Author Archive for

17
Feb
17

When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot

Blanche Dubois always depended on the kindness of strangers. Me, I’ve always depended on strangers thinking I’m someone else.

I’m referring, in my case anyway, to getting sex.

I know it’s weird, but the assumption some women make that I’m one or another of a certain group of actors and musicians has been, from my early adulthood to what’s now my middle age, how I get my pipes cleaned more or less regularly and for free.

It’s also made it possible for me to have (however briefly and if you’re willing to stretch the definition) an actual relationship.

I should make it clear right away that on my own terms I’m not someone you’d describe as spilling over with attractive qualities. For one thing, a future with the second towel man in a car wash certainly isn’t something a lot of women lie awake at night fantasizing about. No, it’s not that I’m dumb; it’s a problem that I have with applying and executing. I’m not good at those things. In fact, I’m terrible at them. I think this is because I’ve never been comfortable with the whole business of living. There’s something unnatural about it that I find unsettling and I tend to lose my concentration in the least challenging of situations. You might want to indulge a generous impulse and remind me that anyone, on a given day, can screw up the Post Office test. But when I tell you that I also failed the New York City Transit Authority’s dispatcher quiz, you’ll have to agree that the condition of ineptitude here does for sure have a stunning dimension.

And if my level of achievement and corresponding financial circumstances aren’t enough to give a lady pause, there’s my appearance. Although I’m of Greek ancestry, the figure that I cut is something less than Greek. Just under average height, more skinny than slim, and with long, usually unkempt hair hanging over my ears and forehead and down the scruff of my neck, I also have heavily lidded eyes, sunken cheeks and a pallor that’s cadaverous. While we may not be talking Elephant Man, this still isn’t a picture I’d want to keep in my heart-shaped locket.

But here’s the thing: When I look in the mirror I see (if a likeness is to be drawn at all) Ratso Rizzo or Sonny, the pathetic loser in “Scarecrow.” But a number of women, when they look at me, see Dustin Hoffman or Al Pacino. Or, for that matter, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, among others.

Typically, and on an average of once a month, I’ll be in a bar, seated alone in a corner and nursing a beer when, just like that, a woman will be at my shoulder.

“I know this is rude,” she will say, “but I couldn’t help myself. I had to come over to tell you how mesmerizing you were in ‘Godfather II’.”

Or: “‘Positively Fourth Street’ — it changed my life.”

I realized some years later that the “strange thing” (as I came to call it) surfaced for the first time when I was only twelve. A dozen or so teenage girls were exiting a theater that was playing “A Hard Day’s Night.” As I passed by on the other side of the street, one shouted something and then three or four of them broke from the others and began to run in my direction. I can recall my sensory equipment registering a small blip that this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. But terrified by their shrieks and the predatory way they were licking their lips, my reaction was to flee.

Nine years would pass before anything remotely comparable happened again, but by then, though no less mystified by what was taking place, I was at least ready to respond more appropriately.

Two weeks after my twenty-first birthday (and just one week after my graduation from high school), I was working as a messenger and in a cab on a summer morning with a package to deliver. Heading across town we were paused at a light when an incredible creature materialized. Wire thin, without a curve or a bump in her entire torso, and all arms and legs (especially legs — in my memory, doubtless distorted by time, her skirt is hemmed at just under her chin), she had to have been seven feet tall, and I’m not even counting the fuck=me heels and tendril-like spikes of hair that, drooping just a bit at the ends and gently waving as she moved, erupted from the top of her head. Factoring in the enormous sunglasses she was wearing on an oval face, she resembled nothing so much as a giant insect.

Coming alongside the cab, she did a broad double take, exclaimed, “Holy shit, I don’t believe this,” and yanked the door open. The light was still red when, tucking me back into my pants, she said, “Say ‘hi’ to Miss Baez for me, Bobby.”

(I remember that my driver was holding both sides of his head with his hands and that his eyes were popping out like cartoon eyes on springs. When we arrived at my destination he not only refused to take any money, he actually gave me a roll of quarters.)

I still had no reason to regard this incident as anything more than a bizarre and isolated case of mistaken identity, until I encountered, a couple of weeks later in a bar, another woman who was under the impression I was Bob Dylan — and then another who was thoroughly persuaded that I was Al Pacino. With these events I could hardly fail to recognize the pattern that was developing.

Of course it would be awhile before I got a handle on the amazing gift I’d been handed and was able to realize something like its full potential. But in much the same way that I finally achieved respectable levels of competency in toilet procedures and at masturbating by myself, determination, practice and a willingness to learn from my mistakes paid off and I became increasingly proficient at utilizing it.

In the first of the instances I’ve just noted, for example, my response to the woman who approached me was to thank her for the implicit compliment and then to correct her. But when I observed that being truthful didn’t just dampen her interest in me but provoked a discernible hostility — when, that is, she put her cigarette out in my drink and called me an “asshole” — I understood that denying the identity a woman assigned me was not the way to go and that I’d do well in the future to stifle the reflex to be honest.

And bearing this lesson in mind on the second occasion, I did get the girl to come back to my place.

Now before I go on I should point out that my place isn’t exactly a showplace. It suits my budget, but it’s in an old Lower East Side building where the facilities aren’t in their conventional locations. (We’re talking bathtub in the living room, toilet in the kitchen, that sort of thing.) Plus, I share the joint with several legions of cockroaches, an ever-extending family of rodents and an apparently unprecedented and aerodynamic hybrid of the two. (The biologists who’ve come from everywhere to investigate this phenomenon always leave with very concerned expressions on their faces.)

So as you’ve no doubt gathered, bringing a woman home was a really bad move. I’d go into detail about what took place when we arrived at my apartment, but since the matter is still in litigation it’s probably wise to say only that (as I got it explained to me later) it was almost certainly the sudden presence of a total stranger, especially one with red hair, that precipitated the attack. (Apparently the creature was acting on some primal imperative to protect its young.) Okay? In my judgment it was more of a menacing and hovering thing than what you’d call an attack. But I think that’s all I’d better say about it.

Despite the unpleasantness, however, this episode was an important learning experience, and when yet another woman who believed I was Al Pacino presented herself I not only made no protest but insisted that we repair to her place. Well, a few hours later I was cheerfully extracting my shorts from a tangled mix of hastily discarded clothing at the foot of her bed (and promising that first thing in the morning I would instruct my agent to forward a signed eight-by-ten glossy from “Bobby Deerfield”).

But my education was hardly completed. If, at this point, I had two basic rules to follow — never volunteer the truth about myself and never let a woman anywhere near my apartment — I would soon recognize the need for a third: Never even think about initiating a hook-up. I’m referring here to events that took place on an evening when, horny enough to jerk off to a postcard of the Statue of Liberty but attracting no attention, I approached a woman and boldly introduced myself as Al Pacino. The loosened retina I sustained (and which makes everything get like very white for a second) has served to keep me mindful of just how critical to my success, not to mention my well being, is the discipline of laying back.

Yes, I did feel a little guilty at first but I got over it.

Look, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that what I do isn’t nice, that I take advantage of the women I connect with. Do you know what I want to say when I hear that? I want to say “FUCK YOU!” — that’s what I want to say. I’ve given the matter a great deal of thought and I’ll explain this just once. The women I attract are not what you’d call off the top shelf. Though they all qualify as women in the technical sense, are all, that is, in possession of the crucial anatomical components (which, more often than not, are in something like a normal configuration), they are not exactly achingly beautiful, beaming with mental health or candidates for a Star Fleet Academy scholarship. In fact, and without exception, they are pretty desperate people, sick puppies and three-legged cat types. Many of them suffer horrendous hygiene problems and are also myopic to the point of posing a serious threat to themselves. They are usually very drunk as well. Given their condition the service I provide them is every bit as valuable as what they do for me.

Now don’t understand me too fast — I’m not talking about providing them with sex. I’m talking about helping them satisfy another need, a need that’s just as real and urgent as the need for sex. I’m talking, of course, about the need to feel special. By physically connecting to my celebrity these women can feel that they are sharing in my anointment.

But that’s not all. After suffering the consequences of being truthful, and noticing over time that what questions they would ask me could, for the most part, be readily answered by any faithful viewer of “Entertainment Tonight,” it gradually became clear to me that somewhere in their brains these women understood that I wasn’t the luminary they were taking me for. But given how pressing was their need to rise above their abject circumstances, even for a minute (and something — whatever it was — about my physiognomy enabling them to use me to this purpose), the fact that they sort of knew they were delusional wasn’t about to interfere with their pursuit of me.

So, as you can see, there’s no exploiting going on here — not from my end anyway. I mean the very last thing these women wanted me to be was straight with them. On the contrary. They were counting on me to help them finesse a trick they were playing on themselves.

A trick they were playing on themselves! Get it?

Okay. I didn’t mean to get vicious there, but since it’s never really me who gets laid, I suffer a pretty large indignity myself. So I think people might find it within themselves to be, you know, a little less judgmental.

In any case, with the recognition that my role in the process was just to show up and play along, other methods of procedure I would over time develop are fairly simple, intended only to make sure that I’m presenting myself in a way that’s as amenable to distortion as I can get it and then to forestall the possibility of ruining things.

My manner of dress, for example. To try and stay apace of what some half-dozen affluent and more or less fashion-conscious men might be wearing at any given time would have been out of the question even if I’d been able to afford it. And since I never know who I’ll be before I venture outside, whose wardrobe would I choose? So in the summer I wear jeans and a work shirt (cleaned and pressed to be sure) and either sneakers or boots. In the winter I add a sweater and a pea coat. I might very well be the complete non-entity and total loser that I am. On the other hand I could just as easily be a Master of the Universe in a casual mode.

My demeanor is informed by the same psychology. Once a woman has established contact I try to limit my responses to those rare questions I have no answer for, to an ambiguous smile. Or, when I think it’s best, I become silent and expressionless. Real actors will notice that, in the latter respect, I avail myself of a rudimentary device of their craft. Taking on a poker face, I let the woman read into it what her wishes and expectations dictate and require.

And, of course, no matter how agreeable the experience and melancholy the break, I always make it a point to disappear after one night.

With just one notable exception, I’ve scrupulously adhered to these rules and they’ve helped to assure me a fairly decent range of experiences.

I’m thinking now of a woman who despite an off-putting quirk that she had of blowing her nose with her hair, kept my interest by taking me through not just every position in the Kama Sutra but more than enough new ones to justify a supplementary volume. (It being Lou Reed’s turn to get lucky I was serenaded all the while by her tape of my “Greatest Hits.”)

I’m thinking as well of the time identical triplets, appropriately sharing the same delusion and built like middle linebackers, invited Leonard Cohen to a cluster fuck and wound up breaking two of my ribs.

It’s a little off to the side, but I’m also thinking of a period that lasted several months during which I was continually approached by men. “I really enjoyed your work in “Cocks ‘n’ Cocks,” they would say. And they would go on to tell me how impressed they were by the way I took “full occupation” of my “space.” That sort of thing.

It was puzzling. I’d never heard of this film, or of the actor — Johnson something — they were taking me for. At first uncomfortable with their advances, it dawned on me one evening that my chances for scoring had suddenly doubled and that I’d be a fool not to take advantage of this turn of events. (I mean where’s the problem? It’s just friction, isn’t it?) But sad to say, not much would develop for me in this area. Before anything happened these guys would erupt in fits of incapacitating laughter, get really nasty or become crestfallen and disconsolate. It turned out that they’d decided I was Johnson Johnson, a porn actor who (within his discipline) was having his fifteen minutes. Curious, I found “Cocks ‘n’ Cocks” in a theater on 42nd Street and checked him out. To my surprise there were real and striking similarities between us; many more in fact than was usually so. Unfortunately there was also one significant difference. I had barely qualified for the “Woman’s Home Companion” category in the old high school joke. When Johnson Johnson used the urinal in a men’s room he probably had to stand in the hall.

And then there’s the “relationship” I spoke of, which was also the time I broke most all of my rules. We’re going back a dozen years here, but there are still nights during which I’m abruptly awakened by the sound of my voice calling her name. When I’m not alone these outbursts cause my bedmates to awaken rather abruptly themselves, but I think at least a part of what they find disconcerting is that the name I call is “Roger” — her father wanted a boy and he hadn’t taken no for an answer.

A sparrow of a girl, no more than four-foot-ten and alarmingly skinny, Roger had thick black hair that, falling over most of her face, also fell nearly to the floor. The first time I saw her, from the other end of a long and crowded bar, I thought she was a half-opened umbrella standing on its handle.

We were introduced later that evening by a casual acquaintance of mine she turned out to be with who knew nothing about me except my real name (and who was obviously trying to dump her). But when he said, and quite clearly I thought, “Roger, I’d like you to meet Pete Papadopolous,” her reply was: “Mr. Hoffman! What an honorary and spectaculated phenomination. This is peerless even.”

Now the thing was that when I saw what was happening normal procedure in this circumstance went out the window. I think I knew immediately that Roger was a keeper and at once recognizing how much she wanted me to be Hoffman and deathly afraid that she would turn away at the slightest hint that I wasn’t (which would have been difficult to tell since her hair made it all but impossible to know in which direction she was facing), I went out of way to nourish and perpetuate the “misunderstanding.”

What can I say? I was in love for the only time in my life, and when, in our initial embrace a couple of hours later I must have squeezed her too hard and she urinated all over my sneakers, I just — I guess it was the intimacy of it — went over the top. Indeed, before the sun came up I had invited her to live with me and she had accepted.

“I’m so excrutiated,” she gushed. “I’m besides both sides of myself. And yours too!”

Yes, of course I knew there was no way it could work, that it had to end badly. But I couldn’t help entertaining the fantasy that if I drew her in really tight before she discovered her error, we might achieve a depth of bonding that would make my true identity (or lack of one) irrelevant.

The following morning (and amazed by the soothing effect her presence was having on my flying roommates — who’d stopped fluttering around so much and were making sweet cooing sounds), I was more than anxious to know everything about her.

She hadn’t, I learned, had an easy time of it.

Her father, she said, had been a profligator of languigistics at a presticated universalment but had quit his tender position and dissipated — just, and poignantly, a day after Roger, then a toddler, had spoken her first paragraph.

Even more heartbreaking, her mother, on whose insurance policy she’d been living for the last twenty years, had tragicastically electrified herself when she dropped a George Foreman grill into the bath she was taking — this on the evening of the day she’d come to Roger’s first grade class to hear her recite “Mary Kept A Smallish Lamb.”

But at this point (and apparently wrestling with her delusion — which was something I’d never known any of my women to do and which, I thought, said something about the quality of her character, though I’m not sure what exactly), she began to ask some questions of her own.

“How come you don’t seem to have the majority of cash I respected?” she said. “How come you don’t habituate in a nice place? How come you don’t have a phone in case Steven Spielberg and Sidney Pollack are feeling communicable? How come your closet is only fulminating with jeans? Also, how come you don’t keep your birds in cages?”

Considering that I wasn’t used to such an interrogation — and that I was obliged to think on my feet — I came up with something that I thought wasn’t bad.

“Honey,” I said, “you’ve entered my life at the worst possible time and while I know that it’s asking a lot, I can only hope you’ll find it within yourself to bear with me. I’m afraid that I may be afflicted with what’s called the ‘J.D. Salinger Syndrome’. It’s a condition of creative paralysis that sometimes develops in artists who have achieved a legendary stature. Owning the prospect of a fame that will survive their demise, they live in terror of losing that prospect by producing work that might be inferior to what they’ve already accomplished. Rather than risk tainting their image, they cease to function and, in the worst cases, to even appear in public where the possibility of a clumsy or mediocre utterance could alter and diminish the way they’re perceived. What happens is that they effectively sacrifice the remainder of their lives to their immortality. I may or may not overcome this disease and I’ll understand completely if its something you want no part of. All I can say is that I’m deliberately staying out of the public eye right now and that I’ve cut myself off from even my closest friends and associates who, meaning well but not understanding, would only make light of my problem and encourage me to work. This unfortunately includes my accountant who happens to be the only person with access to my bank accounts. As for the apartment, it’s my hideout. It’s perfect as a hideout because no one would ever think to look for me in such a crummy place. You’re the only one who knows about it, the only person I’ve trusted enough to bring to it. But again, I’ll understand if this isn’t something you want to involve yourself with because it won’t be a whole lot of fun and I don’t know how it will end.”

And it worked. Roger said nothing, but in addition to breaking out in a really hideous rash as I spoke, her chest swelled noticeably, almost expanding into something like a bosom. She must have felt five feet tall to be deemed worthy of sharing in my time of trial.

But her obvious uneasiness with the situation in which she found herself would periodically surface. A couple of days later she wanted to know why more people didn’t notarize me on the street.

“Really good actors,” I said, “have the ability to be anonymous when they want to be, sometimes even invisible.”

I remember that when I said this it made her giggle.

But even putting aside the considerable tensions caused by my charade (and the always frazzling necessity to invent places I was going to when I left the house for the car wash every day), living with Roger was nerve-racking all by itself — like being tuned to two radio stations at once in a room with the light bulb loose in its socket. Periods of incessant chatter, for instance, would suddenly be interrupted, often in mid-sentence, by a dead silence, as though her plug had been pulled from the wall. At such times she might become motionless as well. Although her eyes would remain open I couldn’t be sure if she was actually conscious. In fact, on several occasions, I’d have been ready to believe she’d expired were it not for an odd clucking sound, the origin of which I was never able to locate, and something unattractive that she did with the muscles around her mouth.
Still, as enormous as the problems were, the moments of bliss I experienced in those first weeks more than compensated for them.

Spring was beginning and, celebrating its arrival, we did the things new lovers do when spring is upon them. We went to a windswept beach where we romped and frolicked in the sand. Locked in an embrace we rolled over and over down a steep hill in Central Park. In the evenings I washed her hair and she gleefully folded my penis into woodland animal shapes.

I’d have to say that, all things considered, life was pretty good.

Then it went bad.

Roger read in a newspaper that Hoffman was going to shoot a film somewhere in the Midwest and that he’d be on location for two weeks.

“Why didn’t you push my head up?” she said, showing me the article.

Even though I’d known all along that such a development was inevitable, I was nonetheless shaken by this news. It took no small effort to collect myself sufficiently to say: “I was going to tell you, but I thought I’d wait until the last minute because I wasn’t sure the part would work out and because I knew how painful a separation now will be for us. I didn’t want to make you sad before I had to.”

But she was happy. Clapping her hands she said, “I’m so glad to know you lastly clambered over your jaded salanjastiker hippodrome.”

“Well,” I said, “ let’s not get ahead of ourselves, it could be just a fleeting thing.”

Needing a place to get lost for two weeks, and with nowhere else to go, it was left for me to seek accommodations at the car wash. And the night before I departed Roger helped me pack my things. When we were done she went to the kitchen and brought back a bottle of cheap champagne she’d concealed in the back of the refrigerator.

“This is a time for jubilating,” she said, pulling the cork herself. Then, touching my glass with hers, she said, “Breakfast with eggs, Duster!”

As you can imagine, the following days were either bad or worse than bad. Sleeping in various vehicles in a lot adjoining the wash, I showered and did my laundry standing behind cars on the conveyor belt. And missing her terribly, the fact that I couldn’t call the apartment because I’d never been able to afford a phone was torture for me. I could only hope that she was okay.

Finally, mercifully, the two weeks were up and I went home.

Hearing my key in the lock, Roger came to the door with one of my “birds” perched on top of her head and holding another newspaper. Without a word, she shoved the paper at me before I’d even crossed the threshold. It was open to a story about Hoffman. Some kind of budget issue had arisen and production on his film had been suspended. During the hiatus Hoffman was staying in New York. The paper had been printed on the date he arrived.

He’d been here for a week!

Putting the paper down I met her eyes and saw that they were red and swollen.

“Where were you?” she said. ” A whole plus seven — and twenty-four as well.”

When I had no quick answer she said, “You’re doing an exquisite triathlon, isn’t it?”

You will appreciate that, as heart wrenching as her question was, my principle emotion at that moment was relief.

“Darling, Darling,” I said, “No way. There’s no way I would ever betray you like that. No, I’m not having an illicit liaison. How could you think such a thing? I’m playing an unhappy man and to stay in character I deprived myself of your company — for as long as I could bear it anyway. It’s just a coincidence that it was exactly one week.

Roger stepped toward me and buried her face in my abdomen.

“I was frightful,” she said

She was trembling and so was I. We stood holding each other for a very long time.

Determined from then on to be more careful, I made a special effort to monitor what she might read, see or hear. But I couldn’t cover everything. Just a few days later we were awakened by the radio alarm clock and immediately heard on a newscast that the budget problem had been resolved and that Hoffman was back on location. Fleeing to the kitchen to find something to kill myself with, I could feel Roger right behind me. I expected flying dishes. What I got was a juicy kiss.

“You didn’t have to submit a misleader about being Dustin Hoffman,” she said. “Why did you think you had to be duplicacious with me?”

I was stunned. Had my wildest dreams come true? Was it possible that Roger had come to love me for myself after all? I couldn’t believe it. Nor could I believe the sex that was
to follow.

I always knew Roger was hot when (it was her signal to me) she lay down on the bed on her stomach, raised her skirt and floated an air biscuit. But that morning’s air biscuit resonates for me to this day. Indeed, it will be forever etched in my memory, not only for its remarkable housekeeping application (it worked to clear the apartment of all vermin for almost a month), but because it served to set the stage for the most incredible orgasm I’ve ever had.

I’ve never been able to faithfully describe that orgasm. If I report that before it I’d had no idea how much sheer joy there was to feel in sex, that never in my life have I known so pure an ecstasy, I don’t begin to do it justice or to convey how, in the throes of it, I felt myself transported to a place beyond time and that, floating free as something like total spirit, I was privy for an instant to the deepest secrets and most puzzling mysteries of creation. (In that apocalyptic moment I actually understood, for example, why Chuck Norris was on the planet.)

And I can say this notwithstanding the fact that the orgasm was somewhat premature — I was still standing over the bed and fully clothed when it happened.

Anyway, when it was done and I lay down next to her, happily exhausted, basking in the afterglow, I was ready to drop my guard and reveal my true self to her in all its emptiness. Brushing away her hair to find her face, which took a awhile, I was about to speak when she said:

“You’ll never assume the crush I had with you.”

“?”

“I saw ‘Our Picnics in Needles Park’ six times and ‘Bobby Dearest’ eleven times. God, Alfredo, how I wanted to sit on your head!”

If, only minutes earlier, I’d discovered what it must feel like to win the lottery, now I knew the depths of despair. Even to think about commencing a new deception was beyond my strength.

I didn’t know what to do.

Just a few days later, and too weary at this point to bother checking the TV listings, the matter was taken from my hands. Pacino suddenly turned up on a live talk show we were watching. When he came on, Roger looked at me, then back at the screen and then at me again.

“How are you doing that?” she said.

When I had no response she bolted from the room and was gone for twenty minutes. She must have lapsed into her semiconscious thing because I could hear that strange clucking sound (which was a lot louder than usual). When she returned she stood directly in front of me with her arms akimbo. (I could tell her arms were akimbo because her elbows were sticking out of her hair at the same 45-degree angle.)

This time there was no mistaking it, she was pissed.

“You haven’t been Al Pacino either,” she said.

“No, Honey, I haven’t.”

Where once Roger had contemplated me with an unabashed reverence, as though an aureole surrounded my face, now she looked at me as though I was the lowest form of nature’s creepy crawly creations.

“I’ve known it,” she said. “You’re a pathoprecocious person. You’re a hypothetical liar. Well, don’t bother to make up something improved because it’ll be too little and without much else.”

“Sweetheart…”

“I mean it,” she said. “I’m cognisacious of the person you really are now. I’ve been expecting it for days.”

Yes, I was ready to say ruefully, I’m Fred the Fraud. I’m Sid the Shit. I’m Deforest the Deceiver.

“You’re Emilio Estevez,” she said. “You’re Emilio Estevez and you’re ashamed of yourself. Why? Why, Emilio? I know you aren’t a word that people keep inside the house, but yesterday when my suspicionings aroused me and I said to myself, ‘Roger, you’re a chimp, this can’t be broccoli you’re smelling’, I went to a laberarium and found you in a book. It said you were a ‘thirdly ratinated thesspassian who sometimes didn’t stink up the place’. Wouldn’t I co-habituate with Emilio Estevez? Am I so stuffed-up, or what the fuck is this?”

“Rog…”

“If only you’d had the retegritude to level yourself for me. But now…. Oh Emilio, I could never stay with a man who has so weenie an esteement for his aural fibers. Nor I myself.”

I pleaded with her not to go. I had no way to pull it off, of course, but I promised to take her backstage to meet the cast of “Cats.” I know she agonized over the proposal, but this lady was not without principles. Indeed, she looked at me then as though it was a few years after Watergate and I was Richard Nixon wondering aloud to Republican Party officials if they might, you know, consider nominating me again.

A few months later Roger took up with a guy she’s been with ever since. I think she thinks he’s Danny DeVito and I’ve often wondered, since they have a phone, how he handles it when Jack Nicholson and Michael Douglas never call.

And while I’m on a sour note anyway I might as well tell you of a period in which the celebrity connection women make for me actually worked to my detriment. It was when Pacino’s “Revolution” was released — and on its heels the video. Amounting to a devastating left jab, right cross combination, these unfortunate events threatened to end my career as well as Pacino’s. In fact, it got so bad for a while that even women who thought I was Gabriel Byrne would suddenly back off and decide to take a pass. It really wasn’t until “Sea of Love” revived Pacino’s popularity that I got hot again.

When I look back, however, it’s clear to me that even during that difficult interval I was better off than I would otherwise have been and I know that I have nothing to complain about. Although I may not have put up Wilt Chamberlain numbers, neither has my life been bereft of carnal experiences.

Moreover, I got a woman to actually live with me and though it was very brief, that union produced a son. (Unbeknownst to us at the time, Roger was pregnant when she left me.) I haven’t mentioned my son because frankly he embarrasses even me. To say it as gently as I can, most people, when they’ve seen him or tried to engage him in conversation, take for granted that his parents were first cousins. But Eileen (Roger wanted a girl and she wouldn’t take no for an answer) is almost a teenager now and I’ve noticed lately, when he comes to visit and we’re out on the street, that he’s begun to turn the head of more than an occasional young lady.

Here’s wishing whoever they want him to be a very long run.

17
Feb
17

On Turning Sixty

Although it’s brought me that much closer to transforming into worm food, I’ve found that turning sixty is not without its compensations.

While it’s true, for example, that my member isn’t getting a proper supply of blood anymore—and that I can no longer write my name in the sand and must settle for my initials—I can still have lots of fun with it. Thanks to an ever-enlarging prostate gland that’s threatening to devour my bladder, my urine stream now bifurcates at the exit point. This means that I can whiz into the toilet and the adjacent bathtub at the same time—which is a kick. My urologist says that while he can make no promises, there’s a good chance that in the not too distant future I’ll be capable of TRIfurcating. This will enable me to whiz into the toilet, the bathtub AND the laundry basket simultaneously.

I can’t wait.

And by making it possible to legitimately deflect questions that have always rankled the hell out of me (“Isn’t it time you threw out those Smurf jars with the petrified flecks of premixed peanut butter ‘n’ jelly down toward the bottom?” is a persistent one that never fails to put me in a homicidal rage), my newly developed hearing loss has a terrific upside as well. Not, to be sure, that its downside isn’t just as major. I mean, how many invitations to lunch have I blown? How many people have said, “Let me buy you lunch,” and I’ve said in reply, “Yes it is great that we got bin Laden.”? (As thorny as this problem is, I’ve managed to ease it somewhat by saying, maybe a dozen times a morning to people who appear to be talking to me, “Thanks, I’d love to.” Though probably several hundred of them have walked away from me very quickly—and two, I guess they had their reasons, punched me in the stomach—I’ve gotten six lunches doing this that I would otherwise have missed out on. Not to mention a free ticket to a WAYNE NEWTON concert!)

But if the benefits and drawbacks of my hearing impairment more or less cancel out each other, the short-term memory loss that’s accompanied my sexagenarianism has a plus side that actually outweighs its minus side. I’m speaking, of course, of the guarantee it can afford me that a movie I’m going to will be a good one. I’ll notice, for instance, an ad for a movie and tell a friend about it. The friend will advise me that I saw the movie just a week ago. I’ll ask him if I liked it and if he says, “Yeah, you couldn’t stop talking about it,” I’ll think, hey, how often does a movie come with THAT kind of recommendation and I’ll go immediately to see it. I’m told that I’ve seen “Pearl Harbor” eight times now.

(I might add here that being strictly of the short-term variety, my memory loss in no way affects my ability to remember the last time I had sex.)

But of the many compensatory rewards that turning sixty provides (and you’ll agree they are not inconsiderable) there’s one that I value above all others. Although I can still croak at a relatively early age I’ve been spared the embarrassment of a TRAGICALLY early demise.

17
Feb
17

Redefining Insurance Fraud

From 2002

Want to hear MY definitions of “insurance fraud”? I’ll tell you anyway.

Insurance fraud is when an HMO sells you a policy at an exorbitant rate and then finds all manner of ways to frustrate your pursuit of benefits.

Insurance fraud is when an HMO impedes access to procedures and specialists by requiring further “review” or “investigation.”

Insurance fraud is when an HMO denies coverage for pre-existing conditions.

Insurance fraud is when, to demolish any chance one might have of effectively communicating requests or complaints, an HMO deliberately hires morons to staff its customer service department.

Finally, insurance fraud is when an HMO not only plays these games but also joins with other HMOs to mount lobbying and advertising campaigns against the development of alternative health insurance systems.

A subversive I may be, but I’ve never been of the militant variety. When the SDS was blowing up banks in the early ’70s, I was expressing my displeasure with the establishment by intentionally omitting zip codes—THAT’LL jam their gears!

And, however grudgingly, I‘ve come over time to accept capitalism as a permanent reality. A given.

But this managed care business, which is to say, capitalism of a blatantly predatory stripe, is making me ponder actions way off my normal spectrum.

I’m finding it increasingly difficult, that is, to sit still for a category of capitalism in which people demonstrably unqualified to participate in a free market system—who get much too giddy when they use it— routinely commit what amount to acts of violence against their customers. (Jesus. Messing as they do with other people’s very lives, you have to wonder how these HMO creeps were brought up, what kind of parents they had.)

Of course, much as I’d like to respond with actual violence I could never dispatch each and every HMO administrator to his local ICU all by myself. I’d need help, and on a broad scale. But the prospect of getting such help is dim. The vast majority of us, after all, are reluctant to so much as question, let alone rise against, even the ugliest manifestations of a broader system that promises every American a piece of the serious action—and this despite how false that promise is for all but a relatively few, or how destructive may be the indignities our belief in it obliges us to suffer. Most of us remain willfully stupid in this regard (which in another context is one of the reasons the Enron dirt bags who truncated their employees’ futures are still alive).

Indeed, even most of the 45 million Americans who go without insurance because they can’t afford the premiums oppose the alternative of not-for-profit system. It apparently hasn’t occurred to them that there’d be no significant risk to capitalism in this solution. We’ve already got “socialized” institutions in this country—police and fire departments, for example—that hardly infringe on our freedom to take advantage of one another. A few more would still leave us with plenty of opportunities to exploit our fellow man.

(And speaking of a not-for-profit health care system, does anyone seriously think that dealing with a government bureaucracy would somehow be more brutal than dealing with Aetna, Prudential or Oxford?)

So what’s left to do when revolt is no more in the offing than government intervention is?

Unfortunately, beyond fantasizing that our growing population of serial killers (folks who’ve made it clear that accumulating money isn’t their first priority) will develop a sense of civic responsibility to go with their skills and proclivity, I haven’t come up with much. Certainly nothing that would yield more than the smallest of rewards at the price of considerable personal sacrifice.

I’m speaking of getting sick a lot; using, you know, the hell out of my policy. By constantly contracting illnesses that require frequent doctor visits, extended hospitalization and enormous quantities of pharmaceuticals, I’d have the satisfaction of at least putting a dent in an HMO’s profits.

Yeah, I know, but I like the pharmaceuticals part and it WOULD be a step up from omitting zip codes.

17
Feb
17

Recycle This

Earlier today I received a notice advising me that the recycling program in my neighborhood has been “rebooted” and that I will henceforth risk “serious fines” if I fail to sort and, in the case of jars and bottles, RINSE my garbage before leaving it out.

I hate to come off as a bad sport, but I’ve got to tell you: In all these years I’ve never once sorted or rinsed my garbage and there’s no way I’m going to start now. I mean, what exactly IS this shit? I don’t even sort and rinse the stuff I keep!

Let me try to explain something here. I would never have had a problem with the chore we’ve been assigned if a vital need to conserve essential natural resources was the given it’s assumed to be and if the claim that recycling saves significant quantities of natural resources was true. But the importance and value of recycling is dubious at best. Summarily ignored, a number of reports (including one in The New York Times) revealed early on that, in fact, we’re not running out of the substances recycling is intended to save. What’s more—and this applies to nonbiodegradable materials that end up as landfill as well as to organic elements—even the industry’s own published (and doubtless exaggerated) figures make it clear that what the recycling process manages to salvage is of no real consequence.

So while I’ll allow that self-immolation would constitute a disproportionate form of protest, I have to say that reacting with less than indignation to so gratuitous an imposition would also be inappropriate. (Particularly when you consider that nowhere in the notice was there mention of a tax rebate for performing what, if it’s to be performed at all, should properly have been a function of the Department of Sanitation from the beginning.)

It’s obviously not as dramatic, but this recycling business had always reminded me of the so-called “oil crisis” of the late seventies. Remember that? Remember how we were told flat out that after decades of witless gorging on a finite resource we’d all but depleted the world of fossil fuels? Remember how, to be sure that we got the message, we were made to endure frantic weeks of gasoline rationing and reduced thermostat levels?

(I know that my senator then, Senator D’Amato will want to cut in here to tell me this was before “Jurassic Park” came out and that at the time we didn’t realize we could make more.

Yessir. That’s an…interesting…point. But, and with all due respect, SIT THE FUCK DOWN!—it’s beside the point I was making. Okay?)

The point I was making is that the whole thing was a setup to get us to accept inflated petroleum prices. There was, it turned out, enough oil left under just the backyards of Kuwait’s Emir and Mobil’s CEO to run our quadrant of the galaxy AND keep Pat Riley splendidly coifed for another century or two.

Now I’m aware that it’s not that easy to resist scams like this, even when they’ve been run on us before and there is good evidence to belie the premise on which they’re based. Being mortal, knowing that—at any time and in any number of ways—the most terrible thing that can happen is definitely going to happen, we are obliged to grant at least the possibility of substance to all but the most patently ridiculous warnings of an impending catastrophe. (And, having been handed at birth a sentence reserved for the worst of crimes, we’re not only primed to accept the blame for catastrophes, but more than ready to suffer a little redemptive inconvenience as well.)

Still—Jesus!—as difficult as it may be to defend against our innate susceptibility to manipulation, we could make a better effort. At the very minimum we could reduce the frequency with which we’re victimized by keeping the batteries fresh in our bullshit detectors and never forgetting that, more often than not, the “emergencies” we’re presented with have an agenda behind them.

Recycling, for example, isn’t about saving the planet. (And no, it’s not even about making money for somebody—not really.) It’s about winning the personal salvation (indeed, the recycling) of the limited and earnest types who proposed and continue to insist on it. These people are coming from the secret hope that if they suck up to nature by not wasting any of it, nature will return the favor and arrange to perpetuate their existence in some other package once their current status expires.

Well I, for one, don’t appreciate it when people conscript me into the service of their personal immortality projects, especially when they masquerade as humanitarians.

It’s not that I would, for a minute, begrudge them such a reward. But given its size I think they should be forced to earn it on their own, with no assistance from the rest of us. I can’t speak for nature, of course, but if they stopped by my place a couple of times a week to do their sorting/rinsing thing that would certainly impress ME.

I didn’t say anything about them coming into the house. Along with the trash, I’ll leave my garden hose unraveled behind the shed. They’re more than welcome to go back there and rinse anything it pleases them to rinse.

17
Feb
17

Stupidity: Its Uses & Abuses

It’s time to take punitive action against an insidious and rapidly proliferating menace to our emotional well being. I’m speaking, of course, of “service industry” people who are embracing the dumbing down craze too enthusiastically and who, doubtless incapable of even masturbating by themselves any more, regularly perpetrate nerve-rattling, mood-curdling, faculty-numbing and spirit-withering indignities against us.

Let me hasten to say that I value stupidity as much as the next man. I do. Stupidity is, after all, the best solution we’ve come up with to the mother of all problems itself, the problem of being mortal. Enabling us to recast the grimmest of existential givens—making it possible to believe not only that we’ve seen the image of John the Baptist on two separate taco chips but that our sightings are proof-positive of a Second Coming and the prospect of salvation and eternal life—stupidity is the most effective means available to reduce terror and panic (the human default condition) to a relatively tolerable disquietude. So I respect stupidity. Okay? I think, in fact, that stupidity has been, since the origin of consciousness, a marvel of human resourcefulness. Indeed, as a response to the human condition, I think that stupidity is rivaled in its genius only by schizophrenia!

But while my regard for stupidity is equal to anyone’s, I also think it’s important to remember that (if for no other reason than simple decency) the ancient Greek admonition, “anything in moderation,” has application even here.

I mean for all of its utility as a buffer against existential dread, stupidity is an unruly thing that can have—when it’s exercised intemperately, when no effort is made to confine it to its purpose—a very negative impact on people who are subjected to it. Yes, it’s crucial to our ability to function at all that we not always recognize too clearly that death is both inevitable and final. But if you’re a bank teller it can pose a major challenge to your customer’s medication when you’ve truncated your brain so drastically that you can’t be certain if it’s Ben Franklin or Tom Snyder who appears on a hundred-dollar bill. (Hold this last thought for just a moment.)

Now to illustrate my point I could discuss the conduct of innumerable emotional shitheels who, in just this past month, used stupidity irresponsibly and, to grievous effect, tracked their slovenly handling of the problem of living into my life.

I’m thinking of clerks, counterpeople and company representatives—AND NONE OF THEM FOREIGN BORN—who reduced my own circuits to flakes of carbon when they obliged me to restrict my vocabulary to the dozen or so English words they were able to comprehend.

And remaining vivid in my memory are two cashiers, one of whom insisted that $42 for a quart of orange juice HAD to be correct because it was “right there on the register,” and the other who demonstrated an appalling literalness.

In the case of the latter individual: After I placed some half-dozen items in front of him and was reaching for my wallet, he asked me (rhetorically, I assumed) if I was taking them. When I joked that no, I wasn’t, that I liked to go into stores and move the stock around, he became irate, bellowed that I must be “some kind of weirdo” to do such a thing and demanded that I leave.

The orange juice jerkoff caused some nasty chemicals to spill in my brain that still haven’t stopped flushing through me. The second bastard triggered a twenty-four-hour period in which I experienced a profound reluctance to leave my apartment, answer the phone or take any kind of nourishment.

No, I didn’t make those people up.

But of all the recklessly moronic lowlifes I encountered in this brief time frame, the one that best personified the scourge I’m addressing was the aforementioned teller, who, when I asked her to make smaller denominations of a large bill SHE’D just slid toward ME, took a long look at it, said, “Wait a minute, something’s very wrong here.” Then said, “No, it’s okay.” Then said, “This CAN’T be right—I don’t think he’s even on the air anymore.” And then announced that the bill was counterfeit and that she’d have to confiscate it—without compensating me. (Apparently, having touched it, I’d technically been in possession of the bill—and no, I SWEAR, I didn’t make this bitch up either.)

Since I’m focusing here on the behavior of a specific person, I’ll let pass the fact that no one at this venerable bank—THE SOLE FUNCTION OF WHICH IS TO HANDLE MONEY!—was able to prevent blatantly bogus currency from infiltrating its stock. As disappointed as I was by this circumstance, I’ll keep to my teller, who (her immediate triggering of a hideous psychosomatic rash on my chin, notwithstanding) had still not committed the most egregious and damaging of her offenses.

Hardly. When I protested her action and was, for a solid hour, left to watch her engage in round upon round of whispered phone conversations and huddled meetings, she had the temerity to come back and tell me: “[The bank] has ELECTED [emphasis mine] to reimburse you.”

Now I’ll concede that, in the matter of punitive measures, the antics I’ve described prior to this point may not justify penalties more severe than a modest fine and several weekends of community service. But, in my judgment, when you add condescension to rampant imbecility—AND CONCOCT, IN THE PROCESS, AN ESPECIALLY PERNICIOUS MIX THAT CAN MAKE A PERSON’S PENIS COMPLETELY DISAPPEAR FOR ALMOST A WEEK!—you invite the most terrible of consequences. Working for a great financial institution, spending her days not just behind a bullet-proof shield but in a hallowed realm of miracles like compound interest, this teller’s come to feel invulnerable—she actually believes that she’s in all ways protected from harm. To be sure, so neat a self-deception is worthy of admiration. But given her failure to curb the arrogance her delusion has engendered (let alone her excess of witlessness) I think she should be disabused of said delusion forthwith. In fact, I don’t think it would be in the least draconian to lie in wait for her after work, rip off her face and shove her smug countenance up her ass.

I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean to suggest that we resort to violence and open ourselves to a potential penitentiary situation. But if I had a lapse there, it was due to the cumulative toxicity of the experiences I’ve reported and it only makes my argument. Exposure to undisciplined mindlessness can compromise the most splendid of nervous systems in a trice, and people dealing with the public who abuse stupidity must be discouraged from persisting. Collected now, ready to take a sensible approach, I’d say that legislation making gross stupidity in a public context a quality of life violation (and gross stupidity aggravated by a superior attitude a Class A Misdemeanor) ought to serve the purposes of deterrence and remedy quite sufficiently.

Of course, should Bill of Rights fetishists thwart the writing of such statutes, there’s a step I’ve been pondering that we could take on our own. Though it might require us to keep a bottle of Spirit of Ipecac handy (and would obviously be most effective when we’re sitting across a desk from phlegm-flecks like that teller), we could, just suddenly, throw up.

I’m not talking about pinpoint, or “smart,” vomiting that’s directed at a specific, limited target, but vomiting which, fashioned after the carpet bombing techniques developed in Vietnam, permeates everything in your immediate vicinity. It may not fix the problem, but delivering the remnants of the Chili Surprise you had for lunch to the clothing and workspace of a creep who’s making your life a roiling sea of excrement, would at least return the favor somewhat in kind and figures to be immensely gratifying.

Plus, you’re not as likely to provoke the interest of a criminal justice person as you’d be if you abruptly introduced an Uzi into the proceedings. Quite the opposite: you could be reasonably confident that law enforcement officers would keep their distance.

16
Feb
17

Arena

There were three of them—three guys whose wiring you probably could have smelled in Brooklyn—but, my purpose eluding me, I found myself headed straight in their direction.

If I didn’t know what I was doing in that respect, however, I wasn’t in the least unclear about my impending decomposition.

Although none of my vital parts had actually shut down yet, I was convinced, and had been for weeks, that one or more of them was about to, that I was already in the end stages of a fatal wasting disease. In all manner of physical distress—perpetually light-headed and nauseous, my breath short, my vision dim and my gait unsteady—I’d never felt so weak and frail. Or small. Not that, at 5’6″, 140 lbs, I wasn’t small. But I was getting even smaller. In fact, I was shriveling—I swear, I could see myself withering and contracting in my mirror. No, it would not be long before I was reduced to something ghastly, to a thing you might find in a drawer, deep in the bowels of a Port au Prince curio shop cellar.

I’d been living with the expectation of my imminent demise since my fifty-second birthday—which had coincided with my son’s acceptance into college and was when it first hit me that I’d turned fifty. And the anxiety I was experiencing had begun to color my perception of the world at large. I mean here I was, returning home from an errand through the Village on a Saturday afternoon. It was one of those fine days you get just a precious few times in midsummer New York when the humidity’s low and the temperature’s reasonable. The narrow streets were teeming with people celebrating the weekend and the weather, and all I could think was that, at one point or another, every last one of them was going to get very sick and then disappear.

Okay. I know. I didn’t need to be Otto Rank to appreciate that I was in the throes of a monster midlife depression. But my awareness of this made no difference. If I was exaggerating my situation, if my expiration was perhaps not so close at hand as I believed, it was still true that my youth was gone, and my hyperconsciousness of my body’s impermanence, which recognizing that fact had generated, didn’t go away.

So literally staggering under the weight of the menace my body was posing to me, I was turning into West 4th Street (hoping I wouldn’t pass out in the crush of a very dense crowd—and holding a freshly lit cigarette, which would prove to be significant) when I saw them a little way up the block. In their mid-to-late twenties, and emphatically not from the neighborhood, they were swilling beer from bottles and loudly passing judgment on the females who happened near them, even those escorted by men. One of them, his T-shirt advertising a Jersey City tavern, was leaning against a parked car. He had a face that was almost identical to Jack Black’s and he’d apparently nourished his resemblance to a celebrity by shaping his body to match Black’s as well. The other two, similarly proportioned, were sprawled just opposite him on the bottom step of a stoop. Their legs were stretched onto the sidewalk and left with no more than a foot or so to pass, most people were taking to the street to get around them.

As I came up to them and, as I’ve indicated, without a clue as to what, a sizable trepidation notwithstanding, was compelling me to enter their space, my only conscious intention was to slide my way by. But when I turned slightly sideways to accomplish this objective, the Jack Black ringer reached out, grabbed me by the stomach, and pulled me toward him. “Are you a fag?” he said, his eyes not quite looking into mine.

Now his breath—and an overlay of alcohol did little to mute it—smelled like nothing so much as a chicken coop. His skin, moreover, glistening with sweat despite the moderate temperature, was riddled with brutal acne scars (the remnants of a likely bleak adolescence). And yes, his grip hurt a lot. But what I couldn’t help concentrating on was a huge white globule of snot that was hanging precariously from one of his nostrils.

“I think you’re a fag,” he continued, squeezing my stomach harder and grinning at his friends. “And you know what? I hate fags.”

With that my focus shifted to his brain. I think of stupidity as more often than not willful, as a way of shutting out the complexities and ambiguities of life. But this guy’s stupidity wasn’t a choice he was making. No, it was clearly congenital. He was the grim product of his family history, of generations of inbreeding with other people from New Jersey.

And registering then the full sweep of his stupidity, his evident derangement, his heft and his inebriation (not to mention the booger and the prospect of it landing on me), I felt a very real panic. And what I started to say was: “Hey, you’ve got the wrong guy. I’m straight, man. I’m married. I even have a kid. Not everybody in the Village is queer, you know? Believe me, I share your disgust. Of course it’s a perversion. The AMA and the American Psychological Association really caved in on this one, didn’t they?”

But, no, Jesus, I didn’t say that. My pathetic reflex was quickly interrupted by an intuitive recognition of a large reward to be gained here—a recognition that was accompanied by a feeling of elation and a sense of abandon. (Had I connected to my purpose?) And what I said instead was, “Let go of me, asshole.”

When, grinning more, he didn’t let go, and after taking quick stock of the resources that were available to me—the cigarette I held and the single file approach of two enormous guys with gym bags who by all appearances were oblivious to what was going on and about to push past us—I said to him: “Do your parents know you boys are in the big city by yourselves?”

And then, the cigarette between my fingers and my fingers clenched into a fist, I hit him in the face.

It was hardly what you’d call a devastating punch, but the lit end of the cigarette more than compensated for the limitations of my swing. Crying out, he freed my stomach immediately and before he could retaliate—or his buddies, who rose in unison, could react with more than a “What the fuck!—”I darted (with an agility it amazed me to learn I still possessed), between the gym guys. Remaining ignorant of my circumstance, or indifferent to it, they were, in any case, visibly irritated by my abrupt intrusion. So hanging with them for only a few yards, I reluctantly abandoned the shield they provided to less than graciously barge ahead of a group of tourists who were just then emerging from a restaurant and starting up the block. From there on, muttering “excuse me’s” and “sorry’s,” I seized upon every space that presented itself and, twisting and lunging, stumbling once, but not falling, I finally arrived at the relatively open expanse of Sheridan Square, where I turned right on Seventh Avenue.

As I headed north, alternately running and marching double-time, I was certain that the Jersey boys were right behind me and I didn’t want to look back. But when I happened to notice the faces of people coming toward me from the opposite direction, I saw no alarm in them, no sign, in their expressions, that danger lurked at my rear. And when, three blocks later at Charles Street, I dared to stop and turn around, my adversaries were nowhere to be seen.

At that point, with the adrenaline evacuating my blood and my heartbeat returning to its normal cadence, I realized that all of my symptoms were gone and I began to feel good in every imaginable way. In fact, for the next few days (for about as long as the welt on my stomach and a blister on my knuckle lasted) I was buoyant. I felt precisely like what I’d needed to feel like. I felt like a survivor.

And the thing was that when I came down, when my high evaporated and I settled back, as it were, into my body, my symptoms were still gone and I was something like comfortable with my body. I understood, of course, that in the risk and challenge department the feat I’d devised for myself hadn’t been all that heroic. Still, I’d succeeded in winning a measurable victory and I’d learned, in the process, that my body was not without a lingering capability or two.

With this information to fortify me I had my balance back. Indeed, my mirror reflected, such as it was, my full height again.

15
Feb
17

3c) Get Your Face Out of My Cigarette!

An Open Letter from an Inveterate Smoker to the Anti-Cigarette Crusaders

(Note: This piece is from 1994 and rereading it thirteen years later I can see that its tone makes it susceptible to misunderstanding. So let me say that, notwithstanding judgments expressed about the accuracy of smoking’s dangers and the zealotry of the anti-smoking crusaders, the piece was never intended to promote, condone or make light of the use of cigarettes. Coming from the mindset and emotions of the intransigent and put-upon smoker, my purpose was to illuminate where his habit and his resentment toward the antismoking campaign might be rooted. I especially wanted to convey that one becomes addicted not to a drug per se, but to what the drug makes one feel.)

“Do you smell that? Someone must be smoking in here. Is someone smoking in here?”

Yeah, someone is smoking in here. It’s me. I’m smoking insistently and unapologetically. And the next fool who asks that question within earshot of me, I’m going to spill his yogurt into his sneakers and scatter his lecithin granules.

I know I’m expected to be contrite about my cigarette habit and that the unrepentant attitude I’m displaying is a source of consternation to you. You wonder how I justify it. Could I somehow remain ignorant of the jeopardy my cigarette puts you in?

Well, I could remind you that studies from which you draw your ammunition—studies by the National Cancer Institute and the World Health Organization—have been shown to be less than reliable. I could point out that one of these studies was, in fact, deemed fraudulent by a federal court, and that the stabbing of a California waiter who demanded that a restaurant customer extinguish his cigarette is the only real example that we have of a smoker killing a non-smoker. But the possibility that the danger I represent to you has been exaggerated, or that it may even be bogus, has nothing to do with my position. Even if I was thoroughly persuaded that side-stream smoke is a genuine threat to you, your face in my cigarette would still provoke my anger.

So where am I coming from? Why am I holding on? Am I helplessly nicotine-dependent? The prisoner of a compulsive oral fixation? One of those combination suicidal/homicidal maniacs who wants to take you out along with himself? Worse, am I some kind of First Amendment freak?

No. It’s none of the above. What it is, friends, is something we both have in common, something we share. Like you I’m dealing with an out-sized fear of dying.

Just like you (whether you conceptualize it in this manner or not), I live too intimately with the knowledge that I was born under a death sentence that can’t be pardoned and that might be invoked at any time and in any of numberless ways. And just as it does with you, my hyperawareness of my eventual dissolution—of the hideous fate that nature has in store for me—forces me to live not only with too much consciousness of my vulnerability but also with a crippling burden of guilt.

I must have done some serious shit to be in so much trouble.

So, like you, and in order to fully partake of the world, I need to feel less vulnerable, less guilty and less afraid. Like you I need to believe that I have some control over my destiny and that I’m doing what I can to perpetuate myself for as long as possible. Where we part company is in how we’re pursuing our internal equilibrium, in what we’ve discovered can work for us in this regard.

What you’ve been handed with the certification of tobacco as the “number one cause of preventable death” is a winnable battle to wage with mortality—a project which, by every measure, is a terrific way to address and alleviate dread and diminish guilt. Indeed, it can be an intoxicating thing. You can float around believing that you’re securing an extension of your life by ridding the air of a lethal pollutant. At the same time, you can feel that by protecting other lives—by the absolute righteousness of such work—you’re acquitting yourself of any and all transgressions in past lives or in this one. If you become sufficiently obsessive about it you can even get to feel sometimes that everything that’s wrong has been reduced to a single locus and that you’re engaging—and wounding—evil itself. Not only can you move with less trepidation in the world, but you’re positioning yourself for an ultimate promotion to heaven, an infinite perpetuation of yourself.

That’s a very good deal.

But if the “bad news” about cigarettes has been a boon for you it’s also presented me with an opportunity to address my problem with mortality. I’m referring, specifically, to the consequence of cancer that cigarettes propose. Cancer, at once the most insidious and retributive of diseases and a disease that ordinarily takes decades to develop.

My emotional circumstances inclining me to assume the worst as a given, it was automatic for me to interpret the authoritative conclusion that I risked the most hideous of results when I smoked as a certainty. I immediately took it for granted that I would die of cancer if I smoked. If, for you, a similar reaction was a good reason to demonize cigarettes, for me the opposite was true. My attraction to cigarettes, already strong but not yet compulsive, took the leap into addiction. I recognized that there was an inherent blessing in the certainty of a cigarette-induced death, and that it was a considerable one.

When, and not so long ago, smoking was perceived as a minor vice or a vaguely unhealthy practice, the best you could do with a cigarette was to use it as a surrogate tit to suck on in moments of tension or as an aid in the fabrication of a social posture designed to mask insecurity and self-doubt. Cigarettes were a wonderful palliative and piece of business, but those functions constituted the limits of their utility. Now, however, I could derive that much and more from cigarettes.

By smoking cigarettes, by implicitly taking on the most terrible of deaths, I could effect an arrangement with nature that served to ease my anxieties at their very root. By embracing the ultimate punishment, I could, that is, own a sense of being insulated against all other causes of death. And armored in this way by my cigarette habit I could feel not only less likely to die by accident or violence or from germs, but significantly free of the constraints guilt imposed on my ability to experience pleasure.

Moreover, with my sense of immunity to such eventualities, I could feel something like confident of thirty to forty years of survival on the planet—many more years, certainly, than I could otherwise feel confident of. Finally, I could feel that cigarettes might ultimately assure my salvation itself, that I could arrive at the moment of judgment having fully atoned for my felonies as well as my misdemeanors and with at least a balanced account.

You expect me to give this up?

I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say that what I’ve come up with is insane, stupid, grotesque and awful and, in this case, you’ll be right. But in as much as your cause is fueled by what, just perhaps, is less than solid fact, and since you’ve placed yourself on the side of angels who after all may not exist, I would think you’d appreciate that certain existential horrors are impervious to rational responses and that insanity and stupidity are often best understood, not as handicaps or pathological conditions, but as tools we employ to keep our sense of balance in creation.

So are we straight with this now? What we have here is a collision of self-perpetuation projects and, given the urgency of our needs and the diametric opposition of our methods, a situation without an equitable resolution. I mean I don’t want to hurt anybody but, much as I’d prefer it otherwise, I can’t demonstrate any more consideration for your need to stay afloat in creation than you can for mine.

Of course in this respect we’re alike still again. We both mimic nature herself.




Books by Robert Levin

When Pacino's Hot, I'm Hot
The Drill Press LLC
See reviews above

109415877-0-m31 Music & Politics
by John Sinclair and Robert Levin
World Publishing

"Robert Levin's articles...make up the second half of Music and Politics, and they're something else again. He's a quietly briliant writer (not flashy but subtly dazzling) who knows jazz extremely well and who knows how to let us know what he knows. His piece on Sunny Murray says more about the birth of the New Jazz than most writers could say in a volume; the Anthony Braxton interview is one of the freshest, most reassuring articles on the future of music (of the arts in general) that I've read; his 'found critique' of 'Space' by the MJQ, which contrasts Murray's thoughts on music at the White House with President Nixon's introduction of the MJQ in that very place, is brilliant; his piece on the unfortunate evolution of Willis Jackson...is a minor masterpiece; and he's lucid and painful and thoroughly correct when he writes that 'What is meant by 'every man has his price' is that every man has his uncertainty about the validity and sanity of his perception of the truth. To 'sell out' is to capitulate to that uncertainty.'"
—Colman Andrews, Creem

giants
Giants of Black Music
Edited by Pauline Rivelli and Robert Levin, with a foreword by Nat Hentoff
Da Capo Press
Music & Politics and Giants of Black Music are no longer in print, but remain available from Amazon.com and other outlets.