Night life on Bleecker Street panned out after the Village Vanguard. Sean gazed out the taxi’s window at the forlorn sidewalk grilled yellow by cruel chrome streetlights. This was how New York really looked without the eyes of love.
Three weeks ago Sean had abandoned a 1974 Cadillac DeVille by a gutted pier on the Hudson, intending as on his four previous trips to catch the next Amtrak train from Penn Station, instead he had stopped for an omelet at a West Village restaurant. When he had asked for the check, the brown-eyed waitress’ unexpectedly had propositioned him to accompany her home.
“Excuse me, I don’t think I heard you right.” Only one woman on Boston had spoken so openly and Linda had walked out of his life five years ago.
“Don’t take it the wrong way, I’m an artist and you have a face I’d like to paint.” The brunette tilted her head, as if to study him for another angle.
”Oh.” He hadn’t been with a woman for months and stupidly asked, “Why?”
“Has anyone ever said that you looked like an angel under candlelight?”
Sean shook his head. No one had ever said that he looked like anyone or anything and he imagined himself to be one of a kind. With the world population at nearly
“Good, I was hoping that.” The brunette posed, as if her slender body was treasured by other men. “My name’s Cheri and my shift ends at midnight, which is only a few minutes from now.”
”I haven’t said ‘yes.” The waitress was the exact opposite of a Playboy centerfold, but so was his taste in women.
“And there’s no way that you’re going to say no.” She stuffed his bill in her pocket, signifying the dinner was on the house. “See you outside.”
Cheri vanished into the kitchen and Sean left the restaurant to stand on the sidewalk. A nearby church bell rang out the midnight hour and Sean zipped up his leather jacket against the cold. Christopher Street was swarming with men barhopping in search of other men, although most of the gay disregarded the long-haired stranger in favor of trimly bearded gays in denim jean jackets and work boots.
Five minutes passed and he peered through the restaurant’s front window.
A fat blonde was taking orders.
Sean questioned whether Cheri might have changed her mind and he debated whether to stay or catch the 1:10am train to Boston. If she didn’t show at the end of a count to a hundred, he would leave for Penn Station.
At 59 Cheri appeared from the alley, buttoning her pea coat and tugging on a beret to transforming her into a French art student.
“We can walk to my place. It’s not far.”
They strolled through the maze of streets in conversation.
Cheri was studying art and came from Pennsylvania.
Sean told her about stealing cars and he recited his poem about a cowboy named Lucky. Cheri laughed at the end and pulled him up at a set of stairs to the Terminal Hotel.
“Home sweet home.”
“Here?” The hotel was in the final stages of a long descent from respectability. “I know it’s not the Plaza, but the view from my room is very Edward Hopper,” she said, entering the shabby lobby.
The clerk ignored their entrance and they took the stairs, since the elevator was broken.
”Climbing three flights a couple of times a day is good exercise.” She lifted her skirt to reveal well-formed legs.
On the third floor Cheri led him to the end of the corridor and took out a key to open the door to # 301. The small room had a bed, a night table, and a closet filled with clothing, shoes, and boxes. Paint tubes, canvases, and an easel stood between two windows.
”I know it’s not much, but it’s in Manhattan and take a look at my view.” Cheri drew back one curtain.
She hadn’t been lying about the view.
The hotel room overlooked the elevated West Side Highway, the Hudson River, and the far shore of New Jersey.
”But I didn’t ask you here for the view. Off with your clothes.”
”Yes, I want to paint you in the nude.” Cheri undressed him and examined his muscles like a medical student prepping a cadaver for an autopsy. He tried to tear off her clothing and she pushed him away, saying , “Slow down, there’s plenty of time for that after I paint you. How good are you at standing still?”
”I don’t know.” His hands were cupped over his erection, for the lust in his blood was one match away from arson.
”I guess we’ll have to find out and one more thing. Angels aren’t shy about their body.” Cheri posed him against the wall and squeezed little mounds of paint on a splattered easel. She turned to the wall with a thick pencil in her hand and ordered, “Don’t move. I’ll try and do this as fast as possible.”
“You’re doing a mural?” He remembered reading that Michaelangelo had spent years on the Sistine Chapel.
”I don’t have a spare canvas. Artists work with what’s at hand.” Cheri was already sketching his body on the buckled wall. Within a minute he recognized his body and within three his face was taking form. She was better than good.
“In my grandmother’s house there was a bedroom with a mural of a harbor in Maine. I loved sleeping in that bedroom.”
“That’s nice.” Cheri hardly lifted her head from sketching his body. Her concentration excluded any dialogue and Sean fought to keep from shifting his body, as she spread splotches of paint over the wall. Finally the oil fumes overcame him with drowsiness blind to her laying down the brushes or stripping off her clothes. He woke with his entry inside her.
She hadn’t been lying about their having plenty of time, for the next two days blurred into pornographic positions separated by his monologues on New England; the Quincy Quarries, fried clams, his best friend drowning in Lake Sebago in 1960, losing his virginity along the banks of the Presumpscot River at age 13, the Red Sox’s 6th game against the Cincinnati Reds, and seeing James Brown at Boston Garden the night of Martin Luther King’s murder.
Cheri spoke little about herself while painting and even less before, during, and after their couplings, although she said that her last boyfriend had gone mad, because he had loved her too much.
“How much was too much?”
“I don’t know, you’d have to asked Bix.”
On Sunday night Sean boarded the last car of the train to Boston. His base intuition warned that if he said a single word about his feelings, Cheri would vanish into Manhattan. Instead he asked, “Are you free next weekend? It’s Thanksgiving.”
“I work Friday and Saturday nights,” Cheri replied with an evasive hesitancy.
“That’s fine. I can wander around the Village, until you get off work.”
The train lurched into motion and Sean waved good-bye. Her sullen departure acted as no deterrent to his proposed rendezvous and he telephoned two days later to announce,“I’m moving to Manhattan.”
Her silence bridged several seconds.
“Can’t you wait a week or two?”
“I quit my teaching job.” 1984 had arrived eight years early at South Boston High School. State Troopers in the hallways, classrooms, and dining areas futilely guarded against any racial violence between the whites from Southie and the blacks from Roxbury. An intense hatred had ignited the city and Sean feared catching the plague. “If I stay here any longer, I’ll die. I’ll be there Wednesday night.”
“I’ll be waiting.” She had understood nothing could prevent his arrival and tonight she had fled before he could trapped her in New York.
There was no reason for him to stay in this city another day beyond tomorrow and he turned to Johnny. “Are we there yet?”
“Almost.” Johnny slapped on the plastic divider. “Stop on Mulberry.”
The taxi driver braked next to a scrawny tree and his two passengers got out of the Checker. Three derelicts stood around an oily fire and Sean asked suspiciously, “Why we getting out?”
“I thought a walk would help you get a feel for the city.” Johnny paid the driver and stepped onto the sidewalk.
“It looks more like purgatory.” Sean’s only heaven on Earth would be standing atop the Eiffel Tower with Cheri.
“You’ll get used to it.” Johnny secretively shifted the knife in the small of his back, as they passed a cluster of cardboard shacks sheltering shivering bodies.
“I won’t be here long enough.” Sean envied the derelicts’ sleep and toyed with walking back to the hotel. It might be haunted by Cheri, but at least the bed was warm. “You said CBGBs was close.”
“And I was telling the truth. This is other end of Bleecker Street from where Bob Dylan performed in the Sixties and it wasn’t cool then and it isn’t now.”
An old man in rags lurched from a shallow doorway to verify Johnny’s statement and stuck out a palm roadmapped with crevices and scars.
“Got a dime to spare an old wino?”
“Sure, Pops.” Johnny seered the lines of the old drunk’s lost past and short future. $5 shocked the red-faced alcoholic, who gasped, “God bless you, young man.”
“Have a good drunk on me.”
”Only if I hurry.” The old man wobbled across the silent street into the abyss of shadows. The derelict bar on the corner of Houston and the Bowery charged twenty-five cents for a shot of bottom shelf whiskey. Its closing hours were determined by the last dollar left in the bar.
”That was a generous donation.” Sean gave bums his spare change.
“I hope someone might do the same for me, if I ever that low.” Johnny motioned for them to continue walking down the sidewalk.
“You have a long way before you hit the bottom.”
“A car hits me and I’m an old man before my time.” Johnny had witnessed the city’s mercilessness too many times to believe in the survival of the fittest.
“I’m lucky with cars.” Earlier this evening Sean’s destiny had scrapped bunkers with death on a Connecticut highway and he reflected on the old superstition that bad luck comes in threes. The car chase had been the first, Cheri’s desertion had to be # 2 number one and meeting Johnny could well be number three.
“That’s a plus for a car thief.” Johnny stopped at a wide avenue.
“I’ve been here before.” Sean declared to his own surprise.
“You been to the Bowery?” No one accidentally visited on a boulevard renowned for its flophouses, drunks, and broken dreams.
“I came with my family to New York in the early Sixties.” His father had taken them to the Empire State Building, the Rockettes, a steak dinner at Tad’s, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “We were driving back from the Staten Island Ferry and I saw a man lying in the street and asked my father, if he was dead. He said that the man was a Bowery drunk.”
“Those old boozers are tougher than an old dog’s paws and so are punks.” Johnny nodded across the avenue to the leather-jacketed crowd underneath a white awning emblazoned with the letters CBGBs. The Palace Hotel next door was a close relative to the Terminal Hotel and Sean glared at his new acquaintance with a twinge of disappointment. “This is it?”
“What’s outside had nothing to do with what’s inside.” The hippie’s disapproval intensified Johnny’s impatience to rip him off and he leapt off the curb to dart through a surge of speeding cars and taxis. “Last one across the street buys the first round.”
A rattling Checker bore down on Johnny and Sean braced for the soft crunch of steel into a body, except the thin blonde gracefully vaulted across the hood onto the traffic island and dodged two newspaper trucks to safely reach the opposite sidewalk. He shouted, “I’ll take a Wild Turkey.”
Johnny had challenged death twice in two seconds, but Sean’s mother had cautioned him to walk the other way from any menace to life and limb. He would still be living in the suburbs, if he had followed her instructions, so crossed the Bowery to find Johnny arguing with two men carrying guitars.
“You use the drugs, you have to pay.”
“I owe you nuttin’,” sniveled a crow-haired guitarist, resembling Keith Richard, if the lead guitarist had died instead of Brian Jones.
His pointy rat boots, straight-legged black Levi’s, a stained tuxedo jacket, and a skinny tie knotted loosely on the collar of a rumpled shirt were the fashionable antithesis to Sean’s Frye boots and plaid shirt. The loiterers on the sidewalk were similarly attired in leather jackets or narrow lapel jackets. Sean felt out of place and even more so after Johnny seized the zombie’s guitar.
“Where’s my $50.”
“Hey, I gotta be at Max’s in thirty minutes.” The rocker feebly wrestled for the guitar and Johnny shoved him into a pile of garbage.
“Give me the money and I’ll give you the guitar.”
The onlookers hooted, as if this was a long-running sit-com, and the rocker offered shrilly, “I’ll give you the fifty at Max’s.”
“And wait in line with the other twenty junkies you stiffed today?” The fifty was more useful in Johnny’s pocket than the junkie’s vein. “Fifty or no guitar.”
“Okay, okay.” The skeletal musician unhappily forfeited a crumble of bills. “Now gimme my guitar.”
“Been a pleasure doing business.” Johnny released the guitar and the junkie rocker rambled up the Bowery. The thin blonde pocketed the cash and turned to Sean. “This ain’t Kansas or the Emerald City. Trusting no one’s the first rule of this city and the second is always obey the first.”
A taxi stopped at the curb and the back door opened for a bleached blonde in a miniskirt, ripped fishnet stockings, and gleaming black high heels straight out of fetish stroke book. Standing on the sidewalk the milk-white dominatrix sneered with crooked teeth, “You have a problem with your eyes, caveman?”
Sean stammered, “I haven’t seen anyone dress like you before.”
“You sayin’ I’m a whore?” She flashed a rack of sharp fingernails at Sean’s face.
“Sheila, this is my country bumpkin cousin, so cut him a break.” Johnny stepped between them.
“This is related to you?” The blonde’s laugh sounded like her first of the night.
“Can’t you see the resemblance, Sheila?” Johnny leaned over to Sean’s face.
“I get it. You’re country cousins.” The blonde dominatrix blew the bewildered hippie a kiss and entered the club with a sadistic swagger. When the door shut, Sean asked, “Why she dress so slutty, if she isn’t asking me to look?”
“The girls at CBGBs wear slutty clothing, because they are whores or stripers, who might break your teeth or ask you home for a fuck. I’ll let find out for yourself which is worse.” Johnny opened the thick door and Sean’s eardrums buckled under a sub-sonic boom. The last band he had heard this loud was Blue Cheer and his guide shouted, “Now hold onto your wig. No more Abba. No more Bread. No more Boz Scaggs. This is the world of tomorrow today.”
The pure power on the stage drew Sean forward and a stringy-haired giant in a yellow construction helmet halted his progress with a meaty hand. “Five dollars.”
Sean dropped $5 before the bearded man at a desk and beelined for the front of the club, where four men in black leather jackets, torn blue jeans, sneakers, and scraggly hair performed a blindingly fasy version of CALIFORNIA SUN.
The singer resembling a wigged mantis yelled indecipherable lyrics to the frenzied audience. Each song raced to its end in less than two minutes and Sean unconditionally joined the crowd’s bopping worship of the hard-driving quartet. When the band had exhausted the audience’s energy, the longhaired gnome announced their encore, “PT boat on the way to Havana.”
The heaving mob surged Sean forward and he asked a mulatto teenager with a safety pin stuck in his cheek, “What’s the name of this band?”
“The Ramones.” The pimply kid rolled his eyes at Sean’s ignorance.
He had never heard of them, but judging from the number of people emulating the band’s get-up, this band had existed for several years.
A minute later the Ramones finished their encore and the jukebox blared a song about Chinese Rocks. Most of the audience surged to a narrow hallway behind the stage and Sean fought his way to the bar, where Johnny handed him a long-necked Bud. He drained the bottle in three gulps and ordered a Wild Turkey from a redheaded bartender wearing a skimpy tube top. He downed the shot and called for another round.
“So how great is this place?” Johnny was pleased by the wad of bills in the hippie’s hand.
”I don’t know about the place, but the Ramones reminded me of these bands; the Remains, and the Ramrods.” Sean had always been puzzled by the Surf Nantasket bands’ failure, while Three Dog Night crammed the Top Ten with covers. “They were sort of like the Ramones.”
“I know the Rockin’ Ramrods. They had this great song about the wind.” Johnny preferred MR. WIND to their modest hit BRIGHT LIT BLUE SKIES. “Punk is the bastard son of Garage Rock.”
“The Ramones play here much?” The alcohol boiled in his empty stomach.
”Ever since this band Television convinced the owner to change the format from country and bluegrass on Sunday nights. They lied about performing original Bluegrass music, but drew about fifty people paying a buck and this record producer named Marty Thau talked the owner into letting other local bands playing at the bar. Soon you had Patti Smith, the Heartbreakers, Richard Hell, the Dictators, the Shirts, dBs, and Mink DeVille. Max’s Kansas City joined the act and over in England there’s the Damned, Clash, Stranglers, and Sex Pistols. LA and Frisco are starting scenes. France has Plastic Bertrand. Course the radio won’t air punk, because the record companies force the kids to listen to shit.”
“Like Foreigner and Yes.” The Ramrods had failed for the same reason. “On the way here the radio played only one real song.”
“I ALMOST CUT MY HAIR?” Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were the Kingston Trio of Soft Rock.
“The Modern Lovers?” Johnny nodded to a chubby bearded A&R man from Satellite Records. Nick Arcc was a piece of work, but was also well connected with a number of record labels. ”
“I saw them play on the Cambridge Commons.”
“Who else you see?”
Sean didn’t get a chance to reply, because two teenage girls in pink polyester dresses kissed Johnny and then squealed with delight, “We loved you in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. Can we have your autograph?”
“Sure, darling.” Johnny faked an English accent and scrawled a name on a paper napkin. The two girls swooned away and he explained, “They mistook me for David Bowie and who am I to destroy the illusion? You’ve heard of David Bowie, right?”
“Sure.” Seeing Sha-na-na instead of Ziggy Stardust was a secret mothballed in the closet with other embarrassing skeletons. Only Linda knew the truth.
“So you still in a hurry to leave town?” Johnny sipped at his whiskey.
“might hang around a little longer.” Sean’s eyes followed the sashay of a wild-maned blonde in a rubber dress and Johnny warned, “Heel, boy, that’s Dove tonight. Tomorrow morning he’s Dave.”
“She walks like a woman and talks like a man, Lola, La-La-La-Lola.” Sean quoted the infamous Kinks song, rubbing his forehead. The graffiti-marred mural on the opposite wall was wavering into a fuzzy abstract painting and his tongue had been thickened with glue.
”Are you alright?” Johnny asked with a grin, for the two Quaaludes in the first beer were hitting home.
“I’m fine.” Sean couldn’t feel his fingers. “You know the MC5 played at my high school and so did the Stooges. I saw the New York Dolls in Cambridge. They were junkies.”
“Something wrong with that?”
“They tend to fall off the stage.” Sean wavered against the bar and Johnny asked with mock interest, “You play in a band before?”
“Me and my friends had a band.” The Hung had three gigs in the summer of 1968. Their final show had ignited a riot and his subsequent arrest had terminated his rock star career. “I was the bass.”
“Really?” The hippie was filled with surprises.
“I’m as good as anyone on that stage tonight.” Sean’s hands clustered into a Joe Cocker cramp over an imaginary bass and several girls in beehives giggled at the drunken hippie fingering the air bass. “Man, I’m feeling a little weird.”
“You need air.” Johnny steered him from the club, as giant doorman in a yellow work helmet shouted, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”
“What’d you do to me?” His brain was disintegrating into cold mush and Sean staggered through the front door.
“You drugged me.” Sean reached for the lapels of the leather jacket. A sharp point punctured his index finger and he yelped in pain.
“Stay still.” Johnny warned, gingerly extricating a hook from the hippie’s skin.
“Damn.” Sean sucked at the pinpoint puncture.
“English trick. You sew fishing hooks under your collar to prevent anyone grabbing you for a head butt.” Johnny peeled down his collar. “You should be thankful I filed off the barbs.”
“Try any other secret weapons and I’ll kill you.” The threat sloshed out of Sean.
“Calm down, I have nothing up my sleeve.” The alley behind CBGB’s was the ideal setting to rob the hippie. Johnny started for 1st Street, but was blocked by the junkie guitarist and three New Jersey bikers, who rarely visited CBGBs in compliance with the 3rd Street Hell’s Angels unwritten ban on competing gangs entering their auxiliary clubhouse.
“Where you headed, queer boy?” The biggest biker stood with clenched fists at his side.
“I haven’t the time for this crap.” Johnny tried to sidestep him and the biker shoved him. “Why not, fairy boy? Got a hot date?”
“With someone a little more handsome than you.” Johnny’s hand sought his shank. Sean stepped in front of him and shouted at the bikers, “Piss off?”
“Piss off?” the smaller biker demanded in disbelief.
“You deaf or stupid?” Blank anger was clearing the fog in his head. “Or both?”
“Listen to this granola hippie.” The biggest biker poked Sean’s chest, figuring his size and weight lopsided any altercation in his favor. “You should have stayed on the commune. You people______”
“You people?” Sean belonged to no group.
“Go suck yogurt.” The biker shoved Sean against the wall. Hippies were the bully’s natural victim and glared at Sean, “What are you going to do, you piece of shit?”
Sean had fought the Boston Police at anti-war demonstrations. Billyclubs versus baseball bats and he responded to the biker’s challenge with a left jab squarely to the nose, shattering the cartilage. The biker cupped his nostrils to stem thee bleeding. Sean followed up with a knee to the groin. The biker collapsed onto the sidewalk and Sean confronted his startled friends, “You asking for it, cause I’m dealing it out.”
“We’re leaving.” The bikers lifted their fallen friend to his feet. The junkie guitarist had disappeared into the night. The fight was over for Sean, until the biker mumbled, “I’ll be getting you for this.”
Red Halley lived in his hometown’s dump. The Korea war veteran had boxed in the ring and fought on every street in Boston. Sean sometimes gave him money for Thunderbird. Red Hally paid back the donations with pugilistic advice and had one time said that if a man says he’s out for revenge, you might as well hit them before he gets a chance to come back and get you, so Sean buried his foot into the bigger man’s stomach.
”Enough is enough.” Johnny restrained Sean from sending the biker to Bellevue Hospital. As the bikers vanished onto 2nd Street, Johnny clapped Sean’s back. “You’re more a fighter than a lover.”
“You drugged me.” The hippie slapped away his hand.
“It’s just the drink,“ Johnny protested to deaf ears, for the Quaaludes toppled the hippie against a pole. He hailed a passing Checker and poured his defenseless victim in the back, telling the driver their destination. “West Street.”
On the ride over to the West Village he rummaged through the unconscious hippie’s pockets, twice counting the money, twice putting it back. Frustrated by his conscience’s untimely arrival, he punched Sean’s arm. “Arise and shine, flower boy.”
The hippie had to improve on that response, since the conclusion of his evening depended on his answering three questions and Johnny asked, “Beatles or Rolling Stones?”
“The Stones.” The Lynn Police had stopped the 1966 Rolling Stones concert at Manning Bowl with teargas. The horde of screaming girls had scared the riot squad and the Beatles were too cute for be trouble, plus his mother loved ELEANOR RIGBY.
“Doors or Velvet Underground?”
“And it was allllllright?” Sean recalled Tammi’s comment about the Doors and sang off-key.
The hippie was bound to fail the clincher and Johnny asked, “David Bowie or T-Rex?”
“Bang a gong.” The dead were easier to deify than the living and Johnny sighed, “Was that a guess?”
There was no answer. Sean never heard the question, for his blank gaze was fixed on a point of no return on another planet and his head lopped forward like someone had slice his spinal cord. He wasn’t a pretty sight, but then it never is when the final destination for the night is utter oblivion.