Brave New Whirled.
In my younger and more vulnerable years (to steal shamelessly from Fitzgerald), I read most of the cliché but de riguer lefty literature – especially since I was an English Major (very briefly) in college: Siddhartha, I’m Ok, You’re OK, Catcher in the Rye, The Confessions of Nat Turner, Rilke’s poems, etc. ad nauseum. Most of it was embarrassingly self-indulgent tripe, but a few really resonated with me: The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, and The Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincy.
Digressing a bit, I think Brave New World is Huxley’s best, and I agree with his prediction: making the masses happy and therefore compliant is far more insidious and invidious than Orwell’s Big Brother for the following reason. If you have a suppressive thumb you’re living under, you can rally the troops and fight against it. On the other hand, when everyone is in a soma coma of bliss, it’s really hard to get them riled up and angry about their submission.
Which reminds me of a Dee Snyder quip I heard once. While sipping cocktails by his Beverley Hills mansion pool – fat, happy, fifty-ish and rich, he gets a call from the record company: “Dee, isn’t it time you wrote another teenage protest anthem?” Dee’s answer: “Yeah, right.”
Huxley’s vision of a “negative utopia” was meant as a parody of the dystopian novels of the time, and his protagonist, John, just wants the “right to be unhappy.” I could relate. He isn’t allowed to be – and like all true stories, this one ends in an unnecessary and heartbreaking death.
So back in the ‘80s when I was reading all this junk, I was working at a French restaurant in NYC called Café 1,2,3 on 44th Street, just off Times Square, at the time when there was a Ground Round and a Howard Johnson’s there. Remember them? Café 1,2,3 (pronounced un, deux, trois) was the vilest place I ever had the misfortune of leaving a pound of my own dear flesh in. Just about everyone, from the owners to the manager to the chef and the kitchen staff, to the waiters was a chimpanzee full of snakes and venom as far as I could tell, ready to eat you alive if you crossed them. They all virtue signaled to within an inch of their lives, though, spouting their love of communism (this was before the very, very happy end to that murderous ideology) and their fellow man, and equality, and peace, love and tolerance, and my favorite, fairness. But when I said that’s great: let’s pool all the tips and divide them up equally at the end of the night so we’re a team, they laughed and laughed.
In fact the highest earner every night was dubbed “The Egyptian” and celebrated/envied by everyone. The bartender, Jeff, who I saw years and years later on an episode of Law & Order, used to say, whenever one of us waiters brought a rejected drink back from an unhappy customer, “Never question the integrity of the execution.” I still use this line today. One of the regulars at the bar was a loud British dude who made a fortune as the voice over for Wendy’s “The best burger in the business” jingle. Every celebrity in New York ate there at one time or another: Keith Haring, Dan Rather, Maria Shriver, et al. and the food was pretty good. To be honest, they served the best steak frites I’ve ever had.
I was living at the Long Acre Hotel on 45th Street at the time, and I think that crap SRO dive was either $6 or $11 per night, I can’t remember which. I cooked rice every day in a coffee pot, since we weren’t allowed hotplates. And I once fried a pork chop on my iron, which I wouldn’t recommend, especially if you have any wrinkled shirts that need a quick press afterwards. Right across the street was the Martin Beck Theatre, and at that time Bernadette Peters was starring in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. The only reason I know that is that right outside my window, hanging three-quarters of the way down the façade of the theatre, was this huge, inflatable lumberjack’s boot. I’m not kidding – every night it was lit up like a sasquatch god stomping everything to the ground to come get me. Google it and look at the picture that pops up.
That summer my Japanese friend Shigeno Furuyama was living down in Greenwich Village and went on vacation, so I stayed at her tiny shoebox for a week or so. It was diagonally across the street from the Village Gate, which was the absolute first place I worked when I moved to New York City – I had a 1-day gig painting the stage.
One night after work my waiter buddy Jeanine said she was going to come by, with two other people from work – one a large, gay opera singer, and the other a nice catholic girl from the Bronx named appropriately enough ‘Virginia’. The only reason I remember that perfect fact is because I was totally in love with her and used to sing Billy Joel’s Only the Good Die Young: “Come out Virginia, don't let 'em wait/You Catholic girls start much too late/Aw, but sooner or later it comes down to faith/Oh, I might as well be the one.”
Unrequited in case you’re wondering. Anyway, I had gotten friendly with Jeanine one night before work when I was doodling on the table – we had white butcher paper as tablecloths, and a cup full of crayons on each table. I was drawing cubes and arrows, and she asked me if I knew what they meant. I said no. She said that they represented the psychological struggle between our hunter-gatherer roots, and the domestication of animals and agricultural cultivation. I said really? She said no, she just made that up. She was wild-eyed and had a crazy, peroxide electric-afro carnival on her head. She’d tell me she would sit at home until all hours of the night watching The Robin Byrd Show and then dialing the 1-900 numbers when they’d pop up on the screen, for no reason except boredom and recalcitrance. She told me her favorite move was Aguirre – The Wrath of God. When I saw it for the first time recently I was reminded of her and the reason why she liked it clicked: she and Klaus Kinski have the same exact impossible hairdo.
Sidebar: Robyn Byrd is an interesting character in her own right: free speech advocate – with her smut case against some cable company wanting to scramble her show going all the way up to the Supreme Court. For all you porn nerds she also had a bit part in the classic Debbie Does Dallas.
I think they’re going to pop by right after work, which we finished at about 11, but they didn’t show up until about at least 3. They told me they were going to make milkshakes, and they had brought mint chocolate chip ice cream, milk, chocolate syrup, and a plastic bag of something. I asked what it was. Unfortunately Shig didn’t have a blender. Jeanine said they brought one luckily, and the bag had magic mushrooms in it. That’s why they were late: she had to go see her man somewhere in the wooded area near Grant’s Tomb to do the deal. No lie.
So she whips up the shakes and we all drink. I don’t feel a thing. Everybody says the same – nothing. Jeanine tells us to just wait. About half an hour in, it hits me. Wham-O!
Opera man starts singing, I think. It’s hard to describe the sensations, but it felt like my brain was short circuiting, synapses firing randomly and my eyeballs were wandering around outside and upside down and onto the back of my head. It was as though I was seeing everything from a different perspective, kind of like wearing a pair of Erismann glasses, while the electricity in my head was frying my mind, one neuron at a time, to the broken-machine beat of my heart. It was definitely a trip into the unknown, to put it mildly, and time seemed to stand still, or at least be irrelevant, since everything seemed to be happening at once, unfiltered and intense and viewed skewed. Every atom in my body became relevant and intense.
They all left at some point. I got into bed and turned on the tv, probably about 4 or 5 am. Right there on the screen was a praying mantis biting the head off another praying mantis after copulating. I couldn’t believe it. Then I heard this profound baritone, epicentered somewhere in hell, saying sexual cannibalism was an evolutionary necessity and normal, or something to that effect.
Did I just imagine that? I thought I turned the tv off. The horror continued. But I was barely conscious enough to read the closing credits and realize the nightmare was a rerun of Lorne Greene’s celebrated Animal Kingdom and was able to miraculously recall vaguely that small chyron of sanity when I finally did come to.
I passed out, and slept until the following morning. I woke up, but didn’t really wake up, in a Jim Morrison kind of way. Still the same clueless, catastrophically lazy, unfocused twerp. All joking aside, if you think I’m going to write something profound and revelatory about the nature of the universe, self-awareness, or drug-taking, stop reading right now.
Um, about the only lasting impression, or consequence I should say is to this day I can’t stand mint chocolate chip ice cream. That’s it. I did go on to read some other stuff to try to have better minds enlighten me since I wasn’t really able to enlighten myself at all: Ken Kesey’s merry prankster’s trip as masterfully brought to life in Thomas Wolfe’s The Electric Cool Aid Acid Test. I also read Burrough’s Naked Lunch, and tried to get through some Bukowski, to not much avail. I listened to the Doors, and Dark Side of the Moon. I did stumble upon Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which is only one of two books I’ve ever read that made me laugh out loud. Hunter S. Thompson is a hilarious genius jerk, a slithering, smirking devil, quick and understated and with a command of English that’d make Conrad weep. Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. Germaine Greer’s what was her famous book called? Oh, yeah: The Female Eunuch. Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation. A film I can’t quite remember the name of came closest to my solipsistic, fish-eye lensed journey into depravity and anthropomorphic couplings and homicide: I think it’s called Marat/Sade. Also, Do You Remember Dolly Bell? and Street of Crocodiles. David Holzman’s Diary by Jim McBride. I ate all of it right up, trying to figure my own useless catastrophic self out, while unselfconsciously splitting infinitives the whole time.
Futilely. I guess I’m too dense, pathological, or in love with my scared-rabbit reality to want or be able to even have a transformative mental or psychological experience. At least one that lasts. Not long after my unenlightened mushroom fiasco I was walking down Broadway in broad daylight and saw this homeless man pacing up and down the sidewalk. I put my head down and started to sidle past, but an immediate and weird thought popped into my head: doesn’t God come without bell? I looked up just then and saw this very familiar face walking towards me, right in front of Zabar’s, and I kept asking myself, who is that? He looks so familiar – who is it? He kept coming closer and closer, so recognizable, but I couldn’t quite put a name to the face, and then he passed me. I stopped and watched him walk away. It finally hit me: That’s I, Claudius.
No, he wasn’t the revelation, the bearded bum was. I decided to notice him. The thing I remember most and most vivid was he was wearing high-top Chuck Taylor Autograph sneakers without socks, and the exposed skin on his shins looked like dirty tree bark. He would take a few steps and stop. He would then raise his arms out to his sides like he was going to fill his lungs with a huge gulp of air, arch his skinny spine, throw his head to heaven and say while bowing his body dangerously back on his toes: “Me. Human.” And then again. “Me human.”
Me too. You?