Life is full of love affairs and relationships and sadness and regrets and mistakes and joy and fights and reconciliations and you remember most of them fondly and without rancor, some painfully, and nearly all with love in your heart.
We were living through New York’s last Golden Age, when an apartment on 12th St. and Ave B cost $40 a month, a well drink in the Village was a buck, you could still get a draft beer for 50 cents. The streets were running wet with women, the Wall Streeters were still stuck on the 6:40 to New Canaan, and the only thing between their legs was their tail. Who knew it wasn’t going to last much longer? Not me.
But it was also the era of damned if you did, and damned if you didn’t. Every female in New York City worth spending five minutes with had acquainted herself with feminism, and many had done much more than that. Women at the New York Times and Newsweek and Time Magazine were suing, and winning, for the right to equal pay, and get this – for the right to have their by-lines on the stories they wrote. And yet somehow victory for them spelled defeat for us. It was utterly and completely strange. We stood with them on pay equity and by-lines and all of the rest of equality as it was defined in the workplace, where the legal battles were being waged and won. But while those battles had been won, there were others still to fight. In the bars and apartments and bedrooms of New York City, it was damned if you did, damned if you didn’t for both men and women. As a man, all of a sudden you were expected to be understanding and sensitive and willing to pitch in when it came to the mundane duties and responsibilities of domestic or semi-domestic life, which is actually what most of us were living back then. But then came the rub. If you were too sensitive, you weren’t manly enough. If you were too manly, you weren’t sensitive enough. If you came on too strong you were an egotistical sexist. If you were laid back and waited for them to make the first move, you were weren’t aggressive, you didn’t want them enough.
I remember all of it. I remember the pay phone in the Spanish joint downstairs from my loft at 124 West Houston Street, and I remember the pay phone at the Lion’s Head over by the juke box, and I remember the pay phone at the corner of Bleecker and 6th Avenue. They were the wires that connected you to the opposite sex, at a time when wires were what you needed to make that connection.
One of those connections I made was with a waitress at the Lion’s Head who worked there at the same time as Jessica Lange, and by acclimation was considered the prettiest waitress at the Head. Her father was a professional comedian who lived in Brooklyn and had made his living over the years sitting back in a Barcalounger, rolling elaborate joints he water-colored like Alaskan totem poles and taking calls from the likes of Gleason and Hope and Parr and Carson and five minutes later coming up with a gag for the then ripe sum of $50. Carson might call up at the last minute before airtime and say, I need Chinaman with a dog, a Republican with a mistress, and the President at the 18th Hole. An hour later, her father was $150 to the good, and suburban couples all over the country were howling with laughter in their pajamas and having great sex afterwards.
Can you imagine what it was like to grow up with a father who was friends with Lenny Bruce and could out-riff Don Rickles? I couldn’t either.
I wrote about her years ago in the Voice in a piece called “Route 17 North,” and subtitled “The Lady of the Valley.” She hated every syllable of what I wrote until she moved to New Mexico a few years later and began teaching English to Navajos on the reservation and taking long solo overnight hikes to hot springs in the San Juan Mountains. The only thing I take credit for after all these years is my own bullheaded cluelessness, which will become evident as you read on:
ROUTE 17 NORTH
We were passing the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, and the lady, with a calm turn of her head, shot words at me with a harsh-lunged whisper: Man you just don’t know my sensitivities, and I don’t think you even want to.
It was at 60 miles an hour that she put it to me quite dryly, without the slightest taste of disappointment or emotion, that afternoon high in the Rockies. I continued to gaze down the long stretch of two lane blacktop out there in front of me, not a mile of it dipping beneath 8,000 feet on its way along the hundred-odd miles of San Luis Valley between Northern New Mexico and South Central Colorado. Yes, I thought, there are times when I couldn’t give a good shit what she thought, just as I was sure the same was true of her.
The lady continued to search for and chew off split ends which were cropping up in her hair at an alarming rate out there in the dry climate of the west. I had no idea what she was thinking. When we stopped the morning’s yelling, which had gone on all the way from Taos to Fort Garland, she started that damn hair chewing again. With the exception of those few accusatory words, she had been silent since Alamosa. I presumed she meant what she said, but I didn’t give it much thought beyond that. The miles whipped by, the valley with them, and all I could do was drive.
They grow hops and barley in the San Luis Valley. Annual rainfall each year makes the area semi-arid, and primitive irrigation ditches crisscross like veins on the underside of your forearm. From the air, I’d guess, they’d even look blue. Route 17 cuts the valley in half with a skinny rib of patch-worked and pot-holed asphalt that has no turns and only one gas station between Alamosa and Poncha Pass. To the west, the mountains are over 12,000 feet high and snow-capped this time of year. To the east, in a jagged ridgeline, they are the last line of defense before the Midwestern plains. The people who live in he valley probably have ancestors who were converted from an obscure pagan religion to Catholicism by missionaries 400 years ago. The town giving its name to the valley, San Luis, is the oldest town in Colorado, and though the missions still stand, the missionaries have left.
Route 17 is one of the last bastions of America untouched by the odious wand of the highway lobby. You can get to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument without traveling it, so it has been neglected as a way to get from one place to another. Few people drive it. The sights along the way are not worth speaking of, unless you count the barley, grazing cattle, a few horses straying out into the roadway, and of course, way off in the distance, those ridiculous sand dunes squatting against the base of an otherwise perfectly normal Colorado mountain. It’s a good place to lose your mind, Route 17 is. A good place for a relationship to disintegrate, for the lady to turn my seeing into staring.
No doubt she knew this, even though she didn’t look outside much for mile after linear mile. She didn’t see the carload of Kansas tourists with five kids who passed us dragging a small camper, every kid from two or three years on up hanging out the back windows, a half-dozen peace signs extended into the air stream. The father, when he saw his kids and the long-haired asshole they were waving at, slammed on the brakes and pulled his rig over to the side, obviously bent on giving them a good talking to about what’s good and what’s bad about America.
She didn’t even notice the dusty dashboard, the open glove compartment strewn with sunglasses and dead coke cups and the jug of water on the floor and the bags of trash stuffed under the seats that had collected since we left Albuquerque four days ago. Conversation isn’t really necessary when you’re traveling by car in America. At times, it might not even be desirable. Air blowing through open windows, fence posts and fields flashing by outside, the radio if you’ve got one blaring wide open against the wind noise, that relentless wind against your left arm, grasshoppers slamming one after another into the windshield, that endless procession of diners and gas stations and cheap motels and roadside attractions – it’s enough to make thinking beside the point, to make relationships a folly, to twist what used to be your feelings into subliminal scrap.
We flew into New York late at night and took a cab straight to the Lion’s Head on Sheridan Square. Without so much as a word to me, she left her suitcase under the coat rack next to the ladies room and split for the Buffalo Roadhouse, a raucous, hip bar a few blocks down on 7th Avenue. I left mine next to hers and stayed at the Lion’s Head for the conversation and camaraderie I had missed so badly on the road with her for almost two weeks in the west.
Nick Browne was tending bar and he’d had a few by then and wondered out loud why it was that we could form friendships among men that seem unassailable, while those with ladies like the one who had just walked out the door were so fragile. Why do we stumble and fall with them, he asked, and stand so steadily with each other?
I didn’t have an answer beyond some sort of pap about cars and driving and a litany of other male shit. I remember saying that the rush of road noise finally seems like silence in your ears and allows the car and the San Luis Valley to talk and all we can do is listen.
She was right about us. I had no more feeling for her sensitivities than I did for the Great Sand Dunes National Monument or for the Kansas kids and their peace signs or for the horses stretching their necks against barbed wire trying to get at clumps of grass along the highway.
It rained at Poncha Pass, and we saw only one good day of sun the rest of the trip.