Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Taming of The Mami Shrew



My first few weeks working as an outcall escort in New York, I had to share a car with a weaved up, wigged out Brooklyn Mamacita named Lisette. Lisette had a penchant for wearing tight, shiny, metallic colored dresses from Rainbow and not matching her lipstick to her lipliner. With her slinky clothes, big, fake hair and Latin- affected style of speech, Lisette sounded like and resembled a younger Chola version of 1970’s talk show favorite Charo, though given the choice of a signature phrase, Lisette would have opted for one jarringly spat cunt over the original’s two happy cutchi’s.

Whenever Lisette’s mouth moved, her hips, like Fairy Tale Mary’s co-dependent little lamb, followed close behind. Since her mouth was always moving, it was as like she was doing a constant, bitchy striptease.

The agency’s driver would pick me up first, and then we would drive to Lisette’s apartment building in Bed-Stuy. Without fail, she would leave us waiting outside her apartment building for at least an hour. The driver and I would idle in his Lincoln town car, with its illegally tinted windows, doubled parked and looking very much like we were up to no good.

“Can't we just leave her?” I’d ask at the thirty minute mark.

“No,” the heavily accented driver would intone, barely looking over his shoulder to where I sat in the back seat. “She’s one of the agency's best girls.”

Once she finally got in the car, it was on to phase two of an evening with Lisette. Phase two involved tending to her various needs and nightly whims between calls. The usual list consisted of:

1. Buying and smoking weed
2. Buying and applying make- up
3. Buying and eating chicken.

Lisette loved to blaze the lung Colombian and masticate fowl. She had a keen talent for doing all of these things while screaming at various off- the clock paramours with names like Scribble or A-Dawg over her pink bejeweled cell phone.

After doing a few calls with her, I formulated a speculative theory about what it was about her obnoxiousness that the agency's clients found so appealing.

We were a mid level escort service, which was well- reflected in both the stretch of our client’s wallets and the physical charms of the women available to them. Calls started at $250 an hour. In the hierarchy of outcall escort services, this price implied that the women available for services probably wouldn’t have breast implants, but they probably wouldn’t be missing any teeth, either. The majority of the agency’s clients lived in the suburbs of Long Island or in outer- city New Jersey. They were largely older, white men. I imagined that the only places these men ever really got to see women like Lisette was on paternity test talk shows, finger- pointing and talking to the hand, so angry at their suspected baby-daddy’s they could hardly sit still in their stage seats. I envisioned these prospective clients sitting on their comfortable living room couches safely absconded in their suburban homes both repulsed and turned on by the loud, rough mouths on these TV caricatures and the harbingers to violence in their gesticulations. They wanted to both wash their mouths out with soap and stick their dicks inside. In their naiveté, they assumed that anything over $50 an hour for paid sex implied that the working girl herself would be far enough removed from desperation that they wouldn't be beaten or robbed, and they liked the idea that the driver was there to take her away, after they got their dicks wet and gave her a lecture on better living.

In by-the-hour allotments, these johns- to- be were hoping to live their own porn fantasies of The Taming of the Mami Shrew.

At least this was my theory.

****

Lisette was one of those flaky pot smokers who constantly lost their things. Misplacing her makeup bag meant not only losing her mismatched lipliner and lipstick, but her evening's supply of bronchial buddha, because that was where she kept it hidden.

Her fingers glutinous with chicken grease, she’d tear up the car seats and surrounding area searching for it. She’d demand the agency call her last client to see if it was there, all the while glaring at me and the driver accusingly. Finally, giving in to the fact that her makeup and groove grass had voyaged forever to the no-fault of-her-own land of the lost, she’d put in a syrupy- sweet reconciliation call to A-Dawg for more dope. Then we’d drive over Rite-Aid for a new lipstick and lipliner.

A few nights into our pairing, I met Lisette’s driver of choice, a young Jewish guy from Brooklyn named Al. Most agency drivers were aging Romanian nationals, with bad attitudes and disdain for the girls in their cars. They made it obvious they looked down on us, even though they made their livings off our calls. A simple, basic human rights request to use the bathroom might be met with a steely eyed gaze that dared you to ask again. Al was an anomaly for an agency driver- he was in his mid thirties and handsome, with dark Polish features. An evening with Al at the wheel was actually close to bordering on fun. But Al also suffered from a set of neurotic hang ups right out of a Lenny Bruce monologue. He was obsessed with his mother and the regularity of his bowel movements.

Whenever Al had to deuce, we'd pull over to a diner and he'd spend as much time inside the bathroom as Lisette would spend not coming outside at the beginning of the night. He used baby wipes and carried a cup in his glove compartment to get the wipes even more yielding. He’d put the baby wipes into this designated cup and let them soak as he shat. Letting those wipes saturate is what accounted for so much of his time in the bathroom. He would settle for no absorption level less.

Even Al, with all his basket case charm, was not immune to Lisette’s bewitching puta. They had been fucking, but their casual relationship had come to an impasse where nightly it was a battle to determine whose aberrant needs took precedence. Lisette had no patience for Al’s dump runs when she was hungry for farm foul and Al didn't want her smoking doobage in his Cadillac when he had his mom on the phone. Al attributed almost psychic- like abilities to his mom and was desperate she not find out that he was driving her car for an escort agency. He was convinced that if his mother heard Lisette’s unique yammer of Spanish and English in the background, she would figure it out.

One night, after a particularly nasty fight over where exactly Lisette had left her makeup bag, Al exploded in an uncharacteristic fit of rage and threw the rest of her belongings out the car window. When she hopped out of the car to retrieve them, he took off, leaving her on a Brooklyn side street. She wasn’t far from home, but this event left Lisette in a fury and out for retribution. Because I was in the car when Al took off, I was deemed complicit in her degradation. Word spread throughout the agency that Lisette’s anger with me would only be abated by kicking my ass.

“We’re going to White Castle to meet some other drivers,” mine for the night announced as I sat in the backseat dozing off, a few weeks after the Lisette- stuff tossing. My driver was an older, gruff Romanian, the type Al’s savory good looks and (normally) easy going nature made him stand so far apart from. On slows nights it was normal to meet up with other agency girls and drivers to kill time between calls. Not feeling immensely social, as soon as we got to White Castle I decided to go inside and get something to drink. I was standing in line, browsing the menu when I caught a sudden whiff of chicken followed by a chaser scent of pot.

The Beastie Boy’s never sang anything about chicken at White Castle, I thought to myself. Then a hand grabbed my shoulder.

“I been waitin' for disssss, you natee bitch. Yo asssss is mine!”

Lisette treated language very much like she did her clothing choices. Necessary, but abbreviated. She dropped complete word endings and had absolutely no patience for verb tense. But she was fond of S’s and liked to draw them out. Her intent announced in the form of butchered bullet points, she turned on her glassine heels and went back outside to the parking lot.

When I was first enlightened by my co-workers as to Lisette’s plans for vengeance against my derriere, I didn’t delude myself: She could totally kick it. If ever there had been an outfit hiring ass- kickers and she and I were competing for the same job, her application would have sent mine to the shredder. My experience in the ass kicking department involved sibling squabbles, while hers involved full out brawls with residents of the housing project she had called home. My altercations had only occurred when I wanted my stuffed animals back.

Maybe she'll get a call and be gone by the time I get outside, I stargazed. I'll get my soda and then I'll spend a long time in the bathroom. It seemed almost redundant to go through the formalities. Couldn’t we just agree to agree that she could kick my ass without having to go through with the motions?

I knew Lisette was running her mouth in the parking lot. My co-workers already thought me to be a wimpy white girl for reading books in the backseat of the car between calls with a portable night light. I knew my actions now would either confirm or refute these assumptions in the pinned, glazed eyes of my co-workers. I got my soda and went outside, deciding to just serve Lisette my ass on a platter. If it didn’t happen now, it was going to happen sometime in the near future.

In the parking lot, to my surprise, I didn't see her anywhere. Assuming she had gotten a call, I opened the door to the car and sat down, quietly relieved. I tipped my soda straw to my good fortune and imbibed. At that same moment, an arm ending in a hand with five perfectly manicured purple fingernails with little painted dice on the tips ripped the car door back open.

"Step up now, you natee bitch! Yo asssss is mine!"

A small audience of drivers and escorts instantly formed around the car to watch. I was able to quickly close the door but Lisette reached her hands through the open window, and grabbed a large hunk of my hair. It seemed most advantageous to hold onto her arm, hoping it would help to keep my hair connected to my head. My other arm scrambled to reopen the door in an attempt to whack her with it.

"LISETTE! YOU REALLY FUCKING DID IT THIS TIME!”

It was hard to move my head with Lisette’s arm attached, but I recognized this disembodied voice as belonging to Al. He continued, his loud, raging articulation becoming the soundtrack to my hair loss.

“I HONESTLY DIDN'T THINK YOU HAD IT IN YOU!”

Still busy with the pursuit of detaching my hair from my head, Lisette did not budge. Whatever Al was going on about, she deemed my destruction more pressing.

His voice got louder.

“YOU DIRTY BITCH!”

I heard a rash of movement outside the car. Suddenly my head was free from Lisette’s grip and I saw her struggling with Al over her bag. Al wrestled it free and ran towards the boulevard in front of the White Castle.

“DON’T YOU EVER…EVER… CALL MY FUCKING MOM EVER AGAIN!”

He was rummaging threw her bag looking for something.

"You're fucking dead papi! A-Dawg and Scribble are gonna carve yo assss the fuck up papi!"

Lisette ran after Al and they struggled some more. Finally, emancipating the bag from her grip, Al sent it sailing through the air, its contents scattering all over the lanes of traffic. I recognized the shattered pieces of a writable CD and wondered if perhaps Lisette had finally made it to the recording stage of the R&B CD she'd claimed to have been working on with A-Dawg.

I watched her attempt to gather some make-up at a semi-safe traffic moment. A cab whizzed past her, its motion creating a breeze that lifted the ends of her weave from her shoulders. She was running for her phone, which surprisingly appeared unscathed. Its jewels had acted as a cushion. Al beat her to it. He lifted his knee and with one powerful stomp, smashed it like le cucaracha. Al walked back to his car like an action hero after a huge explosion by which the day had been saved.

“That girl is insane!” I said to my driver, massaging my tender scalp. “Can I get her fired for attacking me?”

“I can’t believe she called his mom!” he responded, reminding me for a second of Balki Bartokomous from the sitcom Perfect Strangers. He was fearful of the cops and in a hurry to leave. I occurred to me that this was the first time he'd ever shared any sort of candid thought with me. Then, like he too had noticed this unclean break from form, he pulled back, shook off the mistake and responded to my original query.

“No. Never. She’s one of the agency’s best girls.”

****

I later found out from Al that thanks to Lisette’s marble- mouthed mastery of the English language, he had been able to convince his mother that “working for an escort service” actually translated to “working Ford Escort” and that Lisette had been calling his house to inquire about buying a friend’s car.


© Fiona Helmsley 2008

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

After-Thought Roses







Your son, a young man now, then, a child wise beyond his years.

Once, I brought milk to your house, opened the carton to make Spanish coffee, and it slipped from my hands, a white puddle of slop on the floor.

I looked around for something absorbent, no paper towels, nothing of the sort, and you refused to part with any facsimile materials.

"Leave it," you said. "Aaron will be here later in the week, he'll know what to do..."

As if it took a magical, 7- year- old shaman to clean up a spill.

I wasn’t having it, but you were adamant; the spill was only to be touched by the skilled, craftsman hands of your second grader.

Your apartment was a maelstrom of slop, psychological filth, a storage space for your own mental disarray. Your son was beautiful, dark Spanish features, his eyelashes thick as guitar strings. At first, he stayed with his father only on the weekends, then it was more, then the reverse. He knew you were disintegrating, riding his bike in circles in the courtyard of your Bronx apartment building. Anything he left at your apartment when he went to his dad’s was lost; there was no safekeeping, just as there was no housekeeping.

One day, I took him to the bodega down the block to get ice cream.

He went to the cooler, chose a dollar Strawberry Shortcake, and laid it down on the counter.

To his right, on the countertop, next to the cash register, was a sales display of small artificial roses inside glass tubes.

"Do you smoke roses like my mom?" he asked.

"No, honey," I answered. I had my own problems, but none that involved these after-thought roses. The rose is an after-thought because what's for sale is the glass tube. It's a crackpipe.

"I can always tell when my mom’s been smoking roses," he said. "I open the windows to let the smoke out, but she makes me close them. She thinks someone’s going to come inside and get us. She makes me lock all the windows, and the door."

What is like to be seven years old and to see your mother in such a paranoid, irrational state?

"I'm not around here that much anymore," he said, taking a bite of ice cream, a crumb of Strawberry Shortcake sticking to his lip. "Do you think it makes my mom sad?"

"I think it makes your mom very sad, but I think it's good that you stay with your dad right now. You can always come and visit her whenever you like."

Years later, while working at a women's halfway house with mothers who had lost their children due to drug addiction issues, I would come to this conclusion: if the loss of a child didn't get a person clean, it would become their reason for staying high.

***

I had a boyfriend who used to say that I was vomited out of New York, but it was really more of retch. You and I had fallen out of touch before that. You started running more with a crowd that could help to supply you with what you liked; I started running more with a crowd that could help to supply me with what I liked. At first united by our love of illicit substances, we were later divided by our own individual preferences.

Retched out of New York, I landed, a bilious pile of a person, on my family's doorstep. Away from the Bronx, away from Brooklyn, I eventually rebuilt my life free of chemical crutches. I had to hide in order to do this;  I'm still hiding now. I know I can never live in New York City if I want to stay away from drugs.

Then came the advent of the social network. I would search your name, first on Friendster, then on MySpace, Facebook. Nothing. I couldn't really see you as much of a computer person anyway. But I was thinking about you. I dedicated stories I wrote to you, because I assumed you were probably dead. So waifish and small, you couldn't have lasted very long.

Then, one day, I searched again, and you appeared.

In Guyana.

That's where your family was from. It appears that sometime over the many years since we were last in contact, you went home to them. In your profile picture, you look to be in some kind of ceremonial garb. I haven't sent you a friend request, and don't know if I ever will. But because I have a child now, I found myself thinking about yours. One of the small things your profile settings allows me to see is your friends, so I searched your son's very common Spanish last name, and I found him, just as gorgeous as I'd remembered, in a white baseball cap and polyester sports shirt, looking as urban/metropolitan as his location: Bronx, NY. What does it mean, him, in New York City, you in Guyana? At his age, close to 25 years old now, he wouldn't need you like he did then, but did he ever get you back?

When I was a child, I used to break my mom's cigarettes. Sneak into the living room as she watched television, in and out, in and out, snapping her Virginia Slims in half, burying them in the yard, or deep in the garbage, flushing them down the toilet when she wasn't looking.

You never talked to me about what was happening with Aaron. I knew, could tell, that you were deeply ashamed, smoking crack and having a child. I didn't have children, and was younger than you, so maybe you thought this made me less inclined in to judge. You were right. I thought Aaron was so smart, so mature, something had been done right in raising him, though of course, those qualities could have developed in him as a child expected to parent a parent.

But there was one story that you told me, and it resonated with me because it reminded me of me and my mom's cigarettes. You and your boyfriend, a drug dealer named Juan, were smoking crack in your bedroom. It was the end of the weekend, and Aaron had just left to go back to his dad's. Juan put down the pipe to go to the bathroom.

"Oh my god baby, you gotta see this!" he cried out from the other room.

Not the kind of words one wants to hear with their brain on fire.

You walked into the bathroom and your eyes were drawn to the toilet, the water level raised to the top of the bowl, and about to spill over.

There, floating in the water, flower- shaped barrels about to go over Niagara Falls, half a dozen or so after-thought roses.

Somewhere in time, there is a little boy about to go to his dad's for the week, furtively running around his mother's apartment looking for them, adding the ones he's found to the ones he's already secretly collected, gathering them up, he drops them into the toilet, flush and run, backpack over his shoulder, all his prized possessions inside so he won’t lose them-- but she, she has to stay. He thinks by doing this he's helping to keep her safe, but he's so young, so naïve and so sadly off-track.

I hope that sometime, over the many years since you and I last spoke, he got you back.

©Fiona Helmsley


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Living Through This: Twenty Years in Love with Courtney Love


 I can’t say this about many things in this world, but I can say with a degree of certainty that I remember the exact moment when I became aware of Courtney Love’s existence: I was at my friend Chelsea’s house.


Chelsea was a year younger than me, and her parents had allowed her to drop out of high school to take correspondence classes. My friends and I would skip class to go hang out at her family's cavernous house, where her parents were never home, and the refrigerator was always stocked with expensive organic foods. Chelsea would spend the school day there, all alone, dying her hair with different colors of Manic Panic, and sometimes doing her schoolwork, always with the TV set to MTV in the background. My friends and I had a snobbish air about the music we listened to. We subscribed to the adolescent idea of "the sell-out," a concept often espoused by those who don't know much about the real struggles of the world. We thought of ourselves as 16 and 17 year old punk rock purists, who listened to only the real deal, punk bands from Washington, D.C, or the Bay Area of California, bands that we told ourselves would never affiliate with major labels or “go mainstream” in order to promote their music. Chelsea was the only one in our group of friends who had no time for such posturing. She liked what she liked when she liked it, and this included bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana--all getting heavy rotation on MTV at the time. One day, my boyfriend Thomas and I left school early to hang out with Chelsea at her house. Her dog started to bark as we came through the door.

    “Shut up!” Chelsea yelled in our direction. Her eyes were glued to the TV screen.

   “Today, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain married Hole singer Courtney Love in Hawaii,” announced MTV VJ Kurt Loder on the screen, followed by a montage of Kurt and Courtney, and then snippets of Courtney playing with her band Hole.


 With her ripped dress, bleached blonde hair, and candy-apple red lipstick, Courtney looked like a 1920’s movie star who’d gotten dressed for a fancy event, then neglected to change her clothes or wash off her make-up for the rest of the week. Her look said something about beauty in ruin, but with a little girl innocence, conveyed by the Mary Jane’s on her feet and the pink plastic barrettes in her hair. A journalist would later refer to Courtney and Babes in Toyland singer Kat Bjelland’s war of accreditation for this look as "The War of the Schmatta," schmatta being the Yiddish word for rags. Just the quick visual of Courtney relayed so much; playing with tropes of sexuality and innocence, she looked like the Little Match Girl with a guitar. I thought she was one of the most glamorous looking women I’d ever seen. For all my screams of "sell-out" along with my friends, I’d always loved Hollywood, especially old Hollywood, and treasured the battered copy of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon that I'd stolen from a used bookstore. Visually, Courtney was the physical hybrid of two worlds I worshiped at; one of them secretly, the other much more openly.



 “Fucking bitch!” Chelsea said, throwing the TV remote at the screen. Though Chris Cornell from Soundgarden was Chelsea’s primary Northwest corridor crush, she still had a soft spot for Kurt.

“Who fucking cares,” my boyfriend Thomas said. Thomas' parents had recently moved to New York, but his father had done well enough in his job at a large corporation to afford to keep a house in the area so Thomas would be able to finish out high school with his friends. “They’re fucking sell-outs."

   He took the remote from where it had fallen on the floor, and attempted to turn the TV off, but Chelsea yanked it back from his hands.

   "Don't you ever try to turn off the TV in my house," Chelsea said, holding the remote close to Thomas' head in a menacing pose. "Asshole."

   Thomas may have been my first real boyfriend, but Chelsea was my first real love.

***


   Because of our instant prejudice towards Kurt and Courtney, it would be a little while before I would hear the music of Hole. Nirvana was much more accessible. They seemed to be everywhere, but I purposely didn't pay much attention. Learning that Kurt and Courtney were fans of one of my favorite writers, William S. Burroughs, and that Kurt had even gone to Kansas to hang out with him, did nothing to change my opinion. So what if both Kurt and Courtney were making music with Pat Smear of the Germs, one of our favorite bands? We had started doing heroin, and it was pretty obvious that Kurt and Courtney also did heroin, but still we told ourselves we could not relate. Was it just the times? Coincidence? Were we influenced by what was going on in Seattle, or was the scene playing out there just a microcosm of what it meant to be a young person at the time?

   My mother forced me into rehab for the first time during my senior of high school. While I was there, Kurt left the rehab center he'd been forced into in California, went to the beautiful home he and Courtney had bought in Lake Washington, closed himself up in the greenhouse above the garage, and killed himself. I can remember Chelsea, in tears, telling me this over the rehab payphone, and being shocked for a moment, then circling back to the familiar attitude I espoused in all things Nirvana-related: cold, calculated dismissal. All the empathy I'd feel for Kurt in life, and in death, would come later. My lack of empathy and my cold response to the news of his death would come to rate high on my list of regrets related to the precocious cynicism I felt when I was young. It seems like it should be an oxymoron: how can someone be so young, yet already so world-weary? In 1998, Courtney wrote a song called Awful for the Hole album Celebrity Skin containing a lyric that, when I think back to this time in my life, I want to scream at myself:

Oh just shut up you're only sixteen.

   In the same payphone conversation with Chelsea, I remember changing the subject of Kurt's death to complain about the rehab staff taking away my Re/Search William S. Burroughs t-shirt.

 "Fucking assholes!" I said. "They're trying to rob me of my identity! They're trying to turn me into a clone!"

   I want to smack myself.

***

    A few days later, I was kicked out of rehab for refusing to leave my room. Subscribing to the same tough love philosophy that Courtney would later say she regretted using on Kurt during the final month of his life, my mother refused to let me come home, and I became homeless.

   My friend Jeff worked at Record Town, and was a prisoner behind the counter as my friends and I came into the store and pillaged it of everything that even vaguely held our auditory interests. We were greedy and non-discriminating. I had Ozzy Osbourne box sets, Woodstock anniversary commemorative CDs, piles and piles of tapes and CDs that I never opened, and never planned on opening. They would come in handy later, when I started selling my possessions for money for heroin. Homeless, I tried to spend as much time as possible with my friends, but there were many hours I had no choice but to spend alone. One day I went to Record Town by myself, spent a few cursory minutes talking with Jeff, and then went over to the new music display to see what I could take. Immediately I spotted Hole's new album, Live Through This. The album seemed cursed, released only a week after Kurt's death, and with that eerily prescient title. It was for there for the taking. With none of my friends there to judge me, I slipped it into my bag.



   Later that night, I went to a show in a far-off corner of Connecticut. The band was rather infamous in the area, and it was my first time seeing them play. I took an interest in their singer, Clem, a skinny, pale boy with a twitchy right eye. I thought his resemblance to Sid Vicious was uncanny. I approached him, and over the course of an awkward conversation, I mentioned to him that I was homeless.

    "Where do you sleep?" Clem asked, sounding intrigued.

    "I don't know," I answered. "Wherever."

   "Where are you sleeping tonight?"

   I told him that my friend and I had driven some distance for the show, and that after we returned, I'd probably sleep near her house on the beach.

   "I'll come with you," he offered.

   In my friend's truck, Clem was being flirtatious, and starting rummaging through my bag, exposing the Hole tape. I immediately became defensive, expecting the same dismissive attitude towards the band that I was so used to. "I don't know why I took it," I began, "I don’t even like them. I’ve never even heard them.” "You've never heard Hole?" Clem asked, either not noticing, or choosing not to call me out on the skewed logic of not liking a band that you’ve never heard. He handed the tape to my friend, who had a stereo in her truck. We listened to the tape on the drive back to town, where she dropped us off by the beach. I had heroin, and it turned out Clem was not at all comfortable with this. I'd completely misjudged him based on his appearance. Later that night, while I was nodding off, Clem attempted to run to the water and throw my bags of heroin in, but I came to and tackled him to the ground before he could. Clearly, Clem and I were not going to work out. But on the car ride, he'd introduced me to a Hole song that I couldn't get out of my head. It was called Rock Star. Courtney had put it on Live Through This as an afterthought. Rock Star wasn't even the real name of the song, but the track listing for the album had already been printed that way; it was what the song would become known as:

   "When I went to school, in Olympia, and everyone's the same. We look the same, we talk the same, we even fuck the same."

   Before Clem would go his way, and me mine, he would tell me about going to see Nirvana play in 1991, at a club in New Haven called The Moon. "It was one of the best shows I've ever been to," he said. "It made me want to start a band."

***

   Once Clem had opened my copy of Live Through This, I was exposed to the liner notes and the pictures inside.

   Courtney in a tiara, short white dress, little girl tights and a fuzzy coat, smoking a cigarette.



   When I'd left the rehab center after getting kicked out, I'd looked very much like this, minus the tiara. After seeing Courtney on television at Chelsea's house, I'd subtly adopted her look, though I would have denied that she was the inspiration for it at the time. When I left Conifer Park Rehabilitation Center, marketed as “a facility for the treatment of alcohol and drug dependency, located in the pines of Schenectady, New York," I was wearing a 60's style shift dress, fishnet stockings, and my own fuzzy winter coat. I was almost three hours away from home. My mother had purposely sent me somewhere far away, thinking my friends would not travel the distance to pick me up should I try to leave. The rehab staff forced me to vacate the premises immediately. All I had with me was the clothing on my back, and a small bag that functioned as my purse. I later learned that the staff had called my mother. Assuming that I would not be able to make it very far, they thought I would be forced to humble myself, and come back.

   As I walked in the direction of what I hoped was downtown Schenectady, it began to snow. It was April, but it felt like mid February, and I only had about two dollar's worth of change in my purse. I had no idea what I was going do. I thought my friend Renee would probably come and get me, but I had no way to communicate with her. Even if I could get to a payphone, I would have to call her collect, and she was at school. For now, all I could do was walk. Eventually I came to a small supermarket. There was a bench outside, and I sat down. Cold, hungry, and feeling completely hopeless, I began to cry. People came in and out of the store, eyeing me suspiciously. Back home, I'd gotten used to being called a "freak" because of my appearance; I'd even fed off of it a little bit, me and what I told myself was my preternatural uniqueness. But on a cold bench, in a strange town, under falling snow, my uniqueness didn't carry any currency at all. It was only detriment. A little old man with a cane approached the store with a woman. Instead of going inside, he whispered to her, then sat down on the bench next to me. The woman hadn't tried to dissuade him, despite the cold, the snow, or me on the other end of the bench.

   "What's the matter, young lady?" the man asked.

   I had never felt more utterly alone. I had come to the point of crying where my whole body was shaking with every breath. What could I possibly say to this little old man that wouldn't make him grab his cane and hobble away from me?

   "I'm far from home, and I can't get in touch with my friends," I stammered.

   He seemed to think about this.

   Feeling like I had nothing to lose, I took a chance, and told the man an amended version of the truth. I told him that I had left rehab, but changed the drug that had put me there from heroin to pot, thinking it would sound less severe. I made my mother out to be the villain of the story, portraying her as strict, unreasonable, and out of touch.

   "Well," the old man said. "It's too cold for you to stay out here in what you have on. Let's go talk to my wife. I think she'll agree, we should take you back to our house until we can figure things out for you."

   For all the things I didn't understand about the world, for all the things I dismissed, or viewed with a precocious sense of cynicism, I could see- even then-- the gesture of this little old man as a profound act of kindness; of caring. This little old man, who walked with a cane, so fragile and vulnerable, offering his home to this weird looking girl in overdone make- up and provocative clothing-- this girl who had just told him that she’d left rehab.

   As we walked the aisles of the supermarket looking for his wife, the man turned to me.

   "You like loud music, don't you?" he said. "I bet you were a fan of that young man who just died in Seattle. It's so sad, you kids today. Killing yourselves as a form of expression."

   I have to stop.

If I was an actor, and had to cry for a scene, all I would have to do is think of that little old man. It kills me every time.

***

   In a 1995 Spin magazine interview, Courtney Love said, "I may lie a lot, but never in my lyrics."


 It was the visual of Courtney Love that attracted me to her at first, then it was the sound of her band, Hole, (a sound that Billy Corgan once described as "someone screaming their head off, but in a very intelligent way") but what has kept me a fan of hers for the last twenty years is her lyrics. Her poetry. Some of the more famous lyrics from Live Through This have become so familiar, have been so oft- repeated, that to list them here almost feels redundant:

   I don't really miss God, but I sure miss Santa Claus

   I don’t do the dishes. I throw them in the crib

   I'm Miss World, somebody kill me

   I want to be the girl with the most cake

  Was she asking for it? Was she asking nice? If she was asking for it, did she ask you twice?

   ...but that's the fate of great poetry. Everybody owns it. It gets repeated ad infinitum, scrawled on backpacks, scribbled on the sides of buildings, recycled in ad campaigns, tattooed on body parts--why? Because it resonates. The lexicon of Courtney’s poetry is made up of girls (pee girl, retard girl, gutter girl, girl with the most cake), drugs, death, rebirth, boys, feminism, prostitution, California, dresses, (both ripped, and on fire) Anne Boleyn, Hester Prynne, Yoko Ono, the internet, self-loathing, suicide, glamour, and children. It isn't surprising that Courtney chose to read from Sylvia Plath's Daddy in her tryout for a 1970's version of the Mickey Mouse Club. There's a lineage.



   Courtney's lyrical composition is jarring. Despite Hole's embrace by mainstream audiences in the mid 1990's, Courtney's writing speaks of a very specific female perspective and experience. It's one that has never been represented in depth in mainstream music. The drugged and despairing, exploited yet optimistic, super-sexual, whip-smart, body dysmorphic feminist. The voice in her lyrics is fucked beyond what we’ve been taught should ever be redeemable. The perspective is contradictory, and inconsistent. It is messy. It says, in spite of my ambition, I won't clean myself up. It says, literally, don’t you try to shut me up; in spite of my mess, you will not dismiss me.

   There are other lyrics of Courtney's, both pre and post Live Through This, that aren't as well known, but carry the same kind of weight, and power:

   There is no power like my pretty power/There is no power like my ugly power

   An eightball isn't love/A hooker's never gonna cum

  They royalty rate all the girls like you/ And they sell it out to the girls like you

 Watch her wrap her legs around this world/ You can't take the gutter from the girl

 All my loves in vain/ Can't find a vein

She spent twenty years in the Dakota/She spent twenty years like a virus/ They want to burn the witches inside us

I don't believe in anything/ I know that Mary lied

   Does widespread, mainstream appeal detract from the emotional resonance of the sentiment conveyed?

   I think of the closing line of one of the most famous poems in the world, Sylvia Plath's Lady Lazarus:

   Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air. 

   The answer is no. What is it, then, that makes us back off once something passes through the pearly gates and gets embraced by mainstream society?

   It's that desire to think of ourselves as unique, to rebel against that which is actually comforting: the idea of the universal experience. It has nothing to do with the validity of the music, or the poetry, or the sentiment conveyed.  It's our want to think that we’re the only one. That we are somehow... special. It's snobbery, and it's cynicism.

***

   Whatever Courtney has experienced through the years, whatever she has really lived through, free from what we might think we know about her, free from any inside source exclusive reported on television or in the tabloids, I can see my life in her lyrics. We have had the same experiences. We have both lived our lives in the same almost constant state of contradiction. Hooker waitress model actress oh just go nameless. The lyrics of Courtney Love are my cultural zeitgeist. I read her lyrics-- her poetry-- and I can see the story of my life.

***

 I have never met Courtney, nor do I want to. I've come close; with the advent of the internet, and her affection for the medium, I've talked with her a bit online. She gave me advice on how to get off Xanax once; another time, she messaged me to say that she was taking one of my Facebook statuses about how thunderstorms made me horny and texting it to a male friend. I don't want to meet Courtney, because really, in my mind anyway, she exists free of herself. She is a person of flesh and blood, yes-- but she is also an idea. When I finally stopped hiding the fact that she intrigued me, and started reading more about her and her life, I became fixated on something. Something probably totally insignificant to most people: that she was 25 when she started Hole. I fixated on this small detail because it gave me hope. I may have been 18, drug-addicted, and homeless, but knowing that Courtney was 25 when she started her band told me that I still had time. It wasn't over for me yet. You’ll hear little kids talking about their role models, those people who give them something to aspire to beyond their circumstances. Courtney Love did that for me. When I was a fucked up kid, she gave me hope. Hope that I still had time. Time to take my mess, and make something out of it. Hopefully something beautiful.

©Fiona Helmsley 4/12/14 (a version of this essay appears on the thefix.com.)

Joan Vollmer Burroughs Died For Somebody Else's Sins Not Mine

For legal reasons I am required to acknowledge the obvious, that this is a work of fiction. That being said, it is well-researched fiction and I have sprinkled real quotes throughout the dialogue between Joan and Patti. Patti's comment about "Burroughs being like another bible" is one, as is Joan's comment about "Bill fucking like a pimp." The Laughhead interview Joan mentions can be found easily online, as can "The Death of Joan Vollmer Burroughs- What Really Happened?" by James Grauerholz, an incredible resource I utilized when writing this story. Everything Joan says to Patti about events in her life at the time of her death can be found in Grauerholz's extensive document. The only liberties I have taken with Joan's story is her interpretation of those events.- FH

Here’s the thing. I am very distrustful. I have been burned many times. One time in particular that was quite painful was by Patti Smith. She was with her then boyfriend, the young man who would go on to become the photographer, who would be wearing monogrammed slippers in fifteen years time, shooting flowers and whips up his asshole. A good looking fellow with unkempt curls. Bill would not have cruised him as he liked Spaniards.

They were at the Chelsea Hotel, what we used to call the Literary Leper Colony as a kick. Not out of disrespect for the address but because so many of the greats had gone there to die. Patti was very aware of the anniversary, she’d even found out approximate times from somewhere, though she and the boy did travel in the same loose circles as Bill when he was in town. They had dressed for their parts, the boy in a handsome Salvation Army suit coat and matching pants and Patti in a diaphanous slip dress and pearlescent shawl. There’s not much written as to my sartorial flair. Despite having such a prolific circle of writers for friends, it’s amazing how invisible I have remained. It was because of this that when dressing as me Patti defaulted her look to that of Ophelia before hitting the brook.

At 7:15 PM, Patti and the boy exchanged words like they imagined Bill and I might have before I was shot. So much pageantry was involved in the reenactment it’s a wonder they didn’t sell tickets. It was like a warped wedding ceremony, the groom being artistic sensibility. We now pronounce ourselves outlaw artistes!
“I think it’s time for our William Tell Act,” the young man said without emotion. “I don’t think I can look, you know how I can’t stand the site of blood,” Patti replied. The only aspect of the recreation they’d neglected was the weaponry. Instead of a .38 the boy had a small plastic water gun, painted brown and filled with red food coloring. He put a tumbler glass onto her head and backed up not too far. I saw something in his face, it read like hesitancy. A squirt of red food coloring hit her squarely between the eyes. She twitched and the glass fell without breaking. As the pinkish- red trail ran down her forehead she collapsed to the floor.

Finé.

The whole thing was really a rather crass affair, but who’s to say, I might be biased. My husband and I have become one of the most popular his and hers Halloween costumes in certain corners of New York. More popular then Zelda and Scott, atleast as popular as June and Henry. I’d seen my share of these farbs but Patti’s was the first by a person in circumstances similar to my own and with a connection. I suppose it was the reason I was drawn out. That and it was obvious she was outre enough not to be completely spooked by the idea of talking to a ghost.

She dropped to the floor, feigning the last wheezy breaths of my death’s rattle. The boy waited a few seconds before leaning down and helping her to her feet. She moved her hand to his face as he lifted her, to caress his smooth skin and invite him to kiss her. Instead he moved her hand away.

“I have to go,” he said. This going of his had become a reoccurring motif. Though he was rejecting her advances it was not with cruelty.

“Where?” she asked. The food coloring had streaked down her forehead and pooled at the bridge of her nose. Her costuming was in such stark contrast to the boy’s. He looked debonair, brashly handsome; with the blood, she looked like a Bellevue escapee.

“To Terry’s loft…”

“You spend more time with Terry than you do with me, Robert. Not a small feat considering we live together.”

“I said I’d do this with you...” He moved his hands in the air, though the fleeting traces of their reenactment. “I don’t want to argue. He’s waiting for me. I’ll be back late tonight, I promise.”

Once the boy had gone, she went over to the bookcase and took out a small, elegantly constructed handmade diary. She poured herself a glass of wine from the bottle she had planned to use as an aid in the seduction of the boy, if only she had made it that far.

She picked up a pen, sat down at a small table and began to write: Rimbaud, Whitman, Blake, Burroughs: Robert and I are similar in the way we express our idolatry. We commune with our influences; covet their experiences like cicerones to luminosity. But it appears for Robert having one such experience Rimbaudesque hasn’t been enough. Jim Carroll said he knew he wasn’t gay because he only did it with men for money. I’m fairly certain that Robert is now doing it with them for free.
Without confirmation from the boy she was in purgatory. Without confirmation as to the circumstances of my death, I was too. You could say I thought we could help each other out of a jam.

Not wanting to scare her but conceding that some fright was inevitable, I waited till she had finished her first glass of wine and had the beginnings of a glow on. When she got up to use the bathroom in the hallway, engaging all three door locks behind her, I even refilled her glass to encourage more consumption.

There was so much riff-raff in the halls of the Chelsea that when I did manifest, in the second chair at the table, the boy’s chair- she did not even seem that startled. I wore a knitted cloche low on my forehead to cover the bullet hole and moved my chair in a way advantageous to the dim lighting of the room.

“How did you get in here?” she demanded catching sight of me when she looked up from her journal. She clenched the pen in her hand like a javelin.

“Joan Vollmer, Patti. I was watching your interpretation of my death.”

As could be expected, the revelation came as quite a jolt. She jumped up from her seat and bolted towards the door. “You old freak! You were spying on us! Get out now or I’ll get the police!”

“Touch me Patti,” I said following her as quickly as I could with my gimpy leg. She was frantically trying to undo all the locks on the door. “I can prove it if you touch me...”

She wouldn’t acknowledge my request, so to offer up irrefutable evidence of my nature, I walked through her, through the door, out into the hallway, then back into the room and beside her.

“I’m a ghost, Patti. An eidolon.”

She frantically continued with the locks. As she was both tipsy and unnerved, all she could do was fumble them. “I’m asleep,” she whispered, closing her eyes and shaking her head side to side as if she could wake herself up. “I passed out in the chair, this is a dream...”

“You’re awake,” I interjected. “Robert left a little while ago. You’ve been drinking wine, writing in your journal.”

An uncomfortable silence rested between us. A sort of stalemate. She could either resist believing what I was or she could accept it.

When she finally spoke it was with such a release of emotion I thought she might cry.

“Did…. I conjure you?”

“I don’t know exactly what you did, but everything lined up. I don’t have long though. I’m like Cinderella at the ball and can’t dance all night. Can we sit down?”

She didn’t respond but followed me back to the table, keeping as much of the small room between us as she could.

She stared at me for a good moment, then leaned across the table to touch me skittishly, like someone might if trying to gauge the heat of a hot stove.

When her hand cut clear through the air, clear through me, she threw back her head and began reciting verses from Whitman, “And thee my soul, thy yearning amply fed at last, prepared to meet thy mates the eidolons!” She assailed her hands upon the tabletop and cried out, “Old Bull Lee’s wife!” referring to my husband by his character’s name in Jack’s book. Talking a mile a minute and with much animation, she began speaking of her and the boy’s reenactment of my death.

“It, it was meant as a tribute, a paean to you and your relationship with Old Bull Lee… You are such an inspiration to me, Joan. You were the hippest, smartest, girl on the scene, a real firecracker. Robert has said I’m so obsessed by my icons their like my imaginary friends. I’ll be writing in my journal and he’ll say, “What are you doing over there Patti Lee, communing with your dead pals?” I’ve always been known as this sort of 'little girl who cried wolf'… “Oh Patti and her imagination,” they always say. That’s probably why you came to me Joan, you knew from my mouth no one would ever believe it! A visit from you is just the sort of thing they would expect me to claim!”

She was so excitable and schizophrenic it dawned on me we might go on like this forever unless I got stern.

“Robert is homosexual Patti,” I said. “His sexual encounters with men are not just some artistic experiment. I know all about the denials and justifications. I went through it all with Bill. I had as hard a time accepting it as you are.”

“Joan Vollmer Burroughs in my room at the Chelsea! Commiserating with me about man troubles! I needed this so badly, Joan. I’ve felt so jaded lately. My belief in the magic of the world has really been on the wane.” She inhaled deeply and fidgeted with a loose gold band on her ring finger, twisting it in circles it as she spoke.

“At one time, Robert and I were like one person, Joan. Psychic twins I used to say. Telepathic, like you and Old Bull Lee. I’d always dreamed of meeting another artist to love and create with. Robert’s my muse and my maker. I’m resistant to give that up no matter who he shares his bed with.”

She must have forgotten I was untouchable because she reached across the table, then caught herself. “I am so blessed to have this time with you, Joan.”

“You’re blessed you have someone to have this conversation with,” I replied. “I had no one. At least no one who wasn’t in someway caught up in our madness. You can’t just talk to anyone about your lover, your husband, being fey. They don’t understand why you just don’t leave, that you can’t just turn your feelings on and off like that. Then there’s the denial. I used to say to Bill, “How can you be a faggot when you fuck like a pimp?”

A sly smile spread across her face that led me to believe she could relate.

“I need to ask you a favor, Patti,” I said. “I want to know if my husband shot me on purpose. I want to know once and for all if my death really was just an accident.”

“Oh Joan, I can assure you right now that it was! Lee was devastated by your death. It ruined him. It took him to depths so low, he had to write to find his way out. Your death is what inspired him to become a writer. It’s the reason he writes now!”

“Bill had been writing for years before my death, Patti. He was starting to become more ambitious about it with encouragement from Allen and Jack. He was writing two books at the time of my shooting. I had read parts of them. One was about boys, the other was about junk.”

“I’m staggered you would even question this, Joan. Lee had no reason to do you in. You were the mother of his child. You had a partnership, a numinous understanding...”

“He’d been home for three days from a trip to South America with his boyfriend when I was shot. They were in South America for over two months, Patti. Two months! I don’t know what happened over the course of that trip. Maybe the thought that once he came home- the looming threat of returning to that existence… I suspect he was done with us. Billy could go and live with his parents- and me, I don’t think he really cared where I went as long as it was a way from him.”

“Oh Joan, I don’t believe that. You had tolerated all of his lovers in the past. What ever would have been his complaint?”

“I think he wanted to be free of the trappings and responsibility of a family, Patti. Free to be an artist, to bugger boys where and when he wanted to, with impunity. Free of my loud mouth, my ugly face. I moved my chair over here because the lighting is better and you won’t get a good look at me, Patti. At my teeth. They’re like rotting tombstones from all my years on Benzedrine. What you would see isn’t damage done by any bullet. I was off the speed by then, but I was foul- mouthed lush with a gimpy leg from polio. Twenty-eight years old, but looking closer to fifty. I was only a few years older than you and you made me for an old freak when you first caught sight of me! And I can’t be positive because I'd been drinking, but I think I saw something in his eyes when he pointed the gun…”

“You were both drunk, Joan. That’s probably why your recollection’s so hazy. You were blitzed. You and Bill were at a party, at friend’s house when you were shot. You were performing your William Tell Act, something you’d done many times before…”

“No Patti, I remember what happened. I remember clearly. Bill and I hadn’t even come to the apartment I was shot at together. I hardly saw him over those three days after he returned from his trip. We met up at the apartment where I died coincidentally. His lover, the boy he went to South America with, was one of five or so people that lived there. And I think it bothered Bill. He wanted me out of his life and there I was, a guest at his lover’s apartment, and it made him feel like he’d never be free of me, he’d always have to tolerate my presence in some unbearable way. He’d come to the apartment to sell a gun. And I was at my wit’s end with him, Patti. I had to call his parents for money to feed the children while he was off in South America gallivanting with his catamite. We bantered there. I knew him so well, I knew just what to say to get him good and make it sting. He hated to be embarrassed. He was such a show off, with a machismo streak a mile long. I made a comment, not even a clever one… I said, in front of his catamite, in front of his claque, I said, “The big man with the big gun who can’t shoot straight.” You see, Bill was a great shot, it was one of on the things he prided himself on, his marksmanship. I was being cheeky; I just wanted a response. And he said, “Oh yeah?” And then to prove it, to prove me wrong, I let him put the glass on my head. It was the most interaction we’d had in months, Patti… It was something I’d let him to before, but it wasn’t any party trick. I wasn’t suicidal; I would have never let him put that glass on my head if I thought for a second he would miss…”

“Joan, are you sure this isn't just sour grapes?”

Sour grapes? I saw something in is eyes, Patti. I’m not saying it was a total set-up, but I think in that moment, he saw a way to get what he wanted, he saw a way out. What I’d like for you to do is, I’d like you to put it out there for me. To say that you suspect I was murdered.”

“Oh, Joan, I’m a fairly new face on the scene. I don’t want to alienate anybody. I’m a poet, Joan. I’m not any kind of investigative reporter...”

“You could write a poem. Nothing will happen to Bill, Patti. It was eighteen years ago. I don’t want him arrested again. He already got his sentence, which he ran from, by the way. I just want some acknowledgement of what really happened that night...It's so obvious! Why doesn’t anyone have the guts to say it aloud? Is it because all of you who venerate him so would have to confront something ugly about yourselves?”

“Look at my bookcase Joan; I’m a scholar of your lives...”

“What are you saying? Because you’ve read all my husband’s books you are somehow better qualified than I am to judge what happened to me that night?”

"William Burrough's is like another bible to me, Joan. He's one of the reasons I became an artist, he's one of the reasons I moved to New York..."

“Do you like science fiction, Patti?”

“Do I like science fiction? I mean, I suppose. It’s not my favorite...”

“What about pornography? Do you like pornography, Patti? Gay, male-to-male pornography?

“I’m not against any kind of sexual expression, Joan. It’s not what gets me off, if that’s what you mean…”

“What about pederasty? Child fucking. How do you feel about child fucking, Patti? Because if you don’t worship any of those things, I’m surprised my husband is your favorite writer. That’s what he writes about. That’s your bible. Or is my husband your favorite writer because of what you think he represents? Some kind of gentleman- degeneracy with a Harvard degree and a handsome hat? Or is it the kitsch value of his lawlessness that you venerate? Is my husband your favorite writer because you’re so frantic to viewed as outsider you’ll pardon him his transgressions just so you can be associated with them?"

"I’m sorry I came here tonight, but I have no choice who I come to. Because of that, if you keep with your crass reenactments, I may be back.” I was so angry now that I stood up and removed my cloche. “Yours will wash away, Patti,” I picked up her pen from the table, the one she’d been using to write in her journal and jammed it into the hole in my forehead. “Mine won’t.”

Then I left her there, at her table, in her room at that hollowed hotel.

Left her with her lepers.

***

Bill is dead now, so what does any of this matter?

I have not seen him since his passing but I came across something the other day, something interesting. It was a transcript of an interview George Laughhead did with my husband right before he died. I can’t get into the logistics of how or where I saw it, but in it Mr. Laughhead concedes to something I waited over sixty years to hear someone admit.

He says, “I don’t really care if William Burroughs murdered his wife.”

My husband was allowed my death.

His status as an icon allowed for him to transcend my killing to such a degree it was no longer considered a criminal act, but a celebrated one.

In his old age, it appears Bill himself felt a little more emboldened to speak closer to the truth. In the same interview, he yells out, “SHOOT THE BITCH AND WRITE A BOOK….THAT'S WHAT I DID.”

It has been said that the pen is mightier than the sword.

And sometimes it is the sword.


JVB


© Fiona Helmsley

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Contempt



She told me,
That while she was sitting out in her car
With her groceries, Before she realized
It was me, And not some stranger-woman
Coming out of the supermarket,
She had thought to herself,

"Skinny bitch, with your black leggings
And motorcycle boots, I fucking hate you."

She told me this, Like she was giving me some kind
Of funny compliment;
Like the old adage wasn't true,
Familiarity didn't breed contempt,
No, no, no,
It negated it.

       I didn't believe her.

 
©Fiona Helmsley

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Facebook Friends




When you leave the comment that I am "such a good mom"
Under a picture I have posted of my child online,
It freaks me out.
You haven’t seen me in over twenty years,
And have never met my son.
You could only be basing your opinion on the fact that we both liked Guns N’ Roses in the 7th grade,
And that I held your hair for you,
Out of your face,
The first time you ever got drunk,
And vomited everywhere.



©Fiona Helmsley