The Brothers Karamazov
Kazmazarov, Karma-jackoff,–or, (carjacking. Catjerking) or, what the f**k– brother!
Speaking of magic (was I actually speaking of it, or did you just think I was?), the magician, Ricky Jay, (or Fast Eddy as he was known to some of us, the willing/unwilling captives of Eddy Street), was not just a magician but what one could call a ‘rock star magician’. This was a relatively newly coined vocation and meant essentially someone who sported long hair and would open the show for some of the better known local rock bands which Ricky did with his impressive card-throwing act, which was, I must say again at the risk of repeating myself (and though I have not seen it), by all accounts, quite impressive. It would eventually land him an appearance on the Carson Show which would in turn lead to an impressive showbiz career under the guiding and equally facile hand of the impresario David Mamet.
In any case, since I’ve already shot my metaphorical wad: At that time, in the early 1970s, Ricky would sometimes wander into the Gnomon Copy Shop on Eddy Street where I worked the night shift appearing mysteriously at the counter usually as I was just wrapping up at about 9 AM. He usually took the form of his alter ego, Fast Eddy of Eddy Street (not Fish’s Eddy), for this impromptu appearance in order to chat up my not-very-attractive female boss, Tina, who had bad teeth and black copy ink perennially smeared all over her pale freckled/pimpled face which in some way set off her black hair in the manner of a black terrier humping a tan Chihuahua and this seemed to contribute something undefined to her pimply allure, at least to some of the hipster elements who frequented the copy shop. Her main managerial duty seemed to be chain smoking Newports.
Ricky was somewhat short, also with greasy, long black hair and acne, resembling nothing so much as an albino mole that had been unceremoniously rousted from its burrow or a turtle that had been poked and withdrawn its head part way back into its not very colorful shell. He always carried a deck of playing cards with him and while I never had the pleasure of seeing him perform on stage, I do recall his constant, seemingly involuntary and somewhat obliquely threatening one-handed obsessive manipulation of the deck, even while he was engaged in a rather trivial conversation (usually with Tina) in his high-pitched, inoffensive bantering, slack-jawed tenor. His propensity to dress in all black contributed further to his mystique but also gave seemed to underline that he was in fact of no definable species (either metaphorical or literal),–(a veritable black box of self-defined Linnaean disarticulation).
Somehow you always felt like a ‘carnie’ mark in his presence and occasionally he would oblige your drooling naivete with a trick. Aside from his uncanny resemblance to the object of his affections here, Tina, I also had a sneaking suspicion that he had another identity entirely, his doppelganger as it were; an equally physically amorphous ovoid Russian avant-garde author who likewise would drop in the copy shop at odd hours who had written (so I learned) a short story about a man who fell in love with his own ass. I had never seen the two of them together and though this is admittedly somewhat slim evidence on which to base this assertion, both, at least from the unenviable vantage offered by my station at the heavy duty copy machine, peripherally, exuded this identical comforting/threatening,--ineluctably foreign yet somehow familiar suggestion of a mind furiously at work while furiously at play.
So that morning, as I sensed a familiar peripheral ovoid figure at the counter, I knew immediately it was one of these two (or some dyadic manifestation of one or the other of one of them) though, being exhausted from a long night of copying textbooks, I did not know or really care which. Somewhat embarrassed by my own state of ink-smeared ignomony (ignomoninny?) (a state I occupied then more frequently than I do now), I did not even glance up. Working the graveyard shift meant that I did not need to consort with any of the customers, ovoid or otherwise though there were some rare exceptions like Ricky and the Russian ass-portraitist that I found interesting and would favor with my sparkling conversation. But mostly I would spend the major portion of my long and tedious evenings there trying to figure out what exactly the word Gnomon in the copy shop’s name indicated,--whether it was derived from the Greek word ‘Gnosis’, which seemed to make some sense for a business dedicated to copying college term papers, or the ‘gnomes’ who inhabited its ink smeared bowels like parasites, feeding the insatiable maw of the industrial Xerox copier through the long upstate winter nights–like me. So there I was one evening, by myself as usual and something unusual happened. While humping away at the midnight oil (a good and reliable lubricant), copying insightful analyses of Gunther Schuller, Gore Vidal and Teddy Roosevelt (or Humper, Shoelaces and Thumper as I dubbed them, mostly to amuse myself) for the ‘phantom of the opera’ student body, I suddenly realized I held in my hand a shiny, blood-red-brown cardboard covered pamphlet additional scores of which stood stacked in a sloppy, gangrenous pile inside a box next to the copy machine. They looked disturbingly like the notebooks I had used in Hebrew School copy over and over the Jewish Kanji that was the heritage of those of my then unsuspect paternity. What they were were actually official CIA Vietnamese pacification manuals. As I recall, three of those four exact words appeared on the cover in black felt tip marker. This was 1969 and the war was in full fling so you can understand my wonderment as to how I came to be in possession of these.
Opening the one I grasped somewhat hesitantly in my trembling hand to peruse it, I saw the word ‘Secret’ stamped in menacing black letters right on the inside of the front cover which caution was reinforced by heavy black lines running throughout the text, like tire tracks of a manic NASCAR driver obscuring that which the censors deemed unfit for more diverse consumption. The print quality was horrible, they looked like hand-typed, self-published books to my naive eye (of which in my inglorious college career I had seen a few and since produced a few) rather than any kind of official government document. They were taped along the spine with what looked like electricians’ tape. They could have been run off in somebody’s basement on an ‘EZ Bake’ version of my copy machine. How and why they had found their way that evening to Gnomon Copy on Eddy Street was a mystery that supplanted the Gnome/Gnosis mental pacifier conundrum on which I had been sucking. I could only conjecture they were for the use of one or more of the Cornell sociology professors who were then actively consulting with the CIA (just as some of the campus radicals had been alleging all along–) although I tried to keep an open mind. as I read on, about whether in fact this was the case. Without the benefit of my usual mental fodder now I was put into, as they say in Indiana, ‘something of a tin lizzy’, there under the fluorescent lights of ‘our lady of the perpetual Xerox’, wiping the back of my toner-stained hands across my face as I had seen Tina do, this time in itchy genuflection of the Department of Defense. Seeing myself reflected in the large mirror on the far wall, I felt somehow militarized and dashing. I suddenly fashioned myself a soldier of fortune of the copy machine militia, all decked out in ink-smeared jungle fatigue camouflage,--but in what army really I wondered.
Not to trivialize matters, this was of course to anyone even remotely connected with the anti-war movement as I was, a find of potentially tremendous ramifications, directly implicating the University in the unpopular war effort. Just as I had with the unexpected hypnosis session, and Hugh’s unsolicited confidences, I felt vaguely guilty and burdened at having become the unwilling repository of an unasked for knowledge,-- yet in this case also strangely excited. I stopped copying and spent a large part of the rest of my shift reading through the pile of notebooks. They contained. what I saw in my sleep-deprived state as, some fairly specific and useful information, (useful if you were in Vietnam,–or really any hostile environment),-- how to trade candy bars for enemy force locations, novel interrogation techniques involving spandex and Gatorade, how to arrange and pay for Water Buffalo transportation and also summary outcomes of certain previous covert operations in Quang Tri and Dong Ha Provinces, and incidentally, in a very well-written informative and fascinating appendix on how to check for razor blades secreted in a Vietnamese hookers’ vagina. Reading this was as close as I ever personally gotten to either real magic or to Vietnam (or more recently to vaginas for that matter).
The following morning, as I watched as Ricky Jay sidle up to the counter with the obligatory comforting/threatening deck of cards in one hand, tired now from my long night of copying conflicting impulses and still not knowing what to do with the surfeit of guilty knowledge I possessed, I felt a burning need (it was not the ink this time) to discuss with someone, anyone and Ricky just happened to be there. I approached the red Formica counter. The manuals sat silently and deceptively innocuously back in their cardboard boxes near the rear doors of the copy shop, along with all the copies I had made, ready to be picked up.
“Hey” I said guiltily. He did not make eye contact but I knew a mental link had been established. The knowledge of those manuals was weighing on me like the doughy dregs of the previous night’s pizza. Perhaps I harbored some dim hope that the famous Ricky Jay, like some human antacid, might be able to quell my simmering discomfort, to just to make them disappear altogether and thereby alleviate me of the burden of making any decision about what to with them. Just as I was about to broach the subject, I realized that he, through his hyperkinetic magician senses, had already anticipated and assessed the entire situation and dealt the problem in the manner magicians often do and with some surreptitious own self-ass-loving prescience and had simply made them disappear. ‘Gone’ (as the Buddhists say,–gone beyond, Parasamgate). Copies and originals all had disappeared without a trace.
It was later that same year I found out Ricky had gotten on Johnny Carson throwing his playing cards (perhaps using a deck fashioned from the stiff brown cardboard covers of VietMinh CIA pacification manuals,--who knows). So my somewhat abortive acquaintance with Ricky Jay was also my first brush with the wider world of fame, (aside from Markie Bell who later became the drummer for the Ramones), much later and earlier,–(and of course there was Hugh but he would take the long road to fame via the Ken Kesey on-thebus-off-the-bus yogurt truck).
As you may have guessed, aside from these randm encounters at the copy shop, I didn’t really know Ricky Jay very well personally (different ovoidian circles). Yet, after the Carson appearance I never got over this vaguely surreal thrill of impersonally-personally knowing him, ‘the real’ Ricky Jay, the man behind the mask, the magician who was now famous for some patently ridiculous talent, in his case throwing cards, (I was still a paramountly hip author who never wrote anything down but just copied what everyone else had.) It was like I was still sitting on the folding chairs in the offstage area at Ben Light Gym, listening to Huey perform. A few years later I learned he had authored his own paramountly 'hip' book entitled ‘Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women’ (I never learned into which category Tina fit) and has since appeared in several movies and TV shoes including HBO’s Deadwood,–usually as a disturbingly ovoid villain who gets shot at some point in some indefinable portion of his anatomy. In spite of my own aversion to his aggressively ageometric anatomy, pockmarked complexion stringy black hair and preference for Newport chain-smoking copystore managers, following the disappearance of the pacification manuals, I became what can only be described as, ‘a fan’. He and I were both keepers of this same delicious secret,--his far more important but lesser known talent for making CIA pacification manuals disappear into thin air.
So it is now some thirty years later and Hugh calls me up. I still have achieved nothing of any note. We chat amiably. A few days previous I had stopped by the theater where he was doing a star turn as the crooked lawyer, Billy Flynn. in ‘Chicago’. Finding him not there I left my business card with the taciturn, heavyset black stagehand and went on my way. So it was a total surprise when that same evening I get a call. ‘He says its Hugh’ my daughter says, handing me the phone. Hearing him instantly brought to mind something that was related to those two strange buildings and us, their temporary inhabitants.
‘Your voice sounds a little different.’ I say.
‘Your voice sounds exactly the same.’ He says.
I do not know and have not been able to find out what happened to Lionel Quebecsteen/Stein, my college roommate, (I think he is a hedgefund manager, or if he ever got over his depression over his ex-girlfriend Mary back in Wisconsin. He is probably lounging around somewhere, gangly legs folded under the bed (at least I hope so). Nor do I know where Paul Belden, the mountain-man Ag Student is or if he achieved any fame in the competitive arena of nose picking, or whether Baker’s black hipsters, Larry and Joe, ever escaped from their momma’s boy brand of swaggering black militarism to become true bad-asssmuthafuckers. Anyway, I am sure quite they are all doing quite well, far better than me certainly, (at least one would hope),–and here I am failing at yet another passionate avocation,--grape growing and in my military alter ego, the pacification of the native population of Chester, New York.
Friday, July 18, 2014
I didn't meet Tommy Ramone until a wine tasting/music lecture/book promotion event held at the Art Gallery in Woodstock sometime in the summer of 2009. It had been organized by Tony Fletcher (author of 'Boy About Town' and 'The Smiths). Fred Smith, bassist from the New York Dolls was there along with a few other notable musicians on the panel. I was there as one of two wineries (the other being Fred Smith's, Cerighino-Smith Winery) supplying the wine for the after party. At the time I had been most excited to see Eric Weisberg who was an old time 12 string guitarist and was supposed to be on the panel. I remembered him from the sixties Village scene but to my disappointment Eric was a no-show at the lecture.
After the lecture and party I went out on the street and was introduced to Tommy Ramone. Tommy was one the original founders of the punk rock group the Ramones and he had been replaced by Marky Ramone as the band's drummer by 1978 following extended 'creative differences' (I believe he stayed on as manager of the band). Marky Ramone (Mark Bell) was my best friend, Marc Sperber's, neighbor at 640 Ditmas Avenue in Brooklyn back in the sixties and we used to sometimes hang out at the Bells apartment when not playing punch ball in the courtyard next to the building. Mark, Fred Bell (Fred) and Marc lived on the first floor of 640 Ditmas while I lived two blocks away (one long one short) on Ocean Parkway. This being the early to mid-sixties,-- pre-punk, you should know, so it was hard to understand what the Bell brothers were trying to do musically because there was as yet no corresponding musical scene.-- The context for it simply had not been invented yet.
Usually they would practice separately in their respective bedrooms but sometimes Freddy and Marky would play together in Freddy's room which was even less conducive to harmony with the upstairs neighbors, I am sure. To me, a kid who was into Mississippi John Hurt, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Dylan and Phil Ochs, they seemed crazed,-- like men possessed. It was loud. Really loud. We could sometimes hear it from up the street on Ditmas Avenue or even as far as around the corner on East 7th and if we ventured into Mark and Freddy's apartment, we would inevitably find their mother Audrey sitting in the kitchen smoking Pall Malls draped in her pastel print housecoat, face expressionless, as if she were suffering a stroke and a high-powered-testosterone-inflamed-auditory-carpet bombing issuing from somewhere nearby (there father seemed perenially absent,--possibly by design). If I was bold enough to stick my head inside the door to say 'hello' they presented a rather strange tableau, with their stringy long black hair and longer faces, and not only because they were identical twins(one of two sets in the neighborhood) but because the music seemed to have transformed them from awkward teenagers into crazed zombies from some futuristic Daliesque dystopia. There were the two skinny Bell brothers, fellow musicians, buck- toothed twins, Freddie sitting on the bed, one leg draped to the floor, eyes closed, seemingly gang raping his electric guitar while Mark hunched over epileptically assaulting the blue sparkly drumset as if trying to launch it into space.
The only way we could tell them apart was when they were playing music. Possibly the same was true for their mother, which is possibly why she had bought them different instruments, which stratagem she possibly by then regretted. This turned out to be more about Tommy's replacement in the Ramones, Mark Bell. rather than Tommy Erdelyi himself but it has the advantage of being a first-hand account, so it is my hope the reader will overlook this.