That’s my skinny 25 year old urban cowboy ass at the Conundrum hot springs at 12,000 feet near Aspen, Colorado in 1972 when I was a single male living in New York City earning $80 a week from the Village Voice and another $200 or so from various freelance assignments I used to get around town, rewriting cover stories for TRUE magazine, writing essays for the Saturday Review, shooting fish in a barrel for tit magazines like Oui and Penthouse. Prince of the city? Forget that small time shit. With those kind of bucks burning a hole in my pocket, I was prince of the Continental Divide.
To say that 1972 and the years which followed were magical is to sell the era seriously short. I had lived the previous two years on an old Pennsylvania Railroad barge a friend of mine and I had converted into two huge lofts, tied to the end of a deteriorated dock on the Jersey side of the Hudson across from 79th Street. The place had huge French windows looking across and down the river at Manhattan, and I had a 16 foot runabout with a 25 horse Evinrude engine I used to run down to the Morton Street Pier in the Village to pick up friends and bring them back to the barge for dinner. Sometimes on Friday nights, we would head up to a speakeasy on a barge on the Harlem River that was owned by some cops and firemen. We’d tie up alongside and dance the night away to songs from the 50’s and 60’s on a classic juke box. A drink was 50 cents and a beer was a quarter, can you imagine?
My barge was heated by a coal-burning pot-bellied stove. The frigid winter of ’71-’72 when the Hudson froze solid all the way across drove me off the river and into a loft at 124 West Houston Street, just off the corner of Sullivan, where I rented 2500 square feet on the fourth floor for $200 a month. Bob Dylan had a practice/recording studio on the ground floor, and I remember running into him going into his studio when I was building the place, carrying 2 by 4’s and buckets of nails up the stairs and thinking, oh, Dylan’s on the ground floor? Of course. You rent a loft in a practically deserted SoHo in 1972, and it’s pretty much mandatory that Dylan’s downstairs. I used to help him periodically loading amps and other equipment into his studio and once or twice he helped me carry grocery bags from the Pioneer on Bleecker Street up to the fourth floor. I remember one day when we put the bags down in the kitchen offering him a cold beer, but he said he had to get back to work downstairs. He was busy writing “Blood on the Tracks.” I know, because I used to keep a folding chair behind the stairs in the entrance lobby and when I heard him on the piano just on the other side of a 2 by 4 and sheetrock wall, I would head across the street for the paper and some coffee and come back and sit down next to the wall and listen.
The other magical thing about being a 25 year old single male in 1972 New York City was, of course, women. In and around Greenwich Village and environs northward they were on the street in force…blond lanky talky beauties with blue eyes and rock and roll legs that started on West Fourth and ended on Perry…frizzy-haired kohl-eyed walking attitudes in black tops and black mini-skirts and black hose with dark, pretty thoughts their in their dark, pretty heads. It was all you could do to keep your tongue in your head and your hands in your pockets. Come to think of it, we didn’t, none of us walking around with 25 year old hormones raging, male or female, didn’t make a bit of difference. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other, and man, forget those tongues. They had time to waste and minds of their own and places to go, and wasn’t a thing to stop them, kissing sucking kissing, talking nuzzling talking, kissing licking talking kissing sucking licking. We flew through the Village at low altitude, about 9 inches off the ground, and everywhere we looked we found landing zones.
Emily Vogel was a waitress at the Lion’s Head, the writers’ bar on Sheridan Square where everyone from the Voice and the Post and the News hung out, along with out of work seamen, old Party members, union organizers and your standard smattering of Village characters. By general Lion’s Head acclimation among the male regulars, Emily was the prettiest among the three who worked the back room nightly, the other two being Diana May and Jessica Lange. Diana May was all flouncy hair and big sexy eyes full of tease as she shook her tail going back and forth from the back room to the bar, and the pre-King Kong Jessica Lang was, well, Jessica Lang. But Emily Vogel was in a class all by herself: her long dark silky hair was sexily brushed left or right over her shoulder, she had saucy insolent lips upon which danced a perpetual knowing smirk. Her brown eyes peered at you from dark oceans of knowledge you knew you could never find the bottom of, and her voice was a husky rasp with only a trace of Brooklyn where she grew up. She was the daughter of a guy who wrote gags for comedians including Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope, Johnny Carson – he used to sit in a room across the river on an old barber chair rolling joints and answering the phone. Hope: I need a Nixon, a dog and cat, and a deaf bartender. Emily’s father would fire one up and call back half an hour later with the jokes and he was $150 to the better. That was very serious money in the late 50’s, early 60’s, and what a life, eh? Well, all you had to do was look the edge of loss in Emily’s face to get an idea of what it must have been like to grow up wanting nothing more than a dad and ending up instead with a hipster who made Keith Richards look like a shuffle-footed schoolboy. Soon as she could, Emily hit the bridge for the Village, worked as a fabric designer and waitressed at the Head to help pay the rent.
Like many Village waitresses of that era, she was very, very canny about her love life. Lions Head regulars — yours truly for example — were strictly off limits, sex with whom being the functional equivalent of sleeping where you work, or working where you sleep or whatever that Mad Men era saying was. So just imagine every night at the Head as a hormonally bent 25 year old with Emily Vogel and Diana May and Jessica Lange coming into view at the end of the bar to pick up an order every three or four minutes. There was some well-polished mahogany with all of our tongues swinging back and forth back and forth along the bar.
Late one lazy Spring Saturday afternoon I was in an electronics store on 6th Avenue just down the street from the Waverly Theater trying to find a light fixture I could hang in the kitchen on my barge and in walks Emily looking for a lamp for her work table in her apartment where she did freelance fabric design. I’m certain this was the first time I had run into her outside of the Head and seeing her on the street, apart from the environment of waitressing, was like the first time you ever looked into a telescope and saw the heavens up close. I don’t know why, but suddenly that afternoon her smirk gave way to a warm, welcoming smile and we were talking about what a great store this was, how much stuff we’d always been able to find there, it was the only place in the whole Village that had what you needed if you lived in a Village apartment…odd lengths of extension cords, pre-wired ceiling lights with ceramic fixtures, desk lamps for super mini, small, semi-medium and medium desks perfect for Village walk-ups.
I had been going out with a wonderful lady I had met at the Lion’s Head who lived over on Barrow Street. She was an ambitious concert pianist who was sometimes permitted to breathe the rarified air of the concert stage but who paid the rent managing the Paper Bag Players, an off-Broadway troupe of some renown at that time. She was a few years older than I was and took things slowly and seriously, and she had marvelous full breasts and this soft, cultured Louisville drawl that could bleed tears from stones and I was quite taken with her and the pace of her southern ways, as exotic in 1972 Greenwich Village as a creature from the wild. We hadn’t been seeing each other for very long, maybe a couple of weeks, but we had found a comfortable familiarity that fell into place when comparing notes we were smacked upside the head in that still-to-be-named one degree of separation discovering that I was a friend of Hunter Thompson’s and she had been his high school girlfriend in Louisville, Kentucky, the one she explained who had been stood up at the senior prom when Hunter was arrested and jailed that same day for some long-forgotten infraction. She was quite upright and proper by Village standards, wore stockings and Belgian loafers and low Ferragamo heels and the kind of dresses that got you through the doors of Carnegie Hall without a suspicious glance. I on the other hand wore those rough-out cowboy boots you see me carrying in the photo and plaid shirts with mother of pearl snaps and faded 501xx levis and a floppy big game Safari hat I had bought for about two weeks Voice pay at an overpriced outfitter uptown called Hunting World. But my own southern roots and her slow, heartfelt, earthy sexuality turned us into a comfortable if somewhat unlikely pair.
I was still living on the barge, and I used to pick her up in the runabout and we would speed back up the river and tie-up and I would fix something for supper like a roast chicken with roasted potatoes and vegetables or maybe pork chops piquante and we would lie on the couch and watch the tug boats chugging up and down the river against the sparkling lights of the city. It was warm, it was nice, it was calming my raging hormones and for her it was soothing at least some part of a secret pain in her I could sense was rooted back in Louisville. We’d talk for hours and then go to bed and find those other ways to talk and in the morning we’d zoom back downriver in time for her to make her appointments uptown or practice piano or pay the bills for the Paper Bag Players. The next night I’d spend in her Murphy bed at her pad on Barrow Street, at least I did until…
…that afternoon on 6th Avenue after I had found my light fixture and Emily had found her semi-medium apartment size desk lamp and we were standing outside the shop and she turned to me and asked if I was doing anything for dinner. It was something of a gutsy question given the fact it was by then fairly well known that I could cook and I was good at it. I mean, think of it: 1972, I was 25 years old and I was a guy and I was cooking and giving dinner parties and had become rather famous for it in our circles. But she looked me in the eye and shot the question at me in her husky voice and I happily admitted that as a matter of fact I had no plans at all for dinner. She handed me two Pioneer supermarket bags – under the circumstances, they had escaped my attention entirely – and said come on, my place is just up the street off West 4th.
I hadn’t made plans with the lady from Barrow Street that night, and any thoughts I may have had of arranging to spend that night in her Murphy bed blew right out of my head as I took Emily’s hand and we soared up 6th and entered the pattern on final approach for her Perry Street landing zone.
In order to preserve at least a modicum of my dignity, let’s not get into the home run metaphors that must have raged through my hormonally addled 25 year old brain, nor will we dwell on the cushion of air upon which I floated as we took the stairs to her third floor tenement apartment with the tub in the kitchen and a toilet that had once been down the hall but was now at the end of a long hallway with a railroad nook that served as a bedroom. And let’s give my memory a break when it comes to what we might have made from the raw ingredients in those Pioneer bags, if in fact we took the time to cook anything at all. What I do recall as if it were yesterday is the welcoming, knowing smile on her face as she shamelessly shed her clothes and her hands lifting my shirt and tingling my chest and her hair brushing my cheeks and her dark eyes peering into mine in the long silences that followed. It was all the meal we needed, our bodies consuming each other in sweet little sips and savage gigantic gulps. Everything that went before did not exist. There was nothing to teach, nothing to learn. She knew what it did to me when she brushed her cheek against my chest and began kissing my stomach, so nakedly and purposefully. I knew how she released when my mouth covered hers and I spread her legs with my hand and traced my fingers along her thighs. I hungered for her and she accepted me eagerly, seized together yet somehow alone, searching for our lost souls. We knew each other as instinctively as animals know prey. Or did we?
Good question: what the hell did we know at 25 in 1972? We were buffeted by the winds of a culture that was changing so fast no one could get the right set of sails aloft. Whispering in one of Emily’s ears was an early promise of feminism, that she was entitled to the pure enjoyment of sex the same way guys were, that the ethic of free love could be free for both sexes if they just relaxed and enjoyed it. In her other ear a voice whispered that it wasn’t that easy, Kristofferson had gotten it all wrong, freedom was a word for something you could definitely lose.
I on the other hand heard a shout in both ears that all the free love shit meant this was your chance to knock off as many pieces as you want, man, so go for it. You chicks want equality? I’ll show you equality. You at the bar with the auburn hair and the sad smile? You’re equal to the one over by the door with the angry mouth and the hungry eyes, and if you don’t mind, I’ll take you in order, so line up and wait your turn. Get it while you can, Janis cried, so get it, man! This is what you’ve been waiting for all those — gasp! — 25 years!
The early messages to men from the feminist movement worked about seven ways around the word sensitive. We were supposed to be sensitive to women’s needs and wants, sensitive to their yearning for equality, sensitive to the idea that the old gender rules were going out the window to be replaced by new ones that included making the bed, volunteering to do the dishes, remembering to put the toilet seat down, cleaning up after ourselves and on and on. It sounds silly today writing this stuff, but in 1972 these weren’t just topics of conversation, they were issues that found their way into print in places like the Village Voice, and from there they turned into demands.
But the messages in those early moments of the movement were inevitably mixed. Women wanted guys to be sensitive, but at the same time they wanted them to remain, well, real guys. And the guys’ response? You want to send us mixed signals, we’ll send our own right back. In large measure, we strove to turn the feminist message on its head. You want freedom from gender role identity? Okay: under the old rules, guys were expected to be steady, reliable, serious, committed. The way we read things, the new rules gave us permission to be unreliable, scattered, frivolous, uncommitted…like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone…don’t count on me, babe, I’m busy being free.
What about me, you ask? Truth be told, I was a walking symphony of mixed signals. Because I loved to cook and actually enjoyed doing dishes and could do all kinds of domestic stuff like make the bed to West Point standards and slop a mop under the bed to clean up the dust bunnies, and scrub the toilet and clean the mold from tub grout, there were no worries about me when it game to the gender identity thing. I was everything the feminist movement told women they should want and more. So what did I do? I used it. I can remember more than once showing up for dinner at a girl’s apartment already prepared for her inevitably dull knives with a sharpening stone in my shoulder bag. Girls dug it that I had this female stuff down inside out and backwards and wasn’t afraid of them knowing it. It didn’t take me 30 seconds to conclude that it didn’t matter what got you in the door as long as it closed behind you with a satisfying click and didn’t open until you were on your way out the next morning.
On top of my sensitive chief cook and bottle washer act, I had a reputation around town as a guy who didn’t suffer fools gladly and didn’t take shit from anyone. There were incidents which arose when an insult to my integrity was serious enough to occasion my lifting some guy off the floor and slamming him against the nearest wall to make the point that you didn’t question my sense of honor without consequences. Word spread. Women heard it, too. There wasn’t much to worry about the real guy thing when it came to me, and I wasn’t shy about letting them know it.
With all of this mixed-up gender identity and sexual freedom floating around, what was supposed to happen when you woke up in the morning and you didn’t want to pull on your boots and beat it, and you actually…jeez, what’s going on here…liked her? What were you supposed to think when it began to occur to you that the whole free love thing was, finally, hollow and that sex had no meaning unless there was something else behind it? Most of all, what was that supposed to be in 1972?
I’ve given this a lot of thought and I’ve come up with this huge, important conclusion: we didn’t have clue. At 25, I was a lumbering beast, moving ever forward, hands in front of me, grasping at whatever soft and delicious flesh I could find. Women on the other hand had become their own kind of fecund beast, tottering princess-like on heels or slipping down the street in sexy sandals, scanning the horizon for targets. I knew I was a target – we were all targets of one another – but even with all of my military training I had forgotten that on any firing range, the bulls eye was positioned in the center of the chest and we would end up putting holes right there in each other’s hearts.
Even still, Emily and I fell hard for each other. My friend Murray Weinstock, who would go on to marry Diana May, and I would stay up until our girls got off at 2 a.m, and then we’d strike out around the Village to other haunts like the Buffalo Roadhouse or Bradley’s to spend the next couple of hours talking and talking and groping each other until closing would send us back across the river to my barge or up to Perry Street, back into each others’ arms, back into exploring, licking, sucking the tiny spaces which separated us from each other while standing astride the gaping hole we imagined existed between us and the rest of straight America out there festering in their wholesome hypocrisy, their uptightness, their endless, boring ordinariness. I remember running into the lady from Barrow Street at the Head – it was impossible not to, both of us being regulars – and there’d we’d be with me shooting Emily hungry glances as she filled drink orders and Emily allowing her customary defensive smirk to collapse into a comely smile aimed straight at me. It must have hurt the lady from Barrow Street, but do you think I noticed? Me, a roiling inferno of shithead mixed-signal-maleness? Two guesses.
Bliss with Emily continued non-stop in New York until I came up with the brilliant idea that I should take this Daughter of Brooklyn Hip out to New Mexico and go camping and trout fishing and show her the ways of my youth. Somewhat to my surprise, she eagerly agreed to this preposterous plan, and off we flew for Albuquerque, where we borrowed the family Volkswagen and set off into the mountainous boonies to the north. An emboldened lumbering beast as we headed into my natural habitat of the Great Outdoors, it never occurred to me how profoundly I had removed Emily from her comfort zone or that I should consult with her about where we might go, where we might stay, who we might visit, what we might do. Did I ask her if she would rather stay in local motels rather than camp out? No, so we pitched the tent where I said we would pitch it. Did I ask her if she minded that we stop by this trout stream with the a waterfall forming a perfect pool? No, so we lingered as I fished at one such place after another for hours anytime I wanted linger. We were going up to Aspen to visit my friend Hunter Thompson, who she didn’t know and couldn’t care less about, but did I ever ask her if we should make Hunter’s farm our final destination? Nope. Once there, if I had been something of an asshole along the way, the combination of two natural born high speed assholes like Hunter and me was way, way too much.
So it shouldn’t have surprised me that only a few days into our Great Outdoor Adventure, Emily developed what she called a yeast infection, something I had never heard of before and which demanded a total cessation of sexual activity. Yet onward we pushed into the west, into the mountains, the oblivious lumbering beast at the wheel, a resentful Daughter of Brooklyn Hip next to him, often in complete silence save for an occasional Rolling Stones or James Brown song we could both tap our feet to that found its way through the AM ether.
I have written elsewhere in these pages of our travels through the San Luis Valley, but I haven’t told the whole story. About an hour after we landed at La Guardia on our return from New Mexico, Emily put her suitcase down in a corner of the Lion’s Head and took off for the Buffalo Roadhouse just down 7th Avenue, and as she let it be known around the Village the next day, within moments of walking through the door was back in the owner’s office fucking her old boyfriend. I hung around the Head all night, Emily’s absence un-remarked upon by my pals who nevertheless wanted to know how the big trip out West had gone. The story started out good and ran downhill fast, like the trip itself. By closing time, I was standing drunkenly at the end of the bar where the waitresses picked up their drink orders missing that long haired gorgeous girl with the dark eyes and playful teasing smile, whining like a baby to Nick Browne the bartender why it was that men and women couldn’t get along the same way guys did with each other.
I put this sappy scene at the end of “Route 17 North,” the story I wrote that week in the Voice to get back at her, in which I described a sullen resentful girl in the passenger seat of a Volkswagen silently, absentmindedly chewing the split ends of her hair as the miles went by. And the guy I wrote about who silently, obliviously, carelessly, cruelly ignored that sweet, sweet vulnerable beautiful girl next to him?