An Asshole Eats Crow

The plane taxied at Wayne County Airport.  We disembarked, grabbed our bags, found the queue and hopped in a cab.  I turned to Jeannie.  “Okay,” I said, “hand ‘em over.”  She slid her hand down the front of her pants and grimaced.  A few moments later she produced the two hot pink baggies only now they were flat with fine powder filling them from top to bottom.  I laughed.  “Look at that,” I said.  “You pulverized it.  From now on I’m calling that thing the Velvet Hammer.”

We drove to a nondescript suburb outside of Detroit.  When we pulled up to the house I could see that it was unusually narrow and supported by short stilts of some kind.  Jeannie’s mother greeted us.  I hugged her.  “Nice to meet you, ma’am,” I said.  “I’m the last-minute replacement.”  Everyone within an earshot laughed except Jeannie who scowled.  A doughy guy in a porkpie hat approached me and shook my hand.  He leaned into my ear.  “I’m Joe, Jeannie’s brother.  I’m kinda surprised she brought you.”

“Why?”

“’Cause I would never bring a girl I was dating back here.  I don’t wanna show my white trash ass.”

Jetlagged, Jeannie and I tried to sleep late the next day but we were roused by the happenings.  We ambled onto the back porch.  There were about thirty people, grouped in fours or fives, spilling out into the yard.  It was a muggy Midwest day and everyone was coated in a thin, grimy film.  The bride-to-be, whom I’d met the night before, was drinking wine and puffing on a cig.  She was seven months pregnant.  John, bridegroom, was a spindly dude with eyes that were bugging, unblinking.  As I hunted around for the beer cooler, I could hear him working a small crowd.  “Back in the seventies,” he was saying, “the weed dealers weren’t cheap at all.  If you bought an ounce, they’d just turn over a Frisbee and fill it full of weed and dump it in a bag.  That’s why they called it a lid.”  I didn’t say anything though I knew this to be factually incorrect.  A “lid” of grass is old school slang for an ounce, that’s true, but it references the storing and selling of weed packed inside of Prince Albert cans—a practice that had fallen out by the seventies.  Why anyone would conflate an upturned Frisbee with the covering of a container was beyond me, but everyone seemed to accept it.  I located the cooler and grabbed a beer, lit a cig and joined the fray.

“It’s hot as balls!” Joe announced to no one in particular.  He already considered us buddies so I sidled up to him.  We chatted mundanely for a few minutes, but as young men drinking beers and smoking cigs, it wasn’t long before the conversation turned to sex.  “If she won’t fuck in the ass,” he said, “I ain’t callin’ her back.”

“Oh, c’mon,” I said, “most women need time on that.”  You know, they’ve tried it before with some selfish dick and he just rams it in and ruins it for her.  She needs to know that she can trust you.”

He scrunched his face.  “Ah, fuck all that!”

I debated no further as he was obviously inflexible.  Then he leaned in close.

“So how’s my sister?”

With a closed mouth I laughed through my nose.  I’d known this man fewer than 24 hours and he wanted to know if his sister was seeing to my needs.  “She’s doing just fine.”

“Good,” he said.  “I hope I taught her well.”

There was no need to dress, so I was wearing sweatpants.  Sitting with Jeannie in my lap, I noticed for the first time that the pull-tab on my zipper pocket read KKK.  (Most pull-tabs bear the inscription YKK: the predominant company headquartered in Japan; they’re to zippers what Tyvek is to home wrap.)  I called this to everyone’s attention.  “Can you fucking believe that?!  What the hell could it possibly mean?  Is it some kind of logo?”

“You don’t mean logo,” Jeannie said.  “That’s not the right word.”

“I know,” I said.  “I was gonna say acronym but I knew you wouldn’t get that, so I dumbed it down for you.”

By definition, an acronym is a pronounceable word formed from the initial letters of a compound term, like ADIDAS or NATO, so I was even wrong about that.

Everyone laughed except Jeannie who scowled.  “You’re an asshole!” she said.  Then she bolted.

I fell into form, basking in the glory of having timed and delivered a joke aptly for an audience.  Then I scampered off to find Jeannie, to beg forgiveness.  It was a device I’d cultivated in my youth.  I always knew it to be dastardly, but I looked at it in terms of the numbers.  The crowd’s laughter intoxicated me, and they were many.  So what if I had to eat crow before the one?  It was bullshit anyway.

Back in LA, Jeannie and I resumed our routine.  I arrived home one night to find her passed out on my stoop, slumped over with a tallboy wrapped in a brown paper bag at her feet.  I squatted to reach beneath her outstretched legs, and then I hoisted her up, limp in my arms.  Some passersby snickered.  “Nothing to see here,” I said.  “It happens all the time.”

Just(ify) Sex

Vic was someone to whom I owed no excuses.  She’d be walking away with more than she’d started with and she knew it; she had no cause to gripe.  But I needed something—a rift to justify my disgruntlement.

There was her aborted marriage.  The engagement was in the final stage: invites out, two families mobilized, travel accommodations booked, everything nonrefundable.  Then, with only days left to go, her fiancé bailed.  One could only imagine the humiliation.  Vic had become calloused after that, eschewing commitment altogether and indulging in casual sex, which she regarded as essential.  We’d discussed her history, which I had no issue with.  (We’d both been slutty.)  But Vic truly believed that a sexual relationship could persist in a state of unemotional purity—a notion I knew I could debunk quite easily, so one night I baited her.

“So Vic, I’m curious.  You can sleep with a guy and it’s just sex, is that right?”

She said yes.

“So, what would happen if you and your fuck buddy bumped into each other randomly one night?”

“Then we’d probably end up together that night.”

“Okay, here’s the scenario: You go out to a club and he’s there, you spot him easily, but he doesn’t notice you…because he’s with another woman, what then?”

“Then I’d avoid him.”

“Okay—weird enough, but okay.  But suppose he calls you the next night wanting sex, what happens then?”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t give me that bullshit, Vic, answer me!”

“Why are you being mean?”

“Because I’d like you to face reality, that’s why.  What do you do?  Do you fuck him? Even though you know he’s fucking someone else?”

“I don’t know.  I guess not.”

“You guess not?  Well if it’s just sex, then what’s the problem?”

Winning the argument didn’t make me feel any better.  I knew I was projecting.  But I felt justified.  I was, at the very least, aware of my own artifice…whereas Vic was blissfully accomodating hers.

The Wrong Rice

Jeannie was souring. She yearned for hairdressing work, her vocation of training, but rather than search aggressively, she was content to complain, blame the market. Then she “lost” her job at the clothing store. I was handling the bills, which suited her fine, but I was getting agitated as well. Jeannie was cute but she wasn’t exactly arm candy, which made her attitude all the more baffling. She spoke of connections she had—industry people—but the evidence didn’t bear it out. From what I could tell she had two friends, Nicole and CJ, her roommates from before she moved in. Theirs was a triangular friendship, built drunkenly at the Burgundy Room on Cahuenga every night. Now Jeannie seemed to be falling out with the other two.

I’d met Nicole and CJ. They had the funky hair and stylish clothes, but they were both brusque and unseemly. My theory was that Jeannie had always attracted more men, leaving Nicole and CJ to subsist on the runoff from last call’s panic rush. It’s the same scene at every club in Hollywood. The offensive house lights, having been forced upon the crowd so suddenly and so mercilessly, feel like a sexual death sentence. Bar patrons, looking like utter shit all of a sudden, scramble. Bedlam ensues. Bodies begin funneling through the bottleneck, spreading out into the night, regrouping on the waiting curb. 100 cigarettes are lighted. “So where’s the after party?”

With Jeannie becoming increasingly withdrawn, her phone stopped ringing altogether. I wasn’t surprised; surely Nicole and CJ were getting laid more. Jeannie was sedentary, sinking ever more deeply into my couch.

I’d dropped a few grams at the King King, and I was taking the surface streets home. I called Jeannie to see if she wanted anything. A burrito with beans and rice, she said, so I stopped at Machos Tacos on Vermont. When I got back she was on the couch watching Family Guy, my Homer Simpson slippers on the coffee table, her feet buried inside them. I handed her the bag of food. She thanked me flimsily and began excavating.

“Wait, you got me white rice.”

I just looked at her.

She presented me with a takeout container, flaps fanning out. “You got me WHITE rice from a fucking taco stand!”

“You asked for rice, I ordered rice.”

“I meant MEXICAN rice.”

“Are you kidding?”

“Whatever. Forget it.”

“Forget it? I don’t think so Tonya Harding.”

White trash equals Tonya Harding; my mind just went there. Missing the reference of course, Jeannie just called me an asshole. I agreed with a caveat: she was too dim to fathom the scope of it. She abandoned her food and began storming around, gathering belongings. I plopped on the couch and lit a cig.

“I don’t give a shit where you go, just leave the key.”

“NO!”

I got off the couch and went after her. “Give me my fucking key!”

She kept her back to me. “I’m calling Maus!” she said. She’d struck another nerve. Jeannie had been telling people that she’d befriended Maus at the Burgundy Room, which was patently false. She’d glommed on to Maus while I was living with her, and the two shared a superficial girl bond at best. I knew that Maus was a capitulator, though, and that she’d buckle to Jeannie’s rants. I figured my key had to be in the bag swinging from her shoulder, so I reached for it.  Under its own weight, the bag bolted south, the strap catching the pit of Jeannie’s elbow. I was mortified, first at the thought of her being marked, then at the thought of my being implicated, and finally at the thought of having just prioritzed my reputation over her injury. I apologized effusively. Not only was Jeannie unmoved, she was emboldened. She left nearly gloating, key and all.

I went outside to brood over a beer. The skyline was orange, ominous, and I gazed for a moment, put a Parliament in my mouth. I patted my pockets for a lighter that wasn’t there, but I felt my blaster, so I pulled it out and bumped twice, maneuvering the scooper around the unlit cig dangling from my lips. There was work ahead: collapsible boxes to fill, locks to be changed. I hopped in the Geo and lit the smoke and headed for the Home Depot on Sunset and Western, the only one open 24 hours, the one that, because of the supposed aisle by aisle cruising code, my gay friends called the “Homo Depot.”  I want to say that hardware was for tops and plumbing for bottoms, but perhaps that’s just a fanciful reconstruction.

A Luddite Weeps at the Gym

I once picked up a woman at Packard’s.  She was heavily tatted and pierced, had the geometric, multicolored hairdo, some scarification—the prototypical gal I’ve been attracting since I was twelve.  When we got back to my place, the first thing she noticed was a copy of Rolling Stone sitting on the ironing board.  “Lady Gaga is the shit!” she said.  This saddened me.  It made me yearn for the old days, when we met at all ages shows: all sweaty with sticky hair and runny makeup.  Ripped jeans, safety pins, Doc Martens with colored laces.  Ten dollar T-shirts from Newbury Comics.  We were like a tribe.  Maybe we weren’t into the same bands exactly, but fuck pop music, fuck the radio (though we loved our college stations), and definitely fuck Mtv (unless of course it was 120 Minutes).

Well, I’m old now.  And times have changed.  The average freak is more likely to be into Katy Perry than Nick Cave.  How the hell that happened, I can’t say.  It probably has something to do with Madonna.  (That issue of Rolling Stone, btw, featured a piece on Dennis Hopper’s final days, which is why it was on my ironing board.  As for why I had the ironing board, I have no excuse for that.)  I think everyone, including me, figured I’d outgrow punk rock culture.  But not only do I still love it at forty, my appreciation for it has grown, perhaps because it’s always been there for me.  For years I avoided downloading, for fear of it.  There’d be nothing tangible there, and I was reticent about providing information,typing shit, and, like, committing to something.

Well, all that’s changed.  I got my account with iTunes (way easier than I imagined) and I’m loving it.  I even had my mother dust off my old cassette tapes and ship them to me, so I could see what I’d forgotten about.  Dag Nasty.  The Virgin Prunes.  Anti-Nowhere League.  All my old favorites at 99 cents a pop!  I’ve been having a blast building my library.  Syncing to my Shuffle.

I was one of those sensitive-type punks.  (We didn’t have a name for it then, but I read that it’s called “emo” nowadays.  I also read that emo-types, understandably, hate that label.)  So what went along with all the thrash and hardcore was a slower, more melodic sound we called New Wave, which sort of morphed and mainstreamed, becoming “alternative” in the 90’s, but that’s getting off point.  Among my latest downloads is a song called “What’s the Matter Here?” by 10,000 Maniacs.  It’s about child abuse.

With the shuffle, obviously, any song could play at any time.  I was at the Northampton Athletic Club, doing shoulder shrugs real close to the mirror, when Natalie Merchant got to me.  It was the crescendo that did it:

All these cold and rude things that you do, I suppose  you do because he belongs to you.  And instead of love and the feel of  warmth, you’ve given him these cuts and sores that don’t heal with time  or with age.

I’d forgotten about the passion in that vocal, so hauntingly beautiful.  I felt the tears well up in my eyes.  I worried that this might look odd: a grown man crying in the gym.  I hoped that people would simply assume I’d had a blistering set, hence the puffy eyes and crimson face.

And then I wondered why it mattered.  I was feeling something.  And feeling felt good.  It was that old friend again, the one I keep neglecting.  The one who’s kind enough to keep giving me second chances.

Slow Hemorrhage of the Soul

When I arrived in Los Angeles, one of the first things I noticed was the near-constant presence of cocaine, and its ubiquity had nothing to do with any sort of subculture.  It was at all the grungy after parties, of course, but it was also at the wine and cheese gatherings, the ones that start at six.  Put on a collared shirt, bring a bottle of Bordeaux, kiss the hostess on the cheek, do some coke.  People who would be considered “grownups” back east were using cocaine openly in LA.  I hadn’t done it in eight or nine years, and what I remembered was juvenile and sketchy: people winking and pee dancing off to the bathroom.  But now it was out in the open, and more like a tango: tension and slinking, staccato speech patterns, syncopated dialogue.  I’d be chatting up a girl, cutting up lines casually, the number determining the length of the dance, the girl following my lead.  I’d better offer him a smoke, get into the rhythm of his jokes, or he’ll whirl off with the coke.

Within the fierce social-climbing jungle that is the LA party scene, cocaine is more than just an accoutrement.  It’s bait.  You can lure with it, build a party around it.  People will stay so long as you don’t run out.  You can’t buy charm, wit, affability, handsomeness or intellect, but you can find a delivery dealer.  But there’s an unintended consequence, one that’s slower and somewhat more insidious than the obvious health and legal concerns: you become an asshole.  How affable I was to begin with is questionable, but over time my motivation to be polite diminished considerably.  Why polish your manners when you can just pull out your bag?

I became an unapologetic cokehead.  And everyone knew it.  After all, that was the point.  If you needed a bump, you came to me.  It was my contribution, the least I could do.  I was glomming onto a scene that far exceeded anything I could’ve imagined.  Everyone had been around long enough to have acquired connections.  If we wanted to go to a certain club, we got on the list.  Having never bypassed a velvet rope in my life, I fell quickly into the flow of entitlement.  And the timing!  Bands I’d loved growing up—Sex Pistols, Bauhaus, Pixies—were reuniting and gigging in LA.  I was backstage at the Fonda when Echo and the Bunnymen were about to go on.  The show was delayed because Ian McCulloch was characteristically drunk and missing (“Same ol’ fuggin’ coont,” muttered one of the roadies).  No ardent Smiths fan ever expects to encounter Morrissey, so when I saw him at the El Rey it was like a dream.  That impossibly close shave, the hair, the hurt.  I wanted to touch him, if only to freak him out, but he was flanked by bodyguards.  I saw Circle Jerks, Buzzcocks.  I got in everywhere, easily, and always had the run of the place.

Then there were those grungy after parties.  We may’ve begun the evening in the inner sanctum, getting high with the opening act and watching the headliner in style, but by dawn we’d be at a gutted loft space downtown, scraping our vials and scrounging for douched beers and leftover pussy.  Fine dining, VIP-lounging, dive bar slumming, house party crashing—it was all part of this adult-but-not limbo we swam in: an oblivion linked, inextricably, to cocaine.  I always had coke on me and it would’ve been foolish to pretend that I didn’t.  My friends were the hip ones.  I was a mere tenant among them.  If one of the boys wanted a bump, what was I going to say?  Sorry, can’t spare one.  Thanks, though, for getting me in everywhere and getting me laid all the time.

C’mon.