An Associate Professor’s 111th Dream

I hope that was an empty bottle, George. You can’t afford to waste good liquor.
Not on your salary. Not on an associate professor’s salary.
Elizabeth Taylor, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

At midnight on Mick Jagger’s birthday in 1972 I waited for Deene in front of the St. Regis Hotel. We’d been to the Garden to see the Stone’s perform the last concert of their tour. We attended separately so planned to rendezvous afterwards at her hotel.

Deene’s father booked the room for her when she heard the group would stay there. She picked up this tidbit giving Keith a massage in his hotel room after the Indianapolis concert.

Although I’d been to see her a couple of times, that night I could not get past the front door. Not only was the St. Regis hosting the Stones, they were throwing Mick’s birthday bash on their rooftop as well. Security was tight.

Deene ordered room service.

From the sidewalk I watched the swells arrive while waiting for Deene. There was no one interesting until this tiny figure alighted from her limo. She was swathed in a charmeuse cocktail dress void of adornment. Whatever breeze there was in the July heat caught the fabric and made it billow on her 100 pound frame. A deeply saturated apricot, the dress was exquisite.

Ascending the stairs the woman acknowledged us with a wary half-smile and the attitude of someone who’d seen it all. Being Jackie’s sister, she probably had.

A simple evening at home with the things she loved: her fabrics, antiques, and daughter. In that order.

Lee Radziwill’s death this week marked the end of an era for certain social graces. She exemplified the upper classes love for glamorous cocktails. When the Princess offered, “you’ll have a vodka won’t you,” it came with layers of codependent enabling. It was tempered by her Forrest Gump-like presence in high society’s perpetual 20th century cocktail party.

When the cocktail fad started in the 20’s and 30’s she would have seen her parents cavorting amongst the Fred Astaire crowd. With a Moderne backdrop, they pursued the most esoteric liquors and the most elaborate concoctions with the most exotic names. To stay atop this ever-changing scene was a mark of true status.

In the 40’s and 50’s when cocktails became more middle class, the elite hung out at their clubs. With their casual attitude towards working they acted as if they could drink anytime, anywhere, without any consequences. Hit and run accident? Burned down the guest house? The attorneys will handle that.

The first few decades of the craze the downside to drinking was never mentioned. Like the billion Muslim women who all voluntarily “choose” to wear the hijab, no one ever seemed to have a problem with alcohol. Then in the 1960’s the perils were discussed openly. And treatment programs were developed.

In the era of recognizing alcoholism, Princess Radziwill could be found floating on her perfumed barge down de Nile. Usually with her bestie, the shit-faced booze hound Truman Capote.

Rumored to have done a couple of stints in rehab, it doesn’t seem she ever stopped drinking. In the clip of her offering the vodka her subtext is clear: “go ahead, one won’t hurt. You’re hip, you know these things.” Her tone is as smooth as that silk dress she wore.

My life with liquor has been checkered. In Dad’s family there was beer when the men went bowling but none was kept in the house. My Grandma, though, always smelled like the essence of Strohs. With a top note of stale Parliaments and Jungle Gardenia. We didn’t talk about any of that.

My other Grandmother led the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union. While being an unrelenting advocate. she neither challenged nor coerced those who disagreed with her. Her example and infinite patience she felt would eventually win out.

My parents were light social drinkers when I was growing up. More urgency was added in my teenage years.

Then there’s my boozing. Sadly, word count prevents me from elaborating on the topic in this piece. I can, however, mention hooch’s role in decorating my kitchen.

The loneliest part of kitchen cabinetry is the cupboard that juts out above the refrigerator. Sometimes it holds liquor but usually it’s just junk. It’s always under appreciated, never decorated. Until now.

Leafing through a box I found one of Jackie’s White House liquor bills. The perfect piece to hang in the lonely corner.

I cherish these kinds of historical documents/perverse curios. Visitors can now study the fuel that ran Camelot (in addition to the “B12” injections administered by Dr. Feelgood). And schoolchildren passing through are given an important lesson too.

How can they ever hope to understand our nation’s past if they don’t know what our First Ladies drank?

 

 

Me and Susie Had So Much Fun

There’s got to be a morning after. Susan with her friend Richie, mid-70’s.

As I worked with the gilded faux crocodile hide on the bathroom door, the Elton John song kept repeating in my head. His attempt at rocking out really was just a fluff piece of pop, When it was released it made me realize what cheap sentiment nostalgia was. And, how effective it could be. I would listen to the song in bed and cry.

It was December 1972 and my college chums were starting to leave campus. There would never be another time where I would become so close to so many people so quickly. Almost all of them ended up life-long friends. At the time, I wondered if I’d ever see them again.

To compound the anxiety, I was having my first serious relationship. What started out as a notch on the belt escalated into a torrid four-month affair.

Buzz was the hottest number to hit Bloomington’s insular gay community in ages. Everybody wanted him but he wanted me. Being with him was an excuse to delay decisions about where to move or what to do. He would go to work in the mornings leaving me alone listening to Crocodile Rock.

In 2008 I had a new boss. Susan. She was so open with and had such an enveloping smile. From the moment I met her she spoke to me as if she’d known me forever. I didn’t trust her for a second.

I thought this was the latest in management techniques, kill them with kindness before stabbing them in the back. My instincts were partially correct. Surprise lay-offs followed in January 2009. Susan had been privy to the preparations but resigned in October after only eight months on the job. She wanted no part of the blood-letting.

I wanted to remain friends after we left the firm but it’s hard translating workplace friendships into real ones. The office environment forces close connections with coworkers to make the work day palatable.  It feels artificial. Outside work, there’s often little common ground once the topic switches from year-end projections.

This was not the case with Susan. Intimate details of her life flowed freely. She told me things my oldest friends never share. And she did it in such a calm, non-dramatic way.

The memory evoking reptilian hide.
The memory evoking reptilian hide.

She helped me start this blog. When I was mulling over how to begin, Susan quietly got out her iphone and pulled up WordPress. Instantly she created an account and posted an item. Her unspoken words were “now get on with it” as she seemed a little perturbed with the person who was once in charge of her department’s technology.

Unlike many megalomaniac queens I know, her name-dropping CV does not come locked and loaded ready to explode in your face. It seeps out in dribs and drabs.

I told her about standing behind a man at O’Hare who was wearing this gorgeous black suit. The fabric was so exquisite I wanted to touch it. When he turned around it was Anderson Cooper.

She told a story about an awards ceremony honoring her brother where she was seated next to Anderson for the evening. She was matter of fact, it could have been morning traffic on the 101 she was talking about.

When rock was young we’d been on parallel tracks of fanaticism, liking the same music, seeing the same bands. I could mention Richard Hell and the Voidoids and she wouldn’t flinch. Love comes in spurts. Sometimes it hurts.

I told her about the Stones ’72 tour dates at Madison Square Garden. There’d been a New York Times ad announcing a random ticket draw so I submitted 200 postcards. 40 cards each under five different names.

Hi-Tech was just a gleam in Bill Hewlitt’s eye back then. I thought if a computer did the selection it could key on zip codes. Most entries would come from New York, Bloomington’s 47401 might get me a ticket.

All five of my names won. Non-photo IDs were still accepted so I took my friends’ drivers licenses to Manhattan and stood in line to buy the maximum four tickets per name. After completing the sale for one, I went to the back of a different line to use the next ID. I saw every show. Scalping the surplus tickets funded the trip.

Life is a pop of the cherry. Me at the St. Regis trying to crash Mick’s Birthday, July 1972.

Susan liked my story but, being a native New Yorker, had one that trumped mine. Although we’ve never been competitive, I listened intently while lingering over my steak tartare. Susan is a vegetarian.

As a dare she told a college friend she’d get him a meeting with his idol, Jerry Garcia. She began calling the Dead’s record label saying she was a CREEM Magazine reporter. Over a period of months they received concert tickets, backstage passes, and finally clearance to interview Jerry.

When they went to meet him, her friend posed as a photographer with his professional looking but non-functioning Nikon. He was supposed to do the talking but froze in the presence of his hero. Susan had to wing it.

Noticing a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book on the table, she began a conversation with Jerry on South American novelists. This led to a discussion of post-war German filmmakers, the bizarre lay-out of Washington DC and various other topics. Music was never mentioned. As they parted Jerry said it was the most intelligent conversation he’d had in some time. Susan answered, “if that’s true, I feel sorry for you!”

Her entrée with Jerry led to subsequent meetings when the group was in town. She hung out with the original Saturday Night Live cast when the Dead were on the show; there were week-long stays at the New York Hilton with the band; and, she watched their Garden concerts from onstage behind Jerry’s amps.

Susan had to psyche herself up for the occasional consorting part. She channeled Margaret Mead exploring some lost tribe. She was a punk rocking kid after all. Jerry at 35 was an ancient hippie.

I was amazed. What would corporate think? I loved the story though I’ve never cared for the Grateful Dead’s music. I couldn’t imagine she would either. When I questioned her about it she was blunt: “it’s some of the most tedious music ever made.”

Susan is leaving tonight on a plane (oh Jesus, enough John already). Actually she’s moving to New York to be with her family. If I’ve learned nothing else since that Bloomington winter it’s you don’t need to live in close proximity to remain good friends.