I’ve always been a ladies’ man. By that I mean, an easy mark, a sucker, a chump. A chump-love-sucker. Women have been able to manipulate me with the ease of a Mexican-made marionette. From the sandbox to the strip clubs, these puppet mistresses would pull my strings, and I would be made to dance a jig or kiss my own ass. It wasn’t always under duress. I often complied voluntarily. Stockholm Syndrome? Perhaps. I sure wanted to impress my captors.
In 1968, New York City was full of women. Even as a young gremlin, I noticed their strange power over my happiness. I was crushed when my kindergarten teacher, Miss Corchran, got married. I attended the wedding, and sullenly watched some greasy Jerry Lewis type in horn rims take her away from me. After the ceremony, I waited in line to kiss the bride, in my case, goodbye forever. I walked to the train with my mom. What was this feeling that made me want to pile my head through subway tile? Will it ever go away? Must all love die at the end of a stake? Thank God, I didn’t know the truth. No six-year-old deserves that.
For weeks afterwards, I moped around in a funk. My Mom dragged me around the neighborhood while she did her shopping. Every woman I saw at the A&P, or at the butcher’s shop, looked like a cheap replacement. They were certainly do-able, but not Miss Corchran. (I refused to refer to her by her married name, Mrs. Dipshit.) I had resigned myself to a life alone. I’d be one of those old guys at the Y.M.C.A. who eats catfood heated up on hot plate. I didn’t know such a thing as hookers existed back then, but I’m sure it would’ve given me some solace.
I went through a period of one relationship after another. There was Catwoman, Morticia Addams, Ginger, the black lady on Sesame Street. I was trying to fill a hole. There were a few babysitters here and there, but when you know they’re only there for the money, it leaves you hollow. I treated them all like meaningless distractions, but today I can see I learned something from each one, especially the Sesame Street woman.
It was during this futile whirlwind of grasping that Dina showed up. She was much older than me, maybe almost ten. I was seven and a half and ready to spin the wheel again on this crazy game called Love. Dina was exotic and intriguing. She was Puerto Rican, which alone was a potent brew, but it was the long black hair and dark eyes that really killed me. I found myself having trouble talking when she would show up on our street with her friends, and not just because I was a tongue-thruster, as the speech therapist at school had diagnosed.
They would come over from across Jamaica Avenue to play handball against the television repair shop wall two blocks from my house. Their neighborhood was so poor it didn’t have any walls. Dina had nice brown legs and didn’t wear socks with her sneakers. I also remember that her Keds were so worn that her big toes started to peek through. Seeing all that made me feel weird, but a good weird.
I would try to get her attention by riding by on my bike as fast as I could. When she saw what little value I put on my life and safety, she would inexplicably be drawn to my self-destructive nature like a moth to a flame. Together we would set ourselves on fire, and burn until there was nothing left. Then we would get married and move to Long Island.
One day, while I was turned to see if she was watching, I ran into someone’s hanging laundry and was literally clothes-lined right off the bike. A very cartoon moment, but to my young ego, more tragic than any Greek play. Dina saw what happened and started to run over, but I quickly hopped up, embarrassed. I got on my bike and disappeared. I went up to my room and sat praying for an early death. Typical me. The only thing missing was a motel room stocked with beer, and some woman rolling joints with a GPS cuffed around her ankle.
I decided my easiest in would be making friends with her younger brother, Tino. He was a violent enough spaz to have something in common with. I went over one afternoon and showed him how to burn stuff with a magnifying glass. From that point on, he would have taken a bullet for me. He was my pal.
We were smashing rolls of paper caps between bricks, when Dina came up and invited me to a house party at her place. Oh shit. She might as well have invited me to spend a week-end with her in Vegas. The party was Saturday, and she said there was going to be a go-go dance contest with prizes. I couldn’t believe it. I had been practicing my go-go dance moves on the veranda of our house for some time now. How fortuitously events were unfolding.
There used to be a kid’s show, Wonderama, with Bob McAllister. It featured various games in which kids would compete for prizes. They also had a go-go contest that I had set my sights on. I used to play 45s of the Beatles and The Monkees, and practice dancing, on the off-chance that I might someday wind up on the show. I had developed some secret new moves, and they were devastating. Now I had a venue to showcase my efforts, and win the prize I had in mind.
I agreed to come to her party. It was a golden opportunity to unleash my mating dance upon this Latin gypsy. She would see this white boy’s dancing could match the torrid heat generated by her own hot-blooded rhythm. I just had to get permission from my mom.
On the day of the party, Dina showed up with two of her younger sisters and Tino. We crossed Jamaica into a more tired part of town. The party wasn’t much. Dina’s family was really poor. There were no decorations and the place smelled like diapers. Her mom had her hair in curlers with a scarf over them, and a cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth, but she smiled a lot, and tried to make it fun for us.
We did have cake, blew soap bubbles, and took turns throwing a balsa wood glider around in the street, but I wasn’t really present. I was thinking about the contest. Don’t try too hard or you’ll look wooden. Just let it happen to you, and then happen right back. Let it loose, then rein it slowly back in. Don’t be afraid to smolder.
Her mom handed out popsicles and we ate them on the porch. I sized up my competition.
It looked formidable. Lots of Latinos and a few black kids. They didn’t need to practice. There were a few Irish and another Lithuanian. I wasn’t worried about them. I doubted there would be another sleeper hidden in this crowd. Finally, Dina’s mom called us in to listen to records. Here we go. Time to burn it down.
She put on a record and all us kids started dancing. Dina joined us and made her way over to me. Okay, okay, don’t floor the pedal too early. Steady old boy. I kept to my basic moves, a Hully Gully here, a Shimmy there, a Shoulder Roll Full of Soul. Just journeyman stuff. Nothing too crazy, yet. Dina was dancing along, but in a happy, innocent, jumpy way. It wasn’t the way I had imagined. Hmmm.
Finally, her mom announced the contest. She would point at kids to come up to the front of the room to dance solo. Afterwards, we would pick the winner with our applause. That seemed like some pretty arbitrary judging, but I reminded myself that this wasn’t about winning the contest. It was about Dina and I getting married and moving to Long Island.
Most of the dancers were pretty good. The poor have always made good dancers. It doesn’t cost anything to dance around. I got the nod from her mom and stepped up.
The song was “These Boots are Made for Walking,” by Nancy Sinatra. I started out with a strutting stroll but quickly shifted gears into my own creations: The Manic Monkey, The White Tornado, Jump and Flap, Jump and Flap with Karate Chops, Army Guy Covered in Napalm, and my version of The Zombie, which was based on the drunk renter that lived at my grandparents’ house. The other kids were getting into it. They were laughing and clapping, cheering me on. I had them wrapped, now it was time to wring them dry, and make Dina’s toes pop right through her Keds. Watch out now.
I finished with what I considered my signature move. It was supposed to be me pretending to do the limbo, but I realize now that it looked like I was trying to hump the sky. Anyway, it brought down the house. I remember looking out and seeing these older black girls scream. Dina had her hand over her mouth, no doubt stunned by the sublime measure of my art. Tino wound up joining in, then everybody else. We were all bent back and bumping it. Mrs. Rivera was doubled over.
They had to improvise a first prize. It turned out to be a mangy stray neighborhood cat, but I took it. Hell yeah. Afterwards, everyone shook my hand, and girls were giggling and talking about me. Double hell yeah. I was talking to the two older girls when Dina tapped me on the shoulder.
“Whenever you want, I can walk home with you.”
“Sure Dina, but hold on, I’m talking right now. As soon as I’m done. ”
“Okay, I’ll be over by the soda.”
“Be right there,” I turned back to the girls, “As I was saying, I go to PS 66 and my teacher is Mrs. Ammonds. I like to play Army, ride my bike, and light things on fire.”
After the party, Dina walked me back to my house. When she reached out and held my hand, I thought I would pass out. I had been a line monitor and had held plenty of girls’ hands before, but this felt different. It was extra sweaty. Tino carried my trophy. I tried to step extra slow, to make it last. When we got to my front door, she let go off my hand.
“You’re a good dancer.”
We stood there for a while. It was awkward. I didn’t know how to take it to the next level, or if it was even the right time.
“I have to go pee,” I announced, scrunching the crotch of my pants.
“Okay bye,” she waved. Her brother handed me the cat, and I went inside.
Holy shit, what a party! I dropped the cat on the floor and ran to the bathroom. My mom came out of the kitchen. I knew the new pet wasn’t going to go over well.
“It’s my prize, Ma!” I yelled over my peeing. “For dancing at Dina’s party!”
Dancing like a molten motherfucker. A sky-humping love pumper. I earned that pussy cat. “Please Mom, can we keep it?”
No dice. She took it outside and let it go. That was okay. I wasn’t interested in cats so much anymore, or even Catwoman for that matter. I had just been given my first dose of a drug that would nearly kill me quicker than the drinking.
Trying to impress women wouldn’t have been so dangerous if I had stuck to dancing go-go, but over the years I had expanded my catalogue. It included stuff that I thought was impressive, but only caused concern. If I couldn’t impress them, I’d settle for worrying them sick. It seemed easier. It turned out to be a good way of wearing out some pretty big hearts, and put me on the fast track to eating cat food alone. That had to change.
I still get clotheslined off my bike now and then. I’m just not pedaling as fast when I hit, and I’ve learned how to roll when I fall. I’d like to think I’ve learned something since seven and a half. I eat more vegetables and don’t play with matches. I drink a lot less too. I still dance like a molten motherfucker though. Hell yeah. Make you want to move to Long Island, baby.