RAY BREMSER MEMORIAL
COLUMN SEVENTY-FOUR, AUGUST 1, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 Al Aronowitz)
II. DO YOU BELIEVE?
" 1997 Brenda Frazer)
Woke up in love, without once considering that this might be wrong for either of us, the decision from the heart after all and no one to say otherwise. It didn't matter if Ray was an ex-con, when people want to change the better side shows, the spiritual redemption. In some ways those on the inside of jails and prisons are better, more responsible than are the good guys on the outside. Although he pointed out that rehabilitation as prescribed by the penal system was a farce, Ray's turn around of his past was impressive, a misfit gone good, a poet now, all the criminality sublimated into art. A do-it-yourself rehabilitation.
returned to Washington less than a week later. "I got the key you
sent," he said, "Nice invitation." He'd come up the stairs to
the second story landing, phonograph records under his arm. I already knew he
was there, maybe I'd heard the metal scrape of the front gate; he knew somehow
too, that I'd be waiting. There was an Oriental rug left on the back porch
from a former tenant. Brought in and brushed up, it sufficed for furniture, so
little needed. It provided a place to sit on the living room floor under the red
light bulb he'd carried all the way from New York in his jacket pocket. The
music set the scene, the phonograph on the floor nearby sent bass vibrations
into the floorboards which we could feel. Brubeck and Miles, Yusef Lateef, the
music he'd listened to in jail. Two lovers listened now with time and privacy.
Who was to say no? Parents, roommates, guards? No one there. We sat
cross-legged, knee to knee facing each other. Telling everything and soaking it
all in like the breath of smoke from the Pall Mall cigarettes we smoked, as
satisfying as love, mixed and absorbed in a long kiss. "Pall Mall is the
highest!" he said.
Soon he knew everything
about me too, in different ways he found it out. Alone in the apartment during
the day he went through all of my things. "There must be some poems
somewhere" he said, maybe to cover up, "Everyone I know has a secret
drawer of poems." I was flattered. No one before had ever cared to know me
heart and soul and to find it out. Sometimes he would prompt half conscious
conversations just at the moment I was falling off to sleep or just then coming
awake, but not quite. Wake up and find him close beside me listening. "You
talked in your sleep you know. Like, just now you said something - "alpha
acceptable? - what does that mean, Babe?" Still groggy the words blurted
out as if by themselves, "It means A-1 Absolute. Like love, of
course!" "Oh of course!" he agreed, and we laughed, me feeling
foolish but proud to amuse him, and always tender when he called me Babe.
on that night, the window shutter partly closed made striped patterns of
streetlight in the bedroom. The pencil marks on the wall behind us were grouped
in fives, four in a line and one across diagonal. He must have counted the days
in prison that way, imagining freedom to come, the sexual encounters he would
enjoy. Now it was our lovemaking and it seemed like a dream still. We sat on the
bed afterward, almost naked. Skin white in the darkness, the long line of his
body from shoulder to hip bent toward me. We lean together touching, the touch
spans hours, a pause in time.
He whispers in my ear, "Bonnie, I don't know how to say this, but I?ve have promised to marry a girl in New York." He's trying to be so discrete, sensitive, but it comes out like hard nails on an
runs through rooms
to the kitchen,
throwing things around
empty bucket, my
head. It would be better for me to reply calmly what immediately comes to mind,
something like "Why didn't you tell me this before?" But instead I
react by jumping up and over him, off the bed in a moment, saying,
"WHAT?" Yelling, "WHAT?" And not even knowing what to do or
where to run.
run through rooms to the kitchen, throwing things around on the way, making a
scene. It feels like suicide. A death leap away from him, away from the love
that could save me, more faith now in gibbering beer cans as I threw them
around, enjoying the noise. Just get to the bathroom where it was private, put
on my clothes to cover nakedness, embarrassing now. But he got there first and
caught me. We struggled in the doorway. "Wait a minute!"
what? What more need to listen? No comfort could be for this lost soul, nor end
to these tears for the senselessness of everything. Diagnosis? Hysteria. Remedy?
A quick slap in the kisser. And then he immediately held me to him. "I?m
sorry, I had to do it Babe. You wouldn't listen. It's ok. I'm not going to
marry her." So we stood ashamed and a little empty, naked in more ways than
one. The emotional outburst made it obvious to us both, as sure as any words,
that it was real, this love.
dressed and walked out into the quiet nighttime streets of the city. Senses
heightened by the internal storm, now outside the air was soft and gently
penetrated our clothes with its dampness. Pennsylvania Avenue was deserted, the
broad street safe to walk casually arm and arm. The city was ours. Everything
was closed except the White Tower hamburger joint. Ten miniature burgers to a
bag, one dollar. The deco white siding shown with light as we passed it, maybe
stopped to buy coffee and a crumb cake. Too depleted of energy to notice or
remember routine things like food. Two blocks up we entered a long triangular
park. Showing off, I ran ahead of him and jumped over a bush. Then ran back to
him as if for applause, giddy with love.
talk later, clearing the air. Ray said, "I don't know why they put me in
a reformatory. That was the worst break. Better to go to prison. More
psychiatrists stand in the way of your release. I would foul up their tests by
wiggling my ears. I was in charge of the library, respected. I chose Stewart as
a bunkmate to protect him from the guys who wanted to hump him. Then we became
lovers under the bunk in the dark hours. It was just kid stuff." So Ray was
an ex-convict. The pain in his eyes was recognizable, I saw and felt it.
I don't know how the fact he was a convict didn't bother
me. I think I was born to love a
misfit like myself. Nor did I think
much about him having a man for a lover, wasn't it just a need, like men out
can't you stay?" I asked the next day. "Parole officer wouldn't
like it. They don't know I'm out of state. It's a violation. You come to
NY next weekend," he said as he left. The four hour bus ride was a good
time to think about things. New York City seemed the place of young dreams and
excitement. How many teenagers from New Jersey, including me from Princeton just
last year, went there wishing to belong to that excitement?
When I lived in New Jersey, my senior year in high school, I'd escaped
several times to New York. The
afro-jazz classes on 57th St. Muscular drums, I was shy and white and waited
nervously in line to cross the floor behind the other dancers. Thought that
maybe some of them were professional dancers from Broadway shows.
On the train back to Princeton Junction afterwards, my blood had been
pulsing in a new way.
here I was again approaching from the south on the New Jersey Turnpike, I see
from the bus the New York skyline, just after Bayonne and the smell of burnt
oil, just after the meadowland miles of marshes. There it is on the rise of the
palisades, a low line of houses and apartment buildings, Weehawken, and behind
it, on a different dimension, the tall bright buildings of the city lifting from
the mist. Hip and sophisticated, enough to change your attitude just looking at
it. The bus sweeps around the ramp to the Lincoln Tunnel with one last panoramic
view. And then I'm in it, arrived, and hear the bus announced at some remote
location in the Port authority building. The bus is suddenly suffocating and I
push to get off, only to find the air outside is worse with gas fumes and
closeness of bodies.
"Glad you didn't
bring a bag," he said, "We don't have a place to stay anyway."
We both wore the same clothes as before, army navy surplus. Clothes weren't an
issue. "I'm taking you to the Seven Arts Coffeeshop, they're waiting
for me to read a second set." We walked one long block west alongside the
Port Authority concrete and bus ramps. Around the corner from the gaudy Times
Square strip, the darkness was a relief from the exposure of glaring lights,
behind us now as we reached 10th Ave and 43rd St. Loading tiers and dusty
windows of the commercial buildings stretched on down toward the waterfront. The
Seven Arts was in a second floor corner loft, now a gallery above the street.
I didn't have to worry about belonging. Ray's arm around me was enough. He
showed me up the stairs and into the crowded coffee shop where, John Rapponich
the owner greeted us. "Ray already told us all about you, only you're
prettier." "Knock it off you rat," Ray said, pulling me closer.
"John's another misfit from New Jersey. Hoboken. Half the time he covers
the waterfront on the Jersey side, then he crawls up a sewer hole to the Seven
John was a big man, bearded and jovial as Friar Tuck and so the image was
harmlessly funny. John laughed and turned back to the busy kitchen, brightly
lit. It was the only light in the coffeehouse except for a flood light at the
poet reading there never missed a beat in his recitation although his eyes
narrowed in recognition of Ray as we found seats at a tiny round table. This was
Jack Micheline, Ray told me as we sat down. He shouted the poem and smiled at
the same time as he read, shaking his head as if to break the poetry loose and
let it go, flying out to the audience along with drops of sweat and saliva. A
gentle violence, joyfully drunk, he read a poem about wine and the Bowery,
broads and brawls. When done, he smiled apologetically toward our table as if
wondering did Ray like it.
Ray was next, but first John called him back to the kitchen. "Audrey's here," Ray explained to me on his way to the stage. Alone in the darkness I lowered my head as photographers moved tripods in the darkness. Magnum studios were there taking photos of everyone, even me. Now I was convinced that Ray was someone famous. The winding sound and clunk of camera shutters interrupted the silence as Ray stepped into the spotlight. He sat on a stool and crossed his legs, exactly as I'd seen him two weeks before. Only now the strong light from overhead made strange
'A mattress on the floor
and a phonograph
shadows on his face, masking his
eyes. He looked up into the dark audience and said, "This poem is for a
friend. It's called MIGRATION." There was a small sound of a woman's
cry from back by the kitchen. The poem was about birds, what made them gather to
fly in flocks, the instinct that told them to move on. His voice rang out with
emotion, soul rankling. At the end in the silence before the applause there was
a rustling and foot steps in the back of the coffee shop as someone left. Later
Ray explained, "That was Audrey, the girl I was supposed to marry. The poem
was for her, it was a goodbye. The only way to be gentle. She understood
spent the night somewhere on the Lower East Side in a loft apartment of some
poet/painter friend. A mattress on the floor and a phonograph was enough. We
went through the albums piled beside the box. Spontaneous and inventive, the
music swelled, we recognized the changes and rose on the emotion of it, wrapped
up in each other. Next day New York looked different in the morning sunshine,
businesses bustling. Ray had decided we should go to Jersey City, there was a
John Coltrane side he wanted to pick up at his mothers so I could hear it. At
the corner entrance to Tompkins Park was Gregory Corso, standing by the statue
of faith, hope and charity with the Sunday Times under his arm. He was wearing
old gray sneakers and a rumpled t-shirt. "What are you doing here?" he
asked me. Ray answered, "We're on our way over to Jersey." "Oh,
taking her to meet your mom, huh. Good luck!"
walked across Manhattan and caught the Hudson tubes, the subway under the Hudson
River to New Jersey. The Hudson Terminal in Hoboken had a copper roof oxidized
green by the sea air. Gulls were whirling above the street in great flocks as we
came up the subway steps and took a bus to Jersey City. All throughout the low
area of Hoboken---"It's a mile square exactly," Ray said---were row on
row of dark red brick tenements with clotheslines strung from each fire escape
to poles in the back yard.
mother lived in a small railroad flat on Manhattan Avenue, windows facing the
street and a kitchen window to the backyard. Forties-style high school pictures
of his sisters with upswept hairdos on the mantel along with the philodendron.
"What do you want me to do with these outfits in the closet? I sent them to
the cleaners." She brought out a jacket with two tone collar and piping.
"I can't wear that anymore Ma. It's jitterbug stuff. That was ten years
ago." "They're still nice though," she said, and looked
disapprovingly at his army field jacket. "You look like that Fidel Castro
and you need a shave too!" Her face had the soft collapsed look that no
teeth gives. She showed me a picture of herself with Gertrude Edderly, the first
woman who swam the English Channel. "I was supposed to swim with her but
then I was pregnant with Raymond." Before we left she asked Ray, "When
are you coming to work? Sol, keeps asking." On the way back he told me,
"My mother works in a condom factory down in Hoboken. Prophylactics. I?m
good with the molds. Sol, her boss, vouched for me with the parole people. My
father is a piano player. He and my mother were never married. He lives around
the corner in a furnished room. My sisters found the birth certificates in a box
under Mom's bed. There was a blank space where his name should have been. I
was sick a lot as a kid and didn't have to go to school, I never finished
to New York City, evening now, we came up out of the Hudson Tubes at Christopher
Street and walked north to Chelsea where Leroi and Hettie Jones lived. It was a
party for the new Issue of Yugen, their literary magazine. There were poems by
Ray in it. While we walked, Ray told me about Roi being attacked on the street
by a gang and how he'd defended himself with a garbage can cover. I could see
all kinds of shadows in the damp river air and dark streets. "Kind of like
a gladiator, and after that he always carried around a big dictionary to rap
heads with." When we arrived at the party, Audrey was already there in a
black cocktail dress. She seemed to be following Ray around, still hopeful.
There was emotional tension, subterfuge, and after awhile she made another
hurried exit. Ray explained, "We'd had a date to go to the party. She
tried to save face by coming dressed to the teeth , but when she saw you again
dressed in jeans she knew she'd made a mistake."
the party we walked across Manhattan, stopping at Fifth Avenue and 8th Street at
the Cedar Bar where Ray hoped to find some friend that would let us spend the
friend turned out to be Marc Schleiffer and soon we were walking east to his pad
on 17th Street. Ray still carried the records under his arm we'd brought from
his mother's. Below the level of the sidewalk in a brownstone house, Marc's
apartment was tiny. The single bed along the wall had bookcase at the head of it
with a radio and a phonograph. Ray put a red bandanna handkerchief over the
lamp. The scene was set to music and the mood was love. "You gotta hear
this, Babe! Stella by Starlight!" The drummer skipped a beat and
Coltrane came on big as life. Making love to beautiful music. Words of any kind
are superfluous. Even skin-to-skin sexual, that climax is not enough. It's
more than that, and the music makes it real. The solo horn that suspends all
else, everything riding on the swell of emotion.
became musicians ourselves and blew imaginary riffs there on the little bed.
Then after another song by Coltrane, Laura, Ray told me the story of the
woman named Lorraine whom, he'd loved and lost when he was seventeen. How
they'd broken it off just before he went to jail. The music stuttered in a
hectic rhythm of trumpet and drums. I began to get nervous. Though still in his
arms, I was worried, full of questions. Wanted to know again, did he love me? Or
was it just another sexual encounter? The climax of the jazz solo suddenly
blowing sirens in my head? The record skips?
" STOP " " "
am afraid." "Afraid of what, Babe?" Gulp down fear. "I want
to stop all this, go home."
"I think you're just playing with me." And I dressed quickly and went out on the street as he called out to me, "This is crazy." And it was. I felt crazy, confused, and didn't know if I wanted to go or
stay or how to do
either. I walked around the block, afraid of the neighborhood, afraid of the
brownstone houses, afraid of New York. And then came back, down the steps to the
basement apartment where the music had stopped and he was smoking a cigarette.
"Don't you ever walk out on me like that again." Silence from me.
"Now what did you say about playing around with you?"
felt foolish in the silence, but what about my freedom now? "I don't just
want to make love. I'd rather go back to DC right now than do that. It's
important to me, don't you know?"
important to me too Bonnie, I want to marry you."
did you decide that?"
wanted to marry you yesterday, a week ago, always."
up the volume again, Coltrane comes on. No talk, the music reconvenes, the tempo
sure this time. The room is suddenly big, and every object and element alive and
joyous, and we have begun something worth caring about. But stop again, my head
over the mattress edge leaning on his arm as he asks, "You didn't say
you'll marry me yet".
course I'll marry you, the answer is yes, I mean YES!"
Corny as hell, I know, but didn't I need, for just one moment, things
to be all square and understandable?
lay in the embrace which rapture freed from all care---in the darkness of an
unknown place. Late night now,
listening to the jazz station as it came to the end of programming. The
sign off song was a piece from classical music, probably by Franz Schubert,
piano chords in harmony, a steady walk ahead beckoning the emotions to follow.
The swell and ebb of it moved the heart. A rest for breath, and then the
yearning voice over the air in clear tones "Du mein Herz?? "Liebe??
Maybe from a poem by Goethe. My German's poor but still the words were
keys to open the heart. Poetry, even in another language, you could understand
were married in DC a week later at a Presbyterian church. The minister was
nervous, worried perhaps for me. I was dressed in a red plaid dress I'd made
myself a year before. Ray wore his army field jacket and the Air Force pants
from his short tour of duty when he was seventeen. Dishonorable discharge, the
only kind to have. The ceremony left something to be desired.
Later we just got back from
the church and were on the rug listening to the Modern Jazz Quartet playing No Sun in
Venice. Connie Kay, the drummer did an amazing shuffle beat light
and airy with cymbals chiming. The magnolias had bloomed that day. "I find
it impossible not to believe in God," he said, as we sat looking at each
other. "Do you believe in God?" All of my intellectual reservations
dissolved in that moment, wanting to be wholly with him, in him, "I believe
in love." ##
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