FAMOUS FOR NEVER by Peter Nolan Smith

New York City teetered toward the edge of bankruptcy during America’s economic stagnation of the mid-70s. The Daily News splashed the headline FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD, after the president refused to bailout New York. The mayor was forced to slash every department’s budget to the bone and the city collapsed into a ruin rivaling Rome after the Huns burned it to the ground.

Subways broke down from lack of repair. Muggers ruled the streets and parks after dark. Arsonists torched the Bronx and Lower East Side for fun and profit. Shooting victims overwhelmed Harlem emergency wards, while heroin ODs became the leading cause of teenager death for Queens. When Staten Island announced a referendum to secede from the city, no one accused the distant borough of treason, because the worst was yet to come.

Parts of Manhattan seemed immune to the decay ravishing the outer boroughs. Tourists visited the Empire State Building, executives dined at the Four Seasons, and matrons flocked to Sak’s Fifth Avenue, because those bastions of normalcy were patrolled by squad cars and foot patrols. The East Village was not so lucky.

The overstretched 9th precinct triaged the streets beyond 1st Avenue. No patrols ventured farther than Tompkins Square Park. Shooting galleries outnumbered bodegas and hordes of thieves fearlessly prowled their newly-won turf for victims. Nobody honest could survive in a neighborhood more burnt-out than a junkie’s vein and families of all races, colors, and creeds fled the outlaw DMZ for the suburbs.

City politicians launched countless projects to stem the tide of ‘white flight’. None of the abbreviated programs achieved their goals and the population of the Lower East Side shriveled from 120,000 to 60,000. It never hit zero, because cheap rents, proximity to the subways, and minimal police presence proved irresistible to malcontents disenchanted with the morality of the Silent Majority War and a diverse smattering of gays, drifters, artists, musicians, and addicts reversed the flow from the smoldering desolation.

Soon stutterers read poetry without ridicule to NYU coeds. Bums squatted derelict buildings without fear of landlords. Teenager girls denied cheerleader destinies were offered opiated ballerina gigs at sordid go-go bars. Graffiti artists painted heaven on toppled walls with spray cans. Hell portrayed itself without any artistic endeavors.

Even a Bowery drunk was infected by the change in the neighborhood and he begged contributions to his research into intoxication.

“Save the winos.”

I toyed with the idea of moving out of my SRO hotel on East 11th Street to the East village, except I couldn’t forget my Irish grandmother saying, “Better a shack on 5th Avenue than a mansion in Hell’s Kitchen.”

That spring my hillbilly girlfriend finished college in Ohio. The good-humored actress looked a lot like Shirley MacLaine. Her gold-flecked eyes were different colors and her skin was whiter than skimmed milk. She didn’t drink or smoke weed or do drugs, but during her orgasms Alice cried out ‘god’.

I later discovered her divine evocation was derived more from strength of her climax rather than in the appreciation of my sexual ardor.

Alice despised the suburbs and lying on the SRO’s single bed Alice held up a New York Dolls’ Album cover. The band stood in front of the Gem Spa and she said, “I want to live there.”

I put up no argument. My room was too small for the two of us.

Within a week Alice found a one-bedroom apartment on East 10th Street. The rent was $180 a month. We signed the lease and moved east to an apartment with creaky wooden floors slanting east and a tub lay opposite the gas stove in the kitchen, but the rear windows looked over an alley filled with trees, on which birds sang on the limbs of a spreading cypress tress.

Alice called it ‘the park’.

We were in love with each other and the East Village.

Punk rock was our opera. CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City were out La Scalas. The basketball court in Tompkins Square Park was my Madison Square Garden. Our friends were either geniuses or mad fools depending on the dosage of their meds. We lived the night by a moral code erased every dawn, however when Blondie hit the AM charts, every loser east of the Bowery discarded their vow of poverty to seek fame and fortune as a birthright.

Alice answered TV casting calls for ingénue roles. A pianist friend playing with a funk band angled to be the next KC AND THE SUNSHINE BAND. My upstairs neighbor starred in a biker movie and I recited detective poems to co-eds in local dives, convinced that the Tonight Show would book us as the stars of tomorrow.

Someone only had to give them our phone number.

Late in the summer of 1978 an Upper East Side photographer asked me to write a photo-roman about a sadistic kidnapping. I cast my co-worker Klaus Sperber as the black leather villain. The Gothic singer was the daytime pastry chef at Serendipity 3. I was a busboy there and Anthony lived above the swishy ice cream shop of East 60th Street. Upon meeting Klaus at the Kiev Coffee Shop, the photographer was smitten by his ghostly face.

“You were made for film.” Anthony started snapping pictures. We were waiting for our female lead. I didn’t know her.

“My voice was made for the opera.” The gaunt German loved to perform forgotten castrati role. “But I don’t believe in movies. Too many frames showing the same thing when only one needs to show the true emotion.”

“Like Gloria Swanson at the end of SUNSET BOULEVARD.” I loved Billy Wilder films.

“I can always pretend to be her.” Klaus grimaced with a stolen toothy smile and pursed his black-painted lips. He was a natural mimic. “Who is the leading man?”

“No one yet.” Anthony’s eye hadn’t left the viewfinder.

“What about him?” Klaus pointed my direction.

“He’s a little brutish.” Anthony swung the camera and focused the lens on my face.

“Like a caveman.” Klaus snidely commented about my hard-boned features. “You know his name at Serendipity 3 was Bam Bam after some stupid American TV show THE FLINTSTONES.”

“I’m not an actor.” I trembled like LA in an earthquake.

“You don’t have to act. All you have to do is pose.” Anthony shifted his camera to the entrance, as the second coming of Veronica Lake entered the diner. Every man at the counter followed the click of the blonde’s stiletto heels. Her knee-length black skirt was slit to a vee revealing her white upper thigh and her black polka-dot shirt was unbuttoned to a vanilla navel.

“This is Clover.” Anthony invited her to sit down. “We met at Club 82.”

“I like dancing with transvestites. They don’t hassle me like straight men.” Clover pushed a sheet of blonde hair from her face. She wasn’t wearing a bra. Anthony lifted his Leica. Clover dropped her head for the curtain of hair to cover half an eye. “Are you the hero?”

“Yes.” There was no saying no.

“Good. I like my men rough.” Her voice slurred this preference for sultry surrender. “My sponsor like it rough too.”

“He’s also the writer.” Klaus said with a keen interest in his acting partner. He was into straight men.

“So what’s the story?” The 19 year-old arched an eyebrow. “Something sexy I hope.”

“It’s about the three of us.”

“And?”

“I haven’t written a word,” I confessed with a shrug.

“The story will write itself with you three in it.” Anthony pressed the shutter button. The camera swiveled from Klaus to Clover to me. Its aperture clicked open and shut like a robot attempting to wake from a long recharge. “We can make it up as we go.”

“Like life. Like Art.” Klaus believed in keeping it simple and I built a story around his kidnapping Clover’s character to finance an opera about the last castrati on Earth.

We huffed poppers for one scene. Clover stripped near-naked in another. Klaus cut my eyes blind in another. Bandages transformed me into a blind mummy. She lay on my bare flesh wearing nothing but a scent of another man.

“My sponsor had me when I was a little girl. He thinks I’m too old now. Nineteen isn’t old, is it?”

“No.” I was twenty-five. When I was fourteen, Clover had been eight. “You were lucky to get out of Texas.”

“I never looked back.” Clover could make it to the bright lights of Hollywood. Nothing was pretend with her.

Our shoots ran late, as we shoot scenes over the city. Tenement fires were our lighting. Sirens backed our sound. My girlfriend accused me of having an affair.

I wished that Alice were right, except Clover slept with men for money.

“I don’t tell the oilman about them. He thinks he’s the only one, but his friends pay me $1000 a night and I’m worth every penny.”

A grand a night was out of my price range and I had to be satisfied with pretending that I was sleeping with her. Alice was not pleased with the illusion and neither was I.

Our last shoot was on 42nd Street.

After midnight Times Square was awash with wickedness. We posed on 42nd Street with the pimps, whores, and drug dealers. Clover looked the part of a rich man’s mistress and I could pass for a detective in my pinstriped suit. The final scene was set in a XXX shop. The clerk would allow anything for $20. Anthony set up his tripod before the open doors of a porno booth. The voyeurs watched us for free. Clover wanted their quarters. Behind us the booth’s 8mm loop repeated the ravishing of a young blonde by an older man.

When I imitated the on-screen action, Clover whispered, “On my fourteenth birthday the oilman raped me. He bought my parents a new house. He’s been taking care of me ever since. You ever rape anyone?”

“No.” Soldiers of the Sexual Revolution raped no one.

“Do you think you could? If it was me?” Five years as the oilman’s mistress had introduced a special game to Clover and she teasingly shut the booth door. “If it was a game?”

“No.” I snatched at her arm.

“Too bad. You’ll never know what you’re missing.” She pushed open the door and the camera strobe caught our struggle.

“Next scene.” Anthony was exacted a terse reality from each scene.

The shoot wrapped past 3AM. Klaus, Clover, and Anthony asked for the story line.

“I’m a detective sent to protect your mistress from harm, but she wanted to be hurt to hurt you, which is why we were here.”

“I love it.” Clover hugged me. “This will make us famous.”

“Famous?” Fame was asking a lot, but I could see the two of us speaking with Johnny Carson on THE TONIGHT SHOW. NO Anthony. No Klaus. Just us.

“She’s right.” Klaus was pleased with his work. “We don’t have to be famous for ever. Just for now.”

Anthony proposed that we celebrate the completion of this project with a late meal. My girlfriend was waiting in bed, but I accompanied everyone to the Kiev Diner on 2nd Avenue. We sat at a front table. The restaurant was waiting the rush from the bar closings. That hungry horde would arrive within the next half-hour.

The waitress wrote down our orders of bacon-and-eggs over easy. Antony showed us a series of grainy black & white shots under the diner’s bright lights. Klaus’ skeletal sneers portrayed a Nazi malevolence in the over-stylistic pictures. Anthony had captured our best and worse. I could envision Anthony handed me a set of the previous photos, as the waitress delivered our early morning breakfasts.

“Write something good.”

“It won’t be hard.” Each shot sang its own detective stories in fifty words or less to match the music. Clover held out her hand and I passed her the print of us leaning against a steel pole in the subway. The conductor looked into Anthony’s camera like he belonged to another world.

“Bring us to life.” She reached out for a photo of Klaus bandaging my head. Our teenage starlet turned to her other co-star and asked with the ambition of turning a gay man straight, “Has anyone ever tell you look like Josef Goebbels?”

“All the time.” Klaus’ leather jacket and close-cropped hair heightened his resemblance to Hitler’s Propaganda Minister.

“The resemblance is uncanny.” Clover sieg-heiled with a laugh.

“I am not his illegitimate son. My father disappeared on the Russian front. He was no war criminal.”

“Es tut mir lied fur dich,” I apologized in my high school German.

“Fur was? You Americans think all Germans are Nazis.” His face warped with a misogynistic smirk aimed at Clover.

“I love hearing you speak German.” Clover was speaking to Klaus.

“You have a Nazi fetish, nicht war?”

“No, I have this plan to rip-off my oilman and flee to Berlin. East Berlin.” She shut her eyes. “Away from all this.”

“She’s so dramatic.” Klaus was enthralled by her performance and

I whispered a dirty German phrase in her ear. A floating hand wandered my thigh. Her apartment was only around the corner. The waitress brought the check, as a young black boy with a Rasta ragtop entered the diner. He wore an oversized wool coat hanging below his knees. Spray cans were crammed into its pockets. Klaus asked him to join us.

“This is Jean Michel. He’s a graffiti artist.”

“You’re SAMO.” His messages dotted Lower Manhattan. Some were funny. Others spoke a language of cryptic nihilism.

“No, that was something I do with someone else. It meant ‘same old shit’, but I’m going to paint something no one has ever seen before.” He positioned a tape recorder on the table. The other diners were watched his every move with interest. I couldn’t figure out why. He was barely twenty and I said, “Turn off the tape recorder.”

“Andy Warhol records his phone conversations.” Jean-Michel clicked off the device. “I decided to tape real life.”

“Warhol’s a has-been!” No icon was sacred to a punk and especially not the Pop Messiah.

“You’re jealous, because he’s a genius!” Klaus leaned forward and clicked on the tape recorder, as if Warhol might listen to this conversation.

“Genius?” Warhol manipulated the desire for fame like a sculptor.

“And so is Jean-Michel!” Klaus harbored a soft spot for pretty boys.

“All he does is spray-paints walls.” The young painter’s enigmatic messages stretched along the crumbling walls of the Lower East Side. His audience was mostly junkies, although my girlfriend found his paintings clever.

“I’ve seen your paintings.” Clover admitted with interest. “They’re weird. More crazy than weird.”

“Craziness has its own genus. I’ve had witnessed its beauty in my last year of university. I was living in a commune with an engineer from Bose Speakers, his wife, and their family. The girls were wild. My affair with the 17 year-old didn’t last long. She left me for a car thief, but I didn’t move out of their commune. One afternoon I entered the house to find water flowing down the walls. In the upstairs bathroom the teenager stood naked in an overflowing bathtub and her hand madly scrambled over the wall writing a fuck poem. I would have joined her, except her mother and stepfather entered the bathroom.”

“They probably thought that you were after more than a bath.” Klaus squirmed with sexual sarcasm.

“That’s what it looked like, but they recognized she was mad. We brought her to the hospital. The doctors medicated her and the family erased the poems. I told them it was a sacrilege. They ordered me out of the house.”

“You don’t remember any of those poems, do you?” Clover hushed with a voyeur’s envy.

“I pray for my tongue to grow thick so I can lick myself, while you fill me.” Nothing in Times Square’s XXX shops approached the lucidity of her blue prose. “When she was released from the madhouse, her mind was blank for months. She got better later.”

“I spent several months in the hospital. They dosed me with to quiet the voices in my mind. Now I carry this recorder waiting for the voices to speak again.” Jean-Michel held up his tape recorder to my mouth. “You have other stories?”

“Shut it off.”

“I’m doing this for Art.” His face was mystified by my resistance to his charm.

“Warhol said Art is a good name for a man.” It was the only Warhol quote locked in my brain and I flicked off the tape recorder.

“Don’t touch my shit!” Jean-Michel whipped out a switchblade. The blade was about eight inches long. My hand slapped the knife out of his hand and it clattered off the table onto the floor. Jean-Michel asked with wet eyes, “Why did you do that?”

“I told you to shut it off.”

“I only wanted to hear your voice.” The nappy-haired teenager ran from the diner. Clover chased him with the tape recorder. Anthony followed her, snapping off shots with his Leica snapped. I picked up the switchblade.

“Jean-Michel is going to be famous and you act like ein Assloch.” Klaus was spitting mad at my outburst.

“One of the great things about good manners is knowing when not to use them.”

“If you think violence is good manners, then you’re crazier than him!” The German stormed out of the diner and I gathered up Anthony’s photos, vowing to show them my genius, but on the way to East 10th Street I rewound the scene with Jean-Michel.

From every angle my actions were tainted with a negative light and I entered my apartment with larcenous stealth, but my girlfriend lay awake on the couch.

“Another late shoot?” Her arms were folded over her chest.

“The last.” I handed her the envelope with the photos. “We ate at the Kiev. This kid sat with us. Jean-Michel.”

“Samo?” She had yet to open the envelope.

“One and the same.” I told Alice about the scene with Jean-Michel. She agreed with Klaus about my temper. We went to bed without her looking at the photos and I fell asleep intent on apologizing to Jean-Michel. After all he was only a kid.

Several nights later he attended a performance of my one-act play about homosexual cannibalism at Alice’s club on St. Mark’s Place. The crowd’s laughter surpassed my expectations for THE HUNGER THAT DARE NOT SPEAK ITS NAME. Afterwards Jean-Michel stood at the bar by himself. He frowned for a second and I lifted my hands.

“I want to apologize about the other night.” I gave back his switchblade. “I get a little crazy sometimes. I don’t know why.”

“If anyone understands crazy, it’s me. No bad feelings.” Jean-Michel pocketed the knife and smiled with childish satisfaction. “I liked your play. It was funny. It should be on Broadway.”

“I have to blow it out another seventy minutes for three acts.”

“That’s a lot of time for the audience to chew on people-eating.”

His 50s suit was splattered with oil paint. “Maybe you should write something new.”

“Probably.” I still had some living to do before I could write something that long.

“Andy said I should concentrate on my painting.” He pulled a sheaf of drawings out of a leather bag. His work combined the simple finger-paintings of autistic children with Asmat headhunters’ tribalism.

“Your mentor is right.” No other East Village painter approached his multi-level skills and I felt like a midget about my writing accompanying Anthony’s photos.

“I don’t know whether to call him mentor or Svengali, but I’ll figure it out. You mind if I speak with your girlfriend?”

“Not at all.” Alice loved his work, plus their conversation would create a diversion for me to visit Clover. Her apartment was less than a minute’s walk away. She would want to hear the accompanying words. I tucked the envelope under my arm and ran the distance in twenty seconds, then climbed the two flights of stairs in less than ten. I stopped in the corridor.

A painting was on her door. The style was unmistakable. Jean-Michel had shackled the chains of slavery to smears of paint hinting of Picasso.

“Do you like the painting?” Clover opened the door with tousled hair. A Chinese silk robe hung off her shoulder.

“Yes. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“He did it this afternoon.” She pulled me inside the apartment.

“Did you have sex with him?” Her bed was unmade.

“He paid with this painting.” Her hands clutched at the robe, as if to indicate I had nothing equal to offer. “You know I don’t do it for free, unless someone takes it.”

It was more than an invitation and I threw Clover on the bed, dropping the envelope with the photos on the floor. She slashed at my face with her nails. A knee fiercely thumped into my upper thigh.

I almost gave up.

“Don’t stop. Not now, Daddy.” Clover clasped my arms.

Other men had played this role and I rose from the bed. I was not them.

“Sorry, I can’t do this.” I was many things, but not a rapist.

She pulled on her bathrobe. “So your violence is only a show”

“No, it’s real, but for real situations, not play.”

“Weakling.” She had practiced her pout from childhood.

“I guess so.” I went to the door. “But I can live with that weakness.”

An empty perfume bottle broke near my head and splattered the dregs of Chanel on my leather jacket.

“You’ll never be anything.” Clover meant it as a curse and I slammed the door shut before she could thrown anything else at me with a better aim.

I walked back to St Mark’s Place and checked my face in a car mirror. There were no scratches and I entered the basement. I figured the cigarette smoke in the club would cover the scent of the perfume.

“Where were you?” Alice stood at the bar with Jean-Michel. Her noses wrinkled like Samantha in the TV show BEWITCHED.

“Out to show Clover the photos.” I held up the envelope. “I saw your painting on the door. It was great.”

“Thanks.” He smiled in naive triumph and he turned to Alice. “I’m playing at the Mudd Club tomorrow. I’ll put you on the list.”

“Plus one.” Her smile belonged on a girl who had jumped out of a cake to discover it was her birthday.

“Your boyfriend can get in for free.”

“Yeah.” I knew the doorman.

“I look forward to the show.” Alice touched his hand and Jean-Michel walked us to East 10th Street. The pot dealers on the corner knew his name. He was famous for more than his art. At the steps he gave Alice a drawing of a skull filled with scrawls.

“Keep it. One day it might pay your rent.”

“Thanks.” Alice rolled up the drawing and watched Jean-Michel head farther east. This time of night only shooting galleries were open in that direction.

“You’re not jealous, are you?” My girlfriend asked, as she showered in the bathtub.

“Jealous of what? He’s a painter. I’m a writer. You’re living with me. What else could I ask for in life?”

After sex I lay in bed answering that question. My upstairs neighbor’s movie had been released in New York. Strangers asked for his autograph. Jean-Michel’s paintings were bought by Andy Warhol. Alice had scheduled Klaus to appear at Irving Plaza with the B52s.

Nobody famous knew my name.

In the morning the willows in the alley bent with a wisp of a breeze. I sat at the kitchen table, typing a paragraph for each shot of the photo-roman. The future materialized with every word. Alice entered the kitchen, putting on her plastic raincoat, even though it was sunny outside.

“I have to get out of here before that typing drives me crazy.”

“I can stop.” Anthony wanted to go over my prose this afternoon.

“No, you have to finish that. I’ll see you later.” Alice kissed me on the cheek. She was wearing make-up and perfume. It wasn’t for me. The door closed before I could ask any questions.

Three minutes later the telephone rang. It was Anthony.

“The East Village Eye hired me for a session this afternoon with Jean-Michel.”

“Great.” Our photo-roman dropped down one notch in importance for today.

“You’re not angry, are you?”

“No, you can’t pass up this opportunity.” New York had plenty of them, but few meant more than getting in print.

“We’ll meet tomorrow.”

“I’ll tell Clover.” Her feigned struggle was trapped in my head.

“You do that.” Anthony hung up and I got up from the table.

I dressed in a pinstriped suit, a black shirt with a silver tie, and pointy shoe black suede shoes. She liked businessmen. I’d pound on her door. She’d open up. Drawn curtains would provide the cover of night. The rest of the scene would be financed by the $100 in my wallet.

The sky was cloudless over 1st Avenue. I climbed the stairs to her flat. The door was gone and a suitcase lay on the living floor.

“What’s with the door?” Thieves overran the East Village.

“An art dealer bought Jean-Michel’s door for $10,000.”

“You’re joking.”

“I thought he was, but he paid me in cash.” Clover held an airline ticket. “I’m leaving for Berlin to be free from that Texan once and for all.”

“What about our photo-roman?” I was thinking of more than the photographs.

“Ask your girlfriend to help you. With a wig she could double for me.” She handed me the bag. “Help me get a cab.”

“What about your stuff?” Her apartment was fully furnished in early street refuse.

“Whatever you want, take. I’m starting a new life.”

On the street the first taxi stopped for her upraised hand. She kissed me on the lips.

“I didn’t mean anything the other day. Like you I’m a little crazy.” She pulled open the door and sat in the back of the Checker taxi.

“When are you coming back?”

“Hopefully never.” She shut the door and the taxi sped down the street to make the light at 1st Avenue.

I plundered her apartment for books and cooking utensils, leaving behind her clothing. They weren’t Alice’s style.

That evening we went to see Jean-Michel’s band. They played out of time. The Mudd Club crowd loved them.

The next afternoon I reviewed the shots with Anthony. We had enough to cover the storyline. A Hamptons gallery was offering a show. Alice was my date. The guests demanded to meet the girl in the photos. None of them read my text. Only five photos were sold. They were the ones with Clover in them.

On the train ride back to the city Alice asked, “Did you sleep with her?”

“No.”

“Did you fuck her?”

“No, but I thought about it.”

“That’s almost as bad as doing it, but I’m glad you didn’t.” She believed me, but started spending more time at her club than our apartment. Jean- Michel’s band played the basement twice. She hung out with his artist friends.

On a night of feminist comedy I heckled a man-hating lesbian icon. Her audience’s boos were stilled by my country-western poem about a man leaving a woman for good. Despite their applause Alice argued that I had ruined the night.

The living room sofa became my bed.

A punk disco hired me to work security. The Damned, Ramones, and Klaus performed on stage. I started an affair with a model from Buffalo. Our first sex was orchestrated by a bodiless porno director. Each time I attempted to leave, she begged for more and I gave more, however the guilt prevented my spending the night.

At 4AM the Lexington Line ran empty to Astor Place and I walked slowly across St. Mark’s Place to East 10th Street. I took my time entering the building and five minutes later I opened the apartment door with a litany of prepared excuses.

Alice was not alone.

Jean-Michel stood in the kitchen with brushes in his hand. A stick-figure nude crisscrossing Klimt with Munch and madness had been painted on the refrigerator.

“What are you doing?” I tried hard not to sound too awed by its mad majesty

“Painting a picture.” He wrote ‘crown of mania’ with a magic marker atop the refrigerator.

“He’s going to be in the next Whitney Biennial.” Alice was fully clothed, but her eyes couldn’t meet mine. His increasing success bestowed a power over women. They fell into bed with him.

Ours showed no sign of lovemaking. I had either been too early or too late. Either way I knew how to take my revenge.

“Thanks, you mind if we call it a night.”

“Not at all.” He wrote his name at the bottom. “See you around.”

Alice’s sleeping in the bed and me on the sofa was not his fault.

The next night I stayed with the model from Buffalo and the following morning returned to an empty apartment. My girlfriend had moved to a friend’s loft. The women in the East Village pilloried my betrayal, for they considered any model was as shallow as an evaporation stain on tenement roof.

I tried to prove them wrong.

Lisa moved into my apartment. Her agency sent her to London and I followed her stay at a studio behind the Chelsea football pitch. She visited various photographers. David Bailey shot her for Vogue. Every night there was an industry dinner at a fancy restaurant. She brought me home the doggie bag.

My days were divided between writing a screenplay about a homosexual falling in love with a fat woman and wandering through the former capitol of the British Empire. We saw the Psychedelic Furs in Fulham and caught the Damned at the Marquee. Lisa’s won a campaign for a lingerie ad. I finished the script and returned to New York. Lisa returned for Christmas. She gave me a leather coat from a Soho thrift store and I bought her gold earrings. New Year’s Eve was spent dancing at Studio 54. It was our last happy time.

To jumpstart her career her booker arranged dates with famous men. Movie stars called my apartment. Her photo appeared in the gossip column with a tennis player. Lisa came home late.

After the New Year her agency invited Lisa to Paris.

“I’ll call every day.” She kissed me at the gate of JFK. I took the subway back to the East Village.

Within a week she stopped answering the phone. I wrote scores of letters to her agency. They went unanswered and drugs softened my descent from grace.

In the next year Jean-Michel appeared on TV and magazine covers. His earnings for a painting approached the hundreds of thousands. Alice acted in several movies. My upstairs neighbor was nominated for an Oscar. Klaus sang with David Bowie. Clover sent a postcard from East Germany, writing that she was living with a commissar who resembled an older me with more scars.

I forgot why I came to New York.

In the summer of 1981 I worked construction to build an illegal nightclub in Chelsea. The owner ran short of funds in August. Arthur found a new source of cash from a Russian counterfeiter.

“He has this girlfriend from Buffalo. They met in Milan.” Arthur was telling me something without connecting the dots.

Lisa walked into the Continental on opening night to round out the coincidence.

I was the doorman and had the DJ play Human League’s DON’T YOU LOVE ME every time she walked through the door. Lisa never seemed to notice. I refrained from asking her reason for leaving. She had found a better deal.

The club’s clientele were faces from the movies, voices on LPs, and bodies from Vogue. Photos were forbidden, since rock stars puking on their shoes and cover girls making out with balding millionaires were ugly images in the light of day.

We closed at dawn.

I was lucky to wake before dusk.

Arthur, the owner, bribed the precinct cops every week. They never counted how much money it cost for the Continental stay open till dawn. Every insane incident was written into my journal. The editor from Heavy Metal said it would make a great book. I never changed the names to protect the innocent or the guilty.

One night the Russian investor ODed on heroin in the bathroom. Letting him die would have been so easy, but I revived him thinking Lisa would thank me. She was standing at the bar with Jean-Michel.

They were drinking Moet.

“Whatever happened to that photo-roman with Klaus?” Jean-Michel was struggling with the cork.

“The exhibition was a flop. We only sold a couple of photos.”

“I know. I bought one. Visitors to my place loved the photo of Clover and you walking down 42nd Street. You still have my painting on your refrigerator.”

“I never saw it.” Lisa had arrived at East 10th Street too late to see that work.

“You got rid of it.” Jean-Michel thought that I sold his artwork.

“I tried to chop ice out of the freezer and puncture the Freon.” This drunken search for ice cubes wasn’t the only stupid thing that I did with that fridge.

“Oh.” Jean-Michel poured two glasses of champagne. “Why did you stop writing? I mean I haven’t seen anything from you.”

“I went into a bookstore and saw thousands of novels, histories, poetry. Someone from my hometown had published a book. He even had my name. My mother called to say she had to hear about me being published from a stranger. Said the book was good, but asked why I changed the middle initial in my name. I told her it wasn’t me.”

“And you stopped?”

“Around then.” Lisa could share some of the blame with cocaine, although writers will use any excuse not to write. “Guess I’m saving up life experiences for a later date. I mean, there is no failure like premature success.”

“Wrong, there is no failure like giving up. I liked your story about the crazy girlfriend in the bathtub.” Jean-Michel sipped at his champagne glass like he might want a straw. “She really write on the walls?”

“She covered the walls with porno. It was better than anything I wrote.”

“Kandinsky was better than me, but I keep painting.”

“Maybe I’ll start again some day.”

Arthur signaled that it was time to pay the cops and I took the bribe to the door. Lisa came along.

“That story about the crazy girlfriend wasn’t about me?” Lisa had once walked barefoot through the Village for a week.

“Someone before you.” I looked over to the couch. Vadim was nodding in a stupor. “Shouldn’t you be taking care of your boyfriend?”

“This isn’t the first time he ODed. Probably won’t be the last either.” The neon light bounced a halo off her silvery hair. She touched my hand holding the paper bag. “I wanted you to know that I read all your letters. Maybe you can’t spell and your grammar is awful, but you can write. One more thing. Tell the DJ to stop playing that song.”

“Don’t you love me, baby?”

“Yes.” She went to the coat-check.

The brown paper bag in my hand contained enough cash for two flights to Paris.

Before I could offer my dream, Jean-Michel arrived with a fur coat.

“We’re going to another club.” She slid into the coat like a snake regaining its skin. “Take care of my boyfriend.”

They rode off in a limousine and I sat in the cop car. Even they knew Jean-Michel.

“We got him on possession and shook him down for some money. He gave us each a thousand. Didn’t blink. Don’t like arresting famous people. Or rich ones. Fucking pains in the ass.”

Right after New Year 1982 the Russian’s partner was murdered in front of the club. The FBI was involved in the investigation. So was Internal Affairs. Arthur said that my name was mentioned in connection to the murder/payoff scandal. I burned my journal as incriminating evidence and I fled New York for Paris.

The French welcomed outlaws with open arms. A trendy nightclub hired me to insult Parisians. I threw out Brigitte Bardot and asked Thierry Mugler to leave the place, but treated Francoise Hardy with utmost respect. No American had a better job in the City of Lights.

I traveled around Europe.

My trip to Berlin ended without finding Clover.

Upon my return I moved in with Candia, a beautiful Puerto Rican/Jewish singer. She was almost less than half my age.

I picked up spare jobs. One was translating a script about a junkie nymphette and her android. It was science fiction. A mistranslation of one word led to the screenplay being dropped by the Hollywood moneymen.

Lesson learned I wrote a version of FAUST set in a Paris nightclub, because the surest path to success is to copy someone else’s triumph. A French production house promised to fund GO-GO GIRLS FROM HELL. The three models cast in the leads recorded my song TAKE ME HIGHER. My upstairs neighbor from the East Village agreed to play the lead and I hit New York to break the record at the city’s most popular disco.

The bouncers welcomed me as a conquering hero. Over 5000 people crowded the club.

A gigantic painting stretched across the wall of the old theater blending the elements of slavery, struggle, illiteracy, and innocence.

It was unmistakeably a Basquiat.

The record in my hand shrank in size, then my ears remembered three girls singing ‘Take me higher’. The partygoers had come to dance not look at art and I hurried to the sound booth.

The DJ was my friend. Richard slipped the record onto the turntable without a listen. His hands let the needle fly over the vinyl. The stylus leapt over a bump on its first turn. The record was warped beyond playability. The dance floor stopped its movement.

“Bring me another copy and I’ll play it.” The DJ cued up RIDE THE WHITE HORSE.

The other two records were also potato chips.

Upon my return to Paris the three starlets announced their pregnancy. Their boyfriends were the culprits, but the women accused me of semi-immaculate conception. A film about the Devil frightened the movie company into withdrawing their backing and my tempestuous teenage girlfriend deserted me for an Italian. I wrote a poem across the street from her workplace. The police arrested me for vandalizing the UK Embassy.

My East Village upstairs neighbor went to Morocco to film a movie about God.

TAKE ME HIGHER became a jingle for OJ.

The money bought a ticket to the States.

The East Village had changed during my absence.

Alice migrated to pursue an LA movie career. Klaus had succumbed to AIDS. Restaurants dotted Avenue A and bars opened in old dope dens. Brash stockbrokers purchased Jean-Michel’s paintings for enormous sums of money. Their investment covered a lot of wall.

Art Forum decreed him as the promise of the future. Friends mentioned Jean- Michel to lend validity to their projects. A kid from the city making good was a fairy tale come true. Mine was simply a quiet nightmare.

In 1986 the Red Sox lost the World Series on an error by the first baseman. An albino producer hired me to write a script about a man and woman who fall in love during a hurricane. A 1964 Triumph motorcycle was my bonus for typing THE END. A pothole on Park Avenue swallowed the front wheel and the classic English bike skid into a parked car. It never rode the same.

WHERE THE HIGHWAY ENDS disappeared into the Hollywood reading piles. My knee popped out of joint on the basketball court. When I ended a relationship with a Spanish dancer, the old Puerto Rican woman across the hallway laid a chicken bones curse on my doorstep.

Sex remained a stranger for two years.

I did drugs enough for people to greet me, as if they were shocked that I was alive.

Nearing forty my dreams were lies not even I believed anymore. I transition from nightclubs to selling diamonds on 47th Street. My boss, Richie Boy, was a long-time friend. We knew each other from the clubs. His father, Manny, hated our behavior. He couldn’t fire either of us. We made big sales, but I hated me too.

One September night I was straggling home at dawn. Work started in two hours. A taxi stopped by the curb. The back window rolled down and a woman called out my name. It was Clover.

“Get in the car,” She ordered and I obeyed, because my feet were failing their task.

“How long have you been in town?” I settled into the seat.

“Back in the States about three years.” This older version of Clover had red hair. Tattoos spread over her skin like an art fungus. A designer dress with combat boots was a popular look with women not wanting any trouble from men.

“What happened to Berlin?”

“The commissar hated communism and decided to escape to the West. I followed.” Her body was no longer willowy and she didn’t seem to be able to find a comfortable position. “He was a bore as a capitalist.”

“Are you okay?”

“Had a motorcycle accident in Texas. A county cop ran a red light late for a date with his donuts. Broke my back. I’m lucky to be alive. Anyway I’m suing them for a million. My lawyer says I have a good case.” Clover instructed the driver to stop at her old St. Mark’s Place address. “What about you? I saw your name on a book?”

“That was someone else from my hometown. I remain a nobody.”

“Better than being a dead someone.” Her face grimaced with pain, as she turned to stop my helping her from the cab. “I have to learn how to do this on my own. It’ll get better with time.”

“I got your postcard. I even traveled to East Berlin to look for you.”

“Nobody could find me there. Were you hiding from the oilman?”

“Yeah, but I’m a creature of habits and returned to his golden cage. He was driving the motorcycle. He’s dead now, but he left me a little money and this apartment. He wasn’t as bad as I thought.” She leaned over and kissed me. “I wanted to do that then, but I was too crazy. Too late for us now. I like men in uniform and something tells me you never got any further than Boy Scouts. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. I’m opening a bar on Avenue B. Come and see me some time.”

The best and worst of the East Village filled her bar. Everyone was welcome. Her fascination with cops and firemen rivaled my nights holding hands with a bottle of beer.

“You’re getting too old for this.”Clover disapproved of my being alone. “You should have a wife and kids.”

“You’re one to talk.” Friends didn’t have to be nice to each other. “You have a clock ticking and one day your fertility timer is going to shut off. You ever think about that?”

“Every time I see a mother with a kid. What about you?”

“Every time I see a father.” I couldn’t stay angry at Clover. We were too much alike.

That summer we traveled to the Yucatan. I wrote a collection of short stories. She criticized my grammar, syntax, metaphors, and allegories, although not until each story had been completed.

“It’s like through time-shifted through the years.” The sun shined brightly on the dreamy Caribbean Sea. “Almost like you’re trying to recorrect your mistakes.”

“More like I’m reliving them.” Everyone on Isla de la Mujeres thought that we were lovers. We were better suited as friends.

“You know I used to always dream about warning that fourteen year-old girl not to go with the oilman. Life would have been so different. You probably should go to that kid staring out the window in English class and slap him in the head.”

“I’m not sure it would help with my spelling.” My fingers suffered dyslexia on the typewriter.

“You could always go back to grammar school.” Clover half-joked and I spent the rest of my stay in Yucatan combing my manuscript for errors.

Getting back to New York Clover introduced me to an agent. He could sell my book, if I corrected the typos. They were thousands of them and I went over the manuscript one last time.

The agent hand-delivered THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE IN-BETWEEN to a publisher. The middle fifty pages were missing from the long novella. Both the agent and publisher considered me unprofessional.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE IN-BETWEEN joined the photo-roman and
three warped copies of TAKE ME HIGHER in my great-grandfather’s sailing trunk. He had died at sea after his ship burned to the waterline.

Clover was right.

I was lucky to be alive.

On a July evening in 1988 I exited from my apartment to get beer from the bodega. Young people hurried to 10th Street bars in expectation of romance or a phone number to call. The men wore khakis and blue button down shirts and the women wore clothes worth a week’s salary. They shouted out a language of the young and I turned to walk to 1st Avenue.

A familiar face loomed from the night. It was Jean-Michel. His skin was tobacco ash grey and blood stained his shirtsleeves.

“You can’t walk around like that!” I pulled him out of the gutter.

“Why not?” He was as listless as a Voodoo puppet. “I’m famous. I have money. I can do what I want.”

“No, you can’t. The cops target blacks for anything. You know that.”

“Yeah, to make it all safe for these newcomers. I remember when this used to be our city.”

“Not anymore. C’mon, upstairs, I’ll give you a new shirt.”

“Thanks, I guess I could use a clean-up.”

His struggle up the stairs was pitiful. Inside my apartment I sat him on a kitchen chair.

“I remember coming here,” he slurred with a thick tongue. “I painted your refrigerator. I once painted a door and the girl got a half-million from a dealer. You were lucky too, right?”

“Something like that.”

He took off his shirt. I stared at his needle-tortured arms. “What the fuck are you doing to yourself?”

“You don’t understand what it’s like to be famous. And even worse is being me. Journalists write about me as if I were a Rosetta Stone to creativity. Dealers acclaim my work like I was the Second Coming of Surrealism, but I was just some kid whose craziness people can understand, only now I’m not a kid anymore.” He cleaned his arms with a paper towel and then gazed at my books. “You write any more?”

“Not really.” I handed him a white t-shirt, which he tugged over his head.

“That’s too bad, I really liked your stories.”

“You told me that before.” Plot schemes floated around my skull like airplanes waiting out a snowstorm’s end before a landing.

“Woody Allen said everyone has a book in them and it’s a good idea to keep it in them too.”

“Woody Allen never painted an IRA poem on the British embassy in Paris.”

“It was a love poem to a girlfriend.” I was surprised that anyone in New York had heard about this episode. “She worked across the street.”

“I’ve met Woody Allen. He isn’t so funny in person.”

“My girlfriend left me.”

“Not the first time and not the last. For me either.”

“I guess not.” I wondered if he had ever met Candia. Paris was only a six- hour flight from New York. He was famous. She was beautiful.

“You mind if I shoot up?” He pulled a wad of cash, a pencil, a needle, and two crystalline packets from his pocket.

“Go right ahead.”

“You want some?”

I shook my head and drank a glass of water, while he fixed up in the bathroom.

Four minutes later Jean-Michel emerged from the WC off the living room. He gazed at the Polaroids on my kitchen wall. Many of the faces dated back to the Seventies.

“You should come to my next opening. There are people to meet. Maybe even a literary agent and I’ll tout you as the next great Hemingway.”

“It’s too late to say that, but thanks for the offer.” I lifted my camera and pointed to the wall of Polaroids. “Can I add you to my collection.”

“Sure, as long as it’s not for Art.” He had forgiven that confrontation at the Kiev.

“No, only my wall.” I wished I had known him better. It wasn’t too late. “No one else will see it.”

“Then no one can steal my soul.” He posed with his arms behind his back. His face was an aged mirror of that young boy in the Kiev.

I pressed the button and the Polaroid popped out.

“I left you something in the bathroom.” Jean-Michel wasn’t interested in the result.

“Thanks.” As soon as the door shut, I searched the bathroom without finding any dope, but didn’t care, because he had left me something better.

A few week later he died of an overdose. His passing was mourned as a great loss to the art world, though as the years passed his style was dismissed as common. I always defended him, since legend can only protect a dead man so far.

Clover opened another bar on 14th Street. She instructed the bartenders to give me whatever I wanted to drink. We almost slept together on several occasions. I worked six months selling diamonds for Richie Boy and wrote six months in Asia.

In 1991 the store was robbed for $500,000 the day after I returned from Bali. Being a non-family member the police designated me suspect number one, until I passed the lie detector test.

I started writing again.

A film producer declared my novel about pornography ‘seventeen sex scenes searching a plot’ and later financed a film about teenage masturbation calling it ‘Art’.

A literary agent declared another novel about a Hamburg pimp as too fast a read. Her husband was so aroused by the book they he had sex with his wife for the first time in years. They divorced shortly afterwards.

Two scripts were advanced through the gauntlet of ‘nos’ only to be rejected as too European for the screen.

The diamond market was saturated with emigres from the old Soviet Union, who undercut the wholesale price, so my commission shrank year by year, but I still could afford my seasonal writing trip to the Orient.

I dated go-go girls in Thailand. The last one was like I was reliving MY FAIR LADY. I flew back to the States with less than $50 in the bank. Mem had gotten the rest. I called Clover from Bangkok.

“I’ll meet you at the airport.”

Each time I shut my eyes on the 747, Koh Lann floated on the silvery Gulf of Siam. My fiendish girlfriend danced a rattlesnake shimmy atop towering stiletto heels. Mem’s long hair swayed across boyish breasts. A stranger’s hands groped her skinny legs. Sleep had been almost impossible in economy class.

Landing at Newark Airport the passengers shuffled from the aircraft into a cool jet way and I put on a leather jacket for the first time in a year. The INS agent swiped a bar-code page through the computer scanner and stamped my passport. “Welcome to the States.”

The greeting gauntlet searched my face. Their frightening stare evaporated to a dull glare upon recognizing I was not a lover, family or friend. I trudged into the terminal like an exile to an obscure backwater, until a buxom redhead in the flimsy cotton shift broke from the anonymous scrum.

“Welcome to the Land of the Free.”

Heads swung on rubbernecks, as Clover lifted off a battered straw cowboy hat. Her marshmallow breasts squished from her tight red dress.

“Thanks for coming” I grinned at my long-time friend, hoping she couldn’t recognize it for phony. “I didn’t expect you to be here.’

“Hey, you asked for a ride and who am I to refuse a legend.”

Clover’s neck-to-ankles tattoos showed through her dress.

“Legend?” My upstairs neighbor from East 10th Street was playing the villain in a comic-book movie. My hillbilly girlfriend was in a sit-com. Several friends were millionaires. I was more like a forgotten rumor.

“Who else hit a home run for CBGBs to beat the Hell’s Angels in a softball game, dove off the cliff at Lake Minnewaska, or threw Brigitte Bardot out of a Paris nightclub?” Clover looked at my bag, dying to comment on my traveling light.

“Things get blown out of proportion with time.” The homer had been a double to tie the score before a game-ending fight, the dive was a feet-first leap, and the French star was a dowdy blonde woman.

“Now we’re saints like everyone here.” The emergence of other passengers collapsed her audience’s attention span like a gorilla sitting on lawn furniture. It was only 10pm and New York lay across the river.

“Saints would be pushing it.” I led the way through the exit. A state trooper eyed us with suspicion.

“Reformed sinners then.” Flat footsteps echoed into chrome-lit parking lot. The night had to be slow, if the State Trooper considered us a threat.

“Don’t say anything, I’m holding.” Clover grabbed my arm. Marijuana possession was a class B felony in the Garden State and we walked like two old lovers giving a forgotten romance one last shot.

Reaching a Cadillac ragtop, Clover treated the state trooper to a smile that he mustn’t have seen in a long time, because the officer commented, “Nice ride!”

“1964 De Ville.” She chuckled in a breathy whisper. “But I’m not sure, he’s talking about the car.”

“Think you’ll ever lose that soft spot for men in uniform.”

“Naw, I’m a sucker for a rut.” She hesitated before getting behind the wheel. “You want to drive?”

“I’ve been driving on the wrong side for too long.” My driving habits from Thailand were probably lethal on an American highway and I sat on the passenger side.

“Suit yourself.” Clover stomped on the gas and the tires squealed on the misted pavement. Merle Haggard boomed from the dashboard and I buckled my seat beat.

“You scared of my driving?”

“You don’t drive big cars for nothing.” A truck”s front wheel was within reach.

“Old cars get respect, if you drive them right.” The Caddy accelerated onto the highway. The flaming red hair suited a single woman in her forties. “Women too. I was beginning to think that you weren’t coming back.”

“I decided to get my novel published.” Today’s youth would buy my novel about punk rock in the 1970s. The New York Times would place MAYBE TOMORROW on the bestseller list.

“That the only reason?” Twenty years of friendship poured acid on my deception.

There was always more than one reason. I told the least embarrassing.

“My internet venture crashed and burned like a 747 slamming into an Iowa cornfield. Our investor absconded with the company funds. Only my partner’s connection with a Thai admiral had prevented our incarceration in the monkey house for embezzlement. I failed one more time.”

“Are you keeping count?”

“Lost count more like it.” Manhattan’s backwash illuminated the Meadowlands. Twenty-five years ago my best friend and I wagered which of us would appear on the Tonight Show. His having played at a wedding for Jay Leno didn’t win the bet.

“You okay?” Headlight painted a dappled mask on her face.

“Two years seem more like two seconds once I got off the plane.” Clover asked the right questions. “What about your ‘girlfriend’?”

“Mem and I were having bad times. I wanted to leave her, but didn’t know how.” The abridged version lasted less than two minutes. “A month ago Mem left to tell an old boyfriend good-bye. She didn’t return that night or week. I thought we were finished for good and I was off the hook, but hadn’t counted on her giving me a love potion. I couldn’t get rid of her.”

Even minus the really ugly moments, Clover winced, “Is there a cure for the love potion?”

“There isn’t any other than drink.”

“Well, I got plenty of that back at my bar, but you got what deserved from your girlfriend.”

“How so?”

“You were the one who wanted it to end, then changed your mind.”

“I was kind of stupid, but it’s all part of my on-going study into failure. All the gold I touch turns to dust.”

“Maybe because it was fool’s gold in the first place?” We descended into the Holland Tunnel and traffic steered clear of the lane-drifting Cadillac. “I saw your old upstairs neighbor at an art opening the other day.”

“He’s a big movie star now.”

“People were coming up to him, as if they knew him all his life. He had to escape in a cab. You can’t tell me you really want to be famous?”

“Not famous but at least well-known enough for someone to have read what I’ve written.”

“Good thing you’re not a baseball player. None of them get to the majors after 40.” Clover realized this ‘bad cop’ routine was not exactly the welcome wagon treatment and patted my hand. The tenderness helped salve the wounds. “You feel like doing anything special?”

“You mean other than flying back to Thailand?” Tribeca’s empty sidewalks harkened back to a bankrupt city of 1976.

“You really like it that much?”

“The only things I missed about America were my family, friends, and pizza. Pattaya was like New York in the 1970s.”

“Edgy?”

“Go-go girls, rent boys, and transvestites.”

“Nice to reminisce about, but tough to live through again.” After a few blocks of silence Clover said, “Sorry, sometimes it feels like I’m the only one left from those punk days.”

“Now there’s two of us.”

We stopped at Clover’s bar on East 14th Street. She told the bartender to get me stupid drunk and then chatted up an overweight stripper. I drank a lot of beers and eavesdropped on conversations. The pierced men boasted about sex and the punky women moaned about love, as if it were a lost art form. Any attempt to bridge this communication gap between the sexes was doomed by cell phones. By 2am the bartender hesitated serving me another beer and I staggered from the bar, plotting my escape.

Plan A was a four-month stint at the diamond exchange on 47th Street. Labor Day was less than a week away. By Christmas my bank account could afford another six months in Thailand. I was already counting the days till December 24th.

The next morning in my East Village apartment the telephone rang.

It was Mem. She was in a hotel room overlooking the Beach Road.

“I look at moon and think of you.”

“It’s day here. No moon. Why are you calling me?” There was a twelve-hour difference between here and Pattaya.

“You angry me?”

“You left me for another man.” She was probably wearing something sexy to hit the Marine Disco.

“Sorry, I no angel. He only friend. Not same you. He gone now. Can’t stop thinking about you, teelat.”

The dawn was breaking on the alleyway and the sky shone a brilliant blue. It was a beautiful day to travel north to see my family in Boston, but I was sick and said, “I think you gave me a love potion and now I’m having withdrawal symptoms. Can’t sleep. Can’t eat.”

“I never poison you.” 26 is old for the farang game in Pattaya and she needed to settle down with someone fast. “I can’t sleep samme. When you come back?”

“Soon as I can.” I barely had bus fare to Boston.

“I wait for you.” She had said the same words to a hundred men, hoping one of them would make it the last time.

“Maybe I’ll come back next week.” My father was good for a loan.

“Rak khun!” She almost sounded like she meant it.

Labor Day weekend I caught the Chinatown express bus to Boston.

My father and I drove to my sister’s camp on Watchit Pond. The air was clean and the pine trees taller than I remembered. I swam across the lake. My nephew, Buddy, rowed alongside to my uncle’s camp. Under the whispering pines we ate lobster. Everyone asked about Thailand. My stories about drinking contests with elephants diverted their questions about a wedding date. For the first time since I left Pattaya, I felt like I was home.

That evening the stars numbered in the millions, as my brother-in-law drove his speedboat around the lake. Hearing about Thailand, the career headhunter groaned, “Going back would be a big mistake.”

“Nothing bad’s going to happen.”

“I see in the papers that western guys commit suicide there a lot.”

“Some.” I had seen two.

“Why?” He refilled our glasses with vodka-lemonade.

“Because they don’t want to come back home.”

“And you?”

“This camp is more home than my apartment in New York and it belongs to you. By the way don’t tell your wife about these stories. I don’t want them to know how stupid I am.”

A loon cried out from the black waters and David shoved the outboard full out for the run to the camp.

“There’s nothing wrong with being a fool as long as you’re the only person you hurt.”

The next morning my father and I headed south to beat the holiday traffic. At South Station he asked, if I needed a few thousand dollars. He had already lent more than was wise for a man in his eighties. I thanked him for the check and got on the train.

Four hours later I was in my apartment. The city on a holiday weekend was almost empty. Clover invited me to dinner. After dessert she offered a job managing her bar.

“I’m too old for that. Working nights had nearly been the death of me.”

“So how you going to make money?” Clover poured two glasses of tequila.

“Get an advance for my novel.”

“I can’t say the world has been waiting for a book about punk rock kidnappers. Why don’t you write something people want?”

“I wish I knew what that was.”

“So what’s the real plan?”

“Rob a bank.”

“First-time bank robbers have a funny way of getting killed or going to jail. Don’t you have anything to sell?”

My TV was worth maybe $100. CD player another hundred. The cartoonish portrait on Clover’s wall had been painted by an East Village artist during the Eighties’s art bubble. Recently he had been showcased at a MOMA show. I didn’t have any of his works, but possessed something even better.

“How much you think a drawing by Jean-Michel is worth? He once painted my refrigerator. Not for me, but Alice. I thought she slept with him.”

“He slept with a lot of girls then, but never Alice as far as I know.”

“Was he any good?” It shouldn’t have mattered twenty years after the fact.

“Better than he was a painter.” She refilled our tequila glasses. “But there’s no accounting for taste. A friend of mine recently sold a small painting for $200,000.”

“How small?”

“It was on a breadbox, but works of art by dead artist are like beachfront property. No one’s making any more of it, unless it’s a fake.”

“No, whatever I have is real.”

“Then you got nothing to worry about.” Clover wrote down a telephone number. “Call this guy. He’s a collector of East Village art. That should cover the flight to your precious Thailand.”

I stuck the number in my pocket. The money would smooth over my problems with Mem. I would write the greatest novel in history. I clinked glasses with Clover.

“Nothing like a friend who’s familiar with all your bad habits.”

“And shares a few of them. Let’s go to my bar.”

At her bar we played pinball, while listening to the Ataris, Damned and Dead Boys on the stereo. Two skinny blondes from NYU heard my tale about a haunted schoolhouse in Ireland, where ponies dancing on sunlight barrens and the conversations of Europe died as half-whispers at night. Clover evicted us at 4am and the co-eds walked me home. Neither was drunk enough to accept my offer and truthfully I didn’t want to sleep with me either.

I woke to the telephone ringing and the September sunlight flooded my eyes like a river of gravel. The art dealer spoke on the answering machine. Clover must have given him my number. He hung up before I could reach the phone.

My great-grandfather’s sailing trunk held piles of childhood photos. I threw postcards from friends’ vacations and my mother’s birthday cards thrown on the floor. Forgotten manuscripts cascaded under the couch. I momentarily feared my subleasee might have stolen the object of my search, however the sketch fell from a manila envelope along with a crinkled Polaroid.

Jean Michel’s smile could have been mistaken for a smirk. His memento in the bathroom was a small drawing. If I hadn’t known any better, I would have guessed that my nephew had drawn the crude image of a cat, but the scrawl of ‘three-eared cat’ had once been sprayed across the Lower East Side.

I called the art dealer and he asked about ‘provenance’. “There are a lot of fakes on the market.”

“Mine’s the real thing. Come over and see for yourself.”

He set an appointment and I biked over to St. Mark’s bookstore, where I examined Basquiat catalogue. The handwriting matched the drawing. I returned to my apartment to tell Mem about staying a little longer. The phone rang for a long time. It was 5 in the morning in Pattaya. She should have been home. I was about to hang up, when she answered in Thai. She only spoke her language, if the Italian boyfriend was present.

“I’ll be there in a few days.” Any delay risked losing her.

A nearby picture framer did the rush job for an extra $20. I hung the drawing at eye-level on my living room wall. It didn’t look worth more than the price of the frame. The art dealer arrived on time. Tall and thin as an extraterrestrial he surveyed my apartment.

The bathtub was in the kitchen. The toilet rested in a water closet. The plaster walls were originals, Thomas Edison might have installed the electrical system, and the light in the living room was southern.

“I like how you’ve done your place in Una-bomber fashion.”

“I’m trying to maintain its historical authenticity.”

“Where’s the Basquiat?”

“It’s on the wall.” I pointed to the drawing.

“What about the painting on the refrigerator?”

“Oh, gone. I came home to find Jean-Michel painting the refrigerator. I threw him out and had my girlfriend wipe it off the door.”

“Wiped off?”

“Yep, but there was still a shadow of the painting.”

“Where the refrigerator now?”

“I chipped at the solid block of ice in the freezer for cubes. The knife pierced the coil. I threw it in the street.”

“You have any idea what that was worth!”

“Yeah.” Anyone who had heard the story had priced of my jealousy in the hundreds of thousands. “So what about the drawing?”

The art dealer examined it for two seconds.

“Last year you could have gotten about $10,000, but the best price for the moment would be $2500.”

A ticket to Bangkok cost $800. $1700 went quick in Pattaya. As an expert failurolgist I recognized the shrinkage of my options.

“Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll keep the drawing.”

“If you change your mind, call me.” He dropped his card on the table.

After he left, it went in the trash and I wondered what I was trying to prove by saving an ex-go-go dancer better cast in THE BLUE ANGEL than MR FAIR LADY. My role as a foolish professor could only be dispelled on the basketball courts of Tompkins Square and I dressed for a long afternoon playing power forward. Someone knocked on the door, as I was pulling on my knee guards. It was Clover.

“That dealer wanted to buy the refrigerator.”

“He must have been disappointed to hear what happened to it.”

“Yeah, he was about the hundredth person to comment on the cost of jealousy.”

“I told Jean-Michel how you had your girlfriend wipe off his painting.”

“What did he say?” He had known all about it the last time he came to my apartment.

“He had a good laugh.”

“Yeah, I’m a real comedian and it looks like Mr. Funny Man is staying here.”

“That’s good news.” She caressed my new fridge like she wished she hadn’t sold her door for such a small price.

“Yeah, if you can’t make it here, you can’t make it anywhere.”

“You are too hard on yourself.”

“No, I’m living under a curse.”

“Not the Thai girlfriend kind?”

“No, homegrown, remember that story about my girlfriend going nuts.”

“The writing on the bathroom wall?”

“What stopped me from joining her in the tub was her showing her breasts. Even with her permission it didn’t seem right and she said that I was a ne’er- do-well and that I would never amount to anything.”

“The curse?”

“From 1974 to now.” Whereas I could accept every failure as my responsibility, I didn’t mind having an external force to blame as the scapegoat. “I was scared to be bad.”

“There’s no curse. You’ve done bad things. So have I, but at least now we try and be good.”

“The key to triumph is in the first syllable.”

“I’m old enough to remember reading that off a Salada tea bag.” Clover stopped a second, as if the tea bag might have said something else. “You know I hear people say Jean-Michel wasn’t a great artist. They never saw how beautiful he was in those first years. Or how powerful his paintings were, because fame is a fat juggernaut crushing anyone who stands in its way. Fifteen seconds and next in line, but he was successful. He was famous, but now he’s dead and until someone comes back from the dead and tells me they’re serving peach Melbas on lawn chairs I’m happy right where I am and you should be too. Life isn’t about being on TV, but living, so you can fail right up to the time of your death as long as you don’t give up. Van Gogh didn’t sell any paintings while he was alive.”

“Thanks for another curse.”

“One more couldn’t hurt.” Clover laughed with the ruthless of a woman whose beauty has become a memory and I joined her, because failure is not a game of inches, but yards. “Darwin promoted survival of the fittest. And I used to look at people who were successful and think it’s more survival of the luckiest.”

“And now?” Clover picked up my basketball and threw the ball at my chest. I caught it with both hands.

“And now I’m happy to be here.”

“And I’m glad you’re here too. Alive.” Clover invited me to dinner. I promised to be on time. We walked out of my apartment together. She headed across the street to buy raviolis. I was a nobody, but so was most of everyone else. Jimmie the Pasta Guy was smoking a cigarette in front of his store and yelled out, “Gonna put another L in the loss column.”

“I got a few more wins left in me.” I bounced the ball on the sidewalk and lifted my eyes. The yam pla duk foo would have to wait as well as my sleeping with Mem, but the sky was changing color to an early evening shade of autumn and the passing mailman joked about exacting revenge for his last losses. The tribe of nobodies was growing in numbers.

The Russian masseur on the steps of the Baths asked, if I was renewing my membership. The bells in St. Nicholas’ red brick tower chimed out the hour and my sneakers hung from the traffic light on Avenue A. Reaching the park I was greeted by the long-time players like Willis Reed limping from the dressing room for the final game of the 1970 championship.

My shot from the top of the key missed the basket by two feet.

The courtside crowd joked I hadn’t lost my touch. I rebounded the carom and launched the ball with both hands. My first attempt hit the rim. So did my third try. Sooner or later one had to go in and I wasn’t leaving until the ball was all net.

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