The rock I throw misses the boy’s head and hits the wooden fence behind him with such force that all the tenement mothers thrust their bobby-pinned heads out of their windows. Tenement mothers instinctively know the sound of one child trying to murder another with a rock. I don’t even know who he is. I am seven. I know this because my mother has sent me into the backyard to check on my infant sister who is sleeping in her carriage. I’m seven years older than she so…
I am seven and it is a sunny day in 1957 and I am walking into our tenement’s backyard when I spot a strange little boy sitting next to my sister’s carriage. I can’t tell if he is talking to her or reading to her. But, I know he isn’t harming her. I know it. But, a twisted, heroic, righteous rage rises in me. No Red Devil whispers in my ear. This is all my doing. This is me. Evil Me. This is the first time the Red Mist engulfs me. I know the story of David and Goliath so I know all about smiting someone with a stone. I decide that I will be a tough guy like David or, even better, the local gang leader, Tony Unbatz. Man, will he and his gang be proud of me? They’ll throw me into the air and buy me a frozen Coke. These are my thoughts as I pick up the largest rock I can throw and hurl it at the boy. Rock in the eye – I blind him. Rock in the temple – I kill him. No Guardian Angel stays my hand. But, maybe his Angel is watching because the rock misses his head. Just. He looks at me with shocked, innocent eyes and runs away.
Many nights, as my not-so-innocent eyes close, I see that boy. I hear the rock. I sit up. I shudder. What if? I am too ashamed and ascared to raise this sin at my First Confession or my last or any in between. But, I do seek forgiveness from that boy. I hope he has enjoyed the life that could so easily have been ruined by me. I hope that, like me, he survived Vietnam and AIDS and 9/11. I hope he accepts my apology
The cast of Macbeth drank in an 8th avenue dive called the Chelsea Bar, not to be confused with the bar of the same name in the nearby Chelsea Hotel where celebrities went to OD on heroin. No, our Chelsea Bar was a beer & shot joint that catered to longshoremen and merchant seamen. We liked the Chelsea because the beer was cheap and the ambiance earthy – our very own Mermaid Tavern. The toothless, one-thumbed bartender liked us because we bought a lot of his beer and caused no trouble. He was not the only person in the Chelsea missing a body part – all the regulars were minus a finger, arm, ear or eye. They were the guys who didn’t pay attention when the industrial safety film was shown.
Every so often a fight would break out at the bar between two lugs and the bartender would bring out his sawn-off baseball bat to restore order. He’d slam it on the bar a few times then brandish it above his head. Silence. Then there’d be a final shouted curse from one of the combatants followed by a sudden flood of tears and a flight to the men’s room. Eventually, it hit us. These were lovers’ spats. We were in the butchest gay bar in the world. And, I am talkin’ butch. These guys looked like the wrestling tag-team of Skull Murphy and Brute Bernard.
The Chelsea Bar is long gone along with all those toothless, tattooed, hard-drinkin’, hard-lovin’ men. Were they buried at sea? In Potter’s Field? Did they spend their last days in the “Home for Sissy Stevedores?” Or, did these old salts care for each other in their dotage? Care for each other through the nightmare of AIDS that was gaining on them and perhaps already a stowaway in their bodies?
AIDS does not get my friend, Carrie. No, this young actress is murdered in 1973 while AIDS is waiting in the wings. She is slain in the city of Taxi Driver,The Panic in Needle Park, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 and The French Connection. Handsome John Lindsay is Mayor. He is called the Republican Kennedy. In 1966, he wins office with the slogan, “Everyone else looks tired but he looks fresh.” But, by 1973, Handsome John has wilted along with the confidence of the ’60s. His color has faded along with the Peter Max posters in the Upper East Side and the Hippie murals in the Lower East Side. Rob and I share an apartment there on St. Mark’s Place. Two actors. One struggling. One not. Rob is not only “not” but “hot.” I have to endure the sheer joy of taking phone messages for him – “Rob, Sam Shepard asked if you’d read his play and Sidney Lumet phoned again. Oh, Mike Nichols wants to take you to lunch.”
While Rob is lunching at Lutèce, I’m living on a buck-a-day meal money. Desperate for food, my antennae pick up a radio commercial that promises free dinner at Luchow’s German restaurant in return for listening to a sales pitch. The pitch will be for a property scam in Florida – Rancho Refritos Estates. Selling land in Florida is the oldest racket in America, second only to alternative medicine. (David Mamet’s brilliant play Glenngarry Glenn Ross is about Florida land-swindles.)
One night, Ray and Preacher take me to a notorious gay bar way west in Greenwich Village –The Toilet. (I ain’t makin’ this up – The Toilet!) The dress-style ranges from crotchless black-leather pants to crotchless black-leather pants with metal studs. And, the metal studs are on the penis, not the pants. While who knows what is going on in the back room, we are entertained out front by the floorshow. This consists of an acrobat pulling his upside-down body up a thick iron chain, link by link, with his anal sphincter muscles. Yes, this intrepid aerialist climbs up the chain with his asshole!
Time passed, medicine advanced and we forgot. We forgot what a scourge AIDS was, especially in show business, especially in New York. By the late 1980s, I was the only actor still alive from several casts I’d been in during the 1970s.
At the height of the AIDS panic, I dated a public health official. She told me plans were in place to quarantine the entire city of New York, if necessary. The authorities foresaw streets piled with corpses collected by robot-controlled plague-carts. “Bring out your dead.” They were that ascared.
I first heard of AIDS in 1979 – the dawn of the epidemic. I had moved to a Brooklyn brownstone. Ray, my gay landlord said, “Have you heard that all the guys in the Village are getting sick? They’re calling it the gay cancer.” I still see Ray sitting there, still see the terror in his eyes, still feel the terror that shot through me. We both knew that what he was describing will kill him and maybe me. We were both ascared.
1988. West Palm Beach, Florida – a hateful shithole where the theater has imprisoned me and the rest of the cast in a retirement home hi-rise that overlooks the Greyhound Bus station. We are in sub-tropical Florida but our rooms have no air-conditioning. So, to avoid heat prostration, we are forced to keep our windows open and eat bus-exhaust 24/7. Meanwhile, our fellow residents sit staring into space while drooling prune juice down their T-shirts that proclaim “Sexy Grandma” and “Over What Hill?”
West Palm. Did I mention it’s a hateful shithole populated by hateful rednecks, hateful New York Jews and hateful Haitian junkies? Did I mention the hateful Haitian junkies have AIDS? I’m warned before embarking on a drive across the Everglades not to stop in Belle Glade – the Haitian capital of Florida and the AIDS and felony capital of America.
West Palm Beach is, not to put too fine a point on it, a hateful shithole. And, a hateful shithole drowning in a drug-fueled crime wave. Make that crime tsunami. Muggings and burglaries do abound. So, to protect its vulnerable residents, the retirement home hi-rise hires Rottweiler’s to patrol its halls after 10 PM. One Rottweiler per floor.
Method Acting teachers are seen as gurus and they embrace this mantle: “I am the great Father Figure, Witch-Doctor, Shrink, the Font of All Wisdom, the Repository of All Knowledge, the Giver of Pleasure and Pain.” No surprise their schools become personality cults. No surprise these cults are especially attractive to young women who have little self-esteem and big “Daddy” issues. The Guru demands that the student emotes at all times. The student is not having a successful scene if the student is not having a nervous breakdown – even if the scene is from Mary Poppins. Simply put – “If you ain’t crying, you ain’t acting.”
One Guru held his entire class captive for two days because one student had not prepared a scene. Two days. No food. No phone calls. No talking. Limited toilet breaks. Very limited. Meanwhile, across town, a revered female Guru sent her students out to pick up strangers in bars and have sex with them – in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. And, people fought to get into these classes.
By 1984, thanks to AIDS, the no-holds-barred striptease and live-sex shows of the ’70s are gone. I get a primer on the new rules in a desert dump called Wendover, Nevada. You’ll find it a few desolate hours West of Salt Lake City, Utah across the Bonneville Salt Flats. I’m acting in a play in Salt Lake and drive over one night to lose some money.
Wendover, aka Bendover, consists of three crappy casinos smack dab in the middle of the Devil’s rectum. The card dealers don’t even bother to shave. And, they are women! And, they are pimps!
“What the fuck are ya doin’ down here playin’ poker? Go spend your money upstairs. We got some good-lookin’ ladies up there. Anything you want, they’ll do it. Through that door. Mention my name, Cookie.”