COLUMN TWENTY, APRIL 1, 1997
(Copyright © 1997 The Blacklisted Journalist)
Was it because I spent a good portion of my boyhood eviscerating the chickens I slaughtered in my mom's and pop's live poultry market that I vowed I would never let the surgeons open me up? Did the horror instilled in me by any thoughts of having to lie on a hospital's operating table result from my intimate familiarity with a butcher's block?
That wasn't the only fear I grew up with. As a kid, I also had a phobia for ophidia. I had such a dread of snakes that I refused even to open my eyes when my big sisters tried to show me the photographs of them in the Book of Knowledge, popular in those days as encyclopedias, a set of which an unknowledgeable immigrant like my father let himself get talked into buying for the education of his children. Throughout my life, those legless creatures have been as repulsive to me as the thought of anybody cutting into my body and rearranging my innards. There are, I have always felt, much more enjoyable things to contemplate than human entrails or live interior body parts. Besides, I also had a lot of other reasons why I refused to picture anybody fucking with my insides. This phobia was exacerbated during my boyhood by the series of gruesome operations my father had to undergo before he died of duodenal cancer at the age of 52. I was 15 at the time and I resolved that when I died, it would be with a body unscarred by a surgeon's scalpel. That resolve was further reinforced later in my life when my wife kept getting cut up during the five-year ordeal of her battle with the metastasized cancer which killed her at the tender age of 40. My wife had a terrific sense of humor. She was my best friend. Before she died, she used to joke that she was Frankenstein's wife, not mine.
For the first 67 years of my life, I stayed married to my revulsion of surgery and to my resolve to die whole. Then, 10 days into my 68th year, doctors sliced the inward sides of each of my legs from my ankles up to my knees. That was so they could excise from each of those incisions a vein which, after they cut open my chest from my sternum almost to my Adam's Apple, they grafted onto my beating heart. That's called open-heart surgery, kids, and here I am writing this little more than five months later, all stitched back together, alive and well but doomed to a regimen of shoveling pills down my throat and walking, walking, walking endlessly for the rest of my hopefully extended life. Hopefully extended, of course, as a consequence of my defiance of my paralyzing fear and my willingness to stick my head into the monster's mouth. Hopefully extended, however artificially, because I'm now not the same as I was when God made me. Am I real any more? Was I ever? I'll show you my scars if you show me yours. Am I tasting a bit of the same unreality Frankenstein's monster had to regurgitate? I can't really tell but I sense that there is now something unnatural about me.
I suffered my heart attack 50 days before my sixty-eighth birthday. I suffered my heart
attack on a perfect sunny Sunday that had to be one of the most beautiful March
thirty-firsts in history. What a day for a myocardial infarction! An M.I., the doctors
called it. A blood clot stopping traffic on the arterial superhighway. It happened on a
March thirty-first so pregnant with the optimism of Spring that I at first refused to
regard this onslaught as not much more of a pain in the ass than the hemorrhoids I'd had
surgically removed back in I think it was 1973. Oh, yes, all my life, I've seen things the
way I want to see them. I didn't consider going under the knife for hemorrhoids as pulling
a double-cross on my surgery phobia because that kind of operation left no scars anybody
but a proctologist would ever see. I figured a procedure that minor didn't count.
Otherwise, my heart attack seemed exceedingly mild compared to descriptions given by
others who'd suffered them. But then, I'd heard all kinds of stories about heart attacks.
I also had a friend who survived a heart attack some 10 years earlier and he afterwards
even continued to snort cocaine and smoke cigarettes. I don't know if he still
snorts cocaine and smokes cigarettes, but I know he's still alive. As for myself, I was
too busy being THE BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST to worry about a pain in the ass, even if it
really was a blood clot in my tick-tock department. Besides, up in Woodstock, where I'd
lived during the 1980s as a guest of legendary music business mogul Albert Grossman, my
birthday was going to be celebrated with a big party in Woodstock's famous Tinker Street
Cafe. Golden-haired Blue Hallock, one of my long-time girlfriends and star of Life
I had to go
from one hospital
pictures of the 1969 Woodstock Festival audience, was going to play hostess and make all the arrangements. There would be a birthday cake and I would give a reading and maybe there would be a band. At the time, that's what was on my mind, not my heart attack. However, as things turned out, I would quickly learn that a myocardial infarction is not to be sneezed at, pooh-poohed or taken lightly. By definition, a heart attack---any kind of heart attack---amounts to a major event in, if not an absolute conclusion to, anybody's life.
No sooner was I released from Elizabeth General Medical Center when I had to check into St. Elizabeth Hospital, where a cardiologist inserted a couple of catheters into the ferial artery at my groin and then snaked the catheters up through it into my heart. There, the cardiologist injected a dye through the catheters, enabling him to see, through an X-ray process called fluoroscopy, exactly what damage had been done to my ticker. That spectacle was visible on a TV tube mounted in the operating room. I was sedated but not unconscious and, although it took an uncomfortable twist of my head as I lay on an operating table beneath some kind of huge X-ray machine, I, too, could catch a glimpse of the blood pumping through the insides of my beating heart. What the cardiologist saw, he later told me, was that my heart now had one dead muscle, two blocked arteries and a 90 per cent blockage in a third artery. The cardiologist advised me not to go to Woodstock. How come? Except maybe for being a little weak and short-winded, I felt fine. But my chiropractor daughter warned me:
"Your heart is now working on its back-up systems."
That didn't leave me much room. Alternative medicine was no option. We live in an Age of Technology. After all, man has walked on the moon. There was no way for me to squirm out of this one. Another blood clot and I'm kaput! I was knock, knock knockin' on Heaven's door.
I grew up with a kid who is now known as Dr. Thomas G Argyros, chief of arthritis at Manhattan's Lenox Hill Hospital. We were both about three years old when we first met. In those days, Tommy's father owned the Greek luncheonette on St. George Avenue around the corner from my father's chicken market on Rivington Street in Roselle, N.J. I remember going with my father many times to Tommy's father's luncheonette, where hot dogs and coffee and maybe a Pepsi were available. I also remember going over to the Argyros home on Warren Street to play with Tommy in his back yard. He lived only a block away from where I lived. We both went to Abraham Lincoln Elementary School, a little ways up Warren Street from the Argyros house. When we completed elementary school, we often joined each other to walk the mile or so to Roselle's Abraham Clark High School, where we were both honor students. After high school, we both went to Rutgers in New Brunswick and we were both graduated in the Rutgers Class of 1950.
Years later, in the late 1960s, when the cancer attacked my wife, Tommy was the doctor who presided over her case until she died in 1972. Now it was my turn to put myself into Tommy's hands. Except, he put me into his wife's hands. Her name is Clarita E. Herrera, but Tommy calls her Lita. She, too, happens to be a doctor, and her specialty happens to be cardiology. As a matter of course, what the St. Elizabeth Hospital cardiologist saw on the fluoroscopy screen had been recorded on film. I brought the film to Lita for a second opinion and she, in turn, showed the film to her colleagues, the world-famous team of Lenox Hill Hospital's open-heart surgeons, headed by Dr. V. A.. Subramanian, a handsome, dark-skinned man I ultimately saw only once in my life. He popped into my hospital room for a peek at me the evening before he split open my breastbone. A quick hello and I never saw him again. He, on the other hand, saw me again, but that's getting ahead of the story. The unanimous opinion of the doctors, of course, was that I needed a double bypass. Open heart surgery!
When I told Ernie Capeci at the Internet Cafe that I needed a double bypass, he answered that his father recently had undergone that operation.
"Yeah," he said, "after he first came out from under the anesthesia, he told me he felt like he'd been hit by a Mack truck!"
That didn't sound too encouraging. But then other people started consoling me by telling me that the scalpel-wielders are getting great results with open-heart surgery, so why not? They've got it down pat, people told me. They said people keep living maybe twenty years and more after open-heart surgery. Oh yeah? There's a guy lived in my building who had a double bypass 12 years ago. Twelve years later and he suffers a heart attack that snuffs him. It happened only a few weeks prior to my own heart attack. He was in his 70s, a retired cabinet maker, a sweet guy who owned a new Cadillac but who walked and walked and walked, same as I now do.
Joe Levine was this neighbor's name. He never had much to say. When I later asked his wife about him so I could compare his case with mine, she got inexplicably angry and doesn't talk to me any more. He was a neighbor you take for granted like the rest of this building, its bricks, its mortar, and its elevators, and next day, he aint there no more.
The day of my operation, I was so sedated that I don't even remember being wheeled into the OR. Vaguely I remember achieving consciousness at one point to find the nurses greasing my ring finger so they could remove my father's gold signet ring from it. The removal of any such jewelry is SOP before any kind of surgery. In addition to my father's initials, the ring has a naked mermaid and a diamond chip in it. This is a style of signet ring which was the rage when my father was a young dude. I've seen others like it from that era. The better off the dude, the bigger the diamond chip. My father could afford only a tiny diamond chip. By the time he died, his years of wearing the ring had worn down the gold, almost erasing the mermaid's naked breasts. After my father's death, my mother and sisters had the ring re-engraved and then gave it to me. For the following 53 years, that ring stayed trapped on my finger, which long ago grew too robust to allow me to slide the ring off. To remove it, I believed that either I would have to cut the ring or cut my finger. And here, as they prepared me for my open heart surgery, I awoke to a vague semi-conscious awareness that these nurses were greasing my finger until they finally succeeding in wriggling the ring off my finger.
I knew I would never be able to slip the ring back on my finger again, so I gave it to my elder son. After all, he's named after my father and obviously has the same initials. As I said, it's a signet ring. Yes, I now miss the ring. After so many years of wearing it, I felt it was as much a part of me as my finger. But, as I said, I couldn't get the ring back on my finger, anyway, and why should I wait until after I'm dead to give the ring to my son? I don't want to picture anyone greasing my finger to get the ring off my dead body. Also, I wouldn't want anybody to have to cut the ring to get it off. Nor do I want to imagine anybody having to cut my finger to get it off. So, I gave my father's ring to the grandson of his who also happens to be his namesake. To me, the ring is a valuable family heirloom and something to be prized. It always attracted lots of favorable comments when it was on my finger and I'd be proud to see my elder son wear it and treasure it just as I did.
They gave me a
heart-shaped pillow that I held against my chest
when I coughed
And you know what? He refuses to put it on his finger. It's as if he considers it cursed. My kids all go to therapists. I believe the three of them are still pissed off at me because they blame me for having had to grow up in such a dysfunctional family.
When it comes to remembering anything that day of my operation, I may as well try to recall the mohel cutting off my foreskin. I don't even remember when I became conscious of the pillow in bed with me, a heart-shaped pillow that I soon found convenient to hold against my chest to ease the pain when I had to cough. A Valentine-shaped, red pillow decorated with the words: "How do you mend a broken heart?" LENOX HILL HOSPITAL Cardiovascular surgery.
What I do remember is coming out from the anesthesia in the recovery room with my right hand holding tightly onto the hand of my younger son, Joel, and my left hand holding tightly onto the hand of Ida Becker, my widowed second cousin by marriage, who had taken me to the hospital when I first had my heart attack and with whom I have become close friends. That was May 30 and what I remember most after the operation was this imaginary elephant sitting on my chest. It's weeks afterwards now and the elephant's still sitting there, except he's lost some weight. He's now maybe a baby elephant. In fact, he now feels more like a cannon ball. Also, my feet are still swollen, sometimes causing me to lose my balance and trip and fall over the piles of clutter in my room. As I've already indicated, now, more than ever, walking is the only kind of exercise I can perform. I'm incapable of exerting myself in any other way. With my feet still swollen, I walk with a cane, just to make sure I don't lose my balance. I started out walking around my block, but lately I've been venturing further. Before my heart attack, I'd always felt young and energetic, even though I'd long passed my 60th birthday. Now, I see myself as damaged goods.
So, I know I'm living on borrowed time. In other words, I've got a million stories to tell and not enough time left to tell them all. Some stories are already written, some need only to be rewritten and some still need to be written. For example, I'm still trying to get around to writing about Andy Warhol so I can pay him back for stealing the Velvet Underground away from my management without so much as an excuse me! He thought he could get away with it. And you know what? He got away with it! Am I still a little bitter about Andy just because he was a better self-promoter than I was? Just because he out-hustled a hustler like me? Compared to Andy, I was pretty lame. Yeah, Andy was a hustler, all right, and although Andy hustled his way into the history books, which depict him as having been a giant, I can only think of him as counterfeit. But then the Velvets were just as much into hustling as Andy was. In their new UNCENSORED ORAL HISTORY OF PUNK, did authors Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain tell you the story of how, when I wrote to Lou Reed to ask for an interview, he sent the letter back to me unopened? After all, I was the guy who pulled Lou and the rest of his gang of amphetamine junkies out of a fifth-floor walkup on the Lower East Side and put them into the Cafe Bizarre. Then I brought Nico in to see them and she brought Andy Warhol. Now, Warhol's crowd keeps trying to revise history, ignoring me as if I were never there, as if I were really invisible. I lose faith in the art world when it elevates Andy into the same class with such masters as Vermeer, Pissarro, and Van Gogh, to name a few. That Andy was money-hungry, lazy, shallow and more an entrepreneur than an artist is revealed in Andy's own diaries. Andy didn't know anything about rock and roll, but Nico, who reigned as a cold-blooded bitch-goddess of beauty, needed a backup band and so she talked Andy into stealing the Velvets away from me. Besides, she developed a big case of the hots for Lou Reed. Meanwhile, I couldn't help but have a big crush on Nico myself. She sometimes would baby-sit my kids for my wife and me. My daughter says she hated Nico without really being able to explain why. Yes, I've got stories to tell about Nico, too, but, as for Andy, I consider him to have founded the Whatever-You-Can-Get-Away-With School of Art. Andy's loft, known as "the factory," was nearer to the Upper East Side than Coney Island. At Andy's "factory" you could see a chic-freak side show that became the rage of the jet-set. But, like everything else about the "factory," the show was as counterfeit as were even the tickets to get in. For a ticket, all you needed was any kind of claim to fame and a lot of people got in simply by declaring themselves to be famous. Andy was obsessed not only with famous people but with the concept of fame itself. Sexually, Andy was famous as a voyeur and so his side show catered to voyeurism, attracting an audience largely recruited from the Gay elite of those days, which was responsible for turning Andy into a star. Inevitably, the audiences at Andy's side show became an integral part of the side show itself and, by paying big bucks for his by-the-number canvases, this audience won Andy his place in the history books.
What do I know about art? To me, Andy ran a counterfeiting factory which produced nothing but put-ons. In fact, I believe Andy's greatest contribution to painting was to get the put-on classified as "ART." When it came to putting oils on canvas, deception was Andy's brush. Andy was so much into fakery that he even hired an actor to impersonate him on a tour of colleges and universities. The actor put on one of the blond wigs that Andy always wore and simply became Andy. Everybody on the tour believed the actor was the real thing.
I've got maybe a million stories like that to tell you. I also have a bunch of first drafts I've written about the head games and mind fucks the superstars of the Sixties played on one another. Played on one another and also played on me. And then, there are the chapters I've got from a book I once started to write based on my original 12-part, New York Post series about the Beat Generation. That's a manuscript which dates back to 1959. I never finished writing that book and so these chapters have never been published. But I plan to serialize them here in my BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST column on the Internet as The Beat Papers of Al Aronowitz. They include two chapters annotated by Jack Kerouac himself, the first one based on my interview with Jack when he was living in Northport in Long Island and the second based on my interview with Neal Cassady when Neal was doing time in San Quentin because of a marijuana bust. I sent both chapters to Jack for his comments and he annotated them and sent them back to me. Unfortunately, the originals have disappeared from my files. But Kerouac biographer Dennis McNally, whose Desolate Angel chronicled Jack's life and whose more recent activity has been as the Grateful Dead's historian and PR man, retyped the originals for me many years ago. And Dennis' copy has been retyped onto a computer disk.
Yes, I'm living on borrowed time and I have a million things to do and a million stories to tell. That's what I do. I tell stories. I don't write much fiction, because I believe that only the truth can really teach. Fiction tells lies. I'm a journalist who tells you what I really saw, what I really heard, and what I really believe happened. I know I'm sometimes long-winded but telling the whole story is my specialty. When I was writing my POP SCENE column in the New York Post, that's what I did, I told stories. I never considered myself a critic. When I wrote about the pop stars, I wrote not about the sounds they made so much as I wrote about their lives. I like to write stories about lives that have a lot of wows! in them. Now I look at my own life and find I've maybe had too many. Or was it too few? ## NEXT: A MOVIE FOR DAVID GEFFEN
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