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Smiling Jimmy

I first met Danny through Jeannie, who had given him my number. I hadn’t moved to the City yet, and was still in Albany, riding out my last couple of months of despairing crashes, alternating with giddy fits of ekstasis; both brought on by the unrelenting bleakness of the landscape and bad cheap drugs like PCP, strychnine laced “Mr. Natural” blotter acid, speedy beat mescaline, which were intensified by enough searingly potent Thai stick that only magnified the faults of those other substances. In addition, I was shrouded in a blanket of alcohol, like the seeming tundra of upstate permafrost, coupled with periods of intensely fulfilled sexual desire which alternated with periods of intensely un-fulfilled sexual desire, which threw me into manic depressive-like cycles, where I’d find myself bowling with Sheriffs’ wives in forgotten lanes in upstate mill towns, or in some roadhouse in Troy, listening to a jug band, or across the Hudson in Rensselaer listening to Dave Mckenna playing C Jam Blues, trying to drown out the last vestiges of whatever chemical wasteland I had consumed with pitchers of Genny Cream Ale and then driving back to the apartment whistling Ennio Morricone scores because the tape deck was busted and spending the next morning looking for my car. So yeah, this was right before I met Luanne, who started me down the golden road of unlimited devotion to Naropa, and who was mixed up with The White Crosses, that crazy Utica biker gang. And which by coincidence squared, was the same biker gang that Sally Tusa, had ridden, whom I was destined, in the strung-together future, to meet in Oaxaca, Mexico.

James Hayden Once Upon A Time In America
James Hayden as Patsy Goldberg in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America

Danny was coming to R.P.I., in Rensselaer (which made Albany seem like Paris.) He was in a traveling Shakespeare troop, from the Bay Area, performing Much Ado about Nothing, I think. I brought him a small piece of Red Lebanese hash, which he couldn’t get on the road, and I went backstage and met the other actors. They seemed so normal and together and funny and basically non-predatory. It was like everybody I knew upstate was just so fucked up (and I was the worst) – but like I said, this alternated with moments when even State Street in downtown Albany gleamed with supernatural ecstasy.

A year or two later, I ran into Danny while walking down St. Marks Place. He had migrated to Alphabet City, and was performing a bit role in a Sam Shepard play in that theater on 2nd Avenue, around 11th or 12th it might have been True West or Buried Alive or something or another, about two crazy brothers who didn’t seem so crazy to me when I saw it.

It was summer and Danny was living on the East side of Avenue A between 11th and 12th, in an apartment with smashed windows (what’s the point of having glass in your windows in the summer in NY when you have no AC?) not far from Paradise Alley, where I was later to meet Sloopy and Loretta in the log-jammed future, but at this point, I was just walking around looking at New York. We might have smoked a joint or had a beer and maybe an egg cream. And on the corner, Danny introduced me to another actor, this guy he called Smiling Jimmy. Jimmy was the best-looking guy I’d ever seen. Like on the Marlon Brando, James Dean scale. I liked him a lot. He was also the most charismatic person I ever met. Danny was likable, an Irish barroom charismatic; Jimmy was big screen charismatic. We three went to the Red & Gold Bar on 7th Street and began ordering bottles of Heineken for 90 cents and shots of Stoli for 75. One round came out to a $1.65. Two bucks even with tip.

Danny left and Jimmy told me that had had been in a made-for-TV horror movie and I could have a copy of it. I didn’t have a Betamax but I took his word for it. (Later I found out the he studied with Lee Strasberg and was a lifetime member of the Actors Studio.) He suggested we pool our money and cop some dope and coke. I acquiesced; we strolled down, strolled back; he had a set of works that we shared, this being the pre-plague days, or at least no one knew anything about it. I seem to remember that he lived around A and 9th. He must’ve been maybe two years older than me, because he talked about Vietnam or at least the Army, and had a picture of himself in clean fatigues, smiling, and another picture of himself in a Santa Claus outfit, no belly, no beard, still smiling. Seems he used to give out presents on Christmas Eve to the winos on the Bowery. So we became on-and-off copping buddies for a while. I can’t say how long. I can see why I liked him; I couldn’t see why he liked me. But eventually a few weeks or months passed, and I passed the Red & Gold and saw my on-again off-again girlfriend on his lap making out. I was stoned and disassociated but who could blame him or her, so I sailed blithely on. We lost touch.

Later I was to find out that he was on set during that time, filming Sergio Leone’s last movie – and Jimmy’s- Once Upon a Time in America. Leone had casted relentlessly, even Belushi had been given a shot, but he died, so he was out. So it was probably around two years I didn’t see Jimmy – ’80-’82ish?

I had gotten a weird job (the job wasn’t weird, me doing it was weird) as a real estate salesperson at some gentrified office down by Gus’s Pickles, on the corner of Ludlow and Essex. The office was in a renovated apartment with a bath tub. I used to get there around 7am, at least three hours before anyone else. I would go to the playground across the street, buy an 80mg bottle of methadone for 40 dollars, two Valiums for five or so, a buttered bialy and coffee at Kassar’s on Grand St., walk across to the office on Essex, go upstairs, take the methadone and valium, drink the coffee, eat the bialy, and take an embryonically blissful bath for three hours before anyone else showed up. I never sold any buildings except one or two as a fluke. The job gave me an excuse to be a flaneur, just walk around and look at New York.

I sojourned up to Spanish Harlem to meet a friend of Cookie’s, Richard, a gay man who bought abandoned buildings at city auctions. He owned churches in Brooklyn, synagogues in the Bronx and was currently residing in an old P.S. on 109th street, the whole school, the neighborhood kids running a constant delivery service. After I left there, I walked up to 116th street and Pleasant Ave. where it looked like a movie set. An Italian neighborhood that belonged in Calabria. The whole place was populated by octogenarian widows. I was fascinated by this forgotten slice of Italian Harlem, so I went up there a lot. I hung out at the park in front of Rao’s, reading the New York Post and that’s when I saw that Jimmy was starring on Broadway as the junkie, Bobby, in David Mamet’s American Buffalo. I was feeling expansive. It was Friday and autumn in New York, and I knew the Puerto Rican joints would be serving pulpo over rice down near La Marqueta. I still had his number scrawled in my phone book. I went to a phone booth, fished out a dime and called him up.

Actor James Hayden Who Played an Addict Dies

Yeah come tomorrow, he said, Booth Theater. I’ll have a ticket waiting for you. It was heavy cast, Pacino and all. (Jimmy had gotten so tight with Pacino that he had tried to get him the role as his best friend Manny in Scarface. Tight with Mickey Rourke, too. Mickey Rourke dedicated his performance in The Pope of Greenwich Village to Jimmy.) I was so psyched the next day after my three-hour “bath” and a couple more hours poring over the classifieds in the Village Voice that I forewent my usual peregrinations, and didn’t leave the office until the afternoon, when I went out I went out to get a half-sour pickle from Gus’s and another buttered bialy and café light and sweet from Kassar’s. That’s where I saw the New York Post late edition headline that said, “Actor Playing Drug Addict Dies From Drugs.” Six hours after the curtain fell at the theater, it fell for Jimmy. His hour upon the stage over. He apparently was talking to his wife in LA (a wife I didn’t know he had) and said he was going to kill himself (according to her testimony). He OD’d long distance.

It’s kind of weird but in nine years on the circuit, I only knew three people personally who OD’d – not turning-blue-slap-you -around-and-throw-you-in-the-shower-with-ice OD, but like DOA OD. The first was Fat Jack from Jersey, but he was well over 300 pounds and shooting speedballs in his hand, which I don’t think counts; the second was an Italian guy who was living with a Brazilian coke dealer, Vicki, who had gone down to Bahia to clean up, came back like four months later and picked up exactly where he left off, which was like nine bags, which was like insane, so that was like suicide by dope, so I figured that didn’t count, and the third was Jimmy which was even more specific suicide by dope.

I cried. It was so sad. I was not going to go to the play and watch an understudy. When I got back to 2nd, I told Gregory. Corso said, That’s taking method acting too far. Gregory was going through conniptions trying to find a vein. Then he said, What a waste of good dope.

–Vincent Zangrillo


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