Boys

By Stephanie Austin

Essay

 

Image

 

My first sexual experience happened with a popular neighborhood boy when I was five and he was six. We huddled under the covers of my twin bed. He goes, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” He showed me. I showed him. After, we went back to what we did in 1983, which was listening to Michael Jackson’s Thriller on a record player and running back and forth across the room. My poor mother downstairs watching a Dennis Quaid movie unaware of her daughter involved in a glorious right-of-passage cliché.

Discovery of a boy’s attention. Discovery of the body. Discovery of worthiness.

my 1980sWhy Art Is Always Emotional

Does philosophical rumination— whether it takes the meandering form of recitative, or the straitened form of aphorism— qualify as emotional? Think of Nietzsche’s rants and highs, or Wittgenstein’s hesitant, antiseptic propositions, which sometimes, at their edges, break into moods of exaltation, curiosity, and depression.

We were going to run the intro where you talk about your long history with the Houston family – but in the end I just couldn’t pass up the story about Michael Jackson giving Whitney a monkey for her 26th birthday.

(laughing) It was an event! Truth of the matter, it was an incredible party.  Odd to celebrate your 26th birthday but when you are on the road… Yep, Mike handed us a monkey.

 

Did you struggle with guilt after Whitney passed?  Thinking there might have been something you could have done to save her?

Not at all.  People struggle with the loss of a loved one, especially if that person had a public battle.  And if you are a person of Whitney’s caliber, your problems are publicized.  But the truth of our relationship is that she gave me a platform to be able to speak truth into her life.  And vice versa.  I gave her all-access.  Everything that needed to be said between us was said.  So there’s no regret other than the sad reality of accepting that she’s gone.

When Mariah debuted, people in the media couldn’t wait to compare her to Whitney. I heard Mariah early on because my good friend, Rhett Lawrence, produced her first big single. I was at his house in California when he was raving about this new singer. Well, as we all know, when Mariah came on the scene, she hit hard. And instantly the media created a “hate” between Whitney and Mariah. They were both going to be at the American Music Awards, and people were expecting some kind of fireworks because supposedly there was this massive tension between them. Again, this was a fabrication. They didn’t hate each other; they didn’t even know each other. I could convince Whitney to do anything—pranks or whatever. We’d be hanging out and I’d tell her to do something, and she’d say, “Why do you think you my father? You think I’ll just do whatever you tell me?” To which I’d reply, “Shut up, I am your father”—all in good fun, of course. We were at the American Music Awards, and I had persuaded Whitney that after her performance and her category were over, we would go to dinner. I’d also informed her that when we exited our seats, she would be the last one out, and that we were going to pass Mariah Carey.

“Here’s what you do,” I said. “You gonna stop and you gonna put out your hand and you gonna speak to her.”

“I’m not gonna speak to her,” Whitney replied.

What would you most like to be asked?

That, to me, is the perfect opening question to any interview.  I wish more people would ask me about my writing process, rather than just about the content of my books.  I certainly don’t mind being an advocate for bipolar disorder, but I consider myself a writer first.

 

Okay, fine.  Where are you at this very moment, as you write this interview?

The same place I always write at — a little café in Beverly Hills called Le Pain Quotidien.  I find I write better out of the house, away from tempting distractions.  They let me sit here and scribble for hours, just me and a latte and a cup of gazpacho.  I’m so grateful to the café I mention it in the acknowledgements of my last book.  Come to think of it, I also referred to it in the epilogue of my first book.  I’m a café junkie, I guess.

 

It’s a pretty crowded place.  Isn’t it too noisy to write?

I wear earplugs, plus they always play classical music, which doesn’t bother me.  I have a certain rhythm in my head when I write, and classical doesn’t interfere with that.  Rock and jazz and more contemporary types of music, especially anything with lyrics, totally wreck my pacing.  Some people’s voices, if they’re too loud and nasal, also derail me.  Since when did it become okay to shout in public?  I think everybody should whisper — the world would be a much nicer place, full of secrets.

 

So the café gave birth to two books.  What are they about?

The Dark Side of Innocence:  Growing Up Bipolar is a childhood memoir about what it was like to grow up with a disease that at that time had no name.  I had no diagnosis, I just knew that there was something very, very wrong with me.  The book starts with a suicide attempt when I was seven years old, and continues with my increasing struggles with mood swings, alcohol, cutting and other self-destructive behaviors.  It ends when I’m eighteen years old, on my way to college.  I had gained a certain amount of insight by then, and was sure I was leaving all my problems behind me — which of course, I didn’t.

Manic:  A Memoir covers my adult life with bipolar disorder.  I describe how I managed to be a successful entertainment attorney, representing the likes of Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones and major motion picture studios, while secretly battling this devastating illness.  I also examine the impact of the illness — and my secrecy — on my relationships with various men.  I like to say that Manic was written from the inside out:  I tried to give the reader a visceral sense of what it’s really like to be bipolar.

 

Are you manic right now?

Nobody ever asks me that, although I think they secretly want to.  I suspect they’re afraid of insulting me.  The answer is no, I’m not manic at this time.  You would know if I was:  I’d be writing so fast there’d be no time for punctuation or grammar.  When you’re manic, you have to get your thoughts out of your head THIS VERY MINUTE, or you feel like you’ll explode.  Although I get an awful lot down on the page when I’m manic, I later discover that most of it is gibberish.

 

Do you think there’s a reason that you’re bipolar?

You mean like a higher purpose, a destiny?  At the risk of sounding pretentious, absolutely.  I attempted suicide on a grand scale on a number of occasions.  I never should have survived, never in a million years.  I think there has to be a reason why I’m still alive.  I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s to tell my story and allow others to learn from it, and to feel less alone.  It’s possible that I’m deluding myself, but I rather like this delusion, so I’m sticking with it.

 

 

Victor loves road trips.  He finds serenity behind the wheel on a long trip, whereas I might could crawl out of my skin. The first day we drove north for about 14 hours.  It takes at least that long for my whining to manifest itself inside his tranquil bubble.

By the second day we were able to exit the car to check out Annapolis and Washington, D.C.  This trip coincided with a major heat wave.  It was 107° on the coolest day we were there. Victor likes to walk, meander, really.  The heat and the humidity don’t bother him. He’s soaking in the culture.  I’m soaking in sweat and learning just how long it takes me to develop a heat rash.  (Not long.)

I did see a wedding dress draped with a tartan plaid wool shawl and with lace epaulettes in a shop window. It looked perfect for Michael Jackson, if he had ever decided to get married in a gown.  I showed it to Victor, but he said “what?” Victor doesn’t always get stuff.

If you want to tour the Capitol, you can’t carry a purse bigger than 4 ½ by 6 by 8 inches.  You can’t hardly zip the bare essentials into something that small.  There’s a lengthy inventory of items that I really must have, because I am a prudent person. Victor says you only need your wallet and your reading glasses.  Men.

When we got to the Capitol Visitor’s Center, I really had to put my back into opening the doors. They’re blast-resistant.  Maybe we should put blast-resistant windows in our house, you know, for Armageddon. I imagine they’re quite pricey, though, and my discretionary cash is already going to replacing new sidewalks with newer sidewalks in Boynton, Oklahoma.

Quite a few congressmen and senators passed by us because they were doing that whole debt-ceiling thing.  All of them were shockingly impressive-looking people.  Way taller than regular people… stick-straight posture… lantern-jaws…quality designer suits… full heads of shiny, perfectly styled hair.  To be a politician, clearly you don’t have to be impressive; you only have to look impressive.

I do enjoy mining Victor’s head when I’m trapped in a car with him. For instance, he maintains that the most repulsive bad breath has two origins:

1. Keeping a small dead mouse between your teeth and gums.
2. Keeping a rind of a firm Swiss between your teeth and gums.

You can’t argue with him.  Just because you don’t know anyone who does these things doesn’t mean it isn’t nasty.

Victor also pontificated on the subject of prostitution.  He says if you are going to have sex with a stranger, it might as well be a rich stranger and that he hopes he taught his daughters that if they find themselves needing cash, they should not overlook this lucrative path to solvency.

To look at him, all rumpled in misbuttoned Hawaiian shirts and stained, saggy travel shorts, you just wouldn’t appreciate what a font of knowledge he is.   Victor is the anti- politician.


Rock of Ages

By Gloria Harrison

Notes

I’m three years old. My parents call me outside one day and point at the sky, from which water is falling onto the hard, dirt-packed floor of the Mojave. I can’t imagine where this water is coming from, but it’s everywhere, making the air smell like wet earth. I’m amazed. Later, I’m playing outside, digging earthworms out of the dirt with a spoon, when I spot the biggest earthworm I’ve ever seen. I’m thunderstruck with joy, but as I try to approach, my dog and my best friend, a cockapoo named Gnome, jumps in front of the worm, barking like he’s crazy. I keep approaching when, suddenly, the giant worm lashes out and bites Gnome, who yelps and falls to the ground. The worm rattles off. I run inside to get my mom, to tell her that a worm just bit the dog. She gets to him just in time to take him to the vet and save his life, as he has just done mine. My mom holds me on her lap and we sing my favorite song. “Say, say little playmate – come out and play with me. We’ll climb up my apple tree.” I think about how I wish I had an apple tree with rainbow slides and branches brimming with playmates.

Please explain what just happened.

Just got home from taking pictures at our secret club/rehearsal space in Everett, WA. We call it The Rec Room. If James Bond and Superfly found out they were dating the same chick, hit it off at gun point, and decided to open a speakeasy, this is what it would be like. We’re filming our next music video there for a song called “Callin’” that should be released around the same time third album, Jungle Cat.

 

What is your earliest memory?

My mom’s walkman. She only had one cassette. One side was Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the other was the Chipmunk’s Greatest Hits. I can’t help but wonder if this tape planted the seeds of my obsession with singing in falsetto whenever I can get away with it. Also, I should also mention, proudly, that after long hours of being left alone with Jackson and his creepy old friend Vincent Price, I told my mom something was seriously wrong with the world’s most famous singer. Even in the 80s as an underachieving toddler, I knew MJ was on a trip that wasn’t going to end well.

I can feel your anxiety from here.

Christmas is just over two weeks away and you’ve still got shopping to do.  You opted for the “lots of little presents” route, instead of the “one big enchilada” route, and now you find yourself a few gifts short of a stocking.  Worse, you’ve got one or more rockers on your list, and they’re such ungrateful snobs that you’re afraid to get them anything having to do with music for fear of the inevitable snarky comment ending with the word “lame.”

What’s an elf to do?

Relax- I’ve got you covered.

I consider myself an exceptionally honest person.  Occasionally, honest to a fault.

Honest about what I think, feel, believe, etc.  At least at any given moment.

I shy away from using the term “truth” as a player in any description of character, since that invites a whole host of objections that I’m not energetic enough to expose myself to today.

It is possible to be honest and still be mistaken, for example.   It is only one example, though.  The line between honesty and falsehood isn’t always totally clear.

I am honest at least insofar as I will answer any sincere, serious, unloaded, and un-ridiculous question with a sincere, serious, unloaded, and un-ridiculous answer–to the best of my ability.

But I am honest now because I was not always that way.  Or I was.  Or I wasn’t.

Technically, as a child, I was a pathological liar.

Well, check that.

I don’t know if I was pathological, really, because I never lied out of compulsion alone.  My lies always had some purpose, but it didn’t take much for something to count as a purpose, and in many cases, the purpose of the lie didn’t become apparent until many years later.

There are a small few of these lies whose stories stick with me because of their consequences, their geneses, or, in one case, because the lie actually turned out to be a premonition.  Here are three of them:


1.  The Beach Towel Fabrication:  In which Grandpa reaches across double-wide generation gap to remind me who I’m fucking with.

When I was a young, school-aged child, both of my parents worked–my mother in politics and my father as a land surveyor.  Unlike school, work doesn’t let out for the summer, so for many years, I went to summer day camp at the YMCA.  Even day camp, though, let out before my parents’ jobs did, so my grandfather would often pick me up, and I would hang out with him and Grandma at their house until my mom got off of work and could come retrieve me.  My grandpa was a North Dakota farm boy who was in his late teens, just getting ready to enter the world, when the stock market crashed in 1929.  He had been led home by a horse in a white-out blizzard once, which was my favorite story of his, and he lived a young life that most of us would consider third-world from our contemporary, relatively affluent perspectives.  His own grandparents (or was it his parents?) were Swedish immigrants.  He walked with a cane even when I was still very young.  In true Scandinavian fashion, he was reserved, slow to (exhibit) anger, and, really, the epitome of the patient grandfather stereotype.  He had glasses with thick black rims, a dry, clever sense of humor, and liked kids with “spunk.”  His eldest daughter, my mother, was one of them.

One day at day camp, I lost my towel.  There was a pool at the YMCA, and it had been swimming day (as opposed to nature day or field trip day or arts and crafts day).  When Grandpa picked me up, he rifled through my bag, as was customary, to make sure I hadn’t lost or forgotten anything and discovered no towel.

“Where is your towel?”

For reasons not entirely clear to me but that may have been related to my current fear of ever making or admitting mistakes, especially to people who I want to think that I’m awesome, I lied.  I didn’t say I lost it.

“I’m not telling you.”

“Did you lose it?  Should we go in and look for it?”

This is where I should have said, “Yes.  Let’s.”

Instead I said, “I didn’t lose it.  But I’m not telling you where it is.”

Now I was in for the haul.  Committed to the lie.  No turning back.

“Don’t you sass me.”

“I don’t have to tell you.”

I may have laughed the snotty laugh.  I may have stuck out my tongue.

This went on longer than most men of his generation would have allowed.  Finally, out of space, out of thin air, a bolt of paper-skinned lightning struck me on the cheek, immediately setting the whole left side of my head on fire.

When I finally realized that I had been slapped in the face for–perhaps amazingly–the first time in my young, snotty life, he was already behind me, holding the truck door open.  In a stern but controlled voice, he ordered me to get in.  I could explain the towel to my mother, he said.  He had “had it.”  I sulked the whole way back to his house.

At this point, you’d think I’d have learned something about who was the boss of my situation, but no.  When we got home, I refused to get out of the truck.

He offered me the “easy way ” or “hard way” option.  Ever the warrior, I told him he couldn’t carry me anywhere because he was “just an old man with a cane.”

He came around to my door, leaned his cane against the truck, pried me out, and threw me, flailing and screaming, over his shoulder.  He picked up his cane in the other hand, parallel to the ground, and hauled me into the house without ever letting the cane touch down.


2.  The Incredible Tale of Crusher, the Wolf-Dog:  In which my susceptibility to fantasy is revealed in a lie I almost started to believe was true.

I was always obsessive, even as a child.  I would watch the same movies, over and over, until my parents had to disallow them as options on video rental night because they simply could not stand to watch them again.  Among these movies were The Neverending Story, Emerald Forest, Better Off Dead, and The Journey of Natty Gann. (My John Cusack obsession started early, too.)

For those who are unfamiliar, Natty Gann is about a Great Depression-era girl with a dead mother who goes in search of her father after he leaves her in the care of an unsavory guardian so he can do logging work some 2,000 miles away in the Pacific Northwest (or was it Alaska?).  Anyway.  She wants her dad.  She takes off across the North American wilds trying to get to where he is, having many adventures and, at some point, befriending a wolf (known only as “Wolf”), who becomes her constant companion and guardian throughout her travels.

After seeing this movie for the tenth or fifteenth time, I began telling kids at school that I had a half-wolf, half-dog named Crusher (Bad.  Ass.  Name.), who was my best friend.  Crusher was pretty incredible.  He lived in the woods by my house, could sense when I was in trouble, came when called from up to 5 miles away, attacked bad guys, AND did all the normal tricks dogs do, like sit, roll over, shake, speak, and play fetch.

In reality, I had a grumpy Pekingese with an underbite who all my friends were afraid of because he was dreadfully ugly. And he bit.  His name was “Oscar,” after the Sesame Street grouch.

I told the other kids I met Crusher when he saved me from drowning in the river.

Crusher was an imaginary friend of sorts, but I don’t think I ever told my parents about him, and I knew he wasn’t actually real, most of the time.

I have one particularly vivid memory of telling this lie on the school bus as it made its way towards my day care, going down 3rd St. on the north hill of my hometown.

If what I was saying were true, I was dared, I should call him and he should show up.

I said fine, I would, but he might be busy doing some other bidding of mine.  I remember looking down towards the river and seeing, in my mind’s eye, a gray streak barreling up the hill to come get me.  I stopped telling that lie, I think, when he never showed up and when I realized that, sooner or later, friends who came to my house would begin to ask why they never saw Crusher.  I told them I sent him back into the wild to be with the wolves.  This, unsurprisingly, is exactly what Natty Gann did with Wolf.


3.  The Completely True Fairy Tale of Neverland Summer Camp:  In which I describe in great detail a place I didn’t yet know existed and events that had yet to take place.

Thriller-era Michael Jackson was cool.  Way cool.  I was a huge fan and even had a red leather belt (a la his jacket in the Thriller video) with MJ’s Billy Jean facade as the belt buckle.  Michael Jackson bought Neverland Ranch in 1988, when I was ten.  When I was nine, a new kid came to day care.  He was from a wealthy family with Hollywood connections, and he told incredible stories about meeting famous people.  They were like my stories, in a way, but his were true.  We knew they were true because he brought pictures to show-and-tell.  One of the people he’d met was Michael Jackson.  He was wildly popular almost immediately.  No tale of an invisible wolf-dog could trump an actual Polaroid of Cool Kid standing next to a squatting, beaming, still-black Michael Jackson.

So I did the only thing I could think to do:  I fabricated a story so awesome that nothing anyone else could say could possibly be cooler.  It was easily the most elaborate and vivid lie I have ever told in my life.  It was about how–not only had I met Michael Jackson–I hung out with Michael Jackson on an annual basis, in the summer, every summer.  It was basically summer camp; a bunch of other kids and I would go to Michael Jackson’s house, where he had rides and video games and threw parades every day.  Michael Jackson loved kids, which is why he let us come to his awesome house.  We played with Bubbles, had slumber parties every night, and he slept in the same room with us (in bunk beds, though, because even my premonitions, I guess, were naive).  We’d stay up late telling ghost stories and get up early to go swimming and ride elephants.

He’d give me rides on his shoulders because he liked me best, and no, sorry.  No other kids could come with me because it was invitation-only.  But if they were really nice to me, I might be willing to give Michael a call and ask.

When the more elaborate details of Michael’s time at Neverland Ranch began to surface in the late 90s and after, I enthusiastically and with terrible desperation told people how, when I was 9, I had described this very scenario in shocking detail to a group of playground kids in semi-rural suburban Minnesota.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one believed me.




Rikky was skinny. The way Michael Jackson was skinny. All rubbery, loose, yet with enough gristle and sinew to look like a man. And he danced like Michael Jackson, too. On the marble steps of our apartment building in Oakland, California, he’d spin, make a little “ch ch” sound and flip his hand and hip out, posing on the last beat.

My boyfriend, Scott, and I managed the apartment. It was the late nineteen-eighties, we were finishing college, working and saving all our money to buy a house. In return for a free apartment, we rented out the vacant apartments, collected the checks each month, and called the maintenance man, a coarse, cauliflower-skinned old man, who would never use Scott’s name, only referring to him as “college boy.” We mostly rented to people we wanted to be friends with: Keesha and Darril, a couple from Atlanta, she was into fashion design, he was into computers. Courtney and Danny, graduate students at Berkeley. Pierre and Suzanne; she was teaching, he was in law school. And then there was Rikky.

The building was newly renovated, Art Deco, the wood floors refinished, everything freshly painted. But it wasn’t a particularly nice neighborhood. The high-rise next door rented by the week. A baby was dropped down the stairwell there, killed on impact. One night, Scott and I watched a man beat a woman in the parking lot between our building and the neighboring building. When Scott lowered his voice and yelled out the window, “Leave her alone, I’m calling the police!” the woman who was being beaten looked up toward our apartment and yelled, “Mind your own fucking business!” We quickly shut the blinds and hid out in the bedroom, afraid of a rock or bullet that might come flying through the window. The man in the little market on the ground floor of the neighboring building was shot to death one night. He was a nice man, who said, “Thank you very muuuch,” after each purchase, with an accent like Bela Lugosi. There was what we called a “Drug in the Box” across the street. People walked down the street, stuck their hand in a ground floor window and then walked away, quickly. Young boys hung out on the corners whistling and cooing and making all sorts of noises that signaled where the police or any other threat was at any particular moment.  And a pit bull was shot in the head on the sidewalk in front of our apartment one day. The dog was attacking the maintenance man who held it back with a push broom. The police pulled over, got out of their car.  One cop drew his gun, shot the pit bull, put his gun back and returned to the car. They drove away. No report, no words. Just a dead pit bull under my bedroom window.

The day after Rikky signed the lease, an Emporium Capwell truck pulled up in front of the building and began unloading furniture into his studio apartment. Rikky bought the room on display in the department store, including the knick-knacks. He invited Scott and me to come over and see, once the rooms had been set up. Everything was black, white and grey; feathery, dappled, shiny. There was even a silver framed painting on the wall: an abstract of splattered black paint. A price tag hung off each piece of furniture; white sticker tags glared from the corners of each object. In the obsidian ashtray, a wide sticker sat where a stubbed cigarette should have been: $16.99.

“I just went into that store,” Rikky explained, “and stood in the middle of the showroom pointing. I want this, this, this, and this.” Rikky pivoted on one leg, nodding his lanky, limp index finger.

A couple people suggested Rikky might be a male prostitute—for men. He claimed he wasn’t gay but, again like Michael Jackson, his sexuality was ambiguous, his appeal androgynous. Most people thought he was a drug dealer, in spite of his fragile looks and feathery wardrobe. If he was prostituting or dealing drugs, he wasn’t doing it out of the apartment, so in fact, he turned out to be a pretty good tenant. He always paid his rent on the first of the month, always in cash. And then we began to worry about having cash in the apartment—who knew what Rikky’s friends might do for a few hundred dollars? We told Rikky he had to pay the rent by check, like everyone else in the building. The next month’s rent came on a check, but it didn’t have Rikky’s name anywhere on it. The name was similar to Rikky’s, same number of syllables, same metric rhythm. And the address was correct, down to the apartment number.

“Who’s this?” I asked Rikky.

“That’s my brother,” he said, and he did a little Michael Jackson dance in my entrance hall. “Man, we were at a club last night,” Rikky said, “and you should have seen me, you should have seen me dancing, girl, everyone was all over me; boys, girls, they all wanted me when they saw me dance.”

“You told me you don’t have any brothers,” I said.

“The check’s good, don’t worry about! And Huey Newton was there,” Rikky said, spinning around twice and turning his head like a ballerina so he wouldn’t get dizzy.  “He likes hookers. There must have been ten hookers at our table. Oh, and the mayor was there, too.”

“You were partying with the mayor?” I asked.

“Hell yes,” Rikky said. “I only hang out with the finest people.”

The check was good and all the checks that followed were also good.

Sometime in the beginning of the summer, right after Scott and I graduated from school, Rikky bought a brand-new, white Saab. It had every upgrade possible: a black bra across the front, a built-in cell phone at a time when no one we knew had a cell phone, leather seats, sun roof, everything electric.  Rikky stood on the stoop twirling the keys around his finger as he told a few of us the story.

“I walked into that dealership and said, ‘How much.’ Then this white guy there, big belly, puffy face, he gives me a look like, ‘Ain’t no colored boy from Lafayette, Louisiana, gonna be buying a vehicle like this.’”

“How’d he know you were from Louisiana?” my friend, Keesha, asked.

“Girl, he didn’t know nothin’! That’s what I’m saying, he was just givin’ me the look and I was reading his mind!”

“How fast does that thing go?” Scott asked. He’d been admiring the car all day. We didn’t have a car, we took the bus, or the BART train, or we walked.

“Fast, girlfriend, it goes fast! So, this white guy is looking at me and he gives me a price and I say, ‘Fine, I’ll take it.’”

“Did you test drive it?” Scott wanted to know.

“Fuck, no! The only way to let them know you ain’t no dumb punk is when you don’t even test drive the motherfucker you’re gonna buy!”

“So you didn’t drive it till you took it off the lot?” Scott was incredulous.

“No, girlfriend, I told you, no! I just whipped out my little Fendi bag, see?” Rikky flipped his purse-like sack from his back to his side to show us.  “And I pulled out cash, motherfuckers, cold, hard, cash and paid for the thing right then and there.”

“How much was it?” Scott asked.

The car cost more than what we were trying to save for a down payment on a house. Scott wanted the car.  I wanted the cash Rikky spent buying it—I wanted a house.

Scott and I worked hard that summer. I was taking the BART to I.Magnin, an upscale department store in San Francisco where I sold Ladies’ Dresses. He was taking the bus to Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, working as a janitor, making far more money than I. We both were working on our resumes, looking for real jobs now that we’d finished school.

One day near the end of the summer, Rikky came knocking on my door.

“Girl,” he said, “I’m in a little bit of trouble and I need some cash fast.”

“I don’t have any money,” I said.

Rikky was sweating, fidgeting instead of dancing. We were in the hall outside my apartment; he kept looking down to the glass front door of the building as if he were waiting for someone.

“Can I have something to drink?” he asked.

We went into the apartment and he whistled out a long breath, like he’d just finished a difficult chore—changing a tire or fixing a toaster.

“So what’s up?” I opened the fridge and pulled out the orange juice.   “Juice?”

“No, I don’t want anything.” Rikky sat at my kitchen table.

“I thought you wanted something to drink.”

“No, I’m not thirsty.”

“You okay?”

“Girl,” he said, “I need to get some money, fast. I was thinking I’d sell you and Scott the Saab. At a discount, of course.”

“We don’t have any money.” I was grateful Scott wasn’t home. He would have gouged out our house-savings to buy it at a bargain price. He would have reiterated his you-gotta-spend-money-to-make-money theory. A car, according to Scott, would give us broader job opportunities, which would in turn bring in more money, which would lead to a better house than what we were currently scrimping for. In short, Scott had no willpower or self-control when it came to money. (Before we managed the building, he once took the rent money to the racetrack with the plan of doubling it before paying the rent. A poor plan, indeed. He even lost the bus fare he had set aside to get home and ended up hitching a ride with a stumpy middle-aged man who tried to slip his right thumb up Scott’s shorts while maintaining steering wheel control with his left palm).

“Ten thousand dollars,” Rikky said. “You can have the whole mother-fucking thing for ten thousand. That’s a bargain, girlfriend. That’s ghetto dollars.”

I thought about how happy Scott would be with that car. He was from Boston, kind of preppy-looking; he liked the props that matched the look.

“I’ll give you five-hundred dollars.” It was all I could bear to part with.

“Girlfriend!” Rikky stood, snorting and half-laughing. “There have got to be a hundred motherfuckers on this block who would give me ten thousand dollars today for that car!”

“So go find them,” I said.

Rikky didn’t hang around. He dashed out of my apartment, no stories, no dances. It was as if the dial that generated his energy had been turned to a different mode: panic.

In order to safeguard our savings, I didn’t tell Scott about the car offer. But a couple days later, I was sitting in the kitchen reading the paper, when Scott called me to the living room window. A white truck with no company name or logo was backed in front of the building. Four pro-wrestler-sized men walked in and out of the building carrying the contents of Rikky’s apartment. Rikky was nowhere in sight. It was the second week of the month, and for the first time since he had moved in, Rikky was late with the rent.

The next day, Friday, Rikky was knocking at my door again.

“Girl, I need money right now. How about five thousand for the Saab?”

“I only have five hundred dollars,” I said.

“Do you have a credit card?”

“Yeah.”

“How ‘bout this. You give me the five hundred dollars, and charge on your credit card a one-way ticket to Lafayette, Louisiana, and I’ll give you the car.”

“You’ll sell me the Saab for five hundred dollars?”

“Five hundred and a one-way ticket to Louisiana.”

“One-way?  You leaving?”

“Forever, girlfriend.”

“You haven’t paid your rent,” I said.

“Paid my rent? Rent is the last thing I’m thinking about right now! I will worry about my manicure before I worry about my rent!” Rikky flapped his hands in front of me as if he were chasing away birds.

“I’ll take it out of your deposit,” I said, and Rikky rolled his eyes and clucked his tongue as if I were some kind of traitor.


Scott was thrilled, stunned, really, but cautious. Although he was twice the size of Rikky, he didn’t trust that he wouldn’t carry a gun, or at least, have friends with guns. The following day Rikky came to our apartment with two alligator carpetbags and a leather duffel bag.

He didn’t have the pink slip for the car.

“It’s at my house in Louisiana,” Rikky said, “I swear on my mother’s life.”

“Why would it be there?” Scott asked. “You bought the car here.”

“I ship all my important papers to my mother to keep. I swear to god, I wouldn’t lie to you two.”

“I’ll write out a contract,” I said, and I took a piece of yellow, lined paper and wrote, “I, Rikky Carnegie, agree to sell my Saab 900S, license plate number 1K5 J36 to Jessica Blau for five-hundred dollars. I do not have the pink slip but I will mail it when I find it. This agreement is legal and binding. Signed, Rikky Carnegie.”

Rikky signed the paper, then pushed the two carpetbags aside and said, “Look, I’ll even leave all this stuff here as collateral.”

“Jessica drives,” Scott said, as we walked to the parking lot, “and I’ll sit in back.”

I’m not sure if Rikky saw Scott pick up the piece of old pipe that was lying on the ground in the parking lot. In the rearview mirror I could see that Scott was cocked like a gun, ready to bash Rikky with the pipe if anything should happen.

I drove to San Francisco International and waited in the car while Scott went in to charge Rikky’s one-way ticket. Scott wanted to drive the car home, of course.

Here’s the missing piece of the story that Rikky never anticipated. Tucked behind our building, at the far end of the parking lot, was a vacant warehouse. The warehouse had no windows and a rollaway steel door. It was a former Brink’s truck warehouse—an impenetrable fortress through which millions of dollars once regularly passed. The owner of our building owned this warehouse. When we were given the keys to the building, we were also given the keys to the warehouse. “Just in case,” the owner had said. In case of what, I wasn’t sure, but driving Rikky’s former white Saab with black-tinted windows, a black bra, and a thick black antennae on the trunk through Oakland didn’t feel safe to either Scott or me. If the police wanted him and pulled the car over, we had no pink slip to prove the car was ours now. And why did he suddenly have to flee town? Surely someone wanted to kill him—killing seemed a part of his world; he had told us about a friend who was killed one night, shot on the steps of a nightclub while Rikky, unknowing, was mirthfully dancing inside. And whoever wanted to kill him wouldn’t be able to see that it wasn’t Rikky behind the black windows until he came close enough to the car to inspect the body. Additionally, he only gave us one key. Who had the other key? And did that person also have the pink slip? Did he sell the car to two people at once: Us, the faux-yuppie couple who were earnestly saving for a house, and . . . someone who would have no problem picking up their new vehicle in the parking lot of our building around, say, four a.m.?

When we came home from the airport, Scott pulled the car into the warehouse and immediately closed the steel door behind him. He drove circles in forward, then reverse, around the warehouse, while I sat in the passenger seat and watched him smile.

The next day, we went to Rikky’s apartment to see what condition it had been left in. It wasn’t particularly destroyed; didn’t need to be repainted as had other recently vacated apartments. The rooms were shadowy empty boxes, save the mattress in the center of the living room. Cockroaches scattered under the refrigerator and stove when we walked in the kitchen. In the bathroom a cockroach sat in the tub, seeming to watch me as I opened the medicine cabinet. A single tube of red lipstick sat there.  The lid off, the pointy, cracked tip rolled up. Somehow it seemed as ominous, or sinister, as a bullet.

Scott and I went into the warehouse as least once a day to drive the Saab in circles. We’d take our friends in there, people who lived in the building, people who had known Rikky. We’d hang out for hours, drinking beer, laughing, while we took turns careening around the warehouse. I always gave up my turn and sat in the passenger seat instead while Scott did a few more laps. Scott would drop his mouth open in an expression of crazy glee, then holler as he spun into the turns while I hung onto the safety strap as if I were standing on a runaway subway car.

Every day I checked the mail for an envelope from Lafayette, Louisiana. Every day I wasn’t surprised, but a bit hurt, that the pink slip wasn’t there. And then the phone calls started coming. Always a woman, same dull voice, but different identity each time she called.

The first time, she asked for Rikky.

“Hey, is Rikky there?”

“Rikky Carnegie?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“No, this isn’t his apartment and he doesn’t live in town anymore.”

“Oh, really?! He gave me this number once and said I could find him there.”

“Sorry.”

“He was so cute.”

“Yeah.”

“Drove that cute white Saab.”

“Yup.”

“Didn’t he sell it to you?”

“Oh, he told you that?”

“Yeah, I think he said he sold you that car.”

“Well, how do you know who I am?”

“Aren’t you the sup?”

“We manage the building,” I said.

“So he sold his car to you, then.”

“Yeah, he did.”

“Where do you park it? I drive by your building all the time and I never see that car around.”

I was tempted to ask if the plan was to steal the car and return it to Rikky, who perhaps had found his way back from Louisiana? Or if the person calling was going to steal the car for herself? But a question like that would reveal too much, take too much away from us, diminish the fervor Scott and I were putting into our role as a hopeful, young couple.

“I park it in the parking lot by the building,” I said.

“Really? I never see it. Do you drive it to work? You work at I.Magnin, right?”

“No, I take the BART. We leave it in the parking lot all day.”

A woman claiming to be his sister called a couple of days later. She wanted to know if we’d heard from Rikky. And then she wanted to confirm that we were the people who bought his car, and were we keeping it in good condition, parking it in a garage somewhere?

And another friend of Rikky called. She thought she saw us driving the car on the Bay Bridge, and was that us, and where we going with the car and where did we keep the car anyway?

A couple weeks later I called the California DMV.

“I bought a car,” I said, “and we wrote out a signed contract, but the owner lost the pink slip. What can I do?”

The woman told me that eight weeks from the date of the signed contract, if I still didn’t have a pink slip, I could register the car in my name and they would issue me a pink slip, which would, in effect, void the old pink slip.  We had four weeks to wait.

The day before the four weeks was up, Rikky called.

“Girlfriend, how are you?!” He was back to his high spirits.

“Good,” I told him. “How come you never sent me the pink slip?”

“Girl, I couldn’t find it. But now I got it and I’m sending it to you. So can you send me my bags?”

Rikky’s snakeskin carpetbags had been sitting like two monuments to Rikky in our entrance hall since the day he left. Scott and I had started to look through them one night, but each item we pulled out was sadder, more forlorn than the last—a soiled lavender, suede boot; lace-up leather pants missing the lace; a yellowed, formerly white, ruffled blouse, like what Prince wore on the cover of the Purple Rain album. Scott finally lifted his hands as if to block the sight of blood, and said, “Just pack it all away, I can’t look anymore!” I never opened the bags again.

“Give me your address,” I said. “I’ll send them to you.”

“Girl where you keepin’ that car? My friends drive by the building and they say they’ve never seen that car no how!”

“It’s in the parking lot,” I said. “Just below the living room window where Scott can see it.”

“Truly?”

“Truly.”

“Okay, well, the pink slip is coming, so you are the true owner now—feel free to drive that car around town, girl. There ain’t no point in owning it if you aint gonna show it off!”

“We’re driving it,” I said.  “We drive it all over the place.”

“Truly?”

“Yup.”

“Girl, my friends say that car has flat-out disappeared!”

“I gotta go Rikky,” I said. “Give me your address and I’ll send you your stuff.”


The pink slip never came, but the DMV issued me a new one in my name. That day, Scott and I drove to the Saab dealership in Oakland and traded the car in for some cash (to please me) and a used Saab (to please him). It was brown, nothing fancy, nothing electric, but Scott still thought it was cool; much sexier than the 51 bus.

And the following month, using the money we’d saved and the money we got for the Saab, we bought our first house. It was in Oakland, on a hill with smaller, more broken down houses below it and larger, nicer houses above it. From the front of the house there was a view of the Oakland Coliseum down the hill, and what was then called Candlestick Park farther out in the distance.

We didn’t own a TV, and with the expenses of a house, we rarely had extra money to go to a baseball game. So when the A’s or the Giants were playing, Scott and I would sit in the Saab parked in the driveway facing the stadiums, one or the other of them lit like a birthday cake in the landscape, and listen to the ballgame on the radio. Sometimes we’d drink a beer out there and the car would have that glorious smell of being raced in a secret hidden warehouse.



I called Brad Listi from some sleepy little suburb in Sacramento. We chatted. I think I strong-armed the poor fellow and told him that I wanted to read at TNB’s first L.A reading. He’s too kind. Dear and charming.

I got the gig.

So, L.A.  I had to go. Haven’t seen my birth city in years. Memories of crowded streets and concrete buildings tumbled through my head. 

I gassed up and hit I-15.


On my way in, I picked up a friend of mine, Christy, at the Ontario airport. Ontario is ugly. My friend is not. She’s gorgeous and has the deepest blue eyes I’ve ever seen.

We zipped into Eagle Rock where my mom’s side of the family was having a family reunion. We ate tacos, drank beer, yapped it up, and I danced to some Michael Jackson cuts, slapping my aunt’s ass who was grooving in front of me. People cheered and snapped pictures.

I love to dance. 

Go figure.

I’m supposed to be the rock and roll dude. All spikes and metal. But I love a good beat. And when I hear one my ass shakes and I start snapping my fingers and smashing my brown eyes. What can I say?

Give me Al Green and I’ll give you my body. Hips, dude energy, and all. I’m easy that way.

Way.

* * *

Saturday night I caught up with Rich Ferguson, Lenore Zion, and Megan DiLullo for some drinks.

Zion: cute, funny, and she has nice hands. I like girls that have nice hands. I couldn’t believe that I was in her presence after all these years of literary tomfoolery. It was surreal.

Megan: tattoos and black hair. Rock and roll with a hint of danger shifting in the background. I think she could kick my ass. I didn’t provoke her. After all, I had to read the next night. Didn’t need a black eye. Or two.

Rich: what can I say? I met the man before. But Listi told me years ago this dude was the salt of the earth. And he is. If I had just a dash of what this man carries in his heart I’d sleep better and would have a better appetite. He kicks ass, period.

We talked music, movies, and literature and I think I may  have dropped too many F-bombs. But fuck it.

I cuss. 

So there.

That night I slept horribly. Had a weird dream one of my ex-girlfriends – disguised as a maid – was at the hotel door demanding we talk about our problems. Huh? Everything was a problem to her. The color of the sun. Bargain car tires. Green beans. The taste of water.

Lord have mercy.

Please, sir, send me some mercy.

* * *

I walked into Hotel Cafe and saw some dude in a beanie: Duke Haney. In the flesh. He was there right in front of me. Crazy.

“Haney?” I asked, and went in for a hug.

“Reno?” he asked.

See, folks, I’m a huggy-type guy. Sure, I gave the man a handshake like men do, but I went in for the hug because I have an affinity with the dude. He’s a happening thoughtful, talented, man and I knew this long before we met eyes.

Then I hear: “Is that Reno Romero?”

I turn and there’s Listi standing there. Listi, people! With eyeballs, fingers, and tennis shoes. This is another happening dude. But you know this. Or should know this. And I owe him billions for giving me a forum.

Then: Rachel Pollon. Dear, adorable, and way cool. Everything I figured she’d be. Great eyes and a lover of pooches.

Does it get any better than this?

I was in heaven.

* * *

First to hit the stage was Stefan. Funny guy, solid writer, and he delivered a great intro to his reading and carried a tiny guitar that apparently can’t be tuned. He killed.

Next was my turn. Some story about putting a book on hold, some concert I went to, and straight memory. I think it went down well. Heard some laughs. I think. But not too sure. I hopped off stage thankful and feeling slightly giddy. Buzzed from the vibe. Or maybe the Guinness I bought from some chubby dude that was bartending.

I chatted with Phat B and found him dear, smart as fuck, and cool. Hey.

Lenore took the stage and talked midgets and fear. I, unlike most folk, love fear. I find it appetizing. Like a good Kir Royale. Or a basket of wings extra hot. Anyhow, she’s cute. But, I already addressed this. She was great.

And then Ferguson took the stage.

That motherfucker.

The pictures say it all. Nipples, feet, pink suit, and genius. A true Bond Girl. He blew us off the stage and took over Hollywood like I’m sure he’s done a zillion times. It was a stellar performance. Part philosophical, part comical, and nothing less than astounding. The house roared and later that night I locked lips with him minus the tongue.

(I would have given that handsome devil the works, but we didn’t agree on what bands were cool and which ones sucked dick. His loss. I’ve heard I have a real soft tongue and give one hell of a kiss.)

Anyhow, this guy is the real deal and a glorious, beautiful, human being.

I was floored.

Everyone was.

After we were done drinking and spanking each other we moved across the street for more drinks and more irresponsible adult crap. 

I met Milo Martin, his girl, Ben Loory, and Listi’s wife. More sweet people.

Shit! Does it get any better?

And that’s when I told Rich that Rush sucks.

And they do. I pinched up my nose and gave my best Geddy Lee impersonation. It was the best thing I ever created in my life and Rich was sickened. He likes Rush.

Haney agreed with me.

“They suck,” he told Rich.

“Fuck you guys!” Rich shouted.

We all laughed our asses off and I will never forget that moment.

Ever.

Folks, as I write this the word count is telling me I’m over the thousand words. I’m out of time. Way.

In the end, Haney gave me and the girl with pretty blue eyes a ride back to our hotel. We floated through the Hollywood streets and I was yapping some lame shit in Haney and Christy’s ears. What I said, I can’t tell you. But I was loud and ridiculous.

Which is normal.

That night I didn’t dream of that ex-girlfriend in a maid uniform. Which was fine by me.

Okay.

I’m done.

What a great time. Full of love and craziness.

And that’s me.

I love you all.

Really.

He’s dead. We get it. The parade will go on for another month or so and then new evidence will surface surrounding his death. A month later someone will come forward with some story that opens up more controversy that can be talked about for two more weeks after that. Like Reagan or Anna Nicole, celebrity deaths annoy me. Another body in the ground. Let it be.

North Korea is still acting crazy and Iran is in the middle of an amazing revolution. We lost a good one, now let’s get back to the real news.

He had an amazing solo career that spanned four decades. He donated ridiculous amounts of money to more charity organizations than I could ever begin to list. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice. He invented the moonwalk. He also may or may not have molested a thousand little boys and he slept with a monkey for part of his adult life.

None of that swayed me either way. I have had his entire discography on my iPod for a long time and neither his past nor his death will make me listen any more or less. I just like the music. Now that he’s dead though, everybody seems to want to voice their opinion in his defense. This is my plea to stop that.

It’s not that I think its okay to joke about the death of a human being, but this is Michael Jackson. I don’t mean it’s okay because he was weird, and he WAS weird. That part I get. I’m guessing that fame can make you lose it a little bit, especially on his level. Independent studies show that I have somewhere between 12 and 15 fans, and that makes me turn my phone off and hide for a week straight sometimes. I get the weirdness.

But he was MICHAEL JACKSON.

The jokes don’t make fun of a person, the jokes make fun of an idea. A character. The concept of “Michael Jackson”. On the inside most people have a little kid that loves to tell tasteless jokes. How many Dead Baby jokes can you rattle off right now? I’m guessing more than one. I’m also guessing that you can dish out an even longer list of Michael Jackson jokes. My personal favorite:

Why does Michael Jackson like to sleep with twenty nine year old boys?

Because there’s twenty of them…

I’m sorry, but that’s hilarious.

Not one person was ever upset by that joke prior to yesterday. Nobody stepped up to defend him before June 25. So please, please, please don’t act incensed now. Let people get it out of their systems if they want to be childish. It is ultimately a victimless crime. I promise that Michael doesn’t care.

But, Slade, you should have some respect for the family for God’s sake! How do you think it makes them feel?

The family is dealing with the hurt that comes from losing somebody close to them, not the injury of a few words uttered by the faceless millions that have never met the man. Whatever his shortcomings were, Michael Jackson changed lives. Certain songs of his will always have a very important place in my life. I still correlate the Dangerous album with particular memories of my father, and I will never get a chance to say thanks for that.

In the meantime, a joke or two from people you know that comes across as tactless should be tolerated. It doesn’t make them bad people. It makes them human. That’s how we cope with a loss sometimes. But it’s not directed at Michael himself. It’s directed at the media-created caricature that we knew as Michael Jackson. It wasn’t really him. He wasn’t just oxygen tents and ferris wheels and face masks. Those things are funny. Those things deserve to be made fun of.

As for the rest of him? Well, I didn’t know that part. It is intact and lives on in the memory of those that did.

I, however, will go on the way I always have. The only thing that has changed for me is that it is now official that I will never see him perform live. Nothing else will change. My childish friends and I will still tell immature jokes about him and I will still play Remember the Time at full blast when I am in the privacy of my own car on long road trips when no one is watching.

R.I.P. Mike.

Now can we please let it go?