Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Simpler Times

Many, many years ago, I lived in a city commune. I specify 'city' because, unlike our country cousins, we didn't grow tofu or harvest honey or macrobiotic mushrooms. We all had city jobs, we all drank Gallo's worst and smoked a lot of dope, and we all thought it would be cool to live with members of the opposite gender and have a lot of free sex. The house itself was a ramshackle edifice on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, and it still exists, though now gentrified and condoed.

There was my friend Michael, already married and divorced with child, a big, handsome easy-going guy with silver hair that drove the girls mad. His brother, Mark, was far less charming. Mark was thief and and a bottom-rung con man who would and did steal anything not nailed down and then hide it in an aggressively obvious place where it would be found. Marty was a red-headed stewardess with a weakness for Burt Reynolds. Weird Nardi, who dressed entirely in denim and smelled of horse liniment, had a saddle in his room and made neighing sounds in the night. Danielle, a gorgeous black girl who worked for a newspaper downtown, was quiet and studious. She liked to walk around in her bras and panties, which made Weird Nardi snort like a palomino.

The joke was that if there was a sexual revolution going on, we never found the front. The great free sex never happened though Michael did seduce the downstairs tenant's room-mate/girlfriend. The tenant abandoned her and moved out after throwing a bucket of excrement through our front door. There was a house meeting and Michael was made to clean it up.

Mostly we cooked pasta by the tens of pounds, haunted local bars, and made bets about the nature of St. Bart's Hospital across the street.

Michael and I thought it was some sort of city-run euthanasia center. Nobody ever seemed to leave St. Bart's though plenty of older, black people went in. We never saw a uniformed nurse enter the building; every day, though, at the hospitals side entrance, a line of funeral home vans gathered corpses in body bags.

We entertained. We sat in the dark, lit up braided dry-cleaning bags, watched them burn slowly and drop napalm-like fluids into a pan of water. It make a disturbing hissing sound. We listened to Alice Cooper. We bought marijuana from Paranoid John. who came by every month or so bearing a bag of groceries with grapefruits and bananas and a few ounces of oregano-laced dope. Paranoid John was persuaded the CIA was after him, and would only meet one of us, at midnight, near the entrance of the Chun King restaurant down the street. He insisted on being paid in rolls of quarters since he distrusted paper money. One day he didn't show up for a pre-arranged meet, and we never saw him again, so maybe his paranoia was well-founded.

Danielle would occasionally bring a pale, white musician home to spend the night. This drove Weird Narji crazy, and he would turn up the volume on his Sons of the Pioneers LP. Eventually, following threats to his record collection, we'd give Weird Narji ten dollars and send him to the Hawk and Dove, a bar down the street. He'd get stupidly drunk. The owner knew him, and would let him crash behind the bar after closing.

I don't know where any of these people are today, though Michael died in a single-car crash, leaving behind an eight-year old daughter and Mark disappeared after leaving for South America to make "a major drug score." Martie, Danielle, Weird Narji and a host of others who came, stayed and left after a week or a month, all these good and bad folks have moved on, as have I.

Recently, I drove past the house and saw that St. Bart's hospital was closed. The house itself now contains eight condos with a rack for a half-dozen bicycles. The small front yard is a parking lot for six cars. I suspect the ghost of Paranoid John still haunts the neighborhood, the last inhabitant of a much simpler time.

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