28 years of my life were spent living in New York’s East Village. I moved there with my hillbilly girlfriend in 1977. We lasted until 1979. The apartment was located at 256 East 10th Street. It had a bathtub in the kitchen. The lack of privacy was not to blame for our break-up.
She moved to Avenue A and I stayed in our apartment. There were no ghosts of her. I worked nightclubs. CBGBs, Hurrah, Studio 54, and The Milk Bar for the next ten years. It was easy money and drinks were free.
I rode a 1964 Triumph Tiger and 1970 Yamaha 650 XS. My mechanic was Dmitri from the East 6th Street Bike Shop. The Russian emigre introduced me to Rick, the owner of Madame Rosa’s. The Californian had a Ducati and Norton. They were the loves of our lives.
Neither of us had girlfriends and we traded nights cooking dinner for each other, after which we would play gin rummy. Rick was a better cook and I was lucky at cards as long as the play didn’t involved money.
Dmitri joked that we were man and wife. It was only funny the first time.
When Rick mentioned to a neighbor that I had been brought up outside of Portland, Maine the middle-aged woman extended an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner at their tenement building.
Dinner was turkey, stuffing yams, gravy, creamed onions, cranberry sauce and all the fixings. Her guests were an ironworker from Montana, a cop from the shooting range, a marine historian from the Natural History Museum, Rick, and me. Her two kids were in high school. Neither the tall boy nor the skinny girl looked much like Jane, who could have passed for a diesel dyke at the Cubby Hole in the West Village.
“So this is my fellow Mainiac.” She hugged me, as if we had been separated at birth. “Where from?”
“Falmouth Foresides.” My town was across the harbor from the Eastern Promenade.
“That’s almost life coming from Massachusetts.” Jane elbowed Rick in the ribs. “I’m from Columbia Falls, Maine. It’s in Aroostock County, which is the last place God created before his rest.”
“Way Down East.”
“Only Eastport is farther.” Jane was a graduate of University of Maine. She loved her hockey, but moved to New York to become a beatnik and ended up marrying an East Village plumber. Carmine was first generation Sicilian. The cigar-chomping plumber regarded Jane’s friends as weirdos. Her big-bellied husband was a war history buff and is best friend Ira wrote anti-Zionist articles for left-wing journals. If anyone knew weirdos, it was Carmine.
The Lower East Side native had learned pipe-fitting in the Merchant Marines.
Plumbers from the five boroughs sought his advice. Carmine had pull with City Hall. The connections were a gift from his father. The old man had been a bookie.
We drank red wine and ate ourselves full. Carmine put on THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY followed by EL TOPO. We sat around the cool glow of the holiday TV in semi-comas.
Carmine mumbled stories about the East Village from the 50s interspersed with racial epitaphs. The marine historian’s girlfriend called him racist.
Rick defended his pseudo-uncle. Racist was a serious accusation.
“Carmine is an equal hater of everyone.” Rick knew that Carmine supported a number of blacks and Puerto Ricans. His bad mouth was to shock the squares. Their disapproval gave him great pleasure.
“That’s right. I don’t have a good word to say about anyone.”
Carmine lifted from his chair and motioned for me to follow him into his den. The ground-floor room smelled of old cigars and dirty feet. War books covered the walls. I picked out THE ENEMY AT THE GATE.
“What do you know about Stalingrad?” He was testing me.
“Just that in 1944 DeGaulle came to the ruined city and said to a Free French journalist, “Stalingrad, they are great great people.” The journalist replied with a nod, “Yes, the Russians.” DeGaulle corrected him by saying, “Not the Russians. The Germans. That they got this far.”
“Where you read that?”
“I think John Toland’s book on Hitler.”
Carmine gave me the Stalingrad book to read. I soon had free access to his library. We met a couple of times a month to talk about history and a half-year Carmine asked for a favor.
“We can hold your sand?”
“I know when to keep my mouth shut.”
“Good, then I have a proposition for you.”
He lowered his head and spoke in a mumble like the FBI might have wiretapped his office.
We made money from several different ventures. None of them were really illegal, but we kept Aunt Jane and Rick out of the loop. The less people knew the better.
Once a month we ate at an Italian restaurant on 1st Avenue. I handed him an envelope under the table. He never counted the money. I stopped working a regular job. Uncle Carmine became a fixture in my life.He called me scumbag. He meant nothing by it. He called people he didn't like a lot worse.
I called him Carmine.
I thought that the old man would live forever, except the old sailor had one weakness.
Carmine loved cigars and in the mid-90s he started complaining about a stomach ache. I told him to see a doctor. He refused every entreaty to get an examination. I got him medicine with fake scripts. The pills helped a little bit, but not much, because Carmine had more than a stomach ache and he knew said how bad. It was his business and his alone.
In 2000 I left for my annual trip to Asia and Carmine said, “You take care.”
He handed me an small envelope. It felt like money and not $20.
“You have a good time in Bangkok for me. I was there in the 50s. It was a good time then and it’s probably a good time now.”
“Why don’t you come with me?”
“And leave all this.” He waved his hand in the air. “I already been everywhere. Just don’t go crazy, scumbag.”
Two months later I received a phone call at room 302 at the Malaysia Hotel.
It was Aunt Jane.
“Dead, you want me to come back?” I was only a little shocked by the news.
“No, he’d want you to have a good time, but we’re burying on October 12th.
“He never thought he was Italian.”
“Carmine came from Sicily.”
“Not Carmine, Columbus. Always said he was a Jew from Genoa.” Aunt Jane actually was a Jewish orphan from Russia. A doctor in Maine had taken her brother and her for his own. “We’re planting him in the blueberry patch above Schoonic Bay. I’d like you to be there. He liked the view from the hill.”
“I’ll be there.” I scheduled my return for late-September. The flight stopped in LA. I continued on to New York. My subleasee, a Swedish male nurse, had cleaned the place before leaving. Everything seemed to be in order.
I dropped my bags on the floor and walked two blocks over to Jane’s compound. Carmine had bought two buildings and a vacant lot back in the early 70s. $15,000. The property was now worth millions.
Jane gave me a big hug and said, “Carmine wanted you to have some books.”
The best were 1st editions of TRUE GRIT, NAKED LUNCH, and THE ENEMY AT THE GATE.
“You’re going to help drive up to Maine?” Jane sat down heavily. She was not in the best of health.
“Wouldn’t miss it.” I had been driving her to dog shows for years. She was good company. This trip would be a home-coming for both of us. Lobsters and a funeral. She opened the closet in Carmine’s office and held out a ceramic urn.
“The old man.” Two identical urns were in the closet.
“Are those extra?”
“Those are the dogs. Carmine wanted to be buried with them.”
No markings were written on the urns to distinguish them from each other. Jane saw my eyes and said, “No, know which ones are which.”
“Never said you didn’t.” Jane was almost as near-sighted as me.
We went to dinner at the local Italian restaurant and she outlined the funeral arrangements.
Burial was planned for atop a blueberry hill. Friends and family consisted of Jane, her son and daughter. The latter two were not on speaking terms.
Friends were few. Rick, Steve the iron worker, Carmine’s workmates and Lenny the anti-Zionist. A strange gathering for Schoonic Point any time of the year, but Jane said, “We’ll be welcome. It’s off-season.”
Columbus Day was overcast without the threat of rain. Cumberland County takes up the farthest corner of NE America. Weather stations in New England cite the northern reach of their maritime forecasts. “Eastport to Block Island.”
We stopped in Brunswick for lobster rolls at the Chamberlain Inn. Rick and Steve were enthralled with the Maine delicacy. It meant more to Jane and me.
My grandfather and father had attended Bowdoin and Jane had gone to U Maine. Maine was home and every mile was more like heaven. Pine trees along US 1 broke open on long coves linked to the sea. The foliage was a little past prime, but the crisp air was champagne from Canada.
Jane had picked Ellsworth for our stay. There was nothing open in Schoonic Bay this time of year. The hotel was on the strip. It had seen a hundred thousand customers this summer. The rooms had yet to stop vibrating from their comings and goings.
“Nothing is open in Schoonic Point this time of year.”
She distributed room keys. This trip was on Carmine. We had a great lobster at the bridge leading to Bar Harbor. The pound was closing after this weekend. The lobsters were soft-shelled and delectable. We agreed that Carmine had made the right choice about being buried in Maine. It was better than some hole in Queens. Anything was better than that.
Upon re-entering Ellsworth, Jane said, “I know Rick is a good boy and wants to get to sleep, but I checked out the bars for you and Steve. There’s one that’s a fern bar and the other that is always in the police reports. I’m not letting you drive, but here’s a twenty for the taxi.”
Rick was married with a kid. Steve was divorced and I was perennially single. We said our good-nights and headed first to the fern bar. We lasted a single drink. The same taxi took us to the bad boy bar. The driver told us to watch out for the girls. “They like strangers.”
Steve and I stood before the bar. Loud rock music blasted under neon lights. We had drunk beers on more than one occasion and he knew my tastes and said, “You can have all the skinny ugly ones and I’ll have all the fat cute ones.”
“It’s a deal.”
He opened the door and then shut it. “What about Big Foot?”
A she-man grabbed him before he could explain. I followed and was immediately set upon by two women twice the man I was. Steve was dancing to Deep Purple with a 200 pound-plus human version of a moose in heat. She wore size 14 boots. The men at the bar appeared relieved to drink without any female interference.
We were new meat.Steve shouted one word. I couldn’t hear him, but I knew the word was ‘help’. The faces on the men at the bar said we were on our own. They were wrong. We were with the Big Feet.
We stayed three beers too many and were driven back to the hotel by four seriously masculine women in checkered shirts. Steve was groping one of them and whispered, “I’m checking to make sure they don’t have any dildos."
“Dildos?” They weren't just trying to scare us.
The Big Foot women were talking dirty. Sex was a Sumo wrestling event. I told them we couldn’t do anything and they said, “Date rape.”
Their station wagon braked before our rooms. Hands unbuttoned my shirt. Steve was dragged out of the car. We were doomed, until Jane appeared in a celestial nightgown. “Leave those two men alone. They’re with me.”
“Gigolos.” They muttered, reluctantly before letting go of us. Jane stood her ground until they left the room and then asked with a smile, “You boys have fun.”“Yeah.” We were glad to have escaped Big Foot’s grasp.“I’m sure Carmine would appreciate it, now go to bed. We have a busy day tomorrow.”She was right. We buried Carmine without a priest. On a blueberry hill overlooking Schoonic Bay. The sun came out as we lowered the urns into the earth. Jane cried and her children hugged her. They almost seemed like a family.I proposed a drive around Bar Harbor before the memorial dinner in Hull’s Cove. Rick and Steve loved the rocky coastline and also that we saw Martha Stewart who was in hiding from the New York press. She had been a bad girl. Steve said she looked like a Big Foot woman.I didn’t laughed.Dinner was in a small restaurant and two of the waitresses were from the Big Foot tribe. A dress tamed them and they made no sign of recognizing us.
Jane couldn’t help but tell Rick about last night’s scene and he was happy to tell everyone in the East Village that Steve and I had mated with moose.
Jane knew the truth, but said, “It’s funnier the way he tells it and Carmine would like that ending too.”
He had a better sense of humor than most even in the grave, especially at someone else’s expense. He was the kind of Uncle only a Big-Footed woman could love and Jane loved him forever. After all she was from Maine.