[1997 photo of Black Sifichi by author]
Before I was drunk I was young. I am Dutch and I am drunk – not as I write this but at least in the manner of Baudelaire as in “one must always be” – which is as close to a loyalty oath as I get. Before this story I was nothing. And then all of a sudden one day I started seeing three-legged dogs. I’m seeing them and not believing it. I tell friends and they don’t believe me. It’s not the beer. But then again, I’m not so sure. Too much beer is never enough: You only say stuff like that when you’ve already had too much to drink.
At the risk of fidgeting with the fundamental truth of this story I need to go on about three-legged dogs for about another beer longer. I’m Dutch but have lived in New York so long I don’t say I’m Dutch any more. I’ve lived in New York so long you’d think nothing bothers me any more. But I’m spooked, you understand, seeing white clumps of gauze around the stumps as these three-legged dogs hobble past my hovel, limping through my dreams. You’re not supposed to be spooked by this. That’s how survival looks living here. But I’m telling you, it spooks me to see them with their little contraptions and makeshift prostheses wrapped tight around their stumps. There’s three, four, maybe five in my neighborhood, the quadrant: 14th Street, 2nd Avenue, Avenue B, St. Marks Place – that area. Any more and this area will look like Mad Max footage salvaged from the cutting floor.
I mean, when you see these three-legged creatures you think: Civilization as a measure of the grace accorded the absurdity of the missing appendages. You think: The strength of the triangle, the malefaction of the Trinity. You think: Canine martyrs of some kind of urban psychotic strife brought on by the Dutch courage of drink [spiritual inebriation led astray by stronger spirits like cheap genever]; the dog as martyred embodiment of everything that is wrong with the city. You think: Things gone wrong, asymmetrical, and wobbly. You think: Why am I laughing at these dogs and their proud-pathetic owners? You think: This is how we wriggle our way through sophistication, making satire of their pathetic hobbles, transforming our notions of responsibility into some kind of joke. A joke nobody laughs at but everybody seems to get. You think: Maybe coincidence is more than just coincidence. You think: less streetlights equals more wrongdoing. But you DON’T think: Maybe I have something to do with it. No. Not at first, anyway. But the more I think about it the more maybe I am to blame. Maybe you’re thinking all this too. Knowing what you know about me. Well, then maybe we’re drinking from the same perfect-stemmed tulip glass as me. Like me, you won’t really want to catch the culprits for fear we won’t know what to do with ourselves. Like you catch the guy by the neck, turn him around and he’s you – that’s in dreams, but who knows where the dream ends – at 14th or 23rd. Some will videotape the hapless mutts while others will worship the unnamed butcher.
Kelly Green [for years he wore only green felt clothing and described himself as a “good-ole Jew boy from Queens looking for his inner Joey Ramone.” Also something about Robin Hood that I didn’t fully understand.] called the unnamed butcher a transgressive artist “who uses fear as a canvas.” You see where this is going? Kelly’s tongue in cheek lost on most of us. But you never know around here. People kidded when they were serious and were serious when they seemed to be kidding. This way we all get to be naive and smart, cynical and earnest, right and wrong, clueless and omniscient all at once all the time.
Meanwhile, there’s another story about the guy who pops in and out of #322, two buildings down from me, built a prosthetic right rear limb from an old wooden salad spoon wrapped tightly around his dog’s stump with string he’d salvaged from an unraveled hardball. His Chucha [Rattus Chihuaha] grows more jittery with every passing day, as it nervously lifts its wooden leg against every vertical surface until there just is no more piss to piss.
Recently, the guitarist and singer in the hair-wave band, the Sanitation Dept. [the Voice calls what he plays “stonk” or stinky white funk] took photos of Chucha for the cover of their first album, Dog Years, going on and on in the liner notes about what Chucha might mean: “a scruffy, scrawny mutt; a REAL American-style survivor. The dog is harmed and that dog is us.”
Sometimes I hear the TICK-TICK-TICK of Chucha’s wooden leg striking the hollow sidewalks of Manhattan. Chucha’s owner, passive-aggressive, and Chucha in perfect miserable symbiosis: co-dependent victim and victimizer.
People in my building also swear that Chucha’s owner has been stealing our trashcans for years. He apparently takes the trashcans early in the morning and the repainted cans are already dry with #322 stenciled on them before 9 a.m.! When they describe this he sounds like a dirty ghost. Calls for a unified mobilization of our building #316 has led to absolutely nothing other than Georg leaving behind various mid-19th-century war maps from a campaign fought by the Prussians.
My neighbor [is she apt. #12, #8, or #15?] had never spoken to me before today. Were we suddenly allies because of 322’s provocations? Had she also had enough of the trashcan scandal and the anti-316 graffiti – ‘FUK’ scrawled across our front door?
No, actually she was peeved because she had recently been arrested for breastfeeding her kid on a city bus. The driver radioed the cops and he just stopped the bus there on Third Avenue and waited for the police to remove her. Most of the passengers didn’t even bother to look up to see what was going on. People believe if you get involved you’re body and soul will get sucked into the quicksand of everyday life.
“One guy says to me ‘I got one word for you lady – rubbers.’ Some lady actually called me selfish cuz I was gonna make her late for work. Lucky I can’t cry anymore or they woulda got what they wanted.”
“What’d the ticket say?” I ask.
“‘22It’s a desk appearance ticket, which means I gotta appear in Criminal Court for my arraignment. It means I was arrested, I get arraigned, like any other criminal case. They were talking indecent exposure and creating a disturbance.’ UGH! Infuriation is NOT where I wanna be at. I mean at least one cop quietly apologized. I mean, did they use to give Marilyn Monroe tickets for causing a disturbance?”
“Didn’t anybody stick up for you?”
“Yea, but only AFTER I got off the bus. The driver says ‘God will hold you criminally liable.’ I kid you not! One guy did get off the bus with me and tried to console me. But I was beyond consoling.” But then he asked her out on a date. And when she flipped he said: “Don’t you know a compliment when you hear one, babe?”
It’s 1987 and the New Morality has made “mincemeat out of compassion,” is how the Voice put it. I’m not going to go into me getting beat up by two drunken yuppies for defending a homeless man being roughed up on the corner of Houston and West Broadway, something about “Beautifying America.” An eye for an eye has escalated into two eyes for an eye. Compassion is “weakness” and weakness is unforgivable.
She blew some exasperated, damp strands of hair from her flushed face. “I’m tired of it.” And then just stood there and stared at the wall.
“I’m 24-hour. Awake basically always but not really there. Gonna put cages on my windows.”
“You’re on the second floor?”
“Yea, and they swing right across from the other building with ropes. I kid you not. Anyway, I dunno whether I’m cagin’ things out or cagin’ things in.”
A tri-legged canine hobbled by.
“It’s him,” she sighed. Synchronicity between the mind and the world may be the key; but where’s the keyhole?
You can see how the dog owners bask in the sympathy. With the disappearance of the nobility of labor, came the evaporation of artisanal pride, came the notion that fame was the only redemption. If fame is not an option then you have to make the most of being a victim, like a hero’s statue made of mud in the rain.
“They feed off the suffering of these mutts to become celebs.”
“It’s metampsychotic,” she observed and then, like a school teacher, explained: “Like the weaker soul getting sucked into the more resilient one,” she added.
“I know.” I lied and it probably showed because stupidity is not something you can hide with smart clothes.
“The soul of the one changes places with the other.” Her hair dark and damp like English Breakfast Tea, like a headless Guinness … Her face blank like someone who hasn’t had anyone do anything nice for her in a very long time.
“When I came to New York …”
“Normal, Illinois. Don’t laugh.” She warned. Tired smirk clinging to an old joke. “I thought that I’d thrive in the anonymity. But if you like swimmin’ you don’t need a whole ocean.” She hesitates. We stand very still; the stillness starts to make our heights sway. I am not the height I am. No I am not.
“One guy I dated says to me, ‘I’ve made a formidable investment here – the flowers, the time, champagne, the sympathy – but dis investment just don’ wanna ante up.’” She sounds like she is imitating Tony Danza. I don’t know what to say. We shake our heads ever so slightly – we are in sync for a second.
“Serves me right for going out with a guy who names his suits, and works in the Corporate Hostile Takeovers – CHT – department or something like that at a firm preferred not to name. When he got drunk on top shelf whatever – preferably from a country where he’s done some economic mischief – ‘rumble in the jungle’ he calls it – he starts chanting things like ‘Ray-GUN rock ‘n’ roll!’”
“Well, even in the Limelight you’d hear hoots of ‘right on!’ and ‘Reagan Rocks!’ Which was scarier than I can truly tell you.”
“What an asshole.”
“I just felt sorry for him. I’m like a 20-watt bulb. Duh. I mean he took me to the mega-exclusive Bank Vault, which used to be a … bank vault and after 2 a.m. becomes some kind of S&M-lite dungeon. Famous for its $750 cocktail!”
“What’s it come with, a vacation?”
“As I remember – and I’m crummy remembering things like this – it’s a mix of Grey Goose vodka, Hennessy cognac and Hyptoniq, a vodka liqueur, fresh-squeezed orange juice and pomegranate juice – and he’s giving me that wink, ‘quality control’s essential here,’ he says. I think there may also be some Dom Perignon involved. But the key ingredient is a one-carat ruby. Like on the rocks – haha. He actually promised me a vacation – if I was a good girl – to a place in Chicago to gulp down $950 cocktails – a guy takes photos and you get to pose with some local celebrity like a Chicago Cub! It doesn’t matter to him that he doesn’t know that this is not my idea of a holiday.”
“What’s in it?”
“Grey Goose and gold leaf and some kind of juice from a fruit I never even heard of. There was no second date needless to say. I have a kid now anyway.”
“Guess not. It’s almost funny.”
“Almost. Meanwhile, my ex, mister boytoy is still performing with boa constrictors, but he’s not gay – he’ll tell you that all day long – but guys do find him charming. He’s a certifiable sadist. But you won’t find that on his résumé.”
“Gimme a Rolling Rock any day.”
“He leaves these mysterious messages on my machine. But, hey, I know it’s him. Two protection orders later and he’s still insisting he ‘owns’ me, that he made me. How do I, former glee club girl, second trombonist in the school band, get into these kinds of novels?”
“I’ve seen him. Like a cross between a young Reagan and Popeye?”
“I can see your point. He leaves these horror-movie laughs on my machine – you gotta hear them…” Was that an invite? Did she mean now!? Would we sit on the edge of her bed to listen?
“And sounds of sawing through bone or something. He takes and runs all the way home with this whole S&M thing. I mean, he’s got S&M performance on his résumé for god’s sake! I shoulda saved those recordings cuz nobody believes me.”
“Yer sweet but sweet’s not enough. I think he’s getting back at me for having had Ishtar against his wishes.”
“She’s cute. How old is she?”
“Ishtar was born on the 22nd of September last year.”
“Like the movie?”
“I’ve had the name for years. Ishtar was the Babylonian goddess of sexual love. She will always be my avenging angel. As goddess, she was punishment to those who would deny sexual love.”
“Does your ex live around here?”
“It’s more like stalk and intimidate – and wait for the reviews of his latest show in the Voice. I think he thinks I humiliated him by getting my masters degree. Like I did it to spite him.”
“Any ideas on who’s delegging the dogs around here?”
“It’s prob’ly HIM. Wouldn’t put it past him.”
“How do you know?”
“I just know. He’s this perfect jumbled heap of vengeance. He hates dogs; has said so. The way they’d whine for doggie treats at his old man’s butcher shop. They way they disturb his sleep. And the streetlights around here on the blink don’t help matters much.”
“His fears and phobias are screwed tight to his brain. Maybe it’s a childhood thing. His father was one screwed-up brute who once hacked off three fingertips off the hand of an employee, an illegal alien, he suspected of stealing from the till. Kept them in a jar that he’d show his son to discipline him.”
“Sorry. I’m just so … I mean, he believes genetic traits are passed from dogs to humans via the saliva. I mean, he DOES. Anyway, I’m sure it’s him.” She hangs her head in shame as if she’s personally responsible for having spawned him. “I just have this nauseous feeling … And whenever I get nauseous I know thoughts of him are right around the corner.”
She swept the swishy tassel of her tarboosh out of her face as a departure gesture. Not everyone was wearing the tarboosh but some of the right people seemed to be. Wasn’t there a Kim Gordon/Yma Sumac video featuring the tarboosh? Didn’t Don Was wear one on some music awards ceremony? And suddenly she was off. No longer standing there. Just a ghost of a scent. That neither of us had barely ever even noticed one another before was strangely not that strange to either of us.
I stood there in the mental institution green hallways and thought: I had been in New York for years now and I never felt I was on any kind of mission or even on some success trajectory – not even into collecting like everything the Cramps had ever recorded or stealing bread from the pigeons to give to the homeless or helping high school kids with their French pronunciation.
For me there’s never been a clear distinction between mission, obsession, artistic statement, and a hobby. Mission just seemed like a pumped-up hobby. This sense of mission crashed into my life the way lightning strikes a church – by chance that the churchgoers convert into sign and message. My mission wasn’t even mine; it had none of the characteristics of a commandment from on high. In any case, it would somehow involve dogs and beer and darkness and, OK, cars and women.