The Shaolin Doghouse, Realla Scham-lately, and “The West Asheville Moon had me at Hello”
“SHE HAD YOU at hello, sweetie,” my ex-girlfriend Audrey’s wry sarcasm—spewing venom on that particular end-of-month bills payment day – was at its most vicious conjecture. More vicious, or certainly a lot more virulent, than the baddest PMS on earth. “You got paid with a smile again?! You never learned! So how are we supposed to pay the rent now? With a wide grin of glory?”
(You guessed it right—Audrey kicked me out of our Brooklyn apartment, but only after she arranged me a “Shaolin doghouse” to stay the night… well, uhh— in Chinatown.)
“I just called my officemate Go Ling—she said her cousin, Jet Lu, could accommodate you in his restaurant. That’s good—you can bus or wait tables there and get paid with your favorite ramen noodles!”
So like a somber, meek, and obedient Kwai Chiang Caine, I wafted out of the building to the F Train bound for Delancey or Canal—and off I closed another tearful chapter in my perpetually tormented book of vanquished valentines.
Just because I failed to earn the rent money again!
I don’t know anymore. Am I stupid or AM I STUPID? Audrey had been shouldering the rent (and most daily expenditures) for the past four months or so since I quit my East Village ad agency job to concentrate fulltime painting what were supposed to be commissioned work brokered by a Long Island antiques import-export trader, aptly named Realla Scham (no kidding). But after four months of incessant labor and unswerving love for good-ole’ art—punctuated by three weekend trips to Atlantic City and Adirondacks, and a steak dinner at Smith & Wollensky on 3rd Avenue on her account – Ms Scham paid me only half of what we agreed upon.
“I just wanted to help you... Look, after all these generosities that I put myself into—you seem to be accusing me of… www-hattt did’ya say?! —ahh! GET OUT out of my house! Don’t yell at me—nobody yells at me in my own house, GET OUT!!!”
That’s what I get. Good grief!
REALLA SCHAM sat on the Board of some Manhattan nonprofit that dealt with maltreated squirrels. At least once, I went with her to St Patrick’s Cathedral—where I witnessed her shed tears like Agnes of God, as she recited the Rosary, down on her knees (though she placed her Fendi gloves on the cold, marble floor as protective padding).
For some reason, I did believe this woman!
As I chaperoned (escorted, bodyguard/ed, accompanied, dated—as Audrey put it) her to Bloomingdale’s one winter’s evening, she goes—while shuffling over a stack of Louis Vuittons, “I can’t imagine… what conscience, what inhumanity, what cruelty—how could Imelda Marcos buy all those crazy shoes!!! One pair could actually feed a family of six for a month?! Poor Filipino children!”
So we spent hours and hours—and weekends and weekends of Dom Perignons, chilled Rockefeller oysters, and roast Angus beef – brainstorming/discussing/bullshitting each other how we could save the entire kindergarten population of Panay Island in the south of the Philippines or donate farm implements to impoverished frijoles in Matagalpa, Nicaragua (or something to that effect).
Then one afternoon, she blurted at my startled face, “Honey, my amiga Claudia—a mucha dinera senora – just bought a house in Hartford. I’d like you to work on some paintings to hang on the walls, or something… She pays good money, this crazy friend of mine. Now you can buy a new computer, take Audrey to Tavern-at-the-Green, go watch Miss Saigon, I don’t know… Gosh, buy a new coat, please! You look like you just wrestled a Doberman in Central Park lagoon, honeybabe!”
I simply muttered, “I need money to help fund a summer basketball tournament for out-of-school youths in Pandacan in Manila. I promised them some money next month…” Realla wrote me a $400 check right there. “But, first, go to Macy’s—buy your girl a Victoria’s Secret or whatever… then, let’s meet my amiga tomorrow, 2pm, at 49 Grove. Don’t be late!”
WELL, I have dealt with—or hanged out with, worked with, collaborated with – a thousand and one Realla Schams in my immaculately clueless little life. For some reason, I strike people like I just emerged from a jumbo jet’s cargo engine—smuggled out of the pampas of Buenos Aires or some Calcutta slum. Always hungry, penniless, down-and-out.
But I didn’t care whatever people prejudge me of. I don’t bother with contracts and paperwork and stuff. I don’t mind weeding grasses with a rusty sickle, shoveling 5ft snow with a wok, foot-massaging obnoxious matrons with varicous veins as huge as a fireman’s hose, proofreading Library of Congress dictionaries, or tutoring septuagenarian Koreans how to read-write English – as long as I earn enough money to pay for printing of my tabloids, gas allowance for my soundperson, extra dough for Kinko’s laser-prints, CD-Rs to burn DIY compilations, and Greyhound fares to my next Vagrant Wind stop. As long as I am able to score some dough to “fund” these madness gigs that I do.
Of course, there were also a number of relatively glamorous “hook-ups” – ie commissioned painting gigs, college lecture sidelines, think-tank/consultancy tasks, and kool kat publicist work—that covered grander projects like band management, club concert bar fines, and short documentary film productions. I however preferred the “right here, right now” deal than the elaborate, 500-meeting sessions program study. I’d like that negotiations run fast, decisions reached quick as a bullet, then “Let’s rock and roll!”
So contrary to what some may think—that I am a complex dude from Saturn, I am not. I am a simple man. Yes, you can have me at hello anytime, and pay my efforts with a smile. I am some uncomplicated mouse who could easily be persuaded by a mere mention of a seafoods dinner or an assured fishing trip to the Catskills or campfire retreat in the Shenandoahs.
You see, I never did work on anything that I didn’t like. I guess, that makes me a some kinda “privileged” individual—I simply throw myself in deep, silent euphoric work trance and forget about what’s going on in the outside world. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I guess), the outside world means business gain, profit viability, and career opportunism. I am very oblivious and stubbornly indifferent to these things.
So I never quite earned – or consistently earned – the rent money. (Sigh!)
HOWEVER, while I easily plunge into something that tickles or energizes my spirit on the get go, I also end it just as rapid-fire-fast as I took it. In many occasions, I simply plunged in a supposedly collaborative project without prior consultation – despite the fact that my family has always provided me with both legal and financial consult. I accept or enter a deal based on how I FEEL about it, period – whether I like to do it or not, almost totally ignoring the financial implication or equivalent of that particular deal.
I do believe – although this “belief” resulted in me getting dumped by a succession of girlfriends — that I don’t need much to live my life. Although I was born and raised comparatively more materially comfortable and cared-for than the average Filipino, I am always very sensitive with the world outside my gilded gates of plenty. The “weird” boy who stole eggs and longaniza sausages from the household fridge to distribute them up in the hills where tribal families of four or five feasted on a can of sardine stewed on cheap noodles and soy – hasn’t really changed.
I don’t know why some people stock up food in their fridge and cupboard while others don’t even have a canister of sugar to sweeten their rice coffee. In America, most people store an awful lot of red meat, fish fillets, and veggies in the freezer—then throw them away after a month. They forget to cook them...
My life has always been spent mostly with the underbelly — up in the hills, in squatters’ colonies, coastal villages, inner city sidestreets, workers picketlines – that I could almost feel the unquenched hunger within, the collective sorrow of those who don’t have enough, wherever I go. Until now, each time I seem to spend US dollars more than I usually do, I instinctively/spontaneously mentally-convert them in pesos, and wonder out loud how many kilos of rice would $21 worth of mozzarella pizza amount to?
That is my life’s reality—that is the truth that I know, the truth that my spirit is accustomed to.
So no matter how many Realla Schams take me to Smith & Wollensky for a $65 dinner plate of “steak that melts on your mouth,” I still worry about what’s up in that dilapidated shanty of emaciated tykes back home. I have chosen to pursue “madnesses” that I am sure won’t make me a wealthy gallery owner, concert producer, or book publisher – so I really feel uncomfortable when I have this money and that other artist, performer, or writer doesn’t.
I just have to give the money back... Until now, I don’t know how I get around. I’m always like this—I throw myself out there, hop in a speeding train to nowhere, seek my truths, and I simply survive. It’s not that I don’t need money—I do, of course. But I never liked money lounging in any part of my clothing or whatever I’m carrying—I often hand them to whoever I’m working with or I just spend them on anything that I believe is worth some wisdom.
THIS “MADNESS” moved offices/residences twice in three months…
While I don’t intend to go to the full details – the long, rambling recitation above explains some of the reasons. This latest mishap happened so fast though, compared to the others that lasted, at least, a year or so. But this one wasn’t ignited by my inability to raise rent-money — it’s far from that.
But let it pass...
Life is such a tricky sidetrip to the “Shaolin doghouse,” am I right? My journey has always been like that. No matter how the rubber honeymoon bounces here and there—all fun and fancy—I always end up with my oodles and oodles of ramens. But that’s the way I like it.
This new abode in West Asheville that we’ve just moved into – is definitely more comfy and peaceful than the Lexington Av cave where we were housed just barely few weeks ago. But that’s not the point here, as ever. For some sweetly weird reason—peace is like a thief in the night. You don’t know when she’s coming and what she’s up to. You know it’s there—but only when you finally lost it. I lost my “peace and quiet” for five months or so, as I frolicked with Ms Scham on First Avenue and Westchester – over Little Italy meriendas and slot machine gigs at Bally’s. I lost that peace-within so many times in my life—and I didn’t even know it. I was so busy gasping for wisdom and self-respect like a boxer who fought for honor first, before the prize. It hurt but I feel freed...
So again, as I tread my highway from hell—pretty much like past episodes of my wearied treks along boulevards of broken dreams and valleys of vanquished valentines—I ask myself, “Am I stupid, or am I STUPID?” I don’t know—but let me remember the past… maybe I can find some consolation from reminiscing this particular episode with my sisters back home in Manila.
“The NPA is home at last!” My sister Alona exuberantly declared in such elated sarcasm and boisterous jest that it roused and threw the entire household in animated disarray. “Whoa! He’s actually here! How’s the revolution up in the Cordilleras, hermano?” Alma, another sis, eagerly darted out of the house to welcome Che Guevara-alias. Okay, okay—it was a family joke.
NPA is New People’s Army—the guerrilla wing of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines’ Maoist/Communist insurgency. NPA is also “No Permanent Address,” and that applies to yours truly. NPA was me – “Always, forever and ever, amen!” Another sister, Alicia, readily agreed. My revolutionista-fashionista “chic” – disheveled, emaciated, ragged, long unkempt hair, lost-boy reticence, snappy reflex — would effortlessly, easily qualify me either or both a Sparrow Unit (urban guerrilla) hitman or a pathetic pauper with nary a cent to score a stick of Marlboro.
With that characteristic impoverished girth, most believed (I reckon), that I could easily sell my soul to the devil for a chilled oyster dinner and a Corona. And, I bet, with that “NPA” dogtag sticking out of my skinny neck, I could easily be swayed to give up my sublime lunacy with a two-room/one-bath dive.
In the winter of 1982, I was reported as missing by my Aunt in New York City when I “disappeared” for five days straight — hanging out with the homeless of Central Park East. On the sixth day, I checked in a motel in North Bergen NJ with the money that I panhandled — to shower and shave. On the seventh day, I strode in an Upper West Side diner where a cousin, Mario, who owed me money, was a cook – and had a $65 beef steak dinner on his account. That night, I snuck in my Aunt’s apartment, left a note (“I am okay”) and then “stole” four sets of blankets from her closet—went back to Central Park, distributed the fluffy Turkish “winter-warmers” to my homeys, and spent the rest of the week with them.
It was one of my little life’s happiest, most peaceful moments. And I didn’t even have to go hop in the F Train to my usual, unmistakable “Shaolin doghouse.”
You see, this white-and-grey West Asheville house where we just transferred isn’t located on either Delancey or Canal, and although there are no courtyards straddled by the downtown streets of my most immediate misfortune, there was an awesome moon the night we moved in.
The following morning, the Spring Sun smiled at me and, oh yes, she had me at hello. Believe it or not.