I have a habit of writing songs that go with stories or stories that go with songs, and this is another example. I can no longer remember which came first, the song or the story, and they actually cover rather different subject matter, but somehow they go together anyway, at least in my mind. So I’ve included an mp3 of “On The Avenue” that you might like to listen to as you read. The song was on the Potatomen’s first EP, from spring 1994, and also on our first album, issued a year later. The story was originally published in issue #39 of Lookout magazine in the summer of 1994.
Here’s the song:
And here’s the story:
She looked across the table at me in between large spoonfuls of her avocado stuffed with baby shrimp. “When you get down to it,” she confided, “people are just like cockroaches. You’re never going to get anywhere if you’re afraid to step on a few now and then.”
She dabbed at the corner of her mouth with a paper napkin that in her hands she somehow made look like linen, and smiled slyly. I was used to that smile. She’d always flash it right after delivering one of her pronouncements. It didn’t matter whether she was telling me about the new way she’d discovered to have an orgasm or discussing how it might be arranged for a mutual friend of ours to be run over by a large truck.
The smile meant, I supposed, that I wasn’t to take her entirely seriously, though I did, and I never doubted that she took herself that way too. “When I want something, I go and get it,” she liked to say. “If any slack-jawed knock-kneed little twerp wants to get in my way, that’s his problem.”
It was interesting how it was always “his” problem. She talked almost exclusively about men, whether delineating ways to exploit them or sneering at their predictability and weakness. Women existed in her world only as ornaments and servants. Any woman interesting enough to even momentarily steal the spotlight from her was dealt with in one of two ways: befriended and neutralized, or attacked and ostracized. Needless to say, she had no female friends, though there was a small coterie of hangers-on who thought some of her glamor might rub off on them. “My ladies-in-waiting,” she called them.
You’re probably thinking by now that I’m talking about some high society debutante or movie star or model or somesuch. Not really. Not really at all. Unlike most guys, I actually knew her real name, where she’d come from, knew in fact that she was broke half the time and scared to death of being broke the rest of the time. The first time I’d met her she was a gap-toothed, spaced-out hippie chick hitchhiking with her brain-dead boyfriend near Malibu Beach.
They were headed for Berkeley, and so was I. She let me park my van in her garage until I found my own place, and maybe I was fooling myself, but I felt special because alone out of all the guys she knew, she never asked me for anything, at least not until years later. She’d even do things for me without being asked, though it wasn’t long before I started sensing that she was keeping a running tab on her benevolence.
It was a peaceful time in Berkeley, aside from the occasional riot. There’d been a lot of rain and the vegetation was lush, giving an overgrown jungular look to the place. Peeking out from behind the rampant foliage, the ramshackle hippie houses looked charming, showing only a hint of incipient decrepitude. We walked everywhere with hardly a care in the world, but mostly we lingered on Telegraph, where it seemed like everything that mattered was happening or about to.
In reality there’s no such thing as just hanging out; there always has to be some underlying purpose, even if it’s only to decorate other people’s daydreams. Our own mission was usually twofold: to show off our latest finery and to pick up boys. Well, she did most of the former and all of the latter; in all those months or years or whatever it was, I never picked up anyone of either gender, but I watched her go through what… dozens? hundreds? I don’t know, they all ran together in a bleary wave of sun-pink faces and cascades of frowzy hippie hair and pretentious white boy Afro-curls, all dressed up in rich deep colors of velvet and adorned with garish rhinestones and unnatural colors of eyeshade.
Thinking of the sullen Deadheads and desperate hustlers who populate the Avenue today, it’s hard if not impossible to imagine the carnival array of glam, glitter and acid-tinged fantasy that seemed to permeate it a couple decades previous. But the stroll from Dwight to Bancroft and maybe up past Sather Gate and then around and back the other side of the street was one long flounce down the catwalk of an ultrachic fashion show, with admiring eyes and lustful glances spilling out of every doorway and open-ended possibilities rushing down the spillway like Strawberry Creek after a late winter’s rain.
She’d eye a prospect with the sharp glance of a circling eagle, her beak keying in on his wide-open innocence while her cash register vision rang up his pluses and minuses. This was where I’d come in: too skinny, I’d report, or maybe a little too spaced out, probably a junkie, might not even be able to get it up, oh but he might be worth it, maybe you could even talk him out of that Prince Edward jacket, and besides, it’s getting too hot to stand around out here in the sun much longer.
When in doubt she’d usually go for him; most of the time she’d come back relatively satisfied after an hour or two. It was rare that she’d stay away for the rest of the day, though one time she disappeared for an entire weekend and came back to declare she was in love, a condition which lasted till a bit after noon on Monday.
But mostly it was wham-bam sort of action, going to his place usually, because hers was a half-hour’s walk away and besides, she didn’t want them coming around later to bother her. Then she’d be back on the Avenue by dinner time to begin part two of the day’s quest. I remember how flushed and smug she was the time she was able to brag about going through three boys in a single day, but of course she’d had an early start, around 9 a.m., while I was still off somewhere in my hippie bed.
You might think I led sort of an empty life, just following her around and then having to disappear into a cafe or the student union to brood and write bad poetry while she consummated her conquests, but it wasn’t like that at all. Most of the time this was going on I lived with someone who was content, obsessed even, with staying home and smoking and sewing and staring at the smog-ridden horizon, and who much preferred that I spend my days away from the house. And I was still young enough that mundane things like sitting in the eucalyptus grove or watching the last of the summer fog dissolve like March snow under a warm rain were fraught with a romance and charm that, like most people who were young once, I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to retrieve.
I don’t know when everything started to change – yes, I do, really; I just don’t want to admit it because that might imply that I in some way acquiesced to it – so yeah, it must have been 1972, sometime between spring and fall, and I don’t mean summer, either, because I was away during those months, and like a lot of people, I prefer to believe that real things don’t happen in my absence.
What it was was that the costumes started to turn to clothing, and no, don’t get me wrong, they didn’t become any less splendiferous. If anything the clothing and the attitudes got more opulent, only now it started to be for real instead of dress-up play-acting. Stuff that came from dumpsters and junk stores was now in all the boutiques and at high-style parties up in the hills. Money had entered the picture in a big way.
It wasn’t as cute to watch, but she transferred her pursuit of sex to the pursuit of cash with the same deft energy she’d apply to undoing the fly of an unsuspecting boy. It wasn’t that sex was out the window, just that it no longer existed only for its own sake. Now it had to fit into a larger picture that encompassed potential gain.
Maybe it meant something, or maybe it’s merely ironic, that it was in the middle of that transition that we ended up in bed together for the only time. It was actually more than a “time;” it stretched out into three, nearly four days, practically a lifetime romance by her standards. To tell you the truth, the thing that killed it, aside from the fact that she wasn’t really my type, was the way she insisted on telling me how different this was from all of her other affairs, how I was the only one she could be herself with, how I was the only one she didn’t want anything from. That combined with the herb tea and the ever-present reek of peppermint soap, and I was out the door by midweek.
But we always shared a special understanding after that, or at least we liked to imagine we did. It’s probably time, though, to think in terms of retiring the “we,” because it was becoming evident that I had no idea what was going on in her half of the equation, and possibly never had. She had a car now, where I was still walking or hitchhiking most places, and when she’d give me rides, she’d enjoy reminding me of how special I was because I was the only person she didn’t ask for gas money. Of course eventually she did start asking for gas money and more than that, but a lot of that took place far away from the Avenue and I’m not sure it’s even connected anymore.
Telegraph society was settling out in different directions, polarizing, I guess the social scientists would call it. The drug dealers and the musicians and the hipster designers, the ones who stayed lucky and/or smart (to hear them tell it, it was all smarts, and to hear everyone else, it was all luck), were getting rich and moving away from the Avenue. They’d stop by once or twice a week to sip their caffelattes on the ground floor of the Med, while the down and outers groused on street corners or in the smoky upstairs balcony, muttering about the dark prospects of minimum wage jobs and welfare and coaxing a few more bucks out of mom and pop back in the suburbs.
Eventually she went to Marin County, which even then was a mysterious and fabled land, and this was long before the days of million dollar tract homes and Dom Perignon on tap at the candystore soda fountain. The first time I visited her there, in some enormous house on the side of the hill buried in a tree-choked cul-de-sac, she brought me in through the servants’ entrance; I never knew whether that was inadvertent or meant to be symbolic. There were no servants really, except for a twice-a-week maid, but there might as well have been. Her bed, which I shared with her that night – only for sleeping – was bigger across than my room, and it was the first – only, I guess – time in my life that I slept between satin sheets.
She had always drenched herself in scented oil, changing the flavor approximately once each year. When I’d met her it was patchouli; by now we’d progressed through frangipane and I think jungle gardenia was just about to give way to the first inklings of Dior or one of those other Frenchified substances that to my unschooled senses smelled mainly of money. I still had enough innocence to be both charmed and awed by my surroundings, and I crept around the house with the trepidation of an orphaned beggar summoned to an interview with the king.
The king of this particular domain occupied the upper floor of the mansion-in-wanting. He was a cantankerous old fool who as it turned out was barely older than me, but looked as though he’d survived the March on Moscow, Napoleon’s, that is, not Hitler’s, and had done the whole thing, there and back, with a sack of gold on his back. It wasn’t just his stooped-shoulderness or the cackling glint in his eyes at the mere mention of any exploitable human frailty, nor was it the arrogant contempt with which he dismissed any human endeavor which didn’t redound to his immediate or long-term benefit. More than anything, I suppose, it was the overwhelming mustiness, the stench of centuries that washed across the room every time he began to flap his bony arms and swivel his birdlike neck at the prospect of some new acquisition.
Had I seen these traits in a conventionally turned-out businessman, I would have been swiftly and suitably appalled, for my own ethos was still firmly rooted in the sparse simplicity championed by seekers of truth and the willfully unemployed. But because he cut such a strange figure, with his hideously miscolored bell bottoms and his tasteless snakeskin boots and his unkempt strands of stringy unwashed hair that was already growing very thin around his perpetually furrowed brow, I attributed powers to him that brooked at least fear and possibly even respect. I was stupid, but it often takes many years to learn these things.
She had printed up cards with the name of a fictitious business, followed by her own name and the abbreviation for proprietor, “prop.” He found no end of amusement in that legend, for as he never tired of pointing out, that was exactly what she was, a prop useful, indeed essential, to carrying out his ever-burgeoning schemes of financial legerdemain. What precisely they were I never was able to ascertain, though I always assumed drugs played a central role. At one time he showed me what he claimed was twenty pounds of cocaine, worth a half million bucks at the time and double or triple that at retail, but knowing what I know now, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if he had gone to the trouble of filling twenty bags with baking powder simply to impress me.
Well, that wouldn’t have been the only reason; he never tried to impress anyone for reasons of ego gratification, being after all, a near-hermit. The real point was that if I should ever become “useful” (“useful” was far and away the highest compliment I ever heard him bestow on another human being), I would be sufficiently awestruck to willingly put myself at his disposal.
I was never clear on how I might become useful. I had no money nor prospects of obtaining any. Furthermore, I suffered from some of the same drawbacks as he did, though not nearly to such extremes. Specifically, my dress and mannerisms were not presentable in polite society, and my social skills were negligible. She on the other hand, excelled in these areas, and was constantly sent about town as his representative. I was not allowed to know the exact nature of what she did, and I was only infrequently invited (the word “summoned” comes more naturally to mind) to visit them and their accumulating stores of goods.
I should mention, though I’m not sure it’s germane, that as far as I know, there was nothing at all of a romantic nature between those two, and she loudly dismissed the possibility that any such thing could ever happen. Indeed, she regularly brought her boyfriends to her downstairs quarters, though they were no longer, strictly speaking, boyfriends. In fact, they tended more toward the fringed-suede jacketed, mustachioed and shag-haired lounge lizards who congregated around Marin and Frisco watering holes in the hungry-eyed expectation of something coming along that would put money in their pockets and cocaine up their noses in perpetuity. But to each her own, I figured.
I mostly saw her when she’d turn up in Berkeley, usually in a semi-new BMW or Mercedes which she was always getting ready to trade in on something else. Her visits were always full of mystery and intrigue, even if she was only getting her nails done or picking up some crinkly variety of lettuce for that evening’s salad. She started picking at me then, like why didn’t I show some respect for myself and get some nicer clothes and move to a better neighborhood and stop hanging around with those losers I mistakenly thought of as my friends?
What she said didn’t seem quite right, but her opinions still carried some weight with me because of everything we’d been through together. I wasn’t yet used to the idea that for some people youthful friendship is an investment in, rather than a foundation for the future. Eventually I did become more bourgeois, but that earned more contempt from her than my carefully cultivated underclass status had previously. It was the first time I saw illustrated in action the theory that the upper and lower classes closely resemble each other, minus the social lubricant of money, of course, and that the middle class stands apart as a flagrant aberration from natural human values.
So we drifted farther and farther apart. My clothes were never expensive enough, my behavior never uninhibited enough, my arrogance never assiduous enough; I was neither ruthless nor glamorous enough to follow her into her world, and at any rate, that world was becoming steadily less attractive to me. I had problems of my own, but they were not related to my failure to get sufficiently rich or to be invited to the right parties and be talked about by the right people. Maudlin as it might seem, I was far more concerned about being lonely, about having no purpose in life, about having nothing of true value to show for my years spent on the planet. Things like that I could not say to her; they would elicit only that loud braying laugh that caused heads to turn throughout the room, producing in its wake a secondary ripple of amazement that such untoward sounds could have emerged from such an elegant and bejewelled throat.
So there we were, years after the fact, having one of our occasional lunches on Telegraph, swapping memories and insults, remembering only in the briefest of intervals what had once brought us so close together and now so drastically divided us. The last time we’d met, she’d asked me to move to Marin and take up some unspecified but supposedly highly profitable role in her business. I’d declined, preferring to remain in Berkeley, and we’d quarreled bitterly. I hadn’t really expected to see her again, but when she pulled up alongside me at the corner of Haste in her latest BMW, it was as if nothing had changed.
Something had, however, though she wouldn’t admit it. I sensed that things were not going well for her, financially or otherwise. I did get out of her the news that she and her partner had moved to a much smaller house in a far less prestigious part of “the county,” as the hipsters called it. And though she wouldn’t let me pay for her lunch, I could see she was toying with the notion. After she’d gone, I amused myself with the idea, no doubt spurious, that her lessened fortunes were the direct result of my declining her offer to go into business. I was not, regardless of what you might think, taking pleasure in her diminished circumstances, but rather flattering myself with an exaggerated sense of my own importance.
After that I didn’t see her for what seemed like the longest time. I got caught up in series of mostly failed but nonetheless spectacular endeavors of my own, and no longer felt the need of her approvals to validate my existence. I even acquired a noticeable streak of arrogance based on little more than the fact that I had survived the years reasonably intact while so many of my friends had not. It was in such a frame of mind that I came strolling out of the Cafe Med one late summer afternoon, feeling quite smug and utterly unprepared for encounters with ghosts.
She was hobbling down the street with the aid of a cane. Her features were still delicately sculpted and her skin still as translucent as the finest rose petals, but she had run to fat, drastically so. Despite her elegant accoutrements, she carried with her the air of an embittered suburban matron.
Her voice was tired as she told me, very matter-of-fact, how she’d taken a bullet in the leg during a drug deal gone bad at one of those cheesy motels that line Highway 101 in downtown San Rafael. She talked a lot tougher now, her midwestern accent showing signs of creeping back, her Mae West jocularity giving way to the hard-boiled dameness of one of Cagney’s gangster molls.
She let me buy her coffee, and cadged a dollar for the bridge toll back to Marin. I never saw her again, or at least I don’t think I did. There was a time, last August I think it was, when I saw one of those tacky white stretch limos double parked in front of the Med, and a hefty society-type lady climbing into the back. I had just come out of Shakespeare’s, down at the corner of Dwight Way, and I caught a glimpse of her before she disappeared behind the smoked glass. Something seemed unalterably familiar about the way she moved or the way she arched her neck.
The limo was gone by the time I got down to the Med, but a couple of kids that I knew were hanging around, and I asked if they knew what was up. One guy thought she was a movie star, another said she was a TV reporter doing a “Where are they now?” story on the old Telegraph Avenue hippie scene.
Me, I rolled my eyes and shrugged my shoulders. I don’t like seeing limos on the Avenue anyway, but I knew full well that if I were ever to see her again, it would most likely be either that way or in a hearse. The sun edged behind the Moe’s Books tower, and on cue a stinging breeze sent the day’s detritus swirling in the gutters. For an instant it was if the neon died and the windows were full of candlelight, and plaintive guitar melodies tinkled and all yesterday’s maidens brushed their waist-length tresses in front of pearl-rimmed mirrors.
Then there was a screeching of tires and a revving of engines, and a hollow-eyed desperado was tugging at my sleeve asking for money. My hands thrust deep in my pockets, I pulled my jacket tighter around me and decided that it was late, that I really ought to be getting home.