens of times.

Out of the corner of my eye I caught the approach of Alice. The warmth of her smile smacked of guilt. I introduced her to the German. His name was Klaus. He told us his life story.

"My father disappeared in Stalingrad. I was raised an only child in Essen."

"A steel town." I had read about the bombing of the Saar Valley in numerous WWII books. The factory town had been reduced to ashes.

"And not a very fun town for someone like me. I had two choices at age 18. Berlin or New York.

"New York won?"

"No place better to sing opera. High alto."

"Like the castradi." The emasculated opera singers were capable of a wider range than normal males.

"Exactly."

"They were the craze in 18th Century Italy." Alice knew her theater. I had seen her in a play. THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN. Most directors thought of her as an ingenue. They were dead wrong. She played the Las Vegas chorus girl Fran Walker to the hilt. Alice turned on her charm. "I would have loved to see the Divine Farinelli."

"At one time there were over 100,000 castradi in Europe." The German introduced himself as Klaus. His native country had rejected his efforts to sing the first eunuch soprano since the middle of the 19th Century. Spurned he chose New York over Berlin and professed to be practicing to break into the punk scene by singing Lou Christie's LIGHTNING STRIKES ME AGAIN.

"I love Lou Christie." Alice was Klaus' newest convert to castradism. Their conversation swirled into the demise of the genre. Klaus cursed the Italians for banning castration for musical purposes in 1861. His discourse about the actual method of gelding a man was a little too graphic for even my prurient tastes and my eyes strayed to the green-skinned punkette. Two members of a relatively known band bracketed her at the bar. She toyed with the heavy chain around her neck. I ordered another drink and contemplated my chances of getting her phone number without Alice noticing my philandering.

The answer was zero.

It was almost 2 AM when Alice yawned for the second time. She possessed the amazing ability to fall asleep a half-minute after the third yawn. I motioned that it was time to go and she got up from her stool. I was surprised by her saying, "If you want to stay with Klaus, I understand."

"Understand?"

"Ja." Klaus rattled off several sentences in his native tongue. My German was about as good as Colonel Klink from HOGAN'S HEROES, but I caught the drift of his guttural suggestion to lose Alice and pick up the punkette across the bar. He said her name was Nina and she liked it rough. "Same as me."

"Not tonight."

Alice came from the hicks. The East Village was dangerous. Our street was one of the worst. The snow was waist-high. She could disappear into some of the deeper drifts. "I have to take her home."

"Really it's all right. I can a taxi myself. You stay with Klaus." Alice was a little too eager and I turned my head. A good-looking rocker was waiting in the cold. Alice wasn't the type to fool around with another man, but she liked her fun, so I said, "Be careful."

"It's only a taxi ride." She pecked my cheek and ran outside with a skip in her walk.

Klaus said nothing and signaled for Nina to join us. He told her that I was from Berlin . I spoke with a German accent. She took me back to her place. Klaus waved good-bye and said to come over his house to tell me everything.

"I'll make you a strudel."

"It's a deal."

And that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Klaus passed away of AIDS in 1983. I was living in Paris. Every time someone mentions his name I think of that night.

There was a lot of snow.

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