Pushing Nicotine in NYC

Tobacconist to The World

Nat Sherman’s is “The Tobacconist to The World.”  Their smokes are world-famous.  It’s a public relations disaster that their cigarettes are the prefered platform for PCP, and that getting “Shermed” is synonymous with walking through plate-glass while being tasered, but sales are sales.  I have to admit that if I were to decide to smoke a dangerous animal tranquilizer, one that will make me go stark raving mad, I’d probably want to do it with one of Nat Sherman’s Turkish Ovals, made with a smooth. rich, and satisfying tobacco blend.

Nat Sherman’s retail store in Manhattan features their fine tobacco products, as well as the high-priced corresponding paraphernalia that delights any addict.  The employment company sent my girlfriend and me to them for an interview with the explicit instructions that we were to pretend we didn’t know each other. We wouldn’t get hired as a couple so we had to play it cool, at least at first.  We were starving then and down to picking up cans and bottles for grocery money.  When we both got the jobs, I celebrated with three quarts of Schlitz Malt Liquor on an empty stomach. “We made it, baby!” I told her, “We’re going midtown!”

It wound up being one of the worst jobs I ever had, and that’s saying a lot for a job that didn’t get shit under my fingernails.  Working retail, serving the clientele of 5th Avenue, exposed me to more human sewage than digging up broken sewer pipe ever did.

It was intimidating to work at such a fancy place.  I had to wear a suit, which I had, but I didn’t have any dress shoes.  I went to Macy’s on Queens Blvd. and looked around.  I wound up getting a pair at Payless that looked okay.  When I came in to work that next day, it was as if I walked in wearing snow-shoes made out of birch bark and fur.  All eyes went to my man-made uppers.  “Are those leather?” my manager asked, before even introducing herself.  “They’re leather-like,” I explained.  She raised her plucked eyebrow.  So this is how it’s going to be.

There were two managers.  The Ice Queen, who I had just been humiliated by, and a guy named Don.  Don was gay.  He was a less than Rip Taylor but more than Andy Warhol kind of obvious about it.  He wore a lot of masculine jewelry and a lot of masculine make-up.  He could be snotty, sneering, and bitchy, but in the context of that environment, he was actually an okay guy.  It was the Ice Queen that made life hard for us.  She always needed to have someone to wipe her shoes off on, and my girlfriend and I were stooping at just the right height.  If we didn’t get it from the customers, we could always count on her to shank us with a snide one.  My shoes, my watch, my tie, my haircut, the cut of my coat, the cut of my jib, all failed the test of her refined scrutiny.  She let me know this in a very helpful and well-meaning way.  My girlfriend got it worse.

In this hyper-critical reality, there was a tonic, besides the shots I started having for lunch.  It was a guy named Richie.  He had been working there for a few months by then.  He was another dud sent by the same employment company, but unlike us, Richie just didn’t give a fuck.  A lot of people say that they don’t, or try to act like they don’t, but you know they still do.  Not Richie.  He really, really, didn’t give a fuck.  He proved it.  All the time.

He was the iconic New Yorker.  He was brash, crass, and streetwise.  He wore loud, ill-fitting sports coats with mismatched slacks and big, ugly ties.  He had real leather shoes, but they were suede running shoes that were polka-dotted with souvlaki grease.  He constantly had one our pricey cigars hanging from his mouth.  He would let one dangle for a while, then mash it into an ashtray, only to reach into the case and get another one to cram in his mouth.  He’d go through eight or nine 12 dollar cigars in a shift.  He was constantly on the company phone to his bookie.  I’m serious.  I know it might sound like I’m trying to create a  Runyonesque character, but he would really spend most of his shift betting on sports.

He was probably the worst employee Nat Sherman’s has ever had.  He’d be sitting on a stool, looking at either the sports page or racing form, while customers cleared their throats trying to get his attention.  He’d turn his shoulder away from them, pick up the phone and dial.  He’d turn back to the customer and hold up a finger and turn away again. “Hey it’s Richie, fuck the Jets, give me Miami and the points.”   He’d cover the receiver and tell the customer to look around some more, then back into the phone, “I lost my balls with Buffalo, I need to get it up again. Double me. Yeah…fuck it.”

The customer never complained.  That was the thing.  Richie seemed to get away with murder.  Not so with us.  My girlfriend and I, desperate to keep the okay-paying gig, bowed and scraped before the customers and management.  Yet, it was our servile attitude that seemed to draw more heat.  We were chastised over nit-picky things, and constantly made to feel like the dirt-eating serfs that we were.

We had a meeting one afternoon, during which management pointed out problems in our performance.  One of the crimes against customer service was some of the guys loosening their ties.  I instinctively reached for my knot, but Richie just sat there, his tie at a slovenly half-mast.  If they had even tried to tell Richie that he was an offender, he would’ve just said “Fuck that, I never loosen my tie. I wear it like this!”  It was pointless, and they knew it, and just didn’t bother.

At one point, the complain-o-rama turned to personal phone calls.  This was in the days before cells, so any call had to come through the office.  The operator would announce who the phone call was for and from, over the intercom.  Taking any call that didn’t involve a life-threating emergency was frowned upon.  Well, Richie’s buddies and bimbos were constantly blowing up the phone with personal calls.  “Phone call for Richard, Vic on line one.”  “Phone call for Richard, Cha-Cha line two.”

Eddie, Tina, Sal, Sunny, Bunny, Mikey B, Wiz, Razz, Lana, Shauna, Monique, Dino and Dommy all checked in with Richie at some point during the day.  He’d insist that they were big-spending customers inquiring about inventory, but he never bothered to disguise his end of the conversation.

“We bailed from L’Amour at two…yeah…I left all those fuckers at Rockaway…I went in Gina’s car…Oh yeah, I banged it, banged it bug-eyed, baby!  Hey, tell Moony I still want that thing…yeah, fuck it…”

So while Don is bringing up the personal phone calls thing at the meeting, the intercom goes off.  “Phone call for Richard, Manny line two.”  By this point it was common knowledge that Manny was Richie’s bookie.  Oh boy, this is going to be good.  Richie just gets up and says, “Hang on, Donny, I gotta get this,” and leaves the room.  Don and the Ice Princess just looked at each other.  He came back in later, and nothing was ever said about it.  I’m not making this shit up.  Richie had balls.  They grew ’em big in Brooklyn.

One day, after watching me take an inordinate amount of abuse from some heiress who didn’t like the lighters I was showing her, he pulled me aside.

“Hey man, you need to get off your knees,” he said.

“But I made the sale.”

“Save the groveling for the parole board, these people are not better than you.”

I was embarrassed.  He was right.  I was selling out.  I was getting used to drinking Molsen and eating a hamburger cutlet every night.  I was letting the good life get to me.  In order to keep it, I just had to kiss some ass for eight hours a day, five days a week.  Boy,when you think about it that way, it adds up.  And who said these people are any better than me?  They just have more money, lots more.

I mean I understand that your family made a fortune manufacturing adult diapers, and that because of other people’s incontinence, you will never want for anything.  Great stroke of luck for you.  Your family is providing a valuable product to the buying public, and I’m sure a lot of well-needed jobs.  It’s a win-win.  I just don’t see where in the rule book it says you get to be a total ass-hole to other people.

I was starting to see things a little more clearly.  I loosened my tie.  I reached into the cigar case, took out a cigar, broke it in half, and threw it into the trash.  Then I got another one out and lit it.

Strangely, that week I made some freak high-priced sales.  Some tourist from Portugal came in and asked to see a cigar humidor.  He pointed to one.  I set it down on the counter.  He asked how much it was.  I told him it was $4,000 dollars.  “That’s a lot of money for a pretty box,” I said.  He said he’d take it.  Shit like that started to happen.  I became the top salesman that month.  Upper management took notice of me.

Two weeks after that, I was given a promotion.  I was to sell cases of cigars downstairs, to high-rollers and celebrities.  That day, they gave me a tour of the huge walk-in humidor down there.  There were cases of cigars with some impressive names taped on them.  Orally fixated captains of industry and finance, as well as tar-tongued stars of stage and screen, all had their favorite cigars stockpiled.  I was given a desk with a phone.  I just had to call these people and try to hustle them some more of their favorites.

It would still mean kissing ass, but now even more rich and more famous ass, and I would make more money doing it.  I looked at the desk and the phone.  I said I was going to lunch.  I went upstairs, paid Richie back the ten bucks I owed him.  I told him thanks, and walked out.  I never went back.  Fuck it.

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Forget Me Not to Remind You

Just call me Angel of the Morning

I laid in bed watching faces form in the popcorn ceiling.  There was one that looked like Warren G. Harding, and another that looked like Moe.  I rolled over on my side and felt something.  It was a piece of fish.  I didn’t know how it got there, but it smelled okay.  It was half a piece of smoked salmon, the kind with all the pepper on one side.  It was still in the package so I decided to eat it.  I reached under my bed and found a bottle of beer.

I was sitting up in bed, enjoying my breakfast of salmon surprise and warm beer, when I looked over and saw myself in the closet mirror.  I had four days of beard, bloodshot eyes, a gut that hung out over my boxers, and a very content look on my bloated face.  “It doesn’t get any better than this,” I said to myself.  It didn’t get any better, but it got much worse.  Waking up to a mysterious piece of fish was getting off easy.

Mornings can be rough for the alcoholic.  “Carpe diem” is rarely the rallying cry, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to hit the ground running.  If it isn’t the baffling environment he finds himself in, or the strange company, it’s the sinking feeling that something really bad has happened.  Something needs to be fixed right away, but what?  What just happened?  What do I have to fix?  And why am I wearing this?

I had long ago given up trying to put together the events of any previous evening’s adventure.  By studying the credit card receipts, matchbooks, napkins with numbers written in either lipstick or blood (hard to tell), bruises, shell casings, parking tickets, drug paraphernalia, condom wrappers, and damage to the car bumper you could come up with a pretty good picture and timeline, but why?  You had a good time, and that’s all you need to know.  If God wanted you to remember exactly what happened He wouldn’t have made you blackout.

I once went out on an entire date in a blackout.  To this day I don’t know who the girl was.  I don’t know her name or how I met her.  I don’t remember asking her out, or even talking to her.  I do remember us going to see my friend, Chris Linson, fight at the Sweeny Center that Saturday night.  He won by a TKO.  I also remember wearing my black suit, and getting cut off at The Catamount.  Pretty much nothing else.  The guy who got knocked out remembers more from that night than I do.  I can only speculate how the date ended.

I came to that Monday at my girlfriend’s place.  I don’t need to speculate how that went.  It seems that while I was out on the town forgetting things all over the place, I forgot I had a girlfriend, too.  She didn’t let me forget about that.  We broke up shortly afterwards.

One morning the phone rang.  It was Louise, a girl I met in Santa Fe, who was now living in Los Angeles.  Louise was a delightful creature.  She was a little eccentric and a tad thirsty.  She spoke with an affect that made her sound like a socialite from a cornball 1930’s movie.  It got worse the drunker she got. “Daaahhhling, you simply must top off my little-wittle drinky-winkeeeeee!”   She was also a human wrecking ball.   She liked to dance around the room, showing me the ballet moves she learned as a little girl.  A shoe would go through the window, a chair would break, my collection of German beer steins would come crashing down from the shelves.  I got a kick out her antics, and we had a lot of laughs.  We were drinking buddies who should have stayed just that, but didn’t.  The fact that we were the opposite sex seemed too convenient a fact to pass up, so we complicated matters.  I was to complicate them even further.

“Oh darling, I am soooooo excited!” she said, “I’ve told my mother, and my sister, and they just can’t belieeeeeeve it!”

“What about?  What are you talking about, Louise?”

“The wedding, my dearest, the wedding!”

I started jiggling the bottles next to my bed looking for a survivor.  I didn’t like where this conversation was going.  “Whose wedding, Louise?”

“Our wedding, silly boy. Don’t you dare tell me you don’t remember asking me to marry you last night.”

I didn’t, and I didn’t dare tell her.  Wait, there was a distant, misty, almost dream-like recollection of some sort of vague phone conversation on the subject.  Oh God.  It was the red wine.  Red wine always made me magnanimous, almost sacrificial.  Get me drunk on red wine and I’ll step in front of a speeding car for you, whether it was coming towards you or not.  I got sappy on the grape.  The headache it gave me the next day was always accompanied by some big check my red-stained mouth wrote.  I don’t know how many times I was ready to join the French Foreign Legion to escape the consequences of my “purely symbolic” gestures.

Now it was looking like I was going to be learning French sooner than I thought.

“Let me call you right back, Louise.”  I hung up and called Dave.  It was time for him to save my ass.  We took turns.

“Dude!  Major wine drunkage.  I just asked Louise to marry me last night.  I only sort of remember doing it, but she does, and she’s holding me to it.  She already told her mother and sister!”  I pictured them picking out the color of the Jordan Almonds that go into the little paper cups.

“Where did you get the wine?”

“Pablo came by with some he stole some from an art opening,” I said, “Fucking hell, if he wasn’t such a klepto I wouldn’t be in this bullshit!”

“Which opening?”

“I don’t know, Copeland-Rutherford.”

“It was the one for Delmas Howe?”

“Yeah, okay, probably.”

“He does the gay cowboy art.”

“Yeah, and really dude, who the fuck cares?!  Listen man, I’m in a jam here!  I need you to focus on me for just a half a cigarette of your time.  Can you do that for me, brother?”

“Alright, relax. Did you ask her ‘will you marry me?’ or ‘would you marry me?’ ”

“I’m not sure.  I think ‘would you?’  Why would that matter?”

“Hold on.”

I heard him put down the phone, and walk down the hall to his bathroom.  I listened to him take an exceptionally long piss, flush, then walk back up the hall past the phone, towards the kitchen.  I could hear him drop some ice cubes in a glass.  The footsteps, now with clinking ice, started coming back towards the phone, but they passed by again.  He was heading to the living room.  Exile on Main Street, of course.  Finally, over the strains of “Rocks Off,” I heard the ice clink back towards the phone.

“Saying ‘would you marry me?’ puts the question in the realm of the hypothetical.  In other words, if I asked you to marry me, would you?”

“Then that’s what I said.”

I thanked him and hung up.  Good old Dave.  I called Louise and tried to explain our little semantics mix-up, but she hung up on me.  I never heard from her again.

I had lost another good friend.  Good old Louise.  Rather than really look at what happened, I decided to just make it all go away.  I wouldn’t have to join the Foreign Legion to escape.  Kelly’s Liquors had a sale on Heineken that week.  Murdering a few cases of Heineken would erase all the bad, for a while at least.  It would be easier than shooting bandits on The Ivory Coast, but the way I was drinking, not necessarily safer.

The Laboring Laureate

The Great Writer

The jack hammer broke through the floor and almost pulled me into the basement with it.  I had been wrestling with its 90 lbs. of kinetic rage for years by then, but never learned to love it.  I named this particular pneumatic beast “Sciatica Rex.”  I yanked it back up, and pulled the trigger.  My brain rattled against the inside of my skull like a lychee nut in a paint can mixer.  I could feel my Mexican dental work shaking loose.  The two cigarette butts I had stuck in my ears hardly dampened the din.  It was 1:30am.  I was in an Italian restaurant at the San Busco shopping center.  My coke-headed boss had decided that this was the best time for me to be working on this.  That way the noise wouldn’t bother anyone, but me.

I didn’t care.  He was gone and I had a six-pack of beer to keep me company.  I knew that I would be up late drinking anyway, but now I had an excuse to sleep in a little longer.  Besides, I was in a good mood.  That night I was convinced that my writing would finally save me from the stupid, brutal life I was living.

I based this knowledge on the flimsiest of evidence.  A few hours earlier I had read some of my work at The Center for Contemporary Arts.  It was an open reading hosted by local poet, Joan Logghe.  My little bit seemed to go over well.  I got some laughs, and the applause was a notch or two above polite.   That was it.  That was the skinny little brad nail I had hung the entire weight of my world on.

There was only one way to propel myself through the malarial swamps of depression I was wading through, and that was to fart myself forward with clouds of self-delusion.  My hope seemed to come in crumb form.  When I did find a crumb, I tied on a big linen bib, lit a dinner candle, and sharpened the cutlery, before gnawing on it like the desperately hungry rat that I was.  So now I gnawed.

I thought about a woman who read some of her work that night.  Her poems were melodramatic and strange.  She did one about smashing sea shells with rocks while naming every broken relationship she’d had.  She seemed a little unbalanced, and volatile.  Not immediately attractive, she compensated for her fading beauty with accessories and heavy eye make-up.  That was fine.  We all do the best we can.  Outfit-wise, she was doing the gypsy thing,  and it worked for her.  Her hair was a little much.  She wore it frizzed up into a weird shape, sort of like an Ace of Spades.  She looked like Bride of Frankenstein meets Gloria Swanson meets Troll doll.

After the reading, she came up to me in the parking lot.  Her craziness seemed to electrify her with enthusiasm.  She told me she thought I was “a genius.”   This woman was clearly insane, but somehow she was beginning to look more attractive.  I pictured myself reading her my work while she sat topless on a milk crate, opening a bottle of wine.  I figured I could make it work.  I thanked her and told her I would see her around.

The jack hammer dropped through the hole again, but his time I was ready for it.  I pulled it back up in a swinging loop, and had it on the lip again in one move.  Very professional.  I seemed to do better when I felt better.  A smattering of applause and a compliment from a madwoman were enough to keep me going.

I had been writing off and on since I was a kid.  It was good to know my imagination was good for something other than torturing me with vivid fears.  However, I did notice that writing about stuff that really happened was more interesting than the stuff I could make up.  In my case, reporting the facts trumped creative fiction.  I just needed to make sure interesting stuff kept happening around me.  That was the part that was getting me into a lot of trouble.

The evening’s line-up was a mixed bag.  There was some good work, and some of the other kind, too.  Poetry is like milk, you either like it or you don’t, but when it goes south, it really stinks.

There was a guy that read just before me.  He wore a big cable-knit sweater and meticulously tousled hair.  I wanted to throw him a bar of Irish Spring to carve into while he flashed his dazzling smile to the lassies.  He read poems about love, or some version of it.  The women seemed to eat it up, but I saw through his vile little harvesting operation.

“My tongue dances slow lazy eights on your heaving porcelain pelvis,” he intoned.

I turned to my friend, Samantha, “And my finger crawls slowly towards the back of my heaving tongue.”  She reached into her purse and handed me another beer.

“Tender tear drop licked, aching wound, gently salted sadness, shuddering against the sheets…”

I nudged Samantha.  “I knew he was an abductor.  It’s the “sensitive” ones that you have to get restraining orders on.”

“Our writhing ecstasy twists in a torrid torrential torment, a brief eternal spasm, black velvet of oblivion descends…”

I knew plenty about the black velvet of oblivion, (and for my money it couldn’t come quick enough) but I would have never thought about putting “brief” and “eternal” together.  That was a limitation I put on myself.  As insane as I was, I still felt compelled to make sense when I communicated.  It seemed like in order to be a good poet I had to put that compulsion aside.  I needed to loosen the fuck up.  I was still a square.

The hole in the floor was big enough.  I lowered the work light, the beers, and the hammer, then climbed down into the basement.  I was surrounded by spider webs.  I had to blow a hole out of the side of the wall down there.  That meant holding the jack hammer sideways.  I swung the hammer up and started blasting.  As the dust blew into my eyes, nose and throat, I pictured myself on a Communist poster glorifying the working stiff.  I was building a brighter tomorrow.

That night I had decided to read a piece I wrote about Wayne, a guy I had met in the labor van taking us to work.  He fascinated me.  Wayne was a  blob of southern lard, but as eloquent as John C. Calhoun.  He was a living paradox.  He would sit there in his grimy wife-beater, sunburned belly peeking through the holes, and give symposiums in the van on subjects like convenience store chocolate milks.  He did this in a deep, sonorous, Southern defence attorney voice.

“This here Surefine brand of chocolate milk is an excellent chocolate milk,” he announced one morning, “It has an exceptional creaminess, and I appreciate that.”  He held the plastic bottle up for examination.  “The quality of creaminess is the characteristic by which I judge the various chocolate milks.  Now Hershey’s chocolate milk is, in my opinion, the creamiest brand, whereas I find Nestle’s Quik to be watery and sub par.  Chocolate milk should always be smooth and creamy. ”

I watched him take a deep slug.  He was really making me want some creamy chocolate milk.

“I look forward to the month of October in my native Florida,” he continued, ” Because October there is Hershey’s Chocolate Milk Month.  For the entire month, all the convenience stores in Florida sell quarts of Hershey’s brand of chocolate milk for a mere 99 cents!”

“Knowing Florida,” I said, “I bet that price holiday was state-legislated.”

“I’m not certain if that’s the case, but I do have to confess to consuming a lot of chocolate milk during the month of October in Florida.”

“I fucking bet.”

Another morning on our way to work, he offered me some gum.  “Would you care for a piece of Hubba-Bubba?” he asked.  I declined the Hubba-Bubba from Bubba.  “Suit yourself,” he said, popped a piece into his mouth and started chewing.  “Now this Hubba-Bubba brand bubble gum has a distinctly fruity flavor,” he said smacking his lips, “And I appreciate that.”  He then leaned towards me, and in an almost conspiratorial manner said, “You know, I have found that it really helps to have a fruity flavor in your mouth when you’re operating a jack hammer.”  He paused, and then delivered, with the dramatic poignancy reserved for the final words of a stage play, “It really does…it really does.”

He wistfully looks out the van window.  Lights fade.  Curtain falls.  I felt like I should stand up and applaud, but I just looked at him.  Who could make this shit up?

Anyway, just because I found Wayne so interesting, didn’t mean an audience would.  I was relieved to find they did.  They got Wayne.  It made me feel good for Wayne.  It made me feel good for me.  I had lots of stupid stuff like that to write about.  Maybe that was my purpose.  Maybe that was my way out.

I poked through the wall.  Victory!  I set down the hammer.  All I had to do now was widen around it, and that would be easy.  I opened my last beer and toasted myself.  “To breaking through!”  I crouched down and could see street lights through the hole.

Looking back now, I can see I didn’t break through to anything, except maybe another holding cell.  There were more gigs, even some paying ones.  There was also a weekly column in The Reporter for a few years.  Things seemed to go along okay and then they didn’t.  Between all the drinking and having to constantly bullfight my problems, I couldn’t sustain the writing.  The research alone was killing me.  If it was hard to write while drinking, it was even harder to write sober.  I can’t tell you how many hours I evaporated staring at a blank screen.  I couldn’t write for almost eight years.

So let me tell you, this feels good, this clacking away, tossing empty cans of Hansen’s Diet Tangerine Lime soda over my shoulder while ripping out the words.  It feels like a real breakthrough, and not because it’s going to save me from my brutal, stupid life.  I’ve dialed down the brutal and stupid, so now I don’t need to be saved from it.  That’s a relief, especially to everyone who’s had to row my lifeboat for me in the past.  No, it feels good because I can finally deliver a message, my message to the world.  What is that message?  That it really helps to have a fruity flavor in your mouth when you’re operating a jack hammer.  It really does.

Marching to the Beat of a Different Bummer

Don't be scared, ladies. We're fun.

The phone rang.  It was the kind connected to a wall.  The wall had a clock connected to it.  The clock said it was 7am.  I got up and connected myself to the phone, and subsequently to 7am.  It was Dave.

“What kind of disease makes your shit fluorescent green?” he asked.

It was always something.  “Do you know any amateur surgeons?”  “How much prison time do you get for…?”  “Where’s a place that delivers drywall and windows at this hour?”  “Do you remember where I left Karen last night?”  “Can a penis get pink eye?”  He always had a cup of crisis brewing in the morning.  I have to admit that it helped my early AM outlook.  A quick survey of my bomb-blasted landscape would reveal a few more houses standing than Dave’s, and I would feel a little better.

He would get up at six in the morning to start hitting the gin.  I should say gin-flavored grain alcohol.  That’s what generic store brand gin actually is.  Read the label sometime.  The ingredients list “Neutral grain spirits, gin flavoring.”  It isn’t gin, but a gin-flavored treat.  Either way, it’s a brutal way to start your morning.

I went to the fridge to get a beer.  “I don’t know, dude, fluorescent?”

“Yeah, bright fluorescent green.”

I turned the television on, and laid down on my mattress.  There was a half a can of bean dip with cigarette butts in it on the floor by my head.  It smelled bad, so I used a shoe to push it further away.

“Well, whatever it is, it doesn’t sound like you’ll be around too much longer,” I tried to console, “So don’t worry about it ruining your future.”

“Yeah, there’s not too much left of it to ruin,” he said, then belched.

At the rate we were going, we weren’t going to have to endure anything for too much longer.  We took a strange comfort in this.  We took comfort in strange things, like each other.

Every morning Dave and I would talk while watching TV.  He’d be at his apartment, and I’d be at mine.  Sometimes we’d be watching the same channel, other times different ones, but our commentary was always, brilliant, poignant and insightful.  We were pundits.  Pundits of Reality.  Pundits who drank and watched TV, while everyone else was earning a living.  It was easy to feel better about ourselves while watching daytime television.  Compared to the cretins showcased on Jerry Springer, Cops, and Judge Judy, we were towers of intelligence and wisdom.  Twin towers.

I was a semi-employed alcoholic bouncer/laborer, who sometimes wrote things.  Dave was a drunk, ex-heroin addict (and then current fugitive from Texas justice) who could play the drums.  What cruel irony that even with these stellar resumes, the world hadn’t bowed before our majesty.  Actually, the world had bowed for Dave once, but when Dave bowed back, he fell on the floor and couldn’t get up.  He lived the rock and roll myth for a brief time, then plummeted faster than an oil-soaked Texas Mallard.  He splashed into a pond of gin-flavoring and had to tread water, instead of being able to rely on his natural buoyancy.

I didn’t need success to ruin me, failure was doing just fine.  I’m not sure which is worse, being a has-been or a never-was.  I’d like to try being a has-been sometime.  I know the other gig blows balls.

I adjusted my pillow and found a pink plastic barrette.  I reached up and dropped it in the lost and found jar.

“Hey dude,” I said, “I’ve really been getting The Fear a lot more.  I’m wondering if the drinking has anything to do with that.”

“Probably.”

“See, I was afraid you’d say that!  My fears are real!”

“What are you afraid of?”

“Everything,” I said, “I’m afraid of the spatula on the counter, the mailman, traffic signs, weather, phone calls, getting a disease that makes me shit fluorescent green.  The only time I’m not afraid is when I’m watching a war documentary.”

“About Stalingrad.”

“It seems to help more if it is.  Anyway, do you think there’s something wrong with me?”  I asked, more earnestly then I’d like to admit.  I could hear Dave swallow some gin-scented crazy water.

“Nah, there’s nothing wrong with you.  Everybody is like that,” he reassured, “I mean everybody is fucked up.  You’re brand is just more…unique.”

I thought about it and felt slightly better.  We’d do that for each other, throw out straws for the other to grasp at.

“Let’s watch Mexican TV,” I suggested.  Dave and I liked to watch telenovelas with the sound off.  We added our own dialogue and took the characters to places only the hopelessly depraved would dare to tread.  It kept our minds sharp.

We turned to the station, but it was a game show.  Mexican game shows are a phenomenon as mysterious and baffling as the stones of Ollantaytambo, Peru.

“What the hell is this all about?” Dave laughed, “Renaissance Fair escapee runs amok?”

We watched a midget, wearing an Elizabethan gown, run around with a broom.  He was swatting at couples trying to dodge him. They each had a leg tied to each other with what looked like an Ace bandage.  It was some sort of sack race/Pinata hybrid the producers had improvised, but they forgot to include a point to it all.  He wasn’t swinging at them hard, there didn’t seem to be any penalty for being hit, and there was no finish line.  Afterwards, no winner was declared or prizes awarded.

What was the purpose of all this labored chaos?  It wasn’t funny, at least not the way they intended it to be.  These zany antics were worth a dry cough and glance at the wristwatch.  Even the clowns they had standing around to add merriment to the scene, looked like guys that were rounded up while loitering at a bus station.

“Maybe it’s a pride thing,” I offered, “the pride of knowing you got hit less often by a midget than other people.”

“Yeah, pride is a big thing in that culture,” Dave said, “And so is having some of the hottest women on Earth. Check out that carne ass-ada!”

While the midget in damsel-drag chased the conjoined couples around in a circle, and the shot-out clowns performed their vagrancy, something else was going on. Long-legged Latinas, dressed like mid-priced hookers, jumped around the sidelines, cheering, blowing whistles and party horns.  We understood this.  This was actually okay entertainment.

“Do you think all the bullshit with the midget and the broom is just an excuse to have some boobs bounce around?” I asked.

“I think all Mexican TV is just an excuse to have some boobs bounce around,” Dave said, “And that’s sad, because you don’t really need to have an excuse.”

“You never need an excuse to have a good time,” I pronounced, and got up for another beer.  We didn’t need an excuse.  That was our problem.

We had gone out together the night before and had gotten ugly drunk.  At one point our group was waved off by the bouncers upon on our approach.  We were thrown out of the bar ten yards before getting there.  That takes skill.  So does getting 86’d out of a bar you still have to work at.  I have to give Dave the assist for that one.

We all wound up at Dez’s house.  I remember a zoftig Brunhilde sitting on my lap, pushing her amber necklace into my face while I drank.  My legs were going to sleep under her weight, but I didn’t care.  Let them sleep.  I figured they could use the rest.  I finally had to ask her to get off so I could take a leak, but by then my legs had gone into a coma.  I could not get up.  I was about to piss my pants and had to beg for help.  Dez and another guy carried me to the bathroom, my legs dragging uselessly behind me.  When Dave saw this he howled with delight and shouted, “Medic! Medic! I need a chopper!  Gustaitis has been hit by a blonde bombshell!  He’s paralyzed from the neck up!”  Everyone had a good laugh.  My troubles always seemed to be good for that.

After drinking up all of Dez’s beers, we scavenged around for anything else.  Dave found some green creme de menthe liqueur in a cabinet.  I took a hit, and Dave finished it.  Wait… that was it!

“I think I have the diagnosis for your alarming symptoms this morning,” I announced, ” The glowing green stool sample you produced, my friend, was caused by acute alcoholism, a condition exacerbated last night by your ingestion of half a bottle of green creme de menthe.”

We got a good laugh over this.  The big har-dee-har-har was on us though, because a few years later, Dave’s guts gave out, and he died.  It wasn’t a shock, but it was.

I have some survivor’s guilt, and a lot of regret.  You see, when I got sober, I left Dave by the side of the road.  We were bound to drift apart, but I shut the door on him.  At the time it was easy to rationalize.  I needed to focus on getting better, but I could’ve done that without avoiding him completely.  Instead, I stopped answering the phone.  I let him drown, while I went off to seek a better life.

They say you can’t help an alcoholic if he’s not ready, but somebody should be around if that time ever comes.  Who better than an old drinking buddy?  Besides, you never leave a man behind, and I did.  I am deeply ashamed of this.

I hope you can forgive me, dude.  I am really sorry.  I hope I’ll get a chance to make it up you in the next life, when I’m a midget and you’re a long-legged Latina.  In the meantime, I want to tell people how funny, talented, and smart you were.  What a good heart you had.  How hard you tried to be a good dad to your little boy, and how often you were.  How you were a life raft on my stormy seas.  How in spite of all the bullshit, what a great friend you were.  And how I miss you, and would give anything for a call from you… at 7am.

Photo by David Tatge

Dave, 1967-2008