Façade by George Sparling

Friday, December 21, 2012
An alcoholic wannabe intellectual looks back on an odd drug-fuelled encounter in a New York dive bar, by George Sparling.

She wrapped my Eisenhower jacket around my shoulders. She pulled it out of the closet. It seemed as if it had died there. She must've felt uneasy seeing a shivering bum passed out on the stoop of her building. She invited me to spend the night, get cleaned up, shave and have a meal. Then adios, so I thought.

The clock said midnight. I sat on a chair in a spare bedroom, she sitting on a rocker, her face pale under bright lights from a floor lamp. I saw darkness out a window, then my reflection foregrounding a face I couldn't recognize. She'd always had that big-sister way about her, comfortable with a strange man, sitting with her bathrobe slightly open. I scarfed down two ham and cheese sandwiches, a can of peaches, and a friendly bottle of Rheingold.

A man called out, "Come to bed, Dana," but she ignored him. She told me he wanted to become a U.S. citizen: that was the $5,000 arrangement. This was a dream job for Dana, a grad from a progressive, Midwestern college, wisdom and idealism trumping pragmatism. She had no job skills. Neither had I, another graduate from a Midwestern college.

Dana worked in the medium-sized Manhattan bookstore. She told me to delouse in the bathtub with a bottle of Mr. Clean, making me sparkle. The next day I walked into the store with her, talked nice with the personnel manager, and became a book clerk. My only aspiration until then had been writing novels, kind of difficult without a steady income and a place to live.

Claire, fired for giving a customer a blowjob in the bathroom of the bookstore where Dana worked, invited Dana, Lon, and her boyfriend to a sleazy Bowery bar. I tagged along. Lon had a taste for lazing around in dirt-cheap clothes, mooching his way through life. Claire, dressed in a violet mini-skirt, with a bouffant hairdo, liked his jumping from place to place, stiffing landlords.

My bad novel could be discovered decades later, one written by a jerk, a guy who had promise. Hell, why not write a novel even without talent. I wanted to rub myself out with pills and beer that night, like erasing a word in a notebook.

It was September 12, the day after Salvadore Allende got whacked in Chile's coup. Either death by suicide with Castro's AK-47 or blazing it out, killing as many fascists as he could before the Big Croak. Capitalists, Socialist or Fascist, Nazi or Communist: Aren't they all gangsters at heart?

Dana, dressed in black jeans, black sweatshirt, her hair long and dark, went with me to many demos in NYC, finally understanding there's a great distance between changing things for real and getting clubbed and run down by police on horseback. "Cossacks! Cossocks!" we'd yell at them, but we only went home with sore throats and bragging rights, watching TV newscasts, pointing to the screen, "That's me," we told our complicitous, stay-at-home bourgie friends. Demos were for fools.

"There is no easy way to the stars from the earth": Seneca's words meant we live only to reach a hallucinating, bread and roses, revolutionary façade. Revolting as in puking up the disease of progress.

The four of us, drinking one bottle after another, Lon quoting D.H. Lawrence ("How terrible and brutal in the mass of failure that nourishes the roots of the gigantic money tree"), I saying Lawrence would've supported the Nazis if he hadn't poured everything he had into "Lady Chatterley's Lover." Claire, a line of slobber running down her chin, said, "Yeah, and why the hell were Beats so oblivious. Celine was an outright anti- Semitic." I reached for a cigarette, coughing out, "But you never saw it in his novels." Dana quoted d.a. levy, Cleveland's poet laureate: "in the world of the spirit one does not die/lose what he has gained." We looked at her: that was deeper than we cared to go. Lon told us the police assassinated him.

"Only real poets get knocked off by the state," I said, the cigarette yellowing my fingers, burning skin. Dana yelled, "You're on fire," pulling it from my fingers. I turned to see a bum walk in. After all, it was his neighborhood. He sat at the bar, reading the New York Daily News. "You stupid shit," Claire said, laughing at me. The bum turned, shook a fist, then realized Claire hadn't referred to him.

Just then, a drunk, hippie clown, with a face painted like Bozo's, overheard us, punched Lon. Lon rose, grabbing his filthy hair, then head-locked him. Bozo had hair dirtier than mine before my clean-up at Dana's place. They writhed on the floor, patrons watching, laughing at their slow-motion tussle.

"Lon popped another red," Claire said. Dana slid from her seat, walked to the pool table, picking up a line of quarters off edge of the table. The pool players stared at the barbiturate-droopy fight as it obliterated their game. Dana put all the quarters into the jukebox, playing Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" and Bing Crosby's "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime." She wobbled back to our booth, and said, "Old-timers gotta get connected, too."

Rolling and Tumblin'? Lon and hippie did just that. Claire got up, trying to break it up but Lon carefully pushed her away while at the same time grabbing the hippie's arm before he lobbed a slow-motion hook into Lon's cap. After thirty minutes of waltzing around, the two were odd guys out, having found no female partners, dancing together at an eighth-grade dancing school.

"You look sharp tonight, John," she said. "Especially with all the blinking Christmas tree lights." She liked the darker me.

"Paganism ain't so bad if you've a front-row seat to Armageddon," I said.

"Here's two Bics," Dana said. I slipped them in the pencil pocket, the jacket concealing all my failures.   

"I wrote about a near riot at a hockey game in Chicago Stadium," I, suburban boy, said. I went with a high school chum who later became the wealthy entrepreneur of an engineering firm. He tutored me in the final math test. I got a D minus, only graduating because my parents visited the principal and teacher now and then. Spite, that great emotion celebrated by Dostoyevsky, motivated my hatred of ole Mom and Dad.

"Should've been a sportswriter rather than an Untermenschen on my stoop," Dana said, bobbing her head to the jukebox music. She laughed, and her straight hair fell onto one shoulder; I appreciated her skinny frame once again. Was she at that hockey game or listening to Lotte Lenya?

"We sat in the upper, upper deck, watching. I teared up, emotional release, I guess."

"You mean cried. Admit it." I heard Bing's "slogging through hell," recalling those suburban years. I must've been "the kid with the drum," taking my licks.

Dana had an older brother who fashioned himself after the Beats. She told me he wore an Eisenhower jacket, his only claim to the Beats, but the time was out of joint and her brother wasn't Hamlet. He jumped off Golden Gate Bridge when he found he could never get anything published, even getting laid was impossible.

"You could write," I told Dana. She looked like H.D., Hilda Doolittle, but with long hair.

"I like the osmosis of poetry."

The struggle finally stopped after Bozo threw up on Lon's face. Claire joined Lon in the bathroom. A nice fight crowd for a Bowery bar near Bleecker Street. Did someone here push downers? Were folks mourning Allende's death? Bars closed at four a.m. then. Nearly three now: a very high and low bunch. Couples danced between the booths and bar, around the pool table, taking the long passage leading to the bathrooms. "Searchin' For My Baby," sung by Canned Heat, played repeatedly, three for a quarter.

"The last time I danced was to that song, only Bobby Moore sang it," I said, moving my sweaty butt to the beat.

"My songs are hard to dance to."

"If you turned them into rockers they wouldn't."

"I'm afraid nobody would listen. They'd laugh at me, playing in public." I warmed to her Midwestern plainness, how familiar her words edged out, her lithe body breathing the same air as I had that unpublished riot night.

"I didn't laugh." I've heard her strum her poetry, have read it in her notebook, but never actually heard her sing it. "Why not dance," Dana said, standing up. She knew I couldn't.

"Nah. That girl I danced with back then mocked my odd dance moves," I said.

"Who'll notice? Can't you stage a comeback? If you're that horrible, I might chuckle, though." She gulped the beer, exuberantly slamming the empty hard on the funky tabletop. She popped another upper.

"Two boyfriends of hers died in car crashes," I said. I bored her, she talking to Claire about Rimbaud and Nixon, I blathering that we could've been much closer, going out to bars and movies, but those Baltimore streets are lost in foggy shoals. I was a callow-rhyming-with-shallow guy, too introverted to listen to her grief. She probably killed herself, that night's laughs turning into drugs, then the rat-poisoned final shot. Dreamless now, I thought suicidal deaths more creative and energized than life itself.

I went to take a leak. I kissed Dana's forehead as she sat crossed-legged, lighting a joint. Returning, she was gone. Maybe she thought Switzerland, a neutral nation during WWII, would be salvation. No Renoir "Grand Illusions" for her. Each generation has them, trying to fling themselves to another era more precious and endearing. More protective. Why she left, I can't say.

Lon and Claire were fooling around at the jukebox, oblivious to everything. I saw them walk past, never saying, "See you," not noticing me in the booth. I was the last to leave. The bartender turned on the bright lights overhead.

I told him, "Where'd those Christmas tree lights go?"

"I'm a Sufi. We're inner, not outer, so lights are within us," he said, politely.

I walked out, into dark, empty streets. I realized I was starving again, beer-soaked, feeling like a dirty, semen-stained rag. I slumped, trying hard to keep myself upright, slow-motioning into blackness. It felt good to be dead, I would've written, but the dead are more dead each night, Mark Strand tells me. But unless Jesus was real and resurrection the only way out, I'll never be alive again. The last I remember was sliding down the wall of the bar.

Years later, I joined AA, going through all the steps, getting clean. No more pillhead days and death-kicking hangovers. I begged for quarters, swamped bars, pearl diver, a squeegee man, fast-swiping windshields and getting pretty good payouts from drivers. Physical activity opened up my mind, quoting lines from novels and poems I'd read at the 42nd Street New York Public Library.

One day I bumped into a man I knew from AA meetings. He tipped me off to the owner of a small bookstore on the Lower East Side. I lived in one of the last hotels on the Bowery. On the way to the bookstore, I looked at my reflection in a storefront window: I came to New York City and got old. I got the job. Working part-time was great. I got high smelling rosin and the paper acidity of books.

I'd walked for years on all the side streets of the Bowery. I'd taken the subway at Bleecker Street up to the library for years. Usually, well-dressed pedestrians walked along Bowery, stopping at upscale restaurants and boutique stores. I saw a small gathering in front of a marquee I hadn't seen before. Too drunk, too pill-headed sloppy, maybe I was sick after puking up a few days' worth of cheap wine and vodka.

As I moved closer to the dozen or so people taking photos, snapping cell phones, whatever they do to make photographs, I saw Dana. I wanted to make certain, get nearer to her, but I waited until she moved away from the others. I looked at her: Damn, it was Dana.


She stared at me.

"I'm not Dana." She starts to leave until I touch her black leather jacket.

"Who are you?" I ask.

"Patti Smith. I put the club to sleep years ago."

I looked up at a façade, focusing on 315 Bowery. Never had a marquee, I thought.

"You're Dana. What happened to you that night?"

"I put the club to sleep years ago."

"No, that night with Lon, Claire and me."

"Maybe they had a group back then." I thought a glint of recognition floated over her face.

"You took me in one night, remember? 1973. Remember all those protests we went to?"

"I have trouble remembering yesterday."

"I have a bookstore job. A lot happened since then," I said. "This place never looked like this."

"I believe everything we dream," she said. "Don't you?"

I had no answer. It was early afternoon but I walked in darkness.

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