I drove a stolen car from Boston to New York in 1976. It wasn’t really stolen. A Back Bay lawyer paid $300 for the disappearance of his Olds 88. I left the Detroit gas-guzzler by the Christopher Street pier. It was after midnight. I switched the plates and left the keys in the ignition. Within minutes the joy-riders drove off with the vehicle, but I was staying local.
I was in love with an artist from North Carolina. Ro said I looked like a fallen angel on her candle-lit bed. She had to be in love too. I walked to her West Village apartment building. She wasn’t in. The doorman said she had caught a flight to Paris. Ro had not left a forwarding address. It didn’t matter. I was broke and not going anywhere fast.
I slept at a friend’s apartment in Park Slope and worked at Serendipity 3 as a busboy. I moved out of Brooklyn after discovering my roommate was stealing my money. I rented an 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.
After work I took the subway from 60th and Lex to Astor Place. Usually too wound up to fall asleep I killed a few hours drinking at dive bars before heading back 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, as the wind razored through my thin clothing. The thump of a bass emanated from within a white stucco building. Rock and roll. It could have been choir music for all I cared. I wanted warm and pushed open the heavy wooden door.
The bass has friends. A guitar, drums, and a lead singer with stringy long hair. He looked like a praying mantis in a leather jacket. The audience was throbbing, 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 wanted to join the frenzy and stepped forward. A huge hand blocked my way.
“$5.” The monstrous bouncer wore a yellow construction hat.
“Who are they?” I handed over the fiver.
I like that I became a regular at CBGBs. My attire switched from hippie to punk overnight. Every night after work 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 return several dollars in quarters like a slot machine. Several punks thought I was Tommy’s illegitimate brother. They were wrong. I was a nobody, but that 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 wanting to make their name. A teenage runaway formed the power-pop Ghosts. Xcessive wrote a song RICHARD IS A FORKHEAD in reference to the prominent singer’s spiked hair. The Ghosts never headlined CBGBs or Max’s Kansas City. They resented Richard’s minimalistic success, although the his band’s fame loitered under the surface of public consciousness. I admired Richard for that failure throughout 1978 and 1979, even though I could tell he wanted a greater success from life than sleeping with college girls. Drugs helped him deal with the unspoken disappointment.
I stopped going to CBGBs so often after breaking up with my hillbilly girlfriend. My new love was a blonde model. “You might want to spend the rest of your life playing pinball, but I want more.”
Lisa left me for a Russian icon smuggler.
A year later in 1981 I moved to Paris to work for a French magazine’s nightclub. There was no sign of Ro at the Sorbonne. She was as gone as that stolen Olds.
One night a New Wave girl band played at our club. The lead singer wasn’t beautiful until she hit the stage. Her lanky body encircled the mike stand like a boa crushing its prey. In some ways she was a female version of Richard Hell. We spoke after the show. 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.”
“I don’t think Cinderella went to Lille.”
“I guess not.”
She kissed me on the cheek and got into the band’s van. Claudia left behind no glass slipper and 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 I had refused her entrance to an after-hours club on 14th Street. I remembered frogmarching a crazy French girl onto the sidewalk. She didn’t hold it against me.
“I was fighting with my boyfriend.” She said his name. It was the first time I was ever jealous of Richard. She told me I was silly.
“We were not really boyfriend and girlfriend.” She lit a cigarette. Lizzie was a chain-smoker. The tobacco turned her kisses into ashtrays.
“And what about us?” I wasn’t all that much into kissing with Lizzie.
“We are just friends. He helped me with my book. Patti Smith too.” Lizzie was semi-famous in Paris. She appeared with her Fender Jazzmaster guitar on TV. Her song MAIS OU SONT PASSEES LES GAZELLES was a major hit. I kept our affair a secret. We lasted until a Christmas vacation on the Isle of Wight. I said good-bye on Boxing Day. She went off to Africa. I remained in Paris for another two years and then returned 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.”
“Lizzie. I saw her in Paris. She says hello.” Richard was more friendly than I had imagined. I bought him a drink and he said, “Lizzie told me about calling me Forkhead.”
“That wasn’t me.”
“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.”
“Depends on your perspective.” Richard was taller than me. His comment exhibited no signs of jealousy. I said we’d see each other again. It wasn’t often, but occasionally I’d run into him on the street. He lived two blocks away from East 10th street. He gave poetry readings at the St. Mark’s Church and 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. We 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.” She served the ball against the wall for an ace. I bought her dinner. “Loser pays.”
“It wasn’t much of a game.”
“Not considering that I was once the 17th-ranked tennis player in the USA.”
She laughed at the end of the story and we said good-bye in Les Halles. Neither side suggested a nightcap at their place. We were just friends.
And so it seemed with Richard. Our meetings were always by chance. 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 changed jobs. Working nights was killing me.
Selling diamonds was 9-6. I wore a suit and tie. The money was good. I went out at night, but not late. Richard introduced me to a party at St. Marks. Claudia was there. 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 hadn’t since Mrs. Adorno, my next door neighbor set a Santeria curse on me for throwing out Lena. I explained to Claudia about my long stint of celibacy. “I think I can change that.”
Claudia asked me to walk her home. 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 waste.
“You’re certainly no Prince Charming, but I like you like that.”
Claudia walked down the hallway to the stairs. Mrs. Adorno opened the door. Her one good eye squinted in my direction. She said something in Spanish, then mumbled, “Sex not love.”
“I know that,” I admitted in the face of her power, but I 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?” We saw each other several times a week.
“You and me. I want something more from a relationship than this and someone wants to give it to me. Richard.”
“Yes, he called to say he really wanted to be with me. I have to give it a chance.”
“I understand.” I understood that 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, only dull the pain. Of course Richard wasn’t forever and Claudia phoned several months later to say it was over. I was 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. This time my travels took six months. NY-LA-Honolulu-Bali-Nepal-London-NY. I returned to work the Christmas season on 47th Street. I bumped into Richard at an 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 suppose to be sunny in the high 40s.”
“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 the match as important. I only wished I knew what was the prize.
I called in sick in the morning. My boss let us have ‘drunk days.’ The day warmed up by noon. Almost 50. Richard was waiting by the riverside court. He had brought an extra racket.
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 were a good player.”
“Maybe I am. Maybe I was taking it easy on you.”
“What about another match?”
“Sorry, I’m under contract.”
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 ensure 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.
“No, you’ll be back, if only to prove you’re the 17th ranked tennis player.”
“Yeah, there’s always that.” I had read somewhere that his ex-wife, Patty Smyth, had married John McEnroe. I could see Richard beating him, but some things are best left unsaid, so I bid him fare-well. “See you around Forkhead.”
“You too Suedehead.”
I waved good-bye. I could only hope one day what he had said was true, because New York was a town never built for leaving forever and I wish I could have told Lizzie that before she died, but she probably knew that long ago just like Richard was a Forkhead and I will always admire him for that.
Open City declared Peter Nolan Smith an underground punk legend of the 1970s East Village. He spent many years as a nightclub owner and doorman in New York, Paris, London, and Hamburg. More recently he has worked in the international diamond trade and the film industry. He is a constant traveler and has lived for long periods of time in Tibet and the Far East; although recent rumors have him located in Palm Beach.