Dating in the Dark

by Joe Kane

MOVIE DATES FROM HEAVEN…AND HELL!

NOTHING (FOR ARGUMENT’S SAKE) can get a potential relationship off on the right foot (to speak only of foot) better than the perfect movie date. (The reverse, of course, can be equally true, if not truer.) As a typically socially retarded recent all-boys’ high-school grad, I didn’t score my first movie date with a live girl until my freshman year at college, where I chanced to meet a foxy frolicsome gamin we’ll call Lolita (not her real name).

Since my cinema tastes then ran to pretty much the same fare as they do today, I knew I had to give the matter of a proposed movie date some serious thought. A jaunt to my fave haunts—the East Village’s Gate Theater for underground films like the Kuchar Brothers’ constantly in-rotation Sins of the Fleshapoids, say, or a funky 42nd Street grindhouse for a horror double bill—seemed a potentially off-putting choice. (The truth would come out soon enough anyway, should the relationship last more than a week or so, but why rush such risky revelations?) Biting the bullet till my gums all but bled, I suggested the super-somber Spanish Civil War documentary To Die in Madrid, then unspooling at the trendy Bleecker Street Cinema. Turned out to be an excellent film neither one of us particularly wanted to see but which cemented our teenage self-images as serious-minded, politically conscious, forward-thinking college types. After that solid start, we adopted the practice, common to couples the galaxy over, of trading celluloid selections—Georgy Girl, say, for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly—when we couldn’t agree on a mutually appealing flick. That approach worked out well: the relationship lasted two wonderful years and three horrible months. And, after she dumped me, I got to go solo to all the Deuce shows my broken heart desired.

In a bid to alleviate the latter lonely condition, I embarked on all manner of what turned out to be less than ideal movie dates. But the absolute worst had to be my first (and last) cinematic liaison with a rather strict lass we’ll call Ilsa (should have been her real name). Not to say that Ilsa was humorless, but if she did locate a funnybone she would likely use it to beat you to death. Ilsa seemed pretty sheltered when it came to pop culture, so I had the bright idea of “turning her on” to then-current cult fave Robert Downey’s latest romp, Putney Swope, playing at a respectable Upper East Side theater. No problems on the journey in, but as soon as the first wave of rude Downey gags washed over the screen, the initially warm body beside me began to chill (in the old-school sense of the word). Every time I laughed, chuckled, or even half-smiled to my lonesome, I felt an increasingly frigid vibe punctuated by hostile whiplash stares. When the lights finally came up, Ilsa fixed me with a lethal squint and asked, “You thought that was funny?” What followed was the longest subway ride of my life, as I solemnly pondered the deep personality flaws that would encourage me to enjoy such offensive “entertainment,” while she counted the stops aloud. Taking the Pelham 1-2-3 with Bernie Goetz would have been more fun—and I wouldn’t have had to kiss him goodnight. Or, as in Ilsa’s case, goodbye.

It was back to 42nd Street for another stretch of solitary bijougoing, where I caught classics like Born Losers, Door-to-Door Maniac and The Glory Stompers, before I had what rated as the best movie date of my then-young life. At a party I fell into spirited discourse with a lively gal we’ll call Sandy (used to be her real name). When I mentioned my movie habits, Sandy surprised me by proposing a Deuce date! A friend warned me that he wasn’t sure of Sandy’s romantic orientation but, in context, that didn’t seem to make much sense, since the date had been her idea. Anyhow, in the Be Still My Beating Heart Department, when I picked Sandy up at her East Village pad, she produced a pint of Wilson’s rye (my very brand!) she’d bought for the occasion. Once on the Deuce, I asked which title tickled her feckless fancy. Sandy shocked me to my socks by settling on a soft-core skinflick at the seedy old Bryant, then-unknown (to me) Andy Milligan’s Tricks of the Trade. She even insisted on paying her own way, further warming my coronary cockles; her stock continued to soar as we settled into our well-worn seats amid the usual scattered raincoat crowd and she passed the rotgut elixir as Tricks’ opening credits scrolled.

Agreeably burdened by the usual low production values, muddy black-and-white photography, crackling soundtrack, and countless unintentional (though occasionally creative) jump cuts, the flick immediately exuded a powerful mood of terminal postcoital depression while relating the sorry tale of one Fred Claret (Jonathan East), a strapping, crew-cut, heavily mortgaged middle-class meekling whose passive personality and panoply of sexual problems are making a further mockery of his already fairly ludicrous life. While our hero submerges his multiple sorrows at a Greenwich Village watering hole, a friend chances by and suggests Fred visit the same resourceful shrink who’d helped him over some of life’s more arduous humps. Fred is next accosted by Stud and Marcy Perkins (Mostifa Mond, June Blake), a vile and crazy pair of local lowlifes who, feigning friendship, invite him to their grungy Lower East Side lair. There, after temporarily exorcising his massive—we are told he is hung “like a horse”—inhibitions via a heavy intake of the evil weed, they engage him in a variety of timidly choreographed bisexual acts.

Chagrined over his radical moral lapse, Fred seeks the aid and comfort of Dr. Pauline Flood (Natalie Rogers), the selfsame sex therapist he’d been urged to see by his barroom bud. She straightaway seduces him, then sends him back to hearth and home a new man. (“And you are quite a man,” she leeringly reminds him.) Upon his return, the horse-hung regenerate proceeds to put it to his breathless better half till her eyes all but pop from their sockets, thus winning back his castle, manhood, and self-esteem. This mellow domestic tableau is rudely interrupted, though, when the Perkinses appear at Fred’s door with damning photographic evidence of his and their night of drug-induced abandon. Fearing his hard-won happiness might be forever snuffed out by this odious breath of scandal, Fred agrees to meet them with a sizable slice of blackmail bread. But on the way, Fred decides that since he is quite a man, he’s not about to be bullied by a pair of pot-puffing pervs, and resolves to show up not with the promised gelt but a brace of ready fists with which to show the gutter tripe what-for.

When Fred arrives at his destination, he discovers the pad occupied not only by the decadent couple but a veritable tribe of dope-crazed S&M freaks. While this crew is not the least bit impressed by Fred’s show of newly acquired machismo, they are annoyed to learn he’s neglected to bring the cash and express their disappointment by mutilating him beyond recognition. In a brief, cautionary coda, we find Fred, his face thick with cheap monster-movie makeup, stumbling about the Bowery with hands outstretched and wits nowhere about him, a particularly pathetic straggler along the path better not taken. The End.

It was only after we’d finished drinking and laughing our way through Tricks’ final reel and were heading tipsily down the neon-lit Deuce that Sandy cheerfully confessed,             “Y’know, before tonight, I was 95% sure I was gay.”

Pregnant pause.

“And now?” I stupidly ventured.

“100.”

Hmm. Me or the slobby hetero movie? Or just an ideal lightning-strikes combo of the twain? Bad enough her “ah-ha!” experience led to my “oh no!” moment; I decided not to inquire.

At least there was a major upside to this initially disappointing climax. We stayed friends for years, went to lots more flicks, and, though we later lost touch, Sandy still ranks among my all-time fave moviegoing companions.

Soon after, I scored a brief summer sublet, a funky, underfurnished pad off 8thAve. and 46thStreet, next door to the then-hot club Steve Paul’s The Scene. On the well-worn heels of my recent breakup with the lone true love of my life (whom we’ll still call Lolita), I squandered most of that sweat-soaked season drearily moping, penning morbid pensees, and otherwise nursing my annihilated heart.

One welcome interruption to the above inactivity: I was taking a couple of Queens College summer courses to help fulfill my lofty goal of actually graduating within a four-year time frame. A most unusual aim at that virtually free university, where slacker students boasted of coasting for five, six and, in at least one case, eight years as undergrads before copping a diploma or getting the boot. The eight-year fellow, whom we’ll call Steve (as that was his name), achieved this record by taking leaves of absence for the Peace Corps, Vista, and assorted personal odysseys, while signing up for the minimum required credits for each semester he was actually present in the flesh. A campus role model for many, Steve’s molasses-assed m.o. enthralled me not a jot; I couldn’t wait to make my break from backwater Queens to permanent placement in magical Manhattan.

Anyhow, in one auditorium-held course, I happened to sit next to a sweet, petite Chinese-American gal we’ll dub Jade. We often spoke a bit before and after class but that was the extent of our intercourse, me still tending my shattered psyche and her being a bit beyond my ken anyway—at once too exotically foxy and “straight” (i.e., not counter-culturally “with it”), or so I figured. One day, I happened to mention my new sublet. Jade’s dark eyes sparkled with sudden interest and she volunteered to accompany me into the city after our next class. I viewed it less as a formal date than a casual daylight tour of environs largely foreign to her and felt more than happy for her company.

On the subway ride into the Big A, Jade behaved with her customary pleasant reserve, interrupting her serene silence with an occasional observation or a mysterious rummage through her rather expansive shoulder bag. Once aboveground, we pounded the midtown pavement a time before passing a personage handing out free tickets to a taping of an abortive game show called The Baby Game. The prospect struck me as plenty lame, but Jade, with decidedly “unhip” excitement, asked if we could go; her interest lay less in the topic’s reproductive angle than in the experience of seeing any TV broadcast live with her own eyes. While the show itself proved pretty deadly, at least to this hardened Howdy Doody vet, Jade’s unjaded enthusiasm was tough to resist. I wasn’t sure how long she wanted to extend her Manhattan visit, but I next suggested dinner at one of my fave budget-friendly haunts, The Italian Kitchen, where a typical no-frills pasta dish set you back less than a buck. Had I been in more earnest “date” mode, I doubtless would have steered her to a classier venue, Tad’s Steakhouse perhaps (where entrees started at a posh $1.59). But she honestly dug the earthy Times Square ambience, so much so that we dawdled over our dinner and brews, chinwagging about this, that, and even a bit of the other thing till well into the evening. Jade still betrayed no signs of wanting to head Queensward, even though she lived with her folks and would surely be marked missing pretty soon.

By now it was pushing 10 p.m., so, seeing as how I yet had her attention, I posited another big-splurge notion: How about a Deuce double feature? Well, apparently I could do no wrong, suggestion-wise, because she readily consented, advising me to pick the pictures. Don Siegel’s Clint Eastwood culture-clash cop movie Coogan’s Bluff plus Devil’s Angels (it was hard finding a 42nd Street twin bill that didn’t come equipped with at least one biker flick back then) looked to be about the most couple-friendly program in sight, so we faded into the Selwyn Theater’s seedy, sticky darkness.While John Cassavetes and his fellow cyclists zoomed across the screen to the fuzz-guitar stylings of Davie Allan and the Arrows, I began growing a bit apprehensive. Where was this leading? I was loath to put Jade alone on a subway at 2 a.m., when the show would let out, and even loather to make the round trip with her. But she seemed to be totally caught up in the moment and the movies, even though I gathered these wouldn’t normally stack up as her first choices in film fare (at dinner she’d cited The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter as her fave recent flick). But we hung on through the entire double feature, even as a dozing derelict behind us decided to use our shoulders as a footrest while an ever-cool Clint gave high-speed onscreen chase to fugitive Don Stroud. When Coogan’s Bluff concluded and the house lights brightened, I was really in a quandary as to what to do. I mentioned we might swing by The Scene for a quickie cocktail and look-see.

“Yes!” came Jade’s ready reply.

The joint was, as they say, jumpin’. Soon after we entered, the excellent house band, The Free Spirits, led by guitar ace Larry Coryell, backed an impromptu blues-belting duel among audience celebs Eddie Brigati (of The Young Rascals fame), Mitch Ryder (sans his Detroit Wheels), and thesp Lou Gossett, Jr., then appearing on Broadway. (Lou won, by the way, at least according to the aud’s unofficial applause meter.) But the night’s most memorable sights and sounds didn’t roll around until nearly 3 a.m. when out strolled then-merely-local legend Tiny Tim to serenade the stragglers (as he did nightly at the time). We were totally unprepared for this vision of a long-haired, retro-dressed, middle-aged, mega-beaked Dickensian freak. Mr. T blew kisses, plunked his magic ukelele, and proceeded to let loose the most ungodly falsetto I’d ever heard in the goosebumped flesh, before or since, from a singer of any gender. Laugh if you will, but that weird dude induced serious chills as he launched, up-close and personal, into his signature cover of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”

Meanwhile, to quote Chuck Berry, I looked at my watch, it was a quarter to four. Could Jade (or I) take any more? Then she said, “Your place is pretty close to here, isn’t it?”

Yeah, like next door. But believe it or not, through our entire marathon day and night, that thought had not seriously crossed my mourning mind.

“Sure thing,” I stammered. “But what about your folks?”

“Oh, I already told them I’d be staying at my cousin’s.”

If I still had any doubts about Jade’s intentions, they vanished when we arrived at my shabby walkup and she casually removed some Chinese buns from her bag. “Breakfast,” she explained.

Well, I wish I could report that I made the most of the opportunity. But though it was fun while it lasted (somewhere between a short and a coming attraction, by my rough estimate), after the good parts I experienced that empty feeling typical of obsessive young depressos who “get lucky.” With my lamented lass Lolita, I’d had the whole shebang—not only a chemical connection but an uncanny rapport where we were ever on the same wavelength, even to the point of finishing each other’s sentences and drinks. I could hardly expect the same of Jade, especially on a first date (I think by that point it merited that upgraded status, to say nothing of then some), but there you have it and there you go; each awkward post-intimacy moment escalated that sort of gnawing sense of loneliness I could more readily ignore when literally alone. I could settle, at that point in my miserable existence, for nothing less than being hopelessly, irrationally, droolingly in love. I would adjust my tune re such matters not too much further along on this tragic carpet ride we call life, but too late to salvage what might have been a more prolonged fling with this sweet young thing. Then again, as it turned out, Jade didn’t have a lengthy relationship in mind in any case—she offhandedly informed me, as pale early a.m. rays penetrated the pad’s perforated shades, that she was already engaged. (Always a good thing to know, even ex post facto.)

The experience didn’t seem to leave too bitter a taste in Jade’s mouth, though, since next time I saw her in class, she was, if not all, then at least 99% smiles. It was then that it finally dawned on my dense gray matter that, for that one day at least, I’d represented her forbidden fruit; for her, our escapade had been nothing less than a daring urban hipster adventure, the kind you could scarcely score in her moribund home borough. So, in the end, no harm, no foul. And those Chinese buns were awfully tasty.

Excerpted from Found Footage: How the Astro-Zombies Saved My Life and Other Tales of Movie Madness (CultMachine) By Joe Kane.

Copyright Joe Kane 2018
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