Archive for December, 2013

Jerry Wick and Jenny Mae: Cars, New York and Alcohol 1991-2003

December 14, 2013

Cars, New York and Alcohol 1991-2003

The great American fascination of the automobile fell upon deaf ears to most of us, unless it was tied up in a song (ala, “Born to Run”), books (“On the Road”) or film (as a metaphor for escape), the insular world that we inhabited was confined to walking distances or to the touring van. In rural Ohio, a car is a necessity, a way to get from here to there, which covered miles not city blocks. Springfield Northeastern High School was nearly eight miles from my house, a fifteen minute car ride or a nauseating school bus ride over rolling hills, sudden stops and a rollicking-rolling trip spent upon spent shocks that lasted nearly an hour from school to home. It is impossible to ride a bicycle on these rural roads where the average speed of cars rocketing over the sudden mounds of earth and slopping quick valleys, that if timed with the right amount of acceleration could lift a small car over the peak of the hill. The roads, even the state routes are all two lanes and for even the most accomplished cyclist this method of transportation would be inviting trouble.

In high school we drove when we could, and upon reaching the age of sixteen procuring a car was the highest sense of order no matter how poor the family was. For a car provided an escape, from the boredom of the humid summer days that cracked upon the sweaty backs of angst-ridden teenage boys, from the isolation of playing Atari video games while Pink Floyd sang about adolescent rebellion masking as claustrophobic stardom and as the pangs of burgeoning sexuality cause near madness. Our family was poor, we lived off of Bob’s sole paycheck which hovered just over $12,000 for a family of four. Zoltan was given a car by a friend and I relied on the broken-up and often broken-down Corolla that Bob drove. Eventually, Zoltan gave me his pale gray Mustang that had never driven correctly since he tried to plow through a creek only to have the car get stuck in the mud and slowly fill up with rising creek water. Smoke billowing out above the cool water that rose above the bumper, I crawled in and yanked out the Radio Shack tape player–the player someone forming a perfect union with the engine for as one pressed the gas pedal the whining of the engine would play through the speakers. “Bela, get the hell out of there! The car might blow up!” yelled Z from the bank of Mud Creek. “It can’t blow up, it’s buried in water!” I screamed under my breath as I wrestled with the wires, my knees getting soaked in the brown water. Eventually we got a kind farmer to pull the car out with a tractor and after a few days of airing out, it ran again but never quite like the $400 car it was. More like a $350 car.

In Columbus not everyone had a car, Jerry Wick never had a license as far as I knew although I had offered to let him use any of the litany of the small compact cars I had over the years. He walked everywhere and eventually got a bicycle and this was this mount that he riding on when he was tragically killed. Sadly, Jerry a punk till the end didn’t think he needed a light, reflectors or a helmet (although a helmet would not have prevented his neck from being snapped like a twig when he was hit that night twelve years ago.) Road trips were common, mostly to Cleveland to see bands, either at the old Euclid Tavern, the Grog Shop or sometimes Public Hall. Other times to Cincinnati to Sudsy Malone’s a Laundromat bar that hosted bands as well or to Bogart’s, Cincinnati’s answer to the Newport but more of a shoebox than the ornate Newport with its high oval ceiling and elaborate wooden balcony. Most of my trips were to Athens, where the hour and fifteen minute drive, fueled by a six pack and a handful of cigarettes would fix my racing mind.

Other times, I would drive to New York, my first drive in the 1967 Dodge Valiant, which I bought for $500 from Matt Newman a guitarist for High Sheriff Ricky Barnes who was the first in Columbus to start playing old country standards among a handful of, at times brilliant originals. Soon, the Gibson Brothers, Hank McCoy and others followed suit. Matt was moving to California to seek more lucrative professional possibilities than playing for a handful of regulars at Staches, while wearing thrift-store western attire. I got his light blue Valiant, a standard “3 on the tree” that had a warming system that just worked on the passenger side and left a small pools of ice on the floor when parked overnight during the winter. My first drive to New York was to see Sharon, who lived with Herbert Hunke. Herbert lived in the same apartment he had lived in since the mid-seventies, and he was still on daily methadone and would rise early, write and walk the five blocks or so to the methadone clinic. Sharon said he would venture out with a young Puerto-Rican man who she wasn’t sure was Herbert’s boyfriend or not. I made that first trip with Jack Taylor (Richie Violet) who was going to see his friends in New York. He was pals with Judah Bauer from The Blues Explosion, the men in Railroad Jerk and Charlie from Surgery and the band Unsane. He was close to Sharon and would razz her in front of me about her relationship with me, partly due to his own crush on Sharon and partly because he did not feel I had enough rock “acumen” to go out with such a beautiful woman. Perhaps I didn’t but I was head-over-heels for Sharon who was not only stunning beautiful but also carved out a life in NYC.

The drive was good for both Richie and me, he was trying to stay clean, and while we did not discuss his heroin habit we bonded over “Exile on Main Street”, The Blues Explosion and our love of Great Plains and country music. He was funny and poked fun at me for my unabashed love of alcohol which he derided as “unnecessary, you don’t need that to laugh do you?” he would ask me. As we pulled into view of the Manhattan skyline, the tape deck blasting the Silos my heart beat faster, “Good Lord” I thought, it’s the biggest fucking thing I’ve seen. As a child I lived on Long Island, in Springs NY, just an echo from East Hampton and my memories of the city were vague as if looking through a pool of water. We went through the Holland Tunnel, and came out upon a sea of graffiti and garbage piled high, I was lost in a storm of streets as I tried to navigate traffic and Richie pointed where to turn. Soon we were driving towards Alphabet City where Sharon and Herbert lived.

The apartment was between Avenues C & D on 8th, just below the sidewalk, and the apartment was filled with books, magazines and old furniture. Sharon blushed when she saw me, we kissed and she introduced me to Herbert who saw small and hunched over. He shook my hand, his grip was strong and his hands seemed to be constructed of leather, rough and covered with the experience of hustling and scrapping. He had bright blue eyes and a shock of gray hair the sprouted from the top of his head. He did not appear to be a man in his eighties. “Bela! Glad to meet you, Sharon has told me all about you. Bela, like Bartok? Right? She tells me you love to read, I’ll be curious to find out what you like to read. Did you know that I’m a writer?”  I had known who Herbert was, not only from what Sharon had told me but I had read some of the Beats, although I was not the outrageous fan of so many in the underground. In fact, I was never a big fan of William Burroughs whom I regarded as somewhat anti-women but I enjoyed the beat poetry and the movement itself.  Hunke’s own influence on the Beat movement was massive, from the coining of the term Beat to being a major influence on both Burroughs and Ginsberg, He was portrayed in both Junkie by Burroughs and also in Kerouac’s “On the Road” and when he asked me what I read and what I wrote about he appeared pleased.

I felt at home in New York, although this partly came from ingesting the music from New York since the age of fifteen, I had devoured the Ramones, Lou Reed, Garland Jefferies and Springsteen as a teenager. The grim of the lower east side was burned into my consciousness and as I walked the streets, the busyness of the sidewalks were already tattooed to my synapses. I had picked up Garland Jeffrey’s “American Boy and Girl” at Woolworths for a $1, his entire solo catalog, like that of his sometime collaborator, Lou Reed was easily had for a buck a record. Although Garland had never had the amount of press or even credit he deserved he made a couple of seminal NYC albums that rank near the top of all music NY. Perhaps he is best known as writing “Wild in the Streets” which catapulted The Circle Jerks to their punk-rock fame but from the mid-seventies until the early 1980’s he constructed a trio of albums that hold up quite well.

In a teenager’s mind, New York was built of asphalt and steel, with bustling sidewalks that mimicked the opening scene of Cagney & Lacey or of Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight huddled next to one another, it was not constructed of clumps of dry cornstalks, gravel roads and flat ranch houses. The music from New York filled my ears, especially Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. I had never heard as anything as grotesquely inviting as “Street Hassle” from the mid-west and it would be a few years before the frantic noise of Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys, Cleveland punk bands that would echo the realistic poetry of Lou and other New Yorkers.

On later trips to the city, which came in bunches over the next few years as I visited Sharon whenever I could and would make the nine hour trek to various rock and roll shows at Under ACME, CBGB’s, and the Knitting Factory all of who were open enough to book Columbus bands. The shows themselves are a blur, as are the years and the trips. Through the memory is a faded as the soft light in a 1970’s soap opera, it is burnished at times through the recollections of friends who were there at that time. One such trip when Gaunt played with Prisonshake and a few other Ohio bands at CBGB’s whose restroom was designed after the open sewer systems of Calcutta. I drove on my own and got to the club early, Gaunt was already there, mid-afternoon and as I walked in, sunlight bathing the sidewalk outside the bar was long and smelled like any other bar; with a scent of bleach and stale beer, I ordered a Budweiser and was alarmed at the $7 cost. How in the hell anybody could afford to drink in New York was beside me, Jerry grabbed me in the dressing room, “Dude, don’t drink here” he said as he grabbed my shoulder and steered me out of the bar. We strolled across the street to a small carryout, complete with guy-with-unwashed-clothes-and-defeated-look sprawled out on the sidewalk, brown paper bag clutched firmly in his hand as his head leaned on the brick wall and directly to his left a metal garbage can. One half expected Oscar the Grouch’s head to pop out or a needle laying next to the man, or a needle hanging out of Oscar the Grouch’s neck. Jerry walked right to the good stuff, which was 24 ounce bottles of Crazy Horse a malt liquor that had recently been discontinued in Columbus and next to that rows of green bottled Balintine, another malt liquor that was guaranteed to fuck-you-up. They were about $2.50 each and I bought one of both. “Were the hell do we drink it?” I asked. Jerry scoffed at me, “on the street you dumbshit! They don’t fuckin’ care, it’s fuckin’ New York!” After this lesson these malt liquors and well hidden bottles of Jim Beam were my preferred choices.

New York made me feel big, as if the soles of my feet made an indentation into the sidewalks, my mother had briefly flirted with New York in her late teens. Living in the Bowery District before heading back to Columbus, for reasons she never explained. There was an energy that fed into the boyhood dreams of a Midwest outcast, of the idea that I could shake the inner turmoil and isolation I felt in high school, by smelling the smells, tasting the food, blending into the scenery of the city–as if feeling small in the smaller town of Catawba propelled the perception of being gigantically alive in the city. I had become friends and acquaintances in the city through the record shop, indie-rock was a very small world and it was common to have coffee, lunch or drinks with many of the folks who the store did business with. The community I felt a part of was much more comforting in New York than whatever I felt in Catawba.

Even still the feelings of unease hung onto the tails of my shirt and enveloped me no matter where I was, whether in the living room of my father and his wife as they foisted homemade Hungarian cookies into me, lecturing me on the dangers of homosexuality, God’s retribution and my indeterminist failures, or the talking to Sharon while we laid in her bed, waiting for her to end the magic I felt between us. Later, the unease would be swallowed by gallons of alcohol, as brown and green bottles were turned upside down, the unease would melt into a carefree carelessness that could quickly break down the walls of trepidation between me and another. I pined for attention, yet like a bug trying to land on a light bulb, I would scamper away when the emotions were too much. In my mind, I had already been defeated.

Some ten or twelve years after that first trip to New York, so long before it had appeared to be only a fleeting appiriation in my mind, for the world had changed so much in a decade. I arrived in New York with my wife, as we drove north to Vermont to see our old friends Dave Sweetapple and Ron Schniderman in Brattleboro. My wife had some business to do in the city with her job, she and I had suffered through a precarious spell in the preceding years and many of the old haunts I had know were now left to the faded pages of punk rock books and time-stained saved flyers of music collectors. CBGB’s, Under ACME and Brownie’s had been shuttered, the move out of  lower Manhattan had already begun, with the bearded and ironic hipsters moving into Brooklyn where rents were still low enough. The dive bar that our friend Paul Lukas had taken us to a few years prior in Red Hook had now become a destination point and anyway, I had decided just a year prior that a bar was a dangerous place to be. We stayed with our friend Matt Majesky, a man of unblemished taste in books and music, who suffered no fools and had a stinging sense of humor. I went into the city and while my wife attended her conference I headed to the lower east side, this time not in search of a bar but instead a twelve-step meeting. There was a clubhouse on 14th near Avenue C that was open 24 hours a day, that week I went to three or four meetings there. Upon entering the first meetings, I grabbed a small cup of coffee, holding the tiny Styrofoam cup in my hand I took a seat in the third row. I glanced around the small room, there were roughly sixteen or seventeen plastic chairs in the room, a few people ducked in and out, one man, with black greasy hair, matted to his forehead, jumped down the three stairs that emptied into the room. Look nervously around, he clasped his hands together, his tattoo’s covering his forearms, a biographical inking for all the world to see, as if his arms were issuing a challenge for anyone who looked in his direction. An image of Lucifer snaking up his arms, with flames, nude women and  a pair of dice camouflaged in the middle of the bursting reds, yellows and blues that careened off of his forearms, there was no room for hair or his pale skin. It was if he had gargled an entire tattoo magazine and they magically appeared on his body. He bounced on the balls of his feet, shook his head and bounded back up the stairs. The air was charged, as if someone had taken the tops of the electrical sockets and the air was being pumped full of invisible sparks. To my rear a man with a dark suit and a briefcase sat back, whistling softly to himself, was he whistling a John Denver song? I looked back, he appeared tired, fatigued, glancing at his watch he too was bobbing his head, nobody was relaxed. In the front of the room, two men whispered to one another, and one pointed to me. Raising my eyebrows I asked if they needed something, “well yes, we do. I think you have the most sobriety in the room and we need someone to qualify for us.” Luckily, after absorbing many Lawrence Block books about an alcoholic private detective named Matthew Scudder, I knew that qualifying on the east coast meant giving a lead in the Ohio. That is, I had to tell my story. I had only nine or ten months sober but I had been instructed by my own AA sponsor that when AA asks something of you, you are compelled to give back. I accepted.

Alcoholics Anonymous was an entity that I had heard about during my twenties, I had even visited one through a family member when I was seventeen, not for my own concern but for support. I had thought nothing of it, it was a place for old people to hide out, I supposed. The charms of the alcohol had provided were too great, too strong and too fun to ever think about, but the charms were constructed of liquid and while the laughter, belonging and sex the bottle brought into my wife also rolled out on my life like piss down my leg and eventually rolled down to the floor. The puddle would take years to grow around me, taking a bit of myself one drop at a time until eventually, there was nothing left except confusion, anger and bewilderment. Attending a meeting in a Lower East Side AA clubhouse was startling, considering where I was just 24 month prior, contemplating suicide and being unable to trust myself in front of a bottle any bottle.

Sauntering up to the plywood podium, that was cracked around the edges, with the plastic wood veneer pulling itself up from particle board, it appeared as if it were hoisted from the gutter as many of the alcoholics who stood before me appeared. Eyes opened wide, with an emotional shakiness brought alive as the hourly obsession of a fix either by needle, pipe or bottle throttled from inside some of them, it was expected that I would bring some salve to their pining obsession. Shaking myself I took a deep breath, this would be the first time I stood in front of a group and tell my story. One man, nodding to himself, stood up and paced the small room, the yellowed walls, tanned by years for cigarette smoke provided a backdrop to his skittish walk, his hands petting his legs, smoothing out crinkles that just weren’t there.

Speaking for 25 minutes, I took questions afterwards, this was a bit different than the meetings I was used to in Gainesville and Columbus. Afterwards, a balding, toothless man from Iran approached me. “Hello Mr. Bela, thank you so much for qualifying, you helped me so much today. I live on the streets here, it is hard to not drink. I am from Iran, and it is so hard to be an alcoholic in Iran as you are not allowed to drink. It was easier here, always drink. Always good times. Always. But I lost everything, my wife, my child even my uncle will not help. I have eleven days today, and thanks to you, I will have 12 tomorrow.” With a flat smile I thanked him, I was never good with compliments. As I stood in front of the clubhouse, the sun splashed against the concrete, and my shadow stretched from the curb into the street. An elderly man approached me, “Hey, that was a nice qualification. My name is Ed” he said as he extended his hand, “would you like a cup of coffee?”  We walked down the street to Avenue C, and entered a polish bakery. Telling me his story, he was a playwright and had gotten sober in the early 1970’s, “I come here nearly every day, especially since my partner passed away a few years ago.” I was encouraged, “I still write, every day a little bit of something, the alcohol was important back then but it staggered me, I lost my job as an editor and my contacts but I found AA or as they say, it found me. And here I am, nearly thirty years later, happy.”1967plymouthvaliantcoupe04

Later that week, I met my friend Lyle, we talked and had a coffee. Lyle had gotten married, and had several small young children. The last time I had seen Lyle was when his band had played an Anyway Fest, and the night they played I had inadvertently walked into his room while in a brownout. The guest room was halfway between our bedroom and the bathroom and it was not uncommon of me to me to fall into the guest bed upon relieving myself as I was too drunk to manage to stumble the ten more paces into our bedroom. I was in a brown-out that night, and ended up spooning Lyle waking up to his shrill, “Duudeee, you are fucking naked!!” and then having him hand me off to my wife, “I believe he is your responsibility” he said as he passed me off in the night. Sitting on a bench in New York, Lyle said, “Bela, you seem happy now.”