Issues Archives


All issues from 1985.

The Green Tunnel

The thing that struck me most about Bulow Hammock is the hardest to describe: the smell. Hammocks are woodlands (the name refers specifically to hardwood groves that punctuate the more open marshes and pine woods of Florida, and may derive from Indian words for “shady place,” “garden place,” or “floating plants”), but Bulow Hammock didn’t smell like any woodlands I knew. I was used to the brisk, humus-and-chlorophyll tang of New England woods with their associations of uplifting weekend hikes. The hammock was different.

I must have been about nine years old when I first encountered the hammock, so I didn’t articulate any of this. Yet I clearly remember my sensations on stepping out of my parents’ car into the shade of the magnolias and cabbage palmettoes. I was fascinated but daunted. The Connecticut woods I’d played in had been inviting, welcoming. The hammock was … seductive. It smelled sweet, a perfumy sweetness that reminded me of the hotel lobbies and cocktail lounges I’d occasionally been in with my parents.

Smells are hard to describe because we can’t really remember them as we do sights and sounds, only recognize them. Smells lie deeper than our remembering, thinking forebrains, in the olfactory lobe we inherited from the early vertebrates. Yet they are related to thought in profound ways because our nocturnal ancestors, the early mammals, lived by smell. The human ability to relate present to past and future may stem from this scent-tracking of food, an activity which takes place in time as well as space, unlike a hawk’s immediate striking on sight, and thus implies planning. The curious resonance smell has in memory, as when Proust conjured an epoch from a teacup, suggests that we have a great deal to learn from it.

Complex smells are the hardest to describe. Bulow Hammock smelled stranger than liquor and perfume. It smelled intricately spicy, with a sweetness not so much of flowers as of aromatic bark and leaves. There also was an air of decay in the sweetness, not the rich, sleepy, somewhat bitter decay of New England woods, more of a nervous, sour atmosphere. When I scraped my foot over fallen leaves on the ground, I didn’t uncover the soft brown dirt I was used to, but white sand and a network of fine, blackish roots like the hair of a buried animal. The sand was part of the smell too, a dusty, siliceous undertone to the spice and decay.

There was something dangerous about the smell, something inhibiting to my nine-year-old mind. I didn’t want to rush into the hammock as I’d have wanted to rush into an unfamiliar Connecticut woodland. It wasn’t that the hammock seemed ugly or repellent, on the contrary. The seductiveness was part of the inhibition. Perhaps it was just that the hammock was so unfamiliar. It’s easy to read things into childhood memories. But the smell was powerful.

Society is suspicious of wild places because it fears a turning away from human solidarity toward a spurious, sentimental freedom. It is interesting, in this regard, to recall how little of freedom there was in my first perception of Bulow Hammock, how little of the unfettered feeling I got in sand dunes, hill meadows, pine woods, or other open places that promised release from streets and classrooms. I wonder if the hammock inhibited me because there was more of humanity about it than a dune, meadow, or pine forest has; not of humanity in the sense of society and civilization, which (however irrationally, given the history of civilization) we associate with safety, but of animal humanity, of the walking primate that has spent most of its evolution in warm places like Florida, spicy, moldy, sandy places. Perhaps it wasn’t the strangeness of the hammock that made it seem dangerously seductive, but a certain familiarity. It is, after all, dangerous to be human.

We’d come to Florida to visit my father’s mother, who had a retirement cottage in Ormond-by-the-Sea, an early geriatric enclave complete with shuffleboard court (which, three decades later, has become somebody’s driveway). On the drive south, we’d passed another stretch of coastal hammock that was being burned and bulldozed during some kind of road construction involving sweaty convicts in gray twill. There’d been something very malignant-looking about that stretch of charred palmetto. Blackened fronds had thrust at the sky like fire-sharpened spears. As though to heighten the effect, someone had erected a doll’s head, also charred, on a crooked stick.

I couldn’t have looked at this scene for more than a few seconds, but it made a big impression. At nine, I had no very firm grasp of its rational implications, of the likelihood that the head had been stuck up there by some whimsically ghoulish convict who’d found it while grubbing in the brush. I must have been aware of that likelihood, but other things seemed possible: that it was a real head, a baby’s or a monkey’s; that it manifested an unknown savage world in the uncut hammock farther from the road, of which there was a lot more in Florida then. The southern landscape threw the human and wild together more than the northern. I remember a great loneliness in it, brown fields of broomsedge reaching almost to the horizon, and unpainted shacks against ragged woods over which circled vultures in numbers out of proportion to the vacancy beneath them. The blackwater swamps that the road periodically passed over seemed cheerful in comparison, albeit dangerous.

Of course, my response to the road construction-fire, sticks, head, uncut green wall in the distance-was an educated one, as was my response to Bulow Hammock’s smell. It would be banal to assert that the smell awakened atavistic race memories of life in the jungle. We’d been getting our first taste of human evolution in my fourth grade class, and I’d found that pretty spicy, all those skeletons and hairy people: Piltdown Man (we must have been the last class to get Piltdown Man, since the hoax was discovered around that year), Java man, Peking Man. A normally bloodthirsty fourth-grader, I’d thrilled to learn that Peking Man had scooped out and probably eaten the brains of other Peking men. I’d seen the “green hell” jungle movies of the early fifties: Charlton Heston in The Naked Jungle, Jeff Chandler in Green Fire. I had a whole set of cultural preconceptions ready for Bulow Hammock.

Yet banality is a kind of fossilized reality, the bones of insights buried in the silt of intellectual fashion. I wouldn’t dismiss my nine-year-old perceptions just because they were culturally conditioned. Classrooms and movie theaters teach little about smell, for one thing, and, sophisticated as they are, they still share with nine-year-olds a descent from spicy, moldy, sandy places. We don’t know enough about that descent to dismiss anything. Fire, sticks, head, and green wall have been at the center of things for most of human experience, and they still are, in a sense, although the green wall may have receded.

A green wall is what Bulow Hammock seemed as my father drove down the low sand road leading into it, or rather a green arch, a tunnel. Its surfaces seemed much solider than the crumbly coquina of the nineteenth-century sugar plantation ruins we had come to the hammock to see. The mill was roofless while the hammock enclosed us completely, from its ground-hugging coonties, dog hobble, and saw palmetto to its undergrowth of feral orange, bayberry, hornbeam, and dahoon to its canopy oflive oak, redbay, magnolia and cabbage palmetto. Glimpses of the hammock interior lacked perspective: they had the wavery, spotty aspect of underwater things. The plant forms were too eccentric for geometry — palm, spike, spray, corkscrew, club, plume, lace, spiral. It was beautiful, but the intricacy was like the complexity of smell. It inhibited. Its seductiveness was also a warning because it hinted at passionate entanglement more than freedom or tranquility.


I followed my parents around the sugar mill ruins like a good little boy. The Seminoles had burned the plantation in 1835: that was interesting. There were displays of implements found in the ruins, and a brochure about the plantation’s history. There wasn’t any explanation of the hammock. There may have been signs identifying birds or plants, but if there were, they did little to elucidate the fearful seductiveness of the place, a seductiveness to which the adult world seemed curiously immune. But then, children are used to being surrounded by powerful, unexplained seductions.

I never did venture into the hammock as a child, although I wandered miles through the Connecticut woods. I don’t recall going more than a few yards even into the barrier island scrub that grew behind my grandmother’s cottage in the fifties, before the Ormond Mall was built. The mailman had put his hand into a pile of leaves (trusting children, we didn’t ask why) and had withdrawn it with a coral snake attached to the skin between his fingers. Coral snakes, grandmother told my sister and me, had to hold and chew their victims to inject their almost invariably fatal poison.

Grandmother wasn’t a snake-hater: her deepest antipathies were for the British Royal Family (her father was Irish), J. Edgar Hoover (her former employer), and other select humans. She was more passionate in her opinions than most grandmothers, always applauding when Harry Truman appeared in movie newsreels, whether or not anybody else did. Perhaps because of this, her dictums had considerable authority, and we weren’t about to put our hands in any dead leaves, or our feet. There were poisonous copperheads in the Connecticut woods of course, but they didn’t chew on you. We contented ourselves with watching big toads eat little toads in her backyard.

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In Medias Res

After midnight in Lizzie’s Sonoma County studio apartment, a garage converted into a ski loft: beamed ceiling, redwood walls and funnel-shaped fireplace. On the radio, a phone-in psychologist. Lizzie nervously sets down her lemon grass tea, a fluted cup with roses, and calls. “I have this problem, you see, I uh shoplift. Compulsively.”

The radio psychologist tells Lizzie that stealing is a substitute for love.

Things Lizzie Has Stolen for Me

1. Two 100% cotton knit tops, multi-colored nubby boat neck and smooth cream scooped with large buttons down the front. The tiny curtained cubicle, I have tried on four things, the ones I want disappear down Lizzie’s tan pants. Then she switches the four-item tag with a two-item one that happens to be in her purse. Standing in the hall so the clerk is sure to hear, she yells, “Hurry up, I’ll meet you in the car.”

2. One facial mask, with Elastin, crushed almonds and thyme, a woman’s naked shoulder on the label. A health food store, in full view of the clerk, it falls into her pocket.

3. A purple sash, rayon from India. At Cost Plus nobody monitors the dressing rooms. Child’s play.

Lizzie fills her purse with socks and chemises and pepper mills. All she has to do is get some love and then she’ll stop.

4. Romika clogs, tan leather with low rubber heels, my Christmas present. While I ask the sales lady questions about jewelry, Lizzie is to my right stuffing them in her purse. “Those little cuffs there, how do you get them over your ears?”

Outside on Castro, walking swiftly (but not too fast), we make a great team like Robert Redford and Paul Newman. We could dye my hair brown to blend in.

5. One chocolate truffle, Amaretto creme. Lizzie pokes through the cellophane and pops it in my mouth.

The writing flows or gets stuck. Lizzie and 1 have never had sex, not even at the mud baths in Calistoga. We’ve slept together a few times out of necessity—her apartment is cold and there’s only one down comforter, it’s pale rose with tiny white petals or leaves. Once her hand went between my thighs, but she was sleeping.

True friendship is sharing the forbidden.

Each theft allowed Lizzie to breathe for a moment at the surface. The Sweat on her lip, the racing heart provoked a state akin to religious moods.

Five foot six, shoulder length black hair, size eight shoe and dress, Lizzie holds a tortoise-shell compact three inches from her face: brown liner, black lashes, dab of gray shadow. A warm creamy complexion inherited from her Mexican parents. No lipstick, she outlines her mouth with a brown pencil. Lizzie’s clothes: khaki, black, gray, beige, a rare blue or red.

The man I live with is in the shower, I shout through the curtain, “I know you don’t like it but I’ve got to put you in my piece. What name do you want?” “Fire Hose.” “Come on—how about Jorge?” “What’s this Jorge? I want Fire Hose.”

And then there was the time with Fire Hose. He and Lizzie were raised in the same Chicago neighborhood, the same high school, but met out here through me. A Dickens coincidence. Fire Hose calls her Lizard and squeezes her cheeks. She makes fun of his Spanish. “Do you know what Puerto Ricans call a bus? A wawa! For the dog on the side of a Greyhound, like bow wow, a wawa!” Fire Hose was driving his cab that night, Lizzie said, “Let’s get into bed and talk, it’s more comfortable.” Both of us in flannel nightgowns, we continue with the life of Edie Sedgewick. “Winnie, I’m going to sleep here, just ‘til Fire Hose comes home.” At six in the morning I tell her to move over. Three in a king-sized bed, it’s easy, both of them asleep and me in the middle: How far am I willing to share?

6. A can of Pure Maple Spread from Quebec. Safeway’s fisheye mirrors.

When Fire Hose and I got together he had moved back to the old neighborhood, so I spent a couple of months down the street from Lizzie’s birthplace. A year in San Francisco’s Mission District had not prepared me for this level of poverty, men sleeping in restaurant boiler rooms. My memory is full of dust and gravel, “Villa Lobos” scrawled everywhere.

Everything is bound to break wide open.

Lizzie calls her favorite method “exchanging.” Step 1: Buy the cheapest form of clothing available. Step 2: Hide the item on your person and return to the store. Step 3: Take five items into a dressing booth. Switch the item you really want with the hidden one. Step 4: Return five items to the attendant and walk out. Get caught? A race track driver could get killed, does that keep him off the track? A bank robbery at the movies, this masked James Dean holding the room on the tip of his rifle. Can you imagine a Chicana up there pocketing a jar of face cream at Merrill’s?

Bodega Bay, clam chowder and plate glass, we sit at a table watching sea gulls. Lizzie has a problem — she is content to hang around the house not doing anything in particular. Her response to my “What’s wrong with that?”: “You should talk, you with your writing and your intellectual friends.” I butter my sourdough. “Listen, writing alone won’t do it. Some of the unhappiest people I know are writers. And they don’t make that good of friends, not like you and Fire Hose. Did they really film The Birds here?”

Polk Street, a local schizophrenic, the kind you can smell half a block away, leaning over a trash can, shouting into the dark part, “You made a big mistake You make a big mistake You made a big mistake You make a big…”

The Strand, I pay as Lizzie sneaks through the turnstile. The teenage hitchhiker doesn’t have a goal either, a little blonde visiting this movie from Dallas. Then she’s moving to Los Angeles to study with a world-famous sculptor. She sticks her thumb out on the way to receive it all. Finally, the homicidal maniac I’ve been waiting for ever since the previews. She smashes him in the face with a piece of art, it is large and lumpy. The terrified murderer lets her out and screeches down the highway.

I could have stabbed him with my fountain pen.

Lizzie feels all extraordinary calm at the moment of theft. Outside a jeweler’s window, she doesn’t think she will steal. No sooner does she get inside than she’s sure she’ll come out with a jewel: a ring or handcuffs. This certainty is expressed by a long shudder which leaves her motionless.

Breaking her diet with a huge slice of German chocolate cake, Lizzie asks, “Doesn’t the word ‘complicity’ sound like a woman’s name.” I smile and steal a bite.

Catalogue of Ancestors

1969. The summer I graduated from high school. The Calumet Region, affectionately called “Da Region” in gangster movies, Al Capone was its most famous resident, my father’s hero. Officially Northern Indiana but really a blue-collar suburb of Chicago on the Kennedy, you can drive to the Loop in half an hour. 1969, the summer of Ralph.

Ralph had the same strawberry blonde hair, the same green eyes, pale rosy complexion. We were inseparable and everybody thought he was my brother.

I should say Ralph and Nance and I were inseparable. Nance, straight brown hair and wire rims, so skinny, lived down the street. She was my lover in high school and college. Really we’d been doing it since we were eleven, but it had only been a year since we quit pretending to be asleep.

7. The back of a director’s chair, brown. I lost mine when moving. Lizzie walks up to a display chair, wriggles off the back and opens her sweatered armpit.

Summer at home — sheer endurance, hanging around the house, sticky and irritable. Just breathing the air was equivalent to smoking seven cigarettes a day. Ralph and Nance and I together, not love, a matter of sanity.

From the beginning we pooled our resources. Nance and I fried hamburgers at minimum wage, she at Nifty Burgers and I at A&W. Ralph wrote bad checks, supplemented by shoplifting. We worked well together. Nance and I would pay for Ralph’s movie, afterward he’d write a check for pizza. Nance and I would buy a package of buns, Ralph stuck the ground beef down his pants.

Suddenly Kroger’s and Sears became exciting.

Lizzie went to high school on Chicago’s South Side during the Martin Luther King riots. Black girls carried scissors in their purses eager for a lock of blonde hair to show off, like a scalp. Every bathroom was a war zone. Lizzie smiles over her burrito, “That was one time I was glad to be brown.”

His mother was a breeder, Ralph had four sisters and a brother, all red heads. His older sister kept a list of the men she slept with, beside each name was a date and rating. Apparently this catalogue filled several pages. His parents were divorced, the m0ther an alcoholic who cussed in a Southern accent. She had sex on the living room couch, the same one the twins peed on.

Instead of lemonade, Lizzie and her sister sold used Mexican lottery cards for a penny a piece.

A year of college under his belt and therefore world-wise, Ralph was plotting our corruption. He majored in French, so we started with Genet and de Sade. The three of us in cut-offs, sweating like crazy despite the fan. Nance and I sprawled across the floral bedspread, Ralph at my French Provincial desk, Simon and Garfunkel above his head. He reads out loud:

Ah, dear Eugenie, did you but know how delicate is one’s enjoyment when a heavy prick fills the behind, when, driven to the balls, it flutters there, palpitating; and then, withdrawn to the foreskin, it hesitates, and returns, plunges in again, up to the hair! No, no, in the wide world there is no pleasure to rival this one: ‘tis the delight of philosophers, that of heroes, it would be that of the gods were not the parts used in this heavenly conjugation the only gods we on earth should reverence!

Ralph lays the book down and licks his lips, “Well what do you two think of that?” “Wow, Ralph, it’s really neat.”

8. One clear plastic purse studded with rhinestones. Courtesy of the toy department at Thrift Town. I keep my little plastic animals in it.

In grade school Lizzie and her sister would shine a flashlight on the wall, pretending they were at the drive-in. Then they’d put a plastic bag between their mouths and practice making out.

Needing petty cash, Ralph stole a can of Lemon Pledge from the corner Walgreen’s. Then he forged his mother’s signature to a note requesting a refund. Half an hour later his little sister was back with the money.

At the same Walgreen’s they posted a list of all the people who had written bad checks. When Ralph’s name appeared for all the neighbors to see, his mother nearly went insane with rage. Then she found the letter where he admitted being gay, he hadn’t even told his college girl friend yet, and his mother kicked him out. That’s how he started sleeping in Nance’s Hungarian grandmother’s basement for $25 a month.

Nance and I had never talked to a gay person before. Except the high-school teachers, but they were always pretending. I couldn’t deal with the women, the thought of growing up stiff and contained with a short ugly haircut was pure terror. Not for Nance, who fell in love with Judy Garland in kindergarten, she was looking forward to being a middle-aged dyke. She still is, except she teaches graduate school. It was easier with the men, I didn’t have to become one. Especially my senior English teacher, it was rumored that in college he got down on all fours and howled at the full moon. I liked that.

9. A green vinyl footstool, rectangular with four buttons on top. The landlord had stored it in Lizzie’s garage for a yard sale.

Ralph told us homosexuals wore mascara and picked each other up in cars. Then he described various sexual acts, using as many Latin names as possible. Nance and I had already tried a couple.

The further I progress, reducing to order what my past life suggests, and the more I persist in the rigor of composition the more do I feel myself hardening in my will to utilize, for virtuous ends, my former hardships. I feel their power.

When Lizzie was in the hospital, her sister slept with Lizzie’s boyfriend. Not buying, not receiving. Taking.

Sitting on the front porch petting the dachshund, Ralph said, “You’ve got to go to college, it’s your only way out.” He made it sound great — drugs and parties and cutting classes.

And it was great. For all those reasons. But what a waste, after four years I graduated with honors and no idea how to support myself. My mother paid for it with kitchen work, mopping floors.

Really it was no big deal. Nance and I had been having sex for seven years but technically we were virgins. Ralph was available. The day Nance’s parents left on vacation we got drunk on sloe gin, spilling it all over the new kitchen cabinets. Whenever I hear the Beatles’ White Album it all comes back. It was sickly sweet and red and sticky.

Climbing into Nance’s bed, Ralph gave a brief lecture on penis size, then demonstrated. What I remember most is laughter: we knew this was a ridiculous situation.

We never did it again, and communal living continued as usual.

Sears will replace your paint if it doesn’t cover. Lizzie and her sister want to do their bedroom, they buy half the amount needed, then take back the empty cans and complain about the pink showing through.

Ralph had been writing bad checks for two years, on three different accounts. He kept detailed records, could tell you to the penny how many thousands he owed. He seemed to actually enjoy reading all the threatening mail.

I stupidly told my mother about our financial arrangement. “How can you eat that pizza, knowing it was paid for with a bad check?” My mouth full of mushroom and pepperoni.

We knew we were perverts so we wallowed in it.

Ralph didn’t give us any warning. One day he gave the grandmother a rent check and disappeared. Nance and I were pissed. When it bounced, we received the full brunt of her Eastern European Immigrant fury.

The last I heard of Ralph he was living in Indianapolis and had changed his name to Lee.

Legendary Materials

My personal weakness is sales. That’s why I love Macys — you can live your whole life through sales. All it takes is patience and the Sunday paper. You can buy it or visit one of San Francisco’s many coffee houses Sunday afternoon. There is always a copy of Macys California lying around.


I had to wait three months for my red leather gloves, but it was worth it.

Every teak item is half price except the wine rack Lizzie wants, so she peels a $20 pink sticker off a cheese saver and puts it on a wine rack. After paying, she uses the same sticker to buy another. Later both are returned to the Macys in Sonoma at a $40 profit.

Fire Hose is sitting at the kitchen table when we get home, he doesn’t know about any of this. I say, “You should see the wine rack Lizzie just got, it was a real steal.” She squints her eyes and hits me.

I take Lizzie to Old Wives Tales, figuring feminist books can only do her good. She whispers, “Let’s get out of here, I can’t stand all these words.” “Lizzie, these books were written for you.” “No they weren’t, they make me feel stupid.” So we drive to Thrift Town instead.

10. One full slip, non-cling apricot with minimal lace. A pink $4.99 sticker superimposed over the $22 tag.

Adrian, a friend of mine from work, tall, blonde, well mannered, his father the vice president of a bank, far too antiseptic for my taste. Lizzie sees him at my kitchen table and is so attracted she runs into the bedroom. I follow. “What’s the matter?” “He’s so clean I feel like a cockroach.”

It’s the same with stealing — a touch of the magic wand and bam! she’s a cockroach from 18th and Blue Island.

Lizzie has never slept with a Latino man.

11. One blue rolling ball pen. When I find mine in her purse, she pockets me a new one.


Church Street Station, Dos Equis in the food section, Dan in his pale skin and weathered leather jacket that once was brown. He used to steal food and books. I ask, “Did you need those things?” “Of course.” “I mean, could you have gotten them otherwise?” “No.” I lean back, shake my head, “That’s not the same as doing it for sport.”

Dan won’t be that easily defeated. He pushes aside his glass and takes a drink from the bottle. He once knew a man who only wore white T-shirts. Whenever they got dirty, the man’d just go out and steal some more. That reminds me of Jerome, he does the same thing with thrift stores. Whenever his shirts get dirty, Jerome says, “It’s time to do the laundry,” and heads for the Salvation Army to buy a couple clean ones.

Dan is surprised, says he’s seen Jerome in some pretty nice shirts. But he’s holding his mouth that funny way, staring intently. This means Dan is thinking “Another Superficial Conversation.” Soon he’ll try to change the subject to something like structuralist literary theory. So I hold on to Jerome’s clothes, innocently ask, “Don’t you think that sometimes he could be a bit more choosey?”

A cockroach from 18th and Blue Island crawled out of Macys with a $20 pepper mill on her back.

Writing about his job as a sheet metal worker, Dan uses “synchronicity,” “semiotic,” “metaphorical level of exchange.” I say, “Why the big words? You trying to sound smart or something?” He looks down the subway stairs then back at me. “I want to use a vocabulary I’m not even supposed to own.”


Taking out my Fast Pass I said, “ Dan, that’s a good story, I think I’ll put it in my piece.” He smiled, so I guess it’s okay. I wouldn’t want to be accused of stealing his life.

To me a friend is someone who raids my refrigerator without asking.

Imagine a roommate who marks an X on every egg.

Any tag with a green slash through it is half off. Lizzie immediately goes out and gets a matching green marker.

She finds a copy of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in my study, the light is on all night. Over coffee and scrambled eggs, a T-shirted Lizzie, no make-up: “Winnie, I am Gregor Samsa.”

Three of the men I know are reading Derrida but none of them understand him. They admit this to me, not one another. Each time I hear the story my response is the same, “Don’t you think that’s part of his appeal, that he’s incomprehensible?” Dan’s the only one who sees my point.

Knowledge — something to be locked up? The only way to get it is like Dan, to steal.

Gregor Samsa crawled out of Thrift Town with a clear plastic purse on his back, it was studded with rhinestones and sparkled.

Lizzie wants to write a piece on shoplifting, to get it out of her system. I volunteer to help, suggesting scattered paragraphs, each one small enough to fit in your pocket, and nobody sure where anything comes from:

If I am accused of using theatrical props as fun fairs, prisons, flowers, sacrilegious pickings, stations, frontiers, opium, sailors, harbors, urinals, funerals, cheap hotel rooms, of creating mediocre melodramas and confusing poetry with cheap local color, what can I answer?

How much are you willing to put out for this?


Lizzie has never talked to Dan, but she saw him once at my reading last summer. Afterward, driving down Valencia, she exclaims, “How can you control yourself around him, he’s so attractive.” “You don’t know him, it’s easy.” Then I add, “He lived with a Mexican woman for eight years.” Lizzie switches on the turn signal and for a moment looks hopeful.

No work for over a month, I think twice about buying a burrito. Lizzie has gone back to Sonoma. After two days with her I could own anything. Old Wives Tales, a new book on female psychology, $16.95. They are so trusting here, so easy to slip it in my bag. How did this thought slip past my censor? Ripping off a feminist book store and me a woman writer, there could be nothing worse. I leave immediately, not trusting my hands, my mind.


The atmosphere of the planet Uranus appears to be so heavy that the ferns there are creepers; the animals drag along, crushed by the weight of the gases. I want to mingle with these humiliated creatures which are always on their bellies. If metempsychosis should grant me a new dwelling place, I choose that forlorn plane, I inhabit it with the convicts of my race.

When I pay full price for something I feel defeated.

Lizzie gives her homeopath $80 for a kleptomania remedy. She just takes this white powder and avoids coffee and sugar for the next three months.

12. One Chemex coffee maker, four-cup capacity. This one’s disputable. A month ago in Cost Plus she remarked how easily it would fit into her purse. When I get it for my birthday I ask if she bought it. Lizzie turns her back to me and chops onions, “Yes.” “Come on, don’t lie to me.” “Winnie, leave me alone.”

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Do you like it? Like a crooner, don’t you think? That’s where I got my last name. “The Sands.’” A casino in Las Vegas. This old drunk fuck was telling me about it. “HEY, little pretty black boy, goddamn … I ain’t seen nothin’ like you since I left Detroit … ”

He couldn’t get over it, touched me when he got the chance. Did I have a daddy??? Shit, I laughed back at him, imitating his drawl: SHEEE-IT, man, I said. Mocking him. You must be kidding! Man, I don’t even have a mother. Laying it on real thick, so he’d feel sorry for me.

He started coming around “CocoRico” regularly. I’d be at the bar up front, checking things out. Actually, he wasn’t bad-looking. When he wasn’t drunk his face and eyes didn’t droop as much, and you’d notice his big body and muscular arms, pretty strong and firm for a man his age. I’d always act surprised to see him.

That was before disco, before I talked Andres into hiring me as a DJ for the back room. “What do I need you for?” Andres used to say, pointing to the jukebox. It seemed like forever until Andres let me give it a shot, and look at him now: he’s making money, the place is jammed until all hours of the night — even girls want to come here and dance, the music’s so good.

“You’re kind of young, aren’t you?” the American once said. But I could tell he was fascinated, just like all the rest of them. My head of tight, kinky curls, my pretty hazel eyes, my sleek brown skin. “Where’s the little G.I. baby?” he’d ask Andres. Andres would shrug, in that bored way of his. “He’ll be here any moment now, I’m sure.” The American would buy more drinks, sitting close by the door. Sometimes I’d get there, let him buy me dinner. Sometimes I’d just stay away.

“Call me Neil,” he said, his eyes fixed on me in that sad, funny way of his. It was one of his sober days. NEIL … What kind of name is that? I loved making fun of him. “Good sport,” he’d laugh with me, jabbing at his own chest with one of his large, rough hands. I spit on the floor in contempt. “Man, you don’t have to talk to me like I don’t know anything. Good sport,” I mimicked, rolling my eyes. “What do you think this is? The Lone Ranger & Tonto?” I sulk, look away from him. Scan the room for a pretty face. Make him feel real bad.

Embarrassed, he looks lost. “Joey, I’m sorry.” He means it. I like that best. I could make him do anything then.

I keep at it for just a little while longer. “Man, I’m no savage.” When he looks like he’s going to cry, I stop. Touch his leg under the table. Soothe him with my voice. “NEIL,” I tease, gently now. “Neil Sedaka — ahhh …” I knew how to make him laugh.

One time he asks me a favor. “For my homeboy …” Some younger guy named Phil. I didn’t like Phil as soon as I met him. “Phil wants to see a live show …” Phil is standing there, next to Neil. Staring at me and not saying anything.

“You mean a sex show?” I take my time drinking my beer, ignoring Phil’s anxious, piercing gaze.

“Yeah, that’s right. One of those …” Neil is uncomfortable. Andres stands behind the bar, within earshot. He seems absorbed by the magazine he’s reading, an article about his rich cousin Isabel, who’s married to Alacran. But I know Andres — one car’s cocked in our direction.

“You want boys, girls, or both?”

“How much?” It’s the first and only time Phil opens his mouth.

“Depends,” I say. I’ll negotiate with Uncle privately, take my cut.

“We have a car,” Neil says.

We drive down the boulevard slowly, looking for the street. It’s early, around eleven at night. I sit in the front seat with Neil, giving directions. Across the wide boulevard I can see the ocean, black and still. “Is that your ship?” I point to the carrier floating, not far away. The men don’t respond.

Uncle’s place is behind the abandoned “Lido Supper Club.” He’s the night watchman, hired by Congressman Abad to guard his property from looters and thieves. The club is a white building with fake marble columns on the outside. Statues of half-naked nymphs and satyrs hold unlit torches. Uncle ushers us in through the back door. It’s enormous inside, and eerie. Everything’s been left as it was. Dozens of little tables and chairs, some with stained white tablecloths still on them. Ashtrays filled with cigarette butts. Empty bottles of San Miguel beer. A dance floor tiled with blue and white mosaics. There is a thick coat of dust on everything we touch.

Uncle is looking for the main switch, stumbling and pointing his flashlight at the cobwebs on the walls. Finally he turns on the dim chandelier that hangs in the room. He motions to a table in the front row, facing a large stage. Not too long ago, Johnny Buenaventura and his Orchestra used to play “The Girl From Ipanema” here. Now a bare mattress lies dead center.

I leave the two Americans at the table, take Uncle aside and tell him what they want. He is gone approximately ten minutes. A skinny young girl enters, followed by a well-built young man, close to my age. She wears a flimsy, loose-fitting dress, her eyes lowered. She is barefoot, and I notice her meticulously manicured toenails, the black nail polish dotted with tiny crescent moons. The young man is also barefoot. He wears worn khaki pants, and his chest is bare. There are intricate tattoos of spiders and cobwebs up and down his lean, muscular arms. He is beautiful, in his way. The two Americans sit up in their chairs, attentive now. I stay in the back of the cavernous room, smoking my cigarettes in the shadows. This way, I can watch them all.


We were in a room at the Hilton. “You ought to sing,” Neil was saying. “You have an exquisite voice. Good way to make some money, even here in Manila.” I grunt in response. What does he know, I’ve heard all this before. I turn on the giant color TV.

I had just taken a bath and a shower. If the water stayed hot, I’d be in there all day. Afterward I stuff the plastic shower cap and slippers with the Manila Hilton insignia, complimentary robe and two bars of Cashmere Bouquet soap in one of Neil’s Sportex shopping bags. He hated when I did that. “You don’t have to take that cheap shit. I’ll buy you what you need …” He just didn’t understand. I love the newness and cleanness of my little souvenirs, the smell and touch of the glossy plastic. I would live in a hotel room forever, if I could.

“I’m hungry,” I say to him. “Call room service.” We are sprawled on the bed. It’s two in the afternoon. “Tawag Ng Tanghalan” is on. A young girl singing “Evergreen.” She is earnest and terrified, but her voice booms out in spite of her, from somewhere inside that frail body. Neil shakes his head slowly, in admiration. “Not bad. She’s not bad at all …”

The TV audience claps and whistles enthusiastically when she finishes the song. She blinks into the camera, startled. She is last week’s winner, and an audience favorite. She stands in front of the cheering crowd, fidgeting with her hands. I can’t bear to watch her, it’s too painful. Her awkwardness makes me angry. “Look at her — how stupid!”

“Poor thing,” Neil sighs. “She needs to be rescued, quick.” Impatient, I make a face. There he goes again, upset. He identifies with everyone and everything. I can’t be like that. If I were on TV, I’d be the coolest guy. Mr. Heartbreak, the one that got away. Cool, calm, collected.

Lopito appears on the TV screen, waving to the noisy audience. Before he can even thank her, the young girl rushes off the stage. He gestures towards her departing back. “OUR REIGNING CHAMPION! A BIG HAND FOR CONNIE LIM, THE BARBRA STREISAND OF THE PHILIPPINES!!!” He is making fun of her, sneering in front of the audience. They pick up on his cruelty, start tittering.

Before announcing the next contestant, Lopito rattles off the different prizes: a twelve-inch Motorola color television, a clock, a year’s supply of Magnolia Ice Cream. The big prize is a screen test and a chance to appear in Mabuhay Studios’ next musical, starring everyone’s favorite sweethearts, Nestor Noralez and Barbara Villanueva. Lopito reminds us, once again, that Nestor and Barbara were discovered on his show. “Why don’t you audition for this? You’d be great …” Neil says. He can’t be serious, so I give him one of my withering looks.

“Come on, Neil. Call room service. I’m starving to death …” The next contestant is a young guy named Romeo something. Pretty cute, but corny. “Not bad, huh, Neil?” I poke Neil in the ribs, playfully. “Look at those thighs, and those lips …” Neil ignores me. “What a hairdo!” I say.

“What do you want to eat?” Neil asks, getting up from the bed.

Romeo whoever-he-is starts belting out “Feelings,” except he sounds like he’s saying “Peelings.” He’s trying very hard, and he’s making me sick. No charisma, as Andres would say. I switch the channel. There’s an old black-and-white movie, with Leopoldo Salcedo fighting the Japanese.

I lean back against the pillows, my arms behind my head. My tight black curls are still wet, framing my face. Neil is looking at me, ready to dial room service. “WELL?” he says. I am still naked. We both pretend not to notice how hard I’m getting. “Cheeseburger de luxe,” I say, dreamily. “French fries with ketchup. Mango ice cream…and a Coke.”


When Neil got stationed back in the States, he sent me a postcard:

Joey Sands
c/ o Andres Amaya
4461 Balimbing Street
Mabini, Manila

I thought you’d appreciate this.
Wish you were here …

The postcard was from Las Vegas, a color photo of The Sands Casino, with Sammy Davis Jr.’s name in lights. NOW APPEARING.

“You got mail,” Andres said, handing me the postcard. “You’re lucky I didn’t throw it away — haven’t seen you in weeks.”

With that buddha face of his, Andres watched as I held the card in my hands, pretending I could read. “Let me,” he finally said, snatching the card out of my hands. When he finished reading aloud to me, I smiled. Put the card back in my jeans pocket. Carried it around for days after that, maybe months … I don’t remember now.


I ask Andres if he’d write a letter on my behalf, someday. I have Neil’s APO box number, whatever that means. I have to figure out what it is I want, before I can dictate my letter. It’s gonna be good. I know how to get to Neil. He’ll send for me: we can live in Vegas or L.A.

“Sure … why not?” Andres says, in that easy way of his. He looks past me at the door. A couple of Americans have walked in. Middle-aged, okay bodies. They’ve never been here before. They’re hesitant, they could turn around and leave and never come back. Andres can tell. They aren’t servicemen. They look classy, yet casual. What Andres calls “old money.” His favorite kind.

It’s early, “CocoRico” empty — except for me and a couple of other young guys. There won’t be a rush for another hour. “Good afternoon,” Andres says, his shrewd eyes on the Americans. I perk up. This is going to be interesting. I am tingling, the dope in my veins has run its course and settled peacefully.

The Americans are relieved. They smile and sit down at the bar, not far from me. Andres stands under a poster of a matador and a bull, brought to him all the way from Barcelona by one of his rich lovers. He is chatting amiably with the Americans, asking innocent little questions. Where are you from? Really? And how do you like Manila?

The Americans loosen up. One of them, the older one, eyes me boldly. I ignore him, smiling to myself. Listen to Andres go on and on, prying information out of them. Andres can be so cordial when he wants.

That’s what I like about him. He’s so slick.

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The Pen

The pen that told the truth
went into the washing machine
for its trouble. Came out
an hour later, and was tossed
in the dryer with jeans
and a western shirt. Days passed
while it lay quietly on the desk
under the window. Lay there
thinking it was finished and
without a single conviction
to its name. It didn’t have
the will to go on, even if it’d wanted. Continue reading

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