Mastodon Chuck - Vincent Zangrillo - Stories - Sensitive Skin Magazine

Gregory loved Peggy Biderman who lived at the Chelsea Hotel. Peggy, she was probably around 55, even older than Gregory (who was twice as old as me) but younger than I am now. I’m not sure of the relationship the two had in their past, lovers, friends, I don’t know. I knew she lived at the Chelsea forever and that she had been some sort of civil rights activist in the ‘60’s, but that’s all probably stuff you can find online, so no point talking about it. I did personally see her stand Nico to a drink at the El Quijote downstairs – look that up. She was matronly, a bit stout, and very friendly. And very straight. Her means of support were invisible. I mean I think she made jewelry, something like that. I wasn’t in the habit of asking questions which was probably why I got to hang around. But Gregory was always very respectful and kind towards her and never turned on her though she had nothing material to give or to take. They just seemed to really like each other, which was so normal, which was so strange. She would send us postcards from abroad, when we lived together, Gregory and I, later, on 2nd Ave.

Chelsea Hotel, photograph by Chris Goldberg
Chelsea Hotel, photograph by Chris Goldberg

Peggy loved Harry Smith, famous, infamous, who knew all, did all. When I first saw him at the Chelsea, bearded, in a wheel chair with a shawl covering his legs, he seemed spectral but innocuous enough. Though I must say Corso was pretty insensitive about any of Harry’s abundant plights, most of which (besides difficulty walking) were identical to his own. He said Harry brought on his own troubles (though who of us doesn’t?) And cautioned something like: “Don’t be one of those boys who go to Harry’s room.” Perhaps he saw him as a competitor for Ginsberg’s limited resources. I never knew enough then to really know what was going on. There’s been a lot written about Harry, I’m sure it’s all out there; no need to repeat it.

Harry loved this guy named Chuckie Cause, who lived in a loft in the Flower District over on Sixth Ave around 28th or 29th Street, really close to The Breslin (a dump – where Lance first sent me to look for Holly; it made the Carlton Arms look like the Chateau Marmont) where Harry was living. Chuck didn’t have a phone, and Harry couldn’t get around, so I, not heeding Gregory’s advice, became sort of a messenger boy, delivering notes and packages from Harry to Chuck. I didn’t know what Chuck’s deal really was, especially at first, but later I began to piece it together a bit. The first time I walked in his loft he was hunched over a table – I’m guessing he was in his 40s then, wire glasses, bony and didn’t so much have a beard, as just didn’t shave and probably cut his hair with scissors when it fell over his eyes – trying to cook up a piece of opium, and strain it so he could get a hit. Trying to cook opium to get it in a form where you can shoot it and the payoff you would get – not much- was almost agonizing to watch. I flipped Chuckie a Dilaudid and that was it, instant access. The loft was a tangle of photographic and recording equipment, spools and spools of old reel to reel tape and editing machines all together in no discernible order. He had piles of photos of jazz guys: Rollins and Monk, Clifford Brown and Jackie Maclean, Sonny Stitt, Illinois Jaquet. I could’ve whiled away through them, forever. I came to understand Chuckie was an assistant to Eugene Smith, the jazz photographer and archivist. Smith had stopped that loft project in ’65, so I figure that Chuckie must have been around my age back then when he was helping. Had sat around, gotten high with these guys, listened to their stories as I was listening to his.

It looked like Chuckie hadn’t left the loft since then and it was very likely he hadn’t, what with drug couriers and Chinese take out containers all over the place; still madly working on some undefinable project that existed only in his mind. It was like he didn’t know it all had ended almost two decades before. A rebel holing up in a hollow, having never heard about Appomattox. You see, it was the exact building, maybe not the same loft, I don’t know, but the exact building where W. Eugene Smith worked. One night, and it actually was ‘round about midnight, I looked out the window and I see this tall black cat, must have been 6’6″, hanging out, leaning on a lamp post holding an instrument case and smoking a cigarette. I said something to Chuckie about the guy – to come over and take a look because he seemed kind of weird. Chuckie was bent over his spools of tape; he didn’t budge. At first I thought it was because he was wearing headphones, which he did frequently, a cigarette, half ash, perched, dangling. But Chuckie had heard me, he just didn’t bother getting up. That’s just Dexter, he said. He comes here a lot and hangs out and leaves. I said, Dexter Gordon? Dexter had been back in New York for a while and was getting a lot of publicity about his comeback, so I knew a little about him. Chuckie said go ‘head man, go down and invite him up – he won’t come. But I thought what the hell, so I got into one of those old elevators where there was a lever to pull, you know, one with the iron grate in front, the ones that don’t exist anymore, but by the time I got down he was crossing the street. I followed him down Sixth Avenue and then on 14th Street; he turned and walked over to Seventh Avenue, then made a left and walked to the Village Vanguard and then down the steps, underground. I followed. It was at the very end of a set; I don’t remember who was playing, but nobody asked me for money which was a good thing They were semi-used to my face because the doorman used to let me sit on the steps and listen for free. I heard a lot those nights, but can’t remember who. Though I’d like to think I heard Bill Evans play like he did on Time Remembered, the album from Shelley Mann’s place in L.A., The Hole, an album which I dug because in some sad way it reminded me of my father who died right before I met Gregory. My father never listened to jazz, but the album starts off with a mournful, haunting Danny Boy and though I deplored anything remotely Irish except literature, and anything sentimental or nostalgic, period, I remembered as a boy my father used to listen to Mario Lanza sing it over and over on a record player in our den.

                               The summer’s gone and all the roses dying

                              Tis you, tis you must go and I must bide

(It’s funny, one of Gregory’s riffs when juicing it – about thirty percent of the time – was that he would offer the uninitiated to write a Short Shot, a line or two of metric verse on the spot, for ten or twenty bucks, fundraising, so he could get back to doping it – about sixty percent of the time. The other ten percent of the time, the sick time, was down, real down time. But for the taken, he would always cop a few lines from the same insanely long mythological poem by Swinburne: “And Time Remembered Is Grief Forgotten.” (The other standard was “The Hounds Of Spring Are Upon Winter’s Traces.” I always felt a little bad for the taken, at the same time it was fairly hilarious, and I figured he was into me for a lot more than twenty bucks.)

Dexter looked down at the bar and up at the bartender and says: “Not like that motherfucker. Line them up. Three shots – Un, Deux, Trois.

So right – Dexter walked up to the bar at the Vanguard, suffused as always with a burnt red glow from the stage lights. I was standing about two feet behind him. With a chthonic voice, he said to the bartender something like: “Give me threeee Wild Turkey.” So the bartender takes this glass and gives him a triple Wild Turkey. Dexter looked down at the bar and up at the bartender and says: “Not like that motherfucker. Line them up. Three shots – Un, Deux, Trois.” And then he banged three fingers on the bar, three times, about three inches apart. The bartender put down three shot glasses and poured the triple, divvied up, into each. Dexter smiled, well I think he did, because all I could see was his back and his hand, and did one, two, three, shots. Threw a five on the bar by way of a tip and walked out, back up to the street.

But these are all ghost stories, told around the campfire of Memory whose insubstantial flames create more shadows at the perimeter than they illuminate.

Gregory gone, Peggy gone, Harry gone, Dexter gone, Chuckie Cause gone, I’m sure. Some went hard, some went easy, but went they did. And, at least it seems to me, with no direct connection between the leaving and the life. Peggy suffered terribly, I was told, and Gregory’s leaving was a fable. Sheri, the lost child, searched and found the lost father, as Gregory searched and found the lifelong lost mother. Two women to place the ghost coin in his mouth for the Ferryman.

He ended up in a wheel chair too, like Harry, with a shawl across his lap. Sheri wheeled him into that Indian casino in Minnesota, so far from Bleecker Street, so that he could bet what was left. When the dealer called him Ma’am, Gregory said: “It’s OK. It’s because I have such soft skin.”

Anyway, around 6 or 7 I made it back to 2nd and brought Gregory up some soft buttered Challah from B&H. I told him my story. He said, “I thought I told you not to waste your time with Harry and his creepy friends. But Dexter, Yeah Man, I saw him do the same thing at the Café Flore in ‘57, it’s just his way.”

–Vincent Zangrillo


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