A reader offers criticism, my betterment her goal.
She sends her comment via e-mail.
This much is pleasing since I’m not obliged to post her message on the Siberia With a View site, where it will remain trapped on hard drive and in the cloud until a thermonuclear blast high in the atmosphere or the radiation from an exploding star erases it.
When I created the site, I promised I would post all comments, positive or negative, welcome or not. It’s gratifying when someone responds to the site to indicate they enjoy a post; it’s a pain in the ass when I add a comment submitted by someone who doesn’t fathom what’s going on. But, as promised, when these bozos bark, I open the door and let them in. I try to ignore them. I move on.
No such promise regarding e-mails.
But, this e-mail? After all, it’s intended to be instructive and constructive, and there’s therapeutic value to be had in the act of sharing. Kathy regularly reminds me that I should open up and share more … and that I need all the therapy I can get.
So, here goes.
My critic makes it clear that she understands what’s going on, and that she is not happy.
“Shortly after I engage a seeming narrative,” she writes, “I am assaulted by a brace of daft observations, obscenities, and insults targeted at people less privileged than the author.”
She’s comfy with commas, and tosses in the terms“brace” and “daft” — sure signs there’s a hefty student loan on the books.
“Your pieces shift recklessly, with no narratives realized” she writes. “Topics lack connection to those that precede and follow them, resulting in no coherent story. I received my MFA in Creative Writing from Brown, and I recognize and admire competence. You are not competent, and I certainly don’t admire you. The flaws in your work make the read an unpleasant experience. You are heedless of the feelings of others, vulgar, and annoyingly discursive. It’s a curse, and your work will never be other than mediocre until the curse is lifted.”
Wow, I think, a college grad, giant lode of brain ore refined in the sun-temp furnace at the American higher education mill. And clumsy alliteration to boot.
Discursive, you say?
Fuck: I’d best enjoy a cocktail or two, then look this one up.
I do so.
1. a: moving from topic to topic without order : RAMBLING
gave a discursive lecture
b : proceeding coherently from topic to topic
2. philosophy : marked by a method of resolving complex expressions into simpler or more basic ones : marked by analytical reasoning
3: of or relating to discourse
It’s 4 p.m. and I’m thoroughly blitzed, yet it seems clear to me that 1a and 1b are a bit at odds. It’s obvious, as well, which of the two my critic/degree holder/indebted pinhead prefers. Snooty dinks like her idolize Roxanne Gay, thumbtack Sontag quotes to the wall of the studio apartment, and canoodle with professors who know how to pronounce “Baudrillard.” These over-schooled howlers get real picky, real quick.
“Discursive” you say? I opt for hypomnema, propelled by a ripping case of ADD, plenty of vodka, and droppers full of my friend Joe’s special Ultra-Kush tincture. Hypomnema, with a subtle thread stitching the notes together. If you can’t detect this, get loaded, and things will fall into place.
I fret for a moment, then slog on; there’s a Live PD Dash Cam special on the tube. A teaser shows a night vision image of a perp being chased through a parking lot by two German shepherds eager to do damage with fang and claw. I don’t want to miss the show.
I grab the remote, fire up the set.
There is nothing neg-discursive here, the program segments linked by the fact each represents street-level domination of the underclass. I note that the law enforcement departments whose personnel are filmed don’t allow camera operators to ride with marginal cops — the undisciplined, ill-trained thugs with numerous complaints on their records, the goofs who struggled to earn a GED, those prone to violence, occasionally murder. There are good cops and there are rotten ones. In my years in the news biz, I knew both. I don’t see the crappy ones on shows like this. Gosh, I wonder why?
A day later, the network cancels the series; yet another network cancels the classic, Cops. When under siege, with harpies circling, profit-driven execs need to signal virtue during Woke-a-Palooza 2020… so they cancel. Why alter the product in a thoughtful manner? Why use the programs to delve into the complexities and stress of police work, and the lack of education and training that brings out the worst behavior in the worst cops. Why investigate ways to improve the situation? Why attempt to promote dialogue in a time when dialogue is passé? Why risk a loss of revenue?
As I check out the program, I’m reminded of plans I made a while back for a couple of television series, each perfect for The Food Network or The Travel Channel.
Remembering this, I throw the memory train into high gear and ride to another gem, conceived decades earlier than my food shows — a series of recorded interviews to be broadcast on a “free form” FM radio station popular with Denver’s hipper-than-thou crowd in the ‘70s. This project could easily have made the transition to the current podcast format. Had I kept at it, I’d be as rich as Joe Rogan.
As usual, though, I was distracted shortly after I came up with the idea for the interviews, and became obsessed with other things — in this case puff pastry recipes and cocaine. Lots of cocaine was consumed, very little puff pastry made it to the plate. The plan went to the back burner, as did my ideas for the TV shows that bubble up decades later.
I’m sure it impresses anyone who’s read this far that I chucked up cable TV gems and a Studs Terkel quality interview show, and that I’ve used the word “fuck” only once to this point.
It’s no surprise that I come up with winning ideas; I’ve perched at the tip of the innovation arrow for 50 years or more, these projects being but two among many that anchor my credentials as a Mighta’-been, just as my critic’s MFA and snippy attitude establish her worth with fellow, itchy dweebs.
It’s somewhat of a surprise, however, regarding the single use of “fuck.”
The notion of a surprise segues smoothly to this: yesterday, I receive an unexpected gift of chanterelles, sent by my sister, Karen, and her husband, Greg. They live in a moist part of Oregon, lace up their hiking boots and make treks to the outback when fungi flourish. They pick then dry the chanterelles, and they mail a batch to me.
Chanterelles are also found in the high country near Siberia With a View but, since they’re located outdoors, at altitude, I will never encounter the shrooms where they grow.
My friend Sam — one of the most talented physicians I’ve known, others to include my father, and my personal physician, Wanda — has located the prime local harvest sites, and he sets out to collect wild mushrooms whenever the beauties break ground. He’s been hospitalized four times during the past decade due to mycological misadventures. He attributes his survival to regular Vitamin B supplementation, Mozart piano concertos, and a positive outlook on life. I would add: a remarkable liver.
That my sister and brother in-law reside in another state brings me back to my proposed television shows, the first of which follows me and a videographer as we journey to southern Colorado, West Texas, northern New Mexico, northern Arizona, southern Utah.
The title of the program: “The Best Cook in Town.”
The choice of locations will resonate with anyone who has traveled what was the northernmost part of Mexico before it was stolen, and where today exist plenty of isolated hamlets and an abundance of place-centered kitchen traditions absent the influence of annoying celebrity chefs and their devotion to unobtainable ingredients and obscure techniques.
The quest takes me, “The Chubby Chowhound,” and my videographer (working name “Nadine”) to small communities located in the designated areas.
Nadine and I roll slowly into a village in our high-mileage Toyota minivan — slowly, so as not to wake the local constable as he naps in his patrol vehicle. I can’t risk a traffic stop; my license expired in 1967 and I haven’t found time to renew it.
We seek out a spot where locals gather: a cafe, church parish hall, grange building, fair headquarters, feed store, county courtroom.
After chumming it up with the residents, expressing concern for relatives unfairly imprisoned, dazzling listeners with my knowledge of obscure saints and related festivals, plunging fearlessly into the Hereford versus Angus debate (avoiding the age-old sheep versus cattle controversy), speculating about the weather, inquiring about the high school football team, lamenting teen sexual behavior and the persistent unemployment problem, I let fly the prime question: “If you could choose a family member, friend, or neighbor to cook an incredible meal for you, perhaps your last meal, who would it be?”
I scan the crowd and pause for three beats, an earnest expression plastered on my mug. Nadine nails a closeup as I turn my head to stare unblinking into the lens. I pause another three beats then, raising one eyebrow and employing my party-pleasing Orson Welles imitation, I trumpet the question, “Who (another pause)… is the best cook in town?”
Before there is an answer, we cut for commercials. The suspense is enough to prompt viewers to endure ads for potentially lethal psoriasis remedies, holiday mattress sales, and greasy personal injury lawyers, in order to discover who will be featured in the episode.
Genre-savvy, eh? It should be; I watch at least four hours of TV every day.
I am in a small, rural town where no one knows anything about betel nuts, harissa, Baltic moss vinegar, or a northern Thai curry made with a mortared paste that includes fermented shrimp shells, bird chiles, galangal, and grubs that feed on rotting mango, so I get a lead on a resident who cooks treats that nearly everyone in the community savors — most likely created according to recipes known since childhood, passed down from mom, and her mom before her, and her… etc.
Name and address in hand, Nadine and I motor slowly to a residence. I knock on the door, and we’re met by a woman of late middle age or older who, until she is weakened by my charm, is suspicious and less than cooperative. Chances are good the woman arrives at the door toting a large-caliber handgun.
(Alert! Socially enlightened and edgy readers: don’t jump to the conclusion that this a sexist, socio-economic, and/or racist assumption. It reflects reality in small villages in the Southwest. Fuck off if you don’t like it. If you wish to keep tabs, this is the second “fuck” I’ve employed thus far.)
Once I’ve won the woman over with praise for her yard altar (an old bathtub buried upright in the ground to serve as a shelter for a brightly colored plaster statue of the Virgin Mary), she invites us in. After I dote on the hundred or so photos of her kids, grandkids, and dead husbands, and express my belief in the sanctity of the land grants (or, depending on circumstance and company, agree that “To the victor go the spoils”), the woman puts the pistol on a table next to the couch, and invites me to sit. I tell her about my grandchildren and my preference for the SIG Sauer 320. We bond. I adjourn to the bathroom, ingest a max load of tincture, take a hit or three of Tito’s Homemade Vodka from my hip flask, then return to the living room and resume the conversation. Succumbing to my easy manner and glib patter, the woman agrees to do the show.
Simple as that.
Here’s how it works: while Nadine arranges a proper set in the old dame’s kitchen, the cook and I go to the local market where I purchase the ingredients needed for her masterpiece. We return to her house, shoo the cats off the kitchen counter and, lights blazing, camera rolling, mic live, she shows me how to make …
(In northern New Mexico, the dish might be red chile with ground beef or pork, rellenos, a pot of green, some posole. In southern Colorado — the interesting part, nothing east of I-25 — I could learn to bundle and steam tamales, concoct a “Slopper,” produce a load of spectacular carnitas, perhaps some biscochitos or, in Trinidad, it’s possible I prepare cotechino with one of the few residents left there who descend from Italians who worked the mines and coke ovens more than a century before. In west Texas, there’s a good chance I encounter chicken fried everything, sublime biscuits with sausage gravy. Wending my way to the Navajo Nation, to Shiprock, Window Rock, or Kayenta, if lucky I get the chance to make Kneeldown Bread to serve with mutton. Perhaps someone in Dulce, New Mexico, seat of government for the Jicarilla Apache Nation, still knows how to prepare acorn stew. I reserve a trip to southern Utah as a last-ditch option, since there is little there other than browbeaten sister wives, green Jell-o with mini marshmallows, and funeral potatoes.)
I expect that the most entertaining and informative stops during the Best Cook series will take place in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. This is where delights I’ve known since childhood regularly make it to the table. There’s fine pickings here.
An elderly woman invites us into her home in southwest Santa Fe. She and I make a trip to a small market located next to a fabric store on Cerrillos Road, a couple miles from the tourist-polluted plaza, a world away from overpriced restaurants, galleries packed with crappy art, and curio shops dealing mundane turquoise and silver jewelry.
The market has everything we need in order to prepare classic salsas: tomatillos, garlic, onion, tomato, cilantro, and peppers fresh and dried, — the dried peppers (guajillo, ancho, arbol ) stored in large open bins, the fresh (jalapeno, serrano, poblano, anaheim), piled on stands.
A salsa casera: charred Roma tomato, jalapenos, and garlic, a stemmed Chile arbol, cumin, lime juice, salt, all pulsed into a chunky mess in the processor. I’ve heard some cooks add a bit of bouillon powder for heft.
A simple raw salsa verde: tomatillos, serrano, garlic, white onion, cilantro, salt.
Salsa negra: dried guajillo, dried mulato or anchos, toasted then rehydrated, garlic, salt, chicken base, the ingredients pulsed with a bit of the water used to rehydrate the chiles.
The salsas serve to bless more than a standard taco or humdrum tostada. A favorite of mine is a fish sandwich on a toasted bolillo roll, the battered and fried filet bedded on slices of avocado, slathered with fresh mayo and salsa negra, then sprinkled with either queso fresco or cotija. Or, how about a breakfast burrito stuffed with papas, chorizo, cheese, and scrambled eggs, with a peppery slurry, inside and out?
Perhaps a bit of salsa added to a mushroom ragout that blankets a rare filet.
Ah, yes … the dried chanterelles from Oregon.
Dried mushrooms, like dried chiles, must be rehydrated before their essence blossoms. Umami and “nuttiness” are the name of the game with chanterelles.
I remove half of the chanterelles from the pack (there’s enough for two applications), and reconstitute them in hot water. I drain the mushrooms then cook them with a mire pois in a combo of olive oil and butter. In goes some of the liquid used to refresh the shrooms, along with a teaspoon of chicken base and a glug or two of white wine, and the blend is reduced. Next in: butter, tarragon, microplaned garlic, heavy cream, salt, pepper, a significant wad of country Dijon. This potential arterial disaster is reduced and, while it cooks, I sauté chicken paillards in oil and butter (the pounded and seasoned thighs floured, dipped in egg wash, and coated with panko), then finish them in a bath of hot, creamy, fungus-touched goodness. A scattering of chopped parsley, perhaps some freshly grated parmesan, and, voila!, I’ll have poulet avec wild mushroom mustard cream sauce.
(I toss in the French to appease the few college grads who’ve managed to read this far without stopping to fire off a reproving e-mail.)
This dovetails with my second idea for a TV series: The Burger Boys (to be accurate, I must share credit for the idea with my friend, Sidney).
The Burger Boys features me and Sid as we search for the best burger in the American Southwest — excluding Arizona, Utah, southern Nevada, and most parts of New Mexico and Colorado, since we don’t want to travel too far from home base in Siberia With a View. We’re usually totally fucked up, and we tend to get confused if we stray from familiar turf.
Sid is an erstwhile real estate developer with plenty of time available for gin and weed. I’m a ne’er-do-well, with plenty of time available for the same. We’re each of us hefty, perfect for our roles.
The first season of the proposed show involves visits to ten burger joints where Karl and Sid sample wares claimed by patrons to be without peer. We provide ample, astute commentary as we feast, and viewers vote at season’s end to select the best burger.
The winning owner/fry cook receives a prize: a patio lot in a partially complete subdivision located south of Belen, N.M. — partial due to the fact there is no infrastructure in place. Sid ran out of money before he could get the project beyond the plat approval stage. Over the years, several squatters move camper shells and dilapidated trailers to the arid, desert land, and put up a sign near the highway that reads: ”Rattlesnake Acres. No Trespassing.”
I embellish in the spirit of social sensitivity. The sign actually reads “Radlesake Aker. No Trezpasng.”
We’re serious about the project, so Sidney and I make test runs as The Burger Boys, and visit three establishments in the region to scout out options. We do so during trips to watch high school wrestling tournaments. Sid loves the sport; I like to attend and bet with local fans on the outcomes of the matches, taking side bets on which kid will get a friction boner during a bout.
Sid and I drink quite a bit during the trips (don’t drink and drive, folks), and a formidable amount of weed is smoked in order to calm the nerves and focus the mind.
The Burger Boys visit Tom’s Burger Barn in Cortez, Colorado, and wolf down triple cheeseburgers. We stop in Saguache, Colorado, and tie into the renowned Cowpoke Deluxe at The Dinner Bell.
The project meets a sudden and sorry end at Chubby Chicken in Aztec, New Mexico, where we’re served the legendary green chile cheese burger with grilled onions by the jumbo Jack Mormon mother and daughter who run the place. Sidney asks the gals to add sauteed mushrooms to his burger and, near the end of the tournament at the Aztec High School gym, the melange overtakes my amigo.
I’ve detailed what occurs in other essays. It is enough here to revisit the image of Sid, pants around his ankles, squatting in the glare of headlights on the front lawn of a house near Arboles, Colorado, waste flushing from his system like a major dam release. A security light flashes on and a gentleman toting a shotgun appears on the front porch of the house. To this day, I enjoy summoning the memory of Sid crab-walking to the car in a panic, warning shots being fired in the distance, ten or so squares of toilet paper caught in Sid’s ass crack and fluttering behind him, me accelerating out of the driveway in Sid’s Camry, gravel spitting behind the wheels of the car, the passenger door flying open, empty gin bottles shattering on the asphalt as I fishtail on to Colo. 151, swerving to miss deer that depart a stand of pinon to dart across the roadway.
Sidney reports that he motors past the house a week later on his way to the casino in Ignacio to participate in the weekly slot tournament, and spots police crime scene tape surrounding the dump site.
“Those weird fucks in Arboles probably think the pile was left by aliens,” he says.
He’s right. Quite a few genetic experiments have gone horribly wrong in Arboles over the years. Odd folks abound there; strange notions sprout, survive, and thrive.
It is the end of the Burger Boys.
Thanks to the mushrooms.
The chanterelles lend body to the sauce as it simmers and thickens. I free associate as one does when watching sauce bubble, and I touch down on my idea for the recorded radio series. I recall odd smells, Jane Austen, sagging flesh, shackles, death threats, and Nazis.
With a tip of the hat to Bosch, the interview series is titled “Garden of Earthly Delights: Voices From Where the Sun Don’t Shine.”
The aim of the series, conceived in 1978: record interviews with people working in Denver’s skin trade, in its heyday. Where the sun don’t shine. It is to be a ground-breaking exercise in cultural anthropology, the effort unsoiled by meddling, jealous academics eager for tenure.
Once the interviews are on tape, the plan is to take the tapes to a friend, the program director at the free-form station, and introduce him to material that makes “free form,” at last, ring true.
Prospective interviewees? Here are a few.
• Pete, and Leilani Hawaiian Sex Goddess.
My partner at The Rocky Mountain Oyster, Jim (the sales genius of all time), and I encounter this duo as we make our rounds in Sleazeville.
Many of the old neighborhood movie theaters in Denver are out of business, some of the buildings sit empty, several are remodeled to feature a “retail arcade” with small stall operations offering customers macrame plant hangers, awkward pottery, misshapen candles, patchouli-scented unguents, homemade bread sticks, clunky sandals fashioned from cast-off car tires, other shabby and sad things of this nature.
A few of the larger venues are put to use as porn theaters and one, The Webber, on Broadway, features a “live classic burlesque revue” between showings of Behind the Green Door and The Devil in Miss Jones.
The run-down theater is leased by a quarrelsome Teutonic chap who insists we refer to him as “Pete.”
We discuss the guy as we drive to the theater. I’m convinced that his real name is Dieter, or Franz. Jim agrees. Jim thinks Pete is a Nazi war criminal in hiding. I agree. We’re trashed, so we agree on everything.
The star of the burlesque revue, and its only performer, is a woman who goes by the name, onstage and off, of “Leilani Hawaiian Sex Goddess.”
Pete, four decades her senior, is passionately in love with Leilani and, desperate to curry favor, he allows her to twice daily take to the stage and display herself to an audience of ten to fifteen middle-aged men seated at comfortable distances from one another in the musty, dark space. The theater floor is swabbed with a pine oil solution three times a week.
Jim and I sit with Pete in what was once the projection booth as Pete works sound and lights for his paramour.
The stage is dark. The music begins: commercial Hawaiian luau tunes, ukeleles galore, hollow logs struck with clubs. We hear the sound of pants being unzipped.
Barely audible to start, the hula music crescendos as a kitchen match is struck and two balls of flame appear at the back of the stage.
The balls of flame begin to move in a blazing circle, we smell burning kerosene.
Pete hits a switch. Blue light illuminates a figure at the rear of the stage: a chunky gal with long black hair, barefoot with a bloodstained bandage on her left heel. She wears a skimpy bra resembling two halved coconuts, and a grass skirt is cinched below her pooky tummy. A band of fake flowers is lashed around each ankle, a garland of poinsettia leaves encircles the top of her large head.
The woman hulas/sashays somewhat seductively to the front of the stage while twirling a pole with a bundle of flaming debris tied at each end. I wonder aloud if poinsettia leaves ignite easily. Jim expresses concern as well, and notes that there is a fire station located two blocks to the south. Pete scowls.
Hawaiian Sex Goddess.
Hips akimbo, loosely structured flesh moving every which way, fire balls rotating, Leilani gyrates in pseudo-sexual fashion (she claims she created her routine when she was the opening act for Blaze Starr) and as she does so, Pete switches the lighting from blue to red.
Pete turns to me and Jim and, with a pronounced accent, Low Prussian if I’m not mistaken, loudly hisses, “She is the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen… no?” He exhales dramatically, as if he’s been kicked in the chest; he stares at us, eyes icy blue, pupils dilated, and waits for our responses.
“You betcha, Pete.”
“Oh yeah, for sure, the most.”
Pete reaches to a plate set on the shelf next to him. On the plate: two room temp chili dogs, topped with chopped white onion. He grabs one of the dogs and takes a bite. Hunks of bun and bits of bean fall from his mouth as he hisses, “So beautiful.”
Leilani’s fire clumps burn out. She tosses her pole to the side and engages in two minutes of provocative moves, removing her few items of clothing as she ripples. Ukeleles are strummed, logs are thumped. Her nether world is shaved clean, oiled and glistening.
The music ends, Leilani bows, gravity works its magic on her pendulous breasts as she skips off stage.
We hear the sound of pants being zipped up.
There is no call for it, but Leilani, a show biz vet, returns for an encore.
We hear the sound of pants being unzipped.
Pete hits the blue light, and puts That’s The Way of the World by Earth Wind and Fire on the sound system. Leilani lumbers to the lip of the stage where she sits, legs over the edge, and invites the audience members to come forward and inspect her vulva. She is the center of attention, a star. Pete uses a pin spot to highlight ground zero for Leilani’s admirers.
“She is truly a goddess, no?,” asks Pete, again fixing us with his SS-in-Warsaw stare. I notice a long, thin scar that descends from the outer corner of his left eye to a point just above his jawline. Shrapnel from a Red Army mortar shell fired during those last desperate hours in Berlin?
“You betcha, Pete, a goddess from the Big Island,” I reply.
“You owe us for three ads. Pay up, we gotta go,” says Jim.
Pete stuffs more chili dog into his maw, chews, swallows, chuckles. “You foolish boys. She was born in Tijuana. Her name is Lupe.” He pays. We leave.
I figure my first interview questions for Pete will be, “How would you describe your time in the Hitler Youth? What were your summers like?”
For Leilani: “What is Poi? And: “Did you enter this country legally?”
Pete and Leilani are typical of the guests I plan to host on my pre-podcast masterpiece radio show — regular folk, mired knee deep in the muck.
• Dan, the owner of four incredibly profitable businesses in the area, the anything-goes establishments known at the time as “topless/bottomless bars,” the dives catering to the adolescent fantasies of bellowing, belligerent high school dropouts, and angry divorcés.
Dan. Leisure suits, Drakkar Noir, Japanese sports cars. Two henchmen — Clarence and Eddie — dunderheads in thrift store suits at his elbows wherever he goes. A Krugerrand on a gold chain.
“Drilled the hole myself,” he shouts, holding the one-ounce gold coin out for all to see. “Any idea what these fuckers are worth? Huh? I got more of ‘em than I can count.”
He has bigger goals now that he’s made a fortune with venues that feature women who lower themselves over thirty quarters stacked on top of a beer bottle, capture the quarters in an intimate fashion, and teeter on platform shoes to the dressing room without losing a single coin.
The most important of Dan’s goals is to create an ice cream operation to rival, then obliterate Baskin Robbins. He hates Baskin Robbins — something about caramel and a loose crown.
Dan envisions a franchise set-up with hundreds of stores in the US and Canada, the outlets featuring “homemade” ice creams and sherbets — delivered in cones and sundaes prepared by teenage employees (“nice kids, religious kids like Baptists, so they won’t steal from me or fuck the customers”).
“We’ll have ice cream with macadamia nuts, passion fruit, and shit like that. The joint is going to be called ‘Mother’s” says Dan, beaming as he points at a full color illustration of a franchise facade displayed on a small easel set in the corner of his office. As Dan details his strategy, Clarence and Eddie nod in unison and say things like “Uh-huh,” and “Great idea, Boss.” Clarence reeks of Sen Sen and bourbon, Eddie of low-end shake.
The sign on the front of the building in the illustration features a woman, a 1930’s housewife, hair permed, apron around her waist. She smiles, waves with one hand and holds an overly large ice cream cone in the other. A cartoon balloon next to her head includes the words “Welcome, come on in, the kids will serve you a cone!”
I’ll ask Dan if he was abandoned by his mom when he was young, or if mommy was an alcoholic and/or evangelical freak who beat him with a coat hanger when he didn’t eat his carrots and brush her hair. I’ll ask him if the quarters on the beer bottle routine was his idea, and if the employees involved in the pickup maneuver ever wonder where the quarters might have been since they left the mint.
- Twin sisters from Chicago: Annette and Clara.
Annette has an MA in art history from Northwestern, program emphasis architecture, Clara an MA in literature, specialization in British lit, from the same university.
Following graduation, the twins travel to Denver, begin to dress differently and, finding no jobs available in their chosen fields, they decide sex is it. When in need, rely on poon, or one of its offshoots. It’s always there, dependably profitable. They knuckle down for five years, each in her own way, and they are successful.
Annette lives in a luxury high-rise apartment building in downtown Denver, her space a testament to the variety of fawn, tan, and beige wall paints and fabrics available to the tasteful decorator.
Annette makes her living as a madam. She operates the most prestigious outcall business in the city, and keeps a “book” with a list of names, male and female, that mirrors the city’s Social Register. She makes her initial contacts during a stint as a “concierge” at The Denver Country Club, shortly after she arrives in town.
She employs several large fellows noted for their propensity for violence in order to keep the common pimps and predators who populate the low end of the trade from troubling her or her “escorts and companions.”
Annette sits next to me as we flip through magazines featuring color photos of English manor homes and country residences. Annette favors the work of Regency and Georgian architects, predictably Nash and Soane, lavishes praise on Pitzhanger Manor and laments its decline, then falls into a reverie while discussing Nash’s work in Wales, in particular Llanayron House and Ffynone Mansion. We spend considerable time admiring photos of lintels before Annette reveals that her dream is to one day live in a cottage at Blaise Hamlet.
“Without a lofty goal, my life would be untethered, absent meaning.”
Annette confides that she has never had sex with a client and, in fact, has not experienced the act since the night she was deflowered at age 19 in the back seat of a Dodge at a suburban Chicago drive-in theater by a halfback on the Northwestern football team while her sister, Clara, made a trip to the snack bar to purchase a large order of fries, three Cokes, and a giant dill pickle.
Clara lives in a bungalow in northwest Denver, the house located on Hooker Street.
Clara considers herself an accomplished Austen scholar, and rightly so: she’s had several articles published in prestigious journals and has attended four conventions of The Modern Language Association.
“But,” she says, “I’ve read widely in continental literature as well and, when I was an undergrad, I was introduced to de Sade by a likeable but unstable teaching assistant. He loved Chartreuse and, after a potent Verdant Lady, he would veer into darkness. He was eventually institutionalized. I revisit Juliette now and then. Have you read it?”
I have. I go on to lie, telling her I’ve twice read Emma and Northanger Abbey when, in reality, what with my ADD, I struggled to read half of either. She buys it, and she and I are tight.
The ground floor of Clara’s bungalow is furnished like the residence of a widowed English grandmother of means – overstuffed chairs and sofa in the living room, lacy antimacassars on the arms and backs of the furniture, uninteresting landscape paintings ornately framed and hung on the walls, an antique glass-door corner hutch loaded with Hummel figurines and a set of Spode.
Austen on the ground floor, Sade in the basement.
The basement of the home serves as a dungeon, complete with whips, rack, torture table, heavy-duty alligator clips, shackles, a car battery and jumper cables, and a bare side room with a floor drain (use your imagination).
When upstairs, Clara acts the English grandmother, hair up in a tight bun, mid-calf skirt, legs crossed at the ankles, eyes averted. She serves me Earl Gray and a slice of Pepperidge Farm coconut cake, and sits beside me on the couch as we snack and gab. She smells like English Rose Yardley soap. She wears gold-rim bifocals, and says things like “I doubt I’ll ever marry, but if I do, it will be to someone similar to, say, a Colonel Brandon, who was 18 years older than Marianne. Better to opt for security than to risk that lust might not evolve into enduring affection.” She sips and nibbles, she watches the clock. She has appointments.
“Oopsy daisy,” she says, “just look at the time. Feel free to stay and finish your tea and cake, and make sure you close the front door tight when you leave; there are suspicious teenagers roaming the neighborhood. Lovely chatting with you, as always.”
She scurries to a nearby room, shuts the door, and emerges ten minutes later.
As Mistress Renee — black leather knee-length high-heel boots, breasts with rouged nipples spilling over the top of a black bustier, blond wig long and disorderly, black gloves pulled to the elbows, lips slicked with dark lipstick, spiked collar around her neck. Her client list, like her sister’s, includes many of the most notable men and women in Denver society, business, and government. Once approved, each client is given a garage door opener. They pull their vehicle into the garage behind the house and enter the bungalow through the back door, their arrival shielded by tall, wood fences on all sides of the yard. The client goes down the stairs to the basement, disrobes, kneels, and silently awaits their punishment. Clara reminds me that no client has ever touched her. “An unacceptable option.”
The sisters communicate with one another on the phone every day, many days more than once. They exchange tidbits about Austen, and discuss which Georgian residences would best suit their favorite author.
I plan to ask Clara what she thinks Sade might have done to Jane, given the opportunity, and whether Austen’s calm demeanor might have unnerved the marquis. Or, heaven forbid, would Jane have enjoyed the experience?
I’d begin my questioning of Annette by asking how long it took the halfback to finish the deed, considering the average drive-in snack bar was an incredibly efficient operation.
• Sheryl, Queen of The Swing Scene.
I first meet Sheryl at the adult bookstore she owns with her husband. She and Chet live with Dina, Sheryl’s girlfriend. Sheryl tells me she and Dina met in the waiting area at the probation office. “Love at first sight, You know? I gave her a ride after we finished our appointments and we made out in the car, in the parking lot, just like that. Moved her right in. Can’t keep our hands off each other.”
Sheryl dresses in low-slung black leather pants and an abbreviated red vest, the top of an appendectomy scar showing above the waistband of the pants. Her necklace sports a large silver Ankh, the lids of her eyes are shadowed bright blue, her shoulder-length, thinning hair dyed bottle black, her fingernails bitten to the quick. Fake gold Egyptian snake bands curl around her bare, sinewy upper arms. She tells me she purchased the bands at a voodoo supply shop in “Nuh Orleeeeens” during a break at a wife-swap confab being held at a Holiday Inn near the North Causeway/I-10 interchange in Metairie.
“There were a lot of couples there from Ohio. The fucking hotel was packed with ‘em. Those people know how to eat. They’re not much at screwing but, goddamn, they shove down the food!”
She sneers, squints like a mongoose ready to pounce, and torches a fresh Marlboro with a vintage Zippo.
Sheryl stops in at the bookstore every day to check the till and the inventory, but spends most of her time at her other establishment —“The Playpen” — located in a southwest Denver strip mall, in a space once occupied by a shoe store, the windows painted black, the dim interior smelling of incense, chlorine, and disinfectant, a large redwood hot tub occupying a back corner, three king water beds set in the center of the room, the beds surrounded by a fleet of futons. Temp at 80 degrees (“our people like it sweaty”).
Sheryl’s ad in The Oyster touts The Playpen as “Denver’s Premier Swingers Peradize” (she insists on this spelling). She explains the operation as she gives me a tour: “People like to fuck, you know? And everybody wants some strange now and then. We don’t allow no single men, but single gals get in free, and get two free drinks the first time they come. Get it? The first time they come? Heh heh.” The chuckles set off a coughing fit. She hacks, she spits, she continues.
“You gotta girl friend? Bet she’s pretty. She’s a hippie, right, lottsa hair? Huh? I’d love to meet her. Swing on by some time. Get it? Swing on by? I’ll let you guys in free the first time you come. Get it…?”
I work up a list of questions to ask Sheryl when I record the interview, beginning with: “Any chance a peculiar uncle lived with your family when you were a kid, and the two of you spent your afternoons in the attic?”
The last time I see Sheryl, I stop by the Playpen to put papers in our news box and collect the previous week’s take. Water runs from beneath the front door. I open the door and spot Sheryl sitting on a soaked futon, pants off, Dina’s head in her lap.
“Son of a bitch Chet snapped last night,” says Sheryl, taking a hit off a Marlboro as Dina works on her tropical zone. “Did too much of that animal tranquilizer. I warned the son of a bitch, told him ‘it’s for fucking elephants, you stupid motherfucker.’ Last night, he snaps, starts yellin’ about Jesus and spaceships, takes out his knife and slashes the water beds right as people are gettin’ to it. We had a Rick James album on the record player and that always gets folks worked up. Damn, it was lookin’ to be a good night. Then that asshole Chet breaks off the drain on the hot tub, tips over the pop machine, runs out screamin’, goes to the apartment, takes me and Dina’s clothes out to the front lawn, pisses on ‘em, and leaves a note says he’s takin’ my Pinto and all the blowup dolls from the store, and goin’ back to Kansas. Wrote the damn note in his own blood.”
“Well, darn,” I say, “that’s a shame. You guys were a great team.”
The humidity in the Playhouse is hovering around 90 percent.
Perfect for swingers from Ohio, perfect for mushrooms.
Which puts me in mind of the fact that nothing beats the combo of sautéed mushrooms and onion, despite what happened to Sid.
Which takes me to…
- Big Phil, owner of a porn store/quarter booth/massage parlor
establishment located just north of the city line, in unincorporated Adams County — the Wild West of the metro area in the ‘70s.
Big Phil inherits the building from his grandmother who ran a small store at the location, catering to migrant workers who tended the nearby fields. The store was at the front of the building, her residence at the rear.
After he graduates from high school, Big Phil drives trucks for a Brighton produce wholesaler, gets married (“Fucking had to, you know?”) then gets his chance to make a break when grandma shucks her mortal coil. Tries the grocery biz for six months, then sees the future.
He tells me that. Several times.
“I seen the future.”
Phil boards up the store windows, paints the facade of the structure bright yellow, and has a sign hung with large red letters announcing “Adult — peep shows, magazines, goods, massage, and a GOOD TIME!”
He empties the store, runs a divider wall down the middle of the space, installs plywood booths on one side of the wall, has the booths fitted with screens, quarter-fed 8mm projectors and porn loops, puts magazine racks and shelves for VHS and Betamax tapes and rubber goods on the other side of the wall. At the back of the store, he builds a platform that rises two feet above the floor, and places one of the glass display cases from grandma’s grocery at the front of the platform, sets a quarter dispenser and cash register on top of the case, fills the case with rolling papers, condoms, lubes, edible underwear, and wooden discs the size of silver dollars with “Big Phil’s Best in the West” printed on one side, the store address and hours on the reverse.
“Smart advertising. That’s what counts, right pal? I gotta handle on this racket. You paddies don’t own this shit.”
American small business, at its best.
The rattle of 8mm projectors and the opening and closing of plywood booth doors is constant, as are the furtive arrivals and departures of clients. Phil takes the bills and dishes out quarters from the upright, silver dispenser as he gnaws on a submarine sandwich and guzzles Pepsi.
He is not a fan of the booth boys.
“Assholes,” he says. “They make a fucking mess. Good thing I got Sammy.”
Sammy is in charge of cleaning the booths. He’s Phil’s cousin, a skinny fellow of about 60 years, balding, shuffling around the store pulling a mop bucket on wheels, limping as a result of an injury Phil describes as “bad loans with the wrong wops back in the fifties. Bat to the caps. Lucky he’s alive. Takes what he earns from me, goes to the dog track every night and loses it. Lives in that little trailer behind the building. Pathetic motherfucker but…he’s family.”
A door to the right of the platform where Phil holds court leads to what was once grandma’s home, and is now “Rita’s Retreat” the massage parlor overseen by Phil’s wife…Rita.
The Retreat consists of an anteroom with requisite pillow furniture, a television set, and subdued lighting, two rooms down a short hallway to which “guests” are led once they’ve made their selection from the “menu” and the deal is sealed, and a small kitchen at the rear of the space where Rita (“the best fuckin’ cook any fuckin’ where”), prepares meals for the employees who eat tacos and fried Spam sandwiches as they lolligag on the pillow furniture chugging Annie Green Springs and watching soap operas while they wait for johns.
Big Phil comes by the “Big” honestly. The man is 6’4” and weighs in at about 300. His ass droops over the sides of a tall stool behind the counter, his massive tattooed arms rest on the top of the case, his sleeveless ribbed T-shirt failing to confine a forest of chest hair, his head the size of a basketball.
He’s a difficult person to deal with, never satisfied with the results from his advertising, threatening each week to back out.
Jim doesn’t like the guy and, come to think of it, no one does.
One day, after we smoke a couple fatties and watch The Gong Show at Oyster Headquarters, Jim announces that he’d love to treat me to lunch at our favorite spot in the northern suburbs: Lolito’s Burritos, a minimalist cafe located in what was once a gas station — one of many incredible eateries Jim discovers during his adventures on the streets.
“We gotta stop at Big Phil’s on the way,” he says. “Phil says he needs a new photo if he’s gonna advertise the parlor next week. You’re the best damned photographer I’ve ever known, bar fucking none, so you go in and take the shot, collect the money. He’s got issues with me, but don’t worry, he likes you. He tells me that all the time. When you’re done, we’re headin’ to Lolito’s! On me!”
I’m too loaded to effectively assess the situation, too screwed up to remember that Jim grew up in Trenton and has a street sense that is unrivaled. His alarm bell goes off when trouble looms, when difficulty gathers at a distance, undetected by ordinary mortals. Ordinary mortals like me. Compared to Jim, I’m dumb as a rock.
I enter the store. I smell onions frying, and Phil shouts from his throne: “About fuckin’ time. Goddamnit, let’s get this shit done. I ain’t got all day.”
I sense that Big Phil is in less than a good mood. Jim sensed it several days before this.
Phil takes me through the door to the parlor. The smell of onions grows stronger. The gals in the parlor sprawl on the pillow furniture, snacking on Pringles, painting their nails, and watching Days of Our Lives.
“Rita,” yells Phil, “get your ass out here. The fucker from the rag is here.”
Rita emerges from the kitchen, an apron around her waist, spatula in hand.
“Keep your shirt on, Phil. I got stuff on the stove.” She returns to her chore.
“Fuck off Phil. I’ll be there in a minute.”
It’s a very long minute. Phil grows more agitated.
“Rita, goddammit, get your ass out here, and put on that outfit I got yuh.”
“Fuck off, Phil, I’m finishing lunch.”
“All right, all right, I’m comin’.” She leaves the kitchen and waddles to one of the rooms down the hall.
Another minute or two passes. It seems like an hour. Phil is sweating profusely, slamming a rolled up magazine against his beefy thigh. Perhaps he’s back to doing speed in an effort to drop a few pounds.
Finally, Rita exits the room and totters to where Phil and I wait next to the recumbent “masseuses.”
Phil turns to the subcontractors. “Get the fuck off the couch. Go into the fucking kitchen and eat something.”
Rita sports a negligee that Phil purchased mail order from Victoria’s Secret in San Francisco, crotchless panties from the display rack in the store, and a pair of clear plastic high-heel shoes with red velvet straps that she’s wound around her ankles to hide some varicose veins.
Rita has given birth to five kids. Enough said.
“Get your ass on that couch,” barks Phil. Rita reclines.
I feel his paw on my shoulder. Phil bears down and turns me to face him. He opens the magazine, jams it in front of me, and points at the Penthouse centerfold — a lengthy Scandinavian lass, mid 20s at the oldest, lounging invitingly, legs wide, parted labia fresh and pink like a rare tropical flower, the tip of her tongue peeking between moist, full lips, breasts perky as all get-out.
Phil walks over to Rita, shows her the photo and says, “Do this, baby.”
He walks back to me, shows me the photo again and says, “ OK, asshole, make her look like this.”
“Well, Phil, I…”
“Like this, asshole.”
I’m using a press Polaroid, a bellows camera with a low-grade lens, and I have one eight-pack of film (fixer and applicator included).
I shoot the first pic, pull the film from the camera, wait one minute, and strip off the backing. Phil grabs the photo from my hand.
“What the fuck!” He shoves the magazine in front of me. “I said like this.” He slaps the magazine with the back of his hand. He has “HATE” tattooed on his hand, one letter on the back of each finger.
Rita adjusts her mass on the couch. “I got this rash on my ass, Phil. It’s really botherin’ me. I gotta get some kinda cream for it”
I take a second shot.
Pull the film, wait, remove backing, Phil grabs. Rita wiggles.
“Goddammit, you are really pissin’ me off.”
Same with photo three. Same with four, and five.
“This damn thing you bought is itchin’ somethin’ fucking terrible, Phil. I gotta get outta it.”
“Shut the fuck up, Rita, and quit movin’ around. Take the photo, asshole.”
Photo six doesn’t go well. Hard to believe, but Rita looks nothing like the Penthouse centerfold.
Phil reaches into the pocket of his jeans and pulls out a .38. He holds it in front of my face. “Take the photo, motherfucker, and do it right.”
For sure, he’s doing speed again.
Photo seven is a disaster. There is no way to hide the stretch marks, no way to slim the torso and thighs, no way to plump the tight, chapped lips, no way to avoid the rash. No perky possible.
I get ready to shoot the last film in the pack. “It’s the last one, Phil,” I say. “You’re gonna have to pick one for the ad.”
“I told you to make her look like this,” he says, shaking the magazine in front of me, his face distorted and red. “Like fucking this! Last chance, asshole.”
I take the shot. Phil’s mumbling incoherently. I wait. I pull the film from the camera.
A hand reaches in and snatches the photo.
It’s Rita. She rips the backing from the photo and looks at it.
She turns to Phil.
She hands it to me and says, “Phil, pay the man. And you,” (she looks at me, and I realize she suffers from strabismus), “as soon as you get the cash, get your ass outta here.”
Lolito himself smothers the plush bean and cheese-crammed burrito with his green chile — extra hot. I celebrate my survival by adding an order of three cheese enchiladas. Jim consumes two burritos, extra chile.
He looks across the table at me as we chow down. “Everything went really well, didn’t it?”
My first question for Phil: ”Tell me about your Dad.”
My first question for Rita: “Tell me about your Dad.”
The list of potential interviewees includes a number of others who are heavily armed and aggressive, and more “Bigs” — Big Ralph, Big Dom. There’s Johnny C, with his bright pink 1930 Ford Roadster (a rumble seat accommodates additional hookers); Beth, the parlor owner in Adams County; Del, the former mechanic who converted a diesel repair shop into a bordello; and Kenny the King, the undisputed ruler of East 17th Avenue for nearly two years, before he was shot and had to retire.
All of them have tales to tell, interesting stories to deliver to anyone willing set aside their moralistic impulses and suspend judgment.
Unfortunately, these days, it’s hard to find many folks able to do this.
But, had I pursued the interview project and begun the process I’d be on to other topics by now, politically correct topics, inoffensive subject matter, and I’d be flush at this late point in life, podcasting from my villa located a couple of miles from Bolgheri, east of Marino di Babbino and the Ligurian coast. I’d be cashing in on Patreon subscriptions and the proceeds from merch sales, with no worry about the IRS. Those craven vultures have no standing in Tuscany.
The chicken in mustard mushroom sauce is mighty good, accompanied by buttered egg noodles topped with a flutter of freshly grated parmesan, partnered with a simple green salad with a tarragon vinaigrette.
But, I don’t sleep well, perhaps due to the combo of an overload of rich food and the depression I experience after encountering the dark void left in my evening by the cancellation of my favorite fascist TV series.
I wake in the middle of the night tossed in a thought storm. I fret briefly about my critic and her message.
Why be troubled? All experience is discursive as it occurs, perspectival, isn’t it? Nothing opens to rational analysis and criticism until it has passed, become history; only then can what was encountered be structured as we speak about it in a manner we agree upon. It is the speaking about that matters, that does the heavy lifting. It is only when form results from the reflective, descriptive act that history, ethics, aesthetics, and “fact” itself, are possible.
Or something like that.
But now, more important …no fucking Live PD. I’ve been set adrift.
What remains is a bunch of dipshit, self-consumed celebrities making black-and-white videos to indicate how enlightened and compassionate they are — in order to get people to pay attention to them.
Nothing solves complicated social problems better than rich people making videos in their mansions in Malibu and their lofts in Manhattan, singing inappropriate songs, acting as if they are sincere, and assuring folks who will never live like they do that they are one with the struggle of the oppressed… digitally, of course, from a distance, allied only so long as their possessions are not in danger. Perhaps they send the occasional donation to the Humane Society, or have a box of stale pastries delivered to a street demonstration.
I pay homage to Rousseau before I drop back to sleep: Most people prefer the comfort provided by unexamined belief, even if they’re wrong.
I sleep again.
I dream of Mistress Renee, Sloppers, and the scent of pine oil.
Nothing discursive about this.