Center of the Universe (18)
A Well-Respected Man about Town
The stages of adulthood for a guy constitutionally unsuited to it begin, of course, with fraud.
As might be expected of a painter and a freelance rock critic, Roni and I were broke. The money for the Kiss book I’d written strictly for the money was, mysteriously, yet to roll in, and, between reviews that paid $25, columns that paid $75, and the occasional $100-$150 feature on Southside Johnny or Blue Öyster Cult, it was getting harder to bridge the gaps — even when the rent on the fifth-floor walkup was $150 (and the mice and roaches free), and we didn’t yet have babies, those nettlesome proto-peeps who tend to demand costly food of their own and disposable pants in which to poop it. So when the credit card offer arrived, it was impossible to resist.
From past rejections, I knew if I put down my true income or admitted I was employed not by a respectably corrupt multinational or tax-chiseling mom-and-pop, but by “Self,” I’d be dead. So I called the card company and inquired about minimum incomes. And then I called Harry.
Harry was my former co-worker at Creem. Not just older and wiser, but a hustler, ardent and joyous. I remember him regaling us with tales of how in high school he and his brother would buy VW Beetles that had been mangled in fatal accidents, cars that were too nasty, too much trouble, for professional used-car dealers. First, they’d clean out the blood and, at least once, bits of skull — I can see Harry’s gleefully gruesome hand motions as he describes how he scooped caked hair and bone from a rear windshield. Then, if the car was, say, a ’69, the bros would scour the manuals and figure out what bits and pieces, automotively speaking, distinguished it from a ’70, and swap out the parts.
With Bugs, there was never a big difference between model years, Harry explained. And a newer year was worth more. Since we were already picking up those bloody messes for practically nothing, margins were fantastic.
Harry went on to a career in advertising, too. Naturally. But, when it came to fooling a big-time financial company, back in the day, who better to call?
He promptly dispatched some purloined official paperwork — adapted by me with Wite-Out and a copier set to low-contrast — and stood by the phone as my employment reference. And not only did I get the plastic, I got the gold, with a substantially elevated limit. It never fails to bring a smile when they send me the renewal letter — which they always do — and it commends my loyalty and responsibility as their BFF since 1980.
Because I remember 1980.
Anyway, getting that card and, against all odds, keeping it, not fucking up — well, not with that one — is where I took my first step to certified, simulated grownuphood.
If the boneshaking second step was having a first kid — a cosmic kind of fraud and a book of its own — surely the next was when, with the scrupulously oblique guidance of a pair of, let’s call them, practical-minded real estate agents, I committed my first mortgage scam.
Jim was a guy you might cast as a redneck sheriff. Sixtyish and simian, in his too-tight short-sleeve shirts, he was visibly impatient with customer bullshit — hell, he was visibly impatient with customer service. Shut up and do what I say, was Jim’s unsaid way of being solicitous, always with an up-tipped chin, a squint and a sneer.
His wife Ginny was there to smooth the ruffled feathers of pretty much every single customer who ever wandered in the arched doorway of their mock-Tudor storefront. I can’t remember if, halfway through, it was Jim who wouldn’t work with us anymore or us who wouldn’t work with Jim, but it took Ginny, with her generic affection for a young clueless couple with an itty-bitty baby — and touching, if mystifying, affection for her hothead hubby — to keep us, me, from stomping out.
As with the golden plastic, six years earlier, there was not a chance that the real financial us would pass muster for a $112,000 bungalow. Between my pitiful paycheck at Bank of America and Roni’s piddling permalance rates for laying out the new-age newspaper — an ad vehicle for Reiki massage, Vedic astrology and colon-cleansing — as well as her mail-order business decorating baby bottles with bunnies and pandas, we were at least twenty grand short of being remotely credible. Creditable. Not to forget, that, after the first card, I’d gotten cocky and, building on our fake credit and library of bogus documents, acquired two or three more, one of which, inevitably, had gone unpaid.
When was it? asked Ginny, who was not only the nice one, but the smart one.
Whereupon the savvy, veteran realtor — in the blessed days before your whole sordid history, back to poopy diapers, was available at the tap of a finger — cleaned up our credit report without lifiting a finger.
Too far back to show up, Ginny assured us. Don’t put it on the application.
Some generous padding of my income was required. And we bumped up Roni’s take from the baby bottles. And having finally cleared the credit screen, we officially climbed the third step: home ownership — not just adult, but lower-freaking-middle-class.
And then, three years later, through no fault of our own, we went one step too far.
A stones-throw from where Sonia and Soy would eventually set up shop in the center of the universe, I’m chilling outside the dubious crib. Since there’s a garage sale on Dominga every summer weekend, our daughter, who runs things, has decided to have one of her own. While Roni was inside tending to the new infant, I was overseeing our determined little girl in glasses and her meticulously arranged folding-table of broken, ripped, stained, crappy and abjectly unwanted — and unwantable — stuff she’d weeded from among the vast store of credit-financed treasures in her room.
And maybe I was on vacation, because I hadn’t shaved for days (and those were the days, at places like BofA, you had to). And I was wearing my darkest aviators and Smirnoff hat and the denim shirt with the cut-off sleeves — the better to showcase the new tattoo (a flying heart, inscribed on my shoulder by the eminent rock ’n’ roll tattooist Lyle Tuttle) that had been my curious gift to Roni on our anniversary. And I was trying my best to look badass, or at least offputting, partly because the duties of adulthood were weighing heavy and partly because I’m constitutionally unsuited. And up walked three Fairfax ladies.
Can we talk to you?
In that moment I supposed I had succeeded beyond all my dreams — looking so badass, so undesirable, so unfriendly on this friendly avenue and so entirely, let’s call it, inappropriate, as a responsible minder of the bespectacled cutie-pie at the folding-table. And I’ll confess I was conflicted. I wanted to doff the shades and say, Hey, not really a creep. Kidding.
At the same time, having grown up a skinny, buck-toothed wuss, it was kind of a thrill. Inspiring fear and contempt.
But the three ladies didn’t want to run me off the block. They wanted to run me for school board. No, they implored me to run, to defend sweet, gentle Fairfax on our joint board against the injustices of those San Anselmo brutes. And after I got over my astonishment, having grown up a wuss fascinated by politics, I shaved my face, put on my best BofA suit and said yes.
Yes to the next stage of adulthood. Yes to the honor and glory of Fairfax. Yes, my fellow Americans, to politics at its most up-close and windshield-chunk personal.