Dead Dog, a London tale

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When I had moved to London and got married the first time, we lived in a lovely little flat with spare room. Maybe we’d have a baby, or at least a guest we could put up in a real bed. This was , and remains, a precious and marketable commodity in any big city. The writer David Quantick stayed over lots. He was a good friend to both of us and sort of an adopted son, but our age. Impeccable manners.

I think I was in love, I can’t remember. I’ve taken too many drugs in the interval, it fucks with your love memory. But not your dead dog memory, I will get to that later.

He was very funny,the husband, not the dead dog. He made me laugh a lot. We both worked, him much more so than I did, and I loved to play house. I loved to cook and clean and tidy the records and CDs, I even cooked stuff I wouldn’t eat myself, like Gammon and mushy peas. I served bread and marg with every meal, cut into triangles, because that is what my gran did. I did this until a friend who knew all about class said that sliced, marged bread was “working class” and he said this so disdainfully, I thought better use real butter instead. But he meant the whole set up.

At this time in my life I was getting to know a lot of people who had done well for themselves but banged on about how little education they had, how working class they were, they did it all themselves. I wasn’t sure why it mattered so much to them. I still don’t get it. This was also around the same time a lot of posh English white boys started to walk widely like ghetto boys from the Bronx and say stuff like “word” It was all so very strange. Because some of those ghetto boys were rapping and making good money and getting out of the ghetto and riding in fancy cars and wearing expensive watches but always, always asking “What time is it.” It was a rap thing. I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand anything about anything, except everything seemed upside down. I could tell the living from the dead, the speed freak from the alkie, and the rap from the shoe gazers. That was what my life was reduced to, at the time. And we though we were at the centre of the fucking universe.

This husband I think was working class but it meant nothing to me. He moved about constantly, a bit like a whole body version of restless leg syndrome, which he had as well. He had a lot of excess energy. I found it immensely attractive and annoying all at once. It’s always the way. The stuff you love at first becomes the very stuff you can no longer abide.

Very soon into the marriage, we started to row. They were daytime rows. At night, we wrote or went to gigs. He liked a drink, I liked speed. We were chemically incompatible. But he was kind and generous and never missed a deadline. I respected that.

One row in particular, can’t remember what it was about, something stupid, it always was, I stormed out. Not forever, that came later, when he told me truthfully but painfully he no longer loved me, but this wasn’t that row. This was just a dumbfuck row about nothing in particular, so I stormed out.

It was early Sunday morning, we lived in Stoke Newington. This was well before it was the ” new islington” Back in the day, Nico ( velvet underground Nico, used to buy her drugs there. In a German accent. Buying drugs in a German accent seems less desperate, more demanding.

I walked up Lordship Rd, past the school where my children by another future husband would eventually attend, and up all the way to Church st, to the little church graveyard that I think Johnny Rotten once said was his favourite view of London, he may have even said “vista” It was a strange little graveyard with signs of voodoo in it. Dead chicken bones, little skulls of animals. Of course, they could have been the remains of a takeaway, but it looked like voodoo to me. So very old, most of the writing on the gravestones had been worn away. I heard the sounds of drumming and soul singing coming from the church. It was riveting. I thought church was all about organs and five part harmonies and Songs of Praise whiteness. This church, by the sound of the gospel, was entirely black. Not only black, but dressed in the most fabulous colourful clothes with fanciful head gear and complicated wrapping procedures. If you wanted to, and I didn’t, you could just tug at a bit of fabric and undress and entire woman or man. It was African and the music was invigourating, inviting. I stuck my little white head through the door and this big mamma of a woman clasped my head and shrieked “Come in, come in, come hear the words of our Saviour.” So I was dragged in and found myself in a little gated pew. The pews had little gates or doors, if you were in one and wanted to leave, boy would people notice. Cos you had to open the gate. Which creaked. But this was a charismatic church, and I saw a lot of women babble stuff and seem to faint. But not actually faint, just sway and babble. Not the guys, just the women. I later learned this was speaking in tongues and some people, just as in sex, faked it ,and others were truly speaking some strange language, and others were possibly just mad. I reserved my judgement cos I liked the band so much.
At one point in the service I was dragged up to be healed. Clearly I was a troubled soul. Speed come downs are very transparent. Plus the marital row. I would be saved, all would be well. The priest said some words of salvation, some said amen and others sorta swayed or almost fainted. He touched my head with a rod, as if I were being Knighted or OBEd. By an asthmatic dude in a white dress.

I stayed for the rest of the sermon which was very long. Every time the priest intoned, asthmatically, with dramatic gasping, someone else from the congregation would repeat what he had just said. Just in case no one heard through the wheezing. And personally I felt much better, I would like to say it was God but actually the drummer was really good. I think it was the beat, the ferocity of the drums, at that point, more than God. God would come later, much later.

After the sermon, there was tea and unidentified fried dough of some sort. Balls, not donuts. The women were generously proportioned. I was speed freak thin. I drank tea and ate fried bread with no intention ever of going back. I did, many many years later, to not that church but one that was more sedative, truly healing. I did think of telling the drummer that good drummers were thin on the ground, it was clearly his vocation, but thought better of it. He might think I was a church drummer groupie. How sick is that?

I l left church and walked through the voodoo vista, and onto Lordship Rd.Feeling good and spiritual, my mood radically altered when I saw a dead dog in the middle of the road. I guess it had been run down, walking itself. In years to come I was to live on the estate that I believe the dog had walked itself from. The people I knew ( not all of them) had dogs but were too lazy to walk them. One three doors down ( this is in the future, the second marriage) used to walk itself and shit on our doorstep. Karma for sure.

But this dead dog, well this was not karma. I felt so full of the spirit that I felt I needed to tend to the dog, dead as it was. There were not only no mobile phones back then, or ver few, but hardly any of the phone boxes worked. I stood for a while in the middle of the road like a lolipop school crossing lady. Minding the dead dog. Then I thought well I can’t stand here forever, I have do to something. So I left the dog briefly, dashed up to Church st, I think there must have been a working phone, and called the ministry of dead dogs. England was like that then. It had a ministry for everything.

They said I should stay near the dog til they came.When would that be? Some time, today. I said the dog was in the middle of the road, and I could not stay there without being run over myself. They said I should move it to the pavement. I said it was a large dog, but I would do my best. I rang off and headed back down Lordship Road. The sky hard darkened and it was beginning to drizzle. The only thing in my favour was that there seemed to be very little traffic.

All sorts of thoughts crossed my mind. What if people thought I had something to do with the death of the dog, that I had killed it? What if I just left it there, would the dead dog people find it? I stared at it for a long time and managed to shuffle it, well, frankly, kick it, which must have looked appalling, it certainly felt so, to the side of the road, in between two parked cars. I found some builder’s plastic sheeting blowing around the entrance to Lordship South Estate. I covered the dog up so it would not get wet, as the drizzle was turning into proper rain. I also thought now, who’s going to look under this sheeting? It’s not clear at all that the mound underneath is dog shaped.

One thing I know about dead creatures is that children are forensic. Give them a dead anything they were not personally attached to, and they will dismember it, dissect it, it’s like a whole day’s entertainment for a bored kid. So I worried that some kid would lift the sheet, find the dog, and dissect it. As improbable as that seems now, at the time, in my head , it was certain. The other worry was since I had moved the dog, between two parked cars, the people who were coming to fetch it would miss it.

Incredibly, I found exactly what I needed, which was a discarded estate agent sign. I thought If I could somehow stick it up, turn it round to the blank side and write in large letters DEAD DOG, that the dog would be found and the correct procedures would be put in place. I always carried a pen, but I had to write, in the rain, in very big, coloured in letters. This took some time. The pen didn’t work very well on the sign, and it wasn’t very clear. I drew an arrow downwards, pointing to the dead dog. As an afterthought, I wrote in smaller letters: children, please do not dissect or disturb.

The biggest problem was getting the sign to stay up. Unless I sort of speared it into the dog, which seemed cruel and unusual and might involve entrails and so forth. Again, against all the rules of physics, I managed to make a hole in the plastic sheeting and sort of wedge the sign between the dogs front paws. It kept falling over but eventually, it stood, wobbling, tilted, but upright enough for it to be visible to anyone who happened to be looking for it. I stood there for a bit, dripping wet, covered in ink and other gunk which may have leaked out of the dog. I waited and waited for any car or van that looked like it might be the people who dealt with this sort of thing. A mighty gust of wind blew, and the sign fell right over. Fuck.

I then leaned the sign over the back of the front of the two cars the dog was between. If the owner decided to move the car, he might investigate and find a better solution. My only comfort that if the owner was old enough to drive, then he would be old enough not to find tampering with a dead dog an interesting thing to do.

I waited for what felt ages, but probably was not that long. Everything seems to take longer when it’s raining and you’ve got to stay there. I started to walk back home, using my new power of prayer to pray that the dog people would come and dispose of it correctly, with compassion. And not kids, who might dissect it.

When I got back home, I thought I could diffuse the row but telling my then husband this series of extraordinary events. But he had gone out. I ran a bath and climbed in, washing off the rain, the ink, the possible sinew.

A few months later, me and my first husband broke up. I never told him the dog story or the church story. It didn’t seem worth the effort, and parts of it seemed unbelievable. I did, years later, tell the story to my best friend Paul. He thought it was hilarious and made it into a lyric of a song he wrote for his band Gretschen Hofner.The song was called Stoke Newington is Babylon. It sort of was, before it became the new Islington. Coffee shops and estate agents and bespoke or vintage everything. Paul came to hate the song, because it became very popular and drunk people always requested it at gigs so they could sing along. But he never hated the story or tired of hearing it.

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The Ramones lied. It was not easy to get a ride to Rockaway Beach, I guess unless you were a Ra

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It was far, it was hard to reach, and if you were a young girl with nothing but cut off shorts, a tank top, a towel and bottle of Coppertone, plus one of those metal gatefold things that made you turn into a giant coco puff, it was really hard to hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach. I mean, it was easy, if you were OK about getting into a car with a child molester or killer or someone who might think you were the next Patty Hearst, man, didn’t she do well for herself in later years in those John Waters movies, but generally, it was not a good idea. You had a get a ride with your sister’s best friend’s friend, who had a car with the kind of roof that came down.

But it took forever to leave the apartment. They had to blow dry their hair. They had to take medicine, some of em. Me, for sure. Once I remember waiting for one of them to come out of the bathroom and we heard this almighty shriek. We said , hey, what’s wrong? And she bellowed, “Something brushed my knee, something alive” and we though ah, it’s just a roach, maybe a mouse, come on, we gotta get our suntans, getthefuckouttathebathroom. But she stayed and stayed and finally she wept “I know what brushed my knee.” and we asked her what. And she said, “My tits! Quick! Get a pencil. I think I will fail the pencil test.” I can’t recall if it was better for the pencil to drop if you placed it under your cleavage, or for it to stay in place, indicating a potential droop situation. We knew never to try the champagne glass test. It was for French girls with small cleavage. Chic tits. We heard urban myth stories about people showing up to A and E , or ER in America, with champagne glasses cleaved to their chests. They would say , “I just sort of fell on it.” But we’d heard nothing bad about pencils. They dropped, indicating firmness or flatness, or stayed put, indicating large breasts or, sadly, sometimes pendulous ones. Our “sisters” had burned their bras, but then gone out and bought new ones. You can still be a feminist without saggy tits.

Anyways we finally got yelling girl out of the bathroom and got into the car with all our “Let’s go to the beach white and come back black or at least Puerto Rican or be able to pass” condiments, our transistor radio , our cans of soda, and got into the car. This itself was an ordeal. The leather of the seats burned your bum , you had to ease into it, like a too hot bath.

If it was a Sunday I would always bring a copy of the Sunday New York Times, probably still less than a buck in those days and so dense with words, good words, it took all week to read properly. My favourite thing to read in the whole paper was the travel section, cos I was agoraphobic, so it was kinda like my porn. I could just about make it to the beach, Benzoed up, but never, I dunno, Cairo. As in, What’s happening in Cairo? That seemed exotic, lots of sand for sure.
I also liked the ads for summer camp for retarded kids. They seemed slightly cheaper than the ones for kids who had no learning problems. They usually ended in the suffix “mont” if it was something mont, you knew it was for retarded kids. Or meaunt, for French retarded kids. They could do anything at these camps: sailing, water skiing, caving, tennis, pottery, horseback riding. It gave me hope for those with learning disabilities. I was convinced I had one myself, though not enough to be retarded and go to a retarded summer camp. For a few summers I went to a regular camp and did all those things, but it probably made my already cashe strapped mother really poor.

We listened mainly to a radio station that played soul and disco, WBLS. I would shout from the back seat, why don’t they play Gil Scot Heron. And the girls would look at me like, cos it’s not disco, duh!!!!

We’d get to the beach, which smelled of cigarettes, hot dogs, salt, and sewage. Hey it was our beach. What’s a bit of dysentery
if you could get a great tan? We’d lay out all our stuff, this took forever, and have to take turns going in the water so no one would steal our bags. In my case, my Benzos. If I was not sufficiently sedated I’d be stuck on Rockaway Beach, in a panic attack, and would eventually be washed out into the sea of sewage.

Years later, when I tried hypnotherapy for my agoraphobia, the therapist would say in a sleepy voice, “Imagine you are on a beach, the waves gently washing….” and I would stop the therapist and say, hang on, does this beach have a taxi stand? In my fantasy can I have taxi money to get back home? Will I have drugs in my bag, in case there’s no taxi?”

So we would gently fry on the beach, guys would check out my gorgeous sister or her gorgeous friends, but never me. And that was OK. I had The Sunday Times. I had Russell Baker. I tanned very easily. I had a ride, I didn’t have to hitch.
But one day I didn’t have a ride. I was with my friend Judy, who knew of a special bus that took forever but it was cheap and got you there. So we got the special bus and it did take forever and there were no seats. Judy was wearing a football or basketball top that said 86. Some jerk kept calling out hey, 86, 86, you are hot.
Well, yes, we were hot, but that’s not what he meant. I was feeling hot and bus sick and sat myself down on the floor. I wished I could be in the car with the tit crisis girl. I wished we were at the beach. The guy said, with alarming frequency, hey 86, 86. Judy ignored him. I took a brief glance. He was cute in a short Springsteen meets fireman with ill advised mustache sort of way. A child molester for sure. Just the point where you could start to smell the sewage sea, I said, from my pre-vomiting sitting by the back door steps of the bus, “Why don’t you just fuck off. She’s not interested.”
And he went into this rant: It’s always the ugly friend who protests. It’ always the fucking dog who stops the cute girl from the cute guy.”
I had no answer to this. The heat and nausea had got the better of me, as was the affirmation that I was, and would always be, the ugly friend. I sat on the steps and waited til we got to the beach. Poor Judy was lost for words.
I was ugly. The Ramones had lied. And the bus ride took so long,by the time we got there, it was downright cool,and people were packing away the styrofoam picnic baskets, and Coppertone, and the transistors.
We didn’t stay too long.
I couldn’t listen to Rocket to Russia for years after that.

Dusty in the wind- the boyfriend who didn’t wash

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It was hard to get good radio stations in NYC in the 70s. There was the public station, BAI, but mainly , between good, funny shows ,( the first radio station I think in New York to play Dot Dash, by Wire,  the punk single that changed my musical life, I thought oh my God, I can’t abide any more hippy shit. This song has big energy. I want to jump up and down in time to it.  Oh, it’s called punk. I think that is what I am going to have to be) they asked  you to pledge money. It was like Geldolf in LiveAid times a billion. But not in a cute Irish accent but a very fucking annoying nasal NY whine, come on, send money now or we won’t be able to , uh, play more radio shows asking you for more money. Fuck that shit. Plus my mother’s best friend at the time insisted the station was anti Semitic. I had not even heard of the word. I thought it was people against semen. I had no evidence of this but I adored her, I even middle named my kid after her, so I looked up the meaning and on my mother’s best friend’s word, listened to the station sporadically. In secret. Under the bedclothes.

The other station was, oh crikey I can’t for the life of me remember the name and  I am not going to google it. But it played “cool” hippy music, particularly at night when a sexy woman would come on and announce she was Alison, the nightbird, come fly with her. I felt a feeling when I heard that voice, a feeling I now identify as horny. Previously, I had thought this was a feeling exclusive to boys. Was I a voice-centric lesbian, or did I just enjoy the show?  Every other song was Neil Young, whom I adored and still do, but she would throw in something else now and then that I would try to figure out in my mother’s bathroom, on the guitar. The bathroom had such fine acoustics you could hear when the people upstairs had food poisoning. I had a fantastic guitar a Guild D25 which many years later, I gave to a kid who later grew up and made films and married a former member of Hole.

She ( Alison the nightbird)  also played rather a lot of a genre now known as Southern Rock. Southern rock was emetic to punks, mind you everything was emetic to punks, but I really loved it when she played The Allman Brothers because that was my sister’s favourite band before she got into disco, and that and Gil Scot Heron were the only things me and my sister agreed on. Once she put headphones on my head and put on Blue Sky on full blast and turned the lights off and left the room and before she did she said, “I think you will really like this” and I did.  That same year I got my best friend the single Blue Sky for her birthday, but I don’t think she was impressed. When she grew up, she listened to opera.

It’s taking me some time to get to the boyfriend bit. I guess music always came first, boyfriends, if I had one at all, which I never really did til this first one ( apart from a kid at summer camp I kissed on the lips, to my friends, that counted) were not high priority. I wanted to do well at school, I wanted to listen to great music, I wanted to write. I wanted to start my fucking periods. This didn’t happen til I was nearly 16 cos I was so skinny.  But I think by the time I’d met Alfred, all this had happened.  I grew tits the girls in the locker room did not believe were mine, but thought  were tennis balls in a bra.  I had to show some of them, really , they are mine.  They just sprung, unbidden, largely, one summer when every day I got to swim and eat fresh vegetables and fresh fish every day at the opera friend’s parent’s summer house in Long Island. Before she liked opera, way before. We are still friends and I still love her to bits.

Anyway this boy, I knew him sorta through the summer house connection ( can’t remember exactly how, he didn’t seem to have any money which was sort of pre requisite to having parents with a summer house) but he also lived in Queens, where I lived as well. I can’t even remember how we started “going out”  This was an ill defined thing for guys with no money. You didn’t go to the movies. You didn’t go bowling. You didn’t go to a diner for milkshakes. You certainly didn’t go to a bar. That was for proper grown ups or people with plausible fake ID.

What I remember about him, perhaps quite rightly, was that he looked like Arlo Guthrie in the Woodstock movie. Sort of surprised, curly long hair, guitar on his back, a look of perpetual wonder and confusion I now know as stoned.

My bestest friend was this gay guy Drew, who gave this new boyfriend the big thumbs down. There was a song that was played universally on the radio in those days, even the nightbird played it, it was called Dust in the Wind and it had a very predictable chord progression but I learnt to play it in my mother’s bathroom in about two seconds, and so did the boyfriend, not in my mother’s bathroom because she didn’t like him.

“He doesn’t wash,” she said.

“He’s dirty,” said the gay best friend. “He’s Dusty in the Wind”

“But he looks like Arlo Guthrie in Woodstock”

“I don’t care,  the boy needs a shower and some good grooming products from the ground  floor at Saks.”

 

I could never suggest this. At the time, my friend Drew worked there, and knew how to make a guy clean, good, and gay. He worked one of the high end counters, and told me he once did the face of the wife of Boutris Boutris Gally. Or however the fuck you spell it. He said she had bad breath and it was hard work.

 

But my boyfriend knew nothing about grooming. Mainly, we would take long walks in Forest Park, a park near where I lived, and when it got dark we would go back to my mother’s apartment and make out on the sofa til she walked in. Then we would straighten out our largely still buttoned shirts and bell bottoms -I really can’t impress upon you how sexually innocent I was- and pretend to be watching TV.  My mother would say, “I think you need to get out, get some fresh air” or some such thing mothers say,  and we would go out, and walk the streets of Kew Gardens ( the one in NY not London) and Forest Hills, where the really rich kids lived.

 

One such evening, we were walking round the long bock where my mother lived, and we saw a passing car with  a man leaning out the window, projectile vomiting. The boyfriend said, “That’s right. Get it all out.”

Somehow, somewhere deep inside, this struck me as common. He was trying to bond with a throwing up guy in a car, a guy he didn’t even know.

My mood changed, but he did not recognise it.  I should mention that he smoked, but never had money for cigarettes. So he would  ” bum” them off strangers. As I grew up in two countries, UK and US, the UK side would take over and I would think, you must never ask for things. It’s wrong, it’s needy, it’ s in poor taste. But a stranger walked by and the stranger was smoking and the boyfriend asked for a cigarette, pal. It was the word pal that really got to me. He is not your pal, you want a cigarette, end of story.

 

 

The guy, who was with a very beautiful girl, said, “Sorry, this is my last one” And I so wanted to be that beautiful girl with that last cigarette guy, I so wanted to be part of that couple  rather than the couple I was in.

I said “Never ever ever ever ask for a cigarette from someone you don’t know. It’s very wrong”

And the filthy Arlo Guthrie said , “But, like, why?”

Everyone in those days used the word “like” as hippy filler. It’s what you said if you didn’t have a good vocabulary, or pretended to have a bad vocabulary.

I said, “It’s not polite. It makes it seem like you are poor, like you are a bum”

My sister and I had a board game from ages ago called “Mystery Date” I can not remember how you played it but at some point, you opened a toy door and got your date, it could be a jock, or a studious guy, or a rich guy, or the bum. Actually the bum was the cutest guy.

I said, “Cos it makes you like the bum on mystery date. If you get the bum, you instantly lose.”

Of course, not being a girl, not having girl based board games, he had no idea what I was talking about.

I continued, “First of all you shouldn’t smoke at all. Have you seen the film with all the bunnies smoking cigarettes at force? They all get cancer and die”

 

This confused the boyfriend , who was confused anyway.

He said, “This isn’t working”

I said “You mean the cigarette thing?”

He said no, the total thing. “We should have a place to do it.”

“What is it? Ask people for cigarettes?”

He looked pissed off. “No, it. As in doing it.”

I had no idea, really no idea what he meant. I said, “if you want to stay with me, you have to wash now and then and not ask strangers for cigarettes. It’s very wrong. I can’t tell you why, it just is.”

He looked forlorn. He said, OK, I will do those things when I am with you. It didn’t occur to me that he should really make it sort of a life policy. Wash, and don’t ask strangers for cigarettes.

We walked some, in silence. We heard crickets, or city versions of crickets. Another couple walked past us, the guy smoking a cigarette.

Mentally I pleaded ,  oh please please please don’t ask for a cigarette. I just told you how against it, I am, oh great unwashed Arlo.

He went up to the guy and said Excuse me sir, can I have a cigarette?”

The guy fished in his pockets and pulled out a Virginia Slim, a sort of cigarette/ thin cigar marketed at women.

He was smoking girl cigarettes. Alfred took one anyway.

I said, “You just don’t get it.”

He said damn right I don’t get it. Your fucking mother and her walking in.”

 

I had no idea what he was talking about and at that point, didn’t care. We finished. It was right to finish it. It was wrong to have started in the first place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New York City Subway cops, not as cute as cop horses. And they call your mother.

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Subway cops seem to eat less donuts than street or car cops. Maybe it looks unprofessional. Maybe the subways smell too bad to eat anything.  There is a New York City subway platform smell peculiar to summer but you  can catch a whiff of it in winter as well. It’s a heady mixture of human piss, mice, rats, sweat, body odour, coats that have never been cleaned or just been dry cleaned, newspapers ( they do smell) and fatigue. Fatigue has a smell of its own. It’s a work fatigue, it’s bleary eyed crud in your eyes early morning commute fatigue. It smells of office, school, or cheap soap. Christmas gift set perfume, and too much of it.  Every so often, there’s a little kid who smells of crayons. This is one of my favourite smells, kids who smell like new crayons. But it is rare, I smelled it a lot as a teacher and it wore thin after a while, but it was a novelty to smell a kid on the subway, a kid who smelled like crayons. I would always want to go and sniff the kid, but that would certainly have got me arrested.

But that’s not what I was almost arrested for. The cops didn’t use the word arrest, as in cardiac. They said, “bring you in” as if hauling you in from the sea. 

It was my wondering vaguely on the streets of New York years. I lived in Brooklyn, but had no privacy in my shared flat, so I prefered to wander the streets, and I looked lost, though I rarely was. Not in the geographical sense. I was a bit pretty in a thinking man’s woman sort of way, and I wore tight dresses, and looked spaced out, so I attracted a lot of male attention. Most of it was just rude stuff said in Spanish, or “meera, meera” with hissing noises. SoI was somewhere, I think in the West Village, near the school where I worked, and an achingly pretty, translucent boy wearing all white, all clean white clothing, came over to me and said , “Excuse me, are you lost?”

This happened a lot. But I was rarely asked this by someone so pretty. I was transfixed. He was junkie thin, but did not look like a junkie. He didn’t look restless, nor nodding. In my experience, junkies were one or the other. I stared at him and said,”In what sense?”

“Excuse me?”

“Lost in what sense? The wider, life sense of lost, or just can’t find where I am going to right now sense?”

He smiled thinly. “Like, now, are you lost right now?”

“No, I know exactly where I am. I am trying not to go home for a bit. Not til it gets dark.”

“What happens in the dark, in your home?”

“Not lots. I read, make something to eat where you just add water, and maybe sit on the fire escape to smoke. Sorry, is this more than you want to hear?”

“No, I don’t get talking to people all that much. I was living somewhere else for a while, and now I’ve moved to New York and I don’t talk much to people.”

“Where were you living before?” I thought he might say Wyoming, or Idaho. Just somewhere far I’d never been. 

He paused, “In a , a place. A, a, facility.”

This was an odd word. “Correctional? Prison? Hospital?” 

“Not really any of those, but a bit like all of them.” 

Oh great, he was beautiful and mad, my favourite type.

“The thing is, I want to meet some normal people, and I was wondering if you might come over for dinner. It would be better than what you eat, the stuff you just add water to. I think. I haven’t cooked in a while. They did that for me.”

“Um, OK. Will there be other people? This won’t be like, a kidnap situation. No one would pay the ransom and you’d have to kill me and probably wind up back in a facility.”

He shook his head vigorously, and he really was not a vigourous sort of guy. He  took out a slip of paper and a pencil and asked if he could use my back to write the details. I said sure and tilted over. I felt the pencil scratchings forming letters on my back. It felt great. He finished, handed me the paper, and walked away, drifted more like. Like a vision.

The paper had an address in Chelsea. It said Thursday night, Eight o clock.  And there was a phone number. 

Later that night I rang him, after my just add water dinner and cigarette on the fire escape. I said, “I don’t even know your name.”

He told me his name and I just can’t remember it anymore. Which is really strange cos I remember everything. It messes my head up. So I’ll call him Paul. l love the name Paul. I loved a Paul once, but not as a lover.

So come Thursday night , I put on a tight green dress, it was wraparound, the fashion then and it suited me. I wore these shoes called candies. They were hard to walk in but looked great and made a great clicking noise. I took the subway to Chelsea and stopped at  a shop on the way to buy ice cream.  It was a Nordic ice cream and I could not pronounce it without sounding like I had tardive dyskonesia.  I had this sometimes from the stomach ache medicine I was hooked on. It made it hard to form words sometimes. But hardly anyone could say this ice cream name without sounding like they had a disability. The shop was freezing cold and was staffed by one, turning gently blue girl. She asked me what flavour I wanted and how much of it. I got a big pot of blue ice cream. It matched her fingers. I liked the look of her blue fingers grasping the cold metal scoop. Maybe her fingers would drop off. That would be a conversation starter, at the dinner. “I went to this ice cream place and the girl had frostbite, so that’s why there are fingers in the ice cream.” 

Her fingers did not drop off. The ice cream was very expensive. I hoped it tasted blue. 

Eventually, I got to the apartment. There were several people there, milling about. No one was drinking.  There were no cooking smells. There was not much in the way of furniture. There was a bathtub in the middle of the room with a board over it. I think this was the dining table, if we were to dine. The people all looked about my age, early 20s, and a bit lost, like me. Except one. She was more sturdy, and had a brisk way of moving, and wore an upsidedown watch pinned to her blouse. Like a nurse. She was a nurse. This guy had a private nurse. There was a record playing and I knew the record well because I played it all the time myself. It was Johnny Thunders’ So Alone. A very good record. I felt an immediate bond, but had no desire to talk, just to listen to the record. 

I look back on this now and think I could have been killed, or brought into a cult, or a facility, but we just milled about, sometimes making chit chat, sometimes not. 

I didn’t get to speak to Paul at all. His nurse never left his side. Maybe it was his nurse. Maybe she just looked like one. 

This went on, this non activity, for some time. Most normal people would have left by then, I guess about ten, or at least asked for dinner.

Someone did say, “Will we eat?” and Paul said, “Oh, I’m so sorry , I forgot the food.” And I said, “I have ice cream.”

Paul found two spoons, I guess there were eight of us. We sat round the bath and ate the ice cream with the two spoons. It was rock solid. Very cold. It had no flavour, except blue.  We could only dig a bit out at a time. It became too arduous and we gave up and let it melt. I went out on the fire escape for a cigarette, though in those days you could smoke in anyone’s house without asking. It was just cooler out there.

After a while, it struck me that I would not get to talk to Paul, and I was not much interested in the other people, and I had work early next morning, so I made my excuses and left. I never saw any of those people again.

I went out, down the stairs, and walked through the very wide streets of Chelsea.  There were a few men lurking about, what we used to call rough trade. They had moustaches and tatts and muscles. It was  a gay scene, that part of town. Kind of near the Hudson. They did stuff near the Hudson. What, I don’t know. 

IT felt creepy, and I needed colour, light, noise, big yellow taxis. I walked over to 42nd st and it was just so alive. Seedy, with guys in bad suits, women wearing short skirts and fishnets and corsets, big neon sighs flashing about live sex. As opposed to what? Dead sex? So there I was , soaking up all the best shit and grit and bright lights bigcity stuff, and then I tired of that and headed down the subway steps. 

The subway smelled really, really bad. I lit a cigarette to surround myself with a different smell. This was my first mistake, my second if you count going to the guy’s apartment in the first place. But within seconds two transit cops were on me like a rash. One grabbed the cigarette. I said, “I would have given you one if you had asked” That was another mistake. He smirked and said Oh yeah, a wise guy, a wise girl. You know its illegal to smoke in the subway.”

I did know this, but I forgot. Lots of people did it anyway, but not with cops around. I felt hard done by. I said, “You know, this is 42nd st. You could go upstairs and find a real crime. A dealer, a pimp, a dealer who is also a pimp. This is really a minor offence”

They smirked. They asked me to show them some ID. I didn’t have any. 

“Anything. A driver’s license?”

No, I take the subway, or walk.

So they said they had to establish who I was so they could write the ticket and could they call someone to say I was who I was. The only person I could think of who wouldn’t flip out was my mother. So we went to a phone on the platform and the cop asked me for a quarter. I gave him a quarter and he called my mother. He didn’t say anything scary, so that she would think I’d been in an accident. He just told her the situation, and that I was being rude, and if I continued to be rude they would “Haul me in” He listened a bit and then said, “She wants to talk to you.” and he handed me the phone.

She didn’t let me have it, as most mother’s would. She said, “Cops are not nice people Michele. They work with the bad guys all day and start to appropriate some of that behaviour. So just be nice and do what they say. You can’t go to jail. You have work in the morning.”

My mother is really sensible. I nodded and said OK. I said night night, sorry for the hassle. The cops wrote some stuff down on a ticket and said all this legal stuff really fast. The only word I heard was caution. I  got on the F train back to Brooklyn and made it to work on time the next morning. I’ve never had a brush with the law since. Or eaten blue ice cream. I still think my mother is one of the smartest people I know.  The last time I was in New York, the subways still smelled bad. 

New York City cops, they’re not that dumb

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I have had two brushes with the law in New York. I’ll tell you the first today, the other tomorrow.

The first time, the brush was more with the cop’s horse. I didn’t understand why the cop was on a horse. Why not a car, or even a bus? The subway for sure. Or they could just bolt outta the car in heavy turtle necks, like Starsky and Hutch. Why, in this city, which was not like, some podunk town in the deep South, in the 1930s, was a cop, with a gun and one of those jackets where he could not get shot in the heart ( and why not just wear that stuff head to toe, why get shot anywhere? If you’re a cop) on a horsie? Was it to make the cop more loveable? Aw, look at the horse. But lemme tell you something, those horses, maybe most horses, I’m not around them so much, they sure like to shit, like, everywhere. They can’t walk one New York City block without taking a big grassy dump right in the middle of the road? Did the cops scoop it up? Did they hell. No poop scoops for New York City cop horses.

 

I would have been 14 or so. I remember I had been ill in bed with something to do with my throat and chest. It hurt to breathe and swallow. Sometimes it still does, even when there is nothing medically wrong with me,  I’m guessing. I don’t see the doctor every time that happens. I read lots of books. My mother made me a lot of farina, which she brought to me on a green metallic tray which was the tray she used when you were sick. Everything slid around on it, everything that went uneaten, which was the bowl of farina. You could slide it back and forth if you propped it on your knees but it eventually fell in a bowl like lump on to the floor. But I was just getting better, and I really wanted to get out. So I took my guitar, put on my jeans and a floaty, embroidered at the neckline Mexican shirt a friend had got me from Mexico, and found everything had swamped me. I had withered away in  my sick bed. But I felt well. Well enough to strap on my guitar and head out on the F train to the village, West Fourth St.

It was about an hour’s ride, but felt longer if you had nothing to read. I couldn’t play the guitar on the train. I’d probably get in trouble, and I only knew about three songs.  I almost knew “Peaceful Easy Feeling” by the Eagles, a song I came to hate, a band I came to hate, but when we went into Sam Goody to get the sheet music my mother read the lyrics and said it was about sex and she didn’t want me playing it. It was the line, “I want to sleep with you in the desert tonight” And I said, but maybe he just means sleep, as in go to sleep.

My mother said she didn’t think so , so we took the James Taylor book instead. That was OK. He was only a heroin addict, though none of us knew it at the time.

So there I was on the train, wondering who was going to be in Washington Square. There was always someone I knew there Usually Aron Kay, the guy who threw pies at politicians or just people he didn’t like.  David Peel was always there, singing about drugs or the Lower East Side. Well, not so much singing, sort of shouting. A girl called June who never wore a bra, but should have, and always sang Chain of Fools. A guy called Don Huston, who sang Peaceful Easy Feeling. I had to ask him, was that song, that line about sleeping, was it sex sleeping or snoring sleeping? He said, he chuckled, that he wouldn’t mind sleeping with June in the desert. So I took it to mean sex. My mother had been right.

But we’d go and sit on the side of the fountain and just jam. I’d say what chords, and they’d say A, Em, D, G, or something like that. I would bar the F, cos it seemed impressive, with my tiny thin fingers. These were heavy gauge strings so my fingers hurt like hell, but I did the F in a bar.

 

When I got to the park that day, no one was there, just a few straggling hippies and dudes in long coats going “loose joints, loose joints,” selling rolled up oregano to dumb kids like me from Queens. Well not me, cos I didn’t smoke. I got high on life, man. That was my story.

I wish it were still true.

But someone I knew was there and said hey Michele, we’re all going on the march, but we have to meet up at the Bowery first to get the stuff.

What stuff, what march?

Just come. He grabbed my hand and we ran over East, down eighth st to the Bowery. It was just on the verge of hippies finishing and punks starting. There were still alkies there, drinking and throwing up any time of day or night.  We went into some squat, I think it is still there, probably selling coffee and used , water logged paperbacks.

The room was fuggy with incense and patchouli and dope. I felt fantastic, so much better than being in bed with the green tray. I looked like a child. I was a child. Some guy said, take this on the march. It was a baggie, with a joint, a condom, a leaflet that said legalise pot, and some Big Bamboo rolling paper. I didn’t know what to do with any of it. I just didn’t want to be found with it. I said, “Cool, man” and gave it to another hippy who looked happy about it.

The march was going to start at the bottom of Fifth ave and we would walk all the way up to Central Park.  Once in the park, lawyer guys like Bill Kuntsler and old Yippies would give speeches about why maryjane should be legal. We were out of Vietnam, there was not a whole bunch else that concerned them, or seemed to. I didn’t care about any of it. I just wanted to know what it felt like to march, to have people watch me marching. With my guitar. And my Mexican shirt. I had found my tribe, even though I did’t like their drugs and the smell of those that didn’t wash, which was quite a few of em.

So we marched and David Peel sang songs and shouted “A pot in every chicken” and everyone laughed, everyone got the word play, except me. Surely it was a chicken in every pot?

Still, we marched, we got waved at, we went past all the posh shops on Fifth Ave, and maybe halfway there, we were sort of sealed off by a line of cops on horses. Some of the hippies went oh shit its the pigs. And I thought, God these are really city boys, they don’t know pigs from horses. But I kept it to myself. There was so much slang. Pigs could have been the hippy slang for horses.

But it was the cops who where the pigs. My first inclination was to yelp with delight, horsies! And find a brush and brush one. All any 14 year old girl who has never seen a horse wants to do is pat the horse and brush it and maybe even ride it, but this seemed unlikely.

Some of the hippies just barged through the gaps in the horses. Someone said, come on Michele, you can do it, you are small. Just go under the legs. Fast.   So I did, or tried to, and the horse moved and put its foot on my foot, but not hard, it’s like he knew. I wasn’t really one of them. I wanted to give him sugar and brush him and he knew this, as horses do. So I didn’t get through the line, but I did step in a massive pile of NYC cop horse shit, which changed everything. It made none of it worth it, the singalongs, the dope I wouldn’t smoke, the guys I would never sleep with on the desert , as in sleep sleep, I would never, ever have sex with them. I was a child. I was a frail child, just outta sickbed, covered in horse shit. Bottom of my bell bottoms, forget about it.

I got on the train at Fifth Ave, and smelly and uncertain about everything, went back to Queens. When I got home, I had a long bath, threw the jeans away and put my shoes in the sink. I learned later they had to dry out first,then you scrape it off. But it smelled so bad. It was my first realisation that my people were not actually my people. But at 14, who are your people?

The wrong number

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The phone rang. This was the days before mobiles or even cordless. You were chained to the coil, and unless you had a desk, the phone was in the kitchen, wall mounted, like modern art. There was a crap lock on the phone, this was to prevent my sister calling her four thousand boyfriends, and five thousand friends to consult about the four thousand boyfriends. And to prevent me from having three hour conversations about Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a sort of jokey soap opera whose main character was so strange and vague, I appropriated it, and sort of became her for a few years. I might still be her. You tell me. But there was a way around the lock, which only let the rotary dial , dial to zero. If you dialled zero loads of times, you might get someone, possibly in China. Which defeated the whole purpose of keeping the bills down. We knew a number that if you rang it, the guy on the other end said Fooey Fooey. We figured this was Hong Kong, after a cartoon we knew called Hong Kong Fooey. Years later I found it was the number of a car service called Fourway. The guy had a  funny accent, and we always used Dial A Ride anyway. They gave discounts to airline staff, which none of us were at that time. My father worked for BOAC but he was long dead, and they gave my mother a sympathy job, when those things existed. Mainly she had to confiscate mangoes and other fresh fruit contraband from those flying from Jamaica. I never asked where they hid the mangoes. But she hadn’t done that for some time. Even confiscating mangoes, possibly from personal orafices, loses its new job lustre after a fashion.

So I was doing my history homework. I had to write about Franz Ferdinand, not the band, the man.  The one who got killed and then world war happened. The first one.  I was doing my homework and I thought great, it’s a friend who can talk about last night’s Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. The main thing she said, dead slow, was “Oh My God” waay before people started abbreviating it textlike, or said it with full stop after every word.

But it wasn’t. And it wasn’t a boyfriend of my sister or a friend to talk about the boyfriend. It was this guy, “Hey, how ya doin, it’s Sal.”

It didn’t sound like my friend Sally. A guy Sal.

I said sorry, I don’t know any Sal. You probably want my sister.

No, he said, you sound good to me. Tell me something, sister of the other sister. What are your feet like?

I think you have the wrong number.

Maybe, but what are your feet like? Like size and shit? 

If I tell you, can we end the phone call?

Absolutely.

Well, they are big, bigger than the rest of me. I am a skinny girl with big feet.

He started breathing kinda heavy.

Is that enough.

No, describe em more.

Well, I have two. Ten toes. One foot, the toe kinda hides under another toe, it’s a condition.

Heavy breathing.

Um, can we go now?

Not yet.

OK, do you watch Mary Hartman?

No. Tell me about your feet.

I did, what else can I say.

Tell me the shape. 

I have flat feet. I had to get steel inserts into my shoes from Buster Brown’s special bad foot guy. When I kicked people in the shin, it really hurt.

This was totally the wrong thing to say.

Oh my God, you kicked people in the shin? Girls or boys?

I dunno, whoever pissed me off. Can I ring off now. I have to write about the first world war and I am certain this is the wrong number. 

I hung up.

A few days later, he called again. He wanted the same details, but told more slowly. He wanted a slow build. Did I still have the steel inserts? 

No, my feet grew out of them and I took ballet which helped the arch.

He breathed really fast and heavy now. Oh my God, ballet. Did you get right up on your toes?

No, I got as far as the turns, but they made me dizzy cos I could never whip my head round to spot. Can I hang up now. Have you had your jollies?

He breathed heavily and sort of gasped. I said, what do I have to do to make sure you never ever ring again.

He asked me to trace a picture of my foot. I said well one has a bump at the big toe, the other doesn’t. Which do you want.

He said the one without the bump.  I thought a bunion was like the foot equal to a tit, which I didn’t have yet. Tits. The bunion was already forming.

I had loads of tracing paper. We had to trace maps of Europe to learn where everything was. I went to a good school. For America.

So Sal gave me his address, I think it was Brooklyn, and I traced my foot and I used my sister’s black nail varnish to paint the toes. I cu it out and sent it in an envelope to Sal. I told my mother everything. She didn’t shout at me. She thought it was hysterical. 

A few days later, Sal rang.

I asked him if he got the foot.

He said yes, it was delicious. 

I said Oh My God, like Mary Hartman, it had white out where I made mistakes, and nail varnish, I coulda killed you.

He said it woulda been worth it.

Years later in London the bunion got really big and  I had to have it cut off. I am of no sexual interest to anyone, even wrong numbers.