Sometimes the speed works for you. Sometimes you’re left behind. The latter is my usual state. It was the early 1980s, West Lakeview. Subtle changes had taken place in the neighborhood. Where sausage-eaters once gossiped on stoops, you now saw well-dressed kids sneaking into condos with bags of arugula bought at Treasure Island. Early in the morning you could see people running in the street—and they weren’t running away from anything. Cheap nihilism could be made to turn a profit. Once again it seemed there was a future that the working world could strive for.
I decided to change my entire life for the nine hundred and ninety-ninth time. I took a job working for some lackey in a company full of lackeys. It was new for me—a real job. And I sold the ’69 BSA Lightening too. I could have paraded it around or worn it like an expensive watch, but I had no place to keep it except the sidewalk where parts seemed to disappear daily from its frame. Fights started in its vicinity for no apparent reason. Perhaps it reminded people of their own stalled dreams. I ripped off the buyer too. Jed was his name, Maddy’s friend. I told him it ran. It didn’t. Actually it did. But it wouldn’t for long, and I knew it. Bad crank. But Jed got back at me. He introduced me to Isabella who introduced me to Eddie, and that’s how I met Sarah Townshend. It’s a long story.
See, this guy Jed gave me a ride home in his pick-up, and we stopped by this woman’s apartment in Wicker Park for drinks. Her name was Isabella Yoon Yi, an Art Institute girl with all the requisite fashion baggage. She was Italian, Chinese and Korean with jet-black hair, skin like cream and a body that justified nearly any transgression. Something in her blood could buckle a man’s knees across the room. They became sad clowns in her presence, and she liked it—she liked to watch men decay. Tough-minded American Romantics were quivering in jail for her, for some crime they could barely remember. I was sure I wasn’t gonna be one of them.
“I’ve always wanted to know someone named Isabella,” I said. It was a bad line so I laughed to ease the pain.
“Well now you do,” she laughed back. Her tone indicated I might get to know more. But that was just her tone—nothing ever came to pass, which was for the best. With women like that, even if you’re the man of the hour, you’re still only a temporary mirror for their power.
There was a phone ringing somewhere as we spoke. It just kept ringing. “You gonna answer that?” I asked.
“I would if I heard it,” she said. I would understand this odd comment later on.
Isabella walked over to Jed and stroked his neck. Jed was sort of going out with her at the time, but you wouldn’t have known it, the way they verbally abused each other and openly flirted with both friends and strangers. They called it their “dynamic,” and claimed to be ahead of their time. It was true too, and sadly prophetic. Jed was about to fall and was resolved to that fact. He was already dreaming of riding his BSA off into the sunset, a free man and I encouraged his fantasy. It could leave a void I might be able to fill by marshalling my ‘stranger-in-town’ status into a cheap sexual conquest. This was not to be. One night I showed Isabella my soul, or some facsimile thereof. She got the joke. Maybe that’s why she introduced me to Ed. Ed was a romantic too, supposedly.
Ed was one of the new ‘conflicted’ people. He’d been trying to live in two worlds for some time and he thought he could resolve the situation by flooding the intersection of those worlds with alcohol. Me and Eddie hit it off right away. One night he had a get together. A few hard core drunks were coming over and it would be a big night of drunks drinking. Me and Maddy were there. Isabella with someone, not Jed. There was another guy, Roberto Costello—a singer. I’d met him before through Madelaina. But he knew Eddie through Devon, back when they used to live over on Hermitage.
Everyone knew Roberto was some kind of fabrication, but no one cared. There was a lot of doubt about his name, for instance. His name was really Bob, or rather Robert Cohen. He wasn’t Italian at all. But he could pass. And with a couple of drinks in him, and little provocation, Roberto would burst into this Italian aria. It was always the same one, from Turandot, Nessum Dorma. No one sleeps tonight, he said, and on nights like this no one did. It was Bob Cohen’s good trick—people wanted to feel exotic because they knew an opera singer, and he exploited that need in them as a kind of symbiotic social contract with the hipster lifestyle he desired.
And there was another girl, a French girl, Claire Colette. Claire had a thing for Roberto Costello. She put on some Wagner record hoping to impress him. But Roberto hated Wagner and gave Clare the shoulder. Feeling undesirable, she proceeded to get wasted. Devon claimed Claire was too drunk to drive, so she left the party in Claire’s car. Claire’s boyfriend went with her. Claire stayed on. The boyfriend was some loud literary phony from Poland, named Stash—at least that was his pen name. Isabella had already gone. Then Jimmy came over with some pot.
It had been a long night and she looked like death warmed over, but I recognized her as a character from some ancient tragedy and realized I had been in love with her my whole life. Maybe it was her accent. Maybe it was the alcohol, pot and valium.
By the end of the night Ed was sodomizing the tenor on the back steps. Claire was half passed-out at the table in a funk, having been dumped by both Stash and Roberto. In the middle of all this, another guy named Oscar fell off the roof and broke his wrist. Nobody even knew he was there. He was talking lawsuit. Ed was talking cops. Oscar claimed passion drove him to it though, and being romantics we all let him off the hook. Apparently he had climbed on the roof to spy on Claire, because he had a thing for her. But he hadn’t planned on witnessing any homoerotic porn scene. He lost his grip on the gutter just as Ed was letting fly. After the ambulance left, me and Sarah ended up staring at each other over a trashed chessboard. It had been a long night and she looked like death warmed over, but I recognized her as a character from some ancient tragedy and realized I had been in love with her my whole life. Maybe it was her accent. Maybe it was the alcohol, pot and valium.
We spoke of Devon and her disregard for people’s feelings.
“But Devon’s cool.” Sarah said.
“Yeah, cool.” I replied.
This Sarah character seemed smart and a little aloof, which was nice. I began to imagine the whole future life we could live together: I would be with a smart woman who actually had a job and could take care of me. She had no relatives or friends in jail. And it would be good to know someone with a real purpose in life, other than looking over your shoulder for the next kick. I could tell I had her interest too, so I balanced my normally effective cynicism with some sympathetic humanism. “Sometimes, it’s just so sad,” I said, “I mean look around—violence, divorce, abandoned babies, where does it end. The world is sick.”
She agreed, putting it all down to Inhuman Capitalism and Social Darwinism. I added Emotional Marxism to the mix, figuring the isms would win the day. Sarah was a leftist after all, and a sarcastic one on top of it. And I was just her type—at least for the time being. We hit the sack. But we were too drunk to appreciate it. That’s how it was in those days. And if it wasn’t intoxication, nostalgia and regret were always around to weigh down the pleasure of the present.
Anyway, like I said. Things moved fast. I quickly discovered that Sarah really didn’t have a job; she was an “occasional” worker, a “freelancer” for a couple of on-and-off companies. She had no intention of taking care of me either, and her intelligence was extremely circumspect, being too closely dependent on what she expected to gain from it. She talked about things that she was going to do as if she were actually doing them. I think she even believed she loved me for a second or two because that kind of attachment would help her feel better about her goal, which was, oddly, simplicity. But people can seem simple when they are really a mixmaster of contradictions: the reason they love you is because they hate you; they hang out with you because they can’t stand you; they order this when they want that; they wear clothes that make them fall down. They see the contradictions as some kind of test.
Sarah’s real name was Sandra, Sandra Gombrowski. She was part Polish, part Scottish. She pretended to be British. She was born there, but she’d lived in the States since she was a kid. I didn’t mind. I hated the name Sandra anyway—it was too blonde, and I prefer brunettes. It’s not that blondes lie more than brunettes, they just do it differently—almost without any sense they’re lying. In any case you can’t call them on it—you’re playing their game, they’re not playing yours. So you swallow hard and feign tolerance. But tolerance was a trap in and of itself, a sort of uppity kind of cowardice. I had a theory about it. I had a lot of theories in those days.
The theory went like this: the liberalism of the 60s and 70s had bred a kind of perverse tolerance which, in the 80s, could be used both as license, and as entertainment. People could laugh along with the contradictions of others as a way of excusing their own. They could even revel in the fickleness of their friends, while indulging identical behavior, assuming all lapses would be accepted. In fact it mattered little, as bad manners and egoism were soon to be seen as virtues and signs of class. We supposedly lived in a “classless” society, but class always did get in the way. So did spirituality, which in this crowd was merely another type of class.
Sarah was playing a game in which I was supposed to save her. I was never sure from what: Cynicism? Duplicity? However, she wanted it to look as if I was the one being saved. Or maybe she didn’t want or need to be saved so she picked me, a man who wasn’t going to save anybody anyway—I would never say she was St. Catherine to my St. Frances, or even Judy to my Punch. Perhaps the idea was to humiliate me, and make me so angry about it that I would play the game out of spite. But I couldn’t see the game. Not then, and barely now. And if I had, I wouldn’t have known how to play it. And even if I did, she wouldn’t let me, because it was a one-person game; my playing would defeat the purpose.
What drew her to me caused her to reject me in the end. She saw me as some unkempt, un-presupposing foil to the viciousness and falsity of her friends. But I was no such dream, not that noble rogue she wanted to tame, no road trophy granting authenticity to her fragile image. I was just a way for her to beat herself up about the fact that she really loved somebody else but thought he was boring. When she found out that I was more boring than him, she’d have to lose face to admit it. Things changed. The only way out was to drive me away by suffocating me. In her mind that meant casting me in the role of somebody that could be suffocated. But I already was, so that was misspent energy. It went on and on like that—at least in my mind. She had her own take on it.
Indeed, both our ideals were based on false projections. She wanted one thing and I wanted another. She was functional in a dysfunctional way and I was trying to be the opposite. I needed to suffer, according to her, and she, of course, did not. More likely I had refused to acknowledge her need to suffer, and she was pissed. I didn’t know how to spend money either and that embarrassed her, as did my wardrobe. Experience was not valid currency to this crowd. Image was however, and I had none. I did have a tattoo: a bluebird on my chest holding a banner in its beak that read l’amour fou. Sarah had liked that. And I had a leather jacket that was increasingly too tight, probably because I was eating too much out of frustration.
One day Johnny showed up on the scene. I called him Johnny Denouement because I could never remember his last name. Apparently this John Denouement used to be a nice guy, but now he was a little off, and he liked people to know it. He acted crazy, not because he really wanted to—but because he was living up to the code of some book he’d never read, a book written by drunks and desperate men. I got the run-down. A while ago he’d quit his job as a clerk and ran off to LA. He got stuck there for two years. The dream became a nightmare, but a dull and dumb one. Now he was back in Chicago, fabricating an attitude and making life hard for other people. Especially me—because he was trying to get in Sarah’s pants. He wormed his way into her confidence like some bozo Iago, and turned her against me. He called me a phony to her face.
He said “You know Frank, you’re a phony. I bet you’re really just some suburban shmuck. I bet your mother teaches high school.”
I should have been hurt—my mom did teach high school—but I wasn’t.
One day I caught myself looking backwards with a tear in my eye. The past began to seem better, easier at least, than this complicated social terrorism I found myself involved in. But where and how was I involved? Did I even fit in? Was I becoming one of them? Maybe I wanted to serve Sarah right by becoming what she thought I was, even though I wasn’t. The next day I didn’t go to work. Two days after that I got fired from my job at the lackey house. I had an intense hangover and a bad attitude apparently, and the lackeys didn’t like it. When I tried to tell them that life was tragic—we were all just trying to get by, and that they should have some compassion for my embattered soul, because we were all, every one of us, really shining aspects of the one great ‘world soul,’ —they didn’t buy that either. While I was riding the elevator down I noticed a Hollyridge Strings version of Janis Joplin’s Piece of My Heart playing on the Muzac system. It was a perfect example of that socio-economic Darwinism Sarah was always on about—everything you believe in or like eventually turns against you.
Speaking of Darwin, I’d read that evolution doesn’t make things better, it only makes them different. It has no goal, no purpose—it’s just a series of accidents. Thus this song, Piece of My Heart, which had begun as a kind of primal scream, could now be pasteurized and fed through an anonymous PA system to distract office workers from any meaningful thoughts. It was as if some corporate pusher-man who lives off the desires of ‘the people,’ had stuck a hypodermic into the heart of those same people, and drained them, then forced them to buy back their own life blood as a means of pacification. Simplicity indeed.
That night I was supposed to meet Sarah and some of her freelance friends for dinner. In her world leftists went out to dinner all the time. They were at a restaurant I knew, but it had changed owners and now catered to a more moneyed crowd. I walked in. I told Sarah I lost my job. I don’t know what I looked like, but her companions began to cringe at my appearance, like cave creatures when the lights are turned on. It wasn’t a good report. My boyish innocence had failed to elicit any mothering instincts from the freelancers apparently.
“Face it, you just want to be bum,” Sarah said, pretending such comments were part of our rapport.
“You don’t know anything about me,” I shot back, not pretending anything. I believed what I said, and I wanted to think she didn’t believe what she said. But she probably did. Or maybe she just said it because it fit the narrative in her mind. I wasn’t a bum, at least not in the way she thought. So I sat down anyway. I didn’t eat, I just drank. I was on a roll. I was hurt, but I was also glad the end was imminent. Johnny Denouement had served his function; the great unravel was upon us. It might take three times as long to break up as we were together in the first place, but when it did finally happen, it would be based on something that could have been said the very first day we met.
At some point my face started twitching uncontrollably in the restaurant light and I had to excuse myself. I threw some money on the table and left. I walked north. By now I was hungry so I bought myself one of those hammered-to-death over-salted, thawed pieces of meat they call a t-bone at the Best Steak House on Broadway. I had a couple of beers and tried to make sense of things. I couldn’t. Others would. Life would go on without my running commentary. The phone was ringing in the booth by the cashier. No one answered it. A man in an overcoat stared at me through the window. I ignored him. Then he put his tongue on the window glass and licked it repeatedly. A ghost parade of Uptown zombies passed behind him—the broke, the broken and the brain-dead. The archetypes of failure were out there all right, and they seemed to be breeding. I wondered if I could head off that gravitational pull before it became my future. After all, according to the fantasies of the middle-aged and all the victims of advertising, it was actually possible to do just that.
Carl Watson writes regularly for The Williamsburg Observer.