Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Frozen In Fade

The first dead human I saw outside of a funeral home was on Houston Street. Late 1982/early '83. Frigid icy sidewalks. Walking to my copy room job at Salomon Brothers, I came upon two cops standing over a body. He was white, gray beard frozen, bloodless fingers stiffly bent. The cops joked around, waiting for back up to arrive. As I walked past them, I stared at the dead man's face, wondering if his spirit was near, or if he was an insect husk, blown away by time.

Death has always fascinated me. It began with my sister dying at three. We shared a bedroom and were very close, at least in the fragments of memory that remain. I saw a picture of her not long ago, stirring that fading part of my mind, conjuring random images of play, sharing meals, watching cartoons on our black and white TV.

I could almost smell our small home, bright clashing shades of red, gold, and green on the walls and furniture, the silver starburst clock satellite sharp, reaching across wallpaper stripes. This is why people my age and older respond to "Mad Men." Whatever the twisted plotline or glacial character development, the living room sets are precise. The colors, patterns, and shapes eerily exact. Within this world my sister and I romped and jumped about. Until she became sick and disappeared altogether.

I don't remember her illness, nor the drawn out medical/emotional drama that preceded her death. The flu she couldn't shake turned out to be Reye's Syndrome, most likely brought on by children's aspirin which I also took, but survived. She went into a coma then passed away, right after JFK's assassination. I've been told that at her funeral, I walked to the open casket, kissed her forehead and begged her to wake up. This has either been erased from my brain or is locked deeply away. But I saw my sister Laura dead at a very early age. Since then, death has remained with me.

Recently, I read "The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored History of the Porn Film Industry" by Legs McNeil and Jennifer Osborne. Early porn is another obsession of mine, largely for personal reasons, but also because of the human anguish that littered parts of that scene. Among these horror stories is the saga of John Holmes, a truly lost soul who possessed native intelligence and hidden kindness, but was so fucked up as a kid that he never recovered, and probably had no chance.

Holmes was a pathological liar who charmed his away into various circles, culminating in porn stardom, fast money, loads of drugs and ready pussy. It was the perfect world for his talents, but ephemeral, and before long Holmes found himself on the scrap heap, hustling to survive, becoming more desperate and abusive, primarily towards his young girlfriend Dawn Schiller, who endured Holmes' coke-fueled rampages.

Inevitably, Holmes got involved with a dark, violent crowd, leading to his involvement in the Wonderland murders, where five people were savagely beaten with striated steel pipes, four of them fatally. The film "Wonderland" dramatizes the events leading up to the killings, and it isn't a pretty story. Val Kilmer plays Holmes as a pathetic sociopath, which I'm sure wasn't far from the truth, given the evidence and testimonies from those who knew Holmes.

The gritty criminal drug den scenes ring true. I bought plenty of weed in apartments like the one at Wonderland Avenue, where dealers snorted coke off album covers, their girlfriends walking around in a daze, wearing panties and Aerosmith t-shirts, handguns on the tables. Save for nearly having my head blown off by a drunken dealer who accidently fired a shotgun right next to me, I was spared the darker aspects of that world.

After watching "Wonderland," death drew me further in as I looked for more material online. At YouTube I discovered the actual police video of the Wonderland crime scene, July 1, 1981. It's not for the faint hearted, and I'll spare you the embedded footage. But if you wish to see it, click here, here, and here.

The apartment's decor takes me back to that period, which now seems more distant than ever. But the bludgeoned bodies strike a deeper chord, motionless, silent in the wake of a ferocious spasm of madness. As hard as it is to look directly at the victims, for me there's a certain truth, a recognition of our fleeting existence, honesty too pure to hide. Even here, amid liars, crooks, sociopaths, and thieves, humanity is present, frozen on their battered, swollen faces. No matter how crazed the killers were, they couldn't transcend that fact.

Death is the definitive reminder of who we are, which is probably why so many people fear its approach. For me, death is an old companion, touching my life early on. I only hope that when my appointment arrives, it'll be in a quiet room or at a relaxed moment. I'd like to touch death's face before losing touch, just to return the gesture.