The recent crash and burn of the longest-running relationship of my life has brought me to a new address. Contrary to published reports that I was headed to Upstate New York, I am now living in a battered, empty appliance carton, under the ramp for Exit 6, on the New Jersey Turnpike. Altered jumping cables connect this computer with the battery on my 1995, BMW K75, whose red-hot exhaust is currently frying a couple of eggs. (Here’s a tip: crack the eggs in a discarded bean can or something metal before applying them to the heat of muffler. Attempting to fry eggs on the bare muffler will not yield the expected results, especially if the unit is equipped with a heat shield. Be advised the muffler has one heat setting at idle: 1200º.)
The truth is that I am composing this blog from the sun porch of a restored 1920's cottage, less than 5 minutes from the beach at Cape May, New Jersey’s last great seaside resort. The house is furnished with period pieces in the impeccable taste of Helen C., it’s owner, a friend of mine for over 33 years. Helen is the cherished significant other of Ihor S., who occasionally comments on this blog. (The only thing that prevents Helen from commenting on this blog is that she wouldn’t read it under threat of the Inquisition.) The house reflects Ihor’s mastery of woodworking and Helen’s flare for a decor that is both soothing and dramatic. The corner of the sun porch where my desk has been relocated is shaded by Norwegian spruce trees, so it is both bright and secluded — just like my soul.
Before she tossed me the keys, Helen (who is a statuesque redhead with penetrating green eyes) said to me, “Jack, no one is going to bother you here. Write two of the best books to ever make the world laugh from this house. But I want you to know that if any of the characters in your stories are statuesque redheads with penetrating green eyes, I’ll kill you... With my bare hands.”
Ihor was standing behind her at this moment, and silently drew his forefinger across his throat in mutual emphasis. While Helen secretly admires me, she regards my personality as something between the wheat blight and athlete’s foot.
Helen turned to go, then paused and asked the fateful question: “You’re not going to traipse topless, tattooed biker dollies through here, are you?”
“When would I have the time for that?” I replied, glancing up at the clock, as I began to sketch out this blog.
While Upstate New York is savagely beautiful, working from South Jersey offers a greater number of short-term logistical advantages for existing and new business contacts. I was born and raised in New Jersey, and I never thought I’d be returning. Well, “never” is seldom the last word. And that goes for a lot of things. Word of my changing circumstances also filtered into “FaceBook,” which I regard as the “devil’s media.” I began to receive a significant number of encouraging letters from folks all over — many of whom I hadn’t heard from in years.
One was from a woman who stole my soul when I was 17-years-old. She is also one of a handful of women who rode pillion on my 1975 Kawasaki H2, and lived to tell about it. I always thought it would be cool to hear from one of those women.
“Dear Man of Steel,” she wrote:
“A casual FaceBook search caught your name in the short net. A number of links led me to ‘Twisted Roads,’ where I was surprised to discover you are still riding a motorcycle, and not so surprised to read you are still peddling an elegant line of bullshit. It appears that you and Peter Pan have found a way to avoid growing up.
“It seems another woman in your life has recently yanked your ejection handle. While you’re at the age where wounds like these take a long time to heal, and heal badly, I suspect you will land on your feet. If not, I’m confident you’ll find a way to the nearest paved road, and the shortest distance to a sympathetic barmaid. (Only this time, the barmaid will be 52 and not 27.)
“I have been reading a lot of nonsense on your blog about this “battered baby seal look.” I remember that look before it had a name. I even found a number of pictures of you, in old scrapbooks, where you are sporting that look as “casual wear.” Either that, or you were just firing into the crowd. It is hard to think of you as an adult, in your 50’s, shamelessly striking killer facial poses, alleged to give you power over women. When I first read of the ‘battered baby seal look,’ I busted out laughing, as the only image in my mind was the totally malicious expression on the face of Malcolm McDowell in ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ I have no difficulty imagining you tossing that look around.
Above) This is how "Maizy" envisions my "battered baby seal look," as demonstrated by Malcolm
McDowell, in the movie classic, "A Clockwork Orange." Photo from the internet.
“I remember riding on the back of your Kawasaki in 1975.
“We started out on a summer night, just outside of Journal Square. You were leaning against the bike, with long hair not quite to your shoulders. There was no ‘battered baby seal look’ that night. You had an easy smile and looked like you were kicking life.
“I had never been on a bike before. You told me I could lean against the seat rest, but that I should hang onto you if you tapped my leg. We hadn’t gone 30 feet when you tapped it and started slicing through traffic. You took us to China Town, in Manhattan, where I taught you how to use chopsticks. Art Garfunkel, of Simon and Garfunkel was sitting at the next table. I told you not to stare at him. So you stared at me instead.
“Then you wrapped your napkin around your fist, and stuck both chopstricks behind your thumb, adding legs to what was in effect a talking hand puppet. You told me this was Kabuki’s finest hour, and that your hand was about to sing ‘The Sounds Of Silence,’ but with muddled “r’s” to suit the location.
“I was mortified at the time, but the folks in the restaurant seemed to know you well, as you’d given similar performances there before.
“Then you took me up to the George Washington Bridge, cutting through Friday night traffic in Nw York City. It was dark by then, and we left the bike at the beginning of a bridge walkway in Fort Lee. We walked out to the balcony on the New Jersey tower, facing lower Manhattan. The Hudson River was mirror of diamonds, reflecting millions of lights from New York City. The view was absolutely beautiful.
“That’s when you told me about how you’d climbed into the bridgework as a kid, eight years earlier, to write your name on a girder, and that it was still there the last time you checked.
“You sprang onto the balcony’s rail and pulled yourself into the girders, balancing on a thin bar, 50-stories above the Hudson River.
“I found it,” I heard you say. And then you were there a minute or two, adding something to it.
“You climbed back to the balcony, and wiped the dry bridge grime on your jeans.
“What did you write tonight,” I asked, amazed at what had just transpired.
“Your name,” you replied. But I knew there was more to it.
“I felt like I was Becky Thatcher out with Tom Sawyer. But Tom Sawyer got kissed by Becky Thatcher. And I think you would rather have jumped from the bridge than have tried to kiss me just then. And that had incredible appeal too. Playing hard to get never works. Being hard to get works well.
“The rest of that night was a mad motorcycle run along the cliffs of the Palisades Interstate Parkway. You showed me something of yourself that not many ever got to see. I’d have ridden with you anywhere.
“I regret the motorcycle was incidental to the evening. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work though?”
Not all of my fan mail is peculiar.
My memory of that night is a little different, however. I’d met “Maizy” four years earlier.
My family committed me as an inmate to a Jesuit prep school when I graduated from the 8th grade (in a local parish Catholic School). Now well over a century old, Saint Peter’s College Preparatory in Jersey City always had the reputation of being a cross between Parris Island and Devil’s Island. The Jesuits would briefly tolerate stupidity, but undisciplined independence, without the background of a thorough education and an appreciation for the arts, was mercilessly crushed. Despite learning this the hard way, I came to love Saint Peter’s and friendships forged there have lasted forever. I do not have one friend from college (which was where I went to get laid). I have 15 or 20 high school friendships that endure to this day. Ihor S. is one of them.
Saint Peter’s was a prep school for boys. (That was the primary reason I didn’t get laid there.) We were supposed to be a cut above the Jersey City gutter (never far from my fate) and expected to associate with girls from the local “all girls” academies. There were three of these in Hudson County: Saint Aloysius, Saint Dominic’s, and Holy Family. Of these, my favorite was the place with the brown uniforms: St. Dom’s. Some of the prettiest girls in the world went here. Beside, Holy Family was in friggin’ Bayonne (NJ) and the girls at St. Al’s (where my sister went) had formed a union, and passed my picture around, labeling me a hopeless douche.
“Maizy” was one of the girls in the “brown” uniforms. She was one of the most erudite, well-read, artistic, sophisticated and fashionable women I have ever met. She was (and is, I suspect) breathtakingly pretty. She was always surrounded by the really cool assholes (rock band members, guys with hot cars, and intellectual artist types), and I could never get close. Then there was this party, and I held court. (There are times when “really cool” gets its ass kicked, and kicked good, by “really funny.”) I would have a handful of interesting dates with “Maizy”, but the Kawasaki gave me an edge just once in my life. (She didn’t know the H2 “Widow-Maker” was hated by real bikers.) This was the night I could take her out without taking Alka Seltzer for two days in advance.
Maizy may be surprised to read that I already knew how to use chopsticks... I just liked having her manipulate them in my hand. The owner of the restaurant, a guy named Wing Po Ping (who went by ‘Kevin’), said to me, “This woman numba 4 who teach you chopsticks. Ha-Ha.”
The Kawasaki ran like total shit that night.
I swear the fucking thing knew when I had a woman on the back. I revved it up at stop lights to keep the plugs from fouling. I kept tapping Maizy’s leg to make her lean into me so I could smell her perfume, or her hair. All I got was hot two-stroke oil fresh off the grill instead. Still the look in her eyes when I climbed into the girders on the George Washington Bridge was worth the threat of falling 50 stories. (I routinely fall that far for women.)
But I am not ready to tell Maizy what I wrote under her name on the bridge that night.
The gentle ‘Twisted Roads’ reader is invited to guess, however.
Copyright Jack Riepe 2011