glitter on the distant plains as we drive towards the edge of the
Rocky Mountains. It's a compelling sight, especially after the flat
fields of the Midwestern farmlands. Unfortunately, I'm not able
to enjoy it, worrying instead on the reality that I was out of money
and almost out of gas.
Leaving Indiana had been easy, halfway
through my trial I became friends with Debbie James, a good looking
mulatto chick willing to go on the road in her beat up VW Bug. But
as anxious as I was to get out of town, I felt nervous about traveling
with her. I had a sense early on that Debbie was one of those loose
cannon types, a high strung female who seemed to have a nose for
trouble. In our few weeks of friendship, she'd already pulled me
into a threesome with her boyfriend, placed me in the middle of
their passionate breakup and the only thing I walked away with was
a dose of the clap. This was not exactly the direction to be heading
off in after all I'd been through.
But no other opportunities came up
and I started getting paranoid the cops were watching me again.
On top of that, Debbie was placing her future on me, she seemed
to think I was the one who'd lead us from the narrow confines of
our Hoosier heritage to a grand adventure she dreamt about.
So with a stiff, awkward goodbye to
my family, feeling their underlying relief at my departure, I left
my childhood home, this time in the brightness of daylight and $50
in my pocket. Our goal was to get as far away as possible, California
sounding like a good place to aim for. I was eighteen-years-old,
the year 1974.
We drove straight through the center
of the country, stopping to look at sights we'd only read about
in our high school geography books. We scrounged around for food,
ate mostly junk and at night slept under the stars in thin army
It was late at night outside of Denver
when we ran out of money. The last quarter was used to buy a Hershey
Bar, carefully divided before greedily eaten up. Soon afterwards,
the car started wheezing and coughing, until the engine died and
coasted to a stop. Debbie looked at me in a panic. "What are we
going to do?" I peered through the windshield into the darkness.
We were in a suburb of Denver, surrounded by silent, peaceful looking
homes, cars parked neatly in the driveways. I smiled. "I need a
pen knife and empty out the water jug." I demanded. Quietly getting
out of the car, I signaled to Debbie to stay down and crept over
to the nearest house. There, using the knife to cut up a length
of the garden hose, I tiptoed over to a Fairlane Ford parked in
the driveway. Debbie got out of the car and slinked over to see
what was going on.
"This is going to be easy. We'll get
to California, no problem." I muttered, opening up the gas cap to
stick the hose into the tank. Placing my mouth over one end of the
hose I start sucking. Debbie peers over my shoulder, looking concerned,
"Uh, Poppi...." Waving her off, I wildly gesture to get her to grab
the jug and get ready for the gas flow. I take another huge suck
of air and bam! The gas comes flying up, forcing me to gulp a large
mouthful. Immediately I'm on my hands and knees throwing up gasoline,
while Debbie grabs the hose and starts filling up the jug. Gas fumes
permeate my whole being. "I can't breathe!" I gasp. "I can't breathe!"
There is no choice but to lie there stunned, trying to get my lungs
to work and chocking on gas vomit while Debbie fills the jug and
empties it into our car. Slowly, moments later, I'm able to sit
up and crawl over to where she's standing. "You know, people die
swallowing gas", Debbie solemnly declares, helping me into the car.
"Great, thanks for the warning.", I wheeze.
In the driver's seat, Debbie is able
to coax the car to start and we head out of Denver towards the Rockies.
Through a gas haze, I watch the growing moon-silhouetted mountain
range while hiccupping noxious fumes. The smell fills the car, forcing
us to roll down the windows. I can't smell anything but gas and
wonder if my sense of smell is permanently destroyed.
On the edge of Boulder, the car starts
sputtering again. We roll into the parking lot of a dingy motel
, it's vacancy sign blinking neon blue. I am utterly wasted. "I
can't go any further," I wheeze, "We've gotta stay here a few days,
gather up some money. I'm done sucking gas, girl."
Of course, there was no way of foreseeing
I'd never make it to California, that our few days of delay would
turn into four years of adventure in Boulder, meeting those who
would show me how extraordinary life can be.
First Steps in Boulder
In the dim morning light I woke up with the awareness that gas fumes
still filled the air. Then came the realization that a greasy looking,
overweight guy was tapping on the car window. Somehow, I'd fallen
asleep scrunched up in the front seat of the VW, not an easy feat.
Looking around for Debbie, I could see she had more brains than
I did as she was stretched out in the parking lot of the motel.
The guys' voice came through the window,
"What are you two girls doing here?"
Moaning inwardly, trying to stretch
out major kinks, I climb out of the car. "Damn!" He exclaims. "You
reek! What didj' do? Roll in gasoline?"
"Uh, no, I accidentally swallowed
"Really..." He eyes Debbie, who's
slowly getting off the pavement. "How old you girls?"
"Eighteen", I reply, bristling at
the question. Debbie pipes up, "I'm nineteen!"
The man stares at us for a silent
moment. "Hmm, well, I guess I've got a couple of vacancies, you
can take a room, but it's 60 bucks a week. If you don't come up
with the money in seven days, you're outta here, understand?"
Debbie and I look at each other incredulously.
"Sure, great, thanks!", we reply, astounded. "We'll get cleaned
up and find work today." Inside the dingy room, we check out our
new home, looking forward to taking the first hot shower in a week.
Within two days Debbie finds a job.
Having worked in a nursing home in Indiana, she had no trouble finding
the same position here. For myself though, it's a different situation.
I was painfully aware that I'd never been the hiring type - the
universal anger I felt along with the attitude I'd carried to survive
my years as a runaway still hung over me, like a mantle giving off
it's own energy. As a result, the general population avoided crossing
my path. And for the most part, I preferred it that way. It only
got in my way when looking for work. So for three days I stomped
around Boulder, learning about the town, but finding nothing. By
the end of the third day I was starting to feel weak and was pressed
to remember the last time I'd eaten a decent meal. Debbie was able
to scrounge around for food at the nursing home until her first
paycheck, but even she was feeling the pinch in her stomach.
That night, lying on our beds, staring
at the cracks in the ceiling under the fluorescent light, I told
Debbie I had to find a job soon to stop the slow starvation. Debbie
replied, "Well, actually...I've been thinking about that. The kitchen
of the nursing home is closed at night and has a window next to
the alleyway. I could sneak in there, open the window and you'd
climb in later to take whatever food you want." I smile. "You really
do have a nose for trouble. But, I like it. Let's do it."
Twenty four hours later, here I am,
standing in the alleyway, dressed in the requisite robber black
clothing, holding two pillowcases from the motel room and latex
gloves that Debbie brought back from work. The window is ajar, just
as planned, so I hoist myself through the window, stepping down
on the counter by the sink. It's pitch black and no sounds out in
the hallway, everything is cool to go. Fumbling with getting the
gloves on, I finally switch on the flashlight and walk to the steel
locker door in front of me. As I open wide the gleaming doors, I
spy my treasure, Food. Industrial size cans of vegetables and spreads,
ten-pound bags of potatoes & onions, gallon size jugs of milk. Going
into a quiet frenzy, I jam everything possible into the pillowcases,
haul them out to the car, empty them in the back seat and go back
for more. With the focus of a jewel thief, more stuff is jammed
in, bread, juice and eggs, before climbing out the window again.
I'm hauling the last pillowcase when it splits in half. "Shit, Shit!"
I hiss as eggs break on the pavement, potatoes and onions rolling
in every direction. I start scrambling to pick food off the asphalt
- suddenly a dog barks. Everything gets thrown in, and as I start
up the car, an outside light goes on. Stepping on the gas, I squeal
down the alleyway as fast as I can.
A day later, the local Boulder paper,
runs a small article, noting that there was a break in at the local
nursing home. Police report about $200 worth of food taken and the
only clues left by the perpetrator is half a sneaker print on the
kitchen counter and a partial fingerprint. "Hey look Poppi!", exclaims
Debbie, "You're only in town for a few days and you're already in
Debbie and I have the real pleasure
of running our version of a soup kitchen for a week afterwards.
The indigents in the area come over in the morning to get peanut
butter and jelly sandwiches, served from our industrial sized cans.
Soon after the nursing home heist, I found work. Herbie's Deli,
home of the best pastrami sandwich in town, was located next to
Boulder University. My new position was that of counter person;
cutting up meats on cruel looking slicing machines and quickly forming
them into oversized sandwiches. This work was living hell during
lunch, with orders flying in, the machines whirling away, and Herbie
screaming to go faster. From noon to 1PM, it'd feel like the top
of my head would explode and I had surreal visions of brain matter
splattering on outgoing hot Reuben's and tunafish sandwiches.
One afternoon, right after lunch,
I was in a particularly foul mood. As I bent over to refill the
condiment tray, Herbie's voice boomed out, "Hey Poppi, got a new
helper for you." Peered up to face an attractive redheaded female
smiling at me, with blue eyes and a mouth a bit too wide for her
face. She radiated warmth, intelligence. Definitely a wimp. "Sure,
great, looks like she'll last a week.." I reply, looking back down.
"Ah, don't mind Poppi, she's not too
friendly, but she can work the counter." Herbie declares. "Poppi,
be nice & show this one the ropes."
"I'm Simone." , says the redhead.
"Simone, huh? Okaaay, you'll last
maybe 2 days."
"Well, you're still here and your
name is Poppi. Poppi? The flower? A misnomer if I ever saw one."
"Misnomer? Oh, we're using big words
now? Tell you what, stay out of my face and you won't get hurt,
"Ooo, tough chick, wonderful.", Simone
Simone actually survives her first
week, gets through the lunch hours, and manages to charm everyone
around her. A grudging respect grows on my part, despite our initial
contact. As I start opening up, Simone draws me into her world.
She is amazed at my utter ignorance of the writings of the literary
crowd. "What do they teach you in the Midwest?" she demands. "How
to fight." I reply. "Want to learn?" Instead she talks of a world
filled with poets and philosophers. In the joyous manner of a mother
teaching a child, Simone fills my head with the works of Gertrude
Stein, the Beat Poets, Buddhism, and Reggae music. She has keys
to a universe beyond my imagination. Heady stuff; my water turned
One day after work, I traveled up
the foothills to see Simone's house. Her boyfriend was out of town,
so she invited me to come listen to jazz. The house, nestled in
the Rockies, was a cozy looking cabin nestled on the edge of pines
trees. Walking inside, colors and images immediately leaped out;
Indian rugs on the floor, colorful pillows thrown around, a fire
burning in the stone fireplace, shelves sagging under hundreds of
books and candles lit everywhere. In the center was the dining room
table, covered with stacks of paper along with Simone's prized possession,
her typewriter, which faced the bay window.
Suddenly I felt insecure. "Come in."
Simone beckons, "Here, I've got wine. Have a glass." I accept the
drink, we sit and as we talk, I think how far apart our worlds are,
how different my life might have been if I'd taken the route of
the studious daughter.
It was after the first glass of wine
that Simone brings out a tiny box from her pants pocket. "I have
a special treat." she says, pulling out two pills. " I was able
to acquire these Quaaludes. They make you feel really amazing, I'm
lucky to get them."
"Really?" I replied, "Aren't those
downers? I don't know, aren't they really strong?"
"Oh, no, they're mild, and they have
an interesting kick to them, it's great. You'll just feel very relaxed."
Relaxed, hmm. I wouldn't mind feeling
a little less awkward in here. Ok, sure. So I decide to take one.
And drink the wine to wash it down.
Fifteen minutes later, I'm sitting
on the couch, enjoying the fire, when the room starts to tilt. With
amused interest, I watch the multitude of colors as they begin to
run together. "Wow" I whisper, trying to stand up. Falling back
heavily on the couch, a slow realization dawns that I wouldn't be
up for traveling tonight. "Are you ok?" Simone asks through the
Giggling, I reply, "Oh, I'm feeling
"Really? Good." The next second,
her body comes flying onto mine, our limbs tangling as we roll to
the floor. What's going on, I try to think, feeling the warmth of
her body, Simone's face in front of me, then gone. The warmth changes
to coolness as air hits my skin. Sometime later as my confused brain
tries to understand what the hell happened, I realize I was...;..happy.
The morning light comes weakly through
the windows as I stir. Through a foggy brain, my nostrils catch
an aroma that is as exotic as the sheepskin rug my face is buried
in. Lifting my head I see Simone, wrapped in a red silk robe, standing
by a silver pot that's pinched in the middle and making a hissing
sound. "What's that?" I ask, trying not to think on the fact that
I'm naked on the floor. "It's espresso w/cardamom." Simone replies,
looking amused. "Here have some."
As she hands a cup over, she gives
a sheepish grin and says, "Look, I'm really sorry I drugged you
like I did. It was the only choice I had, otherwise it'd been like
wrestling a mountain lion. Please don't hate me." Taking a sip of
the coffee, I revel in the exotic bitter taste: another door opening
to a new universe. "Uh, I don't know what to think, actually am
having trouble thinking at the moment. But I...I don't hate you."
And I look up at her. "Well, let's get some fresh air. C'mon, we'll
go into town and walk down Pearl Street." Simone smiles, looking
for my clothes.
An hour later, we're walking together,
feeling shy with each other. All of a sudden Simone shouts out,
"Hey Guys! Over here, meet my new lover!" I shoot an alarmed look
at her, thinking this is too weird. I don't think I can to handle
"Oh Simone," comes the reply, "You're
not gay. What about Dick?"
Turning towards the voice, I observe
two males walking towards us. The taller one is a pale, gaunt looking
man, wearing a dark trench coat and hat. The immediate impression
is one of a weird secret agent character out of a pulp novel. The
shorter one next to him looks like an aging hippy, with his black,
50's type glasses and pepper colored hair sprouting from his face
and head in a frizzy whirl. They in turn, are checking me out, curiosity
playing across their faces.
"Poppi," declares Simone. "I'd like
you to meet William Burroughs and Alan Ginsberg..
The Beats - William Burroughs
That introduction to William & Alan was a pivotal moment in my life
though I wouldn't fully realize it for several years. The initial
thoughts when meeting them was the two were a couple of strange
old farts. I had no idea who they were, what their status in the
literary world was and I really didn't care. They in turn, seemed
impressed by this.
Word soon spread through the writer's
crowd in Boulder that Simone was with a wild chick. This group consisted
of jaded New York poets, writers and intellectuals coming out west
to take in the brisk air and teach workshops at Naropa Institute,
a New Age institute run by Trumpa Rimpoche. Trumpa combined Buddhist
teachings along with emphasis on the arts, including The Kerurac
School of Disembodied Poets. Ginsberg, was himself a devout Buddhist,
and it was through his efforts that other writers were flocking
to the school.
As time went by, I started spending
more time with the writers. They quickly learned about my lack of
education, and so I was encouraged to sit in their classes for free.
Soon the days were filled with attending lectures, hanging out with
Simone & working at Herbie's.
Simone loved filling me in with all
the sordid details of the Beats and their entourage. One story that
I found particularly intriguing was how Burroughs shot his wife
through the head in Mexico, pretending he was William Tell. A few
months after we met, William invited me to his apartment for a gin
& tonic, his favorite drink. It soon became our weekly ritual and
although it's hard to remember our exact conversations, I vividly
remember Burroughs those afternoons, sitting in his chair with late
day shadows cutting across his face. His Mona Lisa smile, that knowing,
secretive look, then speaking with a raspy drawl of a voice, sounding
like a nail file scraping against metal. After several gins during
one of our sessions, I came right out and asked, "I heard you shot
your wife on purpose, is it true?" Burroughs pursed his lips together,
then answered, "What do you think?" I replied, "I hear you're a
crack shot, a real William Tell. He never missed." Burroughs gave
his Mona Lisa smile and said nothing.
During another drinking bout Burroughs
went into a mini diatribe on how the female of the species should
be exterminated. I did a mental double take, deciding I'd better
check out William's writing, so the next day picked up a copy of
his book, 'Naked Lunch'. It was common knowledge that Burroughs
(and Ginsberg for that matter), were gay, but it was only after
reading his work did I realize he really hated women. It was confusing,
am I be insulted, or pleased that I was in his circle? When asking
Simone why William seemed to like me, she replied," Who knows, you
and Anne Waldman are the two females Bill tolerates, maybe it's
cause you're such a tomboy. By the way, I need to talk to you about
Simone had confession to make. She'd
had a crush on Anne Waldman for quite awhile. Anne was part of the
New York poet scene, was considered the top echelon of female poets
and she carried herself like a queen. Simone worshipped her and
when finding out Anne had female lovers, Simone fantasized herself
as one of them. There was one small problem. Simone had never been
with a woman. She knew that to get some perspective, it was important
to get some experience under her belt. So, when Simone met me, she
decided I was to be her practice lover; the one to figure out how
the system worked before moving on to bigger conquest. I listened
to Simone's saga, flabbergasted. "Wait, you're telling me I'm your
practice fuck? You drugged and seduced me because you wanted to
practice your technique?? Is it me or is this off the wall?" I stalked
off furious and hurt.
Walking to clear my head, I ran into
William. He says, "Poppi! Me and the boys are shooting targets up
in the mountains. Wanna tag along?" Sure, I replied needing to get
away. Soon, I'm bouncing up a rock filled dirt road wedge between
two burly guys. All the men are packing pistols with enough ammo
to wipe out any species unlucky enough to come along. We end way
up in a small canyon, high rocks on all four sides and no civilization
within a fifty mile radius. William drawls, "Hey Poppi, go set up
targets over there near those rocks." I happily oblige, setting
up empty cans just right so the boys can get a good sight on them.
All of a sudden, an electric jolt travels through my brain. I look
up, startled, thinking, "Wait a second, what the hell am I doing?
I'm in the middle of nowhere, setting up targets for a bunch of
gun tooting gay guys! One of them is a known killer! My body will
never be found! What an idiot! Idiot!" My body freezes holding a
target in mid-air, it's at a lose on know what to do.
William notices that I'm frozen in
space, sees the look on my face, and breaks out into the biggest
skull-like grin I've ever seen. He chuckles, saying, "Poppi, it's
ok girl, it's ok, just come back over here and stand behind us." I scramble back like a rabbit caught in the crossfire.
As I watch them shooting off their
pistols, cans flying everywhere and the shots echoing off the canyon
walls forcing me to cover my ears, I think: Life is really bizarre
sometimes. It's just plain crazy.
When the writers' gather to gossip, a name that frequently comes
up is Gregory Corso. At times it feels that Ginsberg's favorite
topic of conversation is to wax the latest details on Gregory's
many escapades a tone both concerned and exasperated. From what
I gather, Corso is part of the original Beat entrauge . He seems
to enjoy pushing the envelope further than the rest, which results
in constant need to be bailed out of trouble. To a generally defiant
person such as myself, he sounds rather intriguing.
One summer morning in '75, Gregory
shows up at Ginsberg's writing class. Just a glance at him confirms
he's an original wild man. Gregory saunters in wearing baby blue
colored pants, shoes with no socks and a loud, cheap shirt. He's
pushing 50, but still has thick black hair on top of an Italian
face that's been in a lifetime of street fights. It's his eyes though
that won't allow you to dismiss him as just another street rat.
They're ink black, with an intelligence behind them that immediately
sizes you up and zones in on your weaknesses. If Gregory sets his
focus on you, the initial reaction is to run like hell; it's like
having a mental locomotive bearing down.
I was able to watch Corso from the
sidelines for a few weeks, listening with amusement to his verbal
tirades at unfortunate souls crossing paths with him. Then one day
Gregory overheard out my given name was Calliope. His two year old
son Max had his birth name as Orpheus. Max's mother was a French
heiress who was currently a heroin addict and incapable of taking
care of him, so Gregory was the sole parent. Since in Greek Mythology
Orpheus is the son of Calliope, Gregory divined this as a sign.
On the turn of a dime, he decided I was his muse and the one ordained
to take care of Max. Gregory had fixed his sights on me.
The next several weeks became a scene
out of the Greek myths, one with the maiden running from the satyr
Pan. I found Gregory physically repulsive and absolutely hated being
chased. Gregory was persistent; every encounter became a verbal
spar, Corso waxing eloquent on our love together, me trying to convince
him that he had set his sights on the wrong chick.
During this time, Simone and I were
in the midst of planning a big soiree. We spent weeks planning everything,
scrapping together enough money to create a nice buffet and set
up a beautiful table. The big day finally arrived and all we needed
to do was to greet the guests. I went to answer a knock on the door
and there's Gregory, flashing a smile that highlighted his missing
tooth. "Oh shit!" I exclaimed, slamming the door. Gregory jams his
arm in to keep me from closing it and after a shoving match, manages
to push his way in. "Not now, Gregory." I said exasperated. "We're
having a party, and I don't want you coming in and ruining it."
"Oh, Calliope, my angel, ruining your
party is the last thing I want. I'll just hang out for a minute
and then leave." I eye him suspiciously, wondering what he's up
to. Gregory looks around the living room, glances at the grand table
we'd set up with food and his face lights up. "Love, it's important
I show that through you I can do miracles. I'm going to prove that
He strides over to the table Simone
and I slaved over and grabs hold of the edge of the tablecloth.
"Gregory no, please no, don't do this." I plead. But inside, I'm
thinking, wow, could he actually pull this off? Wouldn't that be
wild? Simone comes running into the room and starts screaming not
to do it and as we run over to stop him, Gregory smiles and with
one huge tug..;..pulls everything off the table. Dishes and glasses
shatter, piles of food go everywhere. I stand there shocked for
about 10 seconds, then break out into hysterical laughter. Who is
this madman? What kind of creature has the cajones to pull a stunt
like this? I shake my head in wonder at him. Gregory looks at me
with those mischievous eyes and says, "I knew you'd be impressed."
Then he walks out the door.
A few days later I run into Gregory
outside of Naropa. "Com'n," he says, grabbing my arm. "We're going
to the meditation room." "You meditate?" I look at him incredulously
as I'm tugged along. "Christ, no. I've got a pack of cards, you
know how to play poker?" So fifteen minutes later, we're sitting
in the waiting area just outside the doors to the main meditation
hall. This is sacred space, people on the other side of the large
oak doors are quietly seeking nirvana. Gregory in the meantime is
teaching me the fine nuances of strip poker, which I'm badly losing
at. When the doors finally open, a hundred serene looking people
stream out to bear witness to me sitting in a chair stripped down
to my waist, while Gregory is haranguing me how I can't keep my
cards straight. Trumpa's bodyguards escort us out to the street.
As in the Greek Myths, where impossible
events happen on a regular basis, I move in with Gregory and Max.
Putting away my meager belongings, I step outside to watch the sunset.
Hearing a voice, I glance over at Ginsberg's profile in the kitchen
window of the apartment next to ours; talking to his lover Peter
Orlosky, clattering the dishes being washed in the sink. Across
the courtyard, through the curtains of Burroughs' living room window,
walks the shadow of Williams' handsome new boyfriend. In the courtyard
below, New York writers catch up on the day. "This could be interesting." I think, turning around to go feed Max.
New York City
Through the three years spent with the writers, a favorite pastime
was listening to their conversations. Three words that frequently
came up were "New York City" along with the occasional comment,
"Poppi, you'd like it there, you'd fit right in."
In the summer of 1978, I found myself
standing outside a doorway on the corner of Bleecker and Bowery
in the great city itself with a grin that'd make a country bumpkin
proud. Where I stood, I could see grimy old tenement buildings leaning
over the narrow street. The infamous CBGB's stood on the opposite
side where punk rockers wearing neon spiked hair and safety pinned
cheeks gleaming in the sunlight, lounged by the front door. Standing
here after life in Boulder was a jarring experience, but there was
also a sense of finally coming home at the age of 22. For the first
time in my life I didn't stand out, it actually created a sensation
It was with Burrough's encouragement
and the promise of an apartment below his that enticed me to switch
cities. It was also because of William that I was waiting downstairs
on the street for the telephone man. William's apartment took up
the whole fourth floor, where he lived with the bulging eyed son
of a Floridian mortician. The second floor apartment was where Cabell
who was William's ex-lover and now my boyfriend and I shared with
Patrick, a punk rock musician. It wasn't not much to look at, a
narrow long space divided into 3 rooms, the front for Cabell & I,
the middle room where Patrick resided, and the back room which tripled
as entrance, kitchen and bath tub. Our toilet was located in the
hallway just outside the front door making this a typical lower
east side apartment. But at $140 a month, we were lucky to find
such a cheap place and felt very fortunate. In standing outside
the front door, watching the noise and motion of the street, I'm
unable to keep the grin off my face that would make any country
As I'm enjoying the street scene,
a pale green Lincoln stops by the curb and the male on the passenger
side of the car starts to stare at me. I take a quick glance, then
do my best to ignore him. He calls out, "Hey babe, you hot for a
man?" This is just the statement that makes me want to rip the gonads
out of every living male. Remembering Cabell's earlier lecture on
the importance of keeping my mouth shut on NYC streets, I continue
to ignore him, but the dude keeps on with his questions; "Hey Babe,
you look like you could use some", or "How much you charging?" and
then my favorite, "Hey bitch, why you not answering me?"
This is simply too much to resist.
With the nicest smile in my repertoire, I turn to him and sweetly
reply, "You want to know why I'm not answering you?"
"Yeah!" he replies, smiling back,
almost looking handsome.
"Why, it's because, besides an asshole,
you're obviously a moron." I respond with my most pleasant face.
"Really?" he replies, his face lighting
up, his right hand stretching for the car door handle.
"Absolutely." I say before opening
the front door to slip inside.
"What a jerk." I mutter, inside the
foyer leaning against the stair banister, wondering if it's safe
to go back out.
Boom! The front door swings open,
kicked in by the man, who's screaming, "I'm going to kill you! I'm
going to kill you! No bitch talks to me like that!"
I kick the door back shut, leaning
against the banister for leverage, heart hammering in my chest.
Boom! The door is kicked open again and I kick it back, thinking,
God! He'd be pummeling me right now if I'd been walking up the stairs.
"Cabell" I scream. "Cabell, Help!"
"Bitch! Bitch!" the man outside rages, kicking the open the door
over and over while I frantically try to keep it shut.
Upstairs, voices are screaming from
the apartment windows, it's Cabell, Patrick and our neighbor, a
mother and her young baby. The guy screams back at them, then the
baby starts crying with more angry voices from the adults. A minute
later, silence, and the door remains shut.
As I walk up the stairs shaking at
how close I'd come to landing in the hospital, everyone rushes out
to check on me, the mother yelling, "What happened down there? Do
you know who that guy was?" I just stand there shaking my head.
Cabell smirks, "Man, I knew it, she shot off her mouth and this
is her first day here! Unbelievable!"
It turned out Raging Bull was a local,
low-level Mafia guy who pimped on the side. The neighbor recognized
him and with quick thinking held the baby by the window, screaming
that he'd woken up the child and now she was coming down to kill
him. Thank God even Italian pimps have a soft spot for motherhood.
What had I fantasized earlier, about
feeling at home here? I just went through a horror show wake up
call that I wasn't in 'Kansas' anymore. There was a new set of rules
to learn out here and I'd better do it fast if I was going to get
anywhere. That, and the fact I had arrived in the city with $100
to my name, there was absolutely no way I wanted end up in these
streets. It was time to find a job.
The Punk Rockers
My arrival at the Big Apple in '78 coincided with the height of
the punk rock scene. New York City was recovering from a bad recession
and on the ten block radius from where Burroughts, Cabell and I
now lived were over 2000 flophouses and bars, the streets filled
with destitute men of all types; generic winos, Vietnam vets, most
of them with their quota of bad luck and using any high available
to stay numb until the next lifetime. CBGB's, a small dark wallflower
of a bar was in the center of this, it's claim to fame as the sleazy
Mecca for punk rockers worldwide. It was here the word 'punk rock'
was coined. It was here that Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, The Ramones
and Richard Hell became stars of the scene. And now with my roommate
Patrick as lead sinter of the group The Stimulators, which played
weekly at CBGB's, I took a rock n roll crash course, 'punk style'.
Patrick at first sight didn't seem
the type; he was a short, small, scraggly-looking 27 year old, with
dirty blond hair and a pale, drawn face. In the apartment, Patrick
mostly spent time laying on his loft bed n the middle room, smoking
cigarettes and sleeping 10 hours a day, going out occasionally to
fill up on junk food from the corner Bodega. What soon became apparent
was Patrick saved his energy for the nights he played a gig. Once
he stepped up on stage, he became a thrashing screaming punk god.
Dressed in the requisite black jeans, safety-pinned spandex shirt
and black motorcycle boots, Patrick blazed on the stage, a gymnastic
tour de force, with screeches that rivaled the late night fights
of local alley cats. He'd keep it up for two 45 minute sets during
the night and after the gig and a few beers, Patrick would go across
the street back to the apartment where it was guaranteed he'd stay
in bed for the next day and a half.
Patrick enjoyed showing me the ropes
of the punk scene and it quickly became my favorite thing to dress
up in my safety pin finest and go out exploring with him at night.
Whether, CBGB's or Max's Kansas City, another punk hangout, we usually
took along a couple of motorcycle helmets. Once inside the club,
we'd strap on the protective headgear, then dive into the middle
of the swaying crowd and start pushing each other. Within moments
the willing crowd would be in a massive shoving match while the
band on stage played to the frenzy on the floor.
The Dead Boys were one of the more
popular punk bands, known for their highly energetic, slightly depraved
performances. Out of San Francisco they stayed at the Chelsea hotel
when playing in the city. Located on 23rd and 6th, the Chelsea was
an institution onto itself, the place to stay if you were a visiting
musician or writer. Patrick was friends with Stiv Bators and Cheetah
Crome, the two leads in the band. Since there was a constant party
in their room, with a flow of musicians going in and out, I'd tag
along. Their small room was always filled with cigarette smoke,
the crowd looking for any available spot on the beds and flimsy
chairs. Sprawled out we'd listen to loud music, drink beer and smoke
pot. In the corner of the room there was usually 2 or 3 people shooting
up junk as it was the drug of choice for many in the punk world.
I'd tried it myself a couple of times, but couldn't stand the high;
the only thing a person can do on dope is look at their toes, and
I kept get nauseous with the continual effort of trying to get up
and move on the drug.
The rooms within the Chelsea Hotel
held other strange characters. One of the more notorious couples
residing there was Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen.
Sid was the former bass player for the Sex Pistols, one of most
influential punk groups of its time. Junk eventually ruined the
group and Sid seemed a lost soul at this point, wandering the streets
with Nancy. It was a common sight to see them weaving their way
to the nearest bar, or hear them carrying on in the hallways of
the hotel. On the infamous night that is now part of punk history,
Patrick, Cabell and I were on 23rd Street, just outside the Chelsea.
Coming towards us were Sid and Nancy, so stoned that they could
barely walk, Nancy propping Sid in an effort tot get him up the
hotel steps. "Man, is he gone.' Patrick whispers to me as we walk
But I got wasted that night as well.
Ten of us crammed into the Dead Boys room, smoking and drinking.
Around 5AM, we heard a commotion outside with police car lights
flashing on the street and voices in the hallway. Someone from our
group went to check out the noise and soon came running back with
the news that Nancy had been murdered. A shocked silence settled
over the group. The next morning we heard that Sid slept through
the murder and woke to find Nancy dead. In our group, Sid's name
never came up as a possible suspect, now only was it common knowledge
that he depended heavily on Nancy and we witnessed how stoned he
was, there was no way to imagine Sid as physically capable of murdering
her. Over the next few days rumors abound that it was a zealous
fan seen hanging around the hotel, trying to get close to them who
killed Nancy when she opened the door in her stoned state in the
middle of the night.
In the end Sid, was charged with the
murder and to this day I still don't believe he did it. The media
swarmed around the Chelsea so the rest of us stayed away. Four months
later Sid took his own life, without Nancy, the internal pain too
much for him. On his grave were Sid's own words, 'Too fast to live,
too young to die." He was 21.
In the early fall of '78, a person I had vaguely known from Boulder
called up, saying she'd heard I was in NYC and had a proposal for
me - she was working in the coat check at Studio 54 and they were
desperately short of girls for a party that night. Could I come
in and work just for the night? "You mean that disco place?" I respond.
" I don't think so." In the punk world, disco was the dearth of
music; it went against the grain of all that is sacred, against
every punks' sensibilities. "You'll probably go home with a hundred
dollars in your pocket." She said. "It's hard work, but we'll have
fun." I couldn't turn down that kind of money, so decided it wouldn't
be disloyal to punkdom if I showed up at Studio in my favorite tight
black spandex shirt, silver zippers running up the sides, a wild
mousse do, wearing my favorite black eye shadow.
As soon as the manager of the club
saw me, it was obvious he wanted to throw me immediately. But after
fierce whispering between him and the head coat check girl, he simply
glared at my outfit, then walked away. A huge party was about to
start and within the hour the coat check would be slammed with a
throng of partygoers.
I happen to be one of those people
whose very aware of my many shortcomings, but also of two personal
strengths that would come shining through that night; my pleasure
at doing physical labor and never hesitating to do whatever it takes
to get the job done. We had six girls at the windows, ready to go,
but it still became a chaotic hell. Within moments of the doors
opening at 9PM, people lined up to check in their fur coats. By
the end of the night we were to check in and out over 1200 coats.
As a fast learner, in 10 minutes I had the system down. Within 15
minutes it was time to go into hyperdrive, pulling the coats & bags
over the counter, taking money and counting out change. The first
level of the coat check held 750 coats which filled up in less than
2 hours. I was the one to volunteer jumping up and down off the
ladder, hanging up coats off of bars just below the ceiling. At
one point I was sweating so much the carefully applied eye makeup
ran down like two black streams along either side of my face.
By 2 AM, the stream of bodies started
slowing down and we were able to glance at the tip boxes. They were
overflowing with bills. When counted, it added up t $120 in cash
for each girl. Hey, I thought, this may be an ok way to spend the
night. . In my world that kind of money was a huge amount for relatively
mindless work, it seemed too easy. Michael, the manager comes by
one more time and after more fierce conversation and a parting glare
towards me he walks away. The head of coat check comes up and asks,
"Can you come back this weekend? Just maybe get rid of the black
"Sure, why not." I respond with a
grin, "Who knows, maybe I'll get used to disco."
I had a recurring fantasy about Studio, this usually occurred during
my nightly bike ride to work there. The fantasy was, when gliding
around the corner of Broadway & 54th, there'd be a huge crater where
the club previously existed. That God, who'd been working undercover
for a very long time, finally had enough of the nonsense & exposed
himself long enough to blast Studio 54 out of existence.
Studio was the world's epicenter of
all things wildly decadent during those disco years from '77 to
'82. Steve and Ian set out to create precedents in the night club
world including lavish, over-the-top parties that attracted the
rich and famous. And they did it in an environment where VIP's could
lose themselves in the glittering lights and pounding music among
a thousand other chosen people. Everyone who was anyone went the
club to play: Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Taylor, Mick Jagger, Cher,
princes of faraway countries and heads of state. As a naive twenty-one-year
old, I took great pleasure in witnessing these icons of culture
immersed in their pleasures. As an employee who worked there for
seven years, the scenes eventually became just another night on
The coat check where I worked was
located in the long front hallway as the first stop after getting
past Steve Rubell at the front door. Arriving there at 9 PM, the
other girls and I'd start setting tickets on hangers and psyching
ourselves for the night ahead. We playfully called each other elite
members of the 'Scrod Squad' and over the years became involved
in each other's lives. The core of us included the Harris sisters
- Mary Ann, Lulu Belle and Eloise, playful siblings who sang together
and determined to make their mark in the music world. Lisa Wright,
tall, willowy, with long blond hair flowing towards her knees, who
eventually became the unofficial manager of the coat check and Steve
Rubell's roommate and in house chef for several years. Jill Fleming,
a dark haired beauty with a streak of wildness running through her
veins became my best friend in a relationship that lasted twenty
years. And I, with my own streak of wild behavior, always willing
to act outrageous, yet somehow responsible enough in working as
hard as needed so the coat check ran smoothly: a Midwestern gene
During lulls in checking coats, my
favorite nightly ritual was to catapult over the coat check counter,
run up front and peek through the black painted front doors to watch
Steve in action. By 10:30 PM there'd be a sea of celebrities and
wanabee's clamoring to get in. Studio 54 was first to create the
mystique of opening its night world portal only to those who got
a nod from Steve. The result was the air became charged with anticipation
and underlying hysteria. This was part of the appeal of Studio and
Steve relished his undeniable power as lord of the club. The irony
in this was Steve Rubell himself, a short white guy with premature
thinning hair along with a face and style that screamed wrong side
of Brooklyn. In another dimension he would not get past the velvet
ropes lined up in front of the club. But in this dimension Steve
was king and his favorite position was standing on top of a standpipe,
looking over the crowd. Steve Rubell eyeing the masses, separating
the cool from all others, ignoring those who looked like him.
In an effort to get Steve's attention,
people dressed in outrageous outfits, ranging from the extremely
expensive to the John Travolta style, from costumes with sequins,
feathers and g-strings. One of the VIP's who was my favorite for
eye candy was Grace Jones. Her favorite ploy was to strut in completely
naked on stiletto heels, her buffed mahogany body glistening in
the neon lights. It soon became a joke among the employees that
Grace, who walked in the same way night after night, must have only
one outfit existing in her wardrobe.
The most astounding bit of understanding
during my hours of watching Steve Rubell and the crowd was their
absolute willingness to stand outside for hours, even after he'd
reject them. Par for the course was watching Steve have women open
up their fur coats to view their outfits, tell them he didn't like
what they wore, to go home, change and try again. Or couples standing
there, tightly grasping hands in a show of solidarity and Steve
picking only one. The front door's example of human nature at play
was the one chosen would gently unclasp hands with his mate and
walk in with a guilty smile. My all time favorite moment was the
night two beautiful naked young women came to the ropes astride
a white horse. The horse got in.
A few weeks after my first introduction to Studio, it's Halloween:
I enter the nightclub and into a fantasy world. For a week I'd listened
to rumors flying around that a lavish party was planned for this
As I walk through the front door,
the long hallway is eerily dark, with a newly installed raised floor
that consists of clear Plexiglas. Inside five hundred pink and purple
dyed mice run crazily back and forth looking for a way out. On either
side of the floor are a row of miniature rooms, each one containing
an oddity; Escher like objects floating in space, a family of dwarfs
sitting at a table, already drunk on champagne, vampires gearing
up for their scantily clad human feast in another. The air itself
feels charged in anticipation of the night ahead.
As the doors open and crowds stream
in, I glimpse among them familiar faces of celebs that are a nightly
fixture on the scene; Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger, and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Wow, I think, watching them glide by the coat check, these are the
people who make the world go round. How amazing to be surrounded
by such powerful creatures.
The crowds swell and in the coat check
we are jamming, pulling in a thousand coats, a third of them furs,
women throwing us their mink coats, desperate to get onto the dance
floor and accepting a paper coat check ticket in exchange. When
the bottom coat racks fill up, I jump on top, hanging up coats from
metal bars underneath the ceiling, hoping to see a break in the
five people deep cramming at the counter. Finally, just after midnight,
the crowd slows and we're able to take turns to check out the scene
Needing to pee, I run upstairs to
the lounge area where the girls' bathroom is located. Actually,
'ladies room' is a misnomer; women, men, couples - every size and
shape of shoe can be seen sticking out underneath the stall doors.
As I'm standing there wondering how eight feet can be in one cubicle,
I glance through the outside bathroom door where lo and behold,
sitting on a couch in the hallway is Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Taylor,
and Cheryl Tiegs chatting away. My young brain whirls at the sight,
thinking cool, what an opportunity - here are three famous people,
what could they possibility be talking about? It's gotta be about,
politics, world peace or something interesting. So ignoring my protesting
bladder, I make my way to a couch that's backed up to the one they're
on. Sitting down and leaning in close to get a breath of the trios
rarified air, I listen to snatches of their conversation and two
minutes later snap my head back in shock. These VIP's are gossiping,
pure and simple. No let's save the world talk or arguments on the
political state of affairs. Warhol's and Taylor's animated chatter
consists of smugly shredding apart the looks and personalities of
people they know. Tiegs is grinning, showing her gleaming white
teeth and laughing at the banter. I walk away annoyed, thinking
what a schmuck I am to put these people up on a pedestal. And then
it strikes me, these aren't gods, they're creatures like me, consisting
of the same bundle of nerves and neuroses as myself. I make a mental
note of the perspective as something to be aware of while working
Peering through the railing as I walk
back down stairs, I can see the dance floor. Originally set as the
stage for the Ed Sullivan Show, Ian and Steve revamped it so the
audience could feel like they're the center of the universe. Above
the heads of the dancing masses flash the latest in light technology,
syncopated to the music the DJ plays in his special booth above
the floor. Below his area and on the side of the dance floor are
where the tech people work, wearing headphones to coordinate with
the DJ and using pulleys to lower and raise the blinking lights
and other props that heighten the music. It's very similar to the
setup used in running a Broadway show except the props are not what
you'd see in a high minded production. I stand on the edge of the
parquet floor, watching as they release the Man in the Moon - a
huge silhouette with a smiling face swooping down from the heights
of the ceiling. Swinging towards its nose in an arc is an enormous
spoon. As the music reaches it's crescendo and the spoon reaches
the nose, an explosion of lights blind the audience and glittering
confetti sprinkles down. Our moon man is snorting coke and all of
us below are the benefactors of its falling residue. The crowd goes
wild, whipping their sweating sequined bodies in a dancing frenzy.
A spontaneous laugh erupts out of me in reaction to the sheer joy
emanating from the crowd. As I stand on the edge moving and swaying
with the crowd, the heavy bass pulse vibrates through all of us
on the floor creating the sensation that we are one and in the center
of all that exists.
On the way back to the coat check,
I spy a pink mouse darting around, looking for a niche in the wall.
By the end of the night, hundreds of neon mice will have made their
escape. Over the next several months they're seen scurrying about
in the bowels of the club. Even the mice have become part of the
cosmology of that which is Studio 54.
To Be Continued
2004 by Calliope Nicholas. All rights reserved. No part of this
may be reprinted without permission from the author.