In 1986, I encountered the phenomenon of walking under streetlights and having them suddenly go out - there I stood, bewildered in darkness. I began to take notice only after these outages occurred again & again. I started to write about the phenomenon and to wonder whether I might be their cause. These notes became the early seeds of the novel, excerpts of which were first published in WFMU's Lowest Common Denominator as "Confessions of a Beer Mystic." [Front cover by David Sandlin]
* The first draft of Beer Mystic was written in the summer of 1987 in the south of France in 6 weeks. I was lucky to have a French girl friend then who dragged me to her extended family house in the country. The novel soon involved a larger cast of characters living under the charm of synchronicity as makeshift faith. As Jung and others have noted, the more you fixate on coincidence, the more it begins to behave like synchronicity or a belief in the meaningfulness of those very coincidences.
* Beer Mystic was accepted by Welcome Rain [NY] in 2000 for publication. Even had multiple beers with the publisher over lunch in a Chelsea restaurant to celebrate this fact, only to have Welcome Rain go broke shortly after...
* The dense terrain mirrored in the Beer Mystic's language is characteristic of my style but is here augmented as an homage/critique of the mindscape of NY as a shattering clutter of almost unprocessable phenomena. Think of ways the mind must trick the spirit to reprocess all that noise, dissonance, static, sirens, car alarms, dissing, revving, screaming, ambition...
* Beer Mystic concerns a side of late-1980s NY that has gone relatively under-explored - that of the have-nots & those struggling outside the velvet ropes of power and fame. It may have something in common with Orwell's Down and Out. Think Downtown Beirut, [old] Knitting Factory, Palladium, CBGB's, TGIF, Tier 3, Sally's, Puffy's, Tin Pan Alley, ABC No Rio, Danceteria, Studio 10, WFMU, East Village Eye and the streets...
* Think of 24-Hour Party People with beer. Think of Beer Mystic as a synchronous corollary to the current revival and reappraisal of 1980s music/culture [i.e., on Soulwax] especially the downtown noise and punk-funk scenes. Think of Horse Badorities [Fan Man, Kotzwinkle] or Tales of Beatnik Glory [Ed Sanders] 20 years later. Think of Beer Mystic as Don Quixote kicked in the butt by Bukowski. As Kingsley Amis taking a wrong turn.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Furman Pivo is a foot messenger in 1980s Manhattan. A dreamer-wanderer who thinks he might be a writer until one night like many other nights he is outside, drinking to slow down the world. Drunk under a Flushing, Queens, NY streetlight — somewhere between Manhattan and the airport — he suddenly believes he is observing the streetlight overhead going on the blink; extinguished — Poof! — it’s dark.
In subsequent weeks the phenomenon occurs again, then again and again until the unusual becomes the uncanny, and perceived synchronicity is interpreted somewhat mystically — he begins believing he is the cause of these outages. His life changes, gains substance, focus — and responsibility. He believes that with his new (in)sight he can transmogrify beer and loneliness into belief and respect, a para-psychological alchemy of sorts. A yeast culture, where beer goes beyond quenching thirst, beyond label loyalty and beyond market logic into the beer mystical…
From there I wandered past the Brooklyn Academy of Music where Emerson once lectured on transcendentalism and then back over to the Gowanus region to visit "my" Elsa Triolet again. She should be home by now. The Gowanus area girds both sides of the Gowanus Canal, a gash of water that refuses to heal. Sometimes referred to as the "Dead Pet Canal" because so many troublesome pets are put out of their owners' misery here. And on certain days, bloated clumps of gruesome fur can be seen floating in the murky waters. Giverney has lily pads and the Gowanus has dead pets.
Elsa Triolet is a mama, the kind who goes to pick up her kids after school, the kind who'd lost the compass to just how beautiful she had once been - "People always say I look like Kim Novak - yea, plus like a hunnert pounds." She's the kind of woman you meet in a club where she is no longer headlining, where she hopes at least 1 fan will recognize her, will ask her to sign an old single of hers or something. Elsa's the kind who buys you a hundred drinks then gives you money so that you can both make believe you are paying for her. Liked you in the desperate hope that her liking you would lead you to liking her. She had a million good stories, and each one led to the conclusion that she had once been somewhere, been someone, and that in pity there is pride just like in a modest wine there is the potential for cognac. Elsa is the kind who fed off the slim pickin's of her former glory and tried to preserve this glory but in so doing actually suffocated it in the handsome scrap books and under the many layers of anxiously applied makeup, a makeup that went expressionistically askew because her hands were now ruled by a bad case of the shakes.
"It's not neurological, it's just nerves." She kept telling herself - and me. She also had a tremendous assortment of grommeted and hood clamp corsets that had absorbed their own histories of stage sweat. A phase that had something to do with industrial cabaret, sexual innuendo and a makeover that made her look like a Menlo Park Shopping Mall version of Betty Page. I enjoyed watching her get excited squeezing into her accoutrements thinking I was getting excited too. Life is a series of distractions and religion is preoccupied with making meaning out of these distractions. "In 1980, I was my own religion." Did she actually say that? There's something perversely voluptuous about the tortured impossibility of her size 16 shimmying into these size 8 confinements. A miracle. Oh, and how her cups ranneth over and over. Like a pint of beer in a shot glass. The tighter she tied the corset, the more like a former self she was able to identify with for ever shorter durations until the kick lasted not much longer than however long she could hold 1 breath. The askew and rat-bitten Betty Page wig didn't help much either. Her beauty continued to crumble before her eyes. And the more she tried to prop it up, the more this decay of crows feet, cellulite, and graying hair would mock her.
Whenever she looked at me she really wanted my eyes to stay fixed on her. When she tried her Garbo gimlet gaze on me she looked more like someone going through a post-traumatic seizure. And over time the infiltration of useless knowledge, rock 'n' roll factoids, and folk medicine had left her eyes unfixed, unfocused, gazing without seeing, agreeing without understanding - her mind flickering like a bad video with tracking problems, the glories of provisional fame had betrayed her. I gathered some this from how accommodating she was toward the likes of me - with only the slightest hints of me being even vaguely employed or functional [desire ÷ despondency has its own calculus.] I measured her passion by the number of impressive beers [Pitfield Porter, Red Stripe, Kwak, Gueze, Sleutel, Staropramen, Jenlain] she'd fetch for me at the Beer Depot Drive-Thru in Red Hook. It was far away, but by old Mercury station wagon always worth it.
During lunch she opened her cabinet, which was now reserved for beer glasses. This had meant some smart rearranging. Now certain glasses - the kids had been instructed! - would only be used for beer. I felt suddenly weird about being so insistent.
"I wash'm with baking soda. Like you said. No towels." She held them up as if her entire sense of self was being held up to the light. "I air dry'm like you wanted."
"Suggested! Beer's just very sensitive. You gotta understand."
"Oh, I do, I do!" But she didn't, but it didn't matter that she merely agreed with me to flatter me.
"Cans, the aluminum, has an adverse effect on beer flavor."
"I know, I know, dear." As she played around with my nuts and rubbed the stem as she dragged out the old casket catalogs. We flipped through them, pointed out our faves - again, her forefinger running furiously along the thick veins in my forearm.
"You shoulda been a Goth rocker."
"I was born 10 years too early for that but way too late to be a Pre-Raphaelite. Maybe I'll just get cremated." Elsa mused. Kim Novak with 20 loaves of Wonder Bread duct-taped to her thighs and midriff. "I like the idea of an urn up on somebody's shelf somewhere. Or better yet, have my ashes used as a foundation for eye makeup; this way I'll be seen all over the world..."
"I'm against it!"
"Isn't it weird that most of us will have a roomier place to live after we die?" We all lived in gloomy shelving units in New York.
She shook her head yes not to show agreement but to flatter me into staying. She told me about how Sarah Bernhardt slept in a coffin filled with her fan letters. She had a pile of her own, by the way. And then more beer and more of her hands rubbing any appendage of mine that was available.
"I used to be compared to her when I was 1 mountain lighter. Do you like this one? Zlatorog - it's from Yugoslavia." Then came the adventure stories again about how difficult and far away this beer depot was and how the guy behind the counter always makes a move for her. How she called around. How she was enterprising, loyal, youthful, hoping to accentuate the "co" in "co-dependency." How all this meant love to her - or at least some semblance of occupancy. And she'd insinuate the precise aperture of her mouth to offer me the kind of fellatio that would render me immobile or comatose and thus spending the night. She hinted that there were burglars and peepers and that if I stayed... but despite her vigorous and enthusiastic actions gleaned from bad porn videos I was not capable of much because I'd been so turned off by the whole casket affair.
"What's it all about that it feels so decadent to drink and fuck when it's still light out?"
"I guess you're defying the guilt you're supposed to feel about not being at work somewhere."
"Guilt doesn't work on us no more, does it?"
After I yanked my pants back up and we finished lunch she rummaged around for that tatter of infamous dress she wore back when she was a "punk diva" with a "congregation consisting of several thousand Bonjour Tristesse readers." The Trouser Press review hung crooked in a plastic gold frame above her bed.
"It's the color of Midori, don't you think?"
"I dunno. It has a sickly aspect to it. Like the color of some cough medicine."
"I was 60 pounds lighter - that's alotta Big Macs! - back then you gotta realize. I had a label. Knew Belinda Carlisle. Sang with Lydia Lunch. Was compared to Exene Cervenka." And with that came a scrap book, neatly dated on the spine 1979-1981. And there were the headlines - OHIO PUNK DIVA HIT or POET VAMP RATTLES THE BONES or PUNK POETESS: OF CORSET MATTERS. And again, I had to admit, another very beautiful and thorough scrapbook crammed full of memories and beer labels and ticket stubs and muggy photos of spiky-haired dudes with Degas smudgy eyes kissing her pale vampy cheeks. Her posing in vampy mock blow job insouciance. But all of this press and fanfare came to an abrupt halt some little while ago. The more precious the details, the sadder I felt.
"Don't ask. We were on a minor label - Bean Me Up Records outa Boston. Jonathan Richman's original label. And we were up for a bigger deal: Alternating Testicles was snooping around. They wanted us, loved our demos, but then alas there were drugs - and betrayals." The lack of or excess of she wasn't saying. This downfall at the very instant of snagging the Big Fish led to a denouement and this ex-from-hell, this Dave Stewart to her Annie Lennox, and the life she was now saddled with. The Big Come-Down over and over and over.
The secret here is to make yourself something in the eyes of others. There are many tactics. One is to be of a focused mindset, be obsessed with 1 subject so that obsession makes you look like an expert. Another is to provide a service or stage for other people's egos. Being on the radio served that purpose. People like give you their singles, their cassettes, their PR in bars and then squeeze your hand suggestively. With women you might get the wrong impression that it means something more, this emphatic squeezing of your hand rapidly 3 or 4 times - wink-wink-wink. You might protest to Elsa or others that you're not even sure anyone listens or that XYZNO Radio FM is even broadcasting anywhere beyond the confines of the station's clandestine downtown Brooklyn studio doesn't matter. Others just chalk this kind of speculation up to modesty and pat you on the back and laugh along.
The heart is impure, desperation makes it a sweaty trader of hog futures or unwanted nostalgia on a stock market somewhere.
"I was on the map, in lights, in Creem, Trouser Press, but after the Big Come-Down I went in for what was then called house hookin'. Now they got a union and they call'm homeworkers. Don't gimme no looks! You go bar-trolling for a man. You meet 1 and do him better'n he's ever been done. You know what I mean! Get yourself invited to stay back at his place, bring your 3 banged-up suitcases with the stickers of hundreds of bands stuck to 'em. He likes it, you are a kick in his boring life. He can write to friends in Iowa about the exciting life he's got in the Big apple. And as long as you didn't wear out your welcome, take up too much sleep and refrigerator space and kept giving the best head you could stay. I mean, I did housework, cleaning house for lines o' coke... Even borrowed a Polish accent so that the people who hired me would feel more comfortable, you know, hiring someone from behind the Iron Curtain. They could feel like their fuckin' laziness - pardon my French - was actually generosity."
"Whaddayuh do now?"
"I went full circle from boffing ambitious punk flops and guys killin' themselves to make a killing on Wall street - the kind o' guys that wanna hear that you were someone once too but only for a little while before they launch into their own bios - even lonely plumbers for a roof over my head. But now I'm illustrating religious children's books. I do that now."
During our conjugal thrusts atop sundry surfaces previously reserved for other chores [with her 2 full-length mirrors covered with sheets to mourn her passage into "plumpdom"] she'd encourage me with flaky references to my awesome thrusts-per-minute and that I was a far cry and moan from so and so, this famous ex whom she now refuses to dignify with a Christian name, had "fucked her into submission with his bitter little stub" and then gave her 2 kids, this "perp" who had "won" her and then fed upon her most intimate and fragile confidences. But she refused to delve further into this portion of her life-as-hell. Although he may have been a guitarist in a band that often played Max's Kansas City. But by not going into it she was actually going into a lot.
"I didn't see you there protesting the day it closed."
"I was there dahlink. 1981. I was a different someone then. I was hanging with horror punker Glenn D. of the Low Die as in Lodi, New Jersey. Later they went dark metal as Loaded Dice."
"I was dating a girl who looked just like Chrissy Hynde. That got us in lots of trouble and lots of clubs for free."
"You're the youngest I've ever done it with."
"What about high school?"
"Hardy-har-har. I don't wanna go into those days. But I meant age difference."
That I wasn't turned off by how she could grab ample portions of her tenderloin and squeeze it the way one might a pita into something like another pussy was something that allowed her to transform herself into a multi-orificular temptress. All across her epidermal expanse we kneaded and folded her skin, discovering alternative labia in amongst her ample folds. Scars were explained like tourist attractions. And with baby oil rubbed upon my length I slithered in amongst these folds.
Each thrust inspired from her cramped yelps - EEEeeh! - of gleeful surprise; each ejaculation posing as a declaration of love for her. Sure, she memorized delirious odes to my fortitude, and my enthusiasm for her plenitudes. Sure there'd be a bottle of beer in her hand behind my back. How did she do that? Sleight of hand? Ever just savvy enough to know the needs of my spiritual thirsts.
"It's Hell beer."
These "lunch" bouts would be a painting something like this: her bent over the wobbly kitchen table, reminiscing about recipes she remembered they used to try to make in her Suzy Homemaker oven, while I drank her Hell beer in right hand while holding her hipbone in my left, and she'd always turn over just so I could ejaculate across her immense breasts at precisely the right moment. If résumés were made of other talents... I did not ever say I did not like being called a "naughty boy" every time I ejaculated. All of this trysting meant hanging in there strangely removed, elsewhere, empty, without tales of past glory to nurse the open wounds of doubt, observing her as she gobbled the strands of ejaculant, like some scream queen. It was as if my spirit had been strained through cheesecloth.
Then more beer lessons - how to handle beer: 1. Avoid dusty bottles or those exposed to the sun or extreme heat or cold 2. Store beers standing upright 3. Do not pour beer down glass sides; pour beer gently in center of glass to produce necessary head. Head enhances bouquet and allows CO2 to escape, preventing flatulence 4. Drink good beers warmer - at some 50° F
5. The beer should emit small bubbles, have a ragged full-bodied head 6. Aroma should be fresh and clean; a skunky smell means the beer is old 7. Taste beer slowly with some swish and swill. It should have a chewy thick aspect to it 8. There should be a subtle bitter aftertaste to a good beer 9. Draft often tastes better because carbonation levels are lower than in bottles; carbonation deadens the tastebuds. 10. The head foam floating on top of a beer in a glass should be 3/4 to 1 inch in height.
Then we'd clean up and walk into Park Slope to the school her kids attended. She told me how much she was fretting, doing daily research, calling schools to get her seven- and nine-year old kids into a decent high school. It might mean four-hour daily commutes.
Along the way she'd offer a brew - we were early - if I would along the way just sit with her in the Tarnished Kidney Stone, hold hands under the table.
"This is the way it's s'posed to be." Then with a sigh, off to the school without stopping in, passing Cal's Boiler Repair and the various abandoned warehouse doorways that held the flamboyantly anonymous and genderless prostitutes who could be had for less than 2 loaves of white bread. On past the South Brooklyn Casket Works, a place that smelled of success, as if the owner knew a booming business when he smelled one. Trucks at all hours of the day idling out front, parked at odd angles, loading and unloading. She peeked in, as she always did, and we ventured in, she striding, dragging me along.
"It's not morbid like you think. And the guys don't mind, if you don't get in their way." Some of the guys tipped imaginary hats, squeezed uncomfortable smiles from their faces.
And there we'd stand in front of various coffins and caskets debating their respective virtues - roominess, classic design, portability, durability, kitsch-value humor. Her favorite was an elegant white one. Her hand guided mine along its contours. I thought I sensed the workmen staring, wondering. I heard a huge black fly collide with a window.
"Quality is something you can touch. MMM, feel that!" Her stare attempting to wring the meaning from my last statement - did I mean her or the casket?
"Reminds me of my dad's '63 Cadillac. MMMM. He'd polish it and touch up nicks with a very fine paintbrush every Saturday. Later on, when he couldn't get the right red any more he'd use my mom's nail polish."
"I think of those white leather shoes guys over 60 buy to go with their white belts."
"Look, the trim is guaranteed 14K gold leaf. And I like that it hearkens back to, I dunno, the Victorian age or something with its Baroquey details and all. I'd put in a new lining. I got it all ready. Took the seams outa my old chartreuse velvet dress. I wanna use that as the lining. And now I lay me down in my ole punk dress. When I sniff it I'm right back in the thick of Max's."
She knew the exact 4 songs - I can't remember, a Roy Orbison song, something by Joy Division, a song by Sinatra, and 1 by Echo & the Bunnymen with the line "Everybody loves you when you're dead" - she'd hummed them all. Although there was also 1 by the Misfits she was contemplating. She dreamt of the lavish funeral details and the exact circumstances of her death - in bed on the brink of being discovered for her musical accomplishments, her best friend ["You don't want her. She don't drink beer, hates it,"] holding her left hand, and her sensitive brother, the only family member to ever indicate that he "understood" her, holding her right hand.
"I'll be fucked by you as I'm dying - I'll be 55 and then there'll be a wake - it's corny, I know, but that's how I'd do it - banquet tables serving ridiculously, sinfully rich food and sausage and cake and egg rolls dressed like sarcophaguses with miniature likenesses of me inside. And the Village Voice will call me 'Patsy Cline on acid.'"
From an unexpected somewhere her hand wriggled its way inside my pants because the atmosphere here gave her "the hornies." I could hear her purring until I whispered, "Not here! Later!"
She tousled my hair into place and handed me breath mints along the way - she'd wear hi heels in the snow if that's what I wanted.
She knew everybody in the school courtyard and wanted them all to know that she was with me, clinging to the elbow of a man 10 years her junior, because that was, according to Cosmopolitan, status; as 1 article aptly called it, "role-reversal empowerment." A smattering of lone dads stood uncomfortably among the pinched blond moms, the chosen and the nannies of the chosen. The dads seemed self-conscious about their roles, like trees planted in the wrong orchard. Like they're worried everybody's thinking" loser, why aren't you at work?
Over time, Elsa had amassed astute and dastardly dossiers [imagined, projected, and/or overheard] on every mom she perceived as prettier than herself. To balance it, so that she would not seem like a "Scorpio bitch," she'd reserve certain bonbon-like niceties for the other mothers, the ones she perceived as being non-threatening, nice mothers who had sacrificed their looks for their children.
Her kids, 2 very lithe and swarthy rails, decorated in all their bright-colored accoutrements, suddenly bounced into view out of the screaming horde. "Mom, is he another daddy-for-a-day?" Lucinda asked. We must smirk at the brutal honesty of children.
"He's no daddy, he ain't got no car." Dan chimed in. She gripped Dan's arm, corrected his English, then explained why I had no gifts for them like all the others: "There's gifts and then there's bribery. You'll understand someday."
My hand disappeared in the slit in the back of her long coat as she doted on Lucinda. There was a hole in her tights for my forefinger to worm its way in while she said hello to some of the other moms, briefly discussing grades and the upcoming PTA meeting. Her quivering fundament gripped my finger, hungrily clutching the phalange at the first knuckle as her voice went up a full octave. I stood there thinking that if I removed my finger maybe she'd abruptly deflate with a horrible racket. So, for decorum's sake, better not.
When I closed my eyes with my finger strumming the tattered hole in her black tights, she became someone else, someone with proud bones I'd seen in Cosmo. Or Punk. Like Sally Scream, circa 1981, Queen of Gloom Glam. My eyes were clamped shut; I was in a Montparnasse café until suddenly I felt my balance go askew because I was - or my sense of self was - escaping through orifices I had forgotten about.