StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

A Sorcerer on Montmartre – (Chapter Two)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on November 2, 2013

A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

(c) 2013

Montmartre photo

Bridge Chapter from the novel I’ve been working on

(Click the following for Chapters 1234, 5678910 (p. i)10 (p.2)10 (p.3)1112, 13)



Simon the Sorcerer. That’s what Menard Jake Minshew had been calling Simon from the day Simon’s eyes had first seen shapes and his hands had first been able to grasp at the mobiles of Abraham, Moses and Isaiah on the plastic vane above his crib. Why they had to go and name him Simon, Menard never knew. Except that Menard’s wife had kept telling him that the Lord kept telling her to baptize the baby—who wasn’t Menard’s baby but some no-count punk’s—Simon. Menard had refused until his wife had argued that Simon was a good name since Simon Peter was the apostle who’d started the first church and, without the first church, there’d be no Calvary in Wizard’s Stone today. To this point, Menard had shown her the back of his hand, saying Simon Peter had founded a church of graven images and superstitions that the Reformation should’ve put an end to. But, almost in the same breath, he’d changed his mind and decided to go with his wife’s idea—which she’d said was the Lord’s idea—since Menard had wanted to get her in the habit of turning to the Lord. And so, with his own hands, in his own church, with his own water pitcher, Menard had taken it upon himself to christen his wife’s firstborn Simon. He rubbed the sign of the cross on the screaming infant’s forehead but something told him not even that was enough to save Simon.

And Menard had wondered again and again why Simon was his own lot when he was his wife’s mistake. It couldn’t have been so he could pass a test and get in good with God since, as far as Menard was concerned, he’d built Stone Mountain Calvary by the sweat of his own brow and, as such, was already in. It must’ve been there was something in Simon that God had given him to reform. So, maybe Simon was a good name. After all, his namesake, Simon Peter, was symbolic of an order that warranted reform (or, better yet, annihilation). However, Menard had gone on to rethink the matter and determined that he’d go his wife one better and nickname her son Simon the Sorcerer because, among the seven Simons in the Bible, one is a sorcerer who asks the apostles to let him share in their miraculous powers, only to hear from Simon Peter—the selfsame Simon Peter his wife had brought up—“thy heart is not right in the sight of God.” And Menard had not been able to think of a truer description of their own Simon, conceived in sin, unlike his three half-brothers, all junior preachers now with wives and legitimate children of their own. But it turned out, didn’t it, that Menard would never succeed in reforming Simon to his specifications though he’d been able to keep a church community of over 200, the largest in all of Wizard’s Stone, under his spell. Ergo, he’d failed the homework God had given him. Guess Providence won’t be setting him up with that megachurch he’s been praying for all these years.

This is what Simon had been thinking about as he stood at the mirror, combing his hair and smiling, the morning after his first night with Pascal at Soho Grand. Sorcerer—that’s a cheap shot coming from Menard but, for Simon, it’s an archetype of mystery and empowerment, which is probably why Menard and the Bible writers before him had made it into an insult, something thou shalt not be. After all, all of them wanted to be the ones plying the power, casting the hexes, the aspersions and that’s why thou shalt not. But it must have been by dint of his own sorcery, which he’d wielded unwittingly, that he had attracted Pascal, whom he was now watching in the mirror, asleep on his stomach, his bare back rising and falling in gentle undulations.

Simon had already showered and left a message on his boss’s voicemail saying he wouldn’t be in on account of a middle-of-the-night fever, which wasn’t a lie since the best fever of his post-virgin days had been spiking until about three that morning under the sheets that Pascal still was laying under, catching what z’s he could before he had to be up for his morning meeting downstairs in the breakfast room. Simon slowly combed back his brown, ear-length locks. He was wearing the same clothes that he’d made his grand Soho Grand entrance in, but soon he’d have to do the so-called walk of shame back out and make a trip back to Bushwick to change.

He wondered, what was it Pascal saw in him? He appraised himself in the mirror. His skin was copper now on the parts that showed, here at the height of summer, and his body was sturdy if a bit scrawny, still nothing he himself would turn down if it came strutting up to him in a bar or on a subway platform. But his clothes weren’t much to speak of, standard-issue, white-boy, twenty-whatever, Brooklyn: faded, holey jeans, black canvass Chuck Taylor sneakers—clothes that were both in style and didn’t cost much—though he preferred short-sleeved collar shirts to tight t-shirts, which might have made him look a little like a Bible salesman but at least differentiated him from the run-of-the-mill on the J train to and from work. And yet he’d bagged a filmmaker from France, who was laying right behind him.

How in hell’s bells could he have done that, except by some strange sorcery? Must be a new aura about me, he thought. Or, if there were any such thing as a presiding fate (he’d been on the fence about that since long before he’d dropped out of Reginald Hill Bible College), maybe it’d decided to throw him a bone. After all, it’d seen him work hard enough on his self-study French lit (translated) courses. It’d seen him study up so much on France that it’d rewarded him with the best Frenchmen he’d ever seen. Taken further, Pascal’s presence in his life must mean he’d gotten an A on his homework, unlike God’s own flunker-flunky Menard Minshew, with his sodomite stepson and no megachurch to call his own.

Before they’d fallen asleep, Pascal had told Simon he could come to his breakfast meeting if he wanted. It was just going to be Pascal and his co-director Luc, who was staying one floor up, and all they’d be doing was reviewing the interview and shooting schedules for the day. He’d also said he was sorry but he couldn’t take him on location, as he had a full day of meetings around town, some with researchers and historians way uptown at places like Columbia University and El Museo del Barrio. How did Pascal manage to get into this field?, Simon wondered. What strings did he have to pull? Was he the kind who always had been firmly on foot or squarely on horseback, unlike Simon, who seemed to be tripping his way perpetually down some unmarked path that could lead to nowhere? Pascal is 43 now, all established in a career, and he must have started out on the right rung in life to climb as high as he has, thought Simon.

Pascal had asked Simon what he does for a living, and Simon said there’s a big divide between what he does and what he wants to do, even though Simon knew full well he should thank his lucky stars that, after seven years of grunt-work jobs and no college that he’d ever admit to, he was lucky to land his communications assistant position at the August Strindberg Theatre on 38th Street. Simon came clean and told Pascal he was working in a theater, doing a lot of photocopying and mail-outs for new shows, and he wanted to write plays and books but he’d felt he still had a lot of living and learning to do and, he confessed, he hadn’t had any higher education—except at Reginald Hill, which he didn’t confess to, not to anyone, much less someone who travels the world over making films and being important. Simon had already done the math so it wasn’t lost on him that he was talking to someone who, by the time he was his age, had already earned a master’s from the Sorbonne (Sartre and Beauvoir’s alma mater, Simon had also noted) in film et médias électroniques and who, by that time, had already assisted film crews everywhere from Zanzibar and Botswana to Buenos Aires.

Pascal told Simon, “Paris wasn’t built in a day. You’re still in za possible.” Simon smiled, even though he knew Pascal was being a lot kinder than he was realistic, especially for a Frenchman. After all, he’d heard they give you a lot less of a window for getting your shit together in Europe, where you either inherit your profession or have to choose one when you’re barely old enough to drink, whereas in America, you can shoot from the bottom to the top overnight if you’ve got the right gimmick and, even more importantly, the right connections. How sweet, though, that Pascal hadn’t noticed (or wasn’t holding it against him) that his position at Strindberg was entry-level and about four or five years behind that of so many of the people his age who were already starting to tear up the town in whatever their industry.

Simon went with Pascal to his meeting, where he met Luc, a stocky guy with a lot of wispy white chest hair peeking out from under his long-sleeve charcoal gray shirt, unbuttoned down to his sternum. Luc said bonjour and opened a manila folder. From that point forward, Simon merely sat there, drinking black coffee and munching on a cherry Danish while Pascal and Luc conducted their entire meeting in French.

At one point, Pascal lunged at Luc, “Il est trop tard pour modifier le calendrier. Je me suis arrange tous les entretiens.

Oui,” Luc replied, “Sans me consulter.

They seemed to be at each other’s throats over each and every point of the itinerary, but half an hour later, they both glared at each other, albeit with a hint of le-faire collegiality, and got up to go on assignment. Pascal told Simon he’d call him at 4 o’clock and kissed both of Simon’s cheeks, as dispassionately as he would Luc’s, but this was business, so Simon didn’t take the impersonality personally. Simon said enchanté to Luc, gave his hand a solemn pump and took the subway to the Brooklyn Public Library to apply for his first-ever passport before going home.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010)He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband and two cats.

A Sorcerer on Montmartre – (Chapter One)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on September 10, 2013

A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

(c) 2013


A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

© 2013

First chapter from the novel I’m writing

(Click the following for Chapters 1234, 5678910 (p. i)10 (p.2)10 (p.3)1112)


Montparnasse Overture

There are over 300,000 bodies buried in Montparnasse Cemetery and right now Simon Minshew is wishing his could be one of them. He’s looking down from a third-story window of an apartment building. He’s thinking, if he cranes his neck enough, he could spot Sartre and Beauvoir’s grave. He knows where they are. He went and visited them yesterday, as he has done at least a few times a week, these past two months in Paris, sometimes with a bouquet of daffodils and daisies in his arms. But today is gray and rainy and a flock of mourners, attending the burial of someone Simon does not know, have their black umbrellas opened up, high above their heads, forming a raven-wing pattern that plumes and ruffles as the mourners shift their weight from side to side, blocking out all the best tombstones that side of the graveyard.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir rest in the same tomb, though they were never man and wife and believed even less in any kind of afterlife than they did in the bourgeois convention of marriage. And Simon knows that Beauvoir was wearing Nelson Algren’s ring when she died. Still, comme c’est romantique! Afterlife or no afterlife, their ashes are interred together. Simon used to have this picture that’d be him and Pascal someday, if things had gone according to Simon’s daydreams, if Simon could have cut the figure in the world that Sartre and Beauvoir or even Pascal cut, or maybe if he’d had a college degree to boast of—then maybe Pascal’s love might have blossomed instead of withered. Was that it? Not having a degree? Or a good enough job like Pascal? Or any job anymore, for that matter? Or was it that Simon doesn’t know French? Or that he corrupts what little French he does know with innocent but egregious American crassness and a southern drawl, to boot? Pascal never narrowed it down to any one specific thing, so Simon hasn’t known what to fix or how to fix it.

Just yesterday, Simon had made a visit to Balzac’s grave in Père Lachaise. Of the over 90 or so novels Balzac wrote, Simon had stayed in nights or gone to coffeehouses and read at least 20 of them while all the other aspiring types he’d come to know back in Brooklyn and on the Lower East Side were out hitting bars or getting into whatever the latest craze was, according to Gothamist or New York or TimeOut, that month. Shouldn’t he get points not only for knowing the names of, but also for knuckling down and reading, 19th Century French novelists?

And poets! Baudelaire’s bones are right outside in Montparnasse too. In fact, Simon had to point that out to Pascal. Turns out, for Pascal, Baudelaire is just another stone in the bone orchard he yawns and looks out over while reading Le Monde and drinking un café before grumbling his way off to work with that indigenous French sour puss that Simon had come to see so much of on his own flâneur promenades and Metro rides around the city.

Too bad Georges Simenon isn’t on the list of the dead outside. If he were, then Pascal and Simon really could find something to bond over. After all, Simenon is the one who brought Simon and Pascal together.


Pascal wasn’t wearing a sour puss the night they met, but Simon kind of was, educating himself while everyone around him was having fun and unwinding. This was four months ago, when it was still summer in Manhattan. Simon had gone to Métier on Mercer Street after work and settled in on the patio with a liter of Stella Artois—Stella Artois, no less. It was ceremonial, a Belgian brew, custom-made for poring over a Belgian author’s work. He had brought with him a paperback copy of La Folle de Maigret, the original French-language version of a detective novel he’d read in English by Simenon, Maigret and the Madwoman. He’d bought the French version at Idlewild Books and had planned to write down the words he didn’t know (which were practically all of them) and translate them with the help of the Larousse translator app on his new iPhone. He figured, since he already knew the story, this would be a way of learning French from the ground up until such time as he could meet one or the other of his faraway goals: to take a full load of college courses, including French 101, or go live in France and gain life experience like Hemingway and Gauguin. And he had his nights free for these autodidactic pursuits now that he’d given up on love, something that had never once lasted for him, not even into months, in all his 27 years of life. He’d learned to settle for hook-ups instead, which is why he’d also downloaded a Grindr app. But he wasn’t going to troll the west-side streets for fellow Grindr users that night. For the next two or three hours, he planned to make it just himself, Inspector Maigret et Larousse.

Tables kept filling up around him with all kinds of other harried office, gallery and boutique workers shaking off the stress of the day, though it was only a Tuesday and most of them still had three more workdays to go before they could shake off all or even most of their stress. Still their dull roar made Simon feel less alone and didn’t disrupt his self-inflicted studies enough to make him want to reach for the headphones in his Brooklyn Industries satchel. He had his iPod all queued up with a classical playlist, just in case he’d need to drown everybody out with the kind of music that would keep him focused. Good thing he didn’t put on his headphones and press shuffle or he wouldn’t have heard: “Jules Maigret, a-t-il arrêté la folle?”

Now, even if those words had appeared right before his eyes in print, there’s no way they could’ve actually sounded off the pages of his book, not even if this were one of those French surrealist novels he’d heard about but hadn’t looked into yet. He looked up and found they’d come from the table to his left. As Simon took in the figure across from him, he wondered how he could have missed such a marvel coming in and sitting down (and, for a moment, he even congratulated himself: missing something so spectacular must mean he’s a good student, albeit of his own curriculum). “Simenon?” the man continued, “Es-tu un fan de ces livres?” The man’s skin was swarthy, bordering on dusky, and his frame was broad with hale muscles undergirding a gray soft-cotton dress shirt. Simon’s hand flopped away from the page it was keeping. The evening sun was shining hot onto Simon’s forehead and he hoped his skin had bronzed past the point where the sun’s rays could still brand him as the redneck he’d always be, no matter how tan he got or how much he studied up on French and haute culture. It also didn’t help that Simon replied in a honeyed twang, “Sorry, I, I don’t speak French,” which was no lie because, if he’d even known enough to say, Pardon, je ne parle pas français, he sure as hell would’ve said it. Still the man didn’t give up on Simon. He merely chortled, “Alors, pourquois lis-tu cela?” Simon’s face appeared about as mystified by the question as by the gentleman himself. This somehow charmed the Frenchman who, after pausing to smile, extended his hand, “Pascal de Brienne.” And that’s how Georges Simenon squared the deal for Simon.

Simon gripped Pascal’s hand and took note of how it was a different quality handshake than he’d ever felt, strong but somehow supple and altogether different, somehow. In fact, he took so much note, he forgot to give his own name. Pascal had to ask him for it outright. Simon apologized and said, “My name is Simon.” Pascal leaned in, “Your zurname?” Simon couldn’t remember ever being asked his last name by someone he’d just met in a bar but he gave it (must be a European thing, saying your last name, first thing, outside a work situation), “Minshew.”

Main-chou?,” Pascal nodded, “Iz zat French?”

“I don’t know,” Simon said, “It’s my stepdad’s name. I don’t know what he is.” (And Simon wasn’t about to add that, if Pastor Menard Jake Minshew ever found out he had a French last name, he’d be the last to admit it. Oh, Simon could hear Menard’s vituperations now: “Sissified…godless…with churches that’re nothing but pansy-socialist-papist-idolatry art museums, not anywhere’s near mmmyyyyy blood!”)

Et your real fazer, vat ethnic, er, origin vas he?” asked Pascal, “Pardon. I am…I am always intrigued by, er, cultures of diversity, like yours, ’ere, in, in America. I am, er, curieux to know people’s origins.”

“I understand,” Simon said, “Well, as far as my biological father, I don’t know. I never knew him.”

Pascal smiled, “He vaz a sailor?”

“No. No. He was a teenager. It was a mistake. At a keg party. After he found out, he just skipped off to some relative in Mississippi. Left my mom holding the bundle. She was a teenager too.”

“Ah! Zo you’re not from New York, you’re from Miz’ippi?”

“No. Georgia.”


“No. Wizard’s Stone.”

“Vizard’z Stone?”

“It’s a small town. Between Atlanta and Savannah.” That’s where Simon always says Wizard’s Stone, Georgia is, even though it’s light years away from either city, both in terms of miles and savoir vivre. Population 578, it never gets so much as honorable mention, not even on the most thoroughgoing state maps. “My real dad’s last name is Wright. I guess that’s English. Prob’ly Mayflower English. But everybody’s pretty much the same in Wizard’s Stone. Scotch-Irish, English. WASPs. The south, you know. ’Cept my mom. Her maiden name’s Muller. That’s German. Guess that makes me mixed.”

“Moi aussi,” cheered Pascal, “I’m mick’sed! My mozer’s Algérienne. My fazer’s French.”

“And you’re from…Where? Paris?”

“I live zer now, yes, for many, many years. But, er, I am origin’ly from Toulouse.”

After he had confirmed that he calls Paris home, Pascal didn’t register that, despite Simon’s intent gaze, Simon’s mind had just spun off a thousand miles, not to Paris or Toulouse but way down to Wizard’s Stone, which he’d not gone back to once in the eight years since he’d first made his way to New York City, broke and barely legal. From Mercer Street, Simon alone was able to see Wizard Stone’s rickety shacks, pierced-and-tatted-up white trash, Confederate flags hanging in the windows of foreclosed trailer homes, possession charges, battered wives, Bible bangers, empty beer bottles, teeth lost to too much meth and mangy lawns of twice-dead grass. It only made sense that his daydreams had picked this as their moment to plunge him into his Deep South cesspool of origin. After all, Algerian meant Muslim, at least to Simon’s mind, where Pascal had already become for Simon the infidel paramour from Paris whom he’d love to bring down and show off, maybe even as his husband, to Pastor Menard Jake Minshew at the First Stone Mountain Calvary Baptist Church. So what if you’re only Muslim by paternal lineage and Pascal’s father wasn’t Muslim? He’d be plenty Muslim enough for Menard Minshew, who had snapped up Simon’s mother when she was knocked-up jailbait, coming into Calvary and asking if his catchpenny church had an alms closet with baby clothes in it; who had made her cast off her Metallica and Judas Priest cut-off t-shirts; who had told her to quit her cryin’ and shut her two-bit whore mouth while he jabbed in with a sewing needle a long stem of aqua-green ink at the foot of the cross tattooed on her hand, so that the cross would go from upside-down to right-side up; who had made her thank him for it once he was done; who had made her into a housewife straight out of some Southern Gothic horror movie, with eyes gone glazy from watching only PAX, CBN and maybe a little Fox News all day, who answers the phone by screeching “Praise the Lord!” instead of  just saying hello and who’d sworn off her own son Simon—the first of her four boys—the day he’d dropped out of Bible college after not even one year, with a beefcake magazine rolled up in his back pocket and the last black eye, fat lip and bruised set of ribs Menard will ever give him. Yes, Pascal would be plenty Muslim enough for Menard Minshew. And as this homecoming hallucination was Simon’s sole and exclusive prerogative, he didn’t even have to factor in the likelihood of Menard’s Klan buddies stepping in and gunning them down before the two lovebirds could even open their rental-car doors. Instead, in Simon’s vision, Menard and the whole of Wizard’s Stone would be forced to stand there, balking, while Simon and Pascal French-kissed and fucked and fucked and fucked and fucked on the roots of the southern live oak tree on Stone Mountain Calvary’s front lawn. After a post-coital cigarette or two, they’d zip up their jeans, flick their filters and drive away with laughter and lewd hand gestures. It made him hard just thinking about it—something Pascal did register, as Simon had been sitting crotch-out at him (that’s what happens when you wear boxers instead of briefs), and Pascal assumed that he alone had aroused all the enthusiasm he saw abounding in Simon’s trousers—and Pascal on his own, with his soft almond eyes, elegant accent and close-cropped hair, could have aroused it—but there was a more comprehensive fantasy at work in Simon’s mind. As Simon’s reverie faded to black, his mind reeled right back to where he sat on Métier’s patio. “Toulouse sounds magical,” Simon said, “I’ve read about it.”

By now, the sun had grazed off Simon’s face to go brand someone else’s forehead and neck and Pascal had come to join Simon at his table, where Georges Simenon’s tour de force was soon relegated to a coaster for Simon’s first, second and, in time, third liter of Stella Artois. Pascal would soon order one and then another for himself too.

Mais, Toulouse, c’est nodzing compared to Paris.”

“It’s a dream of mine since high school to go to Paris. Is it anything like New York?”

Pascal told Simon that downtown—from Chelsea to the Village to Soho to Tribeca to Wall Street—all of it has some resonance with Paris, mostly due to the cobblestone streets and the superabundance of art, both classic and modern. That’s why Pascal said he loves Métier so much. There’s a cobblestone street outside of it and, inside, Métier is top-heavy with crystal chandeliers and fading paintings of august gentlemen in cravats and greatcoats, who once had names, though not even the waitress, manager or even the owner could tell you what those names or the stories behind them are. Yet there they hang, as vintage as the chandeliers. Pascal said that’s why he always stays downtown whenever he’s in town. It reminds him of Montmartre, one of his favorite districts of Paris. Montmartre, a name Simon recognized from Simenon, but which sounds so much better coming from Pascal, the way the re trills off so subtly when you say it right, as it does with the name Sartre.

Pascal asked Simon, “Do you like cobblestone streets?” Simon said yes. Pascal asked Simon if he’s seen the ones in Montreal. Simon said no. Has he ever been to Montreal? No. Has he seen the cobblestone streets of London, has he been there? No. Not even Boston? No. Where has he travelled? Nowhere, except that one time, up I-85 to I-81, from Wizard’s Stone to New York.

Simon asked Pascal what he’s doing in New York. Pascal said he’s directing and producing a program for French TV. What kind of program? Pascal said geography. Simon replied, “You mean like a nature special?,” but as soon as he said it, he wished he could take it back. Nature in New York City? What’s he supposed to film? Raccoons and possums in Prospect Park? Squirrels and pigeons in Washington Square? On the news once, there was this eagle that nested on a Park Avenue apartment ledge and everyone got their cameras. Pascal laughed and pinched Simon’s cheek, “comme c’est charmant!,” no, he explained, not nature, although the program does mention that Manhattan is built on granite, which is why it can support its skyscrapers. Mais, Pascal went on to inform Simon that geography goes far beyond the study of landmasses, landscapes, and maps. It goes beyond census counts and nation capitals and state capitals and everything that Simon had known as “social studies” way back when he was at Wizard Stone K-12, which he’d attended since halfway through elementary school, when the state had finally turned in a good verdict and deemed his mother unqualified to home-school. In fact, “géographie is poreux, c’est a lot like anthropologie,” it involves subtle analysis of cultures and their resources and the impact that climate has on local economies and the everyday lives and folkways of native populations.

The program he’s developing is a three-part series called, New York: Toujours une Nouvelle Amérique. It will study immigrant populations in New York City, from the 19th Century to today, and explore everything from immigrant life in the early tenements in Hell’s Kitchen and on the Lower East Side to life among immigrants today in places like Canal Street, East Harlem, Flushing and Jackson Heights. It’s all based on a collaborative study of the same name, which a team of French social scientists and historians published this year and from which a team of French TV writers has developed un scenario. Now it’s up to Pascal, le réalisateur, to bring it all to life on film. After he went into all this, Pascal chuckled at himself for being so pedantic. But his oration had the opposite effect. Simon couldn’t wait to get someone so learned and accomplished (French TV doesn’t hire just anybody to make documentaries) into bed.

By now, Pascal and Simon had looked in each other’s eyes enough to begin holding hands as they closed out Métier.

“Is Mount Martyr anything like Diagon Alley?”


“From Harry Potter.”

“Ha! Books again! Vy you read Simenon, all alone here at night, eh?”

“To learn French.”

“Vy you vant to learn French?”

“So I can go some day.”

“Let me teach you,” Pascal said, kissing a few of Simon’s knuckles.

Pascal picked up the beer tab, brushing off Simon’s halfhearted clamoring to pay for the three he drank. How their evening together ended may have been as predictable as last call at the bar, but their first kiss, which Simon received with his back up against Métier’s service door (before they hauled out the trash), brought him alive to the point where he could let the dead bury the dead back in Georgia. Right then and there, Simon would retire any exhibitionist fantasies he’d set in Wizard’s Stone and recast them on a Parisian dreamscape, where he and Pascal would do all their lovemaking tout seuls in some Left Bank apartment (he’d people the fantasy with furnishings and designs later, as no doubt he’d be replaying it for some time to come). A crescent moon hung high in a star-studded sky above the Manhattan Bridge as Pascal and Simon went arm in arm, nestled like two purring cats, down Mercer Street’s cobblestones to Pascal’s room at the Soho Grand.

In all his years in New York City, Simon had passed the Soho Grand countless times and had always wanted to go in. Now here he was, a guest, or at least a guest of a guest, and he couldn’t have planned his entrance better if he were Inspector Maigret lui-même. If nothing else, it beat the hell out of inviting Pascal to Simon’s sinkhole in Bushwick, where Pascal’s libido would never be able to withstand the sight of Simon’s three hipster roommates with their uncoordinated bodies and tacky t-shirts offset by trendy tattoos and high-end haircuts. Another thing Simon knew for sure: he’d be calling in sick to work the next morning.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010)He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband and two cats.

Finding Exile on Main Street: A Patchwork Confessional

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on March 8, 2010

Mike Levine sent me word that he read a New York Times article on how they’ve rediscovered many lost tracks from Exile on Main Street (1972).

In honor of this momentous occasion, I’ve decided to reprise a memoir piece that I published three years ago in the now-defunct magazine Sentient City. Here it is:

Finding Exile on Main Street: A Patchwork Confessional
By Kyle Thomas Smith

“The shadow becomes a force in our psyche as we regularly exile the emotions that could elicit rejection from others.”

– Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance

This is going to be tough. How do you write about true love? It’s ineffable. Some of the greatest poets have died trying. For me, hearing The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street for the first time at 16 was an epiphany worthy of Blake and Joyce. Yet, for the past 16 years, whenever I’ve tried putting the experience into words, I’ve only ended up swooning. That’s fine for nonverbal communication, but what about for writing? So, now, I’m just going balls-out and, if I end up swooning like I usually do when I broach the subject of the greatest album ever made, I’ll just pick myself up off the floor and keep typing until I’m down to my last swoon. Warning: I foresee many detours on my way to Main Street. After all, the heart has many landscapes and it’d be a shame to leave them bloodless and lifeless when they can lend so much color.

Let me start with a story I heard about Picasso. When he was 78, a rich American noticed him sketching in a café on a plaza in Barcelona. She scrounged up the nerve to approach him: “I know who you are. Draw me. I’ll pay you.” Picasso appraised her. She steeled herself. He nodded. She let out a shriek that would have made her a pariah of the literati and jet-set at the neighboring tables if the master hadn’t offered her a place at his. Picasso ordered the American woman a highball and waited for her to swill it down so that he could catch her in repose. Then he flipped to a blank page in his sketchbook, made a few lines, drew in some waves of her hair and her arms. Then he signed it, ripped it out, and handed it to her. Before she even had a chance to look at it, Picasso said, “That’ll be a million dollars.” The American woman bolted up and fell back down into her chair: “A million dollars! That took you fifteen minutes.” Picasso wagged his finger, “No, Madame. It took me 78 years and fifteen minutes.” The woman stood up and turned on her heel, leaving the sketch facedown on the table.

Sometimes I wonder what she would have seen if she had given it a good look. Picasso may have overcharged her, but he might have also imbued that sketch with every success in art and failure in love he’d ever had. In a lucky strike, he might have conveyed the whole of his childhood and his humble beginnings as a painter and the misery of his mistresses and maybe he had even intuited the American woman’s life story and transmitted that to the sketch too. It’s been known to happen. Sometimes all creativity collides in a thunderclap and the product can be a brave new universe of expression. If that had happened for Picasso that afternoon in Barcelona, a million dollars would have been a pittance for the woman to pay. Just think what collateral she could have had in her estate!

Should I be calling Pablo Picasso an asshole? Is it naïve of me to think he could have made a million-dollar masterpiece in one flush? I don’t think so. That’s practically how it happened for the Stones in the south of France when they recorded Exile on Main Street, the album I credit for redeeming my youth. And I bought it used, on vinyl, for just $4.99.

“I gave you the diamonds. You give me disease.”
The Rolling Stones

Not that everything went off without a hitch before the album’s studio production. In his new book, Exile on Main St.: A Season in Hell with The Rolling Stones, Robert Greenfield writes, “To say that the human toll exacted during the making of Exile on Main Street was extreme is an understatement of major proportions.” True enough. In the summer of 1971, The Stones and their entourage managed to consume more drugs and parade more decadence through Keith Richards’ Nellcote chateau than Caligula and his consorts had throughout his reign in Rome. If they hadn’t been so stoned, they probably would have also cut off more heads per capita than the Julio-Claudian court too, what with all the catting around they were doing with each others’ girlfriends and wives. The Stones perfected the Ten Non-Virtues to the point that, if the Buddha would have incarnated about 2,600 years later, he wouldn’t have even had to deliver the Dul Lung sutra. He could just whip out Warhol’s Lips-and-Tongue Logo like he did the flower on Vulture Peak and we’d all get the point.

After retreating to France as tax exiles, unable to pay the levies against them in England, the Stones had shipped in the highest-end recording equipment with the last of their pocket lint, only to find that the equipment didn’t cut it, so they weren’t going to use it. Later, they realized they didn’t have enough electricity for their set, so they hijacked it from the local railroad system, hoping to wrap up the final cut before the French authorities could beat down the door. What a stroke of genius for Greenfield to subtitle his book, A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones! That summer, the Stones made Rimbaud’s absinthe-spiked odyssey look like minutes from a Temperance Society meeting.

When I was 18 and newly legal, I somehow got my hands on a copy of a banned, black-and-white documentary film (later legalized in 1998) called Cocksucker Blues, which follows the Stones’ ’72 tour for Exile. It was cinéma vérité at its pornographic nadir. Mick would stumble drunk on to stage. Keith would shoot up and nod out in full view. They had on-camera orgies with jailbait every other scene. I know it sounds entertaining, but there was nothing so base to my eyes. They were all literally sick – vomiting, crying, blacking out, going cold turkey.

Just before that, I’d also read Many Lives, Many Masters and, in doing its past-life regression exercises, became convinced that I had been the Stones’ founding member Brian Jones before reincarnating about five years after his death as Kyle Thomas Smith. Three years before Exile, the Stones had kicked Jones out for doing too many drugs. (If you get kicked out of The Rolling Stones for doing too many drugs, honey, you got problems.) Within two months, he was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool, his system crammed to the pores with intoxicants of every make and model. So, in my current incarnation, I all but wept watching this contraband video and seeing what a scene I’d been in. (And, believe you me, paying off Brian Jones’ karmic debt has been a bitch.)

Still, neither Cocksucker Blues nor my past life as Brian Jones sullied my love for The Stones or for Exile. I have little interest in the band’s drug abuse, sex scandals and studio politics. I am floored, however, by how they suddenly managed to get past all those things long enough to let it loose with jam sessions that comprise a double album that so gloriously spans the genres from Tin-Pan Alley to greaser rock to country and blue grass to gospel, from the most soulful Mississippi melodies to the sluttiest Chicago blues. If Picasso had spent 78 years and 15 minutes on that one sketch at the café in Spain, then the Stones had packed countless lifetimes of rough roads into one randy-ass record in France.

My Life, Pre-Exile
“I’m no schoolboy, but I know what I like…”
– Jagger/Richards, “Brown Sugar”

I’m the youngest of seven kids. My oldest sibling Colleen is 15 years older than me. She saw the Stones twice, once at the Chicago Stadium in ’75, a year after I was born, and another time at Soldier Field when she was in college for their 1978 Some Girls tour. Once, when I was 12, I helped Colleen move apartments and she returned the favor by giving me a ragged copy of Sticky Fingers on vinyl. It was the first full-length album to feature those slag-banging Stones lips that Andy Warhol had designed. He’d also done all the cover art, where there was an actual steel zipper over a man’s bedenimed crotch. You could yank it down to expose the bulging briefs inside. Many years after Colleen had moved out of my folks’ house, I also found a program in our crawl space that she’d brought home from the ’75 show. Annie Liebovitz had done the photography. (All these little tributaries of decadence slipping into my formative years – now a mother of two, my sister teaches catechism at a Sunday school in Illinois.)

At the time I first spotted the program, my head was half-shaved. This was two years before I’d find Exile. I wore a spiked bracelet and was into Sex Pistols, Millions of Dead Cops, and the Revolting Cocks, so I feigned apathy for dinosaurs like The Rolling Stones and once even committed the unpardonable blasphemy of breaking Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World LP in two over my knee just to show that I was over my old tastes. (David, if you’re reading this, know that I’m sorry.) But then I flipped to a certain page where I was arrested by a black-and-white, Liebovitz still of Jagger looking like he was about to fellate the microphone he was crooning into with his Hindenburg lips and doorstop mouth; his glitter-greased owl eyes upturned and a shower of white rose petals cascading around him on to the stage that he stretched his lithe, Leonine body across. I tried to cast the program aside, but I couldn’t, couldn’t put it down. Nor could I bring myself to defy my newfound punk religion (I still can’t say why, my punk-rock loyalties were whorish at best), so I placed the ’75 program back into its cardboard box with the same care a lovely child might for a fledgling that has tumbled out of its nest. Periodically, I climbed back into the crawl space for clandestine encounters with it.

“To experience the loneliness of our soul is the hardest thing in the world.

– Brigitte Bardot

I’m afraid to write the rest of this memoir piece. It will require that I delve deeper into my teen years. It’s the only way I can begin to describe what Exile was to me at 16. I don’t want to make myself out to have been cooler than I was. We all know what happened to James Frey when he did that. Truth is, I was a lot like Lily Tomlin’s character, Agnes Angst, who wore so much chains-and-leather that she set off electric garage doors whenever she walked down the street. Every time she got kicked out of her house, she’d go to a payphone outside IHOP’s piss-oire and suck up the airtime on this one radio shrink’s call-in show. She’d do readings at a place called the Anti-Club: “No matter how much contempt I have for society, it is nothing compared to the contempt society has for me!” Her grandparents said she had the manners of a terrorist.

Yes, I was a delight like Agnes Angst. Yes, I was an outsider like James Frey claimed to have been. Yes, I was lonely like Stephen King’s Carrie and I still think that cheerleader skank got off easy at the end. Yes, I was a low-GPA fuck-up like Marshall Mathers and, just like him, have never gotten over how the school system failed me instead of the other way around. Yes, I smoked and drank my share. Yes, I took early residence with my notebooks in coffeehouses and have been in them ever since. Yes, in my south-side Jesuit high school, guys tagged graffiti on classroom and bathroom walls about me being the class faggot. Yes, I entertained one or two proto-Trench-Coat-Mafia fantasies.

The bullies found they couldn’t dismiss me so easily, though. I wasn’t their typical Tinkerbell. I didn’t swish down the halls with a snippy comment, falsetto voice, Preppy Handbook and haywire Oedipal Complex. No, I liked my music raw, my philosophy existential, my parents absent, my jokes raunchy, my smokes rolled and my men…well, I’d slept with a couple girls, but I was bad at it. No sooner would I get it up than it would flop back down. It’s a wonder I ever got the condom on. Still, I managed and cringed my way through the ordeals. I only did it to prove myself straight and vanquish a Catholic guilt complex that would have kept me a virgin till worms would crawl up and eat my male hymen in the grave. My hetero insurrection never succeeded, though. I still found myself changing my fifth-period route to biology class just to moon over Chuck at his third-floor locker. It wouldn’t be long before I would go all the way with a Phase II insurrection, this time with my same sex – and the rubber slid on good and tight then. The Church purported to dislike those transgressions all the more, citing passages from Paul and Leviticus and a special circle of Dante’s hell, even though so many of them were moaning in the same dark corners.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. There was this chick Sarah. We had a routine. She’d lead me on. I’d follow. I’d send her letters like Young Werther. She’d snub them like Lotte. She didn’t want to accept my overtures. I didn’t want to perform them. I’d stroke her ego. She’d perpetuate my denial. She’d waltz her litter of boys in front of me. I’d watch. I was her slave. She was my beard. It was an even exchange.

“i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.

– e.e. cummings

Then something happened. I began to notice Sarah’s charms. She had heavenly flowing chestnut hair. She’d toss it back and bare the curve of a luscious neck, her chin poised in a cultivated hauteur. Most chicks in our school hated her. They said she had a big ego and an even bigger ass. What did they know? They all wore sensible underwear. I began to daydream about Sarah in class and on the L. I composed suicidal love poems to her instead of doing homework and flunked tests instead of considering my future. I pissed away an education – the perils of having a crush on a girl.

Sarah ran with boys who bought GQ, could afford Girbaud, got their hair cut in salons, and lived in Lincoln Park or Gold Coast with moms who were rolling in alimony and let their sons stay out till all hours even on school nights. They played sports. They dressed to the nines. They pulled good grades. They knew how to outclass. They knew how to kiss ass. They knew how to stand out. They knew how to fit in. They got into top schools. They slammed imported beer. They liked fucking girls. Their parents didn’t dare cramp their styles, didn’t mandate mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. Their parents championed them. They got away with getting stoned. Their futures were assured. Normalcy triumphed. I didn’t stack up – not in Sarah’s eyes, not in anyone else’s, not in my own.

Back then, I didn’t hear a lot of talk in the mainstream about self-esteem. If I had, I would have known what I was missing. After about a decade of sleep, pop psychology had only just begun to reawaken as a genre. Oprah hadn’t gone New Age yet. Nobody was grabbing TV cameras to badger us about how we had to love and accept ourselves in order to manifest abundance. The prevailing convention was: if you don’t get your validation from the outside world first, you’re fucked. I didn’t. I was fucked.

“It’s not that [art] batters you down, gets rid of barricades or opens doors. The person inside has to be accessible. There has to be a little crack already…some willingness.”
– Toni Morrison

Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the nation. Even as a minority-majority city, its history of apartheid is enough to make Maycomb, Alabama look good. Fortunately, even those with the inside edge say that race relations are a hell of a lot better now than they were back in the day. Yet, even now, there’s no denying that demarcations between black, white, Latino and even straight and gay in Chicago remain thick as prison walls, but this was even more the case when I was growing up there. Before I moved into my grandfather’s house in the Rogers Park area – an anomaly of a mixed-income neighborhood where there is an even balance of black, white, and Latino – I grew up on the lily-white northwest side, but had to commute to and from school on the south side. This meant traveling through neighborhoods as different as heaven and hell. To me, hell was my neighborhood, where manicured lawns, Cadillacs (leased or owned, nobody asked, nobody told) packing the parish parking lot, single-family homes, gay bashings, racial profiling, and the imminence of white flight were the norm. Heaven was due south of where I lived.

Down the middle of the Kennedy Expressway, the L ran past Montrose Avenue, where bungalows predominated all the way to Irving Park Road, where rabbit-warrens of courtyard apartment buildings began to appear, only for the L to descend into a tunnel and, two stops later, reemerge into a totally different locale starting in Logan Square. By now, developers have razed all those old-style tenement buildings in favor of luxury condos with upwardly mobile whites stepping out of them. When I was a kid, that area, commonly known as West Town, was a cluster of Latino barrios.

The L rode past rows of West Town buildings, where pit bulls and Dobermans patrolled tar rooftops against a preponderance of Popes and Disciples graffiti, two rival gang syndicates who dominated the city at least as much as the Daley administration. Their presence was so powerful that Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi had allegedly held negotiations with the largest gang, the El Rukins, to overthrow the American government. Some of their graffiti was on par with the best mural art of any city. Some was downright scary – pitchforks, arrow-headed letters, severed heads impaled on spikes over hellfire, coded hit-lists with names crossed out, often denoting members of a Nazi-sympathizing white gang called the Gaylords.

In the rush-hour commute, the women who boarded there stood in stark contrast to the white women from earlier stops, who sat in tailored suits, poring over open manila folders on their way to work, with smart little attaché cases on their laps. The women from the barrio stops were often stouter and sported flowing manes of highlighted hair, lacquered ceramic nails and, if they worked in offices, vivid chintz. If they had children in tow, they reined them in with a firm hand, often exclaiming, “Callate!” The men did not appear to work in offices. They were too dressed-down. There was a quietness and humbleness about them that I did not see in the white-collared white men. If they had children with him, their faces seemed to reflect a worry that my Dad often said his immigrant parents had: “How are we going to pay for it all?” For many, I’m sure there was an added trepidation, one that my grandparents didn’t have: “What if they catch us and send us back?” I used to wonder how the dinner-table conversations of each group of passengers compared and how different each group’s race and standard of living made their conversations. But I could only imagine. The walls between us all were too thick for me to actually witness what I’d wondered about.

In time, I began to notice another element emerging on those L platforms. A lot of white guys with flowing manes like the Latinas, though otherwise they looked nothing like them and were much taller. They were thin, dressed in ripped-up Am-Vets rags, often carrying leather-bound portfolios with paint smudges on them. A lot of the chicks wore Manic Panic dye jobs, pummeled leather jackets, kilt minis, skull rings and don’t-fuck-with-me glares. They did not make eye contact with anyone, though so many eyes, including mine, were right on them. Some would remain standing while the L was in motion, reading socialist digests, to stand out all the more. I saw others reading used copies of plays by authors like Samuel Beckett and Dario Fo. Many seemed lost in their headphones and I wanted to make my own coolness known whenever I could identify the bands sounding from them. Now, it’s not as though I hadn’t seen their kind before. They proliferated in somewhat less cerebral form on Belmont and in Rogers Park, where I hung out all the time. But what the hell were they doing in these Hispanic neighborhoods?

One day I was in my favorite café in Rogers Park, aptly named Ennui, where I sat writing yet another tragic ode to Sarah in my Geometry notebook. I overheard a young woman telling a matronly older woman that she’d seen a version of Medea at a storefront theater near Milwaukee and North. I screwed up my eyes, only to hear the older woman ask a question that I was too cool to admit was on my mind too: “You mean, they have theater in that neighborhood?” To which the younger woman replied: “Oh, yes. It’s the second largest artist community in the country now, next to the one in New York. You see all those starving artists walking down the streets. You wonder where they’re going. They’re just going home. These are the only places they can afford.”

That’s all I had to hear. I packed up my book bag and headed down, lighting on West Town soil for the first time. This was a place where kids from my school would never dare set foot. In search of new life, I started patrolling the West Town streets as regularly as the guard dogs did its rooftops. I couldn’t wait to grow up and live there. I decided that, since I didn’t know how to draw or play an instrument and some people had already told me I had a flair for words, writing might be a way for me to be an artist like these strange folks. I could be one of them. I decided to be a writer. It all seems so silly now, my enthrallment. But I was raised in a world where different universes paralleled and sometimes collided but never quite converged. Now it seemed, for the first time, they could.

Like I said earlier, in my teens, I avoided any and all contact with my family. Only cold silence with intermittent hot eruptions came out of me. Only cutting remarks, smirks, and bare knuckles came out of them. Our clan had all the earmarks of an Irish play.

Still, I’d accepted an invitation from my sister Colleen to her newborn son David’s christening. While my mom, Colleen, my grandfather, and my nephew posed for a photo that would show four generations in a single frame, I busied myself digging through my sister’s record collection. I’d recently entered a back-to-basics phase – one I’ve never left – after it became clear that it wasn’t working out between me and flash-in-the-pan hardcore and industrial bands. I now had every intention, for instance, of replacing that Bowie album I’d broken. Looking back, I have to say, my sister had some good stuff. There was Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love & Hate, lots of Beatles, early Lou Reed, Thin White Duke period Bowie, Songs in the Key of Life, Prince’s Dirty Mind, Dusty in Memphis, Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. Then my finger traced the spine of a double album that I couldn’t help but pull out and examine.

The cover bore multiple rows of old-timey black-and-white photos. Scrawled over the right margin in harlot-red lipstick were the words: ‘Rolling Stones, “Exile on Main Street.”’ I would later learn that photographer Peter Black had lifted this montage right off the walls of a redneck tattoo parlor near Harlem. It depicted circus freaks – the dwarf lady; the Siamese twins; the man-dog; the fat man in one of those old-fashioned bikini-looking one-pieces; the electric-chair survivor. There’s no denying that it also presented racist images of yesteryear’s African-American – a buffoonish picture of a black carny performer with three golf balls stuffed into the front of his mouth and a minstrel with buckwheat hair, recoiling, the whites of his eyes glaring like those of a shellshock victim. The cover was an artless paragon of Found Art controversy, a subject that would reemerge in Terry Zwigoff’s movie Ghost World (2001) with its Found Art object “Coon Chicken.” The Stones seemed to be sending the same message that Zwigoff would about thirty years later: You can’t have the past without its shadows; try whitewashing them over, they’ll just jump right up to dog your trail.

On the back cover, alongside some blown-up selections from the ugly tattoo-parlor montage, was an arrangement of surprise shots of different band members, all in black and white. Each had long, unkempt hair and the camera had often caught them with unabashed, convivial smiles on their faces. What struck me even more, though, was the inside of the grainy, black-and-white gatefold.

A movie house’s box office was papered with a collage of press photos for a Joan Crawford retrospective, one of which shows the silver-screen bitch goddess screaming in film noire terror. Imposed on the edges are liner notes, dashed off on scraps of paper, with lyrics like, “I gave you the diamonds/You give me disease,” “Got to scrape the shit right off your shoes,” and “I don’t want to talk about Jesus/I just want to see his face.” Then there were other found photos of gangs of kids from the 40’s, hanging around a nickelodeon, and others of the inside of seedy old bars like the ones Nathaniel West wrote about.

But the greatest to me by far were the ones of Mick and Keith. There were studio shots of them, singing together over sheet music into a hanging microphone, bottles of bourbon in their hands. Another showed Mick in a Seventies plaid blazer outside a porn theater and then another one showed him inside of it, standing with a beer in front of an ad for a skin-flick called Sweet Taste of Joy. It showed a pair of Joker lips with a rattlesnake’s tongue darting out of it and inside the mouth was a frame of a couple fucking in the missionary position. The promo copy read: “She never knew who was COMING to dinner, but she always kept it warm.”

“I can’t feel you anymore, I can’t even touch the books you’ve read/Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin’ I was somebody else instead.”
– Bob Dylan, “Idiot Wind”

I saw Mick in the gatefold. He seemed like me. I wasn’t attractive by most standards. Neither was he. I didn’t have a conventional mind or manner. Neither did he. I had pasty skin. So did he. My lips were thick for a white boy. Few were thicker than his. The only difference was, he didn’t care. He was liberated, alive, and ugly. He flaunted it. Like Richard III, he was not “made to court an amorous looking-glass,” but he turned canons of beauty inside-out and made himself the hottest thing ever. Like I said, he was alive. As I mused on those pictures of him, I said to myself, I may be strange and ugly, but I don’t have to play dead anymore. From that day forward, Sarah never got another poem or letter out of me, nor even so much as a look, except when she’d corner me and rail about how I never paid attention to her anymore. My new fixation would be my mirror, and I would soon have a whole new soundtrack for it.

As usual, I saved my lunch money until I could afford to go to Dr. Wax record store. I found a used copy of Exile in a mile-long Stones stall. The scratches on it made each track look like spastic little heart monitor screens, but my record player had a diamond-pointed needle that could ride over even the craggiest groove and not miss a note. I already had some Stones in my collection – two years later, I’d have about two dozen of their LPs – but they were mostly compilations like Hot Rocks and Through the Past, Darkly. I didn’t have a deep sense of their discology yet. Exile had only two hits to its name, “Tumbling Dice” and “Happy,” whose titles I didn’t even recognize.

As I put the needle on the first song, I was unprepared for what was coming next. The song was “Rocks Off.” It was anything but clean. From Keith’s opening guitar licks and Mick’s first ejaculation (“Oh…yeah…”), it was raucous as all get-out, nothing smoothed-over, all jagged. All Side One sounded that way. I sat on my bed staring at my stereo, wondering what the fuck this scrawl was, how it ever made it to market, how it ever sold. I was done by Side Three. I got up and went for a walk along Lake Michigan.

By and by, as I kicked along the gravel walkway, trying to clear my head of aesthetic shock, I remembered the Bayou bass on “Sweet Black Angel.” Those tones came from somewhere deep down, somewhere only my soul, not my mind, knew. This was music from the Mississippi backwoods. I watched the waves, “Sweet Black Angel” playing in my head. I pictured swamps, crickets, long dry stalks under a menacing moon. How did these British boys capture all that? They were even farther away from it than I was. They were from the land of Tea Time, Worcestershire sauce, and crumpets. I grew up in the metropolis of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. If the Stones could do all that they did in blues, coming from where they came from, I thought, who knows what I could do with writing? If I practiced a lot like they did, opened my mind to the annals of the infinite past and attained mastery like that one song alone showed they had, then time and space could not contain me, just like it couldn’t contain them, and I myself could achieve godhead, just as they had. Maybe that album I’d just walked out on could save my life. I walked a little farther down the lakeshore, ruminating on this maybe.

I soon found myself tearing back to my bedroom in my grandfather’s house and stuck the needle back on “Rocks Off.” I lay back on my bed and let each side run roughshod over me the way I used to let more refined albums like Dark Side of the Moon and Abbey Road wash over me years before my punk phase. Track by track, it busted me open in the same way I’ve read that people experience the sudden apparition of a saint. Afterwards, I even felt fearless – fearless, even as the rank outsider – almost the way people have said they do after dying and coming back to life.

Summary of Songs
I would spend hour after hour, day after day, further eroding the grooves on that record. The songs seemed to mark a jailbreak from my old condition. One could reign as both icon and outsider, the songs seemed to say.

Side One: After tearing his throat lining out on “Rocks Off” and “Rip This Joint,” Mick slows it down to a sultry Slim Harpo shimmy, “Hip Shake,” which made me more excited than anything ever had, even in puberty. Like a leering despoiler of roadside nymphs, he growls: “Well, I met a little girl/In a country town/She said, ‘What do you know!/There’s Slim Harpo!’/Didn’t move her head,/Didn’t move her hands/Didn’t move her lips/She shook her hips/Do the hip-shake, babe…/Shake your hip, babe!/ Shake your hip, babe!/Well, ain’t that e-e-e-easy.” Then we hit my all-time favorite Stones song, “Casino Boogie.” The vocals alone show more sass than Missy Elliott herself. Unlike any song I’ve ever heard from any time period, “Casino Boogie” seems to elevate actual sound bytes from soused speakeasy habitués to an art form – “Dietrich movies, close-up boogies/Kissing cunt in Cannes” – and Keith tears through with rhythm riffs that could shake the dead from their caskets. This takes us to the hit song, “Tumbling Dice,” which rouses the bravura backup singers who’ll resurface as a sublime gospel choir on Side Three in “Just Want to See His Face” and “Let It Loose.”

Side Two: On Side Two, the Stones do an even better job of bringing rock back to its country roots than Dylan did in his seminal John Wesley Harding (1967). It all begins with “Sweet Virginia.” A deep-south harmonica introduces this score like a clarion above the heads of an after-hours jam session on old Maxwell Street in Chicago. You can hear the band cheering Mick on as he croons: “Wadin’ through the waste stormy winter/And there’s not a friend to help you through/Tryin’ to stop the waves behind your eyeballs/Drop your reds, drop your greens and blues.” The refrain they all sing in scattered harmony essentially tells the song’s beleaguered heroine both to lighten up and to endure: “But come on, come on down, Sweet Virginia/Come on, honey child, I beg you/Come on, Come on down, you got it in ya/Got to scrape the shit right off your shoes.” This live-in-the-studio ditty leads into the polished heartbreaker “Torn and Frayed,” which, much like “Moonlight Mile” from Sticky Fingers, tells the story of a musician who seems to walk straight off the pages of a Steinbeck novel, having traveled through field, moor, mountain, and bordello, winding up all the worse for wear: “Joe’s got a cough, sounds kind of rough/Yeah, and the codeine can fix it/Doctor prescribes, drug store supplies/Who’s gonna help him to kick it?/Well his coat is torn and frayed/It’s seen much better days/Just as long as the guitar plays/Let it steal your heart away.” Next up is “Sweet Black Angel,” where Mick puts the issue of racial discrimination right on the table in a song written for his friend, Black Panther leader Angela Davis: “But the gal in danger/Yeah, de gal in chains/But she keep on pushin’/Would ya take her place?/She countin’ up de minutes/She countin’ up de days/She’s a sweet black angel/Not a sweet black slave.” Once this plea for liberation concludes, the album takes us to “Loving Cup,” where a Niagara of emotions drenches Mick’s soul as he uncharacteristically begs for the love of a woman: “I’m the man on the mountain, come on up/I’m the plowman in the valley with a face full of mud/Yes, I’m fumbling and I know my car don’t start/Yes, I’m stumbling and I know I play a bad guitar/Give me little drink from your loving cup/Just one drink and I’ll fall down drunk.”

Side Three: This side starts with Keith Richards’ chart-topper, “Happy”: “Always took candy from strangers/Didn’t wanna get me no trade/Never want to be like papa/Workin’ for the boss ev’ry night and day.” Then, Mick collars us for a trip down the dark alley of ugly breakups with “Turd on the Run” – “Fell down to my knees and I hung on to your pants/You just kept on runnin’ while they ripped off in my hands/Diamond rings, Vaseline, you give me disease/Well, I lost a lot of love over you” – only to ram us right into the powerhouse polemic, “Ventilator Blues”: “When you’re trapped and circled with no second chances/Your code of living is your gun in hand/We can’t be browed by beating, we can’t be cowed by words/Messed by cheating, ain’t gonna ever learn/Ev’rybody walking ’round/Ev’rybody trying to step on their Creator/No matter where you are, ev’rybody, ev’rybody gonna/Need some kind of ventilator, some kind of ventilator/Whatcha gonna do about it?/Whatcha gonna do?/Gonna fight it?/Gonna fight it?” After Mick and Keith are done raging, the album mysteriously moves on to a whole new course, bringing us in media res into “Just Want to See His Face,” a Stones gospel song, complete with the world’s most worldly preacher and a rhapsody of swelling Siren voices: “Sometimes you need somebody, if you have somebody to love/Sometimes you ain’t got nobody and you want somebody to love/Then you don’t want to walk and talk about Jesus/You just want to see his face/You don’t want to walk and talk about Jesus/You just want to see his face.” When this song fades, another arises with the same sisters of mercy in tow, “Let It Loose,” where the cuckolded singer nurses his shattered heart: “In the bar, you’re getting drunk, I ain’t in love, I ain’t in luck/Hide the switch and shut the light, let it all come down tonight/Maybe your friends think I’m just a stranger/Some face you’ll never see no more.”

Side Four: After “Let It Loose,” the album dries its tears and crescendos on Side Four with “All Down The Line,” which invokes the Harlem Renaissance: “Well, you can’t say yes and you can’t say no/Just be right there when the whistle blows/I need a sanctified mind to help me out now/Won’t you be my little baby for a while?” Next up is an electric take on Robert Johnson’s classic “Stop Breaking Down,” where Keith puts out one of the finest blues solos in all rock. Then, something happens. The album intones a pause before sliding into “Shine a Light,” rumored to have been written about Brian Jones. Here The Stones show a compassion that rarely, if ever, manifests in any of their other work: “Saw you stretched out in Room Ten O Nine/With a smile on your face and a tear right in your eye/Oh, couldn’t see to get a line on you, my sweet honey love/Berber jewelry jangling down the street/Making bloodshot eyes at every woman that you meet/Couldn’t seem to get a high on you, my sweet honey love/May the good Lord shine a light on you/Make every song your favourite tune/May the good Lord shine a light on you/Warm, like the evening sun.” The album ends with the ball-buster, “Soul Survivor”: “Running right on the rocks/I’ve taken all of the knocks/You ain’t giving me no quarter/I’d rather drink seawater/ I wish I’d never have brought you/It’s gonna be the death of me.”

Exile is the pinnacle of a series of masterpieces that the Stones released over a four-year period, beginning with Beggars Banquet (1968) and continuing with Let It Bleed (1969), Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out (live, 1970), and Sticky Fingers (1971). Unlike Exile, however, all the other albums in the series were highly stylized and even commercialized. Not that the Stones weren’t interested in making money off Exile. In fact, they launched a sold-out North American tour for it, featuring a young Stevie Wonder and Tina Turner, that became the subject of Cocksucker Blues. But, for one reason or another, they let it rip with Exile and took no pains to rub down its rough edges. The album bears no resemblance to the band’s pre-Beggars Banquet outputs, not even the early Blues covers. It’s the damndest shame that the Stones would never again match the vision, energy or talent displayed in this treasury of rough cuts. But, then again, neither has anyone else.

“It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for living.”
– Simone De Beauvoir

My Life, Post-Exile
I might never fully understand the shifts that took place inside myself after finding Exile on Main Street. But I can say it marked a transformation of consciousness, deep, sudden, and pervasive – a bona fide peak experience, a miracle, the likes of which I have never again experienced, not even after years of meditation practice. Was it an enlightenment experience? Not to the extent that I suddenly knew everything or that I would never suffer again, not by the longest of long shots. But it was the beginning of warts-and-all self-acceptance without which I would have surely taken my life long ago.

To me, Exile was the essence of honesty. Seeing Mick’s unadorned photos and hearing his raw voice helped me to start looking at myself for who I truly was, rather than for who I wished I could be. I would soon decide to come out – first as bi, then as gay – and let the chips fall where they may with my family and everyone else, though it meant enduring others’ denial and denigration of the truth. Instead of spending my lunch money on the latest records at Wax Trax, I spent more and more time and pocket change on self-education, scouring used book stores and sitting through old Hollywood matinees and foreign films at the Music Box. I no longer feared being cast out of Eden or forever blacklisted from the in-crowd. I knew to the core of my being that all that had already happened long ago, so there was no need to worry about whether I could reclaim a seat at a table to which I’d never been invited in the first place. Exile on Main Street is a north star for exiles from the mainstream, helping us to navigate emotional valleys with integrity, verve, and dignity.

Kyle Thomas Smith is a writer in Brooklyn, NY.

85A Log: “How It’s Done in West Town” excerpt; Todd James, Michael Bevilacqua @ Gering & Lopez Gallery

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on February 6, 2010
Todd James, "Hot Dogs & Hamburgers," Gering & Lopez Gallery, New York

Todd James, "Hot Dogs & Hamburgers," Gering & Lopez Gallery, New York

A couple weeks ago, I went to see graffiti artist Todd James’ new show, “Make My Burden Lighter,” at the Gering & Lopez Gallery in Midtown Manhattan. Though James is an artist who began his craft as a teenager, tagging in the subways of New York, the whole experience brought me back to the kind of graffiti that was erupting all around Chicago in the Eighties.

But I’ll get to all that in a minute.

Point is, “Make My Burden Lighter” is an event that’s at once shocking and masterful. The images are pointedly obscene but rendered with a gimlet eye on the excesses of our uber-consumerist society, which now has much less money to buy. You’ll soon be able to see my review of “Make My Burden Lighter” in WhiteHot Magazine.

Todd James’ “Make My Burden Lighter” shows until the February 20th at the Gering & Lopez Gallery, which is located in the Playboy Building at 730 Fifth Ave (b/t 56th & 57th).

If, God forbid, you miss James’ show, keep a weather eye on what will be happening next at Gering & Lopez. They never disappoint.

For instance, I was awestruck by this other painting, which was hanging in a room off to the side of the James exhibition, by the insanely talented California artist Michael Bevilacqua.  It’s called “White Punks on Dope”:

Michael Bevilacqua's "White Punks on Dope" at Gering & Lopez Gallery, New York

If I’d had the cash, I would’ve bought it on the spot. But genius like this doesn’t sell for cheap. So instead I stared at “White Punks on Dope” until I damned near passed out. I’m so glad this kind of work is in such high demand now that 85A is on the market.

In honor of, and in resonance with, the James and Bevilacqua boom, I’d like to post part of the “How It’s Done in West Town” chapter of 85A. Once again, the book is set in Chicago in January 1989. The narrator, Seamus O’Grady, is fifteen years old and, in this chapter, he’s referring back to his freshman year of high school when he was 14 years old. Now, he’s also got one hell of a mouth on him and he worships Johnny Rotten. (He’s also recently seen Amadeus on Channel 9, so now he wants to be Mozart.) Like so many Chicagoans of his day, he’s also intensely race-conscious and is fascinated by African-Americans and Latinos. He wishes he wasn’t just another white kid but there’s not much he can do about it. But his best friend Tressa is a young black woman who is always helping to open brave new worlds to him as described in Chapter Ten, “How It’s Done in West Town.”  (Naturally, all rights are reserved on this chapter. No part of 85A may be reproduced with my own expressed written consent.)

"Money Bags McCoy" by Todd James, Gering & Lopez Gallery, New York

From “How It’s Done in West Town,”

Chapter 10 of 85A

(circa late 1980s)

By Kyle Thomas Smith

The bus is on fire. It’s got bloodlust Ozzy Osbourne eyes, Jaws’ razor teeth, and a face like the Soul Train on Soul Train. There’s a white guy in a Gestapo uniform. His eyes are bulging. His tongue is wagging. He’s sticking his finger in the blue bus’ ass. There’s a Red Dawn explosion behind him, a nuclear holocaust. There’s a black hooker painted space-invader green. She’s standing on top of the burning bus with a great big fuckin’ fro, a tight-as-fuck pink mini, ten-stack platform shoes, fists clenched and pinned to her hips.

Too bad you can’t paint that shit on buildings without a permit. It’s cool as fuck.  Takes a shitload of talent too. Man, I wish I could paint, but I can’t even doodle out a damn circle. No wonder I’m flunking geometry. If we were in a state of anarchy like we should be, we could paint whatever the fuck we want, wherever the fuck we want. Just listen to Mozart. Did he have to wait till he had a permit to make music?—Well I guess maybe he did. There was that scene in Amadeus where he had a bitch of a time getting approved by the imperial court to do a harem opera. But…whatever, man…it shouldn’t fuckin’ be that way.

But, I gotta admit, some of the murals the city does dole out permits for are pretty fuckin’ impressive too. I mean, lots of times they use rubbish Day-Glo colors and a lot of times they paint a lot of corny-ass get-high-on-life, school-is-cool themes, but you can tell the painters put their heart in that shit. Lots of times they get little neighborhood kids to help out and they teach them to paint and let their imaginations roam. And, even though I think we should all have the right to paint whatever the fuck want, wherever the fuck we want, I gotta admit, it does bother me when gangs spray graffiti on murals little kids helped paint.

I don’t think Raul’s ever defaced a kid’s mural, but Tressa says the cops are on the scent of whoever put graffiti art like the nuclear-holocaust bus up around Logan Square and West Town. Apparently the Nazi finger-fucking the bus’ anus isn’t Raul’s only brainchild. Just his most famous. He sprayed it on the back wall of the roof where, from March to November, pitbulls wheel around a parked Harley-Davidson and crumpled Miller cans. Raul tags under the name Snipsta, and he’s tight with the dude who owns the pitbulls and Harley. I don’t know what that bandito’s story is, but I always wonder how the fuck he maneuvered a Harley all the way up to his roof. Did he drag it up the fire escape or hang pulleys down to the alley? Who knows? Drug lords can arrange anything, at least that’s what I hear.

I’ve met Raul a couple times at Tressa’s house on Logan Boulevard. Skinny kid, brown as a colt, kind of sits around a lot with his head down, groovin’ to EPMD, making macho street gestures in time to the beat. He’s friends with Tressa’s brother Joshua. Raul’s in some gang; I don’t know which; I didn’t ask and I won’t. Agatha is afraid Joshua might be in a gang too. Joshua got busted for graffiti twice. He’s twelve years old and on parole. I’m sure he’s just fuckin’ around with his friends. I don’t think he’s in any real kind of gang. He’s too sweet a kid to ever hurt anybody. He always gives me a hug good-bye whenever I leave their house. He gets lots of As in an IB program like Tressa and he’s learning Russian so he can talk to Babsha better now that she’s slipping and thinks she’s still back in Stalingrad. Joshua’s not Raul, he just dresses like him—a gangsta wearing jeans that are, like, twelve sizes too big for his scrawny ass, and, when Agatha’s not looking, Joshua puts a blue bandana on his head. But he’s no more in the Folks or People than the fuckin’ metalheads in Jarvis Park are Satanists or Gaylords. But even sweet kids get killed out here, especially if the wrong assholes see that sweetie pie tagging the wrong name on a wall.

I worry right along with Agatha and Aubrey about Joshua being on the streets. He’s the little brother I never had. And there are all sorts of stories out there about how gang leaders threaten to kill kids who won’t join up and do drug runs for them. But, then again, I don’t think Mexican gangs in Logan Square and West Town are gonna go out of their way to recruit a black kid. That shit just doesn’t happen.

The L’s already out of Logan Square station and the West Town tunnel. Tressa didn’t get on this morning. Not surprising, we’re almost never on at the same time. She doesn’t have class first period at Lincoln Park, so she usually doesn’t leave this early. When she does step on the L, though, her patchouli precedes her.

For the longest time, all I knew about West Town was what I saw out the L window. Riding above the neighborhood, you look out and see blocks and blocks of tenements. Most of it’s not public housing, though. The buildings look a lot better than they do in Cabrini Green or the Abla Homes near St. Xavier. They’re not caged in at the backstairs and there are almost as many gorgeous buildings mixed in with the uglies. Got lots of turn-of-the-century graystones and whitestones too, like Tressa’s house, where gargoyles still perch on ledges and people still grow bountiful gardens behind filigree gates.

But when you look at the alleys and rooftops: fuckin’ graffiti everywhere. And not every graffiti artist out here is a gifted artist like Raul. Some of this shit goes way back to the disco days—balloon letters in hot pink, blueberry Bubbalicious blue, and Squirt yellow—shit straight out of The Warriors, shit they just left up there, never took down with turpentine. I mean, shit, if you’re gonna keep graffiti up, at least keep it in the same decade as now.

Lots of the other scrawl on those brick walls will spook your shit if you stare at it too long. See the lynched skeletons and rolling skulls painted on the buildings? See the names tagged next to them? Joshua tells me they’re all on the Folk Nation’s hit list and that, when you see a line sprayed through a name, it means the Folks made another hit and are making their way down to the next name, the next hit. Look at all those fuckin’ crossed-out names! Not an inch left on the walls. And I hear some of the names belong to El Rukns, Chicago’s biggest street gang, the one on trial now for accepting money from Muammar al-Gaddafi to blow up the country. Man, I’d rather have fuckin’ George Herbert Walker Bush running the country than the El Rukns—and, coming from me, that’s saying some shit.

Other hit-list names belong to that white supremacist gang, the Gaylords. The metalheads in Jarvis Park keep tagging the Gaylords’ name in the underpass, even though none of those pussies ever met a real live Gaylord. But, if they’re gonna scam a name, it figures they’d pick the KKK gang. Wonder if those racist fucks ever noticed there’s a “gay” in “Gaylords.” Bet they wouldn’t be so quick to say, “I’m a Gaylord” then. Gaylord wannabes in my neighborhood think watching Faces of Death and Headbanger’s Ball makes them badass, but they ain’t never been within ten miles of a drive-by.

Gangs in Logan Square and West Town don’t play. They’re not Satanists like the metalheads near me try to be, but the pitchforks they spray in the alleys are satanic in their own way—their own motherfuckin’ psycho way. Gangbangers here think nothing of massacring whole warehouses full of rival gangs. If the metalheads in my neighborhood only knew the shit that goes down on this side of town, they’d piss their Metallica-Megadeth pants sopping wet and plant their asses on the 85A back home, pronto. There’s a whole lot of killin’ going on in these parts. You can see Agatha’s got cause for concern. I mean, that non-permit, finger-fuck mural that Raul put on that pitbulls-beer-cans-and-Harley roof is tame compared to the pitchforks, skeletons, severed heads, and crossed-out names on the backs of the buildings right down the alley.

But last year, I noticed something else happening at the West Town stops: whites getting on. That’s right, whites. Hot ones too. The guys, man, lots of them had this shoulder-length hair, but not at all like the dumb-fuck metalheads. No, this was classical-looking long hair—refined; in Mozart’s time, people got wigs custom made to look like them. Except these guys were also wearing the kinds of moth-eaten coats and clothes that people clean out of their attics and give to the poor.

– Excerpt from Chapter 10 of 85A by Kyle Thomas Smith

BTW, the pic I used for the back cover didn’t work, so I had to offer two new ones. I tried to get Julius to take quick pix of me in our gangway but nothing took. I had to resort to a couple shots we had on file.

This is one of me at Castle Warwick in England. I’m not a big fan of any of my own pictures, but this has a pensive quality. Julius doesn’t like it at all. He says I look like I might be contemplating suicide – and if my skin got any whiter, my picture might wind up on some fucking Ghost Sightings series or something!

He infinitely prefers this one. It’s a shot he took of me off Cape Good Hope in South Africa. He says I look like an actual writer in this photo. He even went so far as to say “author.” But I have all those goddamned cowlicks in it!

He called them “wind-swept.”

So if you ever wonder why I’ve chosen to spend my life with him, there’s your answer.

In conclusion, I’d like to close with a Public Service Announcement from the BBC, Seamus’ favorite (favourite) broadcasting system. Especially you of the fair sex, pay special heed to “Women: Know Your Limits!”

85A: Chapter 9: “Colby at Irving Park Station”

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on February 2, 2010

So I thought I’d give a sneak preview of the book, 85A, on the blog.  It will be published this year through Bascom Hill Publishing.

Please remember that Seamus is 15 years old in the book, and he’s recounting an incident from when he was 14.

Also, the date is January 23, 1989 and he’s recounting something that occurred in the fall of 1987.

He’s an immature and vulgar narrator.  Hopefully with some redeeming qualities.

This is the chapter where he recounts how he once tried to pass himself off as English.  This incident did not happen in the author Kyle Thomas Smith’s actual life.

While we’re on the subject of the author, if you in any way reproduce the contents of this chapter without my express permission, I will find you and sue you!


Chapter IX

Colby at Irving Park Station

There’s this lavender-scented sex hormone—a crotch-teasing, unisex Spanish fly—they pump from all the ceilings on all the floors at Medusa’s. It fills your nostrils, fills your pores. It makes your blood beat, your body burst into flame. Mix that with all the cigarette smoke and sweat, you got yourself a two-story teenage cathouse—three stories if you count the stairs going up to Granny, the bouncer.

And that’s before you hear the drum machines and heavy bass. The owners are probably drumming up business for the local abortion clinic: “Send us your teens! No fetus can beat us!” If so, that clinic must be doing one hell of a business. On every other stair up to the top floor, there’s another funny-haired guy knocking back another funny-haired girl’s tonsils and pressing her tits so hard and spazzy, you’d think he’s making an emergency batch of biscuits out of them. And the only lights on the staircases are the little cartridges set in the walls that only give off about as much light as bike reflectors on an empty street with no lampposts. The hallway walls come in lots of colors. The coal-black walls stay coal-black, but they swirl the blood red and sky blue walls with cloud white. They all glow in dim neon till close. Not that I’m ever there to see them turn the neon off. I got a fuckin’ curfew, remember?

They can’t serve booze at Medusa’s. It’s a juice bar for minors. It’s against the law for them to tank us all up, so you gotta go out back by the dumpsters and guzzle out of a paper bag before going in. Even Medusa’s is forced to prohibit some vices. That’s why they got Granny frisking you for firearms and drugs before she lights another cancer stick and dropkicks another rabble-rouser out onto Sheffield Street.

Beyond that, you’re free to let your dick hang out and your body get beat in a mosh pit. The bouncers are required by law, though, to break up any brawl they see involving less than three people—that’s word for word what I heard Granny telling a new bouncer she was training one night. In the pit, though, it’s nothing but consensual punk rock. There are a few signs up saying that they’re not responsible for any injuries or lost or stolen items, but I’m not sure that stands up in court. Course, if anyone’s stupid enough to sue, they’ll probably have motherfuckin’ Al Capone at their door before a judge can even sign a subpoena.

As for dicks hanging out, maybe you see it once in a while, but I don’t think guys in the video room got too much to show for themselves there. And their teeny-weeny weenies were just what I was thinking about as I walked around the top floor after seeing Colby get busted. True, Colby did keep his hands up while Narc searched his pockets, didn’t kick him into the train while it was moving. Doesn’t mean he don’t got balls.  Means he’s got brains. Nobody gets away with shit in this country unless they’re in the White House—or my neighborhood’s whitey households. Colby knows when it’s in his best interest to cooperate. But just his naturalness—that hair he refuses to fuck up—it shows he’s got more going on in his jock than any of those sneering, snooty, funny-haired freaks who run from jocks and futz with their hair every fuckin’ five minutes. When I think of Colby, it makes me want to stop fuckin’ up my hair too. But I’m not ready to give that shit up just yet.

The L’s pulling up to Irving Park and Pulaski now, far, far away from Medusa’s. This is where courtyard apartment buildings make their first appearance on the O’Hare line, left and right of the train. The building to my right has gray-painted wooden staircases, running at sharp angles down to the alley where dumpsters sit brimming with garbage bags. Not a lot of nightlife here. Some dive bars, some greasy spoons, not a lot of trendy restaurants, and no clubs. No one ever talks about it. Never gets mentioned in The Reader, which I pick up every Thursday to look up shows and sex ads. Every morning, this L platform is crammed pillar to post. Unlike Jefferson Park, Irving Park station doesn’t have a lot of buses coming in from all over Chicago. Must mean people boarding here live here. Yeah, I could see that. There are lots of apartment buildings around; you can pack a lot of people into a neighborhood that way.

The apartment buildings are big too. On my way back from school once, I overheard an architect trying to impress his girlfriend by calling all the buildings around here “Tudor.” Whatever the fuck that means. To me, they just look like a bunch of big Joe-Mama gingerbread houses. Every time I pass, I feel like I’m in a fairy tale. Tempts me to get off the L and walk into one of the courtyards. I keep thinking I’ll get sucked into some time warp, like in The Time Machine. I’ll be transported to some fairly tale, like Hansel and Gretel or Mozart’s Magic Flute, only I’ll be the main character. Finally get a shot at a life worth living.

But could I get that here, at Irving Park and Pulaski? It’s not Piccadilly Circus. It’s not even Belmont and Clark. The people getting on—a lot of the men—look and smell like big Bluto bohunks. Don’t know what kind of jobs they’re headed to. Maybe they’re on their way to construction sites or factories—but wouldn’t they be starting their shifts a lot earlier in the morning? The women, a lot of them look like Polish cleaning ladies, except others look dressed for the office. Maybe they’re secretaries. Must be the ones who learned English and took typing classes at community centers. Good for them. Not all of them do.  Some of ’em been here forty years, never learned a lick of English. Give them all the credit in the world, though. Must be fuckin’ hard as hell, making your way after moving halfway around the world with nothing.

The ones who do learn English a lot of times wind up way the fuck ahead of any of us who were born here; the Chinese almost always do. But I bet the Polacks send most everything they earn back home. Wonder if their money orders ever make it past the guards at the Iron Curtain. But why are their families back home so fucking poor? Aren’t they all guaranteed jobs under communism? That’s what the guy who passes out The Socialist Worker under the Belmont L says. So why the fuck do they want to come here?  Probably swallowed a shitload of American propaganda, just like Americans have.

No, Irving Park-Pulaski isn’t the coolest hood on earth, but I always scan the station anyway, hoping to see Colby. Why the fuck did he get on here? I mean, here, of all places? I don’t know, but I keep thinking I’ll see him getting on again and, when I do, I’ll walk up and say, “Hey, weren’t you the guy who got busted for packing a marker?”

Yeah, that happened on the L one Saturday night—months before the first time I saw Tressa get off at Logan Square. Out of nowhere, this legion of leather-clad kids got on at Irving Park and Pulaski. My eyes got big, round, hypnotized. I had to clench my jaw to keep it from hitting the floor. You gotta understand, these were ultra-vivid Brit punks, not bland, fuckin’ eunuch Americans. No, we’re talking, they had…oh, man…charisma…their presence, it just radiated throughout the car like nothing I ever saw on Belmont—only like what I’d seen in photos in Punk: A Sordid Saga, like the ones of Siouxsie Sioux on stage in ’78, wearing a black trash bag and a Nazi armband. And they didn’t even have English accents when they talked. But they couldn’t’ve been from fuckin’ Chicago. I mean, they sounded like they were, but fuckin’ no one knows how to dress that cool here, except maybe Tressa.

And they all got on here, at fuckin’ Irving Park and Pulaski! Four of them—two girls, two guys. One of the guys had this blond Billy Idol hair. No, but it was better, much fuckin’ better than fuckin’ Billy Idol. What he did was, he spiked it all around to look like Sid—a blond Sid Vicious, it was fuckin’ brilliant! He had this tight-fitting black peacoat. Looked like he tore it up and then put it all back together with all these safety pins and sewn-on calico swatches. And the guy wasn’t wearing combats like the rest of the fuckin’ world. No, he wore black motorcycle boots with a red bandana tied to one of them. First time I ever saw that. His skin was deep bronze. He had this one chick hanging on him. She had a tar-black bob, shaved close to the skin on the sides and back, the rest dangling in fringes from the crown of her head to her chin, and her eyes were lined Cleopatra-style. She fuckin’ flaunted that fifteen-year-old hooker look—leopard-print coat; shredded, sheer nylons; go-go boots; and this sizzling hot-pink mini. The other chick was this blonde with long, curly hair. Her body was wrapped tight in a knee-length, black leather coat, her big bust busting out of it. Don’t know if she had anything else on besides her sheer scarlet stockings and black fuck-me pumps. She was sitting next to the kid I heard them call Colby. Her arm was in his, she was damn near in his lap. He had his hand on her thigh. Saw him move it over to her other thigh too and a little ways under the hem of her leather coat. She acted natural and let him do it right there on the L. But I couldn’t tell whether, when he tried going up her skirt, he actually found a skirt.

What I wouldn’t’ve fuckin’ given to be Blondie right then and there in that seat. Oh, Colby. Like I said, he had that 1940s black-lid hat on. It had a bow, like a bowtie, on the right side. Used to see those hats on sale at Wax Trax, but they looked fuckin’ ridiculous, sitting like clumsy clods on the racks. I’d look at that pile of hats and think, who the fuck could pull off a look that’s worth it in that? But Colby was as good an answer as I could ever ask for. At one point, he took off his hat. He had black hair and a simple, short haircut. Didn’t do anything hardcore to it—no parts shaved, wasn’t bone-close or fuzzy like a skinhead’s either. He just let it be the way it was, nothing to prove. Now that’s guts. His eyes, I could fuckin’ drown in them—the deep blue sea with moonlight lapping in the waves. His skin looked like it could tan like Dr. Strykeroth’s, but he kept it white as porcelain. He wore a black biker jacket with the Murphy’s Law logo painted in green on the right sleeve—yet another band I never heard before Tressa. He wore a gray collared shirt and black Levis cuffed over black, 8-hole Docs, like he was about to throw a fuckin’ Molotov cocktail at Buckingham Palace.

But, no, there was something a little too precious for violence in him. Maybe he was a little like Siouxsie Sioux—a gutter punk gone sensitive artist. His lips were so rose-red, they could’ve dissolved into wine and I would’ve been on my knees lapping up every last drop. But his hand was up some succubus’ thigh. What I wouldn’t fuckin’ give to be that succubus with that thigh.

Colby and his friends were all laughing together. Looked like they’d all known each other a long time. Maybe they all grew up around the block from each other. He’s so fucking lucky to grow up in a neighborhood where kids are doing the same shit he is. Who do I have? Fuckin’ Andy Payne? I had to do all this shit on my own, and pricks on Lehigh are driving up and screaming faggot and freak at me for it. I couldn’t hear what Colby and his friends were laughing about. Maybe I was too stunned to listen. Maybe I was so caught up in all the fun they were all having together, their talk just faded into white noise.

I kept my head down and made like I was looking out the window. Dr. Strykeroth would’ve given me a noogie if he saw that and said, “Why don’t you go up and try mingling, knucklehead?” Dr. S says I should have every reason to feel confident. He says I’m beautiful. But, no, not like Colby. Didn’t even feel fit to look at him; couldn’t stop looking at him either, though. It was like standing before God. Every now and then, I’d scope out my own gear. Sex Pistols God Save the Queen T-shirt; red hair, loosely fucked-up, shaved on the sides and back; a moth-eaten long black funeral coat that I found in our crawl space and that Dad’s always trying to stuff in the Tuesday garbage; scuffed-up combats, too fuckin’ big for me. I had nothing on these cats and I knew it. If Colby didn’t have me so spellbound, I would’ve walked out between the L cars and dropped myself like a sad sack under the speeding wheels.

Sid Vicious/Billy Idol took flat balloons out of his inside coat pocket and started blowing them up. He passed the first one, a red balloon, to Colby. Colby took a black magic marker out of his Murphy’s Law jacket’s right pocket. Blondie hung on his arm and watched with a red-lipstick smile as he started scribbling eyes, ears, a nose, a goofy-ass mouth, and all these fucked-up curls on the balloon. When he was done, he let the red balloon fall and bounce at his feet. Sid Vicious/Billy Idol blew up another balloon, a purple one, and passed it to Colby who lost no time marking it up. I didn’t get a look at what he was drawing but they were all howling up such a fucking storm at how fucked-up it all looked, they got me laughing too, but I caught myself before they could catch me and quick-looked out the window at the oil towers and bungalows coming up on Addison.

A few stops later, as Colby sketched more shit on to the second balloon, some fashion-disaster redneck with Andy Travis hair, a lumberjack shirt, tan corduroys, and gray New Balance gym shoes got out of his seat and clopped over to Colby and his friends like Boss Hog. “Excuse me,” said the redneck. The whole posse looked up. Redneck said, “Get off with me at the next stop please.” Colby and his friends looked at each other and back up at him, ‘huh?’ scribbled all over their faces. Redneck dug out his wallet and flashed a badge, “Get off with me at the next stop.” He was a fuckin’ narc.

Narc waved down the black guy who worked the train doors. Black L Guy nodded back. The L pulled up to California and Fullerton. Black L Guy got on his walkie-talkie, mumbled something to the conductor, and got on the PA, announcing, “We’ll be standing in the station momentarily.” Narc said to Colby and his friends, “C’mon. Off the train. Now. Empty your pockets.” They all filed out on to the California Street platform in the setting sun, not knowing which fuckin’ way was up.

Narc started frisking Colby, who stood with his hands in the air. I got out of my seat and called out the car, “What? What the fuck you harassing him for?” Narc turned around, but Black L Guy closed the doors before Narc could make a grab at me. The L pulled out of California Station, taking me miles and miles away from Colby and his friends. Black L Guy said, “Lucky he didn’t drag you out for mouthin’ off.” I threw my hands up, “They’re all fascists, man. Cops are all fucking fascists. Anyone who looks different, man. Anyone who looks different.” Black L Guy looked down, shook his head and chuckled to himself.

I didn’t see the humor. I sat back down, fuckin’ fuming. What the fuck was asshole Narc bustin’ Colby and his friends for? Drawing on balloons? Littering, when the first balloon bounced? Guess there were no murderers or serial rapists to go out and hassle that night. At least Colby didn’t write “DIE FAG” or some shit like that with his Magic Marker like Payne, who never gets busted for any of the shit he does.

Part of me wished Narc did hustle me out to the platform. Man, I thought, I could be in a jail cell with them tonight. Beats the shit out of going to Medusa’s. We could play poker on the cement floor and talk Johnny and Jello Biafra and Malcolm McLaren all the way till we make bail. Would’ve been the start of something beautiful. But, no, Black L Guy had to close the fuckin’ doors. Probably for the best, though. Wouldn’t want Colby and his posse seeing fuckin’ Mom or fuckin’ Dad or fuckin’ both. I mean, shit, who else could I call to post bond? Brody? And I sure as fuck wouldn’t want any of them hearing the stupid shit Mom and Dad would say in front of everyone in the pokey: Mom’s shrill, condemning religious vomit; Dad’s bull’s-eye putdowns; their genius for making me want to crawl into a hole and die. So maybe Black L Guy did me a favor.

Still, on the way to Washington and Dearborn, Colby’s all I could think about. Even walking the Washington tunnel to the Howard Line, I just kept turning his image over and over in my mind. I started thinking I should go back to Wax Trax and take another look at those hats. I should get one. Then Colby and me could walk down the streets together. I’d wear the hat and the biker jacket just like him and I’d get something painted on my sleeve too. Maybe a Union Jack with a circle around it and maybe there’d be another circle in that circle too, one that wraps around a jagged A, the first letter to the words, “Anarchy in the UK,” all those letters sketched out all-cool-n’-shit on the inner perimeter of the larger circle that’s around the Union Jack.

Maybe I’ll even get Colby to paint it for me, I thought. I liked what he drew on the red balloon. He’s probably a good artist. I imagined somehow getting the money together for the hat and the jacket. I’d wear black Levis too, rolled up and cuffed just like his. Except I wouldn’t have Docs. No, I’d have fuckin’ motorcycle boots with a red bandana tied around one of them, just like his friend’s. Now that would be an original look! Colby and me could be a two-man gang. We could laugh together, walking down the street, just like Sid and Johnny used to down Kings Road, screaming, “We don’t fucking care!” I’d throw my arm around his shoulder like I’d later see that fuckin’ skinhead throw his arms around his friends’ shoulders, only we’d be real friends, not just a couple reverse-conformist thugs.

And it could be at Irving Park-Pulaski. I don’t fuckin’ care. Not everything’s gotta go down on Belmont. Maybe we could go back to his house, I said to myself. Maybe he lives in an apartment and his Mom’s never there; she’s always at work or with her boyfriend—y’know, typical broken home-type shit. We could play fuckin’ Dead Kennedys, 7 Seconds, Crass, and whatever else he’s got in his room. Bet Colby’s got all the albums anybody’d ever fuckin’ want. We could light cigarettes in his room. Play music on Saturday afternoons. Spend hours in there together, just the two of us. Then we could hit Medusa’s.

As I walked up the stairs to the Howard L at Washington, I thought, I’ll conscript Colby into my London Plan. Fuck knows I’ve been mapping it out since I was 11; now I’ll just add him. The Plan’s pretty straightforward. Right when we turn sixteen, we’ll get jobs at a supermarket or something, a Jewel or a Dominick’s—maybe even one around Irving Park and Pulaski, who knows? If something more glamorous turns up, well, so much the better, but anything’ll do at this point. We’ll save up a couple years and leave the day whichever one of us is younger turns eighteen. I’m sure Colby’s only fifteen. He doesn’t look any older than me. He’s just got his shit more together than I do. That’ll all change, though, once I build a bigger life in London. All this might mean we can’t go to Medusa’s or Wax Trax as much as we do now…not if we’re saving up and shit…but whoop-dee-fuckin’-doo! Those places suck ass anyway. Instead we can hang at his place, smoke cigarettes, blast 7 Seconds, Sex Pistols, fuckin’ PiL.

As the northbound L came, I told myself, I’ll tell Colby we’ll fly from O’Hare to London. Last I checked in the Sunday Trib, the cheapest fares run about $600—and that’s roundtrip. We only need one-way, so it’ll be a lot cheaper. We’ll get to Heathrow (that’s the airport there). We’ll get on the Tube (that’s what they call the L in London, and, in quids [that’s what they call bucks], it shouldn’t be any more expensive than the L). We’ll find a squat (that’s an abandoned building where you can stay till you have enough quids to pay rent on an apartment; lots of punks live in them) somewhere in Brixton (that’s where David Bowie grew up but it’s mostly Rastafarians now; they got blacks in England too, with British accents, it’s mental!). We’ll find some punks at the squat, ones we can trust to look after our shit. We’ll get back on the Tube and go apply for jobs at some West End pubs (that’s what the Brits call bars). Almost all of them pay you what they call “under the table” (that means you don’t have to worry about being an illegal alien).

We’ll start making money and get our own apartment. And then, who knows, maybe I will go to fuckin’ college. Maybe it’ll feel right by then. I’ll forge my high school transcripts and get into some college in England. Maybe Oxford. They won’t deport me if I have a student visa. I won’t have to work under the table anymore either. I’ll kick ass at Oxford and become a shrink like Dr. Stykeroth—but I’ll practice in England, not here. Fuck no, not here.

Or maybe I’ll follow my real dream of being a BBC actor. I hear they’ve got a lot of actors in the West End. Maybe I can meet ’em if I’m working in a pub where lots of them go after shows. They can tell me where to audition, how to get started in British show biz. I’ll get parts in plays. They don’t have to be big parts. They can be bit parts. But the more I act, the more attention I’ll attract. BBC agents’ll see me in small theaters and, pretty soon, all of England will see me on the BBC and Masterpiece Theatre and shit. That’s all it takes.

And I’ll tell Colby he can do whatever the fuck he wants, whatever he fuckin’ dreams of doing! I’ll encourage him. Maybe his mom never encouraged him, maybe his dad walked out on his mom before he even got a chance to give Colby a shred of encouragement, but I’ll fuckin’ encourage Colby. Maybe Colby wants to own a club, a much cooler club than fuckin’ Medusa’s. I’ll say, go ahead, do it. Maybe we can run it together, just as long as I don’t have to do any fuckin’ math. It can happen. All this shit can happen. You just gotta believe it.

I got off the Howard Line at Belmont and walked to Medusa’s, hoping Colby’d be out of the clink soon so we could make friends and get moving on our London Plans. Once inside the door at Medusa’s, I stood in line—or in the queue, as they call it in England—on the pitch-black stairwell heading up to the main floor, where Granny, the chain-smoking old lady, pats you down. She might be older than God’s own granny and bonier than a skinned fish, but I’ve seen Granny bounce skinheads the size of fuckin’ Appalachia on to the curb. Dudes who’ll mosh with Godzilla know better than to fuck with her. I stood among hordes of punks, skaters, New Wavers, housers, skinheads, trendies, poseurs of all stripes—every one of them pulling out every fuckin’ stop to show off how many people they all fuckin’ know. I stood all alone, this time thinking, I’d rather be alone than be friends with these assholes.

It took me fifteen minutes in the queue to make it up the stairs, which gave me ample time to look the whole Medusa mob scene up and down. What can I say, it looked fuckin’ pathetic! Most of them probably piled into cars and drove in from the fuckin’ suburbs, where they all play punk the same way little girls play dress-up with dollies. Not a one of them came anywhere close to Colby in coolness. It’s like, on the L at Irving Park, I had a vision of perfection that ruined me for anything I’d ever see again (until I’d see Tressa, that is, and maybe until I see London up close and personal). Granny slid her hands into my pockets and down my sides and legs and let me move on. I paid five bucks admission, looked back down the stairs and sighed so all those fucks could hear it as I walked up to the video room.

For about an hour, I wove through the Rosemary’s Baby meets Teen Steam orgies in the neon rooms, where they blast lavender-scented Spanish fly and Meat Beat Manifesto videos. It was like, all at once, I was walking across two planes of reality. One was the lower plane, where all those freaks are into all that show-off shit, playing up to each other, acting like they all fuckin’ know it all, not letting anyone into their little cliques unless the majority of their clique approves. Then there was another plane. Call it fuckin’ Mount Olympus, where the gods get together. Colby lives on high there. As I walked through the video room, I imagined his friends must live up on Olympus too, or else why would he be hanging out with them?

Mount Olympus, it’s where people are above all the poses video-room fops strike. It’s where people like Colby got bigger plans for their futures than fucking up their hair and buying twelve inches and test-pressings from bands only a few fucks know about. I thought, Colby and people like him…they do shit like move to other countries and make art and write books and make music, the kind that’s got lots of range and puts lots of styles together, not just this monotonous industrial shit. At least, that’s what I imagine they do. They express their true selves. You can see it on Colby’s face. Not a blemish on it. There’s just that glow rising from his soul. He’s lit from within. He doesn’t feel the need to fuck up his hair. Him and his friends—they’re fuckin’ self-styled. Lots of people wear leather jackets and boots, but, I dunno, not like them. I can’t explain. There was…fuckin’…something about it. I dunno. It was that…fuckin’…Mount Olympus experience. All at once, or, at least in my mind, I was on Mount Olympus and the lower plane, the neon rooms. And I wanted to be way up in the land of the gods and away from that fuckin’ lower plane, the fuckin’ neon rooms.

That’s why I walked out of the video room. From the third floor at Medusa’s, there are no stairs to Olympus—though I hear that, if you blow the DJ, he’ll take you up to the roof and cut you some lines of coke. I figured I’d cut my losses on the five bucks admission and walk back out, past the old lady with her cigarette and the bouncers following her lead. I didn’t expect I’d ever be back, though I also didn’t expect there was any other place for a fuckin’ freak like me to go.

As I stepped into the hallway toward the Exit sign on the main floor, I looked at the new queue of people waiting to pay up and get frisked. Right at the front of the queue, I saw a leopard-print coat. I saw a long, curly mass of blonde hair hanging down a knee-length black leather coat. I saw blond Sid Vicious hair. In front of all them, I saw a fuckin’ 1940s black-lid hat. I froze. It was like, I couldn’t go to Mount Olympus, so Mount Olympus fuckin’ came to me! But last I checked, wasn’t Mount Olympus getting hauled into the slammer? What’d they do, break out? Mustn’t be the cleverest group of punk-rock gods and goddesses if they decided to go on the lam in Medusa’s. Where the fuck’d they think the cops’d go looking for their divine little asses first?

What should I do? I thought. Go talk to them? Find out what happened? Find out if they got sprung or if they fuckin’ sprung themselves? I’m not good at that shit—going up and introducing myself. I used to try that shit at Xavier when I first got there. I’d go up to kids at school; I’d say, I’m Seamus; they’d look at me; I’d stand there. I’d ask what they’re into, who their favorite bands are. More standing there. I’d say my favorite bands, say what I’m into. More standing there, sometimes some laughter sputtering out of them. After a while, they’d take one last look at me and walk off. And I’d still be fuckin’ standing there. I don’t know what it is about me. I don’t know why the kids at Xavier walked off. I don’t know why they laughed at me later if they never bothered talking to me first. I told myself I’d never invite that experience again. I decided, if I wanted to know somebody, I’d wait for them to introduce themselves to me first. Only, nobody ever came up and introduced themselves—so I never met anybody, not till Tressa. I had to do everything by my fuckin’ self, go everywhere by my fuckin’ self, learn all this shit by my fuckin’ self. Rejection just hurt too fucking much to keep trying to talk to people, but Dr. Strykeroth’s still trying to get me to risk it anyway.

But I wasn’t up to it that night. I had Plans, real big fuckin’ London Plans for me and Colby, but I just couldn’t bring myself to walk up and introduce myself. I looked at what I was wearing. I looked at where I’m from. I kept my head down and decided to brush past Colby on my way out the building, even though I knew that later I’d regret being such a chicken shit.

But, on my way to the last set of stairs, Colby walked right up to me. Right fuckin’ up to me! He said, “Hey, weren’t you on the L when we got pulled off?”  I stopped, froze like a fuckin’ corpse in a morgue. My dream was fucking forcing itself to come true right before my fuckin’ eyes. I had no fucking idea what to say. I fumbled around my coat for a cigarette. Colby looked puzzled when, instead of answering him, I took a long pause to fish out and light up a Marlboro. Finally, I squeaked out the definitive answer Colby’d been waiting for: “Yeah.”

His friends gathered around me in a group. I thought I’d fuckin’ faint! Fuckin’…sensory overload! The chick in the leopard-print coat clutched on to her Billy Idol/Sid Vicious boyfriend and said, “We were arrested.”

“What?” I said.

Billy Idol/Sid Vicious said, “They called a squad car and took us to the station.”

“They fuckin’ cuff you?” I asked.

“Of course,” he said, “They have to by law.”

I didn’t know how the fuck I was gonna manage the rest of this exchange. It all came on so—phew! —fuckin’…all of a sudden. There’s no way I’m cool enough to keep this going, I thought. I gotta be, like, 100,000 times cooler than I am right now to measure up to what they’re all used to up on Olympus. I decided now was as good a time as any to put on the voice I always wished I had—a cockney fuckin’ British accent. Why not? It’s my life. I should be able to sound whatever fuckin’ way I want. I should be able to be whoever I fuckin’ wanna be, even it means I gotta make some shit up about who I am and where I’m from.

Right then and there, in Medusa’s lobby, I transformed from Seamus from the Northwest Side to Seamus from the motherfuckin’ East End of London. A whole spiel—all the basics I could tell people—started forming in my head. After all, I’d be meeting a lot more people now that I was the fabulous Seamus from the East End of London. I’d say, “Hello, I’m Seamus from the East End of London:

  1. I drink tea.
  2. My dad’s the British ambassador to America.
  3. ’is job shipped ’im to Chicago. I ’ad to accompany ’im.
  4. I miss London.
  5. I’m goin’ off me fuckin’ trolley with boredom ’ere.
  6. I plan on goin’ back to London. It’s so much fuckin’ better that side of the pond.”

This was a stroke of fucking genius! This would be my life story from now on! It’d be like living in England without living in England yet! My new voice, my new persona would charm the fuckin’ shit out of Colby. We’d take tea at teatime. We’d talk on the phone. He’d tell me how his day went. We’d plan to take tea-and-sympathy again, real fucking soon. There’d be lots of tea. Lots and lots of fuckin’ tea.

I’d tell him how outrageous London is. I’d study up on it in the encyclopedia and all the travel booklets you can get for free from Caldwell Travel Agency. I’d talk like a fuckin’ insider. There’s no way he could find out the shit-truth about me: that I’m Phil and Mary O’Grady’s son and I’ve lived on the Northwest Side all my life. He’d never meet Mom and Dad. I’d make bloody fuckin’ sure of that. And it’s not like I know anybody’d he’d know. It’s not like we’d run into anyone from my neighborhood, not around here. It’s not like I’d have to worry about anyone from St. Xavier busting me out if we ran into them; they’d never fuckin’ deign to speak to me in the first place. If Colby’d call my house and Mom’d answer, I’d just tell him my parents are using American accents to fit in (“What can I say? Wanker mum and wanker Dad is into fittin’ in.”). I’d never have to be Seamus from the fucking Northwest Side again. Now I’m Seamus from the East End of London. And soon I’ll tell Colby he could move back to London with me. This was a stroke of fucking genius!

All these thoughts flashed through my head in the time it took to take another drag off my Marlboro. Colby said, “They had us in custody for almost half an hour.”

My first word in my new voice was, “Ay? Why?”

Colby twitched down an eyebrow, “Well, you saw. I had a marker on me.”

“Righ’, Righ’,” I said. “The balloons.”

“Yeah,” Colby replied, raising and then twitching his eyebrow back down again, “the balloons. You saw that guy get up and walk over to us, right? He was an undercover cop.”

“Righ’,” I said, nodding, smoking and talking all at once, like I once saw Johnny Marr do on 120 Minutes. “Fuckin’ narc. Fuckin’ wanker.”

Dead silence, thick as midnight. I’d spent years practicing a cockney accent in my bedroom and I thought I was doing a pretty fuckin’ good job, considering the short notice.  But not a word of it washed with Blondie, Colby’s leather-succubus girlfriend. Fuckin’ Blondie. She let go of Colby’s arm and fixed me a glare that said I was the fakest fuckin’ fraud she’d ever fuckin’ laid eyes on. She even spun around and laughed at me in front of all the freaks traipsing down the hallway and bounding up to the third floor.

Colby was nicer than Blondie. He just went on with what he was saying, “Anyway, I told the cop I wasn’t using my marker to tag graffiti. I was just drawing on some balloons. They couldn’t find any evidence against us, so they confiscated the marker and let us go.”

I took a mean drag off my Marlboro, let it out in a long exhale and laid down the law, “Tell you wha’, them fascists is wankas. Fuckin’ wankas. Oughta declare a state a fuckin’ anarchy and say fuck off with the lotta ’em.” More morgue silence. Blondie snickered one last time and walked right on past me up to the video room. Leopard Print followed and so did Sid Vicious/Billy Idol, both of them chiming in on Blondie’s laughter.

I realized I was the stupidest fuckin’ twat alive. Mount Olympus was a fuckin’ golden bird, laying golden eggs in my hands and I dropped the eggs and let that fucker fly away. What about living in foreign countries? What about making art with all them?  What about the books I’d write while we’re all sitting around cafes at teatime and going to the gigs they play (if any of them are in bands, that is)? What about the friendships we could make with each other, the kinds people make movies and write biographies about years later? Did I fuckin’ blow it like I’m blowing my chances of staying at Xavier?

Since I couldn’t take looking at Colby’s flawless face anymore, I let my eyes drop to the dark hallway floor. My eyes fell in motherfucking defeat to Colby’s boots as he started marching away with his friends. I wanted to take the cigarette I was smoking and stab it a thousand times through my left hand. Gone were all hopes, dreams, and best-laid London Plans with Colby…and there was no one to blame but my fuckin’ self. Before that moment, I never met a mirror I liked and it didn’t look like I ever fucking would.

As I was taking another drag off my cigarette and was about to incinerate my flesh, I felt a gentle grip on my shoulder. I looked over. It was Colby. “See you around, man,” he said. “Take care of yourself.” He took a look back at me. To look me in the eye. To see me. It was a look of understanding, like he understood how hard it must be standing there, wanting to burn myself alive. Did he ever feel that way himself? I can’t imagine. He’s so fucking beautiful and cool. He got me, though. Caught me fronting with that stupid fuckin’ cockney accent. He fuckin’ got me and cast no look of hate when he did. His look seemed like love, actually. But, no, I wouldn’t go that far. He still followed his friends and kept his back to me the whole way up the stairs to the video room.

Guess he wasn’t expecting me to follow. I wasn’t expecting to either. But, after he went upstairs and I took a couple more drags off my smoke, which I didn’t end up stabbing through my hand after all, I took a pen out of my coat pocket and scratched my name and number on the piece of paper I always keep for emergencies like this. I walked back into the video room, the lower plane, where I saw Colby making the rounds through a fuckin’ blue million neon video-room denizens, getting hugged and kissed and clasped and loved a blue million fuckin’ times over—the ambassador from Olympus that Dad never was from England. I stood back a couple minutes and watched.

A Thrill Kill Kult video was raging on all the screens. It made me bold. I nerved up the nutsack to tap Colby’s shoulder. He didn’t feel it at first. Billy Idol/Sid Vicious and Blondie were watching me, fucking aghast, as I kept tapping him. Colby turned around, took a step back, and looked at me. I handed him the slip of paper with my name and number on it and said in my plain Chicago voice, loud enough for him to hear over Thrill Kill Kult, “Here. Just in case you need a witness for what happened on the L.” He smiled and said, “Thanks.” I smiled back and walked out of the dark neon rooms, past Leopard Print, Blondie, and Billy Idol/Sid Vicious. I thought of asking Colby for his number, but I already fucked up once in the main-floor hallway. I wasn’t gonna fuck up again. I walked off Mount Olympus for the night. But now its king, this teenage Zeus in a 1940s black-lid hat, heard my plea. Maybe he’d call me later to welcome me on to his pantheon.

But what would he gain by calling me or being my friend? He’s already got friends. By the looks of it, he had the whole fuckin’ video room. What did I have to offer, except my London Plans? And I could have a life in London without him, I know that. It’d just be a lot fuckin’ lonelier, that’s all. At least Colby’s always right there in my mind, though. That’s what I thought to myself as I made my last exit to Sheffield Street: “Colby will always be on my mind. Even if he never calls, even if we never take tea, he will always be on my mind.”

It’s been well over a year now. Colby still hasn’t called. Not that I’m waiting by the phone anymore. And I haven’t seen him around since that night either, not even at the fuckin’ Murphy’s Law concert, where my eyes were peeled out of their fuckin’ sockets for him. And I’ve been back to the video room time and again and he never turned up. He wasn’t even at Medusa’s when Ministry played. Fuckin’ everyone who’s anyone was there! Not him, though. Who knows, maybe he moved. God, I fuckin’ hope not. I so want to see him again.

I never told Tressa about the night I met Colby. Never told her what happened with Narc. Never told her about my attempts at a cockney accent and a new story. But I did ask her if the name Colby rang a bell. She said it didn’t and asked me why I asked. I said somebody told me some story about somebody on Belmont named Colby but I couldn’t remember how it went. I could tell she could tell I was lying. I remembered the story. Knew it fuckin’ chapter and verse. I was its author. “Colby’s coming with me to London”: I nursed the story all last year. I nurse it now, but not so much now that a year has gone by and the phone hasn’t rung. Yet my London Plans still stand if he ever wants to hear my pitch, if I ever see him on the L again, if we ever become friends. I’ll keep watching out for him at Irving Park station. But I won’t do a cockney accent next time. That was just fuckin’ stupid.

(c) 2010

Kyle Thomas Smith is a writer in Brooklyn, NY.

Goodbye, J.D. Salinger

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on January 29, 2010

I know this is overdue, but I’d like to pay my respects to J.D. Salinger on the blog.

He was an author of deep artistic integrity. He sure as hell stuck it to the publishing industry like no one else. No one has ever been such a holdout to those power-wielding prigs.

Still, I wish we’d been able to see more of his work.

Franny and Zooey is my favorite one of his books.

I’ll be the first to admit that Catcher in the Rye was an enormous influence on 85A.

In fact, this is how the back cover will read:

What do you get when you cross Holden Caulfield with Johnny Rotten? None other than Seamus O’Grady, the 15-year-old, punk-rock protagonist of 85A!

It’s a subzero Chicago morning on January 23, 1989—the Monday after George H.W. Bush’s inauguration—and Seamus is at his fighting best.  Braving the bitter cold at the 85A bus stop, Seamus rails against his repressive environment in anticipation of his “the-minute-I-turn-18” move to London.

His escape velocity mounts against the backdrop of a Midwest metropolis as memories, fantasies, and cityscapes collide on his commute to the south-side Jesuit high school that’s itching to kick him out for bad grades and excessive demerits.  When Seamus shows up late to school yet again, the dean prepares his expulsion papers. Liberated by failure, Seamus makes a break for London via an Amtrak to the mean streets of Late Eighties Manhattan.

85A tracks a watershed day in the life of an adolescent antihero. Foulmouthed with a capital F-word, Seamus embodies Johnny Rotten’s anarchic image as a way of fending off the bullies at home, at school and in his whites-only neighborhood.  Luckily for him, his mixed-raced, teen-prodigy friend Tressa opens him up to great books and experiences that turn his worldview on its head. Similarly, the Chicago L takes Seamus into integrated areas, giving him a glimpse of life outside the neighborhood, and Chicago’s thriving underground music and art scenes fortify his rebellion against the mainstream.  Through it all, Seamus basks in rebroadcasted BBC dramas, dreaming of what life would be if only he could stow away to London.

By the time Seamus reaches his last L stop, he will come to see that his 85A ride that morning was just the kickoff to an intrepid urban odyssey.

Salinger has been a mentor to coming-of-age novelists for over half a century.

On the bright side, in light of his passing, Catcher in the Rye will be fresh on everyone’s minds when 85A is released.


On Tuesday, I got the email. It’s official. My mother has liver cancer. Two years ago, when she was 75 years old, they found two tumors – one the size of a tennis ball, the other the size of a cantaloupe – on her ovaries. They had to operate. She had a hysterectomy at 75! Fortunately, she’d gotten a lot of use out of that womb, what with having borne seven children, none of whom were twins. The surgery was a success. She went through almost ten rounds of chemo and beat the cancer into remission. It has migrated to her liver, though. She started yet another regimen of chemo yesterday.

In some ways, I can’t think of a worse time for 85A to come out. The novel is fiction, of course, but Seamus grows up in my old neighborhood in Chicago. Some things in the novel happened in real life, even more things never happened. But will the family buy that? Not to mention the explicit adult content and mature themes, which is why, like with Catcher, the book is being marketed to adults even though the protagonist is a teenager. That’s the risk we authors have to take, albeit in more opportune times, normally.

One of my brothers recently resurfaced in my life. He came to town last week and stayed with me and Julius. We got on better than we ever had before. He said he wants to see more of me. He also said he wants to read 85A. I deflected. I think he began to suspect why.

But it’s fiction, goddammit! With one or two exceptions, each character is a composite of anywhere from three to a dozen people I’ve known (or, in some cases, have never known) throughout my life. And I’ve got a right to write fiction! So I’ve elected not to retract publication of the book.


In any event, let me conclude with a quote. I’ve read the Tao Te Ching a zillion times throughout the years, but somehow glossed over one verse that I would think would have meant the most to me. Julius and I went to the Mark Rothko Chapel when we were in Houston a few weeks ago. While I did a 45 minute meditation, he read a copy of Lao Tsu’s book that was laying out on a bench by the front door. When I was done meditating, he came over and read Verse 20 of the Tao Te Ching to me. It pretty much sums up Holden Caulfield’s life and mine and my character Seamus’ and possibly Salinger’s:

Give up learning, and put an end to your troubles.

Is there a difference between yes and no?
Is there a difference between good and evil?
Must I fear what others fear? What nonsense!
Other people are contented, enjoying the sacrificial feast of the ox.
In spring some go to the park, and climb the terrace,
But I alone am drifting, not knowing where I am.
Like a newborn babe before it learns to smile,
I am alone, without a place to go.

Others have more than they need, but I alone have nothing.
I am a fool. Oh, yes! I am confused.
Other men are clear and bright,
But I alone am dim and weak.
Other men are sharp and clever,
But I alone am dull and stupid.
Oh, I drift like the waves of the sea,
Without direction, like the restless wind.

Everyone else is busy,
But I alone am aimless and depressed.
I am different.
I am nourished by the great mother.

(“Are You Different?,” Verse 20, Tao Te Ching)

R.I.P. – J.D. Salinger (January 1, 1919 – January 27, 2010)

Graffiti Beater: “Therefore the Purest Form of Art.”

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on January 18, 2010

Look, I’m not saying I live in the ‘hood.

For Chrissake, I live on Third Street and even my cats get manicures twice a month!

If anything, this is the nabe.

But this truck has been in front of my house since last week.

Now, I don’t mind it, mind you. I think it gives the neighborhood some much-needed character. I think I’ll even miss it when it’s either towed or moved by the gold-plated, chain-laden owner.

Just look at the Seventies Hindenburg-funk letters! It’s got a helluva lot more soul than the poodle-patrols, charging down these streets on rhinestone-studded leashes.

Reason I took the truck’s picture is that it reminds me of a most thought-provoking slogan that I saw scrawled in Magic marker on Tea Lounge’s red-brick bathroom wall after I packed up from a day of writing this afternoon. (Tea Lounge has the same laissez-faire policy toward its bathroom walls that the New York MTA did with its pre-Nineties subway cars.) This defacing moment of Zen reads as follows:

Bathroom graffiti is done neither for fame nor for profit

And is therefore the purest form of art. Discuss…

Now that’ll make for some serious cawwwfee-tawwwk right there, won’t it? I contemplated it the whole way home as I stepped over poodles and the many little legacies they leave behind them.

I’ll meditate on it still more as I give Giuseppe, the male Kate Moss of comfy kitties, his mani-pedi tonight.