Thursday, March 1, 2007

Mickey the Tiger


Mickey the Tiger was an old-timer who lived in a basement apartment in Alphabet City. He was as gay as the day is long. Tompkins Square Park was his second home, and for about a year or two in the eighties, his only home. I got to know Mickey through writing assignments he gave me for his homegrown anarchist weekly called Network. By publishing two of my essays, a Rudolf Rocker appreciation and a piece on decentralized websites, Mickey instilled confidence in me. I looked up to him. Eventually we became good friends.

In the summer of 2003, after thirty years on the scene, Mickey disappeared. Nobody knew where he’d gone. When he turned up eighteen months later, he said he’d decided to spend time with his mother back in Iowa before she passed. He blinked rapidly when he told this story because it was a lie. 

We were smoking cigars in his front room. We had our shoes off. It was snowing outside and the floor of the apartment was cold. Since his return to the city, Mickey had been working without rest on the revival of Network, which had died off in his absence. He’d found the money to go to print, now he was looking to fill the pages. He summoned me to discuss a piece on flash mobs. After we powwowed about the story, Mickey began to rub his belly.

“I’m going to cook some spaghetti,” he said. “Would you like to stick around and eat with me?”

“Sure,” I said.

Mickey lifted himself off the sofa. He was getting older. I had him at about 50, twenty years or so older than me. That many years living the way he did took its toll.

I followed him into the kitchen. He put the water on, then took two beers from the fridge and handed me one. We clanked our bottles together and took the first slugs. It was about four-thirty in the afternoon.

“You still with that girl of yours, the painter?” he asked me.

“Yeah,” I said. “Stacy and I live together off Lorimer.”

“Good for you,” said Mickey. “How long now?”

“I guess we’ve been there about a year,” I said.

There was a tension in the conversation, a vacuum created by the mystery of the past year and a half of Mickey’s life. According to a tacit rule, Mickey was allowed to ask me about my life, but I wasn’t permitted access to the same information about his.

“That’s nice,” he said. “You’re settling down.”

We drank our beers. I sat down to the table and rubbed my cold feet. I wondered how Mickey was able to piece his life and the lives of others back together after his absence. How one could slip away, then somehow be reconstituted.

The boiling water on the stove made the lid rattle. Mickey stepped to it and poured the thin spaghetti in.

“It’s a good thing to settle down,” he said.

“It feels right,” I said.

“There comes a time,” he said.

He took two plates out of the cabinet and set them on the table. There was a gentleness in his way that struck me as new. The old frenetic madness had been replaced with something tender, wounded. He fetched two more beers from the fridge. With a small sigh, he sat down across from me.

“The time I spent with my mother this past year has changed me,” he began. “There was such peace out there in the country, and I developed a hankering for it. It was nice to go for walks in the woods. To have a drink at four in the afternoon and not worry about summoning the energy to go out later. To go to bed early. To be with someone and not worry about what that person was thinking. This is why I ended up staying away longer than I’d expected to. I came to like my life in Iowa.”

“People were worried,” I said.

“I know. I could have called. But once a few weeks slipped by, then a couple of months, it just seemed so possible. That I could do that. That I could vanish like I did. There was a thrill in it.”

“I thought maybe you’d died,” I said flatly.

Mickey grunted a laugh. He looked squarely at me for a beat. Then he stood and served our late lunch. That was all Mickey had to say about his disappearance. We briefly discussed the piece on flash mobs again, then ate in silence. At 5:15, I went home.

Mickey was a strange bird. I want to emphasize that. Although animated in public, he was ultimately private and secretive. I even suspected him of nefarious business. For example, I knew he ran Cuban cigars to make a living for many years. What I’m saying is that this is not a story about an ordinary guy, about how the extraordinary creeps into even the most normal lives. Rather, this one goes the other way.

After I got home from Mickey’s place, I lay half-awake on my bed until the effect of the few beers I’d had wore off. After about an hour, I got up and turned the radio on. I brushed my teeth and took the trash out. At around seven o’clock, I settled down to work.

As I began to write the essay for Network, something happened. Writing is a peculiar act, and lots of unusual things happen when you sit down to the desk. What happened was this: as I wrote the piece, ostensibly on flash mobs, all I could think about was Mickey himself. The Tiger. The legend. The man in the bathtub writing his unpublishable political manifesto well into his forties. Taking mysterious trips every so often, to D.C., to Central America, on boats. Enjoying regular sex like the natural biological function it is. I tried to concentrate on the flash mob phenomenon — this fad of groups of people suddenly showing up at random locations across the city, then just as suddenly dispersing — but with each sentence, I found I was writing about Mickey the man. "The mob is a demonstration of potential, of the possibility of organization and power coming from the bottom up, or from no particular place at all." No matter how hard I tried to focus on the subject at hand, I couldn’t shake the fact that this piece was going to be about Mickey.

I had been reading about these flash mobs for a few months. With the research done, the piece came easily. I took one break at around ten o’clock to walk to the corner and buy a cup of bath-water coffee.

“This fresh?” I asked my local deli man.

“What’d you think?” he said.

I bought it anyhow and took it home and drank it as I reread my draft. I was pleased with the way the thing was coming together. Like anything, writing is an organic process. You’ve got to soften your grip on the thing and let it come into its own. At midnight, after a round of edits, I printed the essay out and called Mickey. He was still up of course. Told me he was stitching monograms into his towels and watching C-SPAN. I told him I’d be right over with the draft.

I road the L train in from Williamsburg, then walked down First Avenue. I was proud of my piece and eager to show it to Mickey. When I got to his building, I heard him shouting at the television.

“Goddam politicians have zero vision!” he hollered at me as he opened the door. “It’s like the whole goddam world is centered around the next quarterly earning report, and nothing more. The world could end next quarter, and it wouldn’t make a goddam difference to the way these people make their decisions.”

This kind of outburst was not unusual for Mickey, a man of mood swings.

“Don’t just make a good move,” I offered, “Make a move that’s part of a winning combination.” This was an old chess motto I’d read somewhere.

“That’s right,” Mickey said. We sat down on the couches in the living room. “Look at this guy” — Mickey pointed to the television, some representative was giving a speech — “here’s a guy who’s probably nice enough, probably smart enough, to be a leader. But what happens is the guy gets sucked into the system — the two parties, the lobbies, the money, the deception, the corruption, the money, the delusion, the greed, the money! — and after a few years in the game, he finds he can’t do what he set out to do, which was to make a change. To do something good for his country. It’s concepts, ideologies, that get in the way of honest politics.”

“That’s why you’re an anarchist,” I said. He turned his attention back to the guy on the TV. I pulled the hard copy of my essay out of my bag and handed it to him.

He thanked me, took the draft, and began to read it. He paced the room and made comments out loud as he read. Mickey was in fifth gear, all cylinders firing. When he was in this mode, he could tear into a text and fix it in a matter of minutes. With his pen, he axed whole paragraphs, hacked at my sentences and reworked my diction. He marked where to insert a perfectly apt quote from a writer I’d never even heard of. Twenty minutes later, I had a rewrite on my hands. Not easily impressed, I was by Mickey.

“Can you rework it tonight?” he asked. “I’m actually catching a flight tomorrow afternoon, and I’d love to have it before then.”

I gave Mickey a suspicious eye and said, “Where’re you flying?”

He laughed. “To D.C. Just for the weekend. Don’t worry, I’ll be back.”

“All right,” I said.

“So you’ll get it in by tomorrow, say noon.” It was as if Mickey didn’t realize it was already one o’clock in the morning, but of course, he did.

I nodded.

“Let’s have a few beers first, yeah? You want one?”

“Yeah,” I said. I was happy to stay longer. I felt that if I could hang around long enough, at odds hours, then I’d soon hear more about Iowa.

He called to me from the kitchen. “You want a bite to eat? I’ve got some hummus and crackers. I’ll bring 'em out.”

He placed a platter on the coffee table. Wheat Thins lined the circumference; the center was filled with a roasted pepper hummus. A few olives sat atop the hummus. It was artfully presented, as if this were a dinner party. Mickey handed me a napkin and a bottle of beer. I took a slug.

He turned up the TV and we sat watching re-runs of the speeches given in the House of Representatives earlier that day. They were talking about health care. We sat there for an hour, eating hummus and crackers, drinking beers. A midwestern Republican started in on his spiel.

“I like this guy,” Mickey said. “He’s cute.”

“Nice coif,” I joked.

We laughed. Mickey watched with a curious concentration. For a few minutes, I watched Mickey watch the guy on TV. Then I said, “So, Mickey, what are you doing in D.C.?” He held up his hand as if to say, hold on a minute. I returned my attention to the fellow on TV. I didn’t see what was so interesting about him. He looked like your run-of-the-mill pretty boy Republican. Neatly folded hair, thick eyebrows, a handsome face. When I listened to what he was actually saying, I lost interest again. Same old political double-speak, same old echo chamber.

When the speech was over, Mickey muted the TV and said, “The problem is the system makes these people into hypocrites. It’s our clinging to concepts that keeps people from being fully human, from being who they really are.”

What was I supposed to say to that? I asked my question again, “What are you doing in D.C. this weekend?”

“Attending a conference, a meet the press ball.”

At first, Mickey had taken the normal route to a career in politics. After graduating college, he worked on K Street for a few years, before becoming disillusioned and taking to the underground. But he still had connections in Washington, and every so often he attended these conferences. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what Mickey’s purpose was at these functions. I assumed it was subversive. I wanted to know.

“What do you do at these conferences?” I asked.

Mickey stared at me, and I stared back. He took a deep breath and smiled. “I’ll tell you, John,” he said. “I like you. You’re levelheaded. I trust you.” He leaned in. “What I do at these events is try and seduce members of Congress who are purportedly homosexual. I get an assignment, right. Then, using my charm, I get close. We drink. As much as possible. Then if I’m lucky, which is exceedingly rare, I take the guy home, back to a hotel. You see, with photographs, you can ruin a guy’s career for life. It’s that simple. But don’t go romanticizing this: it’s only worked once. About five years ago, we got this bastard good. You remember Congressman R***, well, I’ll tell you, he was a real son of a bitch. A menace. I didn’t feel an ounce of remorse screwing him over. After we got to him, the son of bitch dropped out of the race the following fall. Usually nothing comes of my efforts. But they keep sending for me. These operatives. They’ll stop at nothing. They’re unbelievable, totally unscrupulous. So that’s what I do. What do you think of that?”

At first, I didn’t know what to say. It sounded outlandish, outrageous. But I wanted to reserve my judgement, to trust Mickey. Though I'd never quite figured him for a blackmailer.

“Ah, forget I told you,” Mickey said, standing now and slapping me on the knee. “You’re young, yet.”

“That’s wild, Mickey,” I said “I would’ve never guessed.”

“That’s the point,” he said. He crossed the room and turned on the stereo. I could see another stretch of activity lay before him.

“Back to work,” he said, and he started doing stretches, as if the day were just beginning. It was 2:30 in the morning. So I left Mickey in his living room doing calisthenics to the throwback sound of The Pixies. “Drive my car into ocean,” Mickey sang out loud as he reached down to his toes. “You’ll think I’m dead, but I’ll sail away...”

At home, Stacy was back from work and sound asleep in the bed. I crawled in next to her, set my alarm for six AM, then passed out. I dreamt of Mickey and cornfields. We were drinking iced teas on lawn chairs in the middle of this fallow field. Mickey picked up a huge, fallen stalk of corn and smoked it like a cigar. He kept chuckling, touching my knee, and saying, “This is the life!” The dream was vaguely homoerotic. When the alarm went off, I rolled over and tried to wake Stacy for sex. But she rolled her back to me and said, “Are you kidding?”

So I stepped out of bed and into my khakis. I rubbed my eyes and put on the coffee. In the apartment’s second room, I sat down to the computer and reworked the essay. I loved working at this early hour. It freed me for the rest of the day.

When I got to Mickey’s around nine, he answered the door in his robe, water dripping at his feet, and said, “I’m in the tub. Follow me. You don’t mind, do you?” So I followed Mickey into the bathroom. He dropped his robe and immersed himself in the bubbly, jasmine-scented water. With a sudsy hand, he picked up his cigar and puffed.

“Read it out loud to me, yeah?” he said.

So I read the essay out loud, as Mickey hollered exclamations. He was excited about the piece; we both were.

“That’s the stuff,” he said. “To think how anonymous text messaging was the sole organizing principle for these mobs. Astounding. People are not thinking hard enough about how deeply technology is changing the political landscape.”

Mickey insisted I light up a cigar in celebration. He offered me a drink, but I reminded him that it was nine in the morning and passed. We talked about the essay for about ten minutes. He soaped his underarms. Then he asked me about Stacy. I told him how she was just so smart and sexy and with it, how the whole thing was so clear and good. He liked hearing about how happy we were.

“Let me tell you a secret, John,” he said. “I haven’t told anybody this, and I don’t know why exactly I'm telling you. I guess you’ve been around the past few days. I expect you to keep all this to yourself. ”

“Of course,” I said. Mickey bit his lower lip.

“The last year and half, in Iowa, I wasn’t with my mother.”

I nodded. This much was obvious.

“My mother died eight years ago from cancer. She lived her entire life on Long Island. But people will believe anything you tell them. And I was in Iowa. I was living on a farm. Every day, I fed chickens. I ate fresh eggs. In the spring and summer, I worked the garden. I sat on the front porch and watched storms come.”

He stood up, briefly exposing his junk, and grabbed a monogrammed towel from the rack. He began to dry himself off.

“And I was living with somebody. The stupid secret is I fell in love, John. I can’t tell you who it was. You see, it’s somebody I met at one of these events. I’m going to see him this weekend. The name doesn’t matter, but he’s an important guy. I seduced him and was looking to screw him, because his views are awful, and that was the idea. But then I got to know him. At home, with me, he was a completely different person. It was uncanny. How sweet and kind he was, how human. So I went out to this farm he owned, he had money, and after we spent a week together, he promised to come back to me, so I ended up staying. When he wasn’t in Washington, he was with me in Iowa. Not for very long stretches of time, of course, the whole thing was secret. And when he was gone, I enjoyed my solitude. But when he was there with me, it was paradise. Like nothing I’ve ever had before. I felt transformed by all of it, by the love, the country. Funny enough, that was as close to normal as my life’s ever been. And I liked it.”

Mickey dried his hair. I sat on the closed toilet, waiting to hear more. But Mickey appeared finished. So I asked, “What happened? Why did you come back?”

“Oh, I can’t go into all that now. I guess you could say we had a fight.”

I nodded. I desperately wanted to hear more. This was only so much as a tease. But Mickey was finished; he had a flight to catch. He thanked me again for the story and saw me to the door. As he shook my hand, we lingered on eye contact. On the train ride back to my bed, I thought about how nice it was to have known Mickey.

Mickey the Tiger never returned from D.C. that weekend. I felt a touch betrayed, lied to, but like anyone, Mickey had a right to his happiness. So after having been back for only a few months, he disappeared again. People weren’t as riled up this time around. His legend was waning. There were new figures on the scene making the usual noise.

Then, rather miraculously, one final edition of Network appeared on the streets. I’m not sure how Mickey managed its distribution, but there it was, with my essay on the cover. It created a minor buzz; people were mesmerized by the idea of flash mobs and what they might mean. Since my story had the cover, people thought I was in with the Tiger, and many strangers came up and asked me where Mickey was these days. I told them I had no idea.

It was close to a year later when I got the letter. Congress was debating Iraq at the time. Mickey had sent me a long, tortured, handwritten letter. It was full of anger and love. He was all torn up about a decision. He was asking me for help. Just reading the letter through caused me a great deal of anxiety. I read the letter a second time, then heaved back in my chair. I folded the letter in thirds and picked up the envelop again, when a photograph slid out. I recognized the faces, despite the makeup and the dresses, I recognized both faces — Mickey and the Congressman from TV. After taking a good look at the picture, and rereading the part of the letter about Iraq and about love, I carefully inserted both the letter and the photograph back into the envelope and tucked it into my bottom drawer. After all, the whole thing was none of my business.