Readings — From the March 2018 issue

Village People

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By Terry Southern (1924–95), from an unpublished manuscript written in 1952. It is included in Making It Hot for Them, a collection of his writings edited by Nile Southern that will be published this year by Antibookclub.

It was something of a joke that he was called Pusher — not that he wasn’t one but the fact that he actually was a sort of dope peddler. Even the police called him Pusher, but they didn’t bother him much; it may have been that he had other characteristics so much more salient that his small operations in the dope field were more or less ignored. Or perhaps he was a fink. His demeanor was decisively antisocial — even among people whose bond was that they themselves were antisocial — and he was always beat and seedy looking, dirty, scuffling, with teeth that must have been hurting for repair. None of this changed in the five years I knew him; indeed, this steadfastness was probably his forte. There was something vaguely reassuring about the deathlike constancy of his appearance and attitude — not at first, of course; at first he was merely repugnant.

I first saw him sitting at the counter at Joe’s Dinette on West 4th Street, where the talk is about Miltown and pot, about dexies and schmeck, about peyote, spansules, goofballs, redbirds, Dolophine, and occasionally about Dr. Rosen, Gurdjieff, Bud Powell, the I Ching, and Willie Mays. He was of an indeterminate twenty-five-to-thirty-five age, small and thin, and made himself so creepy and somehow twisted looking that he gave the impression of being some kind of weird, crippled fink, dopehead, and sex maniac all rolled into one. He camouflaged and distorted any show of emotions so severely that you couldn’t really tell what was happening with him, but from his general behavior you would assume that the one thing he did want was to be the most loathed and put-down person in the Village — an area that for him actually extended from Greenwich Village to Harlem to the Bronx.

His real name was Leroy, but he was variously called over the years, and much less affectionately: Dr. Caligari, the Creep, Jekyll, Shadow, the Freaky Gimp; and then by those people, mostly from uptown, who thought he was an informer: Wrongo Lee, Little Mister Finger, the Freaky Nark, the Singing Gimp, Fuss Lover, Finky Lee, the Village Canary, and so on.

I recall my own firsthand experience with his creepiness quite vividly: I had just moved to the Village, and a bunch of us were up at Waldo Klein’s place, lying around about four in the morning. The light was on and the radio was going, but the station had gone off so there was only low static, no other sound, as conversation had fallen off and everyone was just lying there stoned — looking at the wallpaper and hearing interesting sound patterns in the static, and then Waldo Klein said in a funny voice: “Guess who’s coming up the stairs.” This was a fourth-floor walk-up, with a long narrow hall before you got to his door — and sure enough, you could hear this strange soft-foot sound on the stairs and then, slowly, coming down the hall, closer and closer.

Man, dig that footstep!” someone whispered in pure astonishment. “Oh, don’t open the door, Waldo,” said one of the girls, “please don’t.” Then it stopped in front of the door. After a moment, there was a soft knock and a strange little snickering laugh, and I felt the girl beside me give a shudder, and someone else in the room muffled a nervous laugh. And then the footsteps again, moving slowly away down that dark, narrow hall.

“Wow,” said someone very softly, “he is too much.”

Waldo Klein turned off the light and went to the window. He stood for a minute peeking out of the side of the curtain, gravely wagging his head.

“He’s the weirdest cat in life, man,” he said.

Later, of course, I got to know him myself because he was a part of the group; in spite of everything, he was always present, and he was always straight — it was part of his kick. He would hardly ever speak unless spoken to, and then he would usually reply with something so terribly cutting that he was not infrequently punched in the face for it. So he was a part of the group and yet he was not a part because of this antisocialness and the creepy finky thing. It was sometimes quite disarming.

The things he sold were fittingly grotesque. He specialized in “tastes” — that is to say, tiny, leftover quantities of anything: roaches, peyote stems, strips from Benzedrine inhalers — sometimes all mixed together. Once, in the Waldorf Cafeteria, he produced one of those flat metal cigarette boxes discarded from hospitals and opened it. I couldn’t make out what was in it at first — a lot of little brown things. They turned out to be used nicotine filters, the transparent sort, filled now with messy, sticky brown crystals. He said you could put four or five of them in a cup of hot coffee and get reasonably high. He wanted a quarter for the boxful of sixty.

“I’ll give you a taste,” he said. I had just sat down with a cup of coffee, and he dropped several of them in my cup.

“You have to wait about five minutes,” he said.

“Uh-huh.” I looked at the cup; some changes seemed to be taking place all right, hardly the most appetizing. I didn’t wish to have a closed mind about the matter, but still — nicotine producing cancer and all that. I looked at him, wondering whether he had tried it himself.

“I’m flyin’, man,” he said. He tilted his own cup toward me — there was quite a mess at the bottom. “It’s best to stir it,” he said, referring to the coagulate of muck. “You can see how it settles.”

“What’s in it?” I asked. “ . . . in the crystals.”

“Now, that’s a question you may want to put to your psychiatrist,” he said, “but I’ll tell you — there’s something in it that gets you high. Know what I mean?”

“Yeah, well, listen man, I’ve been taking a lot of dexies, you know, and I think it might be a little too much — all that nicotine and caffeine. Might keep me awake, you know?”

He looked at me with his flat, dead eyes.

“Oh, well,” he said, “if you’ve been taking a lot of dexies . . . I mean, we don’t want to overdo this, do we? Don’t want to put ourselves out on a limb here, do we?” And he pulled the cup over to himself and stirred it, drinking it slowly, putting no sugar in. Then he got up, went to the counter, and bought another cup of coffee that he put in front of me.

“Pleasant dreams,” he said, walking away.

Of course, I felt a tinge of sheepishness the next day when I saw him still up and about. That is to say, I felt maybe I had been guilty of some kind of rather primitive middle-class narrowness in not making it.

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