By the summer of ’79, I was officially a failure.
Between a lackluster performance on the Regents and a downright pathetic set of scores on my SATS, the long-held assumption that I’d go to Columbia or at least NYU was down the drain. I was lucky to have gotten into Brooklyn College, where I spent my first semester taking remedial algebra and a few liberal arts courses while I futzed around trying to decide on an actual major. Early reading and general precociousness had just been a function of parents who read voraciously and an apartment full of books. It turned out that instead of actually being smart, I was just a smart-ass.
I didn’t necessarily have to get a job. With my meager course-load and a fair amount of conniving, I was gaming the system enough to have a Pell Grant, a TAG grant and student loan money, most of which was going to keep my father’s heap of a Buick running and make minimum payments on a revolving stack of credit cards that were being used for non-essentials while Dad and his one-man literary agency waited for the next bestseller to walk in the door.
Dad would have preferred to have me around the apartment, watching Phil Donahue in the afternoons, and being available for runs into Manhattan to drop off press releases for his stable of self-help gurus and diet mavens. Mom thought I should get out and do something, preferably something that would contribute to those credit card bills. She had more of a point than she knew, considering I’d developed a bad habit of splurging at Tower Records in the Village, and hiding it on the Amex card I’d applied for and been given right out of James Madison High.
I tried to get retail jobs at my favorite stores, but apparently I wasn’t cool enough to work there, no matter how much money I’d been spending. Dad said it was just as well. He didn’t think I was cut out for retail. He made a few calls and I ended up with a job taking reservations for Hawaiian vacations. The office was near Columbus Circle, which meant a lot of time on the IRT reading Erica Jong and Anais Nin, fantasizing about dirty things happening in filthy stations. None of which had happened to me yet. Well, not much anyway. Enough to get my first birth control pill prescription, but not enough to get a refill.
Since I was already officially a failure, I wasn’t terribly concerned about keeping my job. I’d show up late and take long lunch breaks where I’d meander down to Times Square and lurk around the various dirty bookstores and porn theaters. I wondered about the men going in there in broad daylight. Maybe it was just a way to get out of the hot late-summer sun. I wondered if they had air-conditioning in those places, or if the hot, sticky, fetid sweatiness was part of the attraction.
Of course, back then you didn’t have to go far to find smut. The little deli next to the office, where I got a cup of chocolate chip ice-cream every morning that summer, had a separate section for the dirty magazines. I once managed to steal a copy of Genesis and snuck it home to peruse at length. I kept it well-hidden. Literary erotica was one thing, but this was out-and-out smut, some of it pretty gross, and it managed to give me nightmares and turn me on at the same time. If nothing else, the letters column convinced me that I’d been badly cheated by the banality of my first experience.
When I actually showed up at the office, I generally spent my time reading New York Magazine, wishing I could go to fancy restaurants with Gael Greene, and taking as few calls as possible.
I really should have been fired, but as bad as I was, my co-worker Tommy was worse. Together we were a walking disaster, wrecking Vacation Travel Concepts from opposite directions, with me sleep-riding my way from a high-rise in Flatbush and Tommy commuting downtown from Washington Heights.
What he was doing there, I don’t really know. Maybe someone had a sense of humor. I kept getting complaints about my attitude on the phone. Apparently I couldn’t keep my sense of superiority out of my voice, especially when people asked the same stupid questions about driving from Maui to Kauai or what the difference was between an ocean front room and an ocean view. At least I’d try to keep an aura of politeness when I reminded them of the distance from one island to the other, as well as the lack of bridge, or told them that the real difference between the two rooms was a hundred dollars, and either way they’d be lucky if they got partial ocean glimpse.
Tommy on the other hand would actually tell them what idiots they were, in a high-pitched voice, which occasionally affected both a British accent and the various insults that went with it. I wondered what Mrs. Midwestern Moron, just trying to get a nice trip to Honolulu for family, including husband and screaming brats, thought of being called an “ignorant twat” or “mindless cow.” I’d smile as I listened to him, because I wanted to say those things myself, although perhaps not with the accent. I probably couldn’t have kept it up very long. Neither could Tommy, and when his pure Manhattan honk came through, so did the truly monumental profanity that only a real New Yorker can inflict on those who offend their sensibilities.
It still didn’t get him fired, though.
We seemed to be the only two people in the office who were less than forty years old, so we ended up hanging out together, pretty much by default. I was intimidated at first. For one thing I didn’t want to end up in the “ignorant twat” category. I managed to establish my intellectual bona fides early on by rattling off all the Academy Award Best Picture winners and proving that I’d won a year’s subscription to New York Magazine by coming in second in the New York Magazine Weekly Competition, with a limerick that rhymed “crotch” with “Ed Koch”.
There was also the gay thing. Tommy was my first gay friend, or at least the first person one I knew for sure was. There must have been plenty at my high school, considering our football team was awful, but our class musicals were amazing. Mr. Schwartz, the drama teacher, I suppose. It just wasn’t something we talked about. Unless some Neanderthal was calling you a “faggot” or “queerbait,” as a generic insult. To me, being homosexual meant being glamorous and campy and beautiful.
Tommy was all of that.
The first night we hung out together after work, we went down to Famous Ray’s on 11th Street. I watched him use his long nails, which had sparkly silver polish on them, to stab various bits of olive and mushroom off the pizza and convey them into his mouth. He had pale skin, the long, straight hair I’d coveted all my frizzy, Jewish life. Then there were the clothes. He always wore something silver and shiny or pink and zebra striped. When I got to see his room, it turned that he had an amazing wardrobe spilling out over whatever parts of his bedroom weren’t covered in beautiful movie star glossies
The timing was perfect, as I just happened to be in the market for a replacement best friend. I’d thought the two years Jenny and I had spent cutting classes together meant we’d be doing that forever…getting high, going to the movies, eating Oreos. Then it turned out that she had no intention of doing any of that. She started working her ass off and got into Rutgers. At first, she wrote me every other day, and called from her dorm for long rambling phone calls. Then she got in with the local theater crowd and I was lucky if I heard from her once a week. She was spending the summer in New Brunswick, working lights on the summer productions and partying with her new friends.
Who needed her? I had Tommy now.
Weeknights, we’d go to the Village, hit Ray’s and Tower Records together and then go back uptown to hang out at his place, mostly watching movies on cable TV, a luxury that had not yet come to my antiquated section of Brooklyn. We’d play Scrabble, at least until he got pissy about a word he wanted to play not being in the dictionary which often ended with him throwing the board across the room, at which point we would change to something ridiculously juvenile, but noncontroversial, like Candy Land or Mystery Date. His mother would pop in on us from time to time, always looking either sad, frightened or a mixture of both. I’m afraid I might have given her hope on those occasions when I brought over a joint. The pot would knock me out and I sometimes fell asleep next to Tommy, on his bed surrounded by electric blue spandex and Scrabble tiles, along with the odd copy of Honcho.
We’d come back to work in the morning (okay, make that very late morning) and Jody, the receptionist, would throw out some comment about us being a cute couple. My parents didn’t seem particularly worried about how late I was coming in, when I came in at all. They’d met Tommy and instantly deemed him no threat whatsoever, although Dad would sometimes express concern that I was spending all my time with a “faygela,” with the connotation I should be out doing things with men of the heterosexual persuasion. They definitely thought Tommy was safe and I’d be safe as long as I was with him.
Maybe if we’d stayed in his apartment, or near St. Marks place, or in Flatbush, I would have been. Although not necessarily. Danger was all around, especially in the hot night air. Even in the “safe” places, there was always something dark and nasty hovering at the edges like the smell of garbage that piled up every time the unions wanted to make a point.
Besides, Tommy wasn’t the sort to stay home on a Saturday night. There were just so many times we could play Candy Land.
If we went shopping at Trash and Vaudeville, where I was lucky if I could fit into what they called a “large” t-shirt with a graphic of Mad Max on it, although Tommy could pretty much wear anything, the punks would be lurking around the stairs going down the street into the store. I told myself it was all attitude and style, but the spiked Mohawks and glowering expressions felt scary.
By July, I’d walked with him far past what might be considered the safer parts of Times Square onto Ninth and Tenth Avenue, where it looked like no one had ever picked up the garbage, and the bums were laid out on the sidewalk surrounded by bottles and dribbles that might have been either the last of the booze or their own urine.
“Tommy,” I’d say, trying not to sound like a wimp, but feeling a bit like one, and not wanting to admit how much my feet hurt in my not-terribly-high-heels, which I’d bought at Aldo Shoes, just to prove I could wear something besides Dr. Scholls.
“Come on,” he’d cajole, and I knew if we got mugged or worse, I’d have to do the protecting because he’d snap like a twig or pass out or something. Although he’d promised me he’d use his nails to claw the face off anyone who tried to hurt me. The only person who I knew for a fact he’d clawed was Eugene. Well, I didn’t actually know that, but there had been scratches and Tommy assured me they’d come from his talons.
The Eugene story changed on a weekly basis and got more sentimental the more white wine spritzers Tommy drank. The gist was something had happened and now Eugene, the bearded jerk who ran the mailroom, didn’t want to admit it had occurred and kept rejecting Tommy, even though Tommy insisted they were in love and meant to be together.
If it wasn’t the bits of 42nd Street where no feet would ever be seen dancing, it was the docks, and it was so late and dark I wasn’t sure what was going on, but the sounds, oh my god the sounds, and the men I saw in the mists and the shadows. It was like a copy of Honcho or Jock come to life. I did feel strangely safe there, if only because I knew I was invisible and not just because of the fog. Safe, but sad. I didn’t necessarily want to spend my life being unseen by beautiful men. Even Tommy, who I think loved me a little, but only because I was pretty much the only person who’d listen to him go on and on about Eugene or even consider going to one of the gay porn theaters on Ninth Avenue.
For all the hours I’d lurked around the bookstores and peepshow booths that edged the corners of the Majestic and the Uris, and wondered what it would be like in there being touched by those kinds of men, there was something a little gross about the sticky floors and mildewed smell of those places, like the David. I went for Tommy and for the thrill of being allowed into that world. That was the real turn-on.
My literary tastes ran more to Hemingway and Fitzgerald than Charles Dickens, but it was both the best and worst summer of my life. By the time it was over, I knew I had to get my act together. Whether I could take it on the road remained to be seen, but a lifetime of Vacation Travel Concepts and Candy Land was beginning to make me think I owed Jenny an apology.
I had a new semester starting. A new chance. I’d used the Amex to buy some clothes, including a bunch of what I thought of as “do-over” skirts. I was going to go to all my classes and start knocking off those prerequisites so I could try to transfer to a better school. Maybe I’d join Jenny at Rutgers, or at least try to get into Montclair State. Columbia and NYU were still far out of reach. Most important, I was going to stop staying up late every night. Summer was over. Clean notebooks were piled neatly on my desk.
I’d collected my last paycheck the previous Friday and spent most of Labor Day cleaning my room, organizing my closet and getting ready for the beginning of the rest of my life, when I wasn’t going to be a screw-up and a disappointment anymore.
The phone rang at nine o’clock.
“Let’s go to the Pyramid Club.”
“Because we have to.”
It shouldn’t have been a particularly compelling argument, certainly not compared with watching a rerun of Lou Grant with Daddy, and then getting a good night’s sleep so I could get to my Introduction to Sociolinguistics class at 9:15 the following morning. In fact, considering that I’d spent three months resisting this idea by constantly bringing up my terpsichorean ineptitude, the whole thing should have been laughed off with a jaunty, “No way, Jose. I’ve got school tomorrow.”
Except I’d already seen that episode of Lou Grant and the apartment was stifling, even with the windows open and a fan running. Every bit of clothing I had stuck to me.
Class wasn’t all that early. Bedford Avenue was practically walking distance. If we didn’t stay out too late, I could wake up at 7:45 a.m., or maybe even 8:00, and still make it. There was a McDonald’s on the way. Give me coffee and an Egg McMuffin and I’d be ready to go.
I said I’d think about it.
He called back at 9:20 p.m. I insisted that I HAD to be home by midnight. He made the obvious remark and I told him I’d sic my fairy godmother on him, to which he replied, that he was my fairy godmother.
I threw on the nicest outfit I could put together from my recent purchases. It was black and clingy and had a bit of sparkle and shine to it. Nothing could hide the damage caused by all those slices of Famous Ray’s, but I did my best. I briefly considered trying to sneak down a fire escape, but it would have been tricky in the heels and I wasn’t a princess in a tower anymore than I was Cinderella.
All I had to do was volunteer to go down to the corner for some Diet Pepsi and hope nobody noticed that I had shiny tights and a bit of glitter on my eyebrows. Nobody said anything, and soon I was heading for the subway, under a yellow moon that seemed to have punched a hole in the sky to make itself seen against the murky haze that still hung over the city like the smoke from a thousand Labor Day barbecues.
The A train was packed, and it looked like every girl in Brooklyn was out for a last fling. They were all dressed up to the nines, and I wasn’t the only one sporting glitter. By the time we passed Columbus Circle most of them had scattered, and the car was nearly empty when it dropped me off at 175th Street.
I went upstairs, wrinkling my nose against the rancid hot-dog spell that permeated the terminal, even though the food places were all closed, even the doughnut store. Tommy was waiting by the magazine stand, wearing silver spandex and a leopard skin print blouse. Completely effeminate and yet so ballsy. So fucking ballsy, I thought, and yet I was still going to go to school in the morning and pretend that I didn’t want a life of clubs and drugs and cigarettes. I didn’t even smoke. I just wanted to be the kind of person who could.
“What time is it,” I kept asking nervously, still concerned with getting some sleep and getting up in the morning, but Tommy waved the question away, a bracelet making jangly noises on his wrist, so I switched my area of concern.
“Are you sure we can get in?”
Since I couldn’t dance, I’d never bothered trying to get into Studio 54, but I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to anyway. I wondered if the Pyramid Club might be the same. If it was famous, wouldn’t they be trying to keep people out? My father probably knew the publicist, and if I’d been inclined to involve him in this expedition, he might have been able to help.
Tommy shrugged. Well, fine. If we couldn’t get in, I’d go home. Only now I really wanted to be a part of whatever crazy carnival went on down there on Avenue A.
Until after we’d gotten off the train and actually walked to within two blocks of the place, and then I got scared. It wasn’t just dirty down there, it was garishly so. The art on the walls was angry. The drunk pissing in the gutter we passed was angry.
There wasn’t just surreptitious weed around, but a much sharper smell, something acrid in the darkness. I wanted to run, but my legs were starting to shake, although it might have been fatigue as much as fear.
The doorman was a doorwoman with a fabulous head of black, spikey hair and dark, dark eye-liner, devoid of sparkle. Maybe my attempts at glitter would exclude me from this world, I guessed or hoped, until we were allowed in and Tommy practically gamboled down the stairs to the basement which I’d only read about in Creem.
I followed him gingerly and when my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I was tempted to go all Dorothy, but of course I’d never even been in Kansas. I’m sure those things did go on in Flatbush, just not necessarily all in the same room with a strobe light flashing and “Mirror In The Bathroom” playing at full volume.
Anais Nin wouldn’t have been shocked by a blow-job happening a few feet away from her face. She might have written about it, or maybe joined in. I wasn’t emotionally equipped to do either, and there were my aching feet to contend with. The couch was plenty big and I didn’t think either of the participants would mind if I sat in the corner and pretended not to watch, or even if I took notes, come to think of it.
By the time I was ready to stand up again, I’d lost track of who was doing what, how many people were involved or where the hell Tommy had gone. I heaved myself up off the sofa, and went for a look around. Upstairs there was actual dancing going on and as I might have mentioned previously, I could not dance. Not old-fashioned swing, not disco, not nothing. Two left feet didn’t begin to cover the situation. Maybe that burnt-out smell from the street, or whatever was wafting around downstairs, had gotten into my system. “Young Americans” was playing and damn it, I was going to dance.
Not that I had anyone to dance with, mind you, Tommy having apparently evaporated into a wall or something. So I danced by myself, no doubt as horribly awkward as a human being has ever been in the middle of a dance club, but blissfully oblivious, until, eventually I noticed that I was dancing with someone.
It was a man with a patchy beard and a pork-pie hat. He was no more graceful than I was, but just as enthusiastic. I guess you could say we were dancing together. We shared the space and the vibe and the groove, and I caught him smiling at me, although we didn’t touch. We just kept bobbing and gyrating through the sticky air, occasionally bumping into other couples, but never each other because we weren’t a couple. We got through “Planet Claire,” “Fire In Cairo,” and The Flying Lizards version of “Money” before my feet were acting up again and I was out of breath, and I was working up the nerve to talk to him, or at least ask if we could sit down, although that would probably mean a trip back to the basement.
“We’re leaving. Now.”
Tommy had re-emerged from the ozone layer and was now demanding my departure.
“Nothing’s happening,” he pouted.
Maybe nothing was happening for him, but for Tommy, that was all that mattered.
I was about to put one of my aching feet down, when he played his trump card, “It’s getting really late.”
I looked at my dancing partner and shrugged. He seemed to understand, although I’m not sure how much of our dialogue he’d actually heard.
Once we were out the door, real fatigue began to take over and I started looking around for a taxi. It would cost a fortune, but I didn’t want to get back on the subway. I wanted to be in the back seat of an air-conditioned taxicab. I even offered to pay for Tommy to get all the way back up to Washington Heights, but his night was just getting started, and whatever wasn’t happening at the Pyramid wasn’t going to stop him.
Instead of even looking for a cab, he started striding toward East Thirteenth Street.
“Where are we going?”
“The Phoenix Theater.”
“To see The Young and the Hung.”
Ask a silly question….see a stupid movie, in a theater that smelled filthy and made me feel itchy the minute I sat down. I thought the stuff at the David was bad. This was just awful, and honestly given that I had already seen live sex that very night, the supposed farm boys plowing each other in a barn in this epic were just not that appealing. I wondered if Erica Jong would think I was letting down the revolution. Even the moaning sounded gross, not the least bit sexy. Feh,, as my father would have said if he were there, instead being back in Brooklyn. I hoped he hadn’t called out the cops, considering the protracted nature of my soda errand.
I wanted to tell Tommy what a load of crap this was and insist that he could stay, but I was leaving, only he’d beaten me to the punch, this time disappearing into the balcony, and I was pretty sure that something was going on up there. Aside from insisting that he and Eugene had made love, Tommy and I had never discussed the details of what he did sexually, but considering what I’d partially seen on the docks and what was happening on the screen, it was impossible not to know anymore.
I felt lonely, tired, and most of all abandoned. Tommy was supposed to be the friend who didn’t do that.
If he was going to leave me then, damn it, I was going to leave him, preferably in a cab.
And let out a geschrei that would have startled any nearby junkies when I heard a raspy voice say, “Didn’t think this was your kind of place.”
“FUCK! WHAT! Oh my god! Sorry. Didn’t think what? Oh. It’s you.”
The man from the Pyramid Club.
“Yeah, it’s me. You left me lonely.”
“Sorry. My friend….”
He had a point, even if he was only a stranger who’d followed us into a porn theater in a very sleazy part of town. I was just happy to see a friendly face, or at least one that wanted to see me and not whatever Tommy was seeing in the balcony.
“It’s late,” I pointed out, meaning to follow up with my story about needing to get home and sleep. Introduction to Sociolinguistics was creeping ever closer.
“I know,” he replied and I decided he didn’t really care about sociolinguistics. Neither did I, for that matter.
We ended up walking through the last vestiges of a night that was finally cooling down as it drifted into morning, and he told me he was a musician and a poet.
We talked about music. I had to admit that before I met Tommy, I mostly listened to WABC, except when I was home with my father, which meant WNEW-AM.
“Nothing wrong with that. Music is music. I just had to get out tonight. Wanted to lose myself---but I found you. Beautiful girl.”
“Why did you want to lose yourself?”
He growled and lit a cigarette. He offered me one and I shook my head.
“Yeah, she didn’t like ‘em either. Claire. My girl. My muse. Love of my life. Like a thorn without the rose. She dumped me.”
I didn’t mind being a replacement Claire, because I’d love to be someone’s muse, but I really, really, really had to get home.
That’s what I kept telling myself. Although the fact that Joe had stood in front of the Phoenix for nearly half an hour and said I was beautiful was enough to make me shine. I planned to walk away, anyway. Even though I was tired, I could feel a certain spring in my step. Maybe I even wiggled my butt a little.
“Where you going?” he asked, and if I’d been half awake, I might have said, “Barcelona,” but instead I gave him the borough, not even my specific neighborhood or a street. If I thought I was getting away, he was going to prove me wrong.
“Heading that way myself. Williamsburg.”
“Funny, you don’t look Jewish.”
He didn’t laugh, but I caught a smile before he started coughing.
There was cab money in my bag. I didn’t have to walk down a long flight of steps into a badly lit train station with a man I barely knew who’d trailed me across the scummiest bits of Alphabet City, but I did. And then onto an empty car on the IRT, and then onto his lap where I straddled him and I could feel the old, torn fake rattan digging through my tights, and his hands on my ass and the bulge in his jeans pressing against me. I let him kiss me, and tasted cigarettes, beer, anger and the trace of a mint toothpick. He kissed my neck and my ear and growled that I was beautiful and he was going to fuck me and I swear it was like my whole body was on fire as his calloused fingers touched my breasts. He groaned like he was dying and called out Claire’s name.
Afterwards, we sat, listening to the subway noise facing each other from opposite sides of the train. I tried to read his expression. I thought he looked slightly ashamed, but it just could have been the night catching up with him.
I stood up as my stop approached, not sure what to say.
“Will I see you tonight?” he asked, it was almost a whisper, but I could hear him loud and clear. I realized it was already morning. I’d never been out all night before. It felt great and horrible at the same time.
“I’ll come to the Pyramid Club. Meet me in the basement.”
It sounded like a good closing line, but that’s not where this story ended. I still had to get off the train and get home.
My knees hurt, my feet ached, my legs throbbed, but inside somewhere, I guess my pussy, if I’m being vulgar, I was still on fire and the throbbing there was the good kind. I really needed to go to bed and be alone with my thoughts.
“You abandoned me!”
Tommy was lying in my hallway, propped against my front door. His face was bruised and I could tell he’d been crying. There were traces of blood, and worst of all, one of his nails was broken.
“You left!” he yelled, only it was more of a squeak.
“You left me alone,” I shot back.
“But you were supposed to wait for me!”
By that time we were both yelling and faces were peering suspiciously out of doorways. Not my parents; they were famous for having slept through an earthquake in San Francisco.
“Okay, honey, let’s get you inside.”
More faces, and if I didn’t have enough problems with whatever Mom and Dad had made of my disappearance, I sure didn’t need a nosy neighbor getting the cops involved in this mess, whatever the mess actually was.
“What do you want?”
“I want Eugene,” he screeched, and with that there commenced full-scale crying, leaving me with no choice but to get him into the apartment, which did eventually wake my parents up.
Dad came lumbering into the living room in his boxer shorts and a tee-shirt, followed by my mother. How she could have worn a flannel nightgown in that heat, I don’t know.
“Lizzie, are you ok? What’s the….Jesus!”
They were good about it. I’ll give them that. Mom did what moms do. She took Tommy into the bathroom and got him cleaned up, even though she couldn’t do anything to stop him from crying and calling out for Eugene.
My father sat on the living room couch with me.
“What happened?” he asked.
Not that I was going to share the more sordid details of the evening, but I had to tell him something.
“We were downtown and I left him alone. He must have gotten into trouble after that….I don’t know why he came here. I’m sorry, Daddy. I just wanted….”
I was running out of bullshit and it was starting to get light outside.
The sound of weeping was still coming from the bathroom. I really didn’t want to wake Tommy’s mother up, but it wasn’t like I had Eugene’s number or any intention of calling him in the first place. Besides, I didn’t have the authority to sign Tommy into Bellevue and it was starting to look like someone was going to have to. I made the call and my father was nice enough to do the necessary driving.
Introduction to Sociolinguistics started without me and I wasn’t at the Pyramid Club the next night or any other night. I left New York and got the job I was always meant to have. It turned out I had just the skills those bastards at Genesis needed, not to be confused with those bastards IN Genesis, who I met a few years later.
All through the ‘90s, people kept telling me how much better things had gotten; the porn theaters were gone and it was even safe to go walking above the reservoir in Central Park. I had no desire to see this for myself, and avoided anything that would take me back east, aside from funerals, and those all took place on Long Island anyway.
Last year I had an invitation to an industry event and I decided I was ready to see what Giuliani and Al Qaeda had wrought, as long I got a free night at the Mandarin Oriental out of it.
I waited until the last day I would be in the City and got on the IRT at Columbus Circle. The sight of the first car, devoid of graffiti, was a shock. The whole thing was just so damn clean. Still crowded, still noisy, but clean. No fake rattan or leather straps. It could have been any transit system in the country, honestly. The funk and danger were gone along with my dreams.
I thought I might be sick, but instead I started crying.