The Amoralists – Part One

            With severe apologies to Andre Gide …

    Does distance improve perception? Well, in my case perhaps 2400 miles have clarified a few escapades.

    Relocated now to Las Vegas (too early to claim “settled”), several scenes and the actors upon those now far away New York stages stalk under brighter light. Those acts having concluded years ago, they can today be reckoned through lengthy contemplation.

    Nothing has prepared me for the last two years. Disruption. Demise. Dislocation. Ready for such life occurrences as we swear, aren’t we forever caught out by these upheavals? Maneuver as best we can, coping is the best one can hope.

    As I told Shadow … ah, a later post about her. If I’m lucky, more than one.

    Celia and Fabio anchor this dispatch, along with me. All events transpired in suburban splendor. Okay, maybe the seamier part of splendor. Although compared against what tabloid print and broadcasting routinely splatter, ours could appear as responsible adult shenanigans. At least few could dispute the “adult” parts.

    The main setting: a three-story brick building whose first floor contained a dark corner bar, beer and chasers its specialties, sports blaring or right-wing nuts frothing on the widescreen the motif. On opposing walls, a glowing CD jukebox whose selections over-represent expended virility facing an unlighted cigarette machine. When New York cracked down on cigarette dispensers here was one of the few I recalled still seeing.

    Besides the unsuspected untoward activities going on inside, the enterprise’s name itself deceived. Or confounded. Given all that occurred, shouldn’t naming expectations have run towards a something snickeringly suggestive? Nope.

    Claggart’s. For fig leaf purposes let’s call it Claggart’s.

    With those block letters assembled across its awning, a clutch of English scholars ought have convened there. The nautical reference to a great piece of American literature alone should’ve made it that kind of watering hole. A tweedy one. Not an itchy and scratchy honey pot.

    But there you go. Poe was right about The Purloined Letter. Claggart’s confirmed it decade after decade. 

    For the longest time I lived a most compartmentalized life. It exemplified one of my favorite lines from The Sweet Smell of Success. In the movie, Burt Lancaster’s character, J.J. Hunsecker, adeptly explains his amorality to supplicant/D-League publicist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis):

     “… It’s been years since my right hand has known what my left was doing.”

     Sure. The morally upright reading the above might see cynicism unbound. Until life around me started disintegrating, I regarded it as the only way to be.

     If facets of life are contained in rooms, then I made sure those respective doors were always closed behind me. Any party occupying one chamber should never have had chances to peek or peer or gape into another. I wasn’t mysterious, criminal, sinister, or heaven forbid, creepy. Your author just looked favorably upon sealing each compartment off from prying eyes. This habit didn’t issue from shame. Neither from self-disgust. Simply put, no matter how innocuous, I rarely divulged tidbits about myself. There was nothing to hide. (Well, excluding a few tawdry occasions that can be chalked up to exuberance and opportunity!).

    It was that others needn’t know.

    Strange admission out of someone whose livelihood once derived from piercing strangers’ cloaks, huh? My attitude probably kept me off social media for the longest. Fine. More bytes and bits for notoriety starved extroverts like Paris and Kim. Anybody remember them?

    Of course there were near misses. That is if proximity counts. At most they might’ve left brushes or glancing recollections. Little lasting. Nothing memorable.

    Celia, Fabio and I played out in what can charitably be labeled a neighborhood strip bar. We emerged from such an open era. How did the climate become so repressive in such a short time?

    I refer to Claggart’s as such because other than the women peeling inside nothing else distinguished it from a run of the mill neighborhood bar. It didn’t scream “jiggle joint!”

    Obviously nearness to New York City offered sleeker and cheekier venues. Even at as late a date as we three cavorted that address should’ve been seen as an anomaly.

    New, no-fun morality snuffles around but it still has yet to penetrate those walls. While there’s much to be said about “grandfathering,” more must be mentioned regarding the periphery.

    Snugly settled on a residential block, an elementary school within hopscotch distance, local bluenoses haven’t vented at the veiled sinning amid them. Who is unaware of its location? It is the zeppelin blocking the sun.

    Because Claggart’s is inconspicuous. No outward signs of unseemliness.

    Too drunk patrons haven’t stumbled onto the pavement and disrupted nighttime suburban tranquility. Management ran a tight ship. If little sumthin’ extra on the side offers arose, the entertainers were damned discreet. And finally, and astoundingly, when narcotics were sold, these incidents happened off premises.

    Not from respect, of which there was a modicum. Nor that the bartenders had sharp eyes, which they did. Mostly because off-duty police and correction officers frequently bent elbows and tipped heavily inside. They, like us all, intuited Claggart’s as an insulated, isolated refuge. What fool would want to queer that?

    Not even the YAKS (Yugoslavs. Albanians. Kosovars. Serbians.), post Iron Curtain immigrants who packed their borderline Balkans crazy with them to America, transgressed. Elsewhere those wild-eyed pistol wavers thought nothing of imitating cartel Colombians (then) or Mexican gangs (now). Not inside or around Claggart’s, though. Tits and booze within reach blunted their shoot first and keep shooting inclinations.

    I dealt with Fabio long before Celia captivated me. Initially I discounted her. (Yeah. You bet I kept that to myself.)

    Not because she was Fabio’s, uh, what, lover, mistress, slam piece. At one time or another, Celia complaisantly filled all those slots. Were I unkind enough, I could qualify her as having always been, and improbably remaining, his fuck meat. I won’t. Throughout the years other women have amply replenished that last segment of Fabio’s handy chick roster.

    At first, Celia wasn’t my type. Eclectic as my tastes are, she failed fitting my floating criteria for many years. Knowing she bartended Saturdays kept me out of there on those nights.

    Grind as we did later, neither of us could have foreseen ourselves coupling. We didn’t mesh upon first sight. And we wouldn’t jibe until much later. It’s not that Celia didn’t appeal. She did.

    Slender though nowhere near androgynous. Years on, Celia retains a heart-shaped face.

    Our local newspaper, the old Reporter-Dispatch, ran a long-ago Christmas supplement (back when Christmas was still Christmas and not a “holiday”) whose cover page featured her life-sized image grinning mischievously.

    Rendered in pixels on newsprint, Celia styled an elf’s cap. An inspired touch. As one of Santa’s gamine emissaries, she appeared quite aware of who’d been bad — and who’d been really bad for goodness sakes!

    Her Yuletide portrait occupied an honored place for years. Right beside the men’s room entry.

    Celia’s figure allowed her to shamelessly wear tight midriff bearing tops and short snug skirts. This wardrobe further emphasized her leanness. Tottering-height stilettoes or boots further poofed her ass. Except for one silly stretch when she experimented with a perm Harpo Marx might’ve claimed too curly, Celia wore her auburn in a pageboy. Which was funny because, um, well, I’ll explain in Part Two.

    She saw us through green eyes. Unlike Fabio, I preferred kissing her bow lips when she didn’t wear lipstick. (Telltale lipstick led to his downfall. Literally.) Naturally Celia without a stitch made whether she’d smeared lipstick or not moot.  

    Rather than sneak around, we conducted ourselves surreptitiously. That’s from what little propriety existed in our mutual and exclusive involvements. Only silence earned all-around fidelity. We heeded that design faithfully. We didn’t know with whom each completed our roundelay. Nor particularly care.

    Fabio and Celia? Sure. Me and her? Uh-huh. Fabio and any woman with a pulse? Okay. Warm still. Yup. Celia and … ?  She had her own mystery trysts. Again never asked and she never volunteered. It could’ve been another patron. Or a stranger. Strangers? Her Thursday lover. Or a cohort.

    Funny thing. Through instinctive deduction, Fabio suspected another man tickled more than Celia’s fancy. Someone plumbed her beyond the physical, reaching the truly intimate. He discussed it with his buddies. Oh. Guys like me. The secret, if one must call it something, only could’ve been better if he’d asked who I suspected. I might’ve confessed, knowing he wouldn’t have believed me. A consequence which would’ve doubled my amusement.

    On some plane of just plain attraction, Fabio and Celia formed the basis of an ideally deceitful couple. Through her eyes, he was an American ideal. No. No jokes about needing her peepers checked. A Brazilian of Italian heritage, North American pop culture skewed Celia’s concept of gringo manhood. And wasn’t he just as smitten with himself as she was of him?

    Fabio was a perfect specimen of American male TV and film caricature sprung to life. Tall, chesty, his black flowing mane draping broad shoulders, carelessly handsome, loud, profane and opinionated, Fabio was a human locomotive who once racing at cannonball speed seemingly took forever to brake.

    When our eventual circle began forming in the late-80s, he’d recently completed his apprenticeship in one of the New York City construction trades. Adverse to book-learning and complications, a highly-paid hands-on gig providing generous benefits fulfilled the easily accessible dreams Fabio held.

    Even now after the attack has almost erased every vestige of formerly freewheeling New York, I still envision a less bruised Fabio and his work gang setting up hibachis on Midtown rooftop building sites and grilling lunch on those sweeter spring, summer and early autumn days. Also, while I can’t attest to it, a-hem, why, many claim they quaffed beer with these working man repasts. (Gasp!)

    Which probably explains all those workmen spied smuggling “element” onto sites.  

    Then, though, who cared? Jobs were properly completed. Living was less arduous. Pleasures didn’t impoverish.

    The city and who all supped from it believed themselves at their apogees. Less prosaically and more Ralph Kramden: could life offer any more?

    The attack just didn’t kill, maim and destroy, which resulted in making silly excessive caution a new normal New York City condition. It also robbed Gotham of its accustomed imprudence.

    Fabio and I were area locals who lived in distinctly different zip codes. His looked upon Long Island Sound. Mine looked down on his. We shared proximate ages and same tastes for no strings attached female company. I avoided all the mistakes Fabio made. Or he committed all the mistakes I avoided.   

    His family owned the edifice housing Claggart’s, as well as a decent chunk of surrounding property. Their namesakes had long established themselves. While nowhere near gentry, Fabio’s people possessed respectable history. No doubt their past explains how a rattrap tavern scored the clearances to transform itself into strip club set amid residential suburbia.

    A sin den known to us during high school, I didn’t make my first trek down to Claggart’s until my late 20s. Curiosity finally lured me. Besides, visiting Claggart’s provided surer, shorter, and admittedly safer alternatives those fraught early morning drives back home to Quarropas from Manhattan after nights at Danceteria/the Ritz/Rascals/Downtown Beirut/the Peppermint Lounge.

    I met my first true lesbians at the Pep. No comfortable shoes for them. That sisterhood was butch and exuded unnatural heat. Unnatural as in level of animal hunger. Remembered correctly, they sought mouseburgers to knead into taffy.

    Anyway, Manhattan club bouncers vying to see who could be the biggest asshole? Yes. Ubiquitous velvet ropes? Eye-rolling bottle service? Looming, but not just then.

    Blunt in an unarguably honest manner, Fabio is an easy guy to like. Outside of promiscuity little else mirrored us. My “book learning” could’ve been a barrier, but we were both ardent former jocks. That brotherhood connects all kinds. So we became peers. Back then we each dedicated hours sweating at our respective gyms. Though as years accumulated maybe he augmented his devotion with certain complex chemical compositions. Before breaking down in his 40s, Fabio’s hard mass might’ve surpassed that of 20 year olds.

    And he wasn’t a vegetable eating, milk drinking, early to sleep guy, either.

    The progression of women who performed at Claggart’s reflects the era’s immigration pattern. First Colombians, then some mélange of Balkan babes and Russians, followed by Brazilians. During my finals visits, American chicks, clapped out ones, resumed topless supremacy there.

    An apt description of Fabio? He’s an absolute dog. Friday nights he tended bar and ruled. That meant after midnights bedlam threatened erupting. Unable to vouch for evenings other than Fridays and Saturdays, I’ll go out on a limb and state Fabio-proctored frivolity had fewer limits compared to other nights. Wasn’t the heavy metal and stadium rock thundering off the juke box louder? Didn’t the booze flow harder? Weren’t voices more strident?

    Claggart’s posted a 2 a.m. close but Celia and Fabio scoffed at it. They did so in manners befitting them.

    At closing, Fabio exiled all except his cronies. After darkening façade lighting and jiffy cleaning the interior, sometimes one or two dancers hung around. Even when Claggart’s lacked afterhours female company, he still poured, served and pontificated freely.

    When those one or two strippers lingered, we watched our king treat them like party favors. And occasionally we’d dig in, too. None of us availed ourselves to the extent of the Alpha Dog. If she was willing, Fabio exhibited scant compunction in gratifying her orally. Atop the bar. I suppose one might call that a taste of things to come.

    Claggart’s the bar crowded the address’ ground floor. The second mostly served as storage and housed a kitchen and bathroom; while the third, jammed in an attic, held a bedroom. Again, if she were willing, and after shooing the rest of us into night, Fabio would entice then escort his new brief friend upstairs. He left these playtimes to our imaginations.

    One thing about him, a good thing, he never prattled about his sexcapades. Naturally had Fabio done so he would’ve bored us sooner rather than later because a considerable number of women carried their shoes while climbing those stairs barefoot. At least Celia did.

    In the attic expanded a queen-sized bed. Its white linens were always fresh. Also squeezed in this space a necessary chair and bedsit. A lamp sat on the latter. If that device ever held a bulb stronger than dim, I never saw it.

    Should one wonder whether the furniture’s purpose clear at the start, or did this too convenient setup evolve? Was it part of a rental deal the landlords decided to discontinue? Or did we cavort in a from Day One fuck pad? Let’s choose evolution.

    The foot of the bed gazed out a window looking across the Sound, or, if preferred, down onto the street along Claggart’s. I don’t know whether the headboard blocked a similar rear vantage, this focusing on a neighboring house in back. As a gesture of modesty, someone had hung curtains across the known window. A gesture, certainly, because the slung material was so thin streetlamps and passing car headlights fairly lit the attic from below. In mornings the gauze became diaphanous.

    That was another good thing about Fabio. Reckless as he was in his ways, he never forgot to change sheets afterwards. Both he and Celia were sticklers in this respect. Reaching that accord must’ve strained both their bargaining skills.

    It took me until almost 40 before I noticed Celia. Well, it wasn’t as miraculous as that. Scales just didn’t suddenly pop off my eyes. Nor was revenge – hers – a factor. A few twists and turns passed before we launched ourselves into guiltless mutual enjoyment.

-15-

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