Cleans Up Nicely

Cleans Up Nicely

by Linda Dahl Vogl


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When twenty-something artist Erica Mason moves from laid-back Mexico to Manhattan in the mid-1970s, she finds a hard-edged, decadent, and evolving art scene. Her life there leads her to a self-destructive string of affairs with men, alcohol, and drugs, but also, ultimately, to the self-respect that has long eluded her. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781938314384
Publisher: She Writes Press
Publication date: 08/25/2013
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with an honors degree in Latin American Studies, Linda Dahl worked as a freelance journalist in Mexico, Ecuador, and Brazil, with a particular interest in the arts. Based in New York since the mid 1970’s, her books reflect her interests in the arts and love of research. Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen (Pantheon, 1984) was called “a brilliant work of oral history” by Publishers Weekly. Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams (Pantheon, 2000), was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Haunted Heart: A Biography of Susannah McCorkle (University of Michigan Press, 2006), wrote Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic “is vivacious, tender, saturnine, industrious and deeply intelligent.” Her novel, Gringa in a Strange Land (Robert D. Reed Publishers), won the Writers in the Sky Award for Best Creative Writing of 2010. 
     Linda has just completed a new novel, Cleans Up Nicely, to be published in
2013 by She Writes Press.

Read an Excerpt

Cleans Up Nicely

By Linda Dahl

She Writes Press

Copyright © 2013 Linda Dahl
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-938314-38-4



Her destination, that summer of 1977, is a luxury apartment building, upper Fifth Avenue, a slice of New York life completely alien to her. After the doorman confirms she's expected and nods her toward the elevators, Erica crosses a sumptuous lobby tastefully decorated with white leather couches and stainless steel tables covered with lavish flower arrangements. She is shaking. She awkwardly recites the all-purpose, three-line mantra that Addie McC. has assured her will always help get her through any situation. In the paneled elevator, she rides to the floor below the penthouse, where Addie McC. ushers her into an apartment with yet more expanses of white; it feels like entering a thirties movie set—there's even a French bulldog to go with the expensive view of Central Park.

Addie hushes the little dog and stretches out her arms. Erica submits to her hug. She is beginning to get used to hugs from all those meetings in church basements. Or no: It's more about being accepted. Erica knows she is not at her best. She's pumpkin-faced with bloat yet skinny. Her paint-stained blue jeans are limp at the waist, her Che Guevara t-shirt sags, her good old Mexican sandals are kept alive with duct tape. Because these are the clothes that she's down to, now that she's hit bottom. Erica remembers, looking around Addie's glamorous apartment, nights when she could still pull off glam, and not that long ago. Midnight at a Harlem night-club with Scotty Jones, smooth alkie and hustler, qualities hidden behind bow ties and British-borrowed West Indian manners, taking her arm after she had stowed her secondhand Army-Navy cloth coat. Moth to butterfly in the simple, perfect black designer sheath that would have cost, what? Hundreds? Thousands? Erica had found it orphaned at the Salvation Army store in the bowels of the Lower East Side and paid her own small fortune, forty dollars, for it. Scotty had said, "Don't you clean up nicely?"

Well, Erica thinks, sinking into a pearl-toned linen chair in Addie's living room with the view, I'm a complete mess. I'm probably having a nervous breakdown. So why not do it here in the lap of luxury? God knows she can use a little. She watches Addie pour coffee into pretty porcelain cups. Erica has two cups, a Marlboro with each, and Addie lights a thin, jewel-toned cigarette, a vivid turquoise. Its elegance banishes even the idea of cancer.

"So how are you doing today?" Addie finally asks. "Really," she adds.

Erica doesn't have a fucking clue how she is doing. "Day thirteen."

Addie seems to understand this. "I used to sit and cry at my kitchen table when I was getting sober. Should I have Wheaties or corn flakes? I couldn't even pick out a breakfast cereal without crying. But 'it gets better.'"

In these two weeks without drinking, Erica is already getting used to this strange new A.A. culture, with its slogans for every occasion and serenity prayer and in-group lingo. She already knows she is Addie's "pigeon," a raw new recruit to the sober life. People don't talk, they "share" or "dump." That drunken travel is "taking a geographic cure." That alcoholics don't drink again, they "pick up" and "go out." Sitting her raggedy ass down in this luxurious apartment with a woman who's told her she was a mobster's moll, smokes jewel-colored cigarettes and of course, speaking of jewels, wears them—a diamond and ruby ring that for all her stunned fog, Erica lusts after—is just part of this new deal of not drinking and going to meetings.

Addie is short, with a perfect figure and a heart-shaped face, large green eyes with thickly fringed eyelashes, and chiseled red lips. It doesn't matter that she is no longer young. She will die gorgeous.

Erica met her in a church basement a few days before and then talked to her on the phone for hours. In the new basement culture, this means cutting to the chase, or the bone, a frightening and fascinating prospect, like facing surgery without an anesthetic. Erica gets that people in these basements raise their hands and talk about matters she is determined never to reveal. And then they reveal even more of it one-on-one to their sponsors. Erica is far from convinced this is a good idea, but she is entranced by their stories, and Addie's is a good one, a poor Jewish Cinderella from Flatbush, Brooklyn, growing up above the family's store. Dancing lessons scrimped and saved for and then paid off big-time, Addie in the chorus line, the apogee the glamorous Copacabana. There a mobster fell in love with her and bought her the great apartment and who knows what else. And then, more good luck for Addie, the mobster gets whacked and she gets to keep the goodies, she stops drinking and cleans up her act in A.A., then she falls in love with a proper man. There the Cinderella story ends. The proper man drops dead, boom, heart attack, and Addie ends up finally, alone. And sober. How strange is that, Erica thinks, I would have gotten well and truly wasted. The proper way to mourn. For reasons Erica does not yet understand, Addie not only did not "pick up," but seems eager to tell her such painful intimacies. Everything in this new world of sobriety that Erica has unwittingly entered is strange, possibly cultish, but also safe these days. These daze, she thinks, my first joke.

Addie McC. said last night on the phone that she'd be Erica's sponsor and invited Erica to lunch. Erica has walked, of course. Since she has virtually no money, she walks everywhere, all over the city to dozens of meetings. Or rather, all over the East Side. There are meetings at seven a.m., noon, six, seven, eight, mid-night in some places in the city, and Erica is on her shabby way. She has always walked around New York, but this daily plod, anxiety prickling like an invisible hair, is different, because there's no escape from herself. Every day she slaps her hair into a ponytail and maybe puts on some mascara and a t-shirt and jeans and dark glasses, then walks familiar busy streets and avenues, almost jogging at times to get to the meeting, as if her old self is trying to catch up with her and force her to duck into a liquor store or a bar.

Addie smiles now. "Feeling better than last night?"

"I guess so." And this might be true: Her sense of all the lights going out has segued into grey and even in this short time without the booze, the city seems to be expanding—she notices clouds scuttle across the sky now, a hot dog vendor laughing, and she smiles at a black street musician honking fart notes at a sour-faced grand dame who scuttles past him. New York, like her, just might be cleaning up. Really, they both have nowhere to go but up.

Erica follows her sponsor (what does that mean?) into the kitchen and sits at a round table with a beautiful Provençal tablecloth, a vase full of perfumed roses, and another slice of the park from a window. It is hot outside, the air heavy and sullen, but here it is cool and pristine.

Addie asks what she wants for lunch. Erica ponders. All she can manage is comfort food: eggs, bananas, ice cream, chocolate cake. And coffee and cigarettes, of course. She asks for a soft-boiled egg and a slice of toast.

Addie fixes herself a sandwich while the egg boils, makes toast, pours orange juice. "Here you go," she says.

Erica taps the egg with her knife. The shell splinters and she picks through chips of the shell; eating is difficult with her hands shaking.

"Want a sandwich instead?"

Erica's face reddens.

Some days later, Addie tells her she'd been drawn to her at once. "I could see you'd been hurt badly. It happens a lot to us women alcoholics." It seems the gangster had slapped her around for years.

Erica feels rooted to the floor of the current church basement, though this one's in a synagogue. It turns out there's a lot of Jewish alcoholics, too, at least in New York. Addie is at ease with her gangster abuser past, Erica can see that, but she can't imagine a time when she'll feel comfortable about hers. Let alone find comedy in the shameful/dangerous/ridiculous positions that alcoholics so often put themselves in, like many of the stories she's hearing at these meetings. Like the laughter when the fastidious, very southern Evert E., immaculate in jacket, bow tie, and matching handkerchief, drawls, "Well. I knew the end had come for me one morning when I woke up and—" (dramatic pause) "—discover that there I am, in bed between a little old wrinkled man and a little old wrinkled lady. Honey, even I knew I had to draw the line somewhere."

"When you're ready," Addie inserts, and Erica is back on track with fear and self-loathing, "You'll talk about the past. And learn to let it go. All the stuff that got you here."



It is March of 1975 when Erica Mason moves to Manhattan. Mexico had been good for a while, a lot of painting got done, some of it good, but more of it mediocre. At the end, she'd practically lived in that hammock on the beach while she got off the 'ludes. And she knew it was time to go back. Tail between her legs, back to Mom and Dad's, broke again. Got some boring job as a secretary, went almost nowhere, saved. The old crowd was gone, one way or another. College, jobs, drugs. A couple of them got married. Larry Lopez, one of her running buddies from college, was still around. They'd meet at that Mexican bar and try to recreate the anti-war days, then give up and just drink. And Sandra, who'd managed to combine being a sixties freak (it was still the sixties, as far as they were concerned) with a career, of all things. She was fun. In fact, it was Sandra who provided the wheels that got Erica out of Milwaukee again. They drove to New York through snow and sleet, stopping only at rest stops, to visit Sandra's friend Karin, who agreed Erica could stay at her place for two weeks while she looked for her own place.

So March will always feel like New York to Erica. High, sharp winds with trash and newspapers whipping around, sometimes hitting you in the face, one more shock in this shocking city. She has never been so much at the mercy of the weather. She plays tourist with Sandra during the day, and with Karin after she's done with her Wall Street secretary gig at night. The best part is the wondrous assortment of bars, glittering up and down the avenues of the East Side. When they get home from these rambles, Erica and Sandra squeeze onto the floor around Karin's pullout bed.

When Erica arrives at the Port Authority bus station, she can immediately see that New York City in 1975 lives up to everyone's worst fears back home. She's a shade too old for the pimps waiting for strays from the heartland, though several young black guys try to get her attention anyway. Trash swirls and has fallen everywhere, and a bitter March wind stings as she leverages her hard-sided, avocado American Tourister suitcase (high school graduation present), stooped over from her heavy backpack and listing to one side from her overstuffed Mexican shoulder bag. All around is noise, crowds, ugliness. A newspaper headline from a kiosk all but shrieks, "ABE SLASHES CITY HALL," which she will too soon be able to decipher. The pint-size mayor cutting away the meat from the city, now that the fat is gone. New York City is teetering on bankruptcy. The results of which Erica sees without understanding on her first sighting of the city. A picture of hell: aged junkie prostitutes, winos, crazies, horrid-looking shops offering fried stuff, the "underworld" feeding off the huge bus terminal. "We are the lost," they might suddenly break out singing in some imagined off-Broadway musical. And Erica feels sorry for them.

She gets a cab, a long ride from this underbelly of New York to the part of the city called "the fashionable East Side." Thank God she has a place to crash for a bit while she looks for her own place. The building is a white-brick (or is it plastic?) high-rise, surprisingly unattractive but "safe, safe, safe!" points out Karin, the friend of a friend who lives there along with two roommates in the little bitty boxy apartment.

"Oh my God, the Port Authority, it is so, so bad."

"New York is bad, you'll see, it's this terrible money crisis. Oh God, but it's so exciting too!" Karin, a fresh-faced Midwesterner, pours out bad white wine from a gallon jug and they all puff away on Marlboros or Virginia Slims. Erica, who is truly grateful for a place to stay, even if it has turned out to be a makeshift bed on the floor of the tiny living room of a bunch of airheads, reminds herself to be polite. She puts on what she calls her "face," feigning interest in their jobs at PR firms, on Wall Street, as headhunters. Modest, entry-level jobs, but the roomies all have hopes. And meanwhile, there are tons of singles bars around in which to meet men.

When one of the roomies asks her if it's true she's an artist, she says pleasantly, "Yes. I studied art in college. And then I lived in Mexico and, well, it was fascinating. But I got homesick," she adds. A strange word, Erica thinks. She had been sick of home as much as sick for home. "I sold some paintings in a couple little galleries, and this writer—Jack Reynolds from The New York Times? He was traveling around and met a bunch of us expats, sculptors, potters, painters, so he wrote this article about us." As much as anything, that's why Erica has come to New York. Because of Jack Reynolds and that article. Even though he'd moved to San Francisco.

On the second Friday of her stay, Erica moves into a YMCA, pleased with herself for finding this cheap place. Her Spartan room doesn't bother her: She's stayed in worse in Mexico, and this is clean. And quiet. Karin's high-pitched laugh and Sandra and the other one's bovine acceptance of what would bore Erica to drink, deepen Erica's embedded sense of aloneness. Which, she knows, is tinged with hostility. To her, it is logical to be an artist, and she never thinks of herself as a "kook," as Karin had called her. As in, "Oh, you kook!" Time to move on. Her Y room has a bed with an iron bedstead, a wobbly table, a lamp, and a recess with a pole to hang her clothes. The bathroom is down the hall, the cafeteria in the basement. Her plan is to buy the Village Voice the moment it comes out, find some apartment deals, and jump on them.

But the Y is not in a convenient location; it's far from the singles bars and cream brick high-rises of the Upper East Side's friend of a friend's apartment. In fact, it's in the middle of nowhere; it isn't a commercial area or a residential area. It is, like so much of New York in the 1970s, a half-abandoned area.

Walking and walking. Looking at apartments that are too expensive or too horrible. Walking through icy water spilled from overwhelmed drains, through garbage fallen from heaped bins and also tossed by junkies and cabdrivers and white girls in car coats with long hair. Nathan's hot dog wrappers, empty cans of Coke, pizza boxes. The worst is walking back to the Y from the subway through the long, dirty blocks.

But it is not entirely an empty area. In fact, Erica is figuring out, Manhattan is a movie always being made, shifting sets of characters looming up and then fading back into the shadows. Like the men who hang out outside the Y talking passionately to the sidewalk. Some of them wave dirt-encrusted arms or crutches, shuffle-dancing, holding their sacramental wine up to the pea-colored, late-winter sky. Many have grocery carts stuffed with bags. Some of the men turn out to be women. One, a tall, pale black man, stands out, wearing (only) a black garbage bag like a debutante's gown and high-top sneakers.

Erica thinks that is the worst she'll see. No. Near the scabrous 34th Street subway exit from which she emerges into the twilight trash night, at six o'clock after hunting apartments, a man leans against an armrest of trash, a watch cap beside him with a penny in it, singing in a cat's screech, some gospel hymn. She looks at him: Filthy McNasty with an aging black man's white cap of curls. And she sees that the curls are moving. They are alive. She takes an instinctive step back and covers her eyes. She's seen lots of ugly suffering in Mexico, the expected cripples begging by churches, the various millions of Indian peasants scratching out Chinese-famine harvests, still believing that the scraggly corn seedlings they try to grow are their children. But that's the Third World, this is America, this is New York. And, she thinks, she should do something.

Excerpted from Cleans Up Nicely by Linda Dahl. Copyright © 2013 Linda Dahl. Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press.
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