I recently received the following note:
“Hello, In 1981 a friend and I drove from NYC to Milwaukee to surprise the band. The guy I went with has become a very well respected author. He just was commissioned to write a screenplay with a famous hollywood director.
He has written a story about our trip. The story has been approved by Glenn. I’d like to post the story if allowed..”
Yes, you’re allowed.
Do I need to tell you which band the Bunjeeze actually were?
Not The Bunjeeze Story
Hyman Rose, 78, Brooklyn Carpet King
The man who turned a small Brooklyn remnant warehouse into the largest
discount carpet chain in New York City, died of natural causes in his Jupiter,
Florida home on September 2. His body is being flown back to New York for
burial. Funeral arrangements are pending. Mr. Rose is survived by his second
wife Phillis, his son Gary, daughter Hanna, stepdaughters Mandy Reich and
Cindy Marcus as well as four grandchildren.
Where is it written that coming of age stories necessarily include the angst-ridden, hormone induced strum und drang of teenagers, and that the ultimate rite of passage must somehow involve at least one ham-handed attempt at purchasing condoms? First of all, I think people come of age in fits and starts, in pieces. I’m waiting for FedEx to deliver my last pieces and I’m forty-three. Until you come of age in your head and in your heart, what does the rest of it matter? Who is the yahoo who decreed first sexual experiences are the measure by which the world should judge a man or a woman’s arrival?
So yeah, you guessed it, this is a coming of age story. It’s mine. It’s about a trip to Milwaukee, where, on the way back to Brooklyn, my head and heart finally got on the same lap as the rest of me. There’s no sex, no teenagers, no combination thereof. There’s a little marijuana and some rock and roll, if that’s any consolation to you.
Okay, so now you want to know what the hell this has got to do with the late Hyman Rose, Carpet King of Kings County—that’s Brooklyn, NY, by the way. It doesn’t have to do with him, not directly. I mean, Hy was a sweet man; sold carpet to my wife and me once at an amazing discount. It was seeing Hy’s obituary that got me thinking. That’s what writers do. We think a lot, write sometimes, and occasionally get paid for our troubles. Who I was thinking about was Hy’s son, Gary. We used to be pretty good friends, Gary and me. For a few years there, we were really tight. Then we drifted apart. That’s the dark side of American life, don’t you think, drifting apart?
There were reasons, good reasons for the distance between us. There are always good reasons, at least they always seem so at the time. But for this telling, they are unimportant. I will say we haven’t spoken since the night of his wedding, about ten years ago. It got back to me that I had uttered some impolitic riffs on Gary’s inner soul while the video camera was rolling. Apparently, the royal “We” was not amused. But hey, that’s what you get for mixing vodka, videotape, and the truth. Gary decided to edit me out of the wedding video and his new life at the same time. I think it was the only time in my life I’ve approved of an edit. It brought to an end the obligatory phone calls full of awkward silences and discussion of passing cold fronts. But even during those stilted conversations, one of us might bring up the Bunjeeze story. As long as we lived that story, there was no drift between us, no rift, only magic.
Let me tell you about writers, we’re, most of us, watchers. The lives our readers imagine for us are usually far more exciting than the ones we lead. We manage to write almost in spite of ourselves. I think one of the things about Gary I took to immediately was that, unlike me, he wasn’t a watcher. He did stuff. He was impulsive. He gave himself permission to dream unreasonably. Another thing about Gary was that he loved music, maybe even a little too much, if such a thing is possible. It was the combination of his impulsiveness and his love of music that cemented our friendship.
Gary was an absolute Beatles freak. I loved the Beatles, too, but my appreciation was run-of-the-mill, sheep-like passivity. I listened to their music. Listening wasn’t enough for Gary. He went to Beatles conventions and collected rare recordings and paraphernalia. You know, the type of stuff people deride in public, but wish they had the wherewithal to do themselves. He knew every goddamned thing there was to know about the Fab Four. He could recite entire sections of dialogue from their movies and could do flawless imitations of every one of the group except for Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe.
What I found amazing was not necessarily that he did these things, but that he did them while maintaining some sense of dignity. Unlike Star Trek geeks, who ran around dressed in Star Fleet garb and send Live Long and Prosper holiday cards from the crew of the Enterprise, Gary never felt compelled to wear a mop-top hairdo—which, given his kinky hair, would have been a remarkable feat in and of itself. He didn’t bow from the waist, erect a shrine to Brian Epstein, or claim to be the Walrus. His license plate didn’t read REV N09 or LVMED0.
Gary had all the usual photos from his first trip to England: Gary and his traveling companions walking across the street in St. Johns Wood near Abbey Road Studios, Gary in Liverpool at Strawberry Fields, Gary on Penny Lane in the shelter in the middle of the roundabout. Almost everyone I know has one or more of those shots, but Gary is the only person I know who has a photograph of himself with every Beatle. And I don’t mean the type of photo where Gary is a microscopic face in the background while John, Paul, George, or Ringo run in terror from a frenzied mob of fans. No, In each snapshot—John signing a book for Gary, Paul hugging Gary, George shaking Gary’s hand, Ringo putting Gary in a playful headlock—the individual Beatles actually look happy and at ease with him. Gary wanted to meet the Beatles. He met the Beatles. Like I said, Gary did things. Me, I looked at pictures.
Gary had other photos, too. Many with big rock stars like Fleetwood Mac and some with one hit
wonders like Walter “Magnet and Steel” Egan. What fascinated me was not only how he managed to meet these people, but why he chose certain rockers and not others. The how, he said, was the easy part. There were two basics: you had to find out at which hotel the band was staying—which was an art unto itself—or locate the bar closest to the concert venue at which the band was playing. The why piece of the equation was a more mysterious process. Sometimes it was as simple as taste. He either liked the music or, as in the case of Fleetwood Mac, had a huge crush on Stevie Nicks. With whom, by the way, Gary went grocery shopping. I know, it’s bizarre, right? But my favorite story involves Gary and the Boss.
Gary had located Springsteen’s hotel and, in the dead of winter, waited out front of said hotel until 4:00 AM, He spots Springsteen and Miami Steve getting out of a cab. Gary, an acoustic guitar in hand, heads them off at the hotel entrance.
“Man, it’s cold out here, brother,” Springsteen says in his sweet Jersey rasp. “You been waitin’ out here all night?”
“It was worth it,” Gary answered. “Could you sign my guitar?”
Gary whips out a pen, hands Miami Steve his camera, and that was that.
The best part of the story is that Gary, in his enthusiasm and desire to preserve the Boss’ inscription, went home and coated the autograph in spray lacquer. Unfortunately, the lacquer acted as a solvent and washed away nearly the entire inscription off the guitar. All that’s left is the blurry loop of the upper case B. Though not much of a writer, Gary wasn’t blind to the power of dramatic irony and even he understood it was a much better story for his not having read the ingredients label on the spray can.
How did Gary find out what hotel Springsteen was staying at? It was pretty easy, apparently. No self-respecting rock star stayed in the outer boroughs—not in those days—so that eliminated all the hotels in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. Then, figuring Springsteen had already gone through his Chelsea Hotel phase, but was probably still too uncomfortable with the size and glitz of the Waldorf or Pierre class of hostelry, Gary focused on smaller, top rung hotels that bordered Central Park. Having narrowed the field, Gary started calling around. But, you say, even if Gary hit upon the right hotel, Springsteen wouldn’t be registered under his own name. And, according to Gary, you’d be right. Road managers, however, don’t usually have a pressing need to travel incognito. So posing as a reporter for a college newspaper, Gary called Columbia Records and got the name of Springsteen’s road manager. The rest was easy.
But I digress, because this is my story, not Gary’s. I didn’t come of age in the sense it’s usually meant until I was nineteen. I was apartment watching for my brother Aaron and my girlfriend helped me cross the precipice at which I’d been standing just this side of for years. Or maybe that’s not how coming of age is usually meant. I had a serious infatuation with Stacy Gottstein when I turned twelve, had sideburns and a mustache six months later, and got bar mitzvahed six months after that. Like I said before, I think coming of age comes in pieces and those were some of mine.
When I met Gary, I’d already left college, moved into my own apartment, and fallen into a career that had as much to do with my higher education as Camus had to do with collard greens. Which, unless the existentialist had a secret yen for soul food, was zero. I was the manager of the export department for an air freight company at Kennedy airport. Those were pieces, too.
Zach Lansky, a childhood friend of mine, introduced me to Gary. They lived in the same apartment building on Ocean Parkway. In some alternate universe, the three of us might have shared an apartment instead of living alone as we did. But on planet Earth, each of us with the temperament of Asian Fishing Cats—who often kill potential breeding partners, never mind other males—we were safer in solitary. Zach is a story unto himself and, in a sense, he already is. There’s a character in a few of my novels modeled on Zach. His dad was a camp survivor. Do you know any camp survivors? I’ve had a mysterious, often dubious pleasure of knowing many. Suffice it to say, survivors tend to pass their dark worldview onto their children. The Holocaust, the gift that keeps on giving.
Zach got the gift real good. In Zach’s world there are only fuckers and the fucked and he was determined to be among the former regardless the expense to the latter. As you might expect, this attitude tends to get in the way of sustained friendship. It gets in the way of our constantly. But for all of his paranoia, Zach’s one of the funniest, most creative people I have ever known. Or should I say, that I used to know. We are no longer on speaking terms. I’m not sure why, though I suspect it has to do with Gary. Once, in a moment of marijuana induced self-reflection, Zach admitted to me that he hated introducing his old friends to his new friends for fear they would bond to his exclusion. That was, of course, exactly what happened. It was self-fulfilling prophecy. The truth is that Zach’s edge, his paranoia, his lack of faith in people, got to Gary. I’d grown up with Zach, so while I wasn’t immune to the corrosive effects of his untrusting nature, I was at least capable of turning a selective blind eye to it.
On summer Saturdays, Gary and I would hang out on tar beach—his roof or mine—get high, listen to music, and talk about shit. Sometimes, Zach would hang with us, too, but as Gary and I got closer, Zach distanced himself from us until he became more and more a ghost. It was on one of these lazy, Zach-less Saturdays that the plan to meet the Bunjeeze was hatched. You can call it chance, fate, or serendipity. No matter. For whatever you label it, bear in mind that neither Gary nor I went up to the roof that day thinking about the Bunjeeze.
The Bunjeeze were a Brit, pub-rock band out of London’s rough and tumble East End. Theirs wasn’t a household name on this side of the pond, but they had two or three top forty hits. Critics loved them—Quirky, witty, their lyrics reminiscent of the mid-‘60s Beatles without stooping to simple homage—as did other musicians. Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, and Paul McCartney clambered to produce future Bunjeeze albums. At that moment in time, they were at the level of fame, I think, fans enjoy most of all. While well respected, they operated just beneath the radar screen of stardom. Listening to them, taking to them, gave a fan a sense of real discovery. A fan could still feel proprietary about them and exalt in a kind of knowing, clandestine pride. The feeling never lasts. It can’t. Bands either zoom into popular consciousness or fade or evolve in a direction no longer to your taste. But for that brief frozen moment in fandom time, nothing quite feels so good.
Well, the Bunjeeze were at that proprietary stage and Gary and I were charter members of their clandestine society. So we were up on the roof that late June Saturday. In between tokes, Gary was tearing into his dad—one of his favorite pastimes, as he had never forgiven his father for his parents’ divorce—complaining that Hy kept bugging him about getting into the carpet business. No matter what you might think, part of me was grateful for Gary’s bitching. On the one hand, it made me confront my resentment toward my own dad. The only business he ever owned went belly up and his only enduring legacies were failure and rage. At the same time, Gary’s rantings made me see how lucky I was to have been a part of a whole family, regardless of how wildly dysfunctional and flawed that family may have been. I think about that now, sometimes, when my kids hear my wife and I fighting.
On that particular Saturday, however, I wasn’t in the mood for Gary’s bellyaching. We’d had dinner with Hy the previous week. He always treated me well, paid for my meal, and encouraged my friendship with his son. Though Gary was a handsome enough guy, his choice of women, according to his father, left something to be desired. I frequently hooked Gary up with dates more to Hy’s liking. I wonder if any of those women could find it in their hearts to forgive me now.
Like I said, Gary was railing against his father. Early on I had learned it was just better to change the subject than to deal with Gary’s anger head on. Problem was, I had to come up with a suitable change of subject. I can’t recall now what I was going to say, but the radio rendered whatever my intention was moot. A Bunjeeze song, “Redemption,” about a guy torn between his longtime love and the temptations of the road, came on and Gary’s anger melted away. Five seconds into the song, Gary was dip dip dipping the harmony and playing air drums. Me, I was singing. Good thing the radio was turned up loud we were on a noisy rooftop in Brooklyn because my singing voice had been known to curdle milk. And my singing might have been the basis for a challenge to the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
When the song ended, we were both smiling broadly. Yeah, sure, the melody was really catchy, but it was the lyrics that blew us away. Let’s face it, the subject of the song was pretty standard fare, yet by using some East end idioms and ironic turns of phrase, they’d managed to make the concept fresh. No mean feat in rock and roll.
I’d always been a lyrics freak. I think that’s what led me to write and publish poetry in the first place. My college writing professor once remarked that my work was evidently influenced by Blake, Eliot, and Jarrell. He was curious as to which one was most influential.
“Emerson,” I said.
“Ralph Waldo Emerson?”
“No, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Steely Dan, too.”
I can still remember the sick look on his face. What can I say? I was a sucker for adolescent white boy music.
So anyway, the song had turned off Gary’s vitriol spigot and changed his mood into a joyful one. I was moved by the amazing transformational power of a three minute pop song. Almost unconsciously, and certainly without forethought, the following words came out of my mouth, “I’d like to meet those guys.”
“Okay,” Gary said and, by so doing, forever changing my life.
It would be impossible for me to outline the mechanics of how that one word—Okay—had such a profound effect. Suffice it to say it helped me step out of the world of my own head into the world of actors and doers. For the first time in all my twenty-five years, someone had given me permission to dream and to act on it to make it come true.
I don’t know how, but Gary sensed, even before I did, that this was a unique moment for me and that, in this instance, his usual modus operandi of locating the band’s hotel wouldn’t do justice to the moment.
“We’ve gotta make them notice us in the crowd,” Gary said, the gears already churning.
“Out of thousands of people in the dark. How are they gonna take notice the two of us? I mean, with the stage lights in their eyes, they can’t really see anybody, right?”
He prodded me. “Think! You’re the creative guy, remember?”
I’d never thought Gary an insightful guy, but it was clear he understood me better than I might have suspected. I wouldn’t be allowed to be passive, to just come along for the ride, or to simply hitch my ambition onto his cart. For this to be meaningful, I would have to help plan it.
“All right,” I said, again the words coming out of my mouth seemingly of their own volition, “we’ve got to get noticed. So, let’s toss something up on the stage during one of their songs that reflects the lyrics they’re singing. “Wait, I’ve got it. What’s that line from ‘Stealing Pennies From the Well”? ‘I just got the sack, now I’m reading a Raymond Chandler paperback?’”
Gary smiled that big white smile of his and clapped his hands together. “Right direction, wrong prop. With your arm, you’ll probably give one of them a concussion. The idea’s to get noticed, not arrested. And besides, we need to buy a lot of props, not just one or two. What’s the first line of ‘Redemption’?”
I closed my eyes and listened to the organ into in my head and muttered, “’I bought a paintbrush, a canvas, saw a vision of your face …’ Holy shit! That’s it. Paintbrushes.”
Gary was smiling that smile again. Paintbrushes, the little ones, were very cheap, not usually lethal, and readily available. I offered him my right hand and he took it. I’m not sure when he gave it back. I had only to agree to two other conditions: I had to fork over seventy-five bucks and leave my nights free for two weeks that coming July when the Bunjeeze would be touring in the New York metro area. I agreed and gave him the money the following Monday. As for leaving my nights free … that was a breeze. Though I dated a lot, I had not significant other. There hadn’t been one since 1977, but I’ll get to that later.
The next few weeks went by without mention of the plan. I was glad for the silence. I guess I was a little bit embarrassed. This was kid stuff and I wasn’t a kid. I convinced myself that nothing was going to come of it. Come on, no one actually does the things they talk about when they’re stoned. Christ, half the time you can’t even remember what it was you were planning on doing in the first place. I figured Gary and I would go to a few shows and he’d get around to giving me change from my seventy-five bucks sometime before the end of the ‘80s. Remember when concerts only cost between ten and twenty bucks? These days seventy-five bucks won’t get you through one door.
When I got home from work on the next to last Thursday in July, I found Gary parked out front of my apartment building. Nothing so unusual in that. He was a stereo salesman at Looney Larry’s on Kings Highway—only about half a mile from where I lived—and often worked odd hours. I gave him a nod to come on upstairs, but he balked. Instead, he popped open the trunk of his car. How thrilling, I thought, looking at the four small cardboard cartons in his trunk.
“Guess,” Gary said, elbowing me.
“You stole some mini speakers from Looney Larry’s.”
He ran the blade of a box cutter along the center seam of one of the boxes. And when he pulled the flaps back, I knew I’d been wrong about the plan. For in the box were hundreds of little black-stemmed paintbrushes. Five hundred in each box, Gary informed me. When I asked what we were going to do with two thousand little paintbrushes, he was indignant and told me he would have bought more if the supplier hadn’t run out of stock. He then handed me six tickets for shows the Bunjeeze were playing in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut over a ten day stretch.
“Now, let’s go upstairs and have a beer.”
The first show was on a Friday night in some cockamamie theater in Staten Island. My guess is the owners had reconditioned the old place in the hope of profiting from the trend towards smaller venues. Bad move. I don’t think a Beatles’ reunion could have kept that place afloat. For our purposes, though, it couldn’t have been better. There was no seating up front of the stage, just a dance floor or a place to stand and rock out. Moshing hadn’t yet taken off as a concert activity. So we got there early, loaded up our pockets, socks, and jackets with paintbrushes. This was also back at a time when you could get into a venue without being x-rayed, scanned, or undergoing a full cavity search. We got a good spot up front, just to the left of center stage.
We enjoyed the opening act; GE Smith, the guitarist from the Hall and Oates band and future leader of the Saturday Night Live Orchestra. By the time the Bunjeeze came on, the place was packed. The crowd was psyched and buzzing. It was the band’s first gig on tour with their new keyboard player, Pete Stahlrich, and their nerves showed a bit. They weren’t as crisp as they would be in a week or two, but they fed off the crowd’s enthusiasm and picked up momentum as the show progressed. About three quarters of the way into their set, their lead singer and guitarist, Benson Wilfork, stepped to the mic and said, “Here’s the single from our latest album.”
Gary and I removed the brushes from their hiding places during the organ into to “Redemption” and as soon as Stahlrich finished singing, “I bought a paintbrush…” we lobbed the little props onto the stage. Though the band continued playing, Gary and I were close enough to see the initial fear in their eyes transform into confusion and then to delight as they realized what was being tossed up onto the stage. During a solo in the song, Benson Wilfork, looked, unseeing, in our direction, told us we were great, and playfully began tossing the paintbrushes into the audience. The place went mad. Gary looked at me, winked, and shook my hand.
“So far,” he said, “so good.”
We didn’t know just how good until that Sunday night. This was their second show at a place called Emerald City in New Jersey. This venue, too, had a dance floor in front of the stage and we repeated our successful formula; arriving early and getting a good spot just left of center stage. This go around, however, we wore larger jackets and brought in more paintbrushes. Again, the place was packed and there seemed to be a different kind of buzz in the crowd. I didn’t understand what the buzz was about until I overheard a group of people discussing the first show on Staten Island. It was unreal, man. They started singing that new song and all of a sudden somebody starts throwing paintbrushes onto the stage. It was so fuckin’ cool.
I couldn’t wait to tell Gary, who’d gone to get us a couple of beers. When he got back, we spoke simultaneously. I deferred to him.
“When I got on line for beers,” he said, “there were like ten people talking about the first show and about the paintbrushes. What a rush.”
I nodded to the group next to us and repeated to Gary what I had heard them say. But that was really just the start of it because when the Bunjeeze took the stage, Benson Wilfork challenged the crowd to be as good as the previous crowd in Staten Island. They were the craziest bunch we ever played to in the States.
His challenge was met. This time, Gary and I handed out some paintbrushes to the crowd surrounding us. Hey, you’re the paintbrush guys. Cool. We warned our new enlistees to wait for our cue and not to throw the brushes too hard. Things went off better than expected. This time, the whole band tossed the brushes back into the crowd during the song and continued to do so for the remainder of the set.
When the band came back on stage for the encore, Benson stepped to the mic and told the stagehands to turn down the spotlights and to turn up the house lights.
“Now where are you, you mischievous devils?”
There were hundreds of fingers pointing at Gary and me. I’m not sure he could clearly make out our faces, but he told us we were mad and gave us the thumbs up salute. After the show, some kid actually asked for my autograph. Celebrity was cheap even back then.
At the following show in Manhattan, there was reserved seating. Our seats were close, but not close enough for us to aim at the stage with any accuracy, so we walked up front, did our thing, and sat back down. This was a bigger crowd than the previous two shows combined and I doubt anyone at the rear of the venue understood what was going on. The band was delighted as before, yet there was no comment, no demand to adjust the stage lights or house lights. The next show was in the same venue and, to a large extent, everything else was the same.
It was the fifth show, out on Long Island, where things changed. We were back in a smaller theater and as with the first two shows, there was standing room near the stage. This time, however, as soon as the organ rang with the first chords of “Redemption” several people to our extreme right threw paintbrushes up onto the stage. The band looked blasé about the whole thing and though Gary and I were faithful to the plan, some of the fun had gone out of it. I couldn’t own it anymore. Gary seemed to get a kick out of what had happened.
“The other brushes? Don’t worry. It’s good, you’ll see. Wait till we get to Hartford on Saturday.”
But I didn’t see. It was a long drive to Connecticut in bad weather. The venue, for all intents and purposes, was a big ugly barn in the middle of nowhere on the distant outskirts of Hartford. The décor was neo-Urban Cowboy and you could see the metal plate on the floor where the mechanical bull had once thrown future orthopedic patients onto their dumb asses. There was no seating at all. The acoustics sucked and GE Smith’s set was starting to get on my nerves. Other than that, it was a glorious experience. We tossed paintbrushes, the band laughed. No one else threw brushes. So much for the sincerest form of flattery. End of story. Only it wasn’t … not even close.
Both of us were exhausted and more than a little burnt out, so we barely spoke at all on the way back to Brooklyn. Six shows in ten days was fun, but no matter how much you enjoy something or someone, it can get old pretty damned fast. I can only imagine what the band must’ve felt like and they had something like seventy more shows to do in the States and Canada. I was even too tired to point out to Gary that the plan had failed. We hadn’t, in point of fact, met the Bunjeeze. No matter how cool their initial reaction to the paintbrush thing, we’d fallen short of our goal. By the time we pulled up in front of my building, our mood had lightened a bit.
“It’s been fun, man,” I said, patting Gary’s shoulder. “I’ve never done anything like that and I couldn’t have or wouldn’t have done it without you. I guess it was cool that people copied us. Nice try anyway.”
“Yeah,” Gary agreed, a twinkle in his eye. “Rest up.”
Ten days later, Gary called me at my office. We barely spoken and hadn’t seen each other since the Hartford death march. He wanted to know if my big brother Jeff still lived in Milwaukee.
“Sure he does, but what’s that have to do with anything?”
“Good,” Gary said. “Call him up and tell him to buy us tickets to see the Bunjeeze next Saturday at the Electric Ballroom.”
I was silent. The thought of going back to Milwaukee was tearing my guts apart. I was desperate to go back and equally desperate not to. Why? Even now, decades after leaving Milwaukee behind me and moving back home with my tail between my legs, it’s difficult to explain.
My brother, Jeff’s first teaching job after graduate school was in the philosophy department at UWM—University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. In the summer of ’76, two of my buddies—Zach Lansky being one of them—drove out to visit Jeff and spend a few days at Summerfest. Summerfest is this big sort of state fair extravaganza along the shore of Lake Michigan. One night during our stay we went to Century Hall, an old bowling alley that had been converted into a bar. While there, I managed to meet and fall in love with our waitress. Much to her eventual regret, the feeling was mutual.
Laura was a dancer, painter, and actress studying fine arts at UWM. There have been women I loved more, prettier women, women with whom sex had been more intense, but there had never been a women to whom I was so immediately and intensely attracted. Don’t tell anyone, but just thinking about those first few seconds still makes my heart race a little. Analytical as I am, I’ve never tried to figure out why. Whatever the reason, we were inseparable over the remainder of my stay. Before I left, I invited her to come spend time with me back in New York.
Our time together in New York was amazing. We did Broadway, the Village, the Bronx Zoo, Coney Island, the Empire State Building … You get the picture. And by the end of her stay, we were expressing eternal love for one another. It was magic, but magic can be a dangerous thing. Our phone calls became long moments of glorious torture and during one of those rapturous, torturous moments, she weakened. That was her first mistake. Laura thought it would be great if I could move out there with her until she finished school. Then when she was done, we could move back to New York and live happily ever after. I told her I’d think about it. That was my first mistake.
I spent the fall term at Brooklyn College thinking of little else. I might have survived my preoccupation if I’d stayed at BC, but I had transferred to the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Why did I leave Brooklyn College, a school where I had maintained a 3.6 plus GPA? Why did I leave a school where the average class size for my major and minor averaged less than thirty students in favor of a school where class size meant the entire middle class? No kidding, most of my classes at SUNY Stony Brook were held in lecture halls that held hundreds of students. Why did I leave a well-respected humanist psych program for a school where the psych faculty used to joke that Freud wasn’t worthy of cleaning the rat shit off the lab floors?
The long answer is too long and the short answer is nearly as complex. Briefly, I was afraid. I wasn’t so much running to a new school as I was running away from the old one. Fear and escape were part of an old pattern of mine and it was a pattern I would soon repeat.
I was miserable at Stony Brook for a host of reasons that had nothing to do with Laura. Missing her simply made everything else worse. Never having been away from home, I wasn’t ready for the freedom nor the responsibility of it. Unlike people who’d had years to adjust to it while freshmen and sophs, I walked into the buzz saw of upper level classes without anytime to settle in. By late October I’d dropped two classes and was dangerously close to not matriculating. One particularly miserable night, I called Laura and told her I was leaving school at the end of the semester. I had run this far. Why not a little further?
When she agreed to my moving to Milwaukee, I think she must’ve been in shock. Only years later did I find out she had gone to my brother Jeff, pleading with him to talk me out of coming. I don’t recall that he tried. I wouldn’t have listened if he had. Christ, I ignored all the warning signs in my lover’s voice, so why would I listen to my brother? Some of my friends thought me terribly romantic. Some thought me terribly idiotic. Regardless of into which category they fell, the general consensus among my friends was that I was pretty brave for daring it. Funny how that works. I wasn’t brave or daring enough to confess to them I was running away.
Laura came to New York for Christmas and we drove back to Wisconsin together in my rusted out Pontiac Lemans. I think we started fighting before we made it across the Verrazano Bridge to Staten Island and didn’t stop until the day I left Milwaukee several months later. Anyway, nearing Gary, Indiana I got sleepy and Laura drove the last hundred plus miles. My first waking memory of my new life in Milwaukee was of us skidding into a ten foot snow bank in front of Laura’s building. Looking back, I won’t say that I should have unloaded Laura’s things, kissed her goodbye, turned my ass right around, and gone home. I won’t say it now because I knew, even then, that it was all an awful mistake.
I could go into the details of why it never had a chance at working, about how and why things disintegrated before our eyes, about who was responsible for sabotaging what, but that’s for another time, another story. I can say this, by the time I left Milwaukee, I was drinking heavily, I was no longer speaking to Jeff, I was barely speaking to my sister-in-law, and I was emotionally numb. Drained doesn’t do it justice. I was empty. That’s why it was easy for me to keep my nights free for concerts and throwing paintbrushes. For nearly four years, one night stands were all I could bear and most of the time, even they lasted too long to suit me. It got back to me Laura was newly pregnant and married less than six months after I left. Talk about opposing reactions!
“Hey!” Gary shouted in my ear. Planet Earth calling. Planet Earth calling.’
“Sorry,” I said, ending my brief time travel. “You know I can’t take Friday off. In the air export business, everything goes out on Fridays.”
“How many hours does it take to drive to Milwaukee?”
“If we don’t stop too frequently, about sixteen or seventeen hours.”
“Good. I’ll pick you up in front of your apartment building next Friday at 7:00 pm. Now call your brother.”
I did. Jeff and I were talking again by then, but the damage done during my time in Milwaukee had yet to be fully repaired. It took the better part of two decades for all the wounds to heal. “Sure,” he said, “come on.” He said he missed me. I wasn’t sure I believed that, but it didn’t matter. He said getting tickets wouldn’t be a problem because he had a student that worked the box office at the Electric Ballroom. After I told Gary the good news, he made sure to avoid my calls until the day we were to leave. He didn’t want to give me a chance to back out. What did he care about my sleepless nights?
“You planned this all along, didn’t you?” I asked, tossing my duffel bag into the backseat of his Regal.
He admitted that going far out of state to see the Bunjeeze was part of the plan, but that he hadn’t planned on it being Milwaukee. The choice of city had been a contest between Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. Both were close enough to drive to and from in one weekend, but Pittsburgh was close. Advantage Pittsburgh. The band had to be playing on a Saturday night and they were playing both Pittsburgh and Milwaukee on Saturday nights. No advantage to either city. We needed easy access to tickets and a cheap place to crash. Big advantage to Milwaukee. Remember, these were pre-internet days. No surf, click, and PayPal. Just great, I thought, Jeff was the deciding factor.
It occurred to me that Gary was unaware of what had happened to me in Milwaukee. He wasn’t completely ignorant of the general gist of what happened, but we’d met after the first debilitating waves of heartache and depression had subsided, when I was tired of telling my tale of woe to anyone with a pulse. By then I had forsaken telling the intimate details of my crash and burn. By then I had distilled those horrible months into a few neat paragraphs. Yet in those brief seconds it took me to get into the car beside Gary and latch my shoulder harness, I realized I had been swallowing the pain so long I had learned not to notice.
Somewhere around Harrisburg, PA, Gary grew tired of my vacant stare and one word answers, reminding me that this wasn’t actually the Bataan Death March.
“Tell me about it,” he said. “We’ve got plenty of time.”
I opened my mouth to lie, to say I didn’t know what he was referring to. Of course I knew. He wanted to hear about Milwaukee, about Laura and Jeff and the trauma. He wanted to hear it and I wanted to tell it. I can’t say just how long it took, but we were out of Pennsylvania, through Ohio, and into Indiana by the time I finished. Not having talked in depth about my travails in Milwaukee for years, I was shocked at the detail with which I related every painful detail.
“Man, I’m sorry,” Gary said. “I had no idea it was so bad.”
“How could you? I never really talked about it with you. Don’t be sorry. I should thank you.”
I wasn’t just trying to ease Gary’s guilt. Not my style. I really did appreciate the chance to air out what I had made a career of bundling up inside me. You see the thing was, I may have recounted the details perfectly, but as my lips and tongue shaped the words and I listened to them come out of my mouth, I realized the nature of my hurt had changed. It was shallow, less angry than it had once been.
We had been too young, made too many blind promises without thinking things through. We hadn’t known each other, not really. The miles between us had allowed a romance to blossom that might’ve only lasted a few weeks before dying of its own momentum. Once the distance had been removed, we ate each other alive. And at that moment, I thought of Laura and Milwaukee and smiled for the first time in four years. This go around, I drove the stretch from Indiana to Milwaukee.
We got to my brother’s house around noon on Saturday. Jeff was smiling, so too was my sister-in-law Misty and Jason, my three-year-old nephew. Jason’s smile was biggest of all.
“Did you really play football?” he asked me.
Gary and I took him out in the backyard and we played tag for a little while and threw a Nerf football around. Then we hit a wall and Gary and I about collapsed where we stood. I was glad for the exhaustion or else I might’ve been tempted to go searching for my past in the wilds of Wauwatosa—the suburb where Laura grew up—or at the all-night grocery store where I had once worked and occasionally bounced three dollar checks.
Misty got us up around six for dinner. Jeff grilled up some Usinger hot dogs and bratwursts. Point beer and Usinger sausages were two of the things I missed about Wisconsin. We all ate like horses. Even Misty, who was eating for two. She was carrying my nephew Jack. Normally, I don’t think Jeff, the PhD, would have been participated in our scheme to meet the Bunjeeze, but I supposed he too had been carrying around some unpleasant baggage for the past four years. I also got the sense that he felt whatever “kid-ness” he still possessed was slipping away.
Before we left, I asked Misty if she was sure she couldn’t find a sitter. She acted disappointed at not being able to join us, but I knew better. She thought it would be good for Jeff and me to be brothers again in a fun setting. And if things went sideways, Gary would be there to mediate.
There was parking pretty close to the club, but Gary wanted to circle the place for good measure. Only later did I come to understand what he was doing. The vacant spot close to the club was still there when we came back around the block. I remembered the Electric Ballroom from my time in Milwaukee. Nothing much had changed about the place and the lack of seats near the stage suited our purposes. I’d seen several bands there, including Cheap Trick just prior to the release of their first album.
The opening act was different. Thank goodness. It was Syl Sylvain, a former member of the notorious New York Dolls. Buster Poindexter aka David Johanssen, had also been a member of the Dolls, but his career was hot, hot, hot. Whereas Syl Sylvain had seemed to fall off the edge of the earth after playing Milwaukee. The set was fun and you gotta give the guy credit. His bass player was fatter than Meatloaf at his heaviest and the drummer was Sylvain’s pregnant wife. I think Misty would’ve gotten a kick out of that.
When the house lights came down and the Bunjeeze took the stage, I snuck a peek at Jeff. He was excited, his smile unselfconscious. Though the band looked tired, they were as tight as I’d ever heard them and I’d heard them a lot. I guess they were buoyed by the huge amount of airplay and success “Redemption” had received. Jeff hugged my shoulders to show me his approval.
When the familiar fist chords of “Redemption” sounded, I searched the crowd nervously for other paintbrush throwers. I needn’t have worried. Gary was calm. He somehow knew we’d be the lone paintbrush throwers. That’s why we’d gone to that godforsaken barn in Hartford. He had wanted to test how far our paintbrush hijinks had traveled. The way he figured it, if it hadn’t traveled as far as Hartford, it wouldn’t make it to Pittsburgh or Milwaukee. What Gary also knew was that the band wouldn’t have gotten the paintbrush routine for weeks. It would be fresh again, almost like home. He was right.
The band went nuts when the three of us pelted them with the little brushes. The crowd went ballistic, too. Give ‘em a hand, those notty New Yorkers. Benson was shouting and pointing at us from the stage. When the applause died down a bit, he thanked us for our loyalty and for taking to the road after them. We’ve missed ya, mates. At the end of the first encore, Jeff excused himself, saying he’d catch a cab home. He understood that this was Gary’s adventure and mine and that he and I had made the first small steps towards reconciliation.
“Okay,” Gary said as the lights came up after the final encore, “c’mon.” We were outside on foot, around the corner Gary had driven by before the show. “See, there’s their tour bus.”
I hadn’t seen it earlier. Maybe it was that I was still exhausted or that I was too caught up in time travel being back in Milwaukee.
Gary asked, “Where’s the nearest bar?”
“Asking where the nearest bar is in Milwaukee is like asking where the nearest drop of water is in the middle of the ocean. We’re fucked, Gary. There are bars like every five feet here.”
But as the words came out of my mouth, a short-ish man about my age walked up to me, pointed at my t-shirt and asked me, “Do you like the Shirts?”
I was stunned for a second, almost not comprehending. Then I looked down and remembered I was wearing my Shirts—a local Brooklyn band who had scored a record deal with Capitol and had made a splash at CBGB—t-shirt.
“I do,” I said.
And that short-ish man who asked about my taste in music was Champ Deptford, the lyricist and rhythm guitarist of the Bunjeeze.
“But they’re a New York band …” his voice drifted off.
Before he could put two and two together, Gary and I handed Champ some little paintbrushes with black stems.
“For fucks sake, it’s the paintbrush lads,” he shouted, smiling broadly. “Christ, it’s good to meet ya. Sometimes I think no one listens to the lyrics. So, ya lads drove all the way here from New York?”
We explained that we had.
“Well then, come on. We’re goin’ for a few pints. Do ya know the closest pub?”
Gary and I laughed. Champ, too. I repeated my line about the ocean in the hopes he ask to steal it, but he didn’t. I pointed down the street and told him there’d be any number of bars.
“All right then,” he said, “we’ll meet you at the first one we hit.”
Gary told me to go on ahead, that he wanted to bring his car around. So far, he’d gotten it all right and I wasn’t about to start arguing with him now. I went into the first bar I found, a nameless little place that served Blatz. In Milwaukee, fancy bar names counted for nothing. It was the beer that carried the weight. Inside, the place was pretty cool. The bar and floors were worn and distressed, the wood bearing a lovely dappled patina that spoke of decades of long drunken nights, of sorrow, and celebration. Old fire helmets, police hats, photos of heavily mustached men in black frames, and sports pennants lined the walls. All of it covered in an inch of dust. It was reminiscent of McSorley’s in the East Village. There was a jukebox, dartboard, and a bowl-o-rama game.
I did some quick math and ordered seven glasses of Blatz. The barman gave me an odd look as if to ask why I hadn’t just ordered an even dozen. I took the long tapering pilsner glasses two at a time and lined them up by the bowl-o-rama machine. I felt the bartender’s eyes on my back. I hoped like mad that I had gotten the right bar. If I hadn’t, I’d have a lot of drinking to do.
Gary arrived first, waving his camera at me. Now I understood why he’d gone back to his car. About two minutes later, which was just enough time for me to work myself into a panic that I had cocked it up and chosen the wrong bar, Champ came in. He offered me his right hand, but I slipped a glass of beer into it instead. The pattern repeated itself for Benson Wilfork, Pete Stahlrich, Jax Clayton, the bass player, and Gilbert Lapton, the drummer.
“To the paintbrush lads!” Champ raised his glass. “Cheers.”
Only Gary had any beer left in his glass for a second toast. When I waved for a second round, Benson put a twenty on the bar and said, “Keep ‘em comin’, mate.” In 1981, twenty bucks bought you a lot of Blatz.
Benson put a second twenty on the bar. “Yeah, mate, keep ‘em coming.”
Then he turned to me and asked if I fancied a game of bowling. He beat the piss out of me, but I didn’t mind. During the game, he asked me where we’d gotten the idea for the paintbrushes. I gave him a condensed version of the story you’re now reading. He smiled, shaking his head. On the ride back home, Gary told me the others had asked him the same question.
Over the next hour, we mingled with the boys and made small talk, mostly. We discussed the kind of stuff you discuss with the person in the seat next to you on a plane. Where are you from in New York? What do you do on the road to keep occupied? What do you do when you’re not on the road? Are you married? Any kids? Is baseball as boring as it seems? Stuff like that. Surprisingly, neither Gary nor I asked anything about their music. Sitting there with them like that, it just made them all seem like nice guys who’d just gotten off work. They knew we were fans. We didn’t have to act the part. And besides, Gary’s mad scheme had worked.
Jax Clayton noticed Gary’s camera and feigned snapping photos. C’mon, give us a kiss. Give us a smile. Christ, you’re an ugly bastard, aren’t, ya?
He handed the camera back to Gary and suggested we take a group shot, one that included the barman and some of the patrons. When everyone was assembled in front of and on top of the bar, Gary began to focus.
“Wait!” he screamed, handing me the Minolta. “There’s something missing. I’ll be right back.”
He was good to his word. Like a shot, he was through the bar door, carrying a big cardboard box. Now sooner had he put the box down, did he begin handing out yellow and black baseball caps from Looney Larry’s Stereos. Looney Larry’s was a New York chain, but was apparently nationally and internationally famous for their TV commercials featuring a screaming man in a straightjacket.
“These are bloody fantastic!” Gilbert screamed. “I’ve always wanted one of these.”
Champ said, “I’d rather the paintbrush guy sell me his Shits shirt.”
There we all were, bartender and patrons, the band and me, wearing Looney Larry caps, posing for a group portrait. When everything was to Gary’s liking, he demanded we smile. Of course we didn’t. Then we laughed. Then we mugged for the camera.
“Holy shit!” Gary slapped his forehead. “The batteries are dead.”
There wouldn’t be any photos. None of us, not the band, not Gary and I, seemed too terribly upset. We were all drunk and tired. I nodded to Gary that we should be getting home to Jeff’s. We had an incredibly long ride back to New York and there was no great adventure awaiting us when we got there. Only work. Sleep, we needed sleep. When we said our goodbyes, the boys thanked us for coming. Benson handed Gary a piece of paper with some dates and numbers on it. They were coming back to New York for two shows in August and wondered if we’d like to be their guests, backstage passes, et al. We acted coy for about a nanosecond and accepted the invitation.
Champ said, “Thanks for the hats and for coming out to see us.”
“See you in a few weeks.” Gary said, smiling.
“Thanks you,” is what I said.
“Cheers for now,” the band harmonized.
We didn’t get to sleep right away. And though I couldn’t have known it then, there was a big adventure waiting for me at home. The following Saturday night, I went to a friend’s party and when I walked in there was a beautiful woman standing at the top of the stairs staring at me. It was an unmistakable kind of stare. I checked behind me to make sure she wasn’t staring at the guy walking in after me. No, I’m not going to say, “And today that beautiful woman is my wife.” She isn’t. She almost was, but that’s another story, too. Another beautiful woman is my wife. But Lisa—the woman at the top of the stairs—did become my first significant other since I’d left Milwaukee four years earlier. We dated for nearly two years, grew up a little together, and had some fun without eating each other alive.
That Sunday morning in Milwaukee, while Gary was still out of it, I lifted his car keys, tiptoed out of the house, and visited some places I needed to see before heading back home again. I sat on the steps of Laura’s old apartment on Locust Street. I knew she didn’t live there anymore. There was no snowbank. I walked over to the 24 hour market I had worked at. No one recognized me and that was just as well. It was the kind of place where college students and lonely lost New Yorkers worked. The kind of place where staff constantly turned over. I cupped my hands and peered through the window of Axel’s, the bar Laura and I used to drink at. I bought a cup of coffee at Kalt’s, this weird restaurant I ate at all the time when I lived in town. Then I headed down Oakland, turned left onto Capital Drive, and got halfway to Wauwatosa. I stopped, turned around, and headed back to Jeff’s. I’d already found what I’d needed to find in Milwaukee. There was nothing in Wauwatosa for me anymore.
I brought some bagels and rolls and coffee back to Jeff’s house. Even Gary knew I had been gone too long to have just popped into a bakery, but no one asked me where I had gone. Gary and I filled everyone in on the highlights of the previous evening. Jeff pretended to be disappointed to have missed it. Misty said it was too bad about the camera. I told her that it wasn’t, that for me it was somehow better without pictures. When I explained about Bruce Springsteen’s erased autograph on Gary’s guitar, she seemed to understand. We left right after breakfast.
At the end of August, Gary located the Bunjeeze hotel and met them the day of the first New York show. He hung out with them, went on stage for the sound check, and had a light dinner with the band at the record company’s expense. I worked that day. I wouldn’t have gone even if I could have taken the day off. I’ll explain in a minute. I met Gary at the stage door at 7:30. We watched the band from the wings and at the end of the show, Benson thanked the fans of New York. As he did, he bowed toward the side of the stage where Gary and I were standing. He gave a special thanks to those paintbrush guys.
Gary urged me to come back to their hotel and have a drink. I did, if a little reluctantly. Actually, it was good that I did. The batteries in Gary’s camera had been replaced and we got several shots of the two of us with the band. In one, Benson Wilfork, this skinny little Englishman, is lifting me up in his arms and winking at the camera. He was a rather strong skinny little Englishman. The next night after the show, I went straight to Lisa’s house. Gary went back to the hotel with the Bunjeeze.
I think it was in the moments we were closest, at the bar in Milwaukee and in the wings at the concerts, that Gary and I began drifting apart. In doing what we did, I’d grown past it. Can you understand what I mean? I mean nothing condescending by it. I just mean that I have never felt the need to repeat the experience. It’s impossible, anyway. All you can ever really hope to do is approximate it. That’s why, until meeting Lisa, I avoided letting someone get close to me. I didn’t want to approximate anything that could have resembled those months in Milwaukee.
I came of age at twenty-five and not for the usual reasons. Not in the usual way. I came of age because the world never seemed the same to me after Gary and I got back from Milwaukee in early August of 1981. When I wasn’t looking, my heart had learned forgiveness. My head learned there were endless possibilities outside the ruts we dig for ourselves. Dreaming was okay. I can tell you with some assurance that my life would have been very different if not for meeting Gary Rose, a pub rock band from the East end of London, and boxes of little paintbrushes.
So when my friend Elain rolls her eyes and screams, “Not the Bunjeeze story again. Run for the Hills,” I don’t get mad at her. She’s never really heard the whole story. No one has. I know I’ll always have that night in the bar in Milwaukee of which there aren’t any pictures. And though the Bunjeeze have broken up, formed, and reformed with several different lineups over the years, I know that I can go to any show in the New York area and Gary Paintbrush’s name will be on the free pass list.