Hopi For The Day
by David Lohrey
I lived on Potrero Hill not far from a grand Victorian owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
In a little closet I slept, rented from an activist who drank cognac and smoked with an ivory cigarette holder. Sharon Gold: her refrigerator was off limits. When I told the head of the local party apparatus, he confronted her and made her cry.
I baby-sat for a prison reformer who loved to sleep with black felons. She was in and out of San Quentin every week and ate dinner on Nob Hill. She, too, was a communist. She sent home pictures of her new Peugeot to make her mother proud. She wore leather and hoped to be picked up at bars by men driving Porsche. She loved to be slapped around.
“For all I know he’s fucking you, too.” These are words to remember. This bit of bile sits on my mind like a mustard stain on one of my brand-new dress shirts. Shit. Try getting that out. Yes, these are words spoken to me by a woman I once called my friend. She was the kind of woman – you’ve met them – who says things without thinking, like a dog that defecates on the neighbor’s trimmed lawn without consideration, without a thought in her pretty little head; the same way, one imagines, Joan Crawford once took a hanger to her lovely daughter’s bare bottom, forgotten by her the moment of impact but remembered by daughter Christina for the rest of her life.
The tears did nothing for me. I had no sympathy then, and even less now. She thought then, in her prime, of bedding our employer and now missed desperately his warm embrace, imagined as in a fever that he was fucking someone else; if not his wife, then anyone else would do. My friend’s eyes flashed as she turned around. Yes, why not you? He’d fuck just about anything that moves, it could just as well be you. I failed to see then what I see now which is her low opinion both of herself and of me. In her defense, I now see an essential lack of conceit. She figured we were both worthy of Mr. Seidman’s attentions. We were both just whores.
How did such an attitude take shape? I wondered about this. A bright woman, well-educated, a feminist, who adored the likes of Virginia Woolf and Anais Nin. She was a mature, sensible woman shaped by her time, made to feel her worth measured by a bank account and a man. Oh, Camille, I remember. My dear old friend, so distraught, so frustrated. Now she liked our boss an attorney who bragged about putting women up against the wall in the office bathroom. She envied the other women.
When you see yourself that way, as nothing more than a catch, it must burn not to be caught. Those posters of Mick Jagger and Steve Biko weren’t decorations as I once believed. Not at all. They were fantasies, like a soldier’s poster of Betty Grable, hidden in the springs of his pal’s upper bunk. She’d like to have been taken to bed by royalty. Rock stars or political activists would do. Celebrity cocks would have given her a sense of pride. What a blow to be relegated to playing second fiddle to our boss’s wife. What an insult for a woman who liked to goad men to violence. Prick teaser extraordinaire: how the men were made to throb, how she loved to send them to their rooms with their cocks between their legs, desperate rejects. It was all a thrilling game until our boss threw her off. No, he wanted some all right, but he’d had enough. Who could blame him?
I took classes at the People’s Law School in a back room at Glide Memorial Church. There I met curly-haired lawyers determined to mend the world. They all knew the Mitford sister over in Oakland who ate caviar and drank the best champagne. They held poetry readings in her sunken living room. I met one who knew where Patty Hearst was hiding.
It was a Superfly summer. There was something in the air. Fellini was still alive. They were digging below the earth, making tunnels for something known as BART. The city ruled by Alioto was abuzz with famous killers, known to all as the San Quentin 6 and the Soledad Brothers. It was the birth of radical chic.
I was a block away when Dan White murdered the Mayor of San Francisco. My friend Paul drove around city hall looking for excitement. There was no more talk of revolution. By now, the Black Panthers had dispersed. Poor Huey was dead. The Communist lawyers I knew were desperate for clients. The party, literally, was over.
My pal came home one night to say he had struck a man in the road and killed him. The police told him to drive away and never look back. It was just a homeless nobody. We were no longer in emerald city but living in gritty Oakland. Whilst there the Hearst family delivered frozen turkeys to the masses, mostly frat boys from Berkeley.
Dungeons and Dragons replaced The Communist Manifesto for this generation. They played in the attic. I worked now at the Jesuit seminary on the posh end of town. The priests stood at the buffet too greedy to carry their food back to their tables. They cut the centers out of three or four steaks, leaving the bone and the grizzle for their brothers. They picked off the strawberries and left the short cake behind. They took one sip of coffee and demanded refills. We left the side door open for the priests returning late from the gay bath houses. They raided the ice box for midnight servings of rum raison ice cream. In ten years, they would all be dead. There was no AIDS yet.
The last Communist I knew was my professor, an Italian from Calabria, who invited us over for chess. He gulped wine and crawled around his kitchen floor. He pulled down the garbage can and sat covered in coffee grounds. He cried about not having enough money to take out women. His wall was covered with a ripped portrait of Joseph Stalin.
Rich’s orange Datsun was riddled with bullet holes. The passenger door was a mess. There were between 12 and 21 spaces where the body shop mechanic had had to drill to knock out dents from the impact of an oncoming pickup. Rich could afford the holes but not the patches.
It was 1981 and we were on our way to Vegas. We’d stop by to get Mikey, my other pal who lived in a Jewish commune with sulky drop-outs from Oberlin College who were now attending Cal. They were studying Russian and kept bottles of Vodka in their freezer. Their parents were professional psychologists in Chicago, that is, all of them but one. Her father was a heart specialist in Pittsburgh. The girls had all been in love at one time or another with Mikey, a curly-headed youth who smoked cigarettes out of my shirt pocket and fancied himself a character from Ulysses.
Mikey’s sister lived in Hollywood and used to play tennis with Paul Mazursky, back in the days when it took artists three hours to finish breakfast. Back then Beverly and Fairfax was the place to be, sitting out on the sidewalk, eating the $3.95 special and ordering endless refills of mediocre coffee. The coffee was watery. This was before Starbucks and all the endless gourmet coffee outlets.
His sister liked to sleep with celebrity tennis players, the more the merrier. Who can blame her? Different strokes for different folks, as we said to ourselves over and over. She had a way of getting around and got to know a new comedian who liked to dress up as Mighty Mouse. He became famous for acting like an idiot but gained immortality by dressing like Elvis.
I hate star-fuckers and had no intention of becoming one. This clown in tights was of no interest to me, but I’d heard of him and probably had seen him on TV and may even have liked him, but I didn’t hang out on Santa Monica Boulevard to meet actors. I didn’t play billiards with the hope of spotting somebody famous. Not my style. Then I made the mistake of agreeing to go with Mikey to have dinner with his sister in Santa Monica and got sucked into meeting this guy.
That night we went to a restaurant that served macro-biotic spinach omelets. This guy, the impersonator of Elvis, was a fanatic when it came to food. He liked to eat alone and always sat in the same spot. Carole knew where to find him and although she knew him well, she didn’t consider the fact that he wouldn’t want to be disturbed. As a matter of fact, he valued his privacy as much as he hated beef. Now I’m not saying she was sucking his dick, but she knew him intimately. She called him but neglected to say she’d be bringing along a couple of commoners.
In we walked. He looked up and went back to eating his tofu. He didn’t look up again.
Instead, he seethed. He was in an instant rage. Carole began to apologize. He didn’t complain out loud. In fact, he said nothing. She whined. Then she introduced us. I smiled and felt miserable. Mikey didn’t notice. It was a great honor, he said, to meet such a famous mouse. Could he have his autograph, could he try his tofu, could he sip from his cup? Yes, he would be thrilled to stay for dinner. “Can we get a menu?” I realized he was sort of sincere and also trying to cover for what was clearly a disaster. “I just love Saturday Night Live,” I offered, and tried to sound like I meant it. I wanted to follow up with something like, “When I finish kissing your ass, would you care to have your balls licked?” But, I fell silent. I was mortified. Mighty Mouse seethed. Carole blushed. I turned to stone and couldn’t move. I stopped breathing.
And, finally, we got out of there. We ran. Carole was hysterical. She knew she had blown it. Mikey pretended to want to meet back again for breakfast. “Does he like tofu burritos?”
He’d noticed that Mighty was furious, but hoped it wasn’t true. Isn’t that marvelous? When I told him, and got Carole to back me up, he denied it. “He didn’t say that.” It wasn’t my impression that we had made his day. He’d certainly made mine, by this time it was becoming the greatest day of my life. “Let’s go to Barney’s Beanery on Santa Monica. Maybe we’ll run into Tom Cruise. I’ll buy him a beer.”
Actually, I used to date one of Mikey’s roommates, but we’d stopped seeing each other a while back. It was her nose that had caught my attention. She was no prim thing with a small IQ. Her nose was something grand like a tropical toucan’s bill, just not as colorful. As the poet’s jar in Tennessee, this nose was more a presence than an object. But her green eyes were not jungle wild like a bird’s; they looked to me like something out of the Warsaw ghetto. I think today of her as a thing of art, because like a carving or, even more, an engraving, her features seem immortal.
We met in Paolo’s car on the way to Rio, a local favorite. She sat in front and I right in back behind her. I had already met her nose. I couldn’t help myself and reached up to touch the nape of her neck as a way to say hello. When we stopped and got out of the car, she approached and whispered, “I like the hand on the neck.”
What a thing. The only time in my life I have loved someone’s nose. We fucked all the time but she didn’t want anyone to know. I was only 23 but felt freed from the unknown. Had it been another time and place, we might have had a go, but we let things flounder and blew the chance of a lifetime.
Nicknamed Julio, she had giant soft tits and that is all there is to it. She wondered aloud if that was what had drawn me, as they had attracted others; she recited men’s comments. I’m sorry, my love, it isn’t your chest, not even your beautiful green eyes. It is that majestic nose, the beak of an eagle, the bride of the sky that did it.
Picasso had almost got her right with his cave-dwelling ladies. She had the same angular breasts and a grand Baroque ass. She was cross-eyed, too, and carried that nose with its high-arched bone. What he got wrong were the feet, which were not like the Spaniard’s lumbering ladies, gigantic, but small. He hadn’t caught her skin color either, which was pale and creamy, not gray, coffee or gravy, nor that most modern of hues, blue.
She’d had a searching mind, a sly smile, a wicked, charming laugh – almost a cackle. She was a little crazy. She used to bang her head against the wall, and, she said, did it because she felt worthless. She could be cold and hyper-critical, snobby and dismissive. She was capable of violence. She once punched me in the stomach and made me double over.
We took a seminar together on American lit. The only book I remember well was Faulkner’s Light in August. We all had the conceit of the 60s, believing that only our generation had the power to shock. We believed that saying fuck you was cutting edge, and so was farting. The Faulkner novel blew my mind. I’d never read anything so disturbing. Everything else paled in comparison. It made Vonnegut, for me, seem like old cotton candy.
I’ll never forget the nympho widow and the seduction of the black guy, Joe Christmas, who passed for white. She hid in the bushes panting, emitting lustful grunts, waiting to be taken. Waiting for her black stud, Mr. Christmas, whose present she craved like none other. She was starved for attention, like an anorexic, desperate, but not for food, no; a nymphomaniac, deprived of attention and exhausted by years of waiting, she hunkered down that night, ever hopeful. She’d been driven to this, shamed and shunned for years for her desires, mocked and cast out of polite society. She now acted out her fantasies, lay awake in remote corners of her property, looking forward to being raped by a man who gave her what she wanted. She lay grunting in the bushes there, stark naked, you can just imagine. Hiding in wait, ready to bend over or be bent over, like a zebra or a baboon in heat, kicking or screeching. Her cries make one’s hair curl. She wanted to be taken back, back to when men dragged women around by their hair, back to the cave, back to the bush, and all for a thrill.
According to William Faulkner, the author who made her up, this is what some women want. This one cried herself to sleep after her husband passed away. And then it was Christmastime, oh boy, and did he have a present for her. She’d been eager for it, quite desperate, waiting for it, hiding among the azaleas all day and night, for years. Today she’s been waiting since 9 and she’s pissed. She’s no longer waiting; now she’s crouched over, ready to pounce like a squirrel, or a rabid raccoon. Faulkner says women get like this when left alone too long. They can go insane. This one begged like an alley cat. She screamed, “It’s Christmastime,” as he fucked her. “Hallelujah.” It is enough to make one tear one’s clothes off and head for the nearest Magnolia tree to squat down in its shadow and scream, “It’s my turn!” This book is not an entertainment; it’s an emergency. My God, is this what’s been going on down there at night in the woods?
There wasn’t a white man around for miles who dared approach this wild bitch. The men were little girls. The only man man enough for her was merry Christmas who had the right present for her, just what she’d been begging for, the very gift she told Santa she needed. This is what awaits the reader of America’s finest novel of the 1920s, a recognized masterpiece, that is rarely read and just as rarely taught, if not ignored. I wonder why? It’ll set your hair on fire, that’s the first thing. The prim will be shocked. Better keep it hidden. Is it still placed on reading lists?
Anyway, we lost touch when the course ended that same year. I saw her, though, sometime later. She was down fifty pounds. She kept her nose and her sexy laugh but her thighs and marvelous ass were gone. No longer ancient, she had become modern. She was sleek and sickly like T.S. Eliot. She was a ghost. She’d once, this Julio, had Eliot’s appetite for things; now she bore his sorrows. She still had her nose, but she had dropped her beguiling smile. I knew then and there that something was irretrievably lost. She was thin and less than lively. She was no longer Rubens’; she belonged to Modigliani. She was brittle and, I could see a mile away, no longer interested in me. I went to our friend from São Luís, who shrugged: “Some toucan prefer Venezuela.”
After getting Mikey, we headed out of Oakland at 11. It was late and we had already eaten so it was just a matter now of staying awake. We’d arrive in the morning if we didn’t fall asleep at the wheel. Rich brought along a bag of dope. I smoked Benson & Hedges. Mikey sat in the back and asked questions. Rich took the wheel and kept the music flowing. It was very much a matter of this or that until he pulled out his recording of “Apocalypse Now.” For three and a half hours we listened to that.
Rich drove fast. We were cruising on occasion at 95 mph. He is a superb driver. Some people can do it. Some even like it. He loved to take the curves at high speed. Had his IQ been twenty points lower, he might have hung his head out the window and yelled. As it was, he drove with caution, but always held a joint between his lips. All I had to do was to keep them rolling. I learned how to do it without spilling. All this while we listened to Coppola’s thumping helicopters and mad Wagner. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
Mikey and I were in a history seminar together taught by the insane Italian Stalinist who invited us to his basement apartment to play chess. Calabria used to pound the table and demand to know why we hadn’t completed the assigned reading of Braudel’s 900-page history of the Mediterranean. He was just one of the many radicals I came to know who secretly wanted to be rich. We took several classes together. My favorite had been a course taught by an Israeli officer who belonged to the desert patrol. A machine gunner, he told us. Mikey had taken his course on Israeli literature. Together we studied war memoirs, such as Charles de Gaulle’s, and stories of the Holocaust. That year, he had taken time to travel to Vienna to perfect his German. I was curious because I’d just finished watching the famous Orson Well’s film set in post-war Europe, The Third Man.
Mikey had returned recently from the museum of that name in Vienna. He had traveled with a group of alumni. “They were all from Dallas?” “No, no. Not all from Dallas: Houston, Atlanta, maybe Florida. Dr. Cohen and his wife, who did most of the talking: They were Dallas. The Lindys: Miami. Boca, I’d say. Money. Lots of money. Hubert Appelbaum, a widower. I think he said Houston. Yes, Houston. Texas or Florida. They were on holiday. Everyone was on holiday. It was a cruise.” “A cruise?” “Yeah. I don’t remember who was from Atlanta.” “Club Med?” “Are you kidding? More Book-of-the-Month Club! Mensa. Club Med. The women have their hair done weekly, they keep black maids – yes, even in this day and age - and they read Karl Popper. They’re educated people. The Lindy family is related to the American wing of the Wittgensteins.” “Sounds good.” “It was intense.” “Really?” “Vienna seemed so glorious until I saw the murky Danube. We went together to see the bronze shoes of the Jews who were thrown into the river. On the Pest side of the Danube, on the banks opposite Buda. We took a bus.” “Why no shoes in Vienna?” “You’ll have to ask Freud. The guide said the Jews in Vienna were too poor to wear shoes. The river was dark and forbidding.” “You traveled together, the whole time?” “Everyone didn’t go. Dr. Cohen said: ‘Let’s go look at the bronze shoes of the Jews.’ One lady yawned, ‘I’m not interested in shoes. I’d like a raspberry tarte. I’d rather go to the Mozart Café; there you won’t find bronze shoes and bad memories. After the art, I’ll go shopping.’ The others ignored her.” “This is in Vienna?” “As I told you before, you’ll find the shoes in Budapest, along the river bank. You see the shoes in Pest. It’s an installation. A memorial. You can see Buda just across the river. The guide played the soundtrack from The Thin Man on the motorway.” “Who can forget the zither?” “The guide kept saying, ‘Wait until you see the palace. Just wait. Schönbrunn Palace: the most popular sightseeing in Vienna.’ He didn’t seem to care much for Budapest. There was this guy, it was Mr. Appelbaum, he spoke emotionally: ‘My family, they all fled from Europe to Long Island. It was my cousins the ones left behind in Hungary who were killed; they left their shoes on the banks. They took them off so they’d float and not sink. They’d be lighter and could swim.’ Of course, they didn’t swim. They were shot. He didn’t speak again that night as we drove back to the hotel. And as we were parking, I mean, as the driver pulled into the round-about to let us off the bus, someone asked about the Viennese, the Austrian Nazis. The guide just said, ‘The office workers now were office workers then. They just changed from one uniform into the next.’”
“That’s Cambodia, Captain.” Willard was our hero, not Brando. We were not even half way to Vegas when the fog descended. The bullet-riddled Datsun was now crawling at less than 30 miles per hour. I was into my third joint. Rich was having the time of his life. Mikey had fallen asleep. We were right there with the boys as they went up river. “Never get out of the boat.” That became our anthem. We knew intuitively what that meant. One never knew what one might find out there in the jungle.
“Terminate with extreme prejudice.” Those were haunting words of instruction directed at young Willard. He had been given a lot to think about. He carried pictures of the uniformed Kurtz in a file but had trouble matching the man of great military accomplishment with the maniac in the jungle. I think of this now as I read The New York Times. It’s been nearly forty years. If you’ve seen this movie, the man in the White House today may seem somewhat familiar, a type whose methods many find as unsound as Kurtz’s. Of course, forty years ago, the man in the WH was not Marlon Brando but an actor held in what many might say was less high regard. But this is now, not then. I don’t recall thinking at all about politics as we plowed through the thick pea soup fog of California’s Central Valley.
“Disneyland? Fuck, man, this is better than Disneyland!” That’s how I felt about that long drive to Vegas. I can understand sweet Lance’s enthusiasm for his cruise up the Mekong. We turn mayhem into glory. How, I can’t say. Why? Who the hell knows? All I know is that I will never forget breaking out of that dim soupy tunnel and seeing Oz on the horizon. But those were the pre-MGM days of Vegas when the place was still run by the mafia from central-casting, not Bugs Bunny but Bugsy Segal.
By this time, we were getting hungry. The pot-smoking didn’t help. We had all eaten before departing, but Rich knew a weird place off the highway, so he headed along an old postal route from the days of the stage coaches. At a distance, we could see some lights. Rich suggested we put on our shoes and things and try to make ourselves presentable. Evidently, this spot was popular among the wealthy ranch set and wouldn’t be too excited about serving scraggly college kids reeking of weed. We parked between a Mercedes Benz and one of those luxury pickup trucks with all-leather interiors.
Actually, the place was nearly empty. It was well past dinner time, of course, but they were still serving. We sat at the window which afforded a magnificent view onto the valley. It was some sort of weird health-conscious native food eatery, maybe best described as high-end Southwest cuisine. Our neighbor was sipping desert mint tea sweetened by hummingbird saliva and the man with her lapped pomegranate wine. Mikey ordered the same. Rich and I got a cactus drink, a divine concoction of pine sap sweetened by cactus rind and desert rosehips with a drizzle of wild honey. The menu said it had been harvested not from the hive but from the beaks of mountain owl. Even if the chef wasn’t a genius, we decided the restaurant’s publicist was, because the menu was very clever, if at times over-the-top.
We gasped as the fresh concoctions reached our lips. We traded glasses and burst out laughing. We closed our eyes as the waitress told us our orders’ providence. We would be dining on ingredients enjoyed by the Native Americans, she promised solemnly. We should imagine ourselves as Hopi for the day. I told Rich I wanted to wear beads on my genitals. Mikey said it made him want to drag his wife around by her hair. Rich went out for a smoke.
Mikey asked me what I knew about the bubble lady. “She’s the one who always wears a navy-blue beanie cap pulled down tight in the summer, a low-slung bag at her side…” “Yeah, right. I know who you mean.” “… and a bright red scarf, with ankle-high socks under her black sandals.” She called herself a poet but everybody knew her as the bubble lady. She was famous in Berkeley for blowing bubbles like a child as she walked up Telegraph Avenue. She was well over forty, I’d say. “Why doesn’t she blow kisses? I bet she’d get more spare change.” I could see that Mikey wasn’t in the mood to joke around. “She’s an explainer, a teacher. She never misses the chance to hold forth. She carries herself like she was born with a seat in the Roman Senate. “She Jewish? Of course.” “She eschews the Socratic method.” “She’s not too interested in what others have to say. I’ve heard her.” “She prefers to deliver monologues. She’d like to talk nonstop like Castro, her hero.” “She’d like to take over. She would happily bake cakes, but she feels called to harangue the masses.” “The masses are too stoned to listen.” “Maybe she oughta speak somewhere like Hyde Park, grab the microphone and go to it, knock herself out.” “People here aren’t interested.” “She’d prefer to command the Pacific fleet. If anything turns her on, it is the sight of thousands looking up to her.” “No doubt. Other women, but surely not all, think about nibbling on men’s earlobes. They like their inner thighs stroked, and that’s nice, but…” “Not her.” “No.” “She should have been an actress.” “Washington Square would appeal more than the Shubert.” “You notice? She never wears make-up.” “That stuff’s too expensive.” “She’d make a good Lear.” “You think? So, what’s up with the bubbles?” “Who the hell knows?” “They don’t instill confidence. She looks crazy. She loves to wag her finger.” “She wants everyone to feel bad. The state of the world hangs in the balance, so you’d better listen.” “Face it, she’s a wreck. She doesn’t bathe. Her teeth are bad. She’s so fat she waddles.” “She’s bent on world domination.” “Her strategy is to wear people down. She talks nonstop about the Russian Revolution.” “Or how she’s on to the Israel spies in the White House. Or how she’s invented an alternative energy source.” “Right.” We laugh. “Tell your friends they can find her in People’s Park.” “She’s living between two rocks…” “But she always wears house slippers on the grass.” We laugh some more.
Soon our entrees were brought to us as if we were royalty, on hand-woven platters of hardened straw, made by local artisans using techniques perfected thousands of years ago. They were even unwashed, the waitress explained, stained with the juice of berries and the blood of squirrels. The hostess boasted that no detail had been overlooked. A lack of water in the desert no doubt made washing impossible. We were invited to partake of the riches. “Enjoy.”
We dug in. What a feast, even if it was doubtfully “genuine” Hopi cuisine. As we ate, I couldn’t help but notice the arrival of some local children on bicycles who were hanging out in front of the 7/11 located just across from our restaurant at the Antelope Inn. They were not Caucasian but I supposed Native, possible residents of the nearby Reservation. Their skin was brown and their hair, shiny black. I’d guessed they were 12 or so, maybe 13. I wasn’t sure. They departed the store, eating hotdogs and swilling orange soda. Their pockets were filled with candy. One of the kids held a bag of BBQ chips and shared them. They ate on the sidewalk below an incredibly bright security light. I could see them but they couldn’t see me.
They caught my eye just as our Navajo tamales were set before us. We shared a basket of roasted blue tortillas accompanied by cactus relish. I had ordered the quail and my companions tried the Antelope Valley red squirrel, which they had been assured tasted like rabbit. Their dish was garnished with grasshopper and some sort of steamed pine cones Teddy Roosevelt was said to have loved. Mine came with fried cicada larvae cooked in local peanut oil. We ordered a local wine, but not made from European vines. This wine was taken from an assortment of native plants, including the fruits of desert cacti and tiny wild blueberries.
I eyed the boy across the way who was eating what I thought to be a Hostess cupcake. He gave his little friend a bite. She got some whipped cream on her nose. They laughed in the sun. It was hot.
We enjoyed our meal and finished up with an assortment of local cheeses made from mountain goats.
When we stepped outside, the kids on bikes had ridden away. It was still dark. We took off; Rich drove like a bat out of hell. A couple of hours later, we pulled into the parking lot at Circus-Circus and got a room for three at less than $25. In those days, everything was essentially free, including the food; all you had to do was gamble your life away. “The war was being run by a bunch of four-star clowns who were gonna end up giving the whole circus away.” This may or may not have been true of Vietnam, but it certainly was of Las Vegas. By the time I was old enough to want to return, the whole thing had been taken down and sold for scrap. The days of Las Vegas as it was once known to millions were coming to an end; soon it really would be no better than Disneyland.
The boys ran off to play cards while I sat in our room and brooded. I’d been reading Georg Lukacs and Habermas and now had trouble facing reality. Marxism is poor preparation for slot machines, let me tell you. I may have thrived in our Berkeley seminars, but in this land of chips, German thought didn’t count for much. It wasn’t long before I got the town’s central message. I was worthless. Nobody wanted to know what I thought. Here, for the first time since I was ten, I was made to understand what a man’s life is really worth.
I found the cinema just minutes from the casino tucked in the back of a strip mall. There was not a soul in sight, but I was nervous. Amazingly, it was raining, so I carried an umbrella. I was sorry I had it when I entered. I was afraid to put it down because I didn’t want to risk having it swiped. I liked the soiled posters lining the walls, wonderful 1950s erotic noir. I went immediately to the window, where I was greeted by a silver-toothed little guy whose boyish grin reminded me somehow of a Japanese Mickey Rooney. He was middle-aged and leering. He was prince of his little louche kingdom. A porn theatre off the Strip. His teeth glistened with silver and gold like the Mexican lady serving my favorite burritos back in SF’s Mission.
He didn’t look up. He reached for my ten-dollar note with two hands extended. He smiled wildly, perhaps idiotically. He pulled out some bills. “Just one? Is that right?” “Yeah.” His furrowed brow suggested deep thought. He looked at the fiver I had handed him. He struck a few buttons on his calculator. Suddenly, he hesitated and then reached into a little drawer beneath the counter. “It’s $5 at this time, you know. Early-bird special.” “Yeah, I know.” He opened the plastic pouch to his right, folded the bill and tucked it away. We didn’t make eye contact. I thanked him. He nodded, still grinning from ear to ear. His glistening lips made me sick.
This was my first trip to a gay porno theatre. I was completely lost. Where was I and what was I doing? But I was determined not to let on that I was a novice. It was strictly soft-core; it showed genitals but the sex was simulated, the actors naked, but the sex acts hidden. Lots of aggressive men forcing themselves on younger guys, strictly eighteen plus. The movies were forgettable and boring. Little to attract one’s attention. They ran without interruption, about twenty minutes long. The men were in suits. They were not young. Close contact ensured the illusion that something was happening. Their bored faces made clear that just the opposite was true. The younger guys came in for job interviews and were taken by force. The guys, shocked, let out distressed cries, but no crying. They didn’t fight back. Their faces were shown instead of their genitals. There was old-fashioned agony and ecstasy. These films, thinking back, were metaphysical. The message was basically clear, that gay sex is sick. They illustrated American thought of the time; they affirmed a world view, an ideology of distress, a recognition of the need for relief, the denial of love, an affirmation of the inevitable loneliness that sexual perverts must suffer. Sex is not a life force, but a premonition. This was back before the great liberation, before AIDS, too.
It was an incredibly seedy theatre. The heavy plastic curtain, the tinted-glass ticket booth, even titty posters. And then, once in the auditorium, rows of reclining, over-sized chairs without armrests, guys standing around, at all four corners of the room, and the odd customers, like me, who entered in their suit and ties, carrying briefcases and wearing glasses. They looked like middle-aged Clark Kents, each and every one of them. They entered, sat down and then were approached, as a sparrow might alight on the hindquarters of a fallen buffalo. They became couples, instantly. They sat silently. Eventually, there was some whispering, inaudible, a negotiation maybe, and then if the little bird was lucky some sort of invitation: for a HJ, BJ, caresses, full contact – who knew? How was all this negotiated?
What was fascinating was the odd group of regulars, mainly over fifty, I’d say, who had positioned themselves around the room, pressed against the walls but watching carefully to keep track of the newcomers as they entered in the dark. These guys popped in, sat, pretended to sleep, slumping down in their chairs, as on a recliner at home, and seemed indifferent to the presence of one of the regulars who then proceeded to undo their trousers. The stuffed chairs were lined up, no space between, soft, relaxing, like one continuous sofa. You had action galore, discrete, and nearly silent. The young and not-so leaned back, pants open or down to their ankles: there were hand jobs and more, a quiet sort of mania.
I liked the marvelous Fellini-like madness on display, but instead of fat women with baggy eyes and broken teeth, you had mainly white guys and Hispanics in their fifties, old queens offering contact. The seediness and desperation make me think now of Almodóvar, perhaps, or of the now-deceased German film-maker, Fassbinder. It’s the harsh reality of urban life, once on display in Times Square in New York, or on Hollywood Boulevard in the time of Charles Bukowski, long before they tidied the place up; back in the 70s, when there were numerous used bookstores on the Boulevard and old women wore collapsed bee-hives, hot pants and crimson lipstick to the grocery.
One fellow, however, couldn’t seem to pull himself together. His affectionate visitor had moved on, but he just sat there in his shirt and socks, playing with himself. He was alone. His glasses were back on, but couldn’t manage to get dressed. He pulled at himself. It was among the saddest sites I’ve ever seen. I was not in the least turned on. But I felt drawn to his forlorn state. Could anybody offer solace? I couldn’t. Nobody could. Curiously, I noticed he kept looking down as he pleasured himself. What was there for him to see? The downcast face made it all the more pathetic.
As I witnessed up-close, one visitor sat and was almost immediately joined by a stalker. Then silence. Stillness. The visitor moved away. Just one seat. Eventually the stalker left, however reluctantly. Now a “sparrow” (vulture?) appeared. There was eye contact, an invitation. The second stalker sat; he was not shooed away. The visitor’s fly was lowered. He reached further. What a job, down and about. Deep and eventually to the hilt but, then, discouraged, or drawn away, “pulled” away to join at the lips so soon. Great action, great rapport, great fit, great urgency, passion even, arms about, an embrace, melding, and connection. That was the high point, a sighing cheer, a moment of quickening, joy. And he had so much hoped to hold it forever there. And then it was hot, sweaty, humid, and even sticky.
I depart for some fresh air. When I return, a fellow is sitting directly in front. He looks back. A sparrow descends. The newly arrived scoots over. This is no doubt a rejection. The bird flies off. He is alone now, in the row in front but to the left. He turns around and sort of winks. That low-slung position becomes uncomfortable. He has his pants open. He lowers his fly. I don’t feel like working, so I just rest my hand there alongside it. I finger his silky hair. I fiddle. But I am bored. I am tired. Can’t I just let my hand rest here for a while, I wonder, just nestle. What a cozy place to be, I think. And he seems content.
It is hard being next to someone without going after them or being gone after, probed, poked, and urged on. Sometimes it is nicer to find someone who will let you do nothing.
What’s erotic about sitting next to a stranger with your hand down his pants? Men are very soft down there. All of them and that’s comforting to know. All that oily muscle and then quite suddenly the grassy patch. The softness in women simply deepens, but with men a secret is revealed, their womanly side is exposed. They’re vulnerable down there.
That kiss so soon. Licking, sucking, slurping, plunging, absorbed. That odor. His? Mine? The wetness, too close. All of it, and from a stranger. Who is this? Do I want to know? “Oh,” he moans. We met 10 minutes ago. I stop to catch my breath. “Nice to meet you.” Time to think. Evaluate. “I love you.” He must be mad. “It’s hot,” I answer. Too close for too long. What the fuck have I gotten myself into? Now, I am really lost and at a loss. “I love you.” He must be out of his mind.
After a rather substantial sampling of what he has to offer, I offer my name. He laughs. He gives me his. No fake names. He hands me his business card. I have none. I tell him again it is hot. “I better be going.” “Ok, ok.” I split. He doesn’t follow. It is raining. There is local flooding reported in the news. A dam has broken in the hills. Dead bodies have been found floating in the local creeks. Helicopters arrive to rescue a desperate family. I head back to the hotel. I look down to find that I’ve forgotten to zip my trousers. Back to the room, I find a note: they want to meet at the old, by now long-extinct Flamingo for a quick meal before we head out.
We take the sunny roads back. No one is in the mood for more fog, not even for listening to the Doors. We head for Los Angeles and then take the 5. Rich really steps on it and we are back in no time. We pull up outside the commune and let Mikey out. He had a good time, I guess. I don’t see much of him after that. Rich and I graduate, eventually, and go our separate ways. He, into banking and other forms of lucrative gambling, and I drift to another part of the river. I often think back, though, on that drive, listening to those opening lines from Coppola’s epic: “Well, you see, Willard, in this war, things get confused out there. Power, ideals, the old morality, and practical military necessity. But out there with these natives, it must be a temptation to be God. Because there's a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.” I wonder what Habermas or Lukacs would have made of that.
About the Author
David Lohrey’s plays have been produced in Switzerland, Croatia, and Lithuania. In the US, his poems can be found at the RavensPerch, New Orleans Review, Nice Cage, and Panoplyzine. Internationally, his work appears in journals located in India, Ireland, Malawi, Hungary, and Singapore. His fiction can be seen at Dodging the Rain, Terror House Magazine, and Literally Stories. David’s collection of poetry, MACHIAVELLI’S BACKYARD, was published by Sudden Denouement Publishers. He lives in Tokyo.