Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Cads in the Cathouse

Seven rooms; three up, four down, and an attached single room shed, turned apartment...a gold mine for the right morally bankrupt investor. And Jackson Craig was all of that.

The pillars of our community owned these homes and rented them out to those who'd be grateful for any affordable shelter from the north winds. They were the bankers and politicians, the businessmen and even pastors of the city; the elite feeding at the trough of the poor, sopping the crusts of their imported French (who else) bread in the sweat and tears of the very folk who labored to make them wealthy.

This particular pillar wasn't famous really, not sose anyone but the police would notice. But he was wealthy beyond our wildest dreams. Jackson was a pimp extraordinaire, and the house in question, or at least the first floor of it, a "house of ill repute".

It's a tiny house we lived in, our parcel of it nothing more than a buffalo boarded attic with an outdoor stairway, landing and door added to create a duplex from a single salt box. There were no dormers, no half walls either. The roofline stopped at the floor, a particularly dangerous proposition for a 6'2" hellion like me.

Many were the dents, the fist sized circles broken through each wall by my autistic, or otherwise occupied head... and each intrusion was signed by me as well; a sort of proof positive that I was an affable oaf in spite of my appearance and lack of grace.

The common room took a third of the living space, a double door closet missing its coat bar covering one wall and twin windows on the other. A tiny hallway led from the west to the east end, past the one bedroom and miniature toilet, ending at three doors; one into a narrow kitchen, the opposite into the second and even smaller bedroom and the last to the interior stair leading down, a six panel door nailed shut from the opposite side.

Three of our group had rented the place, one, the fawn magnet made famous in previous tales; and the other two, women who actively competed for his favor, one of whom had taught me the ins and outs of sex as I was 13 and she then, in her early 20s. Four of our group is likely more truthful come to think of it, as Denise had a female German Shepard/Timberwolf mix who took up at least as much floor space as any jean jacketed human.

But really the number was of no consequence as it permanently doubled in short order and on some weekends, doubled yet again.

The two women owned the bedrooms and their suitor traveled between them as moods changed and needs waned. Two more men moved in within the first month, and having no place to sleep out of plain view, they opened a service door to an unfinished attic on the far east end of the house, slapped down a pair of boxsprings on the rafters topped by long dead mattresses, and called it good.

I was the misfit, not truly needing a place to live, my parent’s home close enough to walk to and fro. But my mother had become sick and my father had taken an apartment to escape the insanity, leaving me the only male target of her wrath.

It was a phone call that had set me off, a girl I'd taken a liking to on the other end, and she and I doing that muttering babble that new teenage wooing demands. Mom had stomped into the kitchen as I was tittering some kissy kissy nonsense and screamed into my face "Is that another one of the little sluts you've gotten pregnant?" The girl was vocally shaken by the outburst and I became enraged; I'd not yet admitted to the lass that my mother was the real Regan of Exorcist fame and I now was sure that this relationship was over before it'd started. (For the record, I'd not dated more than a few "little sluts" by that point, and none of them had gotten pregnant on my account.)

In my huff I whipped the refrigerator door open on my way out, the thought of food interfering with every waking moment no matter what my level of anxiety. My strength showed well, I'd only wanted a bit of cheese or maybe a Hershey bar for the road, but the door slammed into a wooden doorjamb and a dozen eggs leaped from their little plastic cradles to skydive toward the linoleum. I could only watch the story of my life unfold yet again, I couldn't even get self-righteously angry without making my situation worse.

I screamed my disgust, much as Charlie Brown might scream at Lucy, and blew out the back door leaving my newly acquired omelet for mom and gramma to clean up. With the cuttoff Levi jacket on my back holding everything I'd need to live on for at least a few weeks, I became the sixth misguided lump to squeeze into that 4th Avenue sardine can; any dogshit free spot on the living room floor my bed until further notice.

It's all pretty funny in retrospect, we were teenagers and only two of us even owned a motorcycle, neither a Harley. But we had the act down tight; the jackets, the weapons, the attitude and names like Sparky, Nich, DB, Midnight and my handle, Dude.

Yes kids, there was a time when dude didn't begin every sentence, when it meant something beyond "Yo!". I'd owned a horse in a past life, and had fallen in love with cowboy boots and hats. Silver tipped, black horsehide boots were my daily shoe wear and a low top, felt Stetson, banded by dogchain and sporting a squirrel tail was my headwear. Add snakeskin or pearl snapped shirts and expect the world to either admire or keep their mouths shut, and "Dude" was born.

The biker thing just kinda happened, one guy made friends with so and so and brought back the disease...and soon we were all infected. The only real problem was that we'd gotten the bug from the leader of an elder gang, a group who's attitude was Hell's Angels all the way and some of them came to look on us as their charges, as if we were the AA ballclub working to earn a place in the big leagues.

But the fact was, as with most gangs, we were just misfits who'd found each other by accident; guys who were damn tired of having to fight for every inch our lives moved forward, and had grouped together as much for mutual protection as hedonistic enjoyment.

So it may be easy to understand my schizoid feeling about the whole affair, my going with the flow though I knew it was lava that supported me. I was so out of place that it actually made my life all the worse than it already was, but all I could see when I thought about bailing was what awaited me on the other side, abject loneliness; a choice between constantly defending myself alone as I'd done for six years already, or simple reclusivity, shutting out my bizarre family, my aggressively cruel peers and everyone else just to be safe.

Choices like that are not easily made at 16, so I followed the pack to save myself being wrong. Out of place was better than no place at all I figured, and while most of what these groups were involved in could drag me into jailtime if I wasn't careful, a 16 year old is at least I had that going for me.

Once we were in our new space, we had to put on a show to mark our territory; like dogs pissing on their fence so the other dogs know at what point to expect jaws around their necks. It's more a courtesy than an aggression actually; you wouldn't want the neighborhood toughs to get the idea that we weren't capable of mass defense, and in a high crime area, it's always nice to pass the word that breaking into this particular home will likely buy you a short ride to the casket of your mother's choice.

So the party was on and the streets roared with Hendrix and Harleys and hooch of all flavors. We were the corner house with plenty of yard and an empty side street for lining up friend's rides. An open lot across the way, still containing charred rubble from a house torched during the previous year’s riot, made a fine rasslin arena for those inclined.

Police were sparse on our block, so we had little fear of being rousted. Violence was commonplace so the average citizen kept their noses to themselves and their doors and windows locked; and even when riled up beyond the point of sanity, most people would sooner jump off a bridge than call the cops.

The only locals who ventured near were either kids, or hoods, and it was exactly those hoods the show was intended to impress. Gangs were primarily Caucasian things in the late 60's in Minnesota, there were a few groups of street toughs and a handful of bike clubs wandering the highways. There was one black gang that I remember, but as all the baddies pretty much stayed clear of each other, color never became an issue that couldn't be overcome by partnerships in crime.

It's not that there were no supremists in the crowd. While "Aryans" make up less of the biker population than some might think, there are plenty of assholes per herd (aph). But at least in the northland, cutting a deal with the enemy was easier than cutting a throat, and while no one would admit to softening their stance, mutual respect often replaced mutually assured destruction.

In that light, anyone gutty enough to stroll into our crowd without challenging our turf was offered everything from beer to narcotics and made honorary friend for the night. It's how it was done, to make yourselves appear fearsome while silently offering a non-aggression pact to those who could cause you the most trouble. We were a white group in a black neighborhood, we were the intruders. There was a method to the madness and a protocol that needed to be met to save us all from bad times.

By the time dawn began to push our backsides, there were probably 75 people moving between the newly acquired, cross street parkland and our hovel; a wide open Levi Straussland with drunks and junkies passed out helter skelter, sexual favors done in the last light of the moon, and contests of will held by men with biceps the size of chamber pots and facial scars that nearly showed cheekbone.

For myself, I quaffed a full gallon of some cheap wine to begin; a mad dog maybe or Bali Hai perhaps. By twilight I was mixing my specialty, that same bottlefull of Harvey Wallbangers, a quart of vodka, quart of orange juice and enough Galiano to start a licorice factory. It was my routine, though usually spread between two nights. But this night was special, the game was afoot.

My personal challenge involved my "colors" or cutoff jacket. It was a bit fresh yet, a bit unripe; and so I was goaded into seasoning it in the customary fashion once I'd reached the "just drunk enough" stage.

A can of motor oil was opened in solemn ceremony, the wielder splashing it on my person as if a priest sprinkling Harley Holy Water to bless my journey. Then I was escorted to the nearest 1957 Chev Bel Aire and helped onto my back on the tarmac, where I reached up with gloved hands and firmly gripped a spare piece of frame. With a Hi Ho Silver, the driver was away and dragging me down the block at maybe 10 miles an hour.

Yes it hurt, even through the drunkenness. But it was the game and bikers were not only fearless, but immune to physical pain of any kind. Two half blocks later we u-turned while I rolled onto my belly, using my feet as best I could to raise me off the black washboard for the ride home.

Nothing broken, no internal bleeding that I could surmise, I was praised and slapped around while shaken beers were showered and cigarettes were put out on me for good measure. I'd passed; if ever there was a question as to my ability to withstand, I'd answered it, though I was silently cursing what I knew the morning would bring.

But I was not the main attraction here. There were two contests cranking up that made my peasant ride nothing more than a French fried appetizer; two machoman events that make it impossible for me to see Fear Factor and it's kin as anything but a crude joke...Fear indeed.

It was Fat Bob and a Hispanic guy whom I'd never met and never saw after that night in one corner of the empty lot. Once I'd recovered what was left of my wits, I noticed that they were both standing toe to toe and shirtless. They were huge men, round and thick; what should jiggle just sat there and occasionally flexed as if the fat had transformed into muscle.

It was a contest of will, a satanic triad of sorts. A box of dried Jalapenio peppers was being held by a female admirer, and to start the contest, each man in turn took grip of a half dozen or so and chewed them to the crowd count of 30. Then, each washed down their mouthfuls with a jigger of Blue Flame 151 Rum. And finally, each in turn used their leather and tin stud belt as a weapon, the crowd counting to ten as these guys beat each other until the bell.

It was a scene out of Caligula, it scared the hell out of me. In my stupor I could see a small fire burning, surrounded by dozens of armed men and their others, a rousing cheer bursting from their conclave as the belts again began to wail flesh and bone. It was a rabid wolf pack howling in glee as the Alphas ripped each other to shreds for entertainment, a Lovecraft meets Jack London at the moment of Armageddon kinda visual.

I know I vomited, it was another of my rituals and to this day I can't imagine not becoming instantly sick upon seeing this animalistic degradation. Bad ass was one thing, this was something else and I knew I didn't like it even then.

The final contest was not quite as graphic, but at least as destructive and another testament to the folly of the redeemability of all humanity.

My best friend Midnight, the only black man on our roster had his bravery challenged by a southern chap. It was all in good fun so the man said, but I couldn't help but cringe at the tone attached to his slow and purposeful drawl. Midnight took the bet and a large, Cuban cigar was lit and toked to the smelter furnace stage.

Then the two men pushed forearm to forearm and dropped the cigar between them, an angry stare tying the morons together at the face. Detail would just be prurient, it was ugly, smelly and scream filled. But at last, the instrument extinguished on its own accord, neither man having pulled away in what must have been 8 minutes or more. You could park a Harley on my friend's scar, his forearm already the size of a small watermelon and the burn mark half its length.

The show was over, even the biggest bad boys were now sick, knowing that a line had been crossed and they'd been part of it. The sun peering through the last of dawn's clouds gave perfect excuse to wrap it up and move along.

Once everyone had either left or fallen into unconsciousness, I sat on the rickety stairs for a time, sweltering in the early morning humidity, nauseous, past sleepy and saddened by what I'd witnessed in the flame pierced darkness. I had no feeling for the participants, they'd gone willingly into hell there was no reason to weep for the already lost. But I did weep for me, one left standing, one large boy in a world of men who would slice me from crotch to chin for no reason but to scratch an itch.

Here I was a guy who just wanted to fit in somewhere, to have friends that thought I was funny or clever or strong. And I knew that in a few minutes I would be entering the house in its smoldering stuffiness, the smells of sex, dog and stale beer near making me wretch while I'd peel off my newly created jacket extraordinaire to fold as a pillow, and fall asleep on a torn and filthy linoleum floor until someone kicked me awake. This was the price I assumed I'd have to pay to have people care about me. And this was how lonely I'd become, that I'd be willing to pay any price.

Four years previous I'd been a freshly washed kid in boarding school, studying to be a missionary, the priesthood my one true dream. And now I smelled of vomit, a drug abuser and badass placing my life and future on a hellbound train. I thought about walking away, hitching to my parent’s house and curling up in a corner of their cool musty basement for perhaps...eternity.

Too late son, I was in now, my name already emblazoned on the first page of Santa’s naughty list..

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I count myself lucky to escape the biker gang life.