Had It: a Memoir of Steve Carey
by Keith Abbott
Street Portrait Of Steve Carey, 1968 : A Sonnet
we see less & less of you more & more
out of a Yellow Cab tastefully gray
Don January On the Level On the up & up
pills rattling & unlapsed credit cards
minute the rug could be pulled out from under
nurse saved a packing case of discarded pill samples
in four corners one for reds
for ups in-between & the fourth unknown
my back my baby played with a can of corn
of the shoulder blades "Persephone!
of getting Punch & Judy together!"
police for your phone answering service
doors were open, and the windows, too
more & more we were seeing less & less of you
Steve Carey at Clifford Burke's Cranium Press printing shop on Schrader
Street in the Haight Ashbury. He was living on Stanyan Street with
his first wife Mary. Tall, stoop shouldered, Steve had a cheerful
pale face, blue eyes, long stringy white blond hair, huge hands
and a huge deep laugh. We hit it off right away, exchanging our
life stories. His Hollywood pedigree started with the silent films:
Harry Carey Sr. his grandfather was a cowboy star, his father Harry
Carey Jr. a stock character in John Ford Westerns. But because I
was never one to read movie credits, his grandfather and father's
acting careers didn't impress me much. Being a Westerner, cowboys,
whether real or hambones, didn't wow me. Oaters were simply matinee
fodder from my childhood; steers something I raised for my college
did explain his distaste for alcohol, "I grew up on the knees of
drunken starlets, Abbott." And every now and then he'd retell stories
of his Los Angeles adolescence, the go-cart reclining below a rainbow
of oil slick at the bottom of someone else's swimming pool surrounded
by the pregnant absence of sons and buddies. Plus this hilarious
story: Horatio Alger Steve earning those needed extra high school
date bucks by selling blender peyote to pachucos at a roller rink.
Steve the Peyote Salesman's Pitch: "This," pointing to a Dramamine
tablet, "makes that" pointing to the peyote triple ought caps, "cool."
Despite Steve's precautions, there were many Chicanos vomiting Technicolor
greens while whizzing in circles to organ music; however, by that
time our hero Steve was long gone, dancing his night away.
his apartment was Kezar Stadium where the 49ers played, and my first
visit with him was on a Sunday accompanied by the roars of the 49er
Faithful. While his attendance was out of the question, Steve delighted
in the hurly-burly of the fans, and their ruckus entered several
of his poems.
arrival from Los Angeles had something to do with Allen Ginsberg,
as everything seemed to in those days. When Steve showed Allen his
poems in LA, Allen told him they were like the poetry of Frank O'Hara,
John Ashbery and Jimmy Schuyler in New York. Apparently their books
were hard to find in LA, so one of the reasons he came up to San
Francisco was to get their new works and to meet the hot young writers,
only knew of the New York poets from the Donald Allen anthology
and they had not made much of a dent in my consciousness. Steve
set to work educating me in them as I educated him in my fave French
and Spanish writers: Desnos, Cortazar, etc.. O'Hara's Second
Avenue was one of his Bibles then. He quoted from it constantly.
He was also delighted with Schuyler's May 24th or So, in
its green covered Tibor De Nagy edition, along with O'Hara's Love
Poems (Tentative Title) from the same press with its mauve stripes.
Always one to be between two or three worlds at the same time, Steve
delighted in O'Hara's contradictory parenthetical inserts and in
his writing used that technique with dispatch.
whizz and sinuosity of O'Hara appealed to me, along with Steve's
highly imaginative humor, his channel surfing wit in his own poetry.
His delight and love for people's foibles and virtues were also
endearing, and a source of "deep gossip" as O'Hara wrote. So Steve
and I settled into educating each other while exchanging our work
and little magazines: Peter Scheljdahl's Mother, Berrigan's
C, Larry Fagin's Adventures in Poetry all "continued
our education along" as our favorite San Francisco poet, Philip
Whalen, liked to say.
was also constantly working on his novels, which manuscripts were
held away from our exchanges. This attitude toward prose puzzled
me. He was so secretive about it while being so open about his poetry.
But it was mystifying, too, his endless cycles of revision for his
poetry, sometimes shredding them into palimpsests of his original
flash and dash. Composing a letter took days for him. For someone
as witty, spontaneous and funny as Steve was in person, he was quite
patient, precise and exacting with his own writing, especially his
fiction. The little I saw of those manuscripts, they seemed amazingly
experimental and elliptical--like some of the French novels of Michel
Butor, Raymond Queneau, and others, none of whom he knew.
first poems were published by Clifford Burke in a little Cranium
Press broadside, Two Poems. Then his pamphlet, Smith Going
Backwards. There were a lot of high kick shenanigans via O'Hara,
but mainly his attention to Philip Whalen's poetic advances took
focus in those poems. While in Monterey, I had been captured by
Whalen's work by reading Memoirs of an Interglacial Age and
we shared our hoards of Whalen contributions in small mags and tried
to figure out how he wrote them. Whalen was our hero for his ability
to allow all manner of things, people, philosophies and actions
into his poems without subordinating them to some ponderous scheme
or style and still stay "on the boards." However, I soon learned
to loan Steve only magazines, not any books. He had a problem with
a gag reflex and generally with swallowing food or drink. Many a
slim chapbook in the Carey library had Lipton tea stains on it from
his petite upchucks.
Around 1968 Steve migrated out of the Haight district to Pine Street,
just a couple of streets behind Richard Brautigan's gothic digs
on Geary Street, a few blocks away from the edge of the Fillmore
Street ghetto. Steve and Mary lived in the original house built
in the rear of a long lot. A 1950's prison block style apartment
house had been erected in front of their lot, but their house had
east and west light and was quite cheerful and comfortable.
bare, too. They had little furniture and on Mary's salary, small
hope for more. So I was amazed when I came over one day and found
the place looking like a department store window display of psychedelic
paisley pillows, day-glo rugs and plush easy chairs. Steve had two
new electric Olivetti typewriters, Mary had new clothes, and they
had a cupboard full of gourmet boutique food and liquors.
turned out that an acquaintance of his had decided to change her
life totally. She had legally changed her name and dropped out of
her law firm job on the same afternoon, then left the country for
Algiers or somewhere suitably exotic. As we'd say now, that was
so 60s. On that same departure day, she gifted Steve with her department
store credit cards in her old name. Steve rented a station wagon
and the household went down the malled peninsula, hopping from Macys
to Emporiums to I. Magnims, charging up items just under the maximum,
avoiding any irritating phone calls to their creditors about their
furnishing their house, Mary also spent her hours mining in Women's
Fashions. Her ambition? To be the best-dressed office worker in
San Francisco. Among the spoils, his 'n' hers synthetic fur coats,
some viscous shade of red verging on purple, which came down to
their collective knees; very Pop, London, and Twiggy. In this glam
garb Steve styled around the front room, improvising intermissions
of runway fashion gab, as Mary flashed in and out of the bedroom,
modeling each of her many new combos and accessories. It was an
hilarious rags to riches show, and we ate canned snails, speared
smoked oysters with colored cocktail toothpicks and munched on very
fancy British crackers while sipping various liquors with their
bright colors in crystal thimble-sized glasses.
with his taste in home furnishings, Steve's poetry got rapidly more
and more sophisticated. He was a quick read in poetic strategies,
adapting and stealing and borrowing as he ransacked other poets
works. What I naively took to be his native verbal elegance astounded
me. For several years it seemed to me from his writing as if Steve
had sprung fully born from some Post-Modernist egg. He had a flare
for inventing lines that sounded absolutely of the moment: "I am
that much more lost in a koan of the compass". With the exception
of Clark Coolidge, few others seemed to be writing as close to the
edge of a new genre, as close to our shared present moment of American
lingo as Steve. (From his long sequence, Fleur-De-Lis) "So
much pleasure/while/ this so much/refreshment halt/ I think
I'll/corner turns/maybe figure out a way to" But he could sling
a comic narrative, too:
love you and the next time/I drive for summer you come too//we'll
fuck the clock together/zip that fly and it pronounces/your name
unwarpable as absence/"what a meal! it's been two years//since I've
had a tomato without/ a straw"
of our young poet friends in the Haight Ashbury scene who knew his
work were either envious of his verbal alacrity or dismissive of
his baffling abstractions: "give me your watch/ I want to exercise
the eccentricities of continuum." Ponderous Old Testament Ginsberg
imitations, sincere back country Snyder knockoffs, and hiccoughing
Creeley clones were the norm. And Steve didn't seem to have any
apprentice work, or so I thought.
sometime in the 1980s during one of my book scouting missions, in
a crummy bin full of phamplets on sow breeding, latex painting and
sewing manuals, his first book surfaced.
Windmill Poems of Steven Harry Carey, handlettered in upper case
sans serif, along with Primitive Press. Copyright 1965.
blue construction paper cover enclosed mimeoed pages, stapled at
the sides, a classic homemade pamphlet. I immediately called Steve
in New York. He was appalled that I had found this violation of
his heretofore chaste youthful precocity. He insisted that he wanted
to "see" it, as he claimed not to own a copy. I told him no. I knew
he'd never return it, and I was certain he'd claw this copy to shreds.
Negotiations proceeded via Trans-American phone calls, but despite
offers of some real good deals, I never let The Windmill Poems out
of my hands.
poetry shows typical mid-60s influences on young poets: prose poems
a la Bob Dylan album covers with sentences punctuated with slashes,
John Wieners awkward imitations, Pound parodies, all of them shot
through with quick changes while displaying the emerging buds of
typical Carey insouciance.
delighted in my daughter Persephone. In those days I traipsed around
with her in a backpack carrier. She'd be looking over my shoulder
in her usual manner, her feet jammed onto the aluminum crossbar,
using it as a launching pad and/or aerobic workout aid, her short
arms outflung, whapping my shoulders. Her ebullience, bounce and
from the neck up only appearance reminded Steve of various television
puppets, and this led to his habitual salutation upon our entrance:
"Ah, Persephone! Proof of getting Punch and Judy together!"
wife Lani remembers Steve being a devoted, if inert, baby-sitter.
"He could watch Persephone endlessly, fascinated with her activities
on the floor in the same manner as he watched television. Only to
change the channel, he'd have to get up and leave the room. Which
he hardly ever did." The problem was that he'd seldom if ever extricate
her from any screw-up or potential danger, preferring to monitor
how the cliffhangers came out. So, really, he functioned more as
a secretarial baby-sitter, ready to report on her actions and emotions
at length. He was never left alone with her for any period of time
past a few minutes.
at Pine Street Steve got a visit from a dope dealer by the name
of Don January. He bounced in leaving a taxi running outside. January
was wearing a long thick overcoat, and he jinglejangled as he walked.
This was because secreted around his many copious pockets were pill
vials. His face exuded a flashforward seediness, a cross between
a sincere car salesman and a carny smarmy slice 'n' dice pitchman.
January talked, he would check, finger, prod, recheck, wiggle, jiggle
or poke his many pockets to make sure all his supplies were present,
a one man marimba band. Cut into the inside of his overcoat lapels
were slit pockets, three to each side, six in all, each with its
own prescription pad and stolen credit card. A true entrepreneur
for the Go-Go years. For a fee he would write you a prescription
for whatever you wanted on one of three pads, each pad specializing
in a particular generic drug. If you were shy about defrauding pharmacists,
he would call in his zaftig girlfriend from the chortling taxi at
the curb to go cash them for you in selected drugstores with one
of Don's many credit cards, all this curb to bedside transaction
for the cost of the prescription, plus a percentage of the pills.
in absolutely mundane clothes with a wide-eyed honest plain face,
said girlfriend looked like anyone's innocent daughter/wife/secretary
with weight problems and/or chronic kidney stones. Bovine, stolid
and doped to the gills, she was the perfect second banana for January's
cons. Druggists apparently rarely twigged to the fraud as she performed
her middle-class routine around the Rexalls and Walgreens of San
Francisco, judging from all the Dex, Ritalin, Desoxyn, Demerol and
Percodan vials rotating around Don's pockets.
the group waited for Don's girlfriend to return with the Desoxyn,
Don claimed to be an old running pal of gonzo comedian Lenny Bruce.
He told a story about sitting around with Bruce in a hotel in Kansas
City or somewhere equally midwestern late one night. They were watching
a local talent show on television that was sponsored in the wee
hours by a car dealer. The show was live, attracting the usual assortment
of lame kooks and earnest show biz neophytes. Don was paralyzed
with his comforts when Lenny jumped up and rushed from their hotel
in the next half hour a Señor Something Spanish made his
entrance on the talent show. It was Lenny, in shiny tux, his hair
greased back and a button accordion strapped to his chest. When
the smarmy M.C. asked the Señor what he was going to play,
all he could get out of him was mutters, fake Spanish, shifty eye
contact, and so finally, the M.C. tried the old standby, whatta
ya going do for us?
else? Lady of Spain.
Lenny explained to January he had instructed the cameraman, previous
to his sullen interview, that he had "kind of a special act and
to keep the camera on me no matter what. No matter what happens,
it's all part of my act.")
launched into wheezing out his version of Lady of Spain--Oh Lady
of Spain I adore yew, right from the first time I sawrrr yew"--
but, shortly after getting through the first verse, the Señor
began to have difficulties with his breathing, then the tics set
in around the mouth, twitches hit the cheeks, and then the Señor
pitched a full blown epileptic fit, flopping on the floor and gargling
the lyrics in showers of spit. The cameraman dutifully followed
Lenny squirming under his accordion but! just at the moment
when doubt was poised to creep in, not to mention the M.C. in the
wings, the show must go on, and up, Up, UP, came our trouper,
the good Señor, fighting his way to his feet--to finish
his act!-- earning cautious applause from whatever night owls
were in the studio audience at three in the morning.
was around this time that Steve built up his first rampant speed
habit. There was a cut-rate pharmacy for mail-order drugs in Washington
D.C. which filled prescriptions for home shut-ins with few questions
asked. Armed with fake scripts and an elegant letter from an imaginary
doctor attesting to his homebound status, Steve received packages
of 100 Desoxyn 15 milligram tablets and needles regularly in the
post (his imaginary weight problem apparently compounded by an equally
phantasmal diabetes). His appearances around the poetry scene diminished
in inverse proportion to the frequencies of those deliveries.
my job was to visit him, as he was no longer traveling much, mostly
doing this shut-in role. Poet Bill Bathurst and a friend had taken
over the basement and were running a moving company from there with
the help of an old pickup and Steve's phone. They got a call from
a nurse in the hospital up off Masonic Avenue, a few blocks away.
Turned out she had been living in a hospital supplied apartment
for over twenty years, but now had to move elsewhere. For the past
decades she had been throwing pharmaceutical samples in a very large
old wooden Chinese packing case in her closet. Bill and his pal
told the nurse not to worry; they'd dispose of these controlled
substances in a safe and timely manner.
hit the Carey house in a fury, carting in this four by four foot
cube of pills. Even though Bill was a defrocked pharmacist, his
licensed knowledge wasn't up to this task. A Physicians Desk Reference
drug book was called into the fray and for a few hours Bill and
pal spent the time shouting out names of the pills to Steve, who
looked up the stranger chemical stragglers and identified them.
One corner was for diet pills, another for downers, a third for
medical purposes and a fourth for unknown. When some vials of liquid
methedrine surfaced, Bill and his pal disappeared with them forthwith,
to trade them for smack on the nether edges of the Fillmore district.
use of such aids was minimal at the time. I never had much need
for speed, being blessed with a furious metabolism; even a quarter
of a 15 milligram Desoxyn tablet turned that natural energy of mine
wonky, which I disliked. Once Steve presented me with some of those
waxy yellow pills as a gift and I took them home, but never found
any reduced dose to be helpful in writing. When the mail-order speed
delivery was shut down by the DC Feds, Steve called me up and asked
me if I had any of those pills left. Without telling him I'd off-loaded
them on friends, I told him yes and took the remaining two over
for him. I remember his look of extreme distaste and savage irritation
when I handed them to him. It was as close as Steve came to violating
his habitual politeness. A finger came out and pushed them around
the desk. "This won't do." That's when I knew he was on board the
crank express train: two weren't going to do him any good, given
his habit, whereas thirty milligrams was enough to send me into
overdrive for days.
after that, their Pine Street residence phone was tapped for probably
any number of valid warrant reasons. Whoever did the job were not
top of the line tapsters. When you called, you could hear the Styrofoam
coffee cup get set down after the first ring and then there was
a hollow sound as you conversed, as if the two of you were talking
across the middle of a large empty room. Steve fled San Francisco
for Los Angeles where his marriage disintegrated.
him he took half of our fledgling magazine, Blue Suede Shoes.
Steve and I had started this by sending each other fake submissions,
mainly gross parodies, off-key imitations and outright plagiarism
of other, more famous people's poetry. Our rationale was that in
first issues famous poets only sent their bottom drawer work, and
either of us could do better versions of their best writing than
we were likely to get. In our cover letters, we would feign various
poetic personae, enclose our rip-offs, and try to name our mag.
Cleat Habit, editor of Pantsed. The deal was if one of us
sent back the name of the other, that was the name of the mag. So
was Blue Suede Shoes born.
after a sojourn in England, access to a mimeo machine in Bellingham,
Washington allowed me to publish the half of the mag that I had
in my possession. Because Steve was one of my least faithful correspondents,
it took until Issue Number Five of Blue Suede Shoes before he got
around to returning the manuscripts that I had sent him.
habits took their toll of his work over the next years. His lovely
poem, Rarity Planes, was reduced badly through amphetamine editing.
Truncated, tromped and strangled, actually. Sometime before 1975,
Bill Berkson sent me the proofs for his poetry book, Gentle Subsidy,
which contained the mangled revision. I sent him the Rarity Planes
version I had and managed to get the poem restored to its former
glory, its amazing music, tactile light touch and wit intact.
sweltering ides for the missus, fella?'// I am ceaselessly invited/And
there is never an attempt to entice/--a huge trust without affection/on
the felts of what I just now tried to dream//Yet the random's had
a publishing perspective, Steve's books show that he did not move
far from the manuscripts he had amassed in 1968. Fleur-de-lis
(1973), Gentle Subsidy (1975), The California Papers
(1981), A.P. (1984) mainly contain work that he had already
written by 1969. Only in his poetry collections The Lily of St.
Marks (1978) and 20 Poems (1987) do new poems show up.
While often entertaining, this writing doesn't approximate the flash
and dash of the earlier writing, let alone the complexity of character,
syntax and thought.
his poem "Wasi-Wasi", written in the mid-70s, Steve addresses the
reason why he can't write: dope (or the entanglements that it created).
"I'm falling apart/ . . . .trying to work my way/into a poem, the
kind /criteria of the past, place--" He ends the poem with the old
1930's addiction metaphor: "Gong around, gong around,/ got to keep
kicking that/gong around."
a letter to me in 1984, he summarized his spotty record for friendship:
that I've begun thinking again, I think of you quite often,
but instead (of calling, that is) agonize over enormous
letters telling the Whole Story . . .You know, the Valium
wars, Disintegration, Death & Deliverance (Attorneys
At Law),--the whole routine.
in different letters over the years he habitually apologized for
publishing old work and promised new fiction and poetry underway.
I have no way of knowing how bad these "Valium Wars" were, but there
was no real advance shown in his later published work on earlier
methods and techniques--except experiments in using "raw" dialogue
from Hollywood films in long line poems, often one scene per line,
creating a witty collage of spliced footage. In the sporadic times
that I saw him--usually in California mid to late 70s--he was clearly
depressed and preoccupied with earning some kind of a living, struggling
to keep his second marriage with artist Effie Rosen together, and
trying to maintain his interest in writing.
I published more and more work, his support was enthusiastic and
cheering, but there was always a rueful undertow, as if viewing
his own lack of progress. He was able to admit his own self-destructive
habits, often with a characteristic cheerful fatalism about his
anxiety driven revision reflex. From a letter written in 1975 about
the publication of Gentle Subsidy:
worry about "Rarity Planes" early version in BSS [Blue Suede
Shoes]. That's the way it's going in the Book. (Berkson
edited my editing.) Why play with old poems? Let it stand
or fall on its ass in toto."
of Steve's most maddening traits was calling up (or writing) to
announce he'd been in town but hadn't stopped by. His needs seemed
as mysterious as his sources of income. With his veiled references,
it was never clear why he had been in San Francisco. Usually he
bounced from Los Angeles to New York. His earliest publishing was
done with the poets around St. Marks Poetry Project; eventually
he came to live there in the late 1980s. After the disintegration
of the Haight-Ashbury scene, he sought some poetic community and
support for his work, but yet appeared unable to quit the LA scene,
which seemed to paralyze his writing.
relationship with the film industry fueled his more allusive conversations.
At some time he labored at a ghostwriting job on some television
hack's work. The rewrites consisted of substituting modern slang
and sentences in dialogue. He once showed me outtakes from this
work, quite hilarious in a ghastly way, as the original was riddled
with 1940s slang (Hey sister; hotcha; what's cooking?
etc.). If I remember correctly, one script was for the cop drama,
Hawaii Five Oh. The screenwriter apparently paid Steve in
lump sums of cash, but I doubt it was steady work.
phone call around autumn of 1977, Steve asked me for a favor. He
was coming to San Francisco to collect on a pornographic screenplay
that he had written. Alice in Wonderland provided the concept
for this production. He asked me if, when he went in and hassled
the producers, I would act as a silent muscle and back him up.
said absolutely not. The people who made porno, I knew, usually
had other people behind them, and they were seldom nice.
badgered me and pleaded his case, but gave up when it was clear
that I had no interest in doing this. It was one of the only times
I ever heard him sound truly desperate. He insisted that he really
needed to get the money.
after that, in mid-October 1977, I got a phone call; Steve was in
Berkeley; "You gotta come and rescue me, Abbott."
I asked him where he was, he didn't know, and then had to shout
to someone and get the address.
the time I was doing tree and landscape work in the Berkeley hills;
the street he mentioned was on my regular routes. I agreed to come
get him and left in my pickup. The address proved elusive. There
seemed to be no hope of finding it. The number of the last residence
on a dead end road was higher than the one Steve had given me. No
continuation of the street showed up on the map and there was only
a ravine where this house should have been.
home I called him, and he had to ask people there how to get to
the place. Then I consulted the map as he gave me directions. I'd
been in the right spot, but the street apparently continued on the
other side of the ravine for a half a block, although this didn't
show on my map. The new directions seemed plausible, so I returned
to the hunt.
house was reachable only on a narrow gravel road off a main street.
(In the 1970s I had worked for a few places like that in the Berkeley
hills, which had their own private roads and usually did not show
up on maps.) The residence was in a cul de sac, a large Spanish
style stucco newly built. In the driveway was a huge Chrysler New
Yorker Brougham coupe painted a deep midnight blue. The street was
so narrow, I had to park my truck on a slant, the right wheels in
a shallow ditch.
front door was thick, massive, with a small window set behind a
black metal grill. When it swung open, an exquisitely beautiful
Eurasian woman in a bronze silk dress was smiling at me.
You're here!" and she hugged me. Her perfume smelled like orchids
and sex. "Oh I'm so glad you found it," she whispered in
instead of drawing away from me, she moved into me, around me, and
all over me. This startled me, and I looked down at her, to check
if I had ever met her before, and in the overhead light I saw her
bronze silk dress turned into gold shimmers.
hand stroking my neck, her other hand sliding across my chest, she
ushered me into the foyer, and then, in an act that was so casual
it stunned me, she shoved herself up on my thigh, riding it. I paused,
completely disoriented and aroused by her hands, her perfume, and
that slithering cool bronze silk dress.
lurched down the long foyer as if we were in some three-legged potato
sack race together, only my third leg was a crowbar erection sliding
around under my pants with each push of her bush against me. Lightheaded
with lust, I staggered into an open archway to our right.
was a dark, rounded room with high windows showing the night sky
and stars through its glass. On the floor were heaped rugs. Even
under the dim starlight it was clear that they were amazingly beautiful
Kalim rugs, one overlapping the other as if they were in a showroom
and had just been ravished by a horde of buyers. There was a rustling
sound, of feathers, and I craned my head sideways to look further
into the darkness.
the dim far corner were birds on dangling perches, all tropical
and gorgeous, with brilliant white and red and scarlet and orange
and smoldering emerald plumage. They were jockeying for positions,
nudging each other one way or the other on their perches. Under
the darkness, white streaks and blotches on the rugs came into focus;
the only sounds were soft plops of birds shitting.
was something malevolent and casually nasty about that room with
its faint wet sounds, as if a ghost were squatting there in the
gloom pulling apart fingers at their joints.
here?" I asked this woman. "Is Steve Carey here?"
She cooed unintelligible little wet things in my ear as she guided
me through a left hand turn off the foyer into another long hallway
and we paused at another doorway.
a high-ceilinged long large kitchen was a swarthy Indio-Mexican
woman before a shiny stainless steel industrial range. All six burners
were on: steaming menudo pot sat on two, on others, steam table
pans of quesidillas and fajitas warmed; to the side chimichangas
bubbled and bobbled in a deep fat boiler. Aluminum trays lined the
counters with enchiladas streaked with red and yellow. There was
enough food for an army in there.
left hand was now riding on the base of Selina's spine, even though
my palm on the silk seemed no longer merely sexy but sinister, as
if this kitchen scene were a frightening annex in some sideways
dream, and we were slipping back and forth between menace and ecstasy.
we mounted some tiled steps, she steered me through a large arch
into an immense front room with white plaster walls. More rugs were
piled up in a corner to our right two men were conversing in low
man was dressed in casual khakis, a cashmere sweater tied around
his neck, and on his belt was a beeper. The second man bent his
head to one side, listening to Beeper Man murmur numbers. He looked
Arabic or Indian, his pants a gray wool, his shirt silk, open, a
gold chain around his neck. The two paid no attention to us as they
talked in low tones, the Beeper Man bending over to hold up a rug
for the other man to finger as we turned to our right.
Steve was lost in a enormous plush chair in the opposite side of
the room, watching a late night I Love Lucy rerun on a gigantic
console television. He barely looked up as my succubus and I toppled
onto the couch to his left.
take it you've met Selina?" Steve asked, not taking his eyes of
adroitly squirmed off my hip as we floundered around on the sofa,
shifting over onto my lap so she straddled my hardon.
I'm so glad Keith could get here!" So far she seemed to possess
only two tones: husky whispers and moans. She twisted put her arms
around my neck, hugging my head as she rested her cheek against
my ear, lovey-dovey style.
these sensations were so intense I seemed close to passing out,
the house itself was making me dry-mouthed and scared.
What's . . .uh . . .what's uh . . .?"
Beeper Man shifted slightly away from his negotiations and he glanced
over at me. His eyes had a dead look as he appraised me, once, and
then glanced over at the coffee table.
the coffee table to one side of the television was a large black
onyx tray. On it was a mound of sparkling powder about the size
of a small white cat.
I Love Lucy laugh track exploded with chortles and glee.
I looked at Steve very closely, but I was sure he was not stoned
or sped. He seemed inert, pinned back in that mammoth chair by something.
phone rang somewhere else in the house. Selina leapt off my lap
and rushed out of the room. Watching her bronze silk dress walk
away made me feel like I was losing all the sex I had ever had in
my entire life.
a few tries to clear my throat, I managed, "Steve, talk to
taking his eyes off Lucy and Ethel, Steve only raised one large
white hand up and made a flopping, dismissive, hopeless gesture
and then he sighed.
hurried into the room and said something to Beeper Man. The two
men left with her, but then she returned in a hurry. She sat on
my lap again, briskly adjusting her legs around the lump in my pants,
taking my right hand and draping it on her knee. Her skin felt hot
under the cool silk.
hey! Steve! " I appealed to him over Selina's shoulder. "Where do
you need to go?"
lips found my ear lobe again, then she pulled away, leaving it moist.
Her low cut silk dress hung open exposing one of her dark nipples,
which was barely brushing the inside of her dress. Her nipple seemed
to gleam and the sight of that made me dizzy.
she whispered, "You're not going are you?'
called her name elsewhere in the house. Selina hopped off me and
disappeared down the hallway.
turned his attention away from the comic mayhem on I Love Lucy
and laughed, watching me as I watched Selina walk away. "That's
okay, Abbott," Steve reassured me, pointing to his crotch. "I don't
have one of those."
stunned me. In all the years I'd known Steve I had never heard him
ever make any kind of crude sexual remark.
we get out of here?" I asked. "Steve, I'm going to leave
here without you if you don't tell me what's going on."
roused himself up from the chair for a moment, sitting on the edge.
I got up, hoping he was going to leave, but it was all I could do
to stand; my erection felt like it were cutting me in half.
Beeper Man drifted back in a careless glide, but that grace was
coupled with instinctive casing of the room, checking where I was
and where Steve was. He picked up the rug he'd been discussing earlier
and fingered its edges, looking annoyed, as if something the other
man had said about this rug was correct, that the rug was flawed
or less than perfect.
hobbled over to the onyx tray and stared down at its mound of glittering
powder. On one end of the tray was a slim gold post topped by a
thin statuette of a skier gracefully leaning into a turn. At the
other end of the tray was a gold razor blade and a gold tube.
stuck a finger on the mound, lightly, a little smudge on the tip.
As I tasted it, the Beeper Man looked up from inspecting his rug.
He waited to judge my reaction. The powder was bitter, pure raw
metallic methamphetamine. Our eyes met; his held only a kind of
indifferent predatory gaze, as he were watching something small,
something about to move one way or the other.
was almost certain that Steve was not wired on meth, but I couldn't
be sure until I saw him walk. I broke off eye contact with Beeper
Man to look at Steve. Steve only grimly smiled as Ricky and Lucy
ran hysterical numbers on each other.
acrid meth flavor dissolved in my mouth and my forehead was touched
by some invisible breeze. The sweat simply evaporated. What have
taken? crossed my mind.
Beeper Man looked amused, as if he knew exactly what had just happened.
marched over to Steve. "Up and at 'em, cowboy." I took him by the
arm and pulled on his dead weight. "Steve!" I yanked again, "Let's
go!" He didn't budge.
a moment it seemed as if he were terminally suicidal, industrially
depressed, or comatose on intravenous Valium. Then, as I Love
Lucy cut away to some commercials, he leaned forward and stood
I escorted Steve through the archway of the room, Selina was back,
fastening herself to my hip. "Oh, you don't have to go, do
go, gotta go," I tried to sound as if I meant it. Somewhere toward
the back of the house a phone rang and Selina was gone, leaving
a hot silky place on my hip.
did you tell her about me?" I hissed to Steve.
Steve protested. Then, with a tardy shrug, "Oh--just that you were
a world famous novelist."
we passed the observatory archway, the tropical birds jockeyed for
positions on their perches, spattering the rugs underneath with
their runny crap in the darkness.
moment I climbed into my truck, I knew the chassis was tilted wrong.
Steve hopped on the running board and perched on the truck bed,
waiting for me to pull out of the ditch so he could get in the passenger
side. I got out from behind the steering wheel and went around the
Chevy and looked. A flat tire. I'd driven over a board and punctured
the right front on three nails.
took this opportunity to slide into the cab, over on the passenger
side. He looked over at me. "What's wrong?"
I don't have my spare. It's down at my house."
not going back in there," Steve informed me pleasantly.
fuck you aren't. I'm not going back in there, either. That house
is evil, man, that guy is evil."
it, Abbott. I'm so glad you got me out of that place."
didn't act like it. You want to walk all the way down
to my place? Get back in there and call us a tow truck."
looked alarmed. "I'm not moving. Go back and borrow Selina's car,
we'll drive down and get your spare. She likes you, Abbott.
She thinks you're more famous than Hemingway."
though it cost me yet another tour of my erogenous zones, that's
what I had to do. Selina's midnight blue Chrysler came equipped
with all the trimmings, two-toned blue velour upholstery and fake
mahogany dashboard, plus this boat was so huge that most drivers
probably had to use a current passport to get to the hood ornament.
the drive Steve remained morose. He only got talkative after we
got down to my house and plied him with some excellent tea. Selina's
services ran a thousand dollars a night. Five hundred for drop-in
service, extra for any exotic routines. Judging from my brief contacts
with her, the woman was grossly underpaid.
was staying at her house in Marin. She'd been trying to contact
the pornmeisters who owed Steve his script money. Steve didn't say
how he'd met her.
Mr. Beeper Man?"
had brought Selina in for party favors, "as an entertainment for
guests? There was no one else there. It's two-thirty in the
morning! And Beeper Man, he one of the producers of this porn?"
were trying to get money out of that guy?"
I asked again if Beeper Man was one of the producers who owed him
money, he only waved the subject away, as if he didn't want to discuss
at Mr. Beeper Man's mansion, I changed the tire on my truck and
then went up to the door to drop off the keys to the Chrysler. I
actually stood back from the door and held them out away from my
needn't have bothered. Selina was upset that our trip took so long
because she had to go. I went back to tell Steve that he had to
ride with Selina, but he refused to get out of my truck.
have no idea how she drives, Abbott."
tried to follow Selina back to Marin County. By that time it was
about four in the morning. The highway was almost empty of traffic.
To say Selina drove erratically wasn't even close. Selina alternated
her speeds between twenty and seventy mph, in ten, twenty and thirty
second bursts, irrespective of surrounding traffic, road conditions,
neighborhood or weather. On the foggy Richmond Bridge she lost us,
hitting speeds of over 100 mph, My poor 1953 Chevy six-cylinder
could not keep up.
gone," I said when her taillights disappeared into the fog. "You'll
have to direct me to her house."
cleared his throat. "I don't know where it is."
don't know where it is? You've been there, what? Three days and
you don't know where it is?"
out that Steve had been ferried to her house by her from the San
Francisco airport, in what he called one of the most terrifying
drives of his life, and this erased everything but an incoherent
gratitude that he was still alive. He never got the address, only
the phone number.
three days you never walked outside and looked at the street sign
or the numbers on the front door?"
on a hill," Steve tried.
Mill Valley, that's a big help. It's surrounded by hills." I told
him we'd turn around once we got off the bridge and go back to my
some fit of melancholy, probably caused by our failed romance, must
have overtaken Selina because just west of San Quentin prison we
came out of the fog and found her Chrysler inexplicably poking along
in the right hand lane of the highway. Thinking that she remembered
me, I pulled up alongside her and waved, to let her know we were
back in synch, but she didn't seem to know who we were.
ride to her house through Mill Valley was just as loony, but on
the city streets, her spurts and slowdowns careened between 20 and
60 mph, so my truck could stay close.
house turned out to be the top of the highest hill in Mill Valley.
Even if Steve claimed that he was numb with terror when he got there,
how he could have missed the fact that the front deck had a lovely
180 degree view of the bay and night lights of San Francisco I don't
know, but it had slipped his mind. By the time we got in her house,
Selina showed absolutely no further interest in either of us.
tiny smudge of speed was still romping around my circuits. I felt
crystal clear and insanely thirsty, so I got a beer out of the fridge
for me and a soft drink for Steve while Selina cajoled someone over
the phone. We sat out in the front room and talked about writers,
Steve's recent New York stay, and watched the fog banks shift around
on the bay. When I returned for seconds, Selina was putting the
finishing touches on negotiating what sounded like a three-or-four
way sex orgy at the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco. She left shortly
after that. Before I decamped, Steve took me down to her bedroom
and showed me her S&M gear under the bed.
two months later the Beeper Man and everyone in his house were slaughtered.
Someone carved him, his wife and his sister up with knives. Apparently
the housekeeper was gone, because no Latina name showed up in the
police report, or Selina's name, either. Turned out that Beeper
Man was a main importer of LSD for the Western states, apparently
brewed up to his specifications in Germany and Scotland, but he
smuggled other dope, too. Until they came to the house and found
the butchered bodies along with half a million dollars worth of
LSD, around fifteen grand in cash, plus a half pound of grass, the
police never knew he or his network existed. Informers said Beeper
Man routinely kept $150,000 around in cash for buys and had about
$1-2 million dollars of ergotamine tartrate--the chemical base for
acid--stashed somewhere. He had half interest in a Liberian oil
tanker, large real estate holdings in the Bay Area, plus a million
bucks in local banks. Both his grandfather and father had been murdered,
granddad by the Mafia on the East Coast.
true entrepreneur, Beeper Man had gone west and graduated with honors
from University of California with a Criminology Degree to scope
out his opponents' tactics. His covers were two: an owner of a black
belt, he specialized in karate and martial arts and sponsored teams,
while also working the rug import biz. The police speculated that
the karate teams were employed as mules. One of his couriers was
arrested for the murders. No motive was ever established. He claimed
Beeper Man had assassinated possibly two to four people in Miami.
The suspect was described as deranged and incoherent, unable to
furnish any details of the murders, and confined to a mental hospital
until his trial.
October of 1984 Steve and I corresponded again, jump-started with
a phone call and then with the receipt of his long poem AP Our
mutual friend the poet Ted Berrigan had died in New York
that summer and I had written a remembrance of Ted. All this seemed
to propel Steve into reconnecting with old friends. He was happily
married, with a young son, and Steve wrote about his plans, claimed
that he was accumulating "tons" of new work.
publishes their past, I suppose, but a 17 year gap is ridiculous.
Jimmy Schuyler wrote a great blurb for AP to run in a few strategically
high spirits and verve were infectious, as usual, and he proposed
that we write some "transcontinental collaborations." I agreed,
and so in March, 1984 he wrote that my "collab half arrived." In
May of 1985 he sent back the first collaboration, "Dear Keith/Dear
Steve". In his letter he commented:
even a theme . . . The work (job) of the poet seems to make itself
come (your line 'good enough for ranch work' put me on to that)
even to the point of when I mention purpose (in this case idiotic)
(the heroic) of Art in an emergency, a state which poetry has a
long history of maintaining."
were many phone calls exchanged after this, but it wasn't until
January 29, 1987 that the second collaborative poem "Amber Waves
of Grain" was delivered with Steve's contributions.
misunderstanding of what I sent was at the root of the problem,
it turned out. I had gleaned from my notebooks stanzas, fugitive
phrases and fragments and tossed them together for a random start.
I told him that these could be rearranged in any order, he could
use any of these for a start, and different parts dropped at his
discretion, but Steve seemed to think that he had to keep the order
of these fragments and find responses for each of the gaps. While
the end result was funny, displaying some classic Carey film humor,
verbal pratfalls, straight steals from movie dialogue and sheer
poetic chutzpah, the piece lacked the thematic unity that
he located and enhanced in our first collaboration. I was overloaded
with novel writing and journalism, and so I let the piece stand
as it was.
his first health problems occurred in Colorado at a film festival
honoring his father, Steve called me. He claimed that he was going
to be fine, that this was minor, only a "wake-up call". Previously
he had tried to stop smoking, and he laid the blame on that habit
and the high altitude of Colorado, and vowed not to repeat either.
It wasn't long after that phone call when I received the news that
he had died of a heart attack.