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Wilcox (Uncommon Martyrs, 1991), a nice kid from the sticks, came to New York City with dreams of living the hip life in the '60s and turning out great art. To judge by this memoir, he wound up spending most of his days chasing down free drinks and cheap thrills at Manhattan dives, whose patrons he evokes with affection: "Stanley's wife, a swollen goose egg perched on the edge of her stool, swills down oceans of vodka. She yawns, derisively, at the screwballs who love her bar. Exiles, fugitives, and chasers of shadows squeeze into Stanley's." It is a time of squatters' flats, "hippie chicks," heroin, Bob Dylan, a time frequently measured, for Wilcox, in shot glasses. He recalls working high-building construction, always drunk ("the concrete floor of each completed deck is littered with beer cans and broken half pints of liquor"), recounts avoiding the draft by flummoxing the army psychiatrist with arguments that all people have homosexual tendencies, remembers hard days on the street, drug ripoffs, racial hatred. He has a deft touch for conjuring up the right period details, especially the inane stoned conversations that marked the era ("Hobbits got their shit together. Kind of like beats, man. Kind of like us, only better, man"). Still, although reasonably well written, the memoir carries a certain emptiness: Not much seems to have happened to Wilcox, apart from the usual bad trips and a few exceptionally nasty hangovers, and we see little self-reflection and even less self-discovery in the course of his narrative. Charles Bukowski covered this beat much better from the vantage of the West Coast; so, too, did Emmett Grogan, whose New York memoir, Ringolevio, runs rings around this book.
Add this to the long been-there-done-that shelf of '60s autobiography.
Going into Exile
"Who? Who is it I'm talking to? Who's there?"
"Flemington, is that you? Can you open the door. I'm wet. Really soaked."
"Don't you remember? From the university. I tried to call you. Couldn't find a phone that worked. Just walked down from the bus station. I wrote ..."
The speaker goes dead. Old newspapers cling to the doorway. Candy wrappers, napkins, and cigarette butts litter the floor. On the landing, behind the smoky glass panel of the second door, someone is screaming:
"Well, he's not one of my `boys', that's for sure. He must be one of yours, Flem ... ing ... ton."
"Oh really? One of mine? Just what does that mean? What might you be insinuating? What slander this time?"
"You know, Miss Fleming."
"I don't know, Miss Rock-riquez."
"Oh, you don't?"
"Listen, bitch ..."
"I'll call the cops, Flemington. You know I will."
"Call them. They'll come and take you away to Bellevue where you belong."
"I really wouldn't be so sure, you little swish."
"That's it, Flemington. That's ... it ... I'm calling the police ... the landlord ... You're out ... it's back to Bellevue, orForty-Second street for you, baby ..."
Laughter. Slamming doors. Silence. The smell of stale garbage, marijuana, rancid beer.
"Flem, are you there?"
I push through the door, climbing the narrow stairs, feeling my way along a dark landing, past two or three doorways and into a tiny, poorly lighted room cluttered with boxes, piles of paper, books, and clothes. A path leads from the doorway to a foldout bed on which Flemington perches, eating something out of a paper container. I stand just inside the doorway, waiting to be invited to sit down. Flemington glances at me once or twice and continues eating.
He would march into our domitory's dining room, wearing a black cape and tapping his umbrella as he passed tables crowded with hungry students. "God," he would cry, "how can they expect us to dine with crocodiles? So ill-mannered. So," shuddering, "savage." After dinner we would gather in his room to drink Dubbonet and gin, and to listen to him recite passages from Breakfast at Tiffany's, "one of the most brilliant works of the twentieth century." Between recitations, he sucked on a long silver cigarette holder, regaling his audience with tales of mint juleps and ménage à trois, incest and eccentricity, madness and murder in his native, Faulknerian Mississippi.
I had written to Flemington, telling him I planned to escape from Clarion and would soon be coming to New York. "My door is always open," he replied. "Please know you will be most welcome here."
"Flemington? Is that you?"
"Of course, who did you think it would be, Captain Hook?"
"Well, I just arrived a couple of hours ago. Tried to call you. Bus took twenty-four hours. How are you?"
His eyes are sunk deep within their sockets, heavy-lidded, flat.
"They've turned off the electricity, so don't expect me to cook. What's so funny? I forgot to pay the bill, that's all."
"Nothing, Flem. I just thought ... well, I guess I didn't expect ..."
"Who really gives a damn what you expected. The thing is, I really can't ask you to stay here for more than a day or two. You see," waving his chopsticks about the cluttered room, "I'm terribly busy. And ... oh God, why? Why must I explain everything to you? There now, set your valise right over there. Yes, that will be your own little corner. You can make," smiling and conducting with his chopsticks, "a nest over there. Nothing permanent, mind you. Everyone in New York wants to live ... somewhere ... Many, it now appears, right here ... But I do not allow permanent nests in my home. Don't you see," bending forward in his chair and whispering into his cupped right hand, "people do come and go. Appear and disappear, always clamoring for a nest. But they shan't have mine. I've incurred some debts, and acquired a few enemies ... but ... this little nest, squalid as it may appear to YOU ... is ... MINE. Besides, I don't want the police here, do you understand? My nerves just aren't up to it."
We sit in silence, Flemington cocking his head from side to side, as though trying to listen to his visitor's thoughts. Sirens. Glass smashing in the airshalf. The humming of a space heater. Flemington, eyes still closed, struggling from his chair, threading his way through piles of rubbish, dialing and whispering into the phone's receiver.
The bathroom is tiny, but warm and safe. I wash my face, brush my teeth, the mirror steaming over. Mother was in bed with a migraine headache when I left. Tiny wands of light threading through the blinds, probing her mouse-colored hair, tapping her miniature nose. A vaporizer spitting out medicinal clouds. A clock ticking heavily. The furnace rattling. Doors slamming downstairs. The wands of light lacked magic; she didn't turn into a princess. "Mother," I whispered, standing away from the bed. "I'm going now. I have to catch a bus." Her eyelids were damp and veiny, and her eyes sea blue. No, that's hackneyed. Irish? When Irish eyes are smiling.
When I was a little boy I picked huge bouquets of daffodils from a neighbor's yard and gave them to her. "M is for the million things she gave me. O means only that she's growing old. T is for the times she tried to ... T is for the times she tried to tell ... Put them all together they spell MOTHER, a word that means the world to me." Eyes blue as ... crocodiles ... blue as ... horsewhips ... blue as ... Mary Magdalene ... blue as ... Christ's wounds ... blue, surely, as a mother's suffering.
"I can't see you, come closer." The hand rising, fluttering, falling. "You're really going?"
"Yes, mother, I'm going."
"And you have everything?"
"Clean underwear, socks, your toothbrush?"
The wands were fading. She adjusted the covers, sighed heavily, examined the back of her right hand for a moment.
"Will you be coming back?"
"I don't know ..."
"Will you find a job ...?"
"But, where will you live? What if something happens. What if you get hurt or you're sick. We won't even know where ... or how to help ... if you're killed ..."
"I'm not going to get hurt, and if I get killed, well, I won't be very concerned about calling you then, will I?"
She sobbed once, twice, opening her eyes and quickly closing them again. I bent down and kissed her on the forehead. "Dad is waiting in the car. Goodbye," I said. "I've got to go now." She did not reply.
The bus was idling, its windows opaque with grit. I bought a one-way ticket to New York City and stood waiting beside my father. We had fought with words and with our fists. He had called me sick, and I called him stupid. He mocked my desire to write poetry, and I laughed and told him he was illiterate. He said I wasn't a man. I replied that he was a lousy father. He told me to pray, I reminded him that God was dead, the universe empty, his faith a form of superstition.
I wanted to be back frying catfish with my dad on a sandbar in the Des Moines river, great flashes of heat lightning, a scimitar moon, our campfire glowing on the slow-moving black water, and waking before dawn to the aroma of bacon and eggs on winter mornings, our guns cleaned and oiled and inserted, with great care, into their cases. For two years I carried an unloaded .410 shotgun through ditches and fields and woods, my dad watching every motion, pointing out mistakes, praising the right movements, training me in the proper use of a deadly weapon.
We moved through tangles of frozen cornstocks, guns held in the crook of our arms, threading our way into ditches filled with glass-hard weeds and THUMPSWOOSH, a pheasant squawking wings pounding, my dad pumping his .20 gauge, the bird spinning wide-eyed with surprise to the ground. My father sliced open the quarry's stomach, shook its steaming guts onto the snow, and stuffed the bird into his field jacket. We crunched on, into the arctic wind, over barbed wire fences that sang like coyotes, passing mysterious hieroglyphics in the snow, studying tracks that stopped midstep, as though mouse or rabbit had learned to fly. My warrior hero leading the way, teaching me the things that his father and his father before him had taught boys who wanted to become men.
And then one morning in a windswept cornfield, cradling my shoutgun under my arm, a headless rabbit bleeding in the snow at my feet, I knew that I didn't want that anymore. Like my belief in God, the excitement of the hunt faded, inexplicably, away.
"Dad," I said.
I wanted to say that deep down under layers of anger and hurt and self-pity were memories of trolling for pike on a Canadian lake, nights drinking good Canadian beer, telling stories by the fire, just the two of us in a small wooden cabin listening to the rain on the tin roof and the flames dying in the cast-iron stove, curling into our sleeping bags, the wind gently slapping at the windows, great fish leaping toward the stars, we could hear them.
"Well, so long dad."
We shook hands and I boarded the bus. I had lied to my mother and father, telling them that I was simply going on another adventure, that after chasing a few more shadows I would return to school, finish my degree, get a job and settle down. I did not tell them that the Greyhound was an immigrant ship, setting sail for the new world, taking me into exile. Not for a week or a month or even a few years, but for the rest of my life. The bus choked once or twice and began to move. I waved; my father wasn't there.
Flemington is sitting on the couch, apparently asleep. The buzzer rings, and he leaps to his feet, yanking off the chain lock and throwing open the door. A man in a black trench coat waddles into the apartment, blinking and twisting his head about like a bewildered groundhog.
"Oh, I see," he groans, waving one chubby hand toward me.
"No you don't, Paul," Flemington shouts. "No ... you ... don't ..."
"No one," Flemington replies, "no one I really know anyway."
"I see," the man sighs. "I do see, Flemington."
Flemington drapes his cape over his shoulders, kicks a path through piles of books and papers and laundry, stops:
"Don't make any long-distance calls," he warns. "And under no circumstances should you answer questions from my creditors. If anyone comes to the door, tell them I'm recently deceased, and you're the new tenant."
I stay in Flemington's nest, sleeping until late afternoon, then scribbling in my diary or composing poems until it is too dark to write ... High on Ritalin and beer, I travel the city, absorbing its sounds, adopting its inflections and rhythms. Buildings tower over me, subways roar beneath my feet. Behind a million curtains, families are sitting down to dinner, schoolchildren are doing their homework, men and women are complaining about their jobs, couples are making love.
Just weeks ago, I stood by the barred windows of Clarion State Hospital, my heart pumping rage instead of blood to my brain, planning my escape, plotting my getaway not just from the snakepit but from my family, my friends, my hometown, home state, everyone and everything I had ever known. Sooner or later I would walk out of there, either on their terms, or mine, it made no difference. Hatred would be my friend, my confidant, my source of inspiration. Anger would fuel my dreams, feed my hunger, fill up my lonliness, instruct my vision, inspire my poetry.
I ride the subway for hours, getting off at random stops and wandering past vacant lots crammed with battered, burned-out cars, past buildings that lean out over the sidewalk, as though trying to shake the people inside out into the street, past children playing hopscotch and stickball and people sitting on stoops, drinking wine and smoking reefer, staring with bitter indifference at this poor dumb white boy looking for drugs or sex or God-knows-what-action, but this is Harlem, motherfucker, not Nebraska, this is the Bronx, not Iowa, you stupid whitebread faggot. So drunk one night that I wet my pants following three pimps toward their promise of "free hot pussy" into a dank little cave where they punch and kick me, ripping my clothes open with their switch blades while the bartender watches t.v. and I stumble into the street, calling to a mounted cop that I've been robbed, I've been rolled, I've been beaten, and the cop bends far over the grand neck of his very grand horse. "Are you the guy from Ohio that's been causing all the trouble around here lately?" he shouts. "Take a hike, o.k., before I take you in."
I fill out an application at the New York State employment agency, hesitating when I reach the last two lines:
Have you ever been in a psychiatric facility or mental hospital? If so, please explain.
"Something you don't understand?" the interviewer asks.
"Oh, no, just a mote in my eye."
The interviewer is a middle-aged woman, black horn-rim glasses hovering on the hump of her large nose, pink fingernails, rhinestone fish hanging from her ears. She says "youse" and "da" a lot, and she is very kind.
"Do you have an address?"
"Not really. I mean, Flemington doesn't like ... well, no."
"Can you type?"
"Yes, very well."
"Why don't you go back to college? I see you've finished three semesters?"
"Well, my mother got sick, and my father passed away, and my sister is an alcoholic, and I just couldn't afford ..."
"Couldn't you borrow?"
"No one in your family would help?"
"No one in my family has any money."
"I see, but you dropped out of college more than a year and a half ago. Whaddya been doin' all dis time? I mean, if we send you to an employer, they're gonna want to know dat. It's really not good to have these big gaps in your work history, ya know? Particularly if youse can't explain what ya been doin'."
"I've been working," I lie.
"Why don't youse fill in that part?"
"They were just temporary jobs. Youse know," I say, starting to imitate her accent. "Diggin' ditches. Washin' dishes. Spent a little time as an orderly in a psychiatric hospital, ya know?"
"Oh," she says, her hand brailing across my application. "Must a been rather tryin' work."
"Yeah, very tough."
"I had an aunt who was sick once."
"Yeah. Thought she was Emily Dickinson."
"The hermit of Amherst?"
"Wrote some big paper on Miss Dickinson, studied everything dere was ta know about her life, ya know, and couldn't draw the line between herself and ..."
"Did she write poetry?"
"Yeah, but it was bad. Sounded terrible."
"How did you know that?"
"It was just silly, that's all."
"Because she was crazy?"
"All poets are crazy, aren't they?"
"Well, my aunt really believed ..."
"What did you do with her?"
"We had to, well she couldn't, I mean we weren't able ..."
"You locked her up?"
"Put her in the nuthouse?"
"Right, a facility."
"That's what we called it."
"Why didn't you just call her Emily?"
"Did she ever write anything like this?"
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
"Yeah, sad things like that, always about death and things."
"Maybe she really was Emily Dickinson."
The interviewer shuffles through a stack of cards and, removing one, smiles.
"I've got it. You're from Idaho. You must know a lot about trees, am I right?"
"Whatever, but trees, right?"
"Yes, I know a lot about trees."
"Youse go up to the Parks Department. They're lookin' for supervisors, someone who knows all about trees, to help spruce up the city for the World's Fair."
The job turns out to be little more than standing on street corners, or sitting in bars, watching Italian laborers smash holes into sidewalks, dig down a few feet, and toss in a London Plain tree. I'm supposed to make sure that the holes are at least two feet deep, that the trees have a three-inch circumference, and that the crews don't chop through any gas or water mains. We plant trees across 125th Street, up and down Lenox Avenue, back over into Spanish Harlem. The workers ignore me, pretending not to understand English when I wrap my little tape measure around a tree and, finding that it's too thin, demand they send it back to the nursery in New Jersey. The foreman buys me breakfast and lunch every day, hoping to distract me from doing my job.
"After all," he says, "no tourists in their right fucking mind are gonna visit this neighborhood. Why should they? What's to see here, anyway? Trees look nice now, but the dogs are gonna piss on 'em, people'll smash into them with their cars, the junkies will dig them up and try to sell 'em, or chew off their bark hopin' to get high. Why bother? These people don't appreciate nothin'. Don't work for a livin', and don't give a shit about their own neighborhood, so why should we? Hey, live and let live, that's my motto. No sweat off my balls as long as I get paid. Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke, right?"
I walk through Harlem, a briefcase stuffed with blueprints under my arm, trying to look important. When I stand on the sidewalk watching the workers dig, people stop to stare, to chat, or to curse me. "Mother Sands" waves her hankey over each new hole, chanting and singing—she sounds a lot like Billie Holliday—for the "soul of these little baby trees." I give her fifty cents for each blessing and she says a little prayer for my soul too. A gang strolls by, dressed in identical coats, stopping, staring at me, then at the workers in the hole, back to me. "What the fuck, man," their leader demands. "I mean, you're white, that why you're not down there diggin' in them holes? Why you plantin' trees around here anyway? How come trees, man? I don't see no fuckin' swimmin' pool, do you? Kids swim in trees? We eat trees? Pay the motherfuckin' rent with trees? Fuck your trees, man. I say FUCK your trees, you dig?"
I tell them that I'm just working for the city of New York, and they shrug, spit, stare hatred into my bones. I tell them that I'm just tryin' to earn some money, that I don't own the goddamn trees, or the sidewalks, or the city. "Fuck you," I say with my own eyes, staring back at them until their leader steps forward, nose inches from mine, eyes burning. I watch his hands, waiting for the move and suddenly he is laughing. "Forget this shit, man," he says. "Leave the cracker alone. He cool, man. He be real cool."
After work I stop into Stanley's, a Lower East Side bar I stumbled into during one of my late-night rambles through Manhattan. A cluster of old beats sit by the window, stroking their ancient mustaches and beards, waiting for Godot or Kerouac or some voyeuristic kid from uptown who's dying to screw poets who refuse to remove their shades, even while they're balling chicks. The old beats arrived in Stanley's shortly before the birth of Jesus, and now they sit by their window, sipping Pernod and watching the parade of aspiring bohemians parade along Avenue B. Late afternoon and the fledglings pour in, shoving out the Polish drunks who snore, heads on their arms, at the bar. Stanley's wife, a swollen goose egg perched on the edge of her stool, swills down oceans of vodka. She yawns, derisively, at the screwballs who love her bar. Exiles, fugitives, and chasers of shadows squeeze into Stanely's. The old Mandarins sit by their window, regal, distant, and almost always drifting out the door and away down Avenue B with some precious young thing in black tights, a brand new beret, handmade leather sandals, the real McCoy shades, and a blond mane that falls to the tip of her horsey swinging Long Island hips.
The bartender flirts with me, buys me drinks, and introduces me to other patrons. His name is Alfie and during his break he takes me upstairs to his pad, shrugging and laughing and offering me a joint when I say no to his advances. "Oh hell, honey, it was worth a try, wasn't it? I figured you weren't gay, but you are cute, that's for sure. No offense. Let's be friends. I just can't help it. I get so horny around this time of month, you know, right before my period."
Alfie's roommate and "sort of" lover is an expressionistic painter who works exclusively with dark colors, creating portraits of gang members and street boys on huge, eight-by-ten canvases. He turns his models into fierce creatures with giant gargoyle heads and claw-like hands and feet. "Oh, yes," Alfie giggles. "Miss Morgan does have quite an imagination, doesn't she? Reminds you of the painter Munch, don't you think so? He has this rather morbid thing about gang members. You know, anyone who looks and acts really really bad. Of course, his true motive is that he wants to do them, or have them do him, but meanwhile he paints them ... with their clothes on ... Poor little Morgan. So mixed up. He had a mad love affair with his own sister all through high school. Their parents would go out to dinner and Morgan and sis just raced into the bedroom, ripped off all their clothes, and had sex for hours. My goodness, and now he likes tough little boys. Has a rather one-track mind, though I would say he has some real talent, don't you think?"
We return to the bar, and Alfie introduces me to a man who claims to be a warlock and wants to know, leaning into my ear, if I have five thousand dollars to invest in "acid." "Never heard of it?" he laughs, draining the drink I've just bought him. "It's LSD. And I tell you, it casts a strange spell. A lot more fun than alcohol. Everyone down in D.C. is doing it. Jackie and her friends are wild about it. Even JFK. So if you can get five thousand dollars we'll buy a few thousand tabs, truck on down to Washington, come back with a load of cash." I tell the warlock that I don't have five thousand cents and he giggles, asks for another drink, and says he wants to sleep under my bed tonight. "Give you good vibes," he promises. But I don't have a bed, just a corner in Flemington's nest, and I'm about to lose that.
Flemington appears at odd hours, rushing in at 2:00 a.m., rummaging through papers, scribbling notes, counting out things, and stroking the walls as though searching for some hidden door. He appears startled to see me, and only mutters "Yes, to be sure," or "Indeed" when I attempt to talk to him. He paces about for hours, muttering, making phone calls, throwing himself in a dramatic heap on the bed and snoring for a while before slamming out the door. One morning Flemington returns in a jovial mood. "Here," he laughs, handing me a twenty-dollar bill. "You look positively famished. For God's sake go out and buy yourself something decent to eat."
When I return from breakfast, Flemington has already changed the locks on his door and I can hear him rummaging about inside his nest, singing an aria from one of his favorite operas, but he refuses to answer my knocking, and I walk to the Lower East Side and sit in Tompkins Square Park, watching the pigeons and winos and junkies, steam rising from the styrofoam cup warming my hands. Count. Count: $6.94. Count again: $6.98. The city wakes, commences its daily roar. Pigeons peck, squirrels scramble, dogs romp, fledglings shuffle by, scratching their heads, rubbing their drug-swollen eyes. The tree planting job has ended, a park bench is my new home. The city wakes, and I move into its flow, carried along by the excitment of nine million people swimming together in this frenzied little bowl.
I will sleep on tenement roofs and park benches, in junkie crash pads and abandoned lofts. The police will smack the bottom of my feet with their nightsticks and when I awaken blinking and dazed they'll order me to get the fuck down the street. I will fear them more than the gangs, the muggers, the junkies, the angry spades, more than anyone on the city's mean streets.
Excerpted from CHASING SHADOWS by Fred A. Wilcox. Copyright © 1996 by Fred Wilcox. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.
Posted December 8, 2012
Posted December 7, 2012
Posted December 8, 2012
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