In the midst of a year off from college, I returned to Kennedy International from a hastily aborted trip to Europe. I had been traveling alone. Bob Dylan once said, “I need a steam shovel, mama, to keep away the dead / I need a dump truck, baby, to unload my head.” Yeah, well, that was me. In spades. Don’t try to brush aside a death in the family. It won’t work. My old man had just committed suicide and I had no way to understand what that meant.
Don’t try to brush aside a death in the family. It won’t work.
In the airport, two men in suits followed me out of customs. They grabbed me under the arms and whisked me through a side door. They told me to take off my coat and sit down at a little desk. I knew what had happened. These guys were narcs.
“Why’d you make such a quick trip to Amsterdam?” narc one said.
“Actually, it was Paris.”
“But you made a stop in Amsterdam,” narc two said.
“Why are you asking me if you know the answers?”
Narc one unpacked my duffel bag, spread my gear on the table.
Narc two said, “You look nervous.”
“You carrying drugs?”
“Why are you so nervous?”
“You’re cutting my pills open.”
“You want to tell us where you hid it?”
“You tell us,” narc one said.
“Tell you what?” I asked.
“Look, Bagelman or whatever your goddamned name is…”
“Close enough,” I said.
“Why the hell did you go to Europe in mid-winter, stop in Amsterdam, and return to New York in 10 days? Your visa was for six months.”
“Because I’m having a nervous breakdown.”
“A nervous breakdown,” I said.
“How the hell do I know,” I asked. “If I knew why I was having a nervous breakdown, I probably wouldn’t be nervous.” I felt like Holden Caulfield, smart, smart-assed, and miserable.
“Pack up your crap and get outta here,” narc one said.
The two narcs exited. The door slammed.
The sadness and dismay settled back over me. I packed up my stuff and called my sister.
While I looked for a place to stay, I stayed with her and my tiny niece. Neither of us spoke of our father. Instead we sat numbly drinking Yugoslavian schnapps that she had brought home from a strange sojourn in Dubrovnik, where she had fled the assaults of a lunatic husband.
We were small comfort to each other. I fled to the first rental I found, a loft apartment in a ratty, asbestos-shingled Cambridge duplex where I draped a borrowed Indian print bedspread over the dormer window and sat in the kitchen with the gas lit and the oven door open, learning the guitar studies of Fernando Sor, unable to think, move, or analyze my plight.
My hard-won travel money ran out and I took a job as a bus boy at a genteel Harvard Square establishment called The Window Shoppe. It was run by two Austrian survivors of the Maulthausen concentration camp. One of the women was sweet, round, and quiet. The other was stark and brusque, but she taught me the simple yet exacting tasks of setting and bussing tables with gentle, patient precision.
Each day I would walk to work through Harvard Square, but I saw no one I knew. I had made myself faceless, although I had already spent two years on Harvard’s campus. Most of my friends and classmates were now in the spring of their junior year. No one recognized me. I was crazed, withdrawn into myself. The apartment had no phone. My mother, lost in her own grief, had my 10-year-old little brother to contend with. She soon sold the family home and moved to New York. I was homeless.
The Window Shoppe sat back from the broad sidewalks that lined both sides of Brattle Street. After work, I would walk down the quaint thoroughfare to the Brattle Theater. I would descend the basement stairs of the Blue Parrot, buy a coffee and a ticket to whatever Godard, Truffaut, Renoir, or Ford movie was running. I would sit alone, scrunch down, smoke Camels and watch everybody from Michael Caine’s Alfie to Jean Paul Belmondo. I fell easily in love with Ingrid Bergman, Monica Vitti, Jean Seberg, Sophia Loren.
One night, after I had watched Charles Aznavour fall from grace and die in the snow I walked reluctantly back toward my hovel. A hint of spring warmth lingered from the daytime, even at this late hour. The last snow was melting, and people were on the street. At the corner of Brattle where it runs into the Square, and Mass Ave begins its run to the Charles, a familiar figure stood under the light of the newsstand where I had read the headlines of Kennedy’s assassination the year before.
Gabe sported skinny black pants and pimp shoes. I’d met him years before at a Ban the Bomb peace camp run by the Quakers. We’d stayed in touch and had recently arrived in Cambridge for no apparent reason. Gabe was a pipestem of a kid with close-cropped bangs that framed an Irish face and an impish, broad mouth. He might have been called the Joker, and he was one of the reasons I had stumbled off to Europe. A year earlier, he’d taken a simple Kodak camera with him when he went to Morocco to search for hashish.
Gabe returned from Morocco with a stack of black and white photos he had taken with the Kodak. The pics were stark, impressionistic, and wild, shadows and angles frozen in the hot desert light of villages and casbah market alleys. The photos reminded me of Cartier-Bresson.
Now, Gabe introduced me to Joey, a tousle-haired guy in a faux French military coat, long gray wool, with blue jeans and scuffed alligator boots sticking out from under the coat. He wore blind mice sunglasses and an honest mirthful grin. We joked around a bit under the streetlights, and, in the flow of the crowd coming up the stale steps of the Harvard Square MTA station, Joey asked if we wanted a snort of snuff. “It’s a trip,” Joey said.
Joey’s snuff was laced with speed. Gabe and I walked down Mass Ave to the river, jabbering speed talk like a couple of gibbons. Gabe had left his parents strange old colonial house in Western Massachusetts and was crashing around so I invited him to stay in the dreary attic that I rented by the week. After one night, we both agreed that, as shelter went, this place sucked. We decided to pool our resources and find a better place.
Donata found Gabe and me sitting on the front stoop of the ratty duplex, drinking Dunkin’ Donuts coffee out of paper cups. We looked up at her through bleary morning eyes. Donata wore boots, calf hugging for the chill of Boston’s schizoid spring, and a short, checked skirt. Her hair was highlighted, frosted and curled around her dark, Roman features like a pair of delicate hands, her hair loving her face, her shadowed eyes, her painted lips.
“You guys look like shit,” she said.
Gabe and I looked at each other.
“You been up all night?” She leaned against the stoop railing. “You look like it.”
“Yeah, well, we…”
“Where do you live?”
We both gestured behind us.
Donata made a face. “That’s terrible, she said. “This place oughta be condemned.”
“What do you do?” she asked.
“I go to Harvard,” I said. “I guess. I mean not now but…”
“But what?” Donata asked.
“I’m working at a restaurant.”
“Which one?” Donata asked.
“The Window Shoppe,” I said.
“Oh, that place is so cute,” Donata said. “I walk by it on my way to work. I never ate there, though.”
“Come on by,” I said.
“Yeah, I seen the pastry in the window. Looks wicked good.”
She turned to Gabe. “What do you do?”
“I’m a photographer,” Gabe said. “I guess.”
Donata lit up. “Are you like, an artist?”
“I dunno,” Gabe said. He didn’t know what he was doing any more than I did.
Donata studied us for a moment with her soft, brown eyes. “Listen, you guys. Whatever you got going here, forget about it.”
“We’re tryin’,” I said.
“Good. Come with me.”
Donata led us back up Mass Ave to a side street near the campus. Club 47, a coffee house I frequented — when I wasn’t having a nervous breakdown — sat at the corner, looking incongruous in the bright morning sun.
Donata talked nonstop. She was a nurse at Mount Auburn hospital and her family lived in the North End. She told us enough about her family to make us understand why she was living across the river in Cambridge.
“They’re all fuckin’ crazy,” she said. Donata was very animated and took us both by the arm as we walked. I got a motherly vibe off her, beautiful though she was.
She stopped us in front of another duplex. It was big. From the vacant lot beside it, the apartment’s brick walls stretched far back toward the wooden porches of the street behind it. Two storefronts jutted out of the bottom level, a laundry in one and a pizza joint in the other. The air smelled of hot clothes, garlic, peppers, and tomato sauce.
“This is it,” she said.
“This is what?” Gabe asked.
“Your new home,” Donata said. She turned and yelled up the stairs. “Jeffree! I got a coupla live ones!”
Jeffree, a chunky guy dressed in dungarees and a jean jacket opened the door at the top of the stairway. He looked down at Donata and her two bleary companions.
“I’m pretty sure they can pay the rent,” Donata shouted.
“All right,” Jeffree said. “Come on up.”
Donata led us up the stairs and down the hall to a sprawling, red-walled kitchen. The laundry fan blew hot air and lint into the vacant lot while we all sat down with Jeffree, an affable, big-jawed, contrarian with a wry, lop-sided moustache. I liked him right away. He felt like a big brother.
And so began my new life, in my new home, a long, thin railroad flat on Putnam Avenue in Cambridge, Mass. As April turned warm, I met a girl from Boston University, a painter. We fell into a lusty, neophytic love that turned the springtime into heaven. In the fall, Donata moved to another place with a new boyfriend, and Gabe disappeared back into the wilderness of western Massachusetts.
I went back to Harvard, the painter and I continued our ragged affair, and Jeffree and I would become friends for life.
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Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles.
Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.