Sabtu, 04 Februari 2012

RICHARD IS A FORKHEAD by Peter Nolan Smith

In July of 1977 I discovered my roommate stealing my tip money and moved to a SRO room on West 10th Street and 5th Avenue. A bed and four walls cost $44/week. I was making about $200 at the restaurant and after work I took the subway from 60th and Lex to the Astor Place. Usually too wound up to fall asleep I killed several hours drinking a dive bars before returning to my miserable room. I wasn’t making any friends.

One wintry December I was stumbling back from a derelict bar at the corner of the Bowery and Houston. My fingers and feet were freezing from the cold. The wind slashed through my thin clothing. The thump of a bass emanated from within a white stucco building. It was rock and roll at its purest, but could have been choir music for all I cared.

I wanted warm and pushed open the heavy wooden door.

The leather-jacketed bass player had friends on stage; a guitarist, drummer, drums, and a lead singer with stringy long hair poised over the audience like a praying mantis in a similar leather jacket. The crowd was pushed back and forth, as if the floor was pulsating in time to the 3-chord progression.

Recognizing the song as the 45rpm version of THE Rivieras’ CALIFORNIA SUN, I stepped forward to join the frenzy. A huge hand blocked my way.

“$5.” The monstrous bouncer wore a yellow construction.

“Who are they?” I handed over the fiver.

“The Ramones.”

And I like that I became a regular at CBGBs. My attire switched from hippie to punk overnight. Every night I hung out at the bar. None of the stars of the scene were my friend.

My only talent was playing pinball.

My scores were #1 on the SLASH and KISS machines.

If I kicked the KISS machine right, it would gush quarters like a slot machine. Several punks thought I was Tommy the Pinball Wizard’s illegitimate brother, but I was a nobody, which was okay, since being a punk was all about not caring about being nobody.

Not everyone felt the same way. Blondie was getting noticed by the record companies. So were the Talking Heads and every girl in the place loved Richard. His best song was our anthem.

A lot of punkers were jealous of Richard, especially the younger boys seeking to escape obscurity. A teenage runaway formed the power-pop trio and he wrote a song RICHARD IS A FORKHEAD in reference to the Richard’s spiked hair. The girls loved his hair, but their love wasn’t strong enough to levitate his group onto the charts.

I admired Richard for his failure throughout 1978 and 1979, even though it was obvious that he wanted a greater success from his young life than sleeping with college girls.

I stopped going to CBGBs after breaking up with my hillbilly girlfriend. My new love was a blonde model. We lasted 9 months. Her last sentence was telling.

“You might want to spend the rest of your life playing pinball, but I want more.”

Lisa deserted me for a Russian icon smuggler. He had money. I had a pocket of quarter to play pinball and a small apartment in the East Village. It was no contest.

A year later in 1981 I moved to Paris to work for a French magazine’s nightclub.One night a New Wave girl band played at our club. The leader singer had a crooked nose, bedraggled hair, but once she hit the stage, she emanated a savaged beauty meant for a dark room. Her lanky body encircled the mike stand like a boa crushing its prey. In some ways she was a female version of Richard.

After the show we spoke about New York. Her husband played for Richard’s band. Claudia laughed about RICHARD IS A FORKHEAD. We ate at an African restaurant in Les Halles. At dawn she said, “I have to go to Lille.”

“Like Cinderella.”

“I don’t think Cinderella went to Lille.”

“I guess not.” The fairy tale never said where Cinderella lived.

Claudia kissed me on the cheek and got into the band’s van. No glass slipper marked her departure. I didn’t date any princesses.

Only French girls.

One of them was a tousled-hair singer who had lived in New York during 1976. Lizzie said that I had once refused her entrance to an after-hours club on 14th Street. I remembered frog-marching a crazy French girl onto the sidewalk. She didn’t hold the forceful eviction against me.

“I was fighting with my boyfriend.” She told me about a spike-haired singer in the East Village, while we were in bed later that evening.

“Richard.” It was the first time I was ever jealous of him.

“You are jealous.” She laughed easy. I liked her for that.

“Don’t be silly. Richard and I were not boyfriend and girlfriend.” She lit a cigarette. The tobacco turned her kisses into ashtrays. Her skin smelled of unfiltered Camels. Lizzie loved her smoke.

“And what about us?” I wasn’t all that much into kissing with Lizzie.

“We are just friends. Richard helped me with my book. Patti Smith too.” Lizzie was famous in Paris. She appeared with her Fender Jazzmaster guitar on TV. I kept our affair a secret. We lasted until a Christmas vacation on the Isle of Wight.

We said good-bye on Boxing Day. She went off to Africa and I remained in Paris for another two years before returning to the USA to write screenplays for porno films in North Hollywood. Within a month the quasi-mafia producer fired me for being too intellectual. This accomplishment would have made Lizzie proud.

Back in New York I rode motorcycles and worked at the Milk Bar. Richard came to the door. I had never spoken to him before, but he said, “I think we have a mutual friend.”

“Who?” I knew exactly who.

“I saw Lizzie in Paris. She says hello.” Richard was friendlier than I had imagined and I bought him a drink. After the second he said, “Lizzie told me about you naming me Forkhead.”

“That wasn’t me.” The distinction belonged to lead guitarist of the Ghosts.

“I know, but it’s a better story that way.” Richard no longer sported spikes. “By the way she called you ‘suedehead’, which is funny coming from someone with a hair like a crow’s nest.”

“More a bird’s nest.” My hair lay like a thick rug on my head. I never just a comb.

“Depends on your perspective.” Richard was taller than me. He tipped the bartender $5. She smiled at him in recognition of his legend. Punk would be punk without him.

“I’ll see you around.”

We lived in the East VillageIt wasn’t often, but occasionally I’d run into him on the street. He invited me to his poetry readings at the St. Mark’s Church. Someone said that he edited several alternative magazines. I submitted short stories to all of them. He never mentioned them afterwards. I didn’t blame him. My typing, grammar, and spelling were atrocious.

I went away to France in 1989. Lizzie was going out with an art dealer. She and I played squash in Les Halles. She beat me mercilessly, despite wheezing after every shot. I spoke about Richard during a break.

“Richard is so funny. I think he was jealous of you.”

“Jealous for what?”

“For you being with me.”

“You told him about that?” Our affair was still a secret on my end.

“Maybe, it isn’t important anymore.”

“No.” I had been in love several times in the interim. None of them a success.

“Then let’s not worry about the past.” Lizzie served the ball against the wall for an ace. She won every game. We went to dinner in the Marais and I said, “Loser pays.”

“It wasn’t much of a game.”

“Not considering that I was once the 17th-ranked tennis player in the USA.”

“You were?”

“Yes, my friend lied to his father about my ranking.”

“So you weren’t the 17th-ranked player in America?”

“Do I look like I could have ever been the 17th ranked tennis player in America.” I said it so she wouldn’t believe me and added, “I let you win fair and square.”

“I’m not sure.”

“Up to you.”

We said good-bye in Les Halles. Neither of us suggested a nightcap. We had become just friends.

And so was with Richard, but whoever had seen Lizzie last would tell the other about the latest news.

In the 90s I started taking around-the-world trips.

Richard was fascinated by my tales of opium dens on the Burmese border. I thought about writing a down-and-out travel book. I wrote several chapters and gave them to a literary agent. He hated my typing and I went back to selling diamonds on 47th Street.

It was a 9-6 job. I wore a suit and tie. The money was good. I went out at night, but not late.

One night at a party on St. Marks I spotted richard with Claudia. I hadn’t seen her since Paris. Richard was busy with the guests. He kept looking at Claudia.

“Are you two a thing?”

“Richard’s no one’s thing. You have a girlfriend?”

“No, I had a Spanish girlfriend, but I thew her out for being unfaithful. My next-door neighbor loved her and she curse me.”

“Curse you?”

“A Santeria curse and I haven’t had sex since then.”


“100%.” There was no other explanation for my celibacy.

“Maybe I can help you change that.” She asked me to walk to my place. She spent the night. Her husband was taking care of their son. She had to leave before dawn.

“Like Cinderella.” I joked with a towel around my waist.

“You’re certainly no Prince Charming.”

Claudia walked down the hallway to the stairs. Mrs. Adorno opened the door. The old bruja had witnessed more than a few women come and go in and out of my life. Her one good eye squinted in my direction. She said something in Spanish, then mumbled, “Sex not love. Siempre.”

“Not always.” I said, but I wanted more from a woman than sex and tried to be romantic with Claudia. We went to the movies, made love, took holidays, and hiked with her son. I wasn’t prepared for her saying after two months. “This isn’t working out.”

“What isn’t?” I felt dumb, because we saw each other several times a week. The sex was good.

“You and me. I want something more from a relationship than this and someone wants to give it to me. Richard.”

“Richard?” I had no chance against a rock god.

“Yes, he called to say he really wanted to be with me. I have to give it a chance.”

“I understand.”

Mrs. Adorno’s curse was stronger than both of us.

I gave her my blessing and started drinking on my own. It wouldn’t take off the curse, but stopped my thinking of Claudia. Of course Richard wasn’t forever and one winter evening Claudia phoned to say it was over.

“Can i come over?”

“The answer is yes, but I’m leaving for Thailand within a week.”

“All you men are alike. You leave when the going gets tough.”

She hung up before I could defend myself.

Six months later travels took six months and I returned to work the Christmas season on West 47th Street. I bumped into Richard at an art opening. Neither of us spoke about Claudia, but he said, “We should play tennis sometime.”


“Lizzie said you were good at squash. You must be able to play tennis. I belong to the club over on the East River. We can play whenever you want.”

“It’s wintertime.” I hadn’t been on a tennis court since 1975.

“The cold scare you?” This was a challenge.

“Not in the least.” I was from Maine. We had two seasons. Winter and preparing for winter. “Name the day.”

“Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny in the high 40s.”

“Sounds good.”

“Say noon.”

“Noon it is.”

I stopped drinking the cheap wine. Showing up sober was the only advantage I could gain by an early departure. I went to sleep dreaming about overhead lobs.

Not only Richard regarded with match as important.

I only wished I knew was the prize.

I called in sick in the morning. My boss let us have ‘drunk days’.

The temperature warmed up by noon to almost 50. Richard was waiting by the riverside court. He had brought an extra racket.

“Your choice.”

I selected the one more tightly strung without knowing if that was better or not. I was no Arthur Ashe and proved it throughout the next hour. I lost set after set, until it was match point.

“You don’t play often, do you?” Richard smashed an ace to my left.

“Not for years.”

“Lizzie told me you were once the 17th-ranked tennis player in America.”

“That was a joke. I was once down in the South of France and my friend told his father that I was the 17th-ranked tennis player two years previous. I said it wasn’t true, but his father thought I was being humble and scheduled an exhibition at the local tennis club. I was presented to the town’s mayor and the club president. My friend whispered that they expected me to play the provincial champion.”

“And did you?”

“No way. I said that I was under contract and couldn’t play anywhere without signed agreements. A little later his father found out the truth. He didn’t think it was funny at first, but everyone else did. I felt the same way as him. You always do when you’re the joke.”

“Now, I feel the same way. I really thought you a good player.” This was not about Claudia, but Lizzie.

“Maybe I am. Maybe I was taking it easy on you.” I knew the truth.

“What about another match?” He wanted to know it too.

“Sorry, I’m under contract.” I handed back the racket and walked away from the court with a smile on my lips.

After that day Richard and I didn’t see each other for several years. I was either working or away in Asia writing novels no one wanted to publish. At least my typing was getting better. Finally I left the States to live in Thailand. I had a baby with my wife. Maybe it was mine. I didn’t ask too many questions.

In April 2004 I returned to New York. My Israeli subleasee had squealed to my landlord in hopes of getting my apartment. An eviction notice was issued in both our names. I threw her out on the street.

Mrs. Adorno said nothing this time. My landlord paid $8000 to insure I left the flat. I didn’t want to stay in New York anymore. I was 50 and it was a tough city for the old. The day before my flight to Bangkok, I spotted Richard walking on 1st Avenue.

He smiled upon seeing me, then frowned, “I got bad news. Lizzie died this week. She was buried in the South of France. Her ashes floated out to sea with the flowers.”

“Did you go?”

“No, I only heard about it after the fact.” He shuffled several folders of manuscripts between hands. “That leaves only you and me.”

We had nothing else in common and the words died out like a fire left unwatched. I told him I was leaving the city for good.

“No one leaves the city for good.” He had been living there for over 30 years.

“I am.”

“No, you’ll be back, if only to prove you’re the 17th ranked tennis player.”

“Yeah, there’s always that. See you around Forkhead.”

“You too, Suedehead.”

I waved good-bye. We would see each other another time, because none of us were leaving New York forever. Not even our ghosts, for the dead lived forever in the past in those stuck in the present.

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