Querido person who stole my iPhone outside of a kebab restaurant in Barcelona at 4 a.m. and the prostitute who molested me immediately after:

I just wanted to get the Canadian girls’ email address and some fourth meal, not an unexpected $749 Verizon purchase upon return to the States and an aggravated right nut.

Shifty Thief, you’re a heartless motherfucker. Can’t you find a way to target individuals who actually listened when the Verizon associate told them getting the insurance is a good idea? But, Shifty Thief, I must be honest: Easy target aside, you are good at what you do. I don’t even know when you got me or what you look like, and I had even sobered up. I either placed it on the counter at the kebab restaurant and you swiped it, or I didn’t get it all the way back into my pocket and you picked it when I was molar-deep in some rolled-up European tastiness. I never thought I’d like any combination of food that included cabbage, but I was wrong, and no matter what you might have lifted from me, Shifty Thief, I’ll always have my cabbage epiphany.

An interview from An Escort’s Journal, a documentary film, produced and directed by Jeff Ragsdale.

When I was a small child, I was prone to insomnia and fits of the night terrors. To get me to fall asleep, my mother and father would fasten me into our family’s 1971 Toyota Carina, throw in an eight-track cassette of Anne Murray’s Greatest Hits and drive up and down South Main Street in Houston, Texas, to look at the prostitutes. The blinking neon signs of the no-tell motels, the bling of streetwalkers working their finery, and the day-glo hues of their billowing lingerie were too much stimulation even for a toddler; I would finally shut my eyes and stop struggling against the seat belt while “Shadows in the Moonlight” and the South Main ho stroll played on. I nodded off to sleep not only with visions of sugar plum fairies, but also of leather-clad fairies, common harlots, desperate dope fiends, glamorous go-girls, and rowdy rent-boys all gyrating in my little head.

Why did you decide to write a book about Caravaggio? Is there anything new to say about him, after all these years?

It might seem strange, but even though Caravaggio is one of the most obsessed-about and massively popular artists of all time, an extraordinary amount of devastatingly interesting and revealing new information has come out about him in recent years. I am talking about new, hard, archival discoveries, a truly astonishing treasure trove of documents from the distant past – new facts about the prostitutes with whom he consorted, the women (and perhaps men) with whom he had sex; the soldiers, mercenaries and thugs with whom he fought and argued; the other painters with whom he contested; the man he murdered in a castration-attempt on a tennis court in Rome in the summer of 1606; the man he shot and near-fatally wounded on the brutal military island of Malta a few years later; the gang of four who pinned him down and cut his face off in Naples, condemning him to a terrible, slow, lingering death …

 

What sets your biography apart from others that have been written about him?

All of this new stuff had been discovered by scholars working in different places in different, disconnected ways. Some of it had been published, but generally only in aracane or extremely academic corners. No one had put it together, however. So I did. Whether the reader thinks I have done a good job with the information, the information itself is transformative in terms of what we know and think about the painter. I think it’s like a bomb dropped into the still waters of existing Caravaggio literature. Basically, my book is the first to bring all of this information together for the general reader. As a result, I believe it is the first book about him truly to tell the full story of who he was, why he did what he did, and ultimately what happened to him.

 

How do you hope to change perceptions of him?

For centuries Caravaggio has been regarded as a mysterious, rather mad outsider. After ten years and more of detective work, I believe I have finally been able to make sense of him, and of the patterns that shaped his life – deeply tragic patterns from the start, going back to the death of all his male relatives, of plague, when he was just 5 or 6 years old. I hope that my book releases him from the many stereotypes he has been subjected to in so many of the other books (and films and novels) that have taken him as their subject: Volatile Lunatic, Tragic Outsider, Protypical Gay Icon. For me, he’s none of those cardboard cut-outs. He’s a real, complicated, dangerous but also deeply sympathetic human being.

 

Are there any other ambitions behind your book?

Most definitely. The nature of the Caravaggio archival treasure trove, as I have called it – different sets of documents unearthed in archives in Rome, Naples, Malta and elsewhere – is that it doesn’t just give you this extraordinary, troubled man’s life. It gives you his whole world, and it is a truly fascinating world, one where people live by very particular, apparently strange but ultimately logical codes of honour.

So for example, in this world, if a painter insults Caravaggio behind his back, Caravaggio will go up behind him late one night and smash him on the back of the head with the back of his sword: the logic being that if you insult me behind my back, I attack you from the back. If a woman insults Caravaggio’s reputation, he will smear excrement on the windows of her house: the logic being that if you attack my honour, which is my face, then I besmirch the front of your house, the architectural face you present to the world. If a man argues with Caravaggio about a woman, Caravaggio will attempt to castrate him in a duel: the logic being that if you insult me sexually, I will wound you sexually. What I hope you get from my book is a true and deep understanding of the codes and the logic – however twisted that logic might be – by which Caravaggio and his friends and enemies lived their lives. In other words, he was not some freak or weirdo, but a dangerous man in a dangerous world.

Because I find that world utterly, transfixingly interesting, I have tried wherever possible to give the reader the documents that survive in full: the whole of a trial transcript, for example, or the entirety of a prostitute’s account of attacking her rival. I explain who the people involved are, I come to my conclusions, but I also give the reader as much as possible of the raw history, so they can decide for themselves whether they agree with my conclusions and inferences. Also, by quoting these documents – the few other books to make limited us of them have abridged or summarised them – I feel I put the reader really in touch with the feel and the smell of seventeenth-century Rome, or Naples, or Sicily.

 

What about the paintings? 

Well, they are the reason I wrote the book in the first place. If you like, my book is three books interwoven together: the story of Caravaggio’s life; the portrait of the world in which he lived with all its codes and customs etcetera; combined with deep, lengthy analyses of each and every painting. The part I would most like to be judged on is the last. My analysis of his pictures – those dark, dramatic, deeply profound depictions of men and women in extremis – well for me that is the heart and soul of my book.

I hope I have proved for once and all that Caravaggio was not just some flash in the pan, some gifted proto-photographic master of realism; he was an immensely subtle, emotionally profound, intellectually complex artist. I don’t use the genius word lightly and there aren’t many artists or writers I would apply it to, but he really was a genius. I also think he was one of the most touchingly, deeply humane and human human beings ever to have lived.

 

What’s your most vivid memory of writing the book?

Sitting in my study late and night and suddenly realising that I’d solved the supposed mystery of how he died and who had killed him. I started crying, for Christ’s sake! I even realised that I knew the name of the man who was the last person to see him alive: a humble boatman called Alexander Caramano, who took Caravaggio to his death on a boat named Santa Maria dello Porto Salvo, Saint Mary of the Safe Harbour. History can contain such astonishingly cruel ironies.

His life had the patterns of a tragedy, the patterns of a work of art, almost. You couldn’t have made it up. It was such a sad, sad life, in the end. But what dark gold it produced.

 

 

I.

I Live in a Seaside Motel

I live in a seaside motel. On nights that the ocean is lively I can lie in bed and hear it murmur midnight elegies. When I’m having trouble sleeping the sounds of the sea’s salty breath draws me out into the darkness with my miner’s torch atop my head. I cross Route 1A, scramble over the Army Corps of Engineer-constructed berm and stand before the Atlantic.

The ocean during the day inspires thoughts of nature’s majesty and human frailty. This does not change at night, but the darkness lends a sense that the massive, writhing body of water is sinister.

After I’ve stood for a spell and looked out over the black expanse I turn and walk back to the Pebble Cove Motel. Every time, as I scramble back over the berm and my feet touch concrete, I begin to run, as if unseen enemies are giving chase. The ocean’s booming and roaring seems mocking, telling me to go back to my little box and carry on being a silly human. In obeisance, I slip back into room 3 and lock the door behind me.

II.

A Modern American Family

When I tell people that I live in a motel, they typically react in one of two ways. They either say something like, “Don’t you get lonely?” or, “Cool, man, you’re living the dream!”

Because I lived at home for over a year before moving into the Pebble Cove Motel, I tend to view my life here as quite idyllic. As for the other residents, I can only surmise, but my guess is that any middle-aged or older person who lives in a motel doesn’t go around asking to be pinched.

When I responded to an advertisement on craigslist offering, “winter studio efficiency,” the man on the other end of the phone suggested I drive down to the coast and take a look at a unit that would soon be vacant. A silver-haired, no-nonsense type of guy named Steve greeted me in the parking lot and gave the tour. At the time, a Chinese business man was staying in the room. Steve said he would be out in a couple of days and that the room would be available in one week’s time.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “We’ll have the place spic-and-span for you.”

I think what he meant was that Chinaman odor would be purged by the time I moved in.

With few other short-term rental options, I decided on the spot to take the room. I gave Steve a check for one month’s rent plus a security deposit and he told me I wouldn’t regret it, that the Pebble Cove was like a little family.

Perhaps, if your family is a group of transients who get kicked to the curb come June 1st so that well-off vacationers can occupy the rooms for the peak summer months. Where the Pebble Cove diaspora goes to I do not know. I will go to Beijing because I have nothing or nobody to stick around for.

Living in the unit to the left of mine is my middle-aged sister named either Jill or Lisa who works at either Pier One or Pottery Barn. On the other side is Ulrich, my 70-something-year-old drunken, heating-man, moonlighting-Nazi of a grandfather.

Aside from them and Steve, the acting father of this little clan, I don’t know any of my other family members except by face and vehicle. There’s “Explorer Chick,” (and also “Mustang Dude Who’s Presumably Banging Explorer Chick”) “Green Honda Van Dude,” “Maroon Honda Van Guy,” “White Civic Lady,” “Young Asian Corolla Dude,” “New Jeep Cherokee Older Guy,” and “Early Model Mazda 626 Dude.”

To them, I am no doubt “Silver Subaru Forester Dude.”

It strikes me as being very American to know one another by the vehicles we drive.

III.

Excerpts From the Diary of the Woman Next Door as Imagined by Me When I’m Feeling Conscious of How Thin the Walls Are

6:34: Dear Diary:

Well, so much for sleeping in on my only day off this week. The guy in room 3 is awake and packing his dishes away as he does first thing every morning. He apparently doesn’t realize how paper thin the walls are. That or he doesn’t care. So that means he’s an idiot or a jerk off…an idiot or a jerk off with OCD. It’s bad enough that I have to talk about dishes and cookware and cutlery and wine glasses at work all day. The last thing I want to do is wake up in my goddamned pathetic motel room of an apartment and listen to the sounds of that little OCD neat-nick asshole rattling kitchen wares around. Oh well. Since I’m awake I might as well pleasure myself.

8:08: Hello Diary:

So much for falling back asleep. I was hoping he’d take a day off from the weights but his compulsive little self is back at it. I mean, I’m assuming that he’s lifting weights vigorously. That or he’s masturbating in a suit of plate mail. I really think this guy is some sort of psycho. There are probably dismembered hookers hanging up in his shower. He probably eats hooker jerky for protein after workouts. And there he goes with the music. What the hell is he even listening to? Die Die My Darling? Your Own Personal Jesus? What kinds of lyrics are those? Oh God, now he’s singing along. What, is he serenading the hookers? But he must have a pretty sweet body from all of that working out. Mmm…the thought of his young, engorged body dripping sweat all over his little box is making my little box drip. I’m going to pummel my unfruitful womb with the Black Emperor for a little while and hopefully he’ll be done by the time I get off.

2:24: Hey Diary:

What is he yelling about? Every hour or so it’s “fuck” or “shit” or “cunt” or “fuck shit cunt.” Is he playing video games? Is a hooker trying to escape? Does he have Tourette’s? One thing he obviously doesn’t have is a job, because his silver Subaru just sits there all day.

Life isn’t fair, diary. Here I am breaking my middle-aged ass working at an unspecified home furnishing store while he gets to hang around and work out and play video games and fillet prostitutes. I’d masturbate again but I’m too goddamned depressed. I think I’ll go to Burger King, order two doubles with cheese and hope I choke to death on a piece of mechanically separated beef.

11:46: Hiya Diary:

You’d think that somebody who gets up at the crack of dawn would go to bed early, not stay up all night watching TV. His “friend” in the black car just drove off. I could smell the dope smoke billowing out the door as he left. They probably had drug-fueled unprotected man sex, the sounds of which were masked by a sports broadcast played at high volume. Sometimes I can hear what sounds like German coming from his place, and last week there was that strange incident where a woman left his room shouting, “You’re fucking crazy!” And I’m inclined to agree. Only a maniac would stay up all night getting stoned, flipping back and forth between science fiction thrillers and Mother Angelica. Weirdest of all is the way he sometimes disappears into the dark with a light perched atop his head, only to come running back a bit later and slam the door shut. Meh. I guess if I’m awake I may as well diddle myself one more time.

IV.

Just Another Saturday Night Blitzkrieg

I should have suspected that Ulrich works in the trades by the way that he backs into his parking spot every evening. All of these handy types of guys—men’s men—back into parking spaces.

Ulrich is a heating man. I’m pretty sure I heard him say, “Hello, this is the heating man,” on the phone. He might have said “beating man,” though. Or “eating man.” Maybe even “cheating man.” I’d like to think he said “fleeting man” but Ulrich doesn’t strike me as much of a poet.

It must have been a tough day at the office, whether heating or beating or eating, because ol’ Ulrich moved straight into the fleeting, into the beer, and is finishing them off at a clip of roughly one per 12 minutes.

I hear the fridge door open and the rattling of bottles inside. I hear the “psssst” of a bottle top popping. I hear Ulrich’s bed sag as he falls onto it. I hear the clanking of glass as the empty gets tossed into the bin. I hear the TV growing louder with each successive brew as the alcohol insulates him to his neighbors’ desires for quiet. I know where this night is headed.

I should probably jet before it gets there. There’s that new martini bar down the road where the older women hang out. It’s no secret that I’ve been coveting older women of late. It seems like all of the women my age around here have this creepy faraway look in their eyes which is their biological alarm clock going off, demanding a baby stat. I feel like I’m wasting their time. I’m most certainly not that guy. I mean, Christ, I live in a motel. I’m hardly father material.

But the older women aren’t biting tonight. Something about the blonde girl in the corner screams she’d go home on the first night. Availability is smeared across her face like too much foundation.

Just a few years ago I was flummoxed by women. Now, I obey the simple fact that most people have a hard time saying “no” to anything. Especially when alcohol and licentiousness are involved. It’s just a matter of getting her to say, “yes,” to the right series of questions, starting with, “Can I sit down?” and culminating with, “Do you want to get out of here?”

When she asks where I live I say the Pebble Cove, because it sounds like a charming little place where successful people live, not a brick motel built in the early 1970s that rents to a collection of Recession-products during the off-season.

When we arrive there she says, “You didn’t mention that you live at a motel.” I say, “That’s because you don’t seem like the kind of girl that would come back to a motel on the first night.” This is a lie, however, as she seems precisely like the kind of girl who would come back to a motel on the first night.

But she thinks what I said is funny and this provides an opening to kiss her, which I do, and we stumble around drunkenly while making out until we fall backwards onto my bed. Once her top is off it occurs to me that I don’t want to have to wash my sheets on account of sex stains so I pick her up and move her to the smaller double bed that mostly serves as a hamper and magazine rack.

As the magazines and books and fall to the floor with a racket she giggles and Ulrich cranks his TV up. I hear the sounds of strafing machine guns and a narrator’s voice saying something like, “Hitler’s forces turned upon France in May of 1940 and using Blitzkrieg tactics were able to occupy Paris by June.”

Hitler’s voice rattles, distorted, through the flimsy TV speakers as my tongue encircles nipple. Then come the sounds of artillery being fired, the narrator’s voice, a portion of a Wagner composition, boots marching in step.

“What is that?” she asks, sitting up.

“My neighbor likes to get drunk and watch Nazi documentaries,” I say.

“Oh. Like, a lot?”

“Like every weekend.”

I had a small window to fire her up to the sexual point of no return, where she could ignore the fact that she’s gone home with a stranger to his motel room. Now I can sense that there’s some serious doubt creeping in, doubt that’s compounded by the sounds of Nazi war propaganda.

The way she looks around the room tells me this thing is doomed. I give her nipple one last lick.

“What did you say you do? You’re a writer or something?”

“I write advertising copy.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I try to convince people to buy things they don’t really need.”

“Oh. And you do that from here?”

“Yes.”

“That must be kinda lonely.”

“Sometimes. That’s when I go to the bar and pick up a woman.”

She laughs awkwardly, probably hoping it’s a joke. I made the comment because I really want her to leave now that I know she’s not going to fuck me. I could probably cajole my way back into a tug job, but despite my targeting her on the assumption that she’d come home with me on the first night, I’m actually disappointed that she did. I think I can do better than a woman who comes back to a motel with a guy on the first night. I tell her this.

She gets out of bed and puts on her clothes to the sound of Hitler’s fiery oration.

“You know,” I say, “I’ve always suspected that German men of a certain age take great pride in the whole Nazi thing. Even though they can’t admit it, I bet you some of them view World War Two and the Holocaust in particular as the ultimate expression of German intelligence, industrialism, orderliness, thoroughness, and efficiency, which are the very cultural traits that make Germans proud, some even arrogantly so. What do you think?”

“Um, I’m Jewish,” she says as she buttons her blue overcoat and pulls on a pair of brown UGG boots.

“So what? You must still have an opinion on the matter.”

“You want to know what I think? I think you’re fucking crazy!”

She slams the door and leaves in her Volkswagen Cabriolet. Imagine that, the indignant little Jewess in her German coupe. It reminds me of those rich Jews who drive around cars made by BMW, a company that once upon a time made Nazi war machines.

I hear gravel crunching under her tires as she pulls away and then the only sounds are of alcohol abuse and German domination.

V.

Of Troglodytes and Men

I know how much forklifts cost. Warehouse forklifts, narrow aisle machines, telescopic, telehandler, straight mast, electric, internal combustion, fuel cell, with inflatable tires, pneumatic tires, heavy-duty off-road tires. I know all of the major suppliers of phone systems and how much they cost, the difference between PBX and VoIP systems and how each can help your business streamline its communications, improve customer service, and boost its bottom line. I know how much point of sales (POS) systems for night clubs, restaurants, retail stores and pizza shops cost, that Comcash has been a leading provider of POS solutions since 1996. I know how much air compressors, ATM machines, trade show displays and digital copiers cost (although individual prices may vary based on location, requirements, and individual vendors). I can give you price quotes for home improvement projects ranging from plumbing to construction to hiring an interior designer. I can explain the benefits and drawbacks of various countertop, roofing, fencing, and flooring materials. I can explain seven projects for a Japanese wood saw and why you should insure your Golden Retriever. And I can tell you without question that if the negligent actions of another caused your injury, you may be entitled to compensation.

What I can’t tell you is how the people reading this information would react if they knew it came from a guy in a motel room who neither owns nor can afford nor has any use for any of these goods or services, who is wearing only a pair of frayed soccer shorts.

“Fuck.”

The computer cursor lags on the screen.

“Shit.”

It stops completely.

“Cunt.”

The computer is frozen again.

I can tell you how much it costs to repair an overheating computer, but I can’t tell you how I’m going to come up with the money to have mine repaired.

“Fuck shit cunt.”

I shut it down, close the lid, and decide to go for a walk.

As I step out of my front door I shoo away a male cardinal who is attacking himself in my car’s passenger side mirror. When I first moved in to Pebble Cove I thought that the handsome red bird perched atop my passenger side mirror was a good omen. Now, it mostly annoys me because he scratches the glass and poops all over the door. But I also feel bad for the bastard. He doesn’t realize that persistent rival male is actually himself. The instinct to protect his turf has failed him.

I nod to Green Honda Van Dude as I make my way out to the road and walk the ½ mile to Odiorne Point State Park. It is the site of the first permanent European settlement in New Hampshire, founded in 1623. The U.S. government seized control of the land through eminent domain in the early 1940s to construct a battery that could adequately protect nearby Portsmouth Harbor. It never saw any action save for the firing of practice rounds and in 1961 the land was transferred to the State of New Hampshire for use as a state park, with all military structures demolished or exhumed except for the concrete casemate. The displaced millionaires never had a chance to reclaim their land, an enduring source of bitterness in a part of America where people don’t need much of an excuse to be enduringly bitter.

I come upon the remaining concrete fortifications which are mostly buried now under fill and secondary growth. The grey stonework peeks out from under fresh spring greens like a confused old man among a gathering of teens. Graffiti stains it in its usual forms of louche wisdom and second rate artistry.

Passing under the entombed structure I notice a breach in the metal door that leads into the casemate. I stick my cell phone into the hole and attempt to use its light to see what lies beyond, but am afforded a mere foot of visibility.

At that very moment two 20-somethings on bikes pass by and the curly-haired lead rider says, “Hold on a minute bro, we’ve got lights.”

I follow them into the hole, squeeze through the jagged-cornered opening with care and step into an environment that is dark, cold, and musty, in stark contrast to the bright, muggy day outside.

The men pan their flashlights from side to side, revealing rusted pipes and ceiling tracks that were used to roll artillery out to the guns. Duct work, beer cans, bottles, and other debris is strewn across the ground, requiring that every step be taken with care. But it’s a challenge to focus on anything except for the walls covered in charnel imagery, made more ghostly by the vertiginous shifting light and amplified sounds of the dank, asbestos-ridden chamber.

“This place doesn’t open up very often. Maybe every 10-15 years somebody finds a way in,” says the curly-haired guy. “You can tell by the dates on the walls and the can designs.”

His friend, with a dark complexion and a thin beard, mutters something about the place being like the Mines of Moria.

Off of the main hall are several rooms, one of which leads down into a wide-chambered basement. I can see my breath in the nebulous light. We descend an oxidized ladder into a small passageway that we waddle through in a squatting position. Only when crammed into a dirt-floored boiler room of approximately 4 feet tall by 8 feet wide by 8 feet long do we introduce ourselves.

When I tell them I live at the Pebble Cove Motel the dark-haired guy says, “You live in a motel? Cool, man. It’s like a movie or something.”

This is the only room where a dedicated mural exists. The rest of the bunker is a cacophony of visions that overlap and choke out any attempts at artfulness. I think about the artist who spent hour upon hour hunched in this cramped chamber, inhaling toxic air and paint fumes, to create a sepulchral work that few eyes will ever chance upon. Could their endeavor be the result of a failed instinct?

This place brings to mind prehistoric caves and how scientists try to glean those peoples’ cultural knowledge from the images drawn on the walls. If nuclear Armageddon or another endgame of humanity transpired this wartime structure would likely survive. At some point it would be discovered and the eggheads of the day would begin to surmise its meaning and what it says about its creators. They would be forced to conclude that our race was obsessed with death and fermented beverages, that we were sacrilegious, contrarian, perverted, resentful of authority, immature, would-be soothsayers, false prophets, plagiarists, charlatans, hopeful yet pessimistic all at once, that we possessed a darkness of spirit that was given expression by our creative impulses. If those surveying this relic of 20th and 21st century Homo sapiens didn’t know any better, they would swear that we were somehow rooting against our own cause, that like a cardinal pecking itself in the passenger side mirror of a Subaru, some instinct of our race had collectively failed us.

As for my own instincts, it seems that at least one of them favors driving me into small, claustrophobic spaces that I share with the company of strangers. The first of June is nigh, and when I turn the page on the calendar I will also turn the page on the next stage of my life. As the vacationers arrive to enjoy the finest New England months the troglodyte slinks into the shadows, holes up in a Chinese ghetto to fester in the heat of summer. The instinct that tells me to do this is the same one that told me to leave Her behind and stare down the barrel of life alone. Only in time will I be able to judge whether this instinct has failed me.

***

It is a humid late-May evening and I am unable to sleep. Listening to the ocean hum and haw in the darkness I decide to head back to the bunker.

With my miner’s torch secured atop my head I proceed to Odiorne Point State Park. When I get to the bunker I find that the opening has been sealed, consigning the paint-splattered interior to memory and posterity. I sit down there in the darkness under the bunker’s arch with my flashlight and my flesh and my instincts and wonder why the hell I can’t sleep, and decide that it’s the same reason why the ocean can’t sleep.

On the way back home I stop at my usual midnight overlook and see a sliver of moonlight break dancing the heaving chest of the sea. When I turn around and head back towards room 3 at the Pebble Cove I don’t run this time.

Click to view a complete photo gallery of The Bunker

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.