Michael D. Amitin

Viva Las Vegas

John Charles Frémont (January 21, 1813 – July 13, 1890), was an American military officer, explorer, the first candidate of the Republican Party for the office of President of the United States, and the first candidate to run on a platform in opposition to slavery. During the 1840s, that era’s penny press accorded Frémont the sobriquet “The Great Pathfinder.”

It was June of 1843, Frémont’s second topographical expedition mapped the Oregon Trail, traveled to Fort Vancouver, then turned south through Oregon and Western Nevada. By January 1844, the expedition was comprised of twenty-seven men, including Kit Carson and Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick, sixty-seven horses and mules, and a bronze mountain howitzer.

Low on provisions, Frémont decided to cross the 10,000 ft. Sierra Nevadas to Sutter’s Fort in California. It was midwinter, and the mountains were covered in deep snow. The Washoe Indians he met told him that he’d never be able to cross.

Fremont’s expedition eventually lead him southeast where on May 13, 1844, he set up camp in Las Vegas Springs, a destination that would later come to bear a landmark Hotel bearing his name.

Built in the Vegas building boom of the 1950’s, the Fremont Hotel and Casino in Downtown Vegas opened on May 18, 1956 as the tallest building in the state of Nevada. Fremont Street became the main thoroughfare through the heart of casino-lined Glitter Gulch.

Today, the Fremont remains one of the stalwarts of old Vegas… and the stuff of great legend – the house that gave rise to the likes of the inimitable Newton Brothers, Wayne and Jimmy, and gave a start to many others.

Local lore says this about the venerated establishment: “The Fremont will probably be around until Vegas gets sucked into the pits of hell.” Danka Schoen, and we love you Jersey.

A cool autumn night in 1983, the Fremont in the spirit of exploration befitting its namesake, played host to another groundbreaking act – an expedition of another variety – one likely to have made the wheels of the Great Pathfinder’s covered wagon spin into dead man’s ditch.

The American Urological Association was holding its annual meeting at the Fremont. Word of a major breakthrough in urological research had those gathered in attendance chattering. Dr. Giles Brindley, a British physiologist was slated to present his ‘significant’ findings to the association.

Brindley, a pencil-necked graying man of fifty-seven, was an old hand at such meetings, having presented numerous papers at scientific conferences. He had a reputation in Europe for original research, especially in bioengineering. In 1964, for example, Brindley had devised the world’s first visual prosthesis and had implanted three pairs of electronic eyes in humans before terminating the work when the costs did not justify the results. Once, to explore the effects of centrifugal force on a rabbit’s ability to land on its feet, Brindley dropped a rabbit from the roof to the floor of a car while making a sharp turn while the car was going eighty miles an hour.

After incurring the wrath of hell from PETA, Brindley sequestered himself for years taking solace with a “Logical Bassoon” he’d invented, an electronically controlled version of the bassoon.

Anchors Away

Prior to the 1980’s, it was thought that erectile dysfunction – the inability to achieve an erection – was primarily mental. That concept was about to be doused with saltpeter at the conference in Vegas.

A buzz filled the small theater inside the Fremont, as a veritable who’s-who of urologists took their seats and the lights dimmed. A short squatty, balding man with bushy sideburns pluming out beneath a circus purple velvet hat made his way on stage. With the voice of a eunuch, he chimed through the theater: “Ladies and gentlemen, distinguised colleagues, guests.”

Backstage, the bespectacled Brindley hurriedly injected his penis with the drug phentolamine. Following the injection, Dr. Brindley gracefully appeared on stage and quickly dropped his pants to display one of the first drug-induced erections to the incredulous audience. It was a whopper.

The audience – consisting primarily of physicians who spent much of their professional lives performing examinations of the sort that tend to jade ones response to male genitalia, – audibly gasped.

“[Brindley] dropped his pants before the audience…

…a very respectable erection”

Prof. Alvaro Morales, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.

“I had been wondering why Brindley came out wearing sweatpants,” said Dr. Arnold Melman, Chief of Urology at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “Suddenly I knew. It was a big penis, and he just walked around the stage, showing it off.”

Brindley, a former athlete, proving he was not using a silicone prosthesis, descended from the stage to the audience, inviting them to inspect his erect penis.

Brindley waddled from the stage down the stairs making his way through a stunned audience, his trousers at his knees, and his experiment at eye level, to “confirm the degree of tumescence.” Four or five of the women in attendance screamed, Professor Brindley pulled up his pants, and, returning to the stage, concluded his lecture.

Dr. Irwin Goldstein, a Boston University urologist who had a cherry seat for Dr. Brindley’s presentation described it as such, “He walked down the aisle and let us touch it. People couldn’t believe it wasn’t an implant.”

Ms. Irene Schlepsky of Buffalo, NY who apparently had a previous intimate encounter with Brindley, later said this: “It was the frankenstein of genetalia… inanimate tissue returning to life. Ms. Schlepsky a college philosophy profesor who had come to Vegas on a Knights of Columbus junket, accepted the invite from Brindley once it was apparent her junket would coincide with his revelatory unveiling. Unfortunately, the spry brunette looker never recovered from the events of that night. After prolonged therapy she gave up her calling as an educator and entered the Cloister of Passionist Nuns at Whitesville, Kentucky.

Another of the women in attendance, Mrs. Lovie Pumps, reported the epiphany to her husband – venture capitalist Hector Pumps, a gentle man of sixty-five who by now had long since said kaddish for his shriveling schemekle – could hardly believe it. “A miracle, Lovey!” He could hardly count the hours until a recesitation of the finest order might restore he and his wife’s mordant bump and grind.

Later when Brindley’s revelation was put in a capsule dubbed the “little blue pill” and unleashed to the world at large, Hector Pumps used his international connections to market the drug in such disparate loin-aching places as Instanbul and Moscow. A statue was erected in Pump’s honor in the hub of Istanbul’s red light district.

The Lobby

As the meeting was breaking up, Urologists filed across the lobby in a stony silent wake, before taking tables at “Pat’s On Your Back Lounge.” Jiggling their martini tumblers and listening to graying rockers who look ridiclous, the group was left to ponder what they’d just witnessed.

The reason why an injection of phentolamine gave Brindley an erection was especially interesting in 1983 because no one had really thought about it before.

Howard Hughes not withstanding (who decades earlier had sported a hearty and frequent habit of shooting narcotics into his wealthy johnson), the mid-1980’s ushered in a new era where it became commonplace for men with erectile dysfunction to inject smooth-muscle-relaxing drugs as a treatment for the problem. Phentolamine was soon at the fingertips of untold scores of measly lovers, as within a decade, it morphed into the “little blue pill” we’ve come to know as Viagra.

Timeline 1983

# Cabbage Patch Dolls hit the market.

# “Just Say No” is the new tool to combat growing drug use in the US.

# Camcorders are introduced.

(Everything in life is timing)

Popular Music of 1983

1. “Down Under” Men at Work

2. “Baby, Come to Me” Patti Austin & James Ingram

3. “Come on Eileen” Dexys Midnight Runners

4. “Beat It” Michael Jackson

5. “Let’s Dance” David Bowie

Wayne, Jimmy… eat your heart out. You may have had countless adoring sea hags trekking from Atlantic City to Vegas, but you never caused a commotion like this.

As the bartenders hollered last call, the martini tumblers dry as a desert well, the urologists exited the Fremont, passing hookers, pimps, winos, crack hawkers, tank top rockers scavenging the boulevard. The great pathfinder, John C. Fremont looked down from his luxury suite in the great reward flashing a hearty Vegas smile.

In the wake of the presentation, the Fremont became a destination for film directors. Scenes from the movie Swingers were filmed inside the hotel. The casino also appeared in Honey, I Blew Up the Kid.

The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest pieces of American journalism ever written. Originally published in Scanlan’s Monthly, June 1970, HST proudly presents “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”

***

I got off the plane around midnight and no one spoke as I crossed the dark runway to the terminal. The air was thick and hot, like wandering into a steam bath. Inside, people hugged each other and shook hands…big grins and a whoop here and there: “By God! You old bastard! Good to see you, boy! Damn good…and I mean it!”

In the air-conditioned lounge I met a man from Houston who said his name was something or other–“but just call me Jimbo”–and he was here to get it on. “I’m ready for anything, by God! Anything at all. Yeah, what are you drinkin?” I ordered a Margarita with ice, but he wouldn’t hear of it: “Naw, naw…what the hell kind of drink is that for Kentucky Derby time? What’s wrong with you, boy?” He grinned and winked at the bartender. “Goddam, we gotta educate this boy. Get him some good whiskey…”

I shrugged. “Okay, a double Old Fitz on ice.” Jimbo nodded his approval.

“Look.” He tapped me on the arm to make sure I was listening. “I know this Derby crowd, I come here every year, and let me tell you one thing I’ve learned–this is no town to be giving people the impression you’re some kind of faggot. Not in public, anyway. Shit, they’ll roll you in a minute, knock you in the head and take every goddam cent you have.”

I thanked him and fitted a Marlboro into my cigarette holder. “Say,” he said, “you look like you might be in the horse business…am I right?”

“No,” I said. “I’m a photographer.”

“Oh yeah?” He eyed my ragged leather bag with new interest. “Is that what you got there–cameras? Who you work for?”

Playboy,” I said.

He laughed. “Well, goddam! What are you gonna take pictures of–nekkid horses? Haw! I guess you’ll be workin’ pretty hard when they run the Kentucky Oaks. That’s a race just for fillies.” He was laughing wildly. “Hell yes! And they’ll all be nekkid too!”

I shook my head and said nothing; just stared at him for a moment, trying to look grim. “There’s going to be trouble,” I said. “My assignment is to take pictures of the riot.”

“What riot?”

I hesitated, twirling the ice in my drink. “At the track. On Derby Day. The Black Panthers.” I stared at him again. “Don’t you read the newspapers?”

The grin on his face had collapsed. “What the hell are you talkin’ about?”

“Well…maybe I shouldn’t be telling you…” I shrugged. “But hell, everybody else seems to know. The cops and the National Guard have been getting ready for six weeks. They have 20,000 troops on alert at Fort Knox. They’ve warned us–all the press and photographers–to wear helmets and special vests like flak jackets. We were told to expect shooting…”

“No!” he shouted; his hands flew up and hovered momentarily between us, as if to ward off the words he was hearing. Then he whacked his fist on the bar. “Those sons of bitches! God Almighty! The Kentucky Derby!” He kept shaking his head. “No! Jesus! That’s almost too bad to believe!” Now he seemed to be sagging on the stool, and when he looked up his eyes were misty. “Why? Why here? Don’t they respect anything?

I shrugged again. “It’s not just the Panthers. The FBI says busloads of white crazies are coming in from all over the country–to mix with the crowd and attack all at once, from every direction. They’ll be dressed like everybody else. You know–coats and ties and all that. But when the trouble starts…well, that’s why the cops are so worried.”

He sat for a moment, looking hurt and confused and not quite able to digest all this terrible news. Then he cried out: “Oh…Jesus! What in the name of God is happening in this country? Where can you get away from it?”

“Not here,” I said, picking up my bag. “Thanks for the drink…and good luck.”

He grabbed my arm, urging me to have another, but I said I was overdue at the Press Club and hustled off to get my act together for the awful spectacle. At the airport newsstand I picked up a Courier-Journal and scanned the front page headlines: “Nixon Sends GI’s into Cambodia to Hit Reds”… “B-52’s Raid, then 20,000 GI’s Advance 20 Miles”… “4,000 U.S. Troops Deployed Near Yale as Tension Grows Over Panther Protest.” At the bottom of the page was a photo of Diane Crump, soon to become the first woman jockey ever to ride in the Kentucky Derby. The photographer had snapped her “stopping in the barn area to fondle her mount, Fathom.” The rest of the paper was spotted with ugly war news and stories of “student unrest.” There was no mention of any trouble brewing at a university in Ohio called Kent State.

I went to the Hertz desk to pick up my car, but the moon-faced young swinger in charge said they didn’t have any. “You can’t rent one anywhere,” he assured me. “Our Derby reservations have been booked for six weeks.” I explained that my agent had confirmed a white Chrysler convertible for me that very afternoon but he shook his head. “Maybe we’ll have a cancellation. Where are you staying?”

I shrugged. “Where’s the Texas crowd staying? I want to be with my people.”

He sighed. “My friend, you’re in trouble. This town is flat full. Always is, for the Derby.”

I leaned closer to him, half-whispering: “Look, I’m from Playboy. How would you like a job?”

He backed off quickly. “What? Come on, now. What kind of a job?”

“Never mind,” I said. “You just blew it.” I swept my bag off the counter and went to find a cab. The bag is a valuable prop in this kind of work; mine has a lot of baggage tags on it–SF, LA, NY, Lima, Rome, Bangkok, that sort of thing–and the most prominent tag of all is a very official, plastic-coated thing that says “Photog. Playboy Mag.” I bought it from a pimp in Vail, Colorado, and he told me how to use it. “Never mention Playboy until you’re sure they’ve seen this thing first,” he said. “Then, when you see them notice it, that’s the time to strike. They’ll go belly up every time. This thing is magic, I tell you. Pure magic.”

Well…maybe so. I’d used it on the poor geek in the bar, and now humming along in a Yellow Cab toward town, I felt a little guilty about jangling the poor bugger’s brains with that evil fantasy. But what the hell? Anybody who wanders around the world saying, “Hell yes, I’m from Texas,” deserves whatever happens to him. And he had, after all, come here once again to make a nineteenth-century ass of himself in the midst of some jaded, atavistic freakout with nothing to recommend it except a very saleable “tradition.” Early in our chat, Jimbo had told me that he hadn’t missed a Derby since 1954. “The little lady won’t come anymore,” he said. “She grits her teeth and turns me loose for this one. And when I say ‘loose’ I do mean loose! I toss ten-dollar bills around like they were goin’ out of style! Horses, whiskey, women…shit, there’s women in this town that’ll do anything for money.”

Why not? Money is a good thing to have in these twisted times. Even Richard Nixon is hungry for it. Only a few days before the Derby he said, “If I had any money I’d invest it in the stock market.” And the market, meanwhile, continued its grim slide.

***

The next day was heavy. With only thirty hours until post time I had no press credentials and–according to the sports editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal–no hope at all of getting any. Worse, I needed two sets: one for myself and another for Ralph Steadman, the English illustrator who was coming from London to do some Derby drawings. All I knew about him was that this was his first visit to the United States. And the more I pondered the fact, the more it gave me fear. How would he bear up under the heinous culture shock of being lifted out of London and plunged into the drunken mob scene at the Kentucky Derby? There was no way of knowing. Hopefully, he would arrive at least a day or so ahead, and give himself time to get acclimated. Maybe a few hours of peaceful sightseeing in the Bluegrass country around Lexington. My plan was to pick him up at the airport in the huge Pontiac Ballbuster I’d rented from a used-car salesman named Colonel Quick, then whisk him off to some peaceful setting that might remind him of England.

Colonel Quick had solved the car problem, and money (four times the normal rate) had bought two rooms in a scumbox on the outskirts of town. The only other kink was the task of convincing the moguls at Churchill Downs that Scanlan’swas such a prestigious sporting journal that common sense compelled them to give us two sets of the best press tickets. This was not easily done. My first call to the publicity office resulted in total failure. The press handler was shocked at the idea that anyone would be stupid enough to apply for press credentials two days before the Derby. “Hell, you can’t be serious,” he said. “The deadline was two months ago. The press box is full; there’s no more room…and what the hell is Scanlan’s Monthly anyway?”

I uttered a painful groan. “Didn’t the London office call you? They’re flying an artist over to do the paintings. Steadman. He’s Irish. I think. Very famous over there. Yes. I just got in from the Coast. The San Francisco office told me we were all set.”

He seemed interested, and even sympathetic, but there was nothing he could do. I flattered him with more gibberish, and finally he offered a compromise: he could get us two passes to the clubhouse grounds but the clubhouse itself and especially the press box were out of the question.

“That sounds a little weird,” I said. “It’s unacceptable. We must have access to everything. All of it. The spectacle, the people, the pageantry and certainly the race. You don’t think we came all this way to watch the damn thing on television, do you? One way or another we’ll get inside. Maybe we’ll have to bribe a guard–or even Mace somebody.” (I had picked up a spray can of Mace in a downtown drugstore for $5.98 and suddenly, in the midst of that phone talk, I was struck by the hideous possibilities of using it out at the track. Macing ushers at the narrow gates to the clubhouse inner sanctum, then slipping quickly inside, firing a huge load of Mace into the governor’s box, just as the race starts. Or Macing helpless drunks in the clubhouse restroom, for their own good…)

By noon on Friday I was still without press credentials and still unable to locate Steadman. For all I knew he’d changed his mind and gone back to London. Finally, after giving up on Steadman and trying unsuccessfully to reach my man in the press office, I decided my only
hope for credentials was to go out to the track and confront the man in person, with no warning–demanding only one pass now, instead of two, and talking very fast with a strange lilt in my voice, like a man trying hard to control some inner frenzy. On the way out, I stopped at the motel desk to cash a check. Then, as a useless afterthought, I asked if by any wild chance a Mr. Steadman had checked in.

The lady on the desk was about fifty years old and very peculiar- looking; when I mentioned Steadman’s name she nodded, without looking up from whatever she was writing, and said in a low voice, “You bet he did.” Then she favored me with a big smile. “Yes, indeed. Mr. Steadman just left for the racetrack. Is he a friend of yours?”

I shook my head. “I’m supposed to be working with him, but I don’t even know what he looks like. Now, goddammit, I’ll have to find him in the mob at the track.”

She chuckled. “You won’t have any trouble finding him. You could pick that man out of any crowd.”

“Why?” I asked. “What’s wrong with him? What does he look like?”

“Well…” she said, still grinning, “he’s the funniest looking thing I’ve seen in a long time. He has this…ah…this growth all over his face. As a matter of fact it’s all over his head.” She nodded. “You’ll know him when you see him; don’t worry about that.”

Creeping Jesus, I thought. That screws the press credentials. I had a vision of some nerve-rattling geek all covered with matted hair and string-warts showing up in the press office and demanding Scanlan’s press packet. Well…what the hell? We could always load up on acid and spend the day roaming around the clubhouse grounds with bit sketch pads, laughing hysterically at the natives and swilling mint juleps so the cops wouldn’t think we’re abnormal. Perhaps even make the act pay; set up an easel with a big sign saying, “Let a Foreign Artist Paint Your Portrait, $10 Each. Do It NOW!”

***

I took the expressway out to the track, driving very fast and jumping the monster car back and forth between lanes, driving with a beer in one hand and my mind so muddled that I almost crushed a Volkswagen full of nuns when I swerved to catch the right exit. There was a slim chance, I thought, that I might be able to catch the ugly Britisher before he checked in.

But Steadman was already in the press box when I got there, a bearded young Englishman wearing a tweed coat and RAF sunglasses. There was nothing particularly odd about him. No facial veins or clumps of bristly warts. I told him about the motel woman’s description and he seemed puzzled. “Don’t let it bother you,” I said. “Just keep in mind for the next few days that we’re in Louisville, Kentucky. Not London. Not even New York. This is a weird place. You’re lucky that mental defective at the motel didn’t jerk a pistol out of the cash register and blow a big hole in you.” I laughed, but he looked worried.

“Just pretend you’re visiting a huge outdoor loony bin,” I said. “If the inmates get out of control we’ll soak them down with Mace.” I showed him the can of “Chemical Billy,” resisting the urge to fire it across the room at a rat-faced man typing diligently in the Associated Press section. We were standing at the bar, sipping the management’s Scotch and congratulating each other on our sudden, unexplained luck in picking up two sets of fine press credentials. The lady at the desk had been very friendly to him, he said. “I just told her my name and she gave me the whole works.”

By midafternoon we had everything under control. We had seats looking down on the finish line, color TV and a free bar in the press room, and a selection of passes that would take us anywhere from the clubhouse roof to the jockey room. The only thing we lacked was unlimited access to the clubhouse inner sanctum in sections “F&G”…and I felt we needed that, to see the whiskey gentry in action. The governor, a swinish neo-Nazi hack named Louis Nunn, would be in “G,” along with Barry Goldwater and Colonel Sanders. I felt we’d be legal in a box in “G” where we could rest and sip juleps, soak up a bit of atmosphere and the Derby’s special vibrations.

The bars and dining rooms are also in “F&G,” and the clubhouse bars on Derby Day are a very special kind of scene. Along with the politicians, society belles and local captains of commerce, every half-mad dingbat who ever had any pretensions to anything at all within five hundred miles of Louisville will show up there to get strutting drunk and slap a lot of backs and generally make himself obvious. The Paddock bar is probably the best place in the track to sit and watch faces. Nobody minds being stared at; that’s what they’re in there for. Some people spend most of their time in the Paddock; they can hunker down at one of the many wooden tables, lean back in a comfortable chair and watch the ever-changing odds flash up and down on the big tote board outside the window. Black waiters in white serving jackets move through the crowd with trays of drinks, while the experts ponder their racing forms and the hunch bettors pick lucky numbers or scan the lineup for right-sounding names. There is a constant flow of traffic to and from the pari-mutuel windows outside in the wooden corridors. Then, as post time nears, the crowd thins out as people go back to their boxes.

Clearly, we were going to have to figure out some way to spend more time in the clubhouse tomorrow. But the “walkaround” press passes to F&G were only good for thirty minutes at a time, presumably to allow the newspaper types to rush in and out for photos or quick interviews, but to prevent drifters like Steadman and me from spending all day in

the clubhouse, harassing the gentry and rifling the odd handbag or two while cruising around the boxes. Or Macing the governor. The time limit was no problem on Friday, but on Derby Day the walkaround passes would be in heavy demand. And since it took about ten minutes to get from the press box to the Paddock, and ten more minutes to get back, that didn’t leave much time for serious people-watching. And unlike most of the others in the press box, we didn’t give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track. We had come there to watch the real beasts perform.

***

Later Friday afternoon, we went out on the balcony of the press box and I tried to describe the difference between what we were seeing today and what would be happening tomorrow. This was the first time I’d been to a Derby in ten years, but before that, when I lived in Louisville, I used to go every year. Now, looking down from the press box, I pointed to the huge grassy meadow enclosed by the track. “That whole thing,” I said, “will be jammed with people; fifty thousand or so, and most of them staggering drunk. It’s a fantastic scene–thousands of people fainting, crying, copulating, trampling each other and fighting with broken whiskey bottles. We’ll have to spend some time out there, but it’s hard to move around, too many bodies.”

“Is it safe out there?” Will we ever come back?”

“Sure,” I said. “We’ll just have to be careful not to step on anybody’s stomach and start a fight.” I shrugged. “Hell, this clubhouse scene right below us will be almost as bad as the infield. Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and angrier as they lose more and more money. By midafternoon they’ll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomitting on each other between races. The whole place will be jammed with bodies, shoulder to shoulder. It’s hard to move around. The aisles will be slick with vomit; people falling down and grabbing at your legs to keep from being stomped. Drunks pissing on themselves in the betting lines. Dropping handfuls of money and fighting to stoop over and pick it up.”

He looked so nervous that I laughed. “I’m just kidding,” I said. “Don’t worry. At the first hint of trouble I’ll start pumping this ‘Chemical Billy’ into the crowd.”

He had done a few good sketches, but so far we hadn’t seen that special kind of face that I felt we would need for a lead drawing. It was a face I’d seen a thousand times at every Derby I’d ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry–a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture. One of the key genetic rules in breeding dogs, horses or any other kind of thoroughbred is that close inbreeding tends to magnify the weak points in a bloodline as well as the strong points. In horse breeding, for instance, there is a definite risk in breeding two fast horses who are both a little crazy. The offspring will likely be very fast and also very crazy. So the trick in breeding thoroughbreds is to retain the good traits and filter out the bad. But the breeding of humans is not so wisely supervised, particularly in a narrow Southern society where the closest kind of inbreeding is not only stylish and acceptable, but far more convenient–to the parents–than setting their offspring free to find their own mates, for their own reasons and in their own ways. (“Goddam, did you hear about Smitty’s daughter? She went crazy in Boston last week and married a nigger!”)

So the face I was trying to find in Churchill Downs that weekend was a symbol, in my own mind, of the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.

On our way back to the motel after Friday’s races I warned Steadman about some of the other problems we’d have to cope with. Neither of us had brought any strange illegal drugs, so we would have to get by on booze. “You should keep in mind,” I said, “that almost everybody you talk to from now on will be drunk. People who seem very pleasant at first might suddenly swing at you for no reason at all.” He nodded, staring straight ahead. He seemed to be getting a little numb and I tried to cheer him up by inviting to dinner that night, with my brother.

Back at the motel we talked for awhile about America, the South, England–just relaxing a bit before dinner. There was no way either of us could have known, at the time, that it would be the last normal conversation we would have. From that point on, the weekend became a vicious, drunken nightmare. We both went completely to pieces. The main problem was my prior attachment to Louisville, which naturally led to meetings with old friends, relatives, etc., many of whom were in the process of falling apart, going mad, plotting divorces, cracking up under the strain of terrible debts or recovering from bad accidents. Right in the middle of the whole frenzied Derby action, a member of my own family had to be institutionalized. This added a certain amount of strain to the situation, and since poor Steadman had no choice but to take whatever came his way, he was subjected to shock after shock.

Another problem was his habit of sketching people he met in the various social situations I dragged him into–then giving them the sketches. The results were always unfortunate. I warned him several times about letting the subjects see his foul renderings, but for some perverse reason he kept doing it. Consequently, he was regarded with fear and loathing by nearly everyone who’d seen or even heard about his work. He couldn’t understand it. “It’s sort of a joke,” he kept saying. “Why, in England it’s quite normal. People don’t take offense. They understand that I’m just putting them on a bit.”

“Fuck England,” I said. “This is Middle America. These people regard what you’re doing to them as a brutal, bilious insult. Look what happened last night. I thought my brother was going to tear your head off.”

Steadman shook his head sadly. “But I liked him. He struck me as a very decent, straightforward sort.”

“Look, Ralph,” I said. “Let’s not kid ourselves. That was a very horrible drawing you gave him. It was the face of a monster. It got on his nerves very badly.” I shrugged. “Why in hell do you think we left the restaurant so fast?”

“I thought it was because of the Mace,” he said.

“What Mace?”

He grinned. “When you shot it at the headwaiter, don’t you remember?”

“Hell, that was nothing,” I said. “I missed him…and we were leaving, anyway.”

“But it got all over us,” he said. “The room was full of that damn gas. Your brother was sneezing was and his wife was crying. My eyes hurt for two hours. I couldn’t see to draw when we got back to the motel.”

“That’s right,” I said. “The stuff got on her leg, didn’t it?”

“She was angry,” he said.

“Yeah…well, okay…Let’s just figure we fucked up about equally on that one,” I said. “But from now on let’s try to be careful when we’re around people I know. You won’t sketch them and I won’t Mace them. We’ll just try to relax and get drunk.”

“Right,” he said. “We’ll go native.”

***

It was Saturday morning, the day of the Big Race, and we were having breakfast in a plastic hamburger palace called the Fish-Meat Village. Our rooms were just across the road in the Brown Suburban Hotel. They had a dining room, but the food was so bad that we couldn’t handle it anymore. The waitresses seemed to be suffering from shin splints; they moved around very slowly, moaning and cursing the “darkies” in the kitchen.

Steadman liked the Fish-Meat place because it had fish and chips. I preferred the “French toast,” which was really pancake batter, fried to the proper thickness and then chopped out with a sort of cookie cutter to resemble pieces of toast.

Beyond drink and lack of sleep, our only real problem at that point was the question of access to the clubhouse. Finally, we decided to go ahead and steal two passes, if necessary, rather than miss that part of the action. This was the last coherent decision we were able to make for the next forty-eight hours. From that point on–almost from the very moment we started out to the track–we lost all control of events and spent the rest of the weekend churning around in a sea of drunken horrors. My notes and recollections from Derby Day are somewhat scrambled.

But now, looking at the big red notebook I carried all through that scene, I see more or less what happened. The book itself is somewhat mangled and bent; some of the pages are torn, others are shriveled and stained by what appears to be whiskey, but taken as a whole, with sporadic memory flashes, the notes seem to tell the story. To wit:

***

Rain all nite until dawn. No sleep. Christ, here we go, a nightmare of mud and madness…But no. By noon the sun burns through–perfect day, not even humid.

Steadman is now worried about fire. Somebody told him about the clubhouse catching on fire two years ago. Could it happen again? Horrible. Trapped in the press box. Holocaust. A hundred thousand people fighting to get out. Drunks screaming in the flames and the mud, crazed horses running wild. Blind in the smoke. Grandstand collapsing into the flames with us on the roof. Poor Ralph is about to crack. Drinking heavily, into the Haig & Haig.

Out to the track in a cab, avoid that terrible parking in people’s front yards, $25 each, toothless old men on the street with big signs: PARK HERE, flagging cars in the yard. “That’s fine, boy, never mind the tulips.” Wild hair on his head, straight up like a clump of reeds.

Sidewalks full of people all moving in the same direction, towards Churchill Downs. Kids hauling coolers and blankets, teenyboppers in tight pink shorts, many blacks…black dudes in white felt hats with leopard-skin bands, cops waving traffic along.

The mob was thick for many blocks around the track; very slow going in the crowd, very hot. On the way to the press box elevator, just inside

the clubhouse, we came on a row of soldiers all carrying long white riot sticks. About two platoons, with helmets. A man walking next to us said they were waiting for the governor and his party. Steadman eyed them nervously. “Why do they have those clubs?”

“Black Panthers,” I said. Then I remembered good old “Jimbo” at the airport and I wondered what he was thinking right now. Probably very nervous; the place was teeming with cops and soldiers. We pressed on through the crowd, through many gates, past the paddock where the jockeys bring the horses out and parade around for a while before each
race so the bettors can get a good look. Five million dollars will be bet today. Many winners, more losers. What the hell. The press gate was jammed up with people trying to get in, shouting at the guards, waving strange press badges: Chicago Sporting Times, Pittsburgh Police Athletic League…they were all turned away. “Move on, fella, make way for the working press.” We shoved through the crowd and into the elevator, then quickly up to the free bar. Why not? Get it on. Very hot today, not feeling well, must be this rotten climate. The press box was cool and airy, plenty of room to walk around and balcony seats for watching the race or looking down at the crowd. We got a betting sheet and went outside.

***

Pink faces with a stylish Southern sag, old Ivy styles, seersucker coats and buttondown collars. “Mayblossom Senility” (Steadman’s phrase)…burnt out early or maybe just not much to burn in the first place. Not much energy in the faces, not much curiosity. Suffering in silence, nowhere to go after thirty in this life, just hang on and humor the children. Let the young enjoy themselves while they can. Why not?

The grim reaper comes early in this league…banshees on the lawn at night, screaming out there beside that little iron nigger in jockey clothes. Maybe he’s the one who’s screaming. Bad DT’s and too many snarls at the bridge club. Going down with the stock market. Oh Jesus, the kid has wrecked the new car, wrapped it around the big stone pillar at the bottom of the driveway. Broken leg? Twisted eye? Send him off to Yale, they can cure anything up there.

Yale? Did you see today’s paper? New Haven is under siege. Yale is swarming with Black Panthers…I tell you, Colonel, the world has gone mad, stone mad. Why, they tell me a goddam woman jockey might ride in the Derby today.

I left Steadman sketching in the Paddock bar and went off to place our bets on the fourth race. When I came back he was staring intently at a group of young men around a table not far away. “Jesus, look at the corruption in that face!” he whispered. “Look at the madness, the fear, the greed!” I looked, then quickly turned my back on the table he was sketching. The face he’d picked out to draw was the face of an old friend of mine, a prep school football star in the good old days with a sleek red Chevy convertible and a very quick hand, it was said, with the snaps of a 32 B brassiere. They called him “Cat Man.”

But now, a dozen years later, I wouldn’t have recognized him anywhere but here, where I should have expected to find him, in the Paddock bar on Derby Day…fat slanted eyes and a pimp’s smile, blue silk suit and his friends looking like crooked bank tellers on a binge…

Steadman wanted to see some Kentucky Colonels, but he wasn’t sure what they looked like. I told him to go back to the clubhouse men’s rooms and look for men in white linen suits vomitting in the urinals. “They’ll usually have large brown whiskey stains on the front of their suits,” I said. “But watch the shoes, that’s the tip-off. Most of them manage to avoid vomitting on their own clothes, but they never miss their shoes.”

In a box not far from ours was Colonel Anna Friedman Goldman, Chairman and Keeper of the Great Seal of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels. Not all the 76 million or so Kentucky Colonels could make it to the Derby this year, but many had kept the faith, and several days prior to the Derby they gathered for their annual dinner at the Seelbach Hotel.

The Derby, the actual race, was scheduled for late afternoon, and as the magic hour approached I suggested to Steadman that we should probably spend some time in the infield, that boiling sea of people across the track from the clubhouse. He seemed a little nervous about it, but since none of the awful things I’d warned him about had happened so far–no race riots, firestorms or savage drunken attacks–he shrugged and said, “Right, let’s do it.”

To get there we had to pass through many gates, each one a step down in status, then through a tunnel under the track. Emerging from the tunnel was such a culture shock that it took us a while to adjust. “God almighty!” Steadman muttered. “This is a…Jesus!” He plunged ahead with his tiny camera, stepping over bodies, and I followed, trying to take notes.

***

Total chaos, no way to see the race, not even the track…nobody cares. Big lines at the outdoor betting windows, then stand back to watch winning numbers flash on the big board, like a giant bingo game.

Old blacks arguing about bets; “Hold on there, I’ll handle this” (waving pint of whiskey, fistful of dollar bills); girl riding piggyback, T-shirt says, “Stolen from Fort Lauderdale Jail.” Thousands of teen-agers, group singing “Let the Sun Shine In,” ten soldiers guarding the American flag and a huge fat drunk wearing a blue football jersey (No. 80) reeling around with quart of beer in hand.

No booze sold out here, too dangerous…no bathrooms either. Muscle Beach…Woodstock…many cops with riot sticks, but no sign of a riot. Far across the track the clubhouse looks like a postcard from the Kentucky Derby.

***

We went back to the clubhouse to watch the big race. When the crowd stood to face the flag and sing “My Old Kentucky Home,” Steadman faced the crowd and sketched frantically. Somewhere up in the boxes a voice screeched, “Turn around, you hairy freak!” The race itself was only two minutes long, and even from our super-status seats and using 12-power glasses, there was no way to see what really happened to our horses. Holy Land, Ralph’s choice, stumbled and lost his jockey in the final turn. Mine, Silent Screen, had the lead coming into the stretch but faded to fifth at the finish. The winner was a 16-1 shot named Dust Commander.

Moments after the race was over, the crowd surged wildly for the exits, rushing for cabs and busses. The next day’s Courier told of violence in the parking lot; people were punched and trampled, pockets were picked, children lost, bottles hurled. But we missed all this, having retired to the press box for a bit of post-race drinking. By this time we were both half-crazy from too much whiskey, sun fatigue, culture shock, lack of sleep and general dissolution. We hung around the press box long enough to watch a mass interview with the winning owner, a dapper little man named Lehmann who said he had just flown into Louisville that morning from Nepal, where he’d “bagged a record tiger.” The sportswriters murmured their admiration and a waiter filled Lehmann’s glass with Chivas Regal. He had just won $127,000 with a horse that cost him $6,500 two years ago. His occupation, he said, was “retired contractor.” And then he added, with a big grin, “I just retired.”

The rest of the day blurs into madness. The rest of that night too. And all the next day and night. Such horrible things occurred that I can’t bring myself even to think about them now, much less put them down in print. I was lucky to get out at all. One of my clearest memories of that vicious time is Ralph being attacked by one of my old friends in the billiard room of the Pendennis Club in downtown Louisville on Saturday night. The man had ripped his own shirt open to the waist before deciding that Ralph was after his wife. No blows were struck, but the emotional effects were massive. Then, as a sort of final horror, Steadman put his fiendish pen to work and tried to patch things up by doing a little sketch of the girl he’d been accused of hustling. That finished us in the Pedennis.

***

Sometime around ten-thirty Monday morning I was awakened by a scratching sound at my door. I leaned out of bed and pulled the curtain back just far enough to see Steadman outside. “What the fuck do you want?” I shouted.

“What about having breakfast?” he said.

I lunged out of bed and tried to open the door, but it caught on the night-chain and banged shut again. I couldn’t cope with the chain! The thing wouldn’t come out of the track–so I ripped it out of the wall with a vicious jerk on the door. Ralph didn’t blink. “Bad luck,” he
muttered.

I could barely see him. My eyes were swollen almost shut and the sudden burst of sunlight through the door left me stunned and helpless like a sick mole. Steadman was mumbling about sickness and terrible heat; I fell back on the bed and tried to focus on him as he moved around the room in a very distracted way for a few moments, then suddenly darted over to the beer bucket and seized a Colt .45.

“Christ,” I said. “You’re getting out of control.”

He nodded and ripped the cap off, taking a long drink. “You know, this is really awful,” he said finally. “I must get out of this place…” he shook his head nervously. “The plane leaves at three-thirty, but I don’t know if I’ll make it.”

I barely heard him. My eyes had finally opened enough for me to foucs on the mirror across the room and I was stunned at the shock of recognition. For a confused instant I thought that Ralph had brought somebody with him–a model for that one special face we’d been looking for. There he was, by God–a puffy, drink-ravaged, disease-ridden caricature…like an awful cartoon version of an old snapshot in some once-proud mother’s family photo album. It was the face we’d been looking for–and it was, of course, my own. Horrible, horrible…

“Maybe I should sleep a while longer,” I said. “Why don’t you go on over to the Fish-Meat place and eat some of those rotten fish and chips? Then come back and get me around noon. I feel too near death to hit the streets at this hour.”

He shook his head. “No…no…I think I’ll go back upstairs and work on those drawings for a while.” He leaned down to fetch two more cans out of the beer bucket. “I tried to work earlier,” he said, “but my hands kept trembling…It’s teddible, teddible.”

“You’ve got to stop this drinking,” I said.

He nodded. “I know. This is no good, no good at all. But for some reason it makes me feel better…”

“Not for long,” I said. “You’ll probably collapse into some kind of hysterical DT’s tonight–probably just about the time you get off the plane at Kennedy. They’ll zip you up in a straightjacket and drag you down to The Tombs, then beat you on the kidneys with big sticks until you straighten out.”

He shrugged and wandered out, pulling the door shut behind him. I went back to bed for another hour or so, and later–after the daily grapefruit juice run to the Nite Owl Food Mart–we had our last meal at Fish-Meat Village: a fine lunch of dough and butcher’s offal, fried in heavy grease.

By this time Ralph wouldn’t order coffee; he kept asking for more water. “It’s the only thing they have that’s fit for human consumption,” he explained. Then, with an hour or so to kill before he had to catch the plane, we spread his drawings out on the table and pondered them for a while, wondering if he’d caught the proper spirit of the thing…but we couldn’t make up our minds. His hands were shaking so badly that he had trouble holding the paper, and my vision was so blurred that I could barely see what he’d drawn. “Shit,” I said. “We both look worse than anything you’ve drawn here.”

He smiled. “You know–I’ve been thinking about that,” he said. “We came down here to see this teddible scene: people all pissed out of their minds and vomitting on themselves and all that…and now, you know what? It’s us…”

***

Huge Pontiac Ballbuster blowing through traffic on the expressway.

A radio news bulletin says the National Guard is massacring students at Kent State and Nixon is still bombing Cambodia. The journalist is driving, ignoring his passenger who is now nearly naked after taking off most of his clothing, which he holds out the window, trying to wind-wash the Mace out of it. His eyes are bright red and his face and chest are soaked with beer he’s been using to rinse the awful chemical off his flesh. The front of his woolen trousers is soaked with vomit; his body is racked with fits of coughing and wild chocking sobs. The journalist rams the big car through traffic and into a spot in front of the terminal, then he reaches over to open the door on the passenger’s side and shoves the Englishman out, snarling: “Bug off, you worthless faggot! You twisted pigfucker! [Crazed laughter.] If I weren’t sick I’d kick your ass all the way to Bowling Green–you scumsucking foreign geek. Mace is too good for you…We can do without your kind in Kentucky.”

***

kyderby1

Joseph Farley

Quarantine Blues

It was fifteen days into a statewide lockdown for the Covid 19 virus. I was at home doing nothing much, just like everyone else. That’s what a lockdown is. Save lives. Offer up your boredom and your job and your 401 K for the sake of the greater good. It was still too soon to see if it was working. One could only hope.

The phone rang. It was my sister Claire. We had been checking up on each other a couple times a week, partly out of concern, partly out of the need to have someone to talk with. We were both living in Pennsylvania at the time but on opposite sides of the state. I was in Philadelphia, a fairly large city in the southeastern corner of the state, while she was in Canton, a town of five thousands in the mountains of northwestern Pennsylvania. It was five hour drive one way to her house.

“How’s it going Claire.”

“Okay. Still alive. How about you Dan?”

“Same here. Healthy. A little dull. Only so much TV you can watch.”

“I’m okay with the TV, but I need cigarettes. All the stores around here have run out of tobacco. There have been no shipments for a week.”

“Might be a good time to quit. I hear the death rate is higher for people who smoke.”

Claire laughed, “That’s a reason to smoke even more.”

Gallows humor. We had both gotten that from our father. The darker the better.

“I could send you cigarettes, but I don’t know if you’re allowed to mail them.”

“I guess I’ll have to drive to West Virginia on a mercy run for me and my neighbors. That’s if the state police will let me cross the border. I heard this morning they’re stopping cars and having them fill out forms to prove they’re ‘essential’, otherwise your not supposed to be on the road.”

“What happens if you’re not essential?”

“That’s not clear. A fine? A scolding?”

“Maybe they make you move to Ohio.”

She laughed again, “No one would be that cruel. I guess I’ll just go crazy then. There’s no hard liquor in Canton either. Stores shut down. Just beer. Thank God for beer. Without booze this town will explode.”

“I have beer in the fridge leftover from Christmas. Haven’t opened a bottle since the lockdown began.”

“That’s because you’re a prude. Always have been. That’s why mom liked you.”

“She didn’t like me. She liked Henry.”

Henry is our baby brother.

“That’s true,” Claire said. “Everyone loves Henry. I owe him a call.”

“So do I.”

We said that, but both pretty much knew Henry might not get a call from either of us.

“The biggest problem here is cat litter,” Claire said. “I’ve run out and there’s none in town.”

“Do you still have five cats?”

“They keep me warm at night.”

My sister the cat lady.

“Is there anything else you can use for litter?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it.”

I thought for a moment.

“Shredded newspapers? Back when I had a cat that’s what I used when I ran out of litter.”

“Canton doesn’t have a newspaper. Just a digital bulletin that comes out once a week, sent to your email account.”

“Maybe you could pick up cigarette butts from the sidewalk? Or ask friends for the contents of their ash trays? You might even find some leftover tobacco, enough to fill a pipe.”

“Right. Like I’m going to do that.”

“Any other ideas?”

“None.”

There was no easy solution. I tried to make light of it.

“I guess I could send you cat litter. But I could only fit so much in an envelope. It would take a lot of envelopes to fill a box.”

“I have three litter boxes for my cats. Send a few bags.”

“That’s a lot of postage. Is there anything you can get from a dollar store to fill the need?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Pancake mix? Oatmeal? Breakfast cereal. Have you ever tried dollar store breakfast cereal? Tastes awful. Might as well use it as cat litter.”

“You just need to add sugar and it tastes fine.”

“If you don’t mind the absence of food value.”

Silence.

“Some people eat what they can afford.”

Ouch. I thought. I’ll have to send her another check. It had been months since I sent her the last one. My baby brother Henry and I did that from time to time. Claire had a long run of bad luck exacerbated by an even longer run of bad choices. It wasn’t like Henry or me were doing great, but, in comparison with Claire we had nothing to complain about.

“Well, I’m out of ideas,” I said. “You’ll just have to think of something to use as cat litter.”

“I guess I could shred my old tax records,” Claire suggested.

“You’d need a lot of tax records. You use the EZ form, right?”

“Yeah, but I’ve got like ten years of records in the garage.”

“Uncle Sam to the rescue.”

“Maybe that will cover this week. Next week I’ll have to think of something else.”

I thought for a moment.

“What happened to your romance novel collection?”

“It was no collection. Just a few books. I gave them away.”

“What for?”

“A friend needed something for her gerbil cage.”

“Okay. You’ll have to take it one week at a time.”

“I think we’re all doing that.”

“Amen, sister.”

Joseph Farley

Thank You For Riding

It was February 2020. The corona virus, CoVid 19, was a time bomb that had gone off in Wuhan. It was not yet a major event in the United States, but we were aware of it and knew it was coming for us. It was also flu season, and just damn cold. The wind was blowing in gusts above ten miles an hour, and a persistent light rain was doing its best to make everyone at the Frankford Transportation Center miserable. I got off the El and immediately remembered I had not dressed warm enough. The weather had given me notice initially the moment I left the building in Center City where I worked. The crowded El had been a respite from the weather. Now I was back in it again.

My dollar store umbrella was broken. It had been good for two storms. I had learned the hard way that more expensive umbrellas did not necessarily last longer, so I stuck with the cheap ones. Sometimes things break and you’re just out of luck, no matter what you’ve paid. I scurried with the crowd down the stairs and out to where the buses and trolleys waited. There was a Route 66 trackless trolley waiting. SEPTA, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority, ran the trolley in two loops at peak hours: short run between the Frankford Transportation Center and Cottman Avenue, and an express that had its first stop at Cottman then ran north to the end of the City. I needed the express.

There was an overhang to keep the rain off waiting passengers, but that space was already filled. I stood in the cold drizzle. The normal variety of passengers were waiting. Old, young, disabled. Male, female, fill in the blank. There was always a subgroup off to the side selling or smoking weed or stronger stuff. There’s always the few who stare death at you if glance at them doing their business. There’s always a few passengers that look, act and give out the feel that they’re on their way back to one of the residential and semi-residential rehab centers and halfway houses that dot the area.

One guy with a beard and a green army jacket was bouncing up and down, possibly to keep warm, possibly out of habit. He was a few feet away from me, but I could smell him, even in the rain. It was bad, but not overwhelming. I had smelled worse on the El, which was nicknamed by some “the homeless hotel” or “the hotel on wheels.” Homeless people who had begged a fair staked out a seat, sprawled, and road all day and almost all might, with dirty blankets covering them, even their heads, a potential reservoir for contagions, a certain source of foul odors.

The driver came and opened the door. He sat in the driver’s seat and watched people as they boarded. A relatively clean looking guy in old clothes, with a beaten down, weary look, that rang out rehab or half way house, asked the driver, “Do you stop at Frankford and Magee?”

The driver nodded.

The guy got on, paid his fair, and made me think, they must have a rehab place near Magee Street now. It didn’t surprise me. Rehab, halfway houses, methadone clinics. They were a growth industry in the area, along with store front churches and massage parlors.

The guy in the army jacket kept bouncing up and down, shivering, but oblivious to the trolley and its open doors. There were a number of people including myself, waiting for the express, so I figured he must be going farther north than Cottman,

The trolley was nearly filled. The driver called out, “Anyone else? Local to Cottman. Pulling out soon.”

Mr. Army jacket woke up and went over to the door.

“Do you stop at Magee?”

The driver looked at him and shook his head, “No I don’t.”

The driver shut the doors, and was getting ready to leave. I looked at Mr. Army jacket shivering and bouncing. I knew it would be twenty minutes until the next local. The guy was not dressed as warm as I was. He already looked sick. He was going to get worse. Hell, even I was starting to feel sick standing in the cold wind and rain.

I walked over to Mr. Army jacket. “Hey,” I said. “I think the driver misunderstood. That’s a local to Cottman Avenue. It stops at Magee.”

“It does?”

He walked over to the trolley door with me. I banged on the door. The driver open the door.

“Hey, I think you misunderstood him earlier.” I gestured towards Mr. Army jacket. “He wants to go to Magee. This is a local to Cottman. It stops at Magee, right?”

The driver looked at me with a frown.

“Not for him.”

Mr. Army jacket said, “What?”

“Not for you. I’m not taking you.”

Mr. Army jacket reached in his pocket and pulled out a handful of coins.

“I’ve got money this time.”

The moment Mr. Army jacket said that, I wondered if I should have gotten involved. There was history here. Backstory that I didn’t know about.

The driver hesitated, but let Mr. Army jacket on. Mr. Army jacket dropped his coins into the fair box then went to find a seat. When he had gone the driver called out the door.

“Sir. Hey sir!”

I turned towards him. Our eyes met.

“Thanks a lot mister.” The driver looked angry. He took a small spray can off his belt and sprayed the floor next to the driver’s seat. “Thanks a lot.”

He closed the door. The trolley pulled out. I wondered, what was in that can? Was it air freshener? A comment on Mr. Army jacket’s natural perfume? Or was it mace? A threat?

I tried to memorize the trolley’s registration number to report the driver, but forgot it. I had other things on my mind by then. I was sick. Had felt it coming on while waiting in the rain for the express. After I got home and finished in the bathroom, all the details were gone. I just wanted to go to bed.

I could not remember the driver’s face so I didn’t know when I rode the 66 after that if he was ever the driver. No driver said anything to me about the incident after it happened. No driver did anything to dis me more than usual. I mean, there are always a few trolleys or buses that go by you when you’re waiting, pretend you’re not there or are moving too fast by the time they spot you that they can’t slow down. Who’s to say it was that guy or that he was worse than what you’d normally expect from SEPTA?

My father had taught me no good deed goes unpunished. A quote from somewhere, but to me it was my father talking. Did I do a good deed? Was I punished? Maybe the driver had to fumigate the trolley at the end of his run thanks to Mr. Army jacket. Maybe Mr. Army jacket coughed all over the passengers or shit or pissed himself in the back seat.

Maybe I did the right thing. Maybe I should have kept my head down and not gotten involved. It doesn’t matter now. So much sickness going around. So many places shut down. So few passengers on the trolley and El. Drivers and passengers put themselves at risk every day just to put food on table. And me? I work from home now. Non essential. Not like a trolley driver.

From my living room window I watch the 66 roll by my house on Frankford Avenue. Empty or close to it. Occasionally, I have to leave my house and take the 66 to the supermarket. Most people try to keep a safe distance. Some wear masks. The dealers no longer stand on the corner. They work out of parked cars. Wear disposable gloves. Everyone seems nicer, more polite, more considerate. Except to the homeless or dirty. They’re avoided more than ever.

There’s a supermarket near Frankford and Magee Street. Sometimes I shop there. But I also shop other places. I have not seen Mr. Army jacket since that night. I hope he’s okay. I hope everyone’s okay. The driver. Every driver. All the passengers. The dealers. The users. The homeless. First responders. Family. Friends. Coworkers. Me. Safe and warm and dry and well. At least until the governor says the emergency is over. After that we can go back to the way things were, all of us, and have fun being jerks again.

Joseph Fulkerson

A Six-Pack for Chinaski

It was around midnight when we pulled up to the hotel exhausted from the trip and ready to stretch our legs. “Let’s see if the bar’s still open,” I said dropping my luggage on the bed.

“I can go for a drink right about now,” Isaac said pulling a fag from his jacket pocket. “When’s closing time in Cali?”

“Hell if I know,” I said, “two or three maybe? We have plenty of time.”

Isaac and I go back a long way. We both grew up in church, but his dad was a preacher, or more accurately a traveling evangelist. So he was dragged to every tent revival and bible study in the tristate, expected to act like a cherubic faced saint. Services every Wednesday and twice on Sunday, and that’s not even including revivals. He had more than his fair share of altar calls and baptisms, withering in the humid summer air of a tent. Needless to say it was more than a disappointment when he decided not to take up the family business.

We both grew up in Kentucky where I still live, but he managed to make his way as far west as Phoenix. As a result we lost touch for a couple of years while I raised a couple kids and had a couple of marriages. That all changed last year when he showed up out of nowhere at a favorite watering hole of mine, and picked up right where we left off. It turns out we have the same mindset and opinions about our shitty jobs and our shitty lots in life. He took the road less traveled and I took the path of least resistance, yet we ended up at the same fucking place; empty shells searching for meaning out of a meaningless existence.

“This trip was fucking genius, Joe,” Isaac said, “I’ve meant to come to California since I moved out here, but never had the chance. It never felt like the right time.”
“I know man,” I said, “Fucking inspiration strikes sometimes.”

Over a series of whiskey fueled conversations, I decided to take a trip to Phoenix to try and jumpstart my writing. From there we rented a car and headed to San Pedro to visit the grave of one Charles Bukowski. We found a cheap hotel in Long Beach. Isaac puts out his smoke as we walk up to the entrance of the bar. I’m almost knocked over by a young man in a toga, painted face and glow sticks around his neck.

“Sorry,” he said.

Isaac shot me a look as we walked in.

“What the actual fuck?” I stopped in my tracks.

Inside we were immediately on the dance floor, along with about twenty couples salsa dancing. I’m not talking about the twerking you see any given Saturday night at the club; this was dancing. This was choreography between two people in sync with one another’s breathing and steps as if they were dancing as one. The whole place was reverberating with rhythm and song. The walls were pulsing energy. Sweat glistening on the foreheads and faces of the participants. It was glorious.

The bar was on the opposite side of the place and we hesitated to encroach on such a beautiful display. After a few moments, I found a hole and danced my way over and ordered a Jameson.

“Can you believe this?” Isaac walked up and hailed the bartender. “This is what I was talking about, man. I needed this. A total shock to the system.” Laughing he took a long pull from his draught beer.

“People go their entire miserable life in the same place, working the same mind-numbing job, fucking the same woman, and never pull their head out of their own ass long enough to see past their own fucking noses. That’s why there’s so much pent-up aggression. They’re so miserable they wouldn’t recognize happiness if it walked up and started giving out hand jobs. Bunch of zombies, the lot of them,” I said.

“To not being a zombie.” Isaac lifts his glass.

“To getting hand jobs,” I said downing the remainder of my whiskey.

Just then the song ended and a crowd came up to the bar and ordered. I ordered another Jameson and asked the bartender what was going on.

“Salsa lessons,” He said, “one Friday a month they teach a class and afterwards they dance. You boys timed it just right.” He turned and poured another beer.

“Indeed,” I said cheering to no one in particular.

As another song started, the woman standing beside me was pulled onto the dancefloor by a different fellow than she had been with before. I looked around for him, but he was on the other end of the floor also with a different partner. Even those watching participated in the dance, having just as much fun cheering them on. The sense of joy and happiness was contagious. There was no fighting it. I didn’t want to. All I could do was smile and take it all in. It went on like this for another hour, everyone dancing, laughing, sweating and moving to the rhythm. We had a few more drinks, then walked back to our room. As I lay there in the dark, the warm west coast air blowing through the palm trees, the anticipation of the trip, the rhythm of the music and the intertwined bodies all danced in my thoughts, lulling me into a sweet and satisfying slumber.

The next morning, we dressed and found the closest Denny’s to figure out our next steps. “I’ve been thinking, man.” Isaac pulled out a map. “Buk’s gravesite is in San Pedro, which is here. But did you know the liquor store he used to buy from is right here? Also, the apartment where he wrote a couple of his books is just a couple of blocks away. Dude we could walk in his fucking shoes for a day. Buy a six pack from the same store he did!”

I took another bite of my eggs and thought about it. How awesome would it be to check out the places this man went, try to get a feel for what he was like?

“Let’s do it,” I said, “we can pick up some beer to drink at his gravesite. Do it up right.”

With that, Isaac went to writing down the addresses and we finished our breakfast reflecting on the possibilities of the day.

We pulled into the lot of a gaudy pink building called the Pink Elephant liquor and grocery. I took a couple of photos and went inside while Isaac finished his smoke. I bought a large can of Lite beer and some Jameson and Isaac got a pint of vodka. We asked the clerk if he knew of Charles Bukowski, but to our chagrin he did not.

“The women, the jobs, the fights. All the stories and we’re actually here,” Isaac lights up another fag.

“It’s surreal man,” I said.

“He walked these streets. Breathed this air. Lived, fought and bled on these streets,” Isaac said.

I stood there looking for the right words to say when a sharp abdominal pain woke me from my daze.

“I have to take a shit!” I said.

I quickly crossed the street to the CVS pharmacy and found the bathroom locked. Panicked, I went up front and retrieved the key, barely making it to the bathroom before unloading. As I returned the key, I laughed to myself knowing Bukowski would’ve been proud of the piping hot beer shit I just took.

We spent the next couple of hours driving around L.A. taking in the sights and sounds of the city, trying to get a feel for what draws so many people here just to sleep on sidewalks and park benches and in tent cities. “They would rather chase their dreams and have nothing, less than that and sleep on the fucking streets than live a life of compromise,” Isaac said. “Meanwhile the rest of us sell our souls for a nice house with a two-car garage and a 401k. We work our whole lives chasing the unattainable, only to die of a fucking heart attack or eaten by cancer in some vital organ. What a sham.”

We pull up to Bukowski’s old apartment on De Longpre Ave and get out to take it all in.

“This is where the magic happened,” I pull out my camera and take a couple photos.

“You mean talent. He wasn’t a wizard, he was a writer,” Isaac said laughing.

“He’s a wizard if there ever was one,” I said walking into the courtyard.

On the second level of the apartment complex behind us, a beautiful woman walks out of an apartment followed by two men, one with a camera. He sets up as she strikes a pose. He takes a picture, then coaches her on the next pose. Again and again she strikes a pose, as Isaac looks on, and me frozen in that moment in time, just a snapshot of a life, with the bustle of the city humming all around us.

We make a stop at the post office where Bukowski worked all those years but was refused entry by the security guard, so we admired the architecture of the old building and was on our way. It was getting on in the evening, too late to visit the cemetery, so we went to the San Pedro fish market to grab some dinner. Isaac suggested we stop by 49ers Tavern, a place Bukowski drank occasionally. It was a little hole in the wall with some charm, but the previous owner had run the business into the ground and neglected to pay her employees. According to the bartender, a man the size of an oak tree, they were struggling to get the clientele back. After the nostalgia of sitting at the same bar that Buk did wore off, we choked down our beers and headed towards greener pastures.

“Let’s see what Long Beach has to offer,” Isaac pulls on his jacket and heads out the door. “That guy shooting pool said to head down to 2nd Street.”

“I’ll call a Lyft,” I said pulling out my phone. “There has to be more to the scene than this.”

We get to 2nd Street and pop into a place called Simmzy’s. A nice pub filled with enlightened souls with finer palates than I’m accustomed to.

“What’ll it be?” the bartender asks as he sets a coaster down.

I don’t know if it’s the rebel in me or me just being a fucking dick, but I never use the coaster or the napkin, or whatever else they want to put down. I want my drink to make contact with the bar.

“What kind of Bourbon ya got?” I said adjusting my stool.

“I’m not sure, let’s see.” The hesitation in his voice lets me know my choices will be limited.

“Do you have Jameson? How about an Old Irish.” I asked.

“Good choice,” he said handing Isaac his beer.

Always on the move, Isaac had gotten into the habit of asking the locals about the housing situation and the cost of living. He and the bartender talked at length on the subject, while I eavesdropped on the conversation going on behind me. I’ve heard it before. Hell, I’ve had the same conversation a few times in my life. You know the situation. They’re telling you something they’re going to do, and you both know it’s bullshit but you just nod and let them finish. The sad part is they truly want to believe, as if telling you would make it real. It’s human nature to be optimistic, a kind of defense mechanism against the harsh realities we’re dealt, but the reality is people rarely change. If given the opportunity, we would rather cling to what’s familiar, what’s safe. While society spoon feeds us a warmed over version of life, we’re so engorged on mediocrity, we never see what our life could be if we’d just take a chance.

We move on to Shannon’s Tavern and I’m starting to feel pretty good. The place is long and narrow and it’s shoulder to shoulder all the way. I grab a beer and head to the back of the bar. I’d lost Isaac by that point, but noticed some space around the pool table and posted up close by to take in the scene. I watched as a young man in a beanie won a couple games of pool. Enjoying the music, I finished my beer and stepped into the bathroom. While I’m finishing up at the urinal a couple people come in behind me. I zip up and turn around to see the pool shark in the beanie sniffing cocaine off the outstretched finger of a guy taking a piss in the toilet. I nodded, washed my hands and stepped out the door to find Isaac.

The next morning, we both felt pretty rough. I showered, we packed up all our shit and got ready to head back to Phoenix. After breakfast we stopped at a dispensary then we headed to Rancho Palos Verdes where Charles Bukowski is buried.

We pulled into Green Hills Memorial Park and much to our surprise it was a very well-kept cemetery. We went into the main office and inquired as to the whereabouts of the infamous author.

“Oh yes, I’d be happy to help.” A tall middle-aged man in a three piece suit led us into his office. Isaac and I exchanged looks before sitting. He asked us where we were from and what had brought us here. “We came to see the final resting place of one Charles Bukowski,” I said. “He owes me twenty dollars.”

“Do you get a lot of visitors for Bukowski?” Isaac asked.

“Why yes, yes we do. We’ve had some come as far way as Germany. He was really big in Europe,” the man mused. “We get them by the busloads. They go on a sort of pilgrimage, if you will. Stop at all the usual places.”

“That’s kind of what we did. We went to his old apartment, job, a liquor store and a bar he used to frequent,’’ Isaac said shifting in his seat.

“This is our last stop,’’ I said.

The gentleman gave us a short history of the place, along with details of a few other residents known or otherwise, and sent us on our way.

“Thank you for your help,” Isaac says as he takes a map of the grounds.

As we pull up, I notice a young woman walking amongst the plots.

“I bet she’s here for the same reason,’’ I said grabbing my beer and whiskey out of the backseat.

Henry “Hank” Charles Bukowski Jr., 1920-1994

The phrase “Don’t Try” with an image of a boxer

inscribed on the grave marker

It was a nice plot, nestled on the side of a hill that overlooks a valley with a small cathedral. Standing there in front of his grave, the warm sun on our backs and a nice breeze blowing, the words escaped us. It was a mutually recognized reverence for a man whose words meant so much to us, we didn’t dare cheapen the moment with our own.

Suddenly, the woman came back into view. She made her way over and came to stand next to us.

“Bukowski?” I asked.

“Yes, of course,” she said.

Her name was Michelle, she was originally from Illinois. She had moved to California a year before for college.

“I’ve been meaning to come here for a while but never made the time. I needed some inspiration today so I came,” she said.

“So did we,” we said.

We talked for a while about writing, finding inspiration, we talked of the man and his exploits and what he meant to us, and then she took her leave.

“To Chinaski,” I said taking a pull from my whiskey.

“Don’t try,” Isaac said as he downed some vodka.

Just then a young couple, arms around one another made their way over to pay their respects.

“Bukowski?’’ Isaac asked.

“Bukowski,” the man said.

Jason and Claire, originally from Tennessee, were big fans of his work. The whole Southeast was represented on this sunny California day. I took another long pull of whiskey then offered them some. They held it out to Bukowski for a moment, then each took a pull.

We talked for a while about nothing in particular, and when we ran out of things to talk about, we stood in silence. They said their goodbyes, then left Isaac and I standing alone once again. I poured out the remainder of the bottle and left the can of beer there as an offering. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and stood there for a moment with the sun, the chapel, and the wind-swept valley. I opened my eyes and made my way back to the car. As we drove back to Phoenix, we marveled at how this man and his writing had brought us all together on such a marvelous afternoon and what exactly it all meant.

Days later I was boarding my flight back home. As I waited, I reflected on the events of the last few days, filled with a renewed vigor. Tired but content. My horizons had been expanded. I felt as if something had been accomplished, that some wrong had been made right within me. And then, just as the plane left the tarmac, the people and places and conversations all still fresh in my mind, eager to get home and put into action all the things we’d discussed, suddenly my bowels were on fire once again.

Joseph Farley

Jumpers

I went through through the turnstile at the 8th Street Station for the Frankford-Market El. The El runs underground in the Center City section of Philadelphia, emerging north and west of downtown to ride on steel trestles to the ends of the line. I saw the crowd in the platform was bigger than usual. I hoped that they were just a lot of people like me who had left work early, but knew there was small chance of that. Yes, it was a Friday, but it was a normal Friday, not a holiday weekend. I stared down the tunnel searching for the lights of a train. There were none.

I saw the crowd was even bigger across the tracks on the westbound side. Equipment failure? It would not surprise me. SEPTA, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, also known as Schlepta and the Septic System, was notorious for frequent breakdowns. Be it bus, trolley, subway, El or regional rail, a rider had to rely on luck to get anywhere on time. A coworker, a fresh transplant from Virginia, had caught on quickly. Within a few months of moving to Philadelphia she began referring to SEPTA as “the bane of my existence.” This was when everyone knew she had become a true Philadelphian.

I leaned out over the track and took took another look down the tunnel. Still no lights. A loud horn blared. I heard the rumble of wheels. I stepped back just in time before getting my head clipped, probably ripped off my body, by a train heading westbound on the eastbound side. The cars were crowded. The train came to a halt. The doors opened. People tried to push their way on while others tried to push their way out of the doors.

A voice came over the loudspeaker.

“All westbound passengers board on the east platform.”

Most of the commuters on the west bound platform stood where they were. They might as well. There was no chance of getting on this train. It was packed. The train pulled out leaving sullen crowds on both the east and west bound platforms.

The voice was on the loudspeaker again.

”All westbound passengers board on the eastbound platform.”

Nothing was said about trains going eastbound.

A guy in his twenties was standing near me. He was getting upset. Real upset. He asked me, “Am I on the right side? I’m trying to go east. I need to get to Tioga.”

I told him, “You are where you should be. It’s SEPTA. It looks like they’re running both eastbound and westbound trains on the same track.”

“Damn. I’m already late.”

He took his cellphone out of his pocket made a call. He explained to someone that he was running late. Told them about the situation with the trains.

Another train came westbound on the east track. The crowd on the platform was growing. The time I hoped to save by leaving work early had evaporated. It was full rush hour madness with trains only going one way.

Another announcement about boarding on the east side to head west. Grumbles. Anger. Strangers became instant friends, united against the common enemy, SEPTA, the bane of our existence.

A woman in her fifties said to me, “I left work five minutes early. Begged my boss so I could leave. Now I’m stuck here. I should have stayed at work.”

I told her, “I left early too. Been here twenty minutes.”

Another west bound train. Then another. No trains eastbound.

The young man on my right made another call. Pleaded with someone to understand.

I was about the same age as the woman. We shared our misery.

“Broke down yesterday morning.”

“And last week.”

“Three buses went by me Monday morning. Ignored me standing at the stop.”

Another man on the platform burst out, “I only need to go two stops to Second Street. This is crazy.”

I told him, “Hey. This is SEPTA. If you can walk the distance, walk it. Never rely on SEPTA to get you anywhere on time.”

The woman nodded.

The man said nothing. He just walked off, exited through one of those egg slicer turnstiles. He could walk the six blocks. Should have done so to begin with. I mean, it wasn’t snowing or raining. It was 47 degrees. If I didn’t have to go all the way to the end of the line, I’d walk it. Anything up to two miles. Get the exercise.

Another westbound train on the east track.

The announcer came back. This time with more information.

“Due to a medical emergency between 5th Street and 15th Street all trains are running on the eastbound side.”

Medical emergency, I thought, did someone have a heart attack, fall and break their leg, or was it a euphemism for a jumper? There were always “jumpers” somewhere along the line. Happened a few times a month. Though not all were true suicides. Some just fell on the tracks. Maybe got hit while looking for a train as almost happened to me. No one from the transit authority would tell you straight out anymore that it was a suicide. It was always “a medical emergency.” Sometimes a cop would tell you the truth, if there was a cop around. I once asked a cop standing on a platform with a crowd of delayed commuters if it was because of a jumper, and he said, “Yeah. Heard it on the radio. Nothing can run until the sponge crew is finished.”

It wasn’t always like that. I was 18 the first time I had to deal with a jumper delay. That was in the 1980s, when I commuted between college and a job at the Central Library at 19th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway. This was before death by light rail became such a common occurrence. SEPTA shut the train down for hours. I saw the ambulances rushing to 15th street station. At first no one said anything, then one of the fare-takers told everyone, “It’s a suicide.”

It was all a bigger production back then. Television crews, firetrucks, everyone talking. There was always a small article in the Inquirer the next day. But that was a long time ago. There was only a jumper a few times a year. Back then it was always shuttle buses. Getting on and off of buses until you could get back on the train further down the line.

Nowadays there’s rarely shuttle buses. Less production. No TV cameras. No blurbs in the newspaper. Times have changed. There are so many murders, so many suicides. It’s all so commonplace. The opioid crisis, stress, bad romances, poverty, the job market, global warming, politics, pimples. There’s so much that can push someone over the edge. There’s so much death to cover and only so much news to fit into a half hour broadcast. Newspapers barely exist and are much smaller, thinner, lighter with coverage of world, national and local events. There’s not enough room in the pages for stories like this.

Besides, no one wants to say it anymore. Jumper. Suicide. No one wants to upset anyone, or encourage them to imitate. Don’t do it for the fame boys and girls. We’re not giving you the five minutes anymore. Still, they are much faster with the clean up these days. Get the trains back and running a lot quicker than in the good old days.

The woman next to me voiced my thoughts.

“Do you think it’s a jumper?”

“Probably.”

The young man became more upset, emotional.

“A jumper? You mean a suicide? Someone jumped in front of a train? How do you know that?”

“I don’t know for sure. It just looks that way. They used the magic word ‘medical emergency’ and shut down a lot of track. “

The guy got in his phone again. This time video chat. I could see the face. A young woman. Girlfriend probably.

“I’m sorry. It’s a jumper. I’ll get there as soon as I can.”

His girlfriend sounded sympathetic, not like before. He was safe now. Out of trouble.

The announcer came on again. The faceless voice of SEPTA.

“They’ve finished cleaning up the track from the medical emergency. Trains will now be running west on the westbound side.”

“That’s it,” I said. “Jumper. They finished ‘cleaning up’, picking up the pieces, putting them in plastic bags, wiping off the track.”

“Thank God,” said the woman. “Now when will we get an eastbound train?”

A train arrived on the westbound side heading west. Ten minutes later the first eastbound train arrived. SEPTA made it an express. Some passengers got off, but not enough. Too many wanted to get on. I had to wait for a couple more eastbound trains before I could get on one.

I put it out the jumper of my mind. That’s what you do. You can’t break down because others do. You take the train. You go home. You go to work. Go home again. Know it will happen again. You just don’t think about it.

Less than a week went by when it happened. I worked late, and went to board the El at the 5th Street Station, near Independence Mall. There wasn’t a big crowd, but something was off. The wait seemed too long. It didn’t mean anything unless they said the magic words. Otherwise it was just normal malfunctions. I saw a guy, young, under 30. He was wearing blue overalls, the kind construction workers sometimes do. He was acting strange. His knees were bent, and he was nodding and bouncing from side to side. He had what looked like a thin brown cigar in his hand. Lit. He took a puff now and then. There may have been some tobacco in it, maybe even some weed. But there was something else as well. A more acrid smell.

My first thought was it was against the law to smoke on the platform. Of course that never gets enforced. There are too many more serious crimes to occupy the police. Then I began to wonder, as I sometimes do, why they had decriminalized smoking marijuana in the city and legalized vaping of weed at the state level, for medical reasons, but did not legalize edibles statewide for any reason. It would be a lot less distracting to see someone eating a brownie at a bus stop or rail station than to have to inhale second hand anything.

While I was going through this social and political debate in my head, the man in blue decided to hobble over to the edge of the platform and wobble and bounce there. Then he turned around. His toes on the platform. His heels over the edge. Bouncing to music only he could hear.

I had a bad feeling about this. I hurried over to him.

“Hey. You might want to get away form the edge. You could fall.”

He looked at me then looked where he was standing. His eyes got wider, waking up a bit, realizing how close he was to falling over. He grabbed a pillar and pulled himself forward. I backed up towards the wall. The man in blue came towards me with his bouncing swaying walk. He held out a hand. I shook it.

“Thank you,” he said. “I hate working. Hate my job. I swing a hammer all day.” He took a last drag on his smoke and threw it on the ground. “I tried to hold off. Tried to wait until I was home. But I couldn’t. The train was taking too long.”

“It’s okay. Do what you do, but try to be safe.”

He was still bouncing around. It looked like he was going to stumble back towards the tracks.

“Put your back against the wall.”

I showed him by doing it myself. Back to the wall. Arms spread out pressing against it.

He listened and did the same.

“Feel the wall. Solid. Stay against it until the train comes.”

He nodded. He stayed against the wall until the train pulled in.

The cars were crowded. We both stood for one stop. He looked like he could fall down at any moment, couldn’t keep his balance. I saw someone getting up to get off. I steered my ward into the seat.

“Sit. Take a rest.”

A man standing nearby spoke.

“I can’t understand this country. I come from Croatia. Why so many people do that stuff? Always someone like that on the train. There’s so much here. So much easier than where I came from. Why be like that?”

“Be easy on him,” I said, trying to keep my voice down. “He almost fell on the tracks.”

“Really?” Mr. Croatia was surprised. “You saw?”

I told him what happened.

“Jesus, we’d have all been late getting home.”

I told him that’s why I did it. To prevent another long delay.

But that was only partially true. Gallows humor. An evil joke. I didn’t want to have another long wait, sure. But who wants to see a man die in front them, maybe fall on the tracks and touch the electrified third rail, or fall and get run over by a train. I may be a cynic, a calloused bastard, but I’ve never seen an actual or accidental jumper do it, only gone through the inconvenience that they cause. I never want to see it happen. Who needs those kind of memories? Who needs that kind of guilt? I could never be the driver of that train. I could never be one of the clean up crew. I could never be someone who just stood on the platform and watched.

My ward got off at Somerset station and staggered down the stairs. The Croatian gentleman got off at the next stop, Allegheny. And me? I rode to the end of the line, hoping a bus would be waiting for me, in working condition, with space to sit or stand. A bus that would not catch fire or collide with anything, one able to get me home without further damage and at a reasonable time.

God, I thought, if I did anything good tonight, can you just grant me that?

And it came about just as I’d prayed. SEPTA or the Almighty must have been listening.

Judge Santiago Burdon

The Twice-Killed Cat

We became acquainted in a Mexican prison, where I was a guest for eight months. I make it a policy to never associate with people I’d met in prison once I was back on the outside, but in Johnny Rico’s case, he was the exception to the rule. Sort of like a mild virus you’re unable to shake, you know you’re infected, but you just learn to live with the malady.

Always with a bandanna around his neck, and most of the time its color clashed with his shirt. He says it serves as a fashion statement, but I’ve never been able to figure out what exactly he was trying to say. Then there’s his common practice of always wearing mismatched socks all the time. I’m sure he’s colorblind and I’ve tried to demonstrate the fact with simple a test numerous times, but he’ll never have any part of my experiment.

He’s very egocentric and will never admit to making a mistake or having a disability, but he’s my carnal and has always been there for me. My proverbial Colombian guardian angel. I gave him the last name Rico, which fits his personality hand in glove. Commonly translated as “rich” or “wealthy”, it can also mean exceptional, and for better or worse, that is Johnny all the way.

Cartagena, Columbia. A place so beautiful that even God couldn’t believe he’d created it with his own hands. If he vacations, I have no doubt this is his destination. Gorgeous women, true angeles sin alas, obras de arte (angels without wings, works of art). If god created a woman more beautiful than these Colombianas, he must have kept her up in heaven for himself.

Cartagena also happens to be the hometown of my lunatic sidekick, Johnny Rico.

There I am relaxing by the pool, working up an appetite for dinner with twelve-ounce curls, letting the sun have its way with me while recuperating from the night before.

“Excuse me, Mr. Bigotes,” says Raul, the concierge. “There’s a call for you. Would you like for me to bring the phone poolside?”

I’d made a request that I was not to be disturbed, interrupted or bothered in any way, but I guess the call must be important enough to disregard my request.

“Do you know who it is?” I ask.

“No, Mr. Bigotes, but he said it was an emergency.”

That’s all I needed to hear; instantly the mystery was solved.

“I’ll take the call on the phone in the lobby.”

I reach into my wallet and give him a healthy propina (tip), informing him that he never took this call for me. He nods to indicate his understanding.

“Diga me! Quien es?” says the voice on the other line. “Bigotes, I am very sorry to bother you…”

Which of course, he was not.

“It’s Johnny,” he says. “I have a big problem, and I really need your help!”

At first, I can only detect a faint quiver in his voice. Then, all at once, he starts crying uncontrollably. In all the time I’d known the man, I’d never known him to cry, and we had seen enough shit together that would have warranted it.

“Okay Johnny, find some huevos and meet me for dinner at Tesoro del Mar, 7:30 sharp. Entiendas pinche?”

“Okay Bigotes, gracias carnal.”

“Don’t thank me yet.”

Later, at the restaurant, I wind up dining alone. Wiping my mouth, I take a look at my watch. 8:15 pm. I swear, Colombians are more proficient at tardiness than even Mexicans. It’s a common and even accepted practice in this country to be late.

Just as I’m about to pay the check for my dinner and wine, in strolls Rico, looking as though his dog had just been run over.

“Did you order dinner already?” he asks dejectedly.

“Not only did I already order dinner, JR. I ate dinner, drank a bottle of wine, and tipped the bartender, the cook and the waiter. Now I am on the prowl for some of Colombia’s finest cocaine, an angel of the evening, and an orgy of such depravity and lewdness it would make a porn star blush. A night I won’t remember. Are ya in, carnal?”

“I thought you were buying me dinner?” he whines.

“That was at 7:30. It is now close to 8:30.”

“Are you going to start with that ‘gringo time’ again, carnal?”

“Okay,” I relent. “Have a seat, I’ll buy ya dinner. Como pasando contigo? Que haces dime?” (What’s going on with you? What are you doing?)

He begins to regale me with the tragedy that has caused him so much pain of late. His lower lip quavers and his hands begin to tremble as he speaks. From the way he is acting, I’m sure he has either fucked up big time or fucked somebody over, earning him a spot on their list.

“She’s cheating on me with some cabron at work!” he finally blurts out. “She’s fucking someone else, I’m sure of it. My heart has been killed twice!”

Son of a bitch, I thought, it’s about a woman this time instead. This coming from a guy who would fuck a bush if he thought a snake was in it.

Over dinner, I note that his heartbreak sure hasn’t affected his appetite. Two plates of pescado frito, arroz, salada, sopa, and cuatro cervezas later, finally we are ready to commence this mission of restoring my carnal’s manhood.

As we exit the restaurant, Johnny is still talking rapidly, crying, and flailing his hands in the air.

“Johnny, shut the fuck up,” I eventually tell him. “So, what’s this master plan of yours?”

“Come on,” he says. “I’ll show you!”

I’m already sure I’m not going to like this. If I must be shown and not told, odds are it’s another one of Johnny’s demented schemes, one that I would never go along with if explained properly beforehand. Trust me, I’d been witness to and participated in enough of his adventures in the past, some of which would make a schizophrenic’s actions seem normal.

We reach his car and I slide in the passenger side, immediately noticing the odd assortment of items in back. Bottles of tequila, beer (undoubtedly warm), rope, flashlights, and what looks like a box trap of some kind. It’s similar to what my grandma used to catch raccoons in her attic.

Why I’m even entertaining the thought of assisting this lunatic in whatever he has in mind this time is far beyond me.

It is in this moment I have to admit, Johnny Rico, insane though he may be, is my friend. That’s a word I have never used lightly, and while my standards of friendship are extremely high, I reciprocate by the same set of standards.

In other words, guess I’m in.

“First, we are to stake out her house,” he begins at length. “Then, we will wait for her cat to come along and trap it. Then, we are going to stab that son of a bitch until it’s dead TWICE and hang it from her door. When she comes home and sees it, she will know that no one disrespects Juan Villanova Johnny Rico and gets away with it!”

Johnny always had to kill something twice. I’d never understood where that ritual originated from, and I’d never though to ask until now.

“Uh huh…” I say. “So, you think the best way to win her back is by mutilating her cat, killing it twice and hanging it from her door. What is this, some sort of Santa Muerta ritual, or an ancient Indian ritual kinda thing?”

“No, this is all my idea,” he confesses proudly. “I thought of it myself!”

Like I never would have guessed.

It is then that Johnny pulls out a bag of cocaine the size of his fist, gleefully shoving it in my face. It’s not like he has to force me to partake. I open the bag and snort a healthy amount through his silver coke straw, and he does the same. I pop open a warm beer for me and one for my carnal, take a large hit of tequila, and pass the bottle over to Johnny.

Together we speed off into the night.

It is 9:20 pm when we run out of gas three blocks from his girlfriend’s house. We have to walk two kilometers to a gas station, through a barrio I was not very comfortable strolling about in at night. Johnny, meanwhile, seems oblivious to the danger, trudging ever onward without fear. He assures me he has earned safe passage through almost every neighborhood in the city. I doubt his dispensation but don’t express my disbelief.

Finally, we return to the car and gas it back up.

Slowly we creep down Johnny’s girlfriend’s street, lights off, but for some reason he has got the radio blaring.

“Johnny, the radio!” I yell. “Turn it off, pendejo!”

“Si si,” he complies, “I don’t like this song either…”

For Christ’s sake, if he’s going for stealth, it’s a lost cause already.

He parks the car across the street, in an alleyway with a perfect view of her house.

“I see that you’ve done this before,” I observe. “How long have you been stalking her, JR? This is not a healthy activity, carnal.”

“Only four or five times,” he confesses. “How else to make sure she’s not fucking around on me?”

Stepping out of the car, we quickly get the trap set up, and Johnny puts an unopened carton of milk inside.

“Johnny,” I laugh, “that’s never gonna work! Have you got any fish, maybe a can of tuna or something?”

“No, but that’s a good idea,” he says. “Come on, let’s go get a can of tuna…”

Half an hour later, we return with the tuna, bait the trap, and resume our surveillance mission.

“You know Rico, wouldn’t it have been easier to just send her a box of dog shit, like you did to that prostitute you were so madly in love with? What was her name? ‘Laura the Zorra’ (slut), if I remember correctly?”

“First of all Bigotes, she wasn’t a prostitute! That was a rumor started by some bitches, chismosas (gossipy women), only because they were jealous of her. So don’t you call her a zorra! Also, that pinche gato got into my Toyota and pissed all over inside. I could never get the smell out and had to sell the car for pennies, do you remember? So, the gato deserves what he has coming to him!”

“Isn’t that the car you sold your sister? And Johnny, with all due respect to working girls, she was a prostitute whether you want to believe it or not!”

“Ya, yo se carnal, I know she was a prostitute. And my sister never did figure out what that smell was, either!”

I start laughing uncontrollably and Johnny joins in, unable to catch his breath. There’s snot running from my nose, and the sight of it sends Johnny into complete hysterics.

There we sat laughing, smoking cigarettes and joints, drinking beer and tequila and snorting cocaine well into the night. We’re telling jokes, lies about women we’ve had, and exchanging stories of close calls experienced on dope runs. All while waiting on a cat that may or may not decide to show up.

Two hours later and it’s close to midnight. My speech has become so slurred, it is practically incomprehensible. I’m talking fast without punctuation, Chicago style, speaking total cocainese. I could run a marathon with a beer in one hand and a joint in the other, with Johnny on my back, I am so coked up by this point.

It is then I look outside the window, noticing the mountain of beer cans and cigarette butts that has accumulated on the ground beside the car. That’s when it occurs to me how bad I need to piss. Opening the door, I stumble out over the mess, and Johnny follows suit.

“Bigotes, mira playo (there’s her cat)!” he says, before I can even get unzipped. “Venga gatito, venga bebe…”

The cat walks right up to Johnny and start rubbing against his leg. What happens next isn’t pretty. I immediately grab the bottle of tequila, guzzling a monstrous amount.

“Now, I kill this fucking cat twice!” he screams, raising his knife yet again.

“Johnny, that’s enough!”

I almost can’t believe the sheer level of the brutality I’ve just witnessed. I never thought he’d actually go through with it. I nearly double over and start puking right then and there, but somehow I manage to maintain my composure.

Next thing I know, we’re standing on his girlfriend’s porch. Grinning maniacally, Johnny does the deed as promised, tying the poor creature’s carcass to her door.

“Okay,” I say, “let’s get the fuck out of here!”

“What!? No carnal, I want to see her reaction…”

My friend has proven himself to be a total psychopath, but I am far too tired, shocked, and fucked up by this point to offer much by way of resistance.

Johnny hands me a joint. I light it, take a hit, cough and follow him back to the car. He hasn’t even attempted to clean the blood off himself.

It is now close to dawn, and soon the sun will be shedding its light on Johnny’s heinous crimes, to which I have become an unwitting accomplice.

It isn’t long before a car pulls up to his girlfriend’s house. She climbs out and Johnny smiles wide, poking me in the ribs to make sure I’m still awake. He wants us both to see what happens next.

Meanwhile, an old woman is sweeping the sidewalk in front of the house next door. She looks up as a scream pierces the stillness of the morning. Abruptly dropping her broom, she hurries over to where Johnny’s girlfriend stands screaming on her porch.

“My cat, my cat!” the old woman begins to shriek. “My baby! Oh, my poor little Tito…”

Johnny just stares straight ahead with a blank expression on his face.

“Wrong cat,” he says.

Judge Santiago Burdon

Where in the World is Johnny Rico

I’d been living in Costa Rica, bored with the passive lifestyle I’d adopted in my retirement. I thought a remedy to my melancholy might be a short vacation away from this paradise. In any case, there had been too many rises and falls of the tides since I had last buried my toes in the sand of a Colombian beach.

Cartagena was beckoning me to become a willing hostage of her casual elegance, comforting charms, and the soothing touch of her ocean breeze. It had been close to eight years since I’d last seen her, back when I’d finally bid farewell to the “business”, and to my friend and former running partner, Johnny Rico, as well.

Upon my arrival, I hailed a taxi for the short ride to Hotel Caribe, an elegant five-star inn with a friendly, accommodating staff, nestled on the Boca Grande peninsula. Before I knew it, I was comfortably settled into my suite with a millionaire’s vista of the city.

Back in the bold reckless days of my youth, I’d be wired, revved up and ready to take on the night. But, owing to my advancing age, I’d decided to relax in my room for the evening instead. It was close to 7:30 on a Saturday night, with nothing much on the agenda.

I enjoyed an almost-hot shower and ordered room service, which was delivered much more quickly than expected. I focused my attention on the television, hoping to find something I could fall asleep to.

As I flipped through channel after channel, I was excited to discover several adult options. My excitement quickly dwindled, however, after thinking I might be charged a ridiculous fee for this service. Checking my hotel receipt for a possible clue produced no information, and referencing the brochures in the room ended with the same result.

Heading downstairs, I took a seat at the bar. I order a Scotch, neat, which the bartender pours with a generous hand.

“Thanks, carnal,” I say. “Appreciate your generosity. Kind of dead in here tonight, wouldn’t ya say?”

“Usually like this, early in the evening,” he replies. “Are you staying at the hotel?”

“Yes, I am. Tell me, how long have you been working here?”

“I think almost five years now. I like it very much. The people are very nice and always have interesting stories.”

“Bet you meet many new faces,” I tell him. “Let me ask you a question. I noticed on my television I have access to all channels, including certain pay channels. Do you know if this is included with the cost of my room?”

“If you have a suite on the top floor, I believe they are all free. Also, spa with massage and breakfast is included. Would you like me to ask the front desk to make sure?”

“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary. Say, what’s your name, so I won’t have to call you bartender?”

“Sergio, but everyone just calls me Serg. What is your name?”

“Santiago, but you can call me Santi, or Bigotes, if you’d like.”

“Bigotes, I like it. I could tell you were Mexican because of your Spanish, but you look very Italian as well.”

“I’m from all over. I live in Costa Rica now, but I have spent much time in Mexico. I lived here in Cartagena for quite some time as well, back eight years ago, right here in Barrio San Diego.”

“Bigotes, you have a face that is familiar to me… Where did you hangout, back when you lived here?”

“Everywhere and anywhere there were women, wine, and song. My friend and I had a favorite spot, right near my old apartment: Tu Candela Bar. Looking forward to going back there, maybe tomorrow.”

“Before I came here, that is where I worked, only as a waiter not bartender.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I remember you, Bigotes, always with another guy who laughed real loud. Rico was his name, I think. You both holler at each other and fight all the time. I remember you were the thinner one, and your hair was much shorter.”

“Well spank me with a spatula, that’s incredible. Johnny Rico, that’s him! You have a strong memory, my friend. Those days were quite some time ago.”

“You came to Cartagena to see your old friend again?”

“No, I haven’t been able to find him in years. I’m just on a mini-vacation, a short change of scenery is all. You have a great evening, Serg. I’m going to head back up to my room now. I appreciate your help.”

“No problema. I’ll be here until around 10:00. There is a wedding reception, here at the hotel tonight. Glad I’m not working the bar! See you around, Bigotes.”

“Nos vemos, Serg.”

Suddenly, my room somehow didn’t seem to fit the size of my temperament anymore. There wasn’t a movie on that interested me, and even the adult channels failed to capture my attention, despite them being free.

Damn, Serg had remembered Rico and me after all this time. I’d tried to get in touch with J.R. on several occasions in the past, but without success. His mother had long since died, and his sister didn’t want anything to do with him anymore, leaving me with nothing but a string of old memories and disconnected phone numbers. But that’s life.

Putting these thoughts aside, I make the decision to head out into the night, hoping to revisit some old familiar haunts. Mothers hide your daughters, Santiago is on the prowl!

I hail a taxi, and within minutes I’m back in Old Cartagena. The city’s quaint charm sparkles in the salty evening air.

After accomplishing my 4 D’s for the evening (dinner, drugs, drinking, and dancing), the mission bell rings once, signaling 1am. I chase down another taxi for the short drive back to the hotel, only this time with my companion, Valeria, now in tow. We had met earlier in the night, enjoying each other’s company at Cafe Havana, where a ten-piece salsa band had been playing.

My girlfriend de jour is an absolute vision of loveliness: humorous, compassionate, reasonably priced, and a talented dancer to boot. We were both pleasantly high from all the booze and cocaine chasers. By all appearances, she appeared ready to wrestle with the anaconda.

We arrive at the hotel, deciding first to enjoy a cocktail at the bar. Surprisingly, the room had filled with a large crowd while I’d been out, everyone dancing to a DJ spinning reggaeton, my newly adopted favorite genre of music.

We were fortunate to find two seats at the bar. It was then I recalled Sergio mentioning a wedding reception at the hotel that night. Generally, I make it a rule to not attend weddings, because I always feel so helpless to stop the proceedings. As I always say, marriage is what happens when dating goes too far!

I ordered our drinks, and Valeria headed off to the ladies room to do a bump. When she returned, I excused myself to use the restroom as well, peeking into the adjacent banquet hall as I walked past. There I observed a fair-sized group, dancing in celebration of the two willing victims of love.

That’s when it suddenly hits me.

Above the noise of the reception, my ears perk up to the sound of that old, familiar laugh. It rings out in my heart like a song from long ago.

Could it really be? The lunatic laughter of the only man I’ve ever called a friend?

Stopping for a closer look, I peruse the guests inside. And sure enough, seated at none other than the bridal table, is the man I suspect to be “His Riconess” himself.

He was grossly overweight with long, stringy hair and a short, scruffy beard. He wore an all-white suit with dark sunglasses, despite us being indoors at night. His overall look was one I’d call “Neo-Italian”. I watch him as he takes a long drink of wine, then erupts into another one of his crazed cackles.

There can be no mistaking it. After years of searching in vain, I have finally stumbled upon the one and only Johnny Rico.

I watched as the large, unattractive bride sat down beside him, kissing his stubbly, blubbery lips as the guests all applauded, clinking their glasses with flatware. It must have been a cold winter in Hell, if a storm of this magnitude had breached the Devil’s compound.

Rico got hitched. He was now a married man. I should really congratulate this hostage of love, I thought, then pay my condolences to the wide bride on her fine choice of a husband.

I returned to the bar, where seated on my stool was some scoundrel trying to woo Valeria away from me. He makes a hasty exit as I walk up, planting a kiss on my rent-a-date for the evening.

“Don’t go anywhere,” I tell her. “I’ll be right back.”

Flagging down one of the waiters, I asked if I could borrow his blazer, tipping him generously for the rental. Next, I draped a white towel over my arm, donning my reading glasses for effect. My look now complete, I set out on my ambush, returning to the banquet hall as a hotel employee.

Walking briskly past the bridal table, I came around the back of it, completely unnoticed by my old friend. Standing behind him, I slowly leaned forward, whispering just loud enough for others to hear.

“Excuse me sir, but you appear to be very drunk. We won’t be allowed to serve you any more alcohol this evening. In addition, your guests have purchased drinks from the bar, with a bill almost four hundred dollars. We will need you to pay it immediately!”

He begins to stand, but I force him back down, pushing down hard on his shoulders. He whips back around at me, ready to strike, but that’s when he sees my face.

In an instant, his expression of rage dissolves into joyous disbelief.

“Un milagro! Milagro a Dios! Carnal eres tu?” (A miracle! Miracle my God. My buddy, is it you?)

Leaping to his feet, he wraps his arms around me, squeezing all the air from my lungs.

“Someone told me you were dead,” he said, as I attempted to extricate myself from his grasp. “Killed in Mexico, they said, by enemies of your cousin.”

“I was killed,” I replied, “but they made one mistake – they didn’t kill me twice!”

“I am so happy to see you are alive, carnal.”

Meanwhile, Valeria is now standing near the entrance of the banquet hall. I signal for her to come and join us. She smiles and walks over, every man in the room fixated on her beauty as she graciously glides across it.

I order a bottle of mescal for the table to help get this party started.

“Thank you, Santi!” Johnny screams. “Now we get drunker than a hundred Indians!”

Half a bottle and several lines of coke later, we were both up onstage, singing together our karaoke favorite:

I GET BY WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS
I GET HIGH WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS

We finish our little number and Johnny immediately starts taking off his clothes, asking the crowd if they want to see an obre de arte (work of art). He whips out his dick and starts prancing around the hall like a ballerina, causing quite an uproar in the process.

His bride doesn’t seem to find his little performance quite so funny, however. Her attempts to intervene are met with an inebriated Johnny completely ignoring her pleas for him to stop.

It was then that I asked the DJ to play Satisfaction, by the Stones. I sing and dance in my best Mick Jagger impression, my spastic moves sending Johnny into hysterics along with the rest of the crowd.

Finally, we settled back down around our table, slamming more mescal as Johnny apologized to his bride and their guests for his antics. Meanwhile, our fans had raised their applause once more, clapping and demanding an encore.

Retaking the stage, we then sang our other song, I Shot The Sheriff (Marley version), only changing the lyrics to where we shot both the sheriff and the deputy.

During the lead break, Johnny pulls out the same .38 he’s had since I’d first met him, firing off rounds into the ceiling like a drunk cowboy in a saloon. In response, the wedding guests hit the floor, some taking refuge under tables, others fleeing screaming for the exits.

Now, I know my reaction should have been to disarm my lunatic sidekick immediately. However, I’d found myself in such a state of disbelief, all I could do was laugh, completely unafraid of the danger.

Within minutes, two security guards storm the banquet hall, demanding that Johnny surrender his pistol immediately. Knowing him, I knew their request would be met with defiance.

As they reached the stage, Johnny tossed the pistol over to me, thus diverting their attention. As they passed him by, he swept up a nearby chair and slammed it into the back of one of them. Meanwhile, I pointed the gun at the other, ordering him to stop.

I added that I would blow his fucking balls off if he didn’t.

Side note: Threatening a Columbian with death is not always a successful deterrent, but  living without their dick or balls is a fate they consider worse than death.

He stops as ordered, standing motionless with is hands out before him. He tries appealing to my sensibility, which has been all but drowned in tequila by this point. Acting on the tequila’s advice instead, I kick him straight in the balls, connecting with the force of a punter. He drops to his knees like a nun at mass, grabbing his crotch in pain.

Meanwhile, Johnny is punching the shit out of the other guard on the floor, his porky wife literally on his back, screaming for him to stop. She obviously has no idea of the man she’s just married.

And here I am, standing over my own victim, still pointing the gun at this terrified man.

“Bigotes todo bien carnal? No el mata! No el mata!” (Mr. Mustache, everything good? Don’t kill him! Don’t kill him!), Johnny yells.

“Why not?” I yell back. “He tried to hurt you, mi hermano. I can’t let that type of behavior go unpunished.”

The guy starts crying, begging for his life. I tell him I don’t understand Spanish, and with his life on the line, he chooses to argue that he heard me speaking Spanish earlier, accusing me of lying with a gun pointed at his head. I am so overwhelmed by his stupidity to argue with a crazed gunman, I burst into another uncontrollable laughing jag. My buddy joins in, his wife still riding him like a bucking bronco.

Meanwhile, some of the guests have returned, watching the situation intently. The DJ, for his part, seems totally unfazed by the fiasco. He puts on Street Fighting Man by the Stones, and I resume my Jagger dance over the security guard on the floor. Everyone begins laughing and applauding once more.

Eventually, I extend my hand to help the security guard to his feet, which he accepts.

What he didn’t know was that I’d folded two hundred dollar bills into my palm. He inspects them surreptitiously, then walks over to his partner, passing him one in like manner. Suddenly, they are both grinning like game show winners.

Our celebration is cut short, however, by the arrival of six or seven Colombian police officers with rifles, some of them adorned with helmets and shields. Valeria comes up from behind and slowly takes the pistol from my hand, pulls up her skirt, and tucks it away in her panties. She whispers that I can retrieve it later, kissing me on the cheek.

The cops scream at the DJ to turn off the music, pushing through the crowd without apology.

They immediately confront the security guards, demanding an explanation.

“Lo que está pasando aquí y solo tener un informe de que alguien está disparando un arma a la gente. Diga me!”  (What’s going on here? We had a call that someone was firing a gun shooting at people. Tell me!), a large military type demands to know.

“This is my wedding party,” Johnny interjects, “and the only guns here are those you brought yourself!”

“Hey Johnny,” I tell him, “how about you let the guards answer and shut the fuck up? Use those lips to kiss that new wife of yours, instead of inciting these officers just doing their jobs.”

“We thought there was a problem when we heard screaming and came to investigate,” one of the security guards informs the police officers. “It was this one,” he says, pointing at Johnny. “He was acting all crazy with his Mexican buddy over there, pretending to shoot each other.”

“The song had gunshots in it,” the DJ explains. “Everything is good. Solo bueno, solo bueno.”

He puts on some narco-corrido song, Sangunarios del M1 (Bloodthirsty Men of the M1), demonstrating the realism of the gunshots.

The cops appear unconvinced, however, ordering Johnny and I to stand against the wall. They start frisking me, asking us both over and over where the gun is stashed. Some of the other guests continue to explain to the officers there was no gun.

“Where is the gun, Bigotes?” Johnny starts joking. “Just give them the fucking gun so they’ll leave us alone!”

“Are you for real, bufo?”  I scream at the bastard. “What the fuck is wrong with you? Are you fucking insane?”

“This is my wedding reception,” he sneers at the cops, “and I would appreciate it if you officers either left or joined the party!”

“I see you found your friend!” a voice rings out from behind us. We both turn to see Sergio approach. “There you both are, arguing and yelling the same as I remember in the past…”

“Officers,” he continues, “I know both these gentlemen very well. What you’re accusing them of is not at all what happened here.”

“Who are you?” a cop barks at him. “Do you work here?”

“I am Sergio Mendez Ortiz, the Bar and Banquet Manager,” he answers. “I appreciate your quick response to what you thought was a dangerous situation, but whoever reported the incident was incorrect.”

“And how do you know that? Did you witness the event?”

“I did,” Sergio tells them, “and I can assure you there was no gun.”

Eventually, by some miracle, the cops begrudgingly accept Sergio’s explanation. As they start heading for the exit, that’s when Johnny decides open his big mouth again, spewing out comment after comment of contempt.

“You should apologize for ruining my wedding party!” he calls out after them. “Aren’t you even going to say sorry? You disrespected my wife, my friend, and all our guests.”

The commander turns to Johnny with a none-to-pleased look on his face.

“One more word out of you,” he warns, “and your bride will be sleeping alone tonight, while you become a bride to some convict. Understand?”

I run the short distance over to my carnal, literally clamping my hand over his mouth. He tries to spit out another smart-ass comment regardless, prying at my hand in an attempt to incarcerate himself.

“He understands, officer,” I assure him. “Thank you for your…”

The DJ cranks the music back up to a deafening volume, and suddenly everyone is dancing once again.

I walk over to Sergio and shake his hand, passing my remaining money to him.

“Sergio, we appreciate you rescuing us from being arrested.”

“No problema,” he says with a wink. “Just don’t let me see that gun around here again.”

“What gun?” Johnny asks, laughing.

It is then he gets his first taste of married life with a pissed-off Latina. Without missing a beat, his bride starts in on him in front of the assembled guests.

Completely ignoring her, Johnny turns to me instead, drawing me into a tight embrace. He still can’t stop laughing, tears running down his face.

“I’ve missed you carnal,” he says sadly. “You are more than family to me.”

“I know, Johnny,” I tell him. “Let me toast to your wedding. Do you have any money on you? Lend me a bill till I can get to a machine. I gave everything I had to the security guards and Sergio, and I want to tip the DJ for giving us an alibi as well.”

“No money?” he asks, his bride still yelling in his ear. “You aren’t even going to give us a wedding gift?”

“Wedding gift?” I cry in indignation. “I just spent three hundred dollars paying off people for your stupid antics! Wedding gift? I sincerely hope your screaming wife has the patience to put up with your mental illness.”

Finally, she gives up on her rant, exhausted by his utter lack of recognition. She quickly walks away with an older woman I  assume to be her mother.

“Johnny, I think she is crying,” I tell him. “Go and apologize, and tell her this type of behavior is likely to continue over the course of your marriage.”

He stumbles off after her, and I go to find an ATM.

I find Valeria waiting for me at a table, being hit on by every guy at the party. When she notices me walking toward her, she stands and extends her hand for me to take.

Walking arm in arm, she accompanies me to an ATM down the street. Along the way, she slips her hand into my jacket pocket, depositing the gun within.

“Santi,” she says, “I am ready for sex with you. Do you want to go to your room soon? You already payed for everything, and I need to call my mother to tell her I’m okay. Should I tell her I will be home Monday? I like you very much, Santi, and want to spend some time with you…”

Now, this isn’t my first initiation with a prostitute. I’d learned long ago just to fuck ’em, not fall in love with them. But Valeria is young and still hasn’t learned.

Finally, we reach the ATM, withdrawing four hundred dollars in twenty dollar bills. Meanwhile, it is 3am in a Colombian city, and I know better than to just stand there flashing my cash. After being victimized, gringos have no idea why they’d been robbed. Why? Because you deserved it for being fucking stupid, that’s why.

We begin to walk back the short distance to the hotel. You can smell the aroma of bread and donuts baking from the shops nearby.

It is then that a homeless street junkie confronts us, large rock in one hand and what appears to be a steel bar of some type, maybe a curtain rod, in the other. He demands that I turn over my money, my watch, and the gold ring on my left pinky finger, which belonged to my daughter.

I first attempt to reason with him, offering a small donation to his drug fund instead. The suggestion is received poorly, and he displays his anger by swirling the curtain rod like a lightsaber, as though he were a Jedi master.

“Santi, give him the money!” Valeria says, clinging close. “I am afraid Santi, please! Tranquillo, senor, I will get it…”

“I’m not giving this carapecha (dickface) a fucking peso!” I scream.

Next thing I know, Valeria has Johnny’s gun back in her hands, pointing it directly at Skywalker.

“First of all,” she says to him, “you didn’t say please. Now I’m going to shoot your fucking balls off, you hijo de perra!”

At this, I instantly got a monstrous erection. What a woman! This demonstration of foreplay on her part had aroused me to a point of near ejaculation.

The wannabe Jedi scurries off, and Valeria returns the gun to my pocket once again, giggling as she softly puts a finger to her lips.

“Valeria, that was awesome, baby. Damn, you really are the total package! We have got to get back to my room…”

She grabs me by the head, pulling me in for a kiss.

“No! No!” I protest. “Don’t touch me! I’m so excited right now, I might just cum right here!”

She laughs and grabs my crotch anyway, giving it a loving squeeze.

We return to the hotel, and I immediately start pulling her toward the elevators.

“Bigotes! Bigotes!” Sergio calls from across the lobby. “Wait, I have a message for you, from your friend. He’d asked for your room number, but it is not our hotel’s policy to give out personal information.”

“A wonderful policy, Serg,” I say, taking the note from him. “Thank you.”

Johnny’s phone number was scrawled inside.

“Santi, venga,” Valeria urges. “Please, let us go!”

“Buenas noches, Serg!”

He smiles and waves after us as we enter the elevator.

“You shouldn’t have called Skywalker’s mother a bitch,” I reprimand Valeria on our ride up. “She may well be a very pleasant woman.”

I had just enough time to finish this little lecture before she grabs me and kisses me with her tongue, telling me I was in for one passionate night.

And yes, folks, it was a good night indeed. So I actually wound up staying in after all!

The following afternoon, I call Johnny’s room, and a housekeeper informs me the guest has checked out. I try his cell phone instead, and a recorded message informs me the number is no longer in service.

“Perfect, Rico,” I sigh. “Now what am I supposed to do with this gun?”

“What gun?” Valeria asks.

Nos vemos, Johnny Rico!

Brian Rosenberger

Killing People and Calories

Hello All,

This group is KPC for short. If you are psychotic, a psycho, neurotic, have issues with parental/authority figures, and/or suffer from religious oppression or oppression in general, have anxiety problems, have a love of sharp objects and the outdoors, are an outsider, looking to shed a few pounds personally and shed/carve pounds from others or feel the need punish or be punished, this group might be for you. Have problems with your diet, we also offer high protein recipes. Trim the fat. Your way and Our way. Teamwork works. We provide you with knife sharpener kits and professional tips from professional butchers. Cut calories? We dismember them.

Nothing burns calories like fear. It’s been scientifically proven!

Look into the mirror. This group is probably is for you. Don’t be shy.

We do not judge. We accept You for You.

Our goal is to cultivate an emotional, physical, and spiritual attachment between those with a desire to hunt and lose weight and those who want to be hunted and lose weight. A Win-Win for both, if you survive. But what’s life without challenge? Boring. Are you tired of being bored?

We provide the tools – knives, chainsaws, axes, machetes, spades, body bags, bottled water, chopped fruit and fresh vegetables before and after every session. You provide the running shoes.

Welcome to KPC. Get ready to run. Get ready to get on with the rest of your life.

Joseph Farley

Butterflies

It was a week into refurbishing of the 5th and Market Street station of the Blue Line, also known as the Frankford El. The El runs above ground for most of its route, but in Center City, the downtown section of Philadelphia, it runs underground. 5th Street Station was the jumping off point for Independence Mall, the Liberty Bell, and Constitution Center. This made it one of the busiest stops for tourists coming to Philadelphia. It was also the closest stop to where I worked.

I worked in the Curtis Building at 6th and Walnut Street. Once the home of the publisher of Jack and Jill and the Saturday Evening Post, it now housed offices, upscale bars, and expensive condos. I would have had to work three jobs to afford the cheapest condo. I lived much farther north, in Holmesburg, where the rents were much lower. It was a short walk across the Liberty Bell plaza to the El stop which could take me close to where I lived.

Signs had been up for a few weeks warning of a “Deep Cleansing” of the underground station. It certainly needed one. Despite the red, white and blue silhouettes of Independence Hall on the walls, it was a dismal place. It had the usual smell of urine associated with all El stops, along with the typical herds of rats, mice, and various six legged creatures. It was not clear why there was a sudden desire to clean. There was a rumor a high profile politician had complained. I doubted that was the cause. Politicians were not known to ride the El. There was a rumor reporters had uncovered a massive bedbug infestation. That sounded more plausible. Bad publicity can get results.

During my daily trips I had seen the red, white and blue placards come down, and the spraying of some kind of foam on walls, ceiling and support beams. Cinder blocks were exposed. Pieces of paint and other materials hung from steel beams and the cinder block walls like peeling dead skin. I wondered why the station had not been closed during the cleansing. Whatever made the walls and metal peel could not be good for human lungs. I considered using a different station a few blocks away until the project was done, but that would have cost me at least 15 minutes more travel time each day. The thought of spending more time on my commute was enough to keep me using the 5th Street station. I would try to hold my breath.

As I said before, it was a week into the “deep cleansing.” I was waiting on the platform for a train to take me home. The station was darker during the construction. A gloomy place had become gloomier. I missed the red, white and blue walls. They had brightened things up a bit. I stared into the tunnel looking for lights from the next train. I saw movement. One or two objects fluttering. They were large and reddish brown.

“Butterflies”, I thought. “Now that’s pretty fucking amazing. I’m standing here thinking how lousy this place is with the poor lighting, the chemicals, the weird smells, and the sense of decay, when along comes some butterflies. One of God’s miracles. Some nature, the nice kind, underground at 5th Street.”

I stood and watched and smiled to myself, until the butterflies landed on a wooden board covering a construction area. As soon as the wings were folded, I knew I had been wrong. Cockroaches. A pair of them. Each as big as my index finger. Not God’s miracle. God or the devil’s joke on me.

I vowed to get on and off at the 8th Street station starting in the morning.

But I didn’t. 15 minutes was still 15 minutes.

And butterflies are free to fly.

Just don’t look at them too closely.