In which our guest blogger, Little Annie, regales us with tales from her unpublished biography. In this chapter, the little lady from New York travels far far away across the ocean to take up residence with a gang of British anarchist hippie punks called Crass. They call her “Annie Anxiety”.
TEETERING DOWN the single file country ‘road’ that snaked its way to Crass’ Epping Forest home in my faux Frederick’s of Hollywood stilettos and dragging my equally glitzy chi-chi drag behind me, I may not have been the quintessential ugly American, but I was definitely the quintessential inappropriately dressed one. As the country lane turned into a path through a mud-slicked cow yard, I couldn’t help but wonder where this incredibly hip-and-happening second English Explosion Jammy Wonderland that all the knuckleheads back in New York were always yapping about was. Just as I was figuring that I was the butt of a very expensive and complicated episode of Candid Camera, the smoky-eyed, Jean Seberg-cropped Crass vocalist, Eve Libertine, drove up and rescued my quintessential daft ass. As we pulled up to the sixteenth-century former labourer’s cottage in Eve’s old blue Mini, its soft beauty knocked me out. Some members of Crass had found this once uninhabitable wreck many years ago, seen its potential and rented it from the farmer, who thought they were crazy, hence the ridiculously affordable rent. Hard work had turned this crumbling structure into a House and Garden – worthy Zen dream, and one that was more or less obscured by beautiful lush vegetation. Inside was equally impressive, immaculately clean and lovingly handcrafted. It was paradise, except for one little thing – it was in the country.
I had believed from the conversations with Steve (Ignorant) I had back in New York that they all lived in some sort of English version of the projects. In one of his letters, he had spoken of everyone sitting around in the garden. I just assumed he had meant a vacant lot or basketball court. I mean this was rural with a capital W, and I’m just not down with the country groove. It scares the hell outta me. Country life is all about the natural order: the cyclical process of growth and decay, sowing and harvest, waxing and waning. Children raised in rural areas grow with a firm comprehension of birth and death. City children have no such acceptance. We beat death by aspiring toward immortality by becoming drug addicts, boxers and movie stars. Continue reading →
I FIRST SAW BILLY ITALY on a still, cold, early spring Sunday, when he glided like a promise into the park. I was hypnotised by this should-be Italian film star, wearing an impeccable white linen suit. His hair was like blue-black bird-wings, framing the facial structure of a Russian Christ icon. He had the coloring of rich wood, and I’d never seen anything like him before, nor (thinking about it even now) since. Billy’s entourage, as impressive as they were, faded into the pale whenever they got into close proximity to him. It sounds like a cliché, but he radiated such beauty that he had the effect of the sun overwhelming a forty-watt light bulb. I was a goner. I don’t like bandying words like ‘destiny’ or ‘fate’ around, but I had no choice in the matter.
After that first sight, I scoured the streets for months, which, considering my attention span at the time, was forever. I didn’t even know his name. Just when I had almost resigned myself to the idea that I would never see him again, I did. It was about two months after that first sighting. He was no longer wearing his beautiful white garments. As a matter of fact, on closer inspection, I could see the signs of early homelessness. But it didn’t detract from his glow, and it didn’t deter me in the least. If you put my scenario, and Billy’s together into the realms of reason, it makes no sense. But as I said, this was something I had no choice in. It was not as if we made small talk and found we shared common interests and hobbies. Nor was it something animalistic and primeval. We both had read the script and were on the same page. It was like he was sitting there waiting for me. I’m not being mystical. It was fact, and I didn’t question for a second that I was meant to be with this man. Sometimes, in order to believe, one must suspend beliefs.
Billy Italy was fourteen years old when he came by boat as an immigrant to the United States from a tiny town in Calabria, the toe of southern Italy’s boot. His mother, who was pregnant with his younger sister at the time, was grabbed by customs officials at Ellis Island in a case of mistaken identity. Speaking no English, she was carted off to Bellevue, and stayed there until relatives were able to track her down. She never fully recovered from her introduction to America.
Billy had never seen cars, television, or heroin till he arrived on these shores. He got strung out on dope almost immediately. His younger brother was also strung out. The golden land of opportunity in this instance was leaden with grief. Now, at twenty-nine, Billy’s poor body was prematurely failing him. A few months earlier he had nearly bled to death when his spleen exploded while he was in the waiting room of a hospital, where he was receiving treatment for a blood infection that had made his leg swell up. He had the luck of the unlucky.
His family, worn out from years of this affliction that they never had reason to conceive of, were trying tough love as a last resort. Hence Billy’s present lack of a home. I think he knew he was dying by the time we met. I had finally and thankfully run into him again at that same park where I had first seen him. He was sitting on a bench, holding court, encircled by a group of nodding, scratching dope fiends. I swallowed my ever-present shyness in these matters, joined the opiated circle, and joined in the conversation, which I seem to recall was about positive thinking, absurdly enough. We kept smiling at each other, in that conspiratorial way that only two souls who have known each other since the beginning of time can. We just started talking earnestly; there was no chit-chat, nor chatter, no attempts at creating an impression, or flattery with intent. All that stuff, as delicious as it is, takes time, and time was a luxury we couldn’t afford. Again, it was something we knew without knowing, if you know what I mean. There was a sense of urgency, and though I didn’t know its origins, I knew not to ignore it. Billy kept warning me that this situation could only bring me pain. I was a baby who had no yardstick to measure pain of that magnitude. I’d nod my head like a boxer, but had no intention of heeding his words. We didn’t really even need to use words. We even dreamed the same dreams sometimes. This did not seem eerie or especially strange to us. It just was.
This broken-nosed Christ was charming, frighteningly handsome, witty and warm. He spoke six languages, was funny as hell, had perfect manners, an astounding intellect and a rich spiritual core. He was also one of the lamest hustlers ever. He really was not made for the streets. One of his most stupid hustles was pretending to be an undercover cop in order to scam the weed off some potheads, so he could resell it for some junk and get straight. They knew he was no narc; they even knew exactly who he was. He was lucky not to have gotten lynched. I believe he was relieved when his hustles didn’t work. The guilt over his addiction was killing him just as much as the actual addiction was.
It took us quite a while to get this destiny thing off the ground. For one, he was of no fixed address. He slept at friends’ houses, on trains, at an ex-girlfriend’s Fifth Avenue penthouse when her husband was out of town, on park benches, anywhere he could. One rainy night, while with some buddies of mine, I ran into him in on South Broadway. We were cordial, as his refusal to phone me had kicked up my pride. That pride got me as far as the next corner. I ditched my pals and ran back to Billy, who just looked at me and said, ‘I knew you would come.’ And of course he did, and of course I would. We spent the night talking, huddled together in a freezing apartment he had the keys to. Again he kept warning me that this situation was rife with hazard. He was trying so hard to do the right thing. In the morning he took me to breakfast, and we arranged to meet that afternoon in Lincoln Park.
Billy and I were not good around other people. When we were alone with each other, we could ignore the impossible nature of our union – well, sometimes we could – but in public there were too many mirrors for us to see ourselves as others saw us: a foolish teenager and a homeless dope fiend on his last legs. Later on that same day Billy got jealous and we argued. We both possessed hot tempers, to put it mildly. Billy called me a child, which though true, was at the time was the worst insult in the book as far as I was concerned. Then he waited to see I got on my bus safely. Billy, who was barely able to look after himself, always looked out for me. I got on that bus all defiant, but my baby heart was broken.
Once again, he was on the missing list, and I was on the hunt for him. Eventually he ended up in Spanish Harlem, living in the basement of a tenement with T.C. and Blood, two West Indian guys who took him in. He called me from there and that was that. It was the American Bicentennial: the fourth of July 1976. We declared our independence from the rest of the world. I was sixteen years old. Upon my arrival, I washed his feet. They were in terrible shape, from the broken flip-flops that passed as shoes. The basement was pretty cool, with a bathtub right by the front door. The front door was the only door, so any maneuver, in the name of modesty, had to be announced. ‘I’m having a bath now’, ‘Better not go in there, Blood’s having a bath’, ‘I need to go to the ladies’ room’ . . . Thus ran our conversations.
Friday was mango day. Three mangoes for a dollar. They were like manna from heaven. Then there was the Horn and Hardart, on Eighty-sixth Street. We’d order coffee and eat the chili peppers that sat in bowls on every table. To be healthy, and if we had an extra 75 cents, we’d go to the Papaya King, and have a papaya juice with its secret life-giving properties and Aztec enzymes. We truly believed the hype they preached on the wall. It was our cure-all. It tasted like condensed milk and syrup, but it made us feel better, and I still make the pilgrimage occasionally, when my body is just screaming for Aztec enzymes. When we visited our families we would eat like boa constrictors, stockpiling vast amounts, to be digested later, downtown. While on Eighty-sixth Street, where we’d also do a lot of our panhandling, we used to talk to this couple from the Midwest who were out there with their guitars, busking. In their repertoire was a version of Cat Stevens’ ‘Wild World’, for which Billy would always give them one of the dollars that we had just begged. He liked the words of that song, and felt very protective of this nice, but naive, pair.
Since Billy spoke so many languages so perfectly, we’d go to, let’s say, a pizzeria, and while I stood silently making ‘hungry puppy’ eyes, he would explain in Italian how we just got off the boat from Italy, and were trying to get to California, and this whole spiel. We’d usually end up leaving with a bit of food and a few bucks. I thought the whole thing was an adventure – as I said I was just a baby in this world. But Billy was proud, and these little scams were killing him. Billy had an unearthly charisma about him, something that made people want to help him. When he spoke, he would draw you in with wit and intelligence that was never mean-spirited. Looking like Jesus Christ didn’t hurt his cause either.
Billy and I would have terrible fights triggered by nothing – irritable from the July heat, hunger and the overall hopelessness of the situation. Our age difference eventually proved to be a real problem, him being a grown man and myself, despite my illusions of sophistication, just a child. I have always been pretty politicized, and at the time I was still possessed by the idealism of youth. I was growing restless in our basement nest. It was still all about excitement for me. Billy was so tired, some days it felt to me as though he was a thousand years old. That man was beaten. He really didn’t have any fight left in him. Getting through the day was nearly an insurmountable chore.
We talked vaguely of going to California for real, thinking that the healthy environment and sun would fix everything. But we could barely get it together to travel the half-hour to our former homes. I’d go back every three or four days, but Billy could only go home when his mother, whose love for him was too huge to be ‘tough’, was there alone. So that in itself was a wedge between us. I think a lot about those fights Billy would deliberately stage, in an effort to make me go home for good. He felt so guilty about everything, and I wasn’t budging. The conversation would run from, ‘I don’t like you wearing that’, and end with ‘What would you do if I hung myself?’ These ‘fights’ would end once we started laughing at how crazy we sounded.
Around that time, I developed these two weird almost burn-like blisters on the tops of my feet, which made wearing shoes so painful. They seemed to come out of nowhere and healed the same way, leaving two matching little crucifixion scars. It was weird, and it’s weird that something that insignificant is something I’m remembering now as important.
At Billy’s insistence and to quell my family’s pleas, I drove with them the six hours to Canada to see my sister. Billy reckoned he could pull things together and sort himself out quicker without having me around to worry about for a few days. The day I was leaving, we went to see an apartment on the city line, which we figured out we could rent with Billy’s next disability check. So that was the new plan.
T.C. and Trudy from next door found Billy dead on the Saturday night before I got back. He had O.D.’d.
I heard from a friend up in Lincoln Park, which is where we had arranged to meet, that the wake and funeral were already arranged to take place a few days later. The friend, Gumby, filled me in on details, like how Billy’s older brother had to go downtown to identify his body, which hospital they had taken him to, who had found him, and so on. It sounds crazy but I didn’t believe it. For days it didn’t really sink in and I kept thinking it was a mistake, or some elaborate scam. I did what I was supposed to do, but I harbored this notion that the phone would ring any minute with Billy on the line telling me where our next rendezvous point would be. The idea of a world without him in it was inconceivable to me.
It was so strange, because the night he had passed, I woke to find a big bouquet of roses next to me. Now, I know that there couldn’t have possibly been such flowers present, but I had certainly seen them, and was not curious or even surprised. This all transpired at the exact same time that Billy had passed, though we were six hundred miles apart.
The wake was a nightmare. I had left him a man, and now returned to a mortician’s creation. They even straightened his nose. I could barely look. There was much howling. I’ve never heard such painful cries. His mother and all these other Italian women kept repeating, ‘Don’t you break your mother’s heart too.’ I wished our neighbor, T.C., had come with me. He was Billy’s family as much as anyone was, but he was scared to go there, thinking he wouldn’t be welcome. I walked the fifteen blocks down to Eighty-sixth Street to tell the busker couple that Billy was gone. The girl cried when I told her. They were truly upset by the news. We never even knew their names, nor they ours. They were just so innocent that I didn’t have the heart to tell them how he had died. I lied and said he had been sick. I never went to see them again after that, as I couldn’t stand to see the sorrow in their puppy eyes. That Cat Stevens song still cuts me.
I didn’t stay in our apartment for long; there was no reason to anymore. There was nowhere that felt right. Mainly I just ran, bouncing between diversion and oblivion, unable to stay still, lest despair grab me by the throat, and choke me. I was wrecked. A guy we both knew tried to shock me out of my deep funk, by putting a pistol to my temple, and asking if I really wanted to die. It was a desperately unwise attempt to shake me out of the cationic state I medicated myself into every night. Despite my talk to the contrary, I still had enough self-preservation instinct to get the hell out.
For a while after Billy died I kept thinking I saw him on subways. I’d run into the car because I thought he was there. Sometimes I still feel him close, and I believe he’s helped keep me safe over the years. Some years later, while on a visit home from England, I went to his grave. His younger brother had died a few years after Billy had, also from a heroin overdose. I was walking around with two bundles of daisies for what seemed like eternity. I just couldn’t find the plots. Once again, it was right when I was ready to give up on ever finding him again that I discovered where he lay.
Another page torn from the diary of our dear Little Annie.
Trying to remember the rest of that Burt Bacharach song. It’s not important but seemed a nice way to open. In a few days time it will be a year since Michael Jackson’s passing and I’m still so bewildered by two things,
1) What happened to the last year, if had gone past any faster it be backwards.
2) Why am I still unable to hear one of his songs, or even a mention of his name without getting teary eyed.
I am perplexed. The day after we lost Michael Jackson (and I say we lost because what he didn’t give us we took), my first crush (well not my first - Bernardo from West Side Story was my first – but as that was movie love it don’t count) but anyway… , the first man I ever had those narcotic-like, distracting thoughts about, a boy from the neighbourhood, who went to school with me, was killed along with two other men in a horrendous accident when some woman with a car full of kids drove the wrong way down the throughway and hit the car he was in, head on. It was absolutely awful, so tragic and pointless that it made the news for a number of weeks. Carnage and loss. It wasn’t until a few days later when they read the names of the deceased from both cars, that I heard his last name, my head whipping around from my work to see his face on the screen. Though 30 odd years older he had the same face. I had not seen this now-grown man since I we were fourteen years old. He had not been a great love of mine. I have vague memories of a clumsy attempt at a kiss, his leather jacket, and that though he “ran with a bad crowd”, was nice. Nothing came of it, he was more knowing in the ways of the world, and besides it would have gotten my ass kicked even more than it already had been. We were from different demographics which I guess was kinda West Side Story-ish. I hid that little piece of my young heart next to my secret cigarettes in the back of my underwear drawer.
I said a prayer for him and the rest of the victims and did so every time they were mentioned which was till the press had squeezed the last ounce of despair out of the story. I felt a rock in my throat but even though this person had been very important in my adolescent brain (at least for as long as anything remains important in a teenie’s brain) I couldn’t take it at all personal. It was an phantom loss, a tragedy like this one was is always depressing and this had been more hideous than most, and though a shock, in a “what are the chances?” way. I am even, now, as I write this unable to summon up a sense memory to mourn. I mourn for his family, I mourn for the things of this world he never got to experience, I mourn our youth. This person had, whether they knew it or not, been part of a rites of passage. It was he who had been my first pre-occupation, the first thing that I remember looking to – outside myself – for an imagined happiness. You would think there would be a tear somewhere in all that.
It added more humid weight to what had turned out to be a vaguely bleak summer.
Maybe I was tearless as they had all been used for Michael Jackson. I never knew Michael, never obsessed in any which way, except for the fact I could not help but stop and listen whenever I heard that magical voice of his. A voice that, like for many of us, had grown and aged as I did. Except Michael never really aged, he just got more versatile. Sure I had cut out his heart-shaped picture out of Tiger Beat and all similar magazines, and I chose him over Donny Osmond (who even at when I was age nine I found to be milk toast), but it wasn’t until much later as an adult when I was able to fully appreciate the genius of the harmonies I had spent my youth harmonizing with.
I had been always been a passive fan – except for those few years he was lost to Disco (which I loved, but at the time I too was lost – to more sophisticated tastes and anything that came in a tiny paper wrap). I now realize what I had missed on all fronts. Like how many other billions of people I was thrilled with Thriller, it was so fresh, that record along with The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the track Herbie Hancock dropped around the same time were fresh cool air in a for the most part otherwise vapid musical landscape. I won’t list the songs of his – the ones that I couldn’t help but get hooked on over the years, but there was always a cut or three that grabbed me off each of his albums since.
Though I never read Peter Pan so had no reference of Neverland, I like that Michael loved animals. I had a dream one night that Michael and I were married and walked hand in hand in innocent bliss among giraffes, elephants, and of course Bubbles. It was a happy dream. I never really thought about Michael’s sexuality, or lack of it. There was an asexuality about him I found attractive. It was none of my business anyway. I was also never one of these ‘oh but he was such a cute kid‘ people. He was stunning in all in incarnations, and was continually re-creating himself. If he was trying to look like Diana Ross then I was trying to look like him, looking like Diana Ross. He was brave and courage is a beautiful thing. Michael had been with us for a long time – so long that it’s easy to forget that he had broken through the wall of racism, he had quite a few ‘firsts’ under his belt, no small feat. It was inevitable that the tides would turn ugly against him. It was more than the build em up knock em down mentality, some weird sense of ownership. When the allegations started I remember thinking – they’re gonna kill this man. We’re gonna kill this man. One thing Michael didn’t have was guile. It was like shooting a fish in a barrel.
His childlike trust made him the perfect punchline, and as one who finds it hard to pass up an easy punchline, I should know. When my sister (who too has now too passed on) was going through chemo, me, desperate to get a laugh out of her, made some wise-crack that she had to get better or the Make A Wish Foundation will send her to Neverland. She didn’t laugh, nor should she have, it was a cheap shot and not funny and I regret ever saying it.
And if I’m one of your supporters then just imagine your enemies.
There was nothing funny about the hounding of Michael Jackson. The next thing the media choir sang out about was how sad and lonely he seemed. Who wouldn’t be miserable when a caress from the masses turn into a uppercut to the chin?
The first time that the allegations against him were dropped, I happened to find myself a holding cell, packed to capacity in the Tombs. The news that Michael had been vindicated brought forth a huge cheer. For one minute we were all free. It was just one minute but a great minute. I don’t know if I’d have the strength to be around people at all if I had gone through such a public crucifixion. Or do as he did, more less continue working and hence putting myself in the sights of the same rifles. If something gets said often enough it becomes fact and whether that fact is true or not falls by the wayside. There was no way to come back from that and again the fact that he allowed that hit squad of a film crew into his trust once again showed his lack of guile. When he made some comment about sharing a bed with children being loving, I knew what he meant. I had no doubt that I was watching an innocent man, and I also knew I was looking at a dead man walking. From then on it was only a matter of time.
But that voice, could not be killed. I hope he had garnered some happiness in those following years. When I heard the news of his death, like most I was shocked but not surprised, only surprised at my overwhelming sadness. I am wondering if it’s due to the fact that he lived as a place to put our pleasure. If so, then his passing gives us a place to put our grief. Who knows why this loss is such a huge shared gnashing of teeth. We understand for all that was, what could have been and what we’ve lost. It’s scary times.
Things that aren’t suppose to happen are happening. And things that are suppose to be forever – gorgeous summers, crushes, sisters, brothers, children, parents, friends, skyscrapers, youth and Michael Jackson – are no longer with us. I hope they are all in bliss, in joy, and that we can take comfort in knowing to our bones that we shall all be together again in Forever-land.
If that makes me a corny broad, then screw it. It’s our Michael and I’ll cry if I can. I’ve more shame over the tears I haven’t shed than the ones I have.
Ok as promised I will start by relating the tale of the Miracle of Bue’s Washing Machine.
When I am in Torino, which I am it seems quite a chunk of times these days, I stay at the crib of Bue my Italian gay husband from the band Larsen. Though it’s not a legal union it’s just like a real marriage except without all the fighting. We have much in common, we both share a love for Latin American and religious imagery, Mexico and tv series such as the Sopranos. He likes good movies, I like good movies. He smokes and I smoke. He likes men and I like men. He looks like a more manly and more Italian version of George Clooney. I love Bue’s company and I love staying in his apartment, but I am sure even heaven has idiosyncrasies and Bue’s lovely home is no exception.
Laundry is a real concern while touring. It take stratigising, forethought and imagination. Access to a washing machine is like winning the lottery. A washing machine qualifies as a victory of the day (see tour diary part one). Bue’s washing machine though, has a habit of flooding the place at a certain point in the wash cycle. You can hear when it’s getting ready to gush like the Geyser at Yellowstone – it makes a clunking noise. So anyway the other day, I gave myself three hours for chores so that after showering and dressing so this precious gift of the promise of clean clothes could be fully exploited. I stood by, unlit Marlboro in mouth and mop in hand, and awaited for the death rattle. Sure enough, the clunking started and a pool of laundry water spread like blood around the victim in a bad detective movie. So I mop and wrung and mop and eco-nomically recycle the soapy puddle to scrub Bue’s marble floor. How green is my valley and small my carbon footprint? I lit my post aquatic cigarette, a bit sweaty-browed but satiated, and got on with packing, tidying up and enjoying the good feeling of instant gratification that housework chores evoke.
That whole day prior to this, due to my sleepless nights I had been in major klutz mode – banging my hipbone at least five times on the desk, taking a lunge across the room as a result of tripping over one of Bue’s bar bells, poking myself in the eye with a mascara wand, burning my fingers with a mini lighter and finally drenching myself with cream after stupidly squeezing those single serving foil containers while rinsing it so it could be put in the trash without making the kitchen smell of sour calcium. So was truly enjoying this me-and-my-mop time. I mean was this not a sign that I had regained my equilibrium? But despite my smugness, it started to dawn on me that the washing machine was still rhythmically chugging away for an awful long time. The problem here being that I couldn’t leave the two foot area of floor next to the machine, as I reasoned that if It was in fact repeating the whole cycle without any prompting, then the possibility of another deluge was Very Real. It occurred to me that maybe it was indeed already flooding and I just couldn’t see it yet, so I ran the rag mop under and over and around and then wasn’t sure if it was moist from earlier or if the was in fact new water I didn’t dare risk it so kept mopping.
Fabrizio also from Larsen, and also my Euro agent, was due to pick me up soon and take me back his place to prepare a cocktail gathering to celebrate his boyfriend’s Paul’s birthday. I could just about reach the phone from my two foot square raft on my sea of chaos…debating to call Farbrizio and cancel. What would be worse? Dissing my friend on his birthday (I mean that’s cold), or leaving my post on flood watch (pictures of Bue returning from Milan to find apartment now a debris filled swimming pool or maybe even the weight of the water causing the seven stories below to have collapsed, the international Red Cross parked outside the destroyed apartment house passing out lousy coffee and wrapping red blankets around hundreds of homeless residents, barefoot, sooty faces striped with tears and a lone much loved teddy bear looking up lost eyed staring from a pile of mud).
I’m by this point soaked with sweat, breathless. down on my knees trying to turn the damn thing off. Sweet Jesus, dear God so merciful and good. PLEASE MAKE THE WASHING MACHINE STOP!!! This is how the world ends – not with a bang but with a spin cycle.
But then it stopped. A minute or so later the little round window door opened clothes spotless and damp. Not only had I had my victory of the day, but I prayed and God answered my prayers. I never doubted he would.