For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
The best advice my mother ever gave me was, “Don’t get involved with anyone who has more problems than you do.” After James, with his morbid fear of gaining weight and getting old, who detested the idea of marriage and who had rejected his own child twice, who had lost his fortune and then his mind, I was determined to go out only with normal, problem-less men. Yet the next guy I dated turned out to have an unsavory fetish and a brain-damaged daughter. And Michael Trossman, an artist who flirted with me at a drug-soaked party, had an ex-wife, two kids, and a very complicated love life. Count me out, I thought. But work and loneliness and life conspired to bring me back to Michael and his bohemian digs at 155 Burton Place. A week after the MDA party where Michael and I met, Ann Geddes called me.
“You’ve got a booking at Oui, if you want it. It’s fully clothed, and it’s for promotional material, not anything in the magazine. I think you should take it.”
Oui was a Playboy publication, part of that great empire that devoured pretty young women who were desperate for money or fame. It was meant to appeal to younger readers, guys who grew up sneaking looks at their dad’s not-carefully-enough-hidden collection of Playboys, and who might otherwise be lured over to the more explicit Penthouse magazine.
Playboy’s Playmates were supposed to look like the girl next door if she ran around naked. The Playmates were posed cuddling a puppy or looking at a daisy; you couldn’t tell if they were getting ready to have sex or to bake cookies.
Oui ran racier photos of real and fake European girls, on the assumption that European equals sophistication equals hotter in the sack, girls wearing nothing but wooden shoes or holding a strategically placed baguette. Oui had no investigative journalism, no high-brow fiction, no interviews with presidents and movie stars. It was just pages and pages of sultry, nude women in berets interspersed with arch, sarcastic humor, painfully modeled after National Lampoon and falling short, and sensational, often fraudulent, articles such as “Is This the Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller?”
My modeling job for Oui was to pose as the shortstop on an imaginary Oui all-girl baseball team. My uniform was a white and red pinstriped, deeply V-necked shirt and frighteningly small shorts that struggled to cover my butt.
It was my new pal George who handed me my baseball outfit and mitt. He had just been transferred from Playboy to Oui, where he was now the creative director. George had specifically requested me for this shoot.
Oh crap, I thought, here’s a guy who has already seen me naked, given me drugs. I was pretty sure where this was going and I pondered how to keep George at arm’s length and still be the nice, obliging model he would want to book again.
But George was all business in the photo studio, with the exception of darkroom pot breaks. There was not even flirtatious banter. When George came over to pose me, instead of doing it by placing one hand on a breast, the other on my butt like every other photographer did, he held me gently by the elbow.
First I stood with a baseball bat cocked on my shoulder while the photographer shot me from above. George shook the Polaroid, shook his head, probably at the unremarkable view down the front of my shirt, and then repositioned me. I bent over from the waist, baseball mitt on the patch of Astroturf, waiting for that groundball, my upside down face in an idiotic grin and my tight, tiny shorts riding even farther up my behind. George yelled “That’s it!” and we were done.
While signing my modeling voucher, George said, “Oh, we’re having a barbecue tonight, why don’t you come?”
I had planned to go home to my un-air-conditioned apartment, feed Groucho, my dog, drink copious amounts of iced tea, and read a book. But free food, free drinks, free drugs, pretty or smart people partying in those gorgeous apartments…“George, thanks, I’d love to.”
That evening the party was on the roof, the soundtrack was Curtis Mayfield, and while thankfully there was no MDA, the pot was strong. I climbed the ornate cast iron spiral stairs, which wobbled beneath me, and was greeted by a modest view of Chicago’s Near North neighborhood on one side, on the other the Cabrini Green housing project, as scary as Tolkien’s towers. Above this mundane cityscape stretched a twilight sky streaked with Technicolor reds and yellows in the west, deepening in the east to violet blue punctuated with a single star.
George escorted me over to Michael Trossman, who twinkled like that lone star. “The sky looks like a Maxfield Parrish,” I said.
“I knew you guys would get along,” said George proudly. Michael, the incurable romantic, had fallen out of love with Fred’s wife and in love with me.
“I can’t believe you’re a Playboy model,” Michael said. This, although technically true, required narrating my life story over several beers, hot dogs, and joints, a tale that featured how I had landed in Chicago, swept off my feet by James Rodgers.
When I was finished, Michael looked discouraged. “I’m not rich. I make art. It’s hard for me to come up with money for my kids each month.” The unspoken accusation of gold-digging stung. If I were a gold-digger I was the world’s worst: the only gold I had dug in my two years with James was the flimsy GAY pendant about my neck, one bracelet with a clasp for a promised charm that was never bought, and a chain necklace that turned out not to be gold at all.
So I let Michael kiss me. And then, in complete opposition to Anita Loos’ claim, it was just as easy to fall in love with a poor man as a rich one, although it took me a while. There was so much in Michael Trossman that reminded me of my original Michael, my first true love: the sly hidden intelligence, the European background, the moody, thin-skinned sensitivity, even though in looks he resembled him not at all: M. Trossman looked like a young Saul Bellow, M. Vlasdic like a young John Lennon.
Michael Trossman was the Romantic Artist; he had to be either madly in love or reeling from heartbreak. Just as LSD had been the philosopher’s stone that transmuted my teenage infatuation with Michael Vlasdic into a melding of souls, MDA was the elixir d’amour that sent Michael Trossman into a whirlwind of romance, buffeting him from Ronny’s girlfriend to Fred’s wife, to me, his new fixation.
After my escape from a semi-suicidal James and my refusal to play dominatrix in California, I believed I was through with men. I obviously had bad judgment or bad luck when it came to boyfriends. I was determined to spend my nights in my own bed, alone except for Groucho toothlessly drooling on my pillow. But it seems that the minute you decide you don’t want something, life insists that you do.
Michael courted me. He drew funny caricatures of me, signed “To my small girl” with XXX and OOO underneath. He was an enthusiastic amateur musician; he dragged his guitar out of the closet and sang love songs in goofy, off-key voices. Michael took me through his extensive record collection, peering up at me through his glasses to see if I liked what he liked; after years of living in a disco desert, I melted to English art rockers (Queen, Genesis, 10cc) and thrilled to the clamor and riot of punk (The Ramones, The Clash, Television). We sat close together on his couch listening to music, with the soft light beaming through the wall of translucent glass bricks, smoking pot, not needing to talk. I felt my shoulders loosening up and my heart thawing as “I’m Not in Love” filled the Art Nouveau living room.
I am most grateful to Michael for introducing me to music that had been right under my ears: the Chicago blues. Not a chorus or a chord of that soul-trembling sound had ever infiltrated my yuppie Near North enclave. Lightnin’ Hopkins, Hound Dog Taylor, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, all alive and playing the blues just a few miles south of us, a whole new world to explore.
A few miles north of Burton Place was Wrigley Field. “I don’t really like sports,” I protested as Michael shoved me into an uptown El on a balmy September day.
Michael shook his head and kissed me and said, “But it’s the Cubs. The Cubbies! The only pro team named after a baby animal.”
As we stood in line for the bleacher seats, a man worked his way down the crowd, handed Michael a plastic razor, and muttered “Gillette Day.”
“Hey,” I sputtered. “Don’t I get a razor?”
“Um, they’re men’s razors.” That was annoying. I challenged the razor guy to describe exactly what made a razor suitable for a man but not for a woman. Why couldn’t I shave my legs with the razor he was passing out to the men? Beaten down, Mr. Gillette grudgingly handed me a razor, and flush with victory, I ordered “Make sure the rest of the women get one too,” and the three other women in line cheered. Michael congratulated me on my tiny feminist victory with a sweet nuzzle on the neck and led me out to the wonders of The Friendly Confines, Wrigley Field.
Coming up from the dim ticket area was like ascending into a different world. The sky stretched out above in an open expanse rarely seen in Chicago. The field was a lush green that every Duluth dad sowing grass seed or smearing sheep shit over his front lawn could only dream of. Across from us, stately and still unlighted, rose the grandeur of Wrigley Stadium, as noble a piece of Chicago history as the Rookery or the Museum of Science and Industry. We found places to sit in the full sun of the bleachers, and Michael pulled out a slightly grimy Cubs cap for me. “My son’s,” he apologized. I put on the cap and bought two beers in waxy cups from the vendor, and then we rose for the National Anthem.
I had yet to give my heart completely to Michael, but that day I fell in love with baseball, played as it should be, during the day, in plein air, even though the Cubs managed to blow a six-to-one lead over the Mets, much to the disgust of the raucous, filthy-mouthed, beer-soused bleacher bums around me. Michael was drinking at the rate of a beer an inning, but I slowed my own consumption after a long, winding, desperate search for the ladies’ room, which was situated as inconveniently as possible. I was sober enough to be alarmed when, in a late inning, I watched a tiny white sphere head skyward at the same time I heard the resounding crack of bat against ball. The sphere arced high and long, then plunged bleacherward as if it had been launched directly at me, getting bigger and closer until it suddenly dropped between my feet; I managed the one semi-athletic achievement of my life catching the ball on the bounce.
I started to say, “Would your kids like…” to Michael when a chorus started up: “Throw it back! Throw it back!” The offending ball had been homered by a Met. Michael shook his head, and I feebly tossed away the only baseball I have ever caught; it dropped into the ivy that enrobed the bleacher wall and may still be there to this day.
Squashed on the El with a thousand resigned Cub fans commiserating another loss, Michael teased out of me that my favorite food was Indian. That night he took me out to dinner, refusing to let me so much as leave the tip. A baseball game and dinner and I knew that he rarely spent a penny on himself, always busy hustling illustration jobs to pay rent and child support. Michael reached across the stained tablecloth and held my hand, and my heart gave an almost painful pang. How could a cheap curry and Kingfisher beer feel more romantic than champagne and steak Diane?
This was a new experience; I had never been wooed before. I made up my mind in the first 45 seconds of meeting a guy if I was going to sleep with him or not, and I had always stuck to my guns. Michael insisted that it wasn’t the MDA talking; he really had fallen in love with me. And as summer died away, the MDA parties with the rotating bedmates at Burton Place went from weekly to monthly and then never again, miraculously without any divorces, break-ups, or stabbings.
But in addition to his fun, funny, creative group of Burton Place denizens, who I adored and who seemed to like me (although maybe they were just glad to have me around since they were running out of wives and girlfriends for Michael to fall in love with), Michael had an ex-wife and two kids. His visitation schedule with his sons was erratic; sometimes he knew when they were coming, sometimes he called to warn me off, and sometimes I would be at his door and hear piping voices and pounding footsteps from above, my signal to turn around and go home.
Michael and I were alone one day at his place when there was a knock on the ground floor door and a woman’s voice yelling “Michael?” Panic shot through Michael’s face; he gestured me toward the bathroom, pushed me inside and shut the door before I realized what was happening. It was his ex-wife making a surprise visit in hopes of finding him with cash in hand. Those Art Nouveau apartments, all curves and rounded corners, carried sound beautifully; sitting on the tile floor I could hear every word she shrieked:
“A Playboy model? Really? I hope you know better than to have her around our sons.” Oh boy, I thought. What the other models had warned about posing for Playboy was true. I could get Rabin and Abbas to sit down over hummus and pita and the newspaper headline would read “Playboy Model Wins Nobel Peace Prize.”
Michael spent thirty seconds defending me before emptying his pockets and easing his ex-wife out the door. He released me from the bathroom, wearing such a miserable, guilt-ridden face I had to kiss it and make it all better. Michael’s German-Russian heritage meant that he did guilt as intensely as he did romance, and he had just locked the woman he claimed to love in the bathroom.
I hugged that big-nosed, balding man, knocking his geeky horn-rimmed glasses askew, and the magic cloak of love settled around me, a feeling identical to, yet complete different from, the one sparked by a tender, tenuous kiss with my first Michael, seven years before.
I tried to say, “I love you.” I could not speak the words; it felt like my giddy heart was swelling all the way up my throat. I had fallen for Michael: he was only slightly crazy, and so talented and funny that I was able to overlook the baggage of his two small children and had almost stopped noticing that he was not good-looking.
For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
A cute guy I had met at the Consumer Electronics Show had asked me to California for the Fourth of July, and since I had no other invitations to picnics or barbeques, I accepted, hoping an all-American holiday with a regular guy would give my life some semblance of normal.
Gerry picked me up from the Orange County Airport, kissed me, and said, “It’s my day to see my daughter, okay?” A visit to a hitherto unmentioned daughter had not been part of my California dreaming. In the next five minutes I found out that Gerry had been married, had a baby, and had accidentally dropped that baby. Baby’s head hit the floor exactly on that scary soft spot, squashing her brain. When the doctor told Gerry and his wife that their daughter would never be able to feed herself or wipe her own butt, Mrs. Gerry took a powder.
I had hoped that Gerry’s plans included taking me to Malibu or the La Brea Tar Pits, but instead we drove out into the endless acreage of suburbia, finally pulling up in front of a big brick house, the kind that gets repurposed as a funeral parlor, nursing home, or rehabilitation center.
There was no waiting in the car for me. Gerry led me by the elbow inside, nodded at the white-capped receptionist, and pulled me down a blindingly bright hallway that looked sterile, but had an undertone of piss and puke and ammonia and bleach. We went through a door marked by a cut out picture of a grey kitten, and Gerry dropped my arm to swoop in and pick up his daughter.
You could say this two-year-old with her porcelain skin and Gerry’s starry blue eyes and golden brown curls was pretty, except other than the ability to hold her head up, she was as limp as a rag doll. Gerry cooed at her and kissed her and introduced me to her in baby talk.
“She’s always so happy when you come to see her, Gerry,” beamed the nurse who stood watch, I guess so that Gerry didn’t drop his daughter again. “And you’ve brought a nice new friend to meet her.”
The nice new friend smiled back at the nurse, wondering if she could spend the rest of the time in the ladies’ room and if it could possibly smell worse than the room she was currently in. I decided not to take the chance. I thought, “If this is his day with her, it must mean that the next two days are not.” I tried to reassure myself that I was still better off than if I were standing alone on the shore of Lake Michigan, straining my neck to catch a glimpse of the fireworks from Navy Pier, surrounded by decomposing fish.
Gerry finally handed his daughter back to her nurse, and chirped at me, “What do you feel like eating?” For the first time in my life I had no appetite, but I was badly in need of a drink. I had several while Gerry enjoyed a cheeseburger and gossiped about his co-workers at Sanyo, none of whom I remembered.
I also had no appetite for sex, but thought, “Let’s just get it the hell over with and see what happens in the morning.” Gerry held me and kissed me and said, “You were so wonderful with my little girl. I feel like I can really trust you.” I made as noncommittal a noise as possible.
“Would you to do something for me? Would you tie me up and hit me with a belt?”
At this point nothing shocked me. But this just sounded like too much work. “I’m so tired from my trip. Can we talk about this tomorrow?” I now had quite a number of things I did not want to think about. I wished I were back in Chicago, sweating and drinking cheap beer with Frank.
The next day, the glorious Fourth, Gerry and I did go to a backyard barbecue, hosted by a couple who seemed perfectly normal. That night we oohed and aahed at the showers of glittering fireworks, sitting on the bleachers at the local high school. Gerry bought sparklers, and the two of us twirled them about, making patterns in the air. Anyone looking at us would think, “What a nice young couple.” That night, Gerry’s request took on a plaintive quality, like a kid asking for a lollipop. “Maybe you could scratch me, like just enough to leave a mark? If I bought you some black boots and red nail polish…”
I said, “I can’t Gerry,” went to sleep on the couch, and took a cab the next morning to the airport.
All the way back I banged my head on the airplane window, as if I could physically dislodge the memories of the past two days, finally settling on the minor consolation that since it was the Fourth of July holiday, this bizarre excursion had not cost me any modeling bookings.
Not that there was any work. There are no trade shows or conventions booked in Chicago when the temperature is a constant, daylong 95 degrees and the humidity is like a wet towel in your face. Ad agencies emptied out, and everyone took off on vacation to the cool greenery of Mackinaw Island or Door County. It was too awful outside for me to make my rounds of photographers. Showing up lank-haired, with running mascara and dark stains under my armpits would not get me cast in catalogs or commercials. I sat in Ann Geddes’ air-conditioned office and wailed.
“It’s like this every summer,” shrugged Ann. “After Labor Day, you’ll see, it will pick up again. Oh, Silver and I are going to Lake Geneva for the next two weeks.”
But last summer I had been living with James, who paid for the rent and the utilities and our once-a-week meal.
“ I need to work,” I said. “Isn’t there anyone who’s open, who’s hiring models?”
“There’s always Playboy,” said Silver. Ann gave him one look and gave me another.
Playboy was the great colossus that loomed over every Chicago model. On the one hand, Playboy was made of money: if they even agreed to look at your topless photos you were paid $500. Make it all the way to Playmate of the Month and you got a check for $25,000, which was more money than I could imagine. On the other hand, according to every model I knew, if you appeared in Playboy, even as a fully dressed background blur gazing adoringly at The Kind Of Man Who Reads Playboy while he gazed adoringly at his martini, you would never, ever again work for Ogilvy or Marshall Fields or Spiegel or Sears or any other client that valued their reputation.
“’Cause there is something,” Silver went on. Playboy needed models for an orgy scene. A lot of models. “No one will be able to pick you out. They’ll pay $200 an hour, and with that many people it will take hours to shoot.”
Ann sighed and said, “It’s up to you, Gay.” I swallowed hard, thought of the tiny amount remaining in my checking account, and told Ann I would do it, I would risk my career, a long shot to begin with, and pose for the photo illustrating Dan Greenburg’s article, “My First Orgy,” a photo that also ended up on the cover of the September issue cut into the shape of a bunny head.
The Playboy building featured turbo-powered air conditioning, which felt delightful on the steaming hot day when I pushed the heavy brass revolving door into the lobby; the AC immediately whisked away the Chicago sweat. But it was arctic awful up in their huge photo studio where I stripped to down to nothing along with 29 other good-looking young people, at a five-to-one female to male ratio. I was grateful I didn’t recognize any of them, and no introductions were offered. We anonymous naked people were sent over to a vast stretch of black vinyl that had been pegged down on the floor. A funny bald man took over, running around us, arranging and re-arranging our nude bodies, while consulting a sheet of paper he held in his hand. “No, that won’t work,” he finally said. “Everybody stand up. We have to start over.”
I held my halter dress in front of my chest, wandered up to the bald guy in charge of the shoot, and peeked over his shoulder at a rough sketch of impossibly closely entwined bodies.
“You should arrange us so that we look like a bowl of fruit, a reverse Arcimboldo,” I said. He looked up at me. “I’m George, the art director. Do you smoke pot?”
“If I don’t have to do it naked,” I said, and slipped my dress over my head. George called a break and we snuck into a darkroom, along with the photographer and his assistant. It was very spacy pot, and made the rest of the day almost pleasant for me, as it took George hours to work our bodies into the right configuration. Silver was right: I ended the day $800 richer (minus Geddes’ ten percent).
George caught me as I was leaving. “Do you want to come to a party at my place tonight? You can wear clothes.” George scribbled his address on a piece of paper. It was 155 Burton Place. I lived at 40 Burton Place.
One-fifty-five Burton Place was hidden behind a pebbled wall studded with shards of multicolored tiles. An archway held an ornate black wrought iron gate, which was left ajar. I walked into yet another Wonderland, a Gaudi-inspired habitat, the two-story buildings stuccoed white and red-shingled, with ornate mosaics and stained glass windows. The apartments looked like mushrooms that had just sprung up around the cobblestone courtyard. There wasn’t a square edge in the place. Staircases curled around turrets and the dark wood doors were rounded at the top, with heavy medieval knockers. If Bilbo Baggins had owned a city pied-a-terre, it would have looked like a Burton Place apartment.
It was easy to find the door with the brass numeral 1. Boz Skaggs was blasting forth too loudly for a knock to be heard, so I let myself into a large living room, low-ceilinged with dark wooden beams, nubby orange sofas and ottomans, and dim lighting. Men and women were scattered about, no one over 35, everyone was drinking and smoking something.
George materialized. “It’s Gay, right?” I did have my stupid name necklace on as a reminder.
“Stick out your tongue.” George placed a small, gritty pill in my mouth and said, “It’s MDA — kind of like acid,” which was fine with me. Like Alice with her iced cake, I swallowed it.
Even with her clothes on, I recognized another model from that afternoon’s fake orgy and headed over to make modeling small talk. My way was blocked by a man with too much nose and not enough hair, wearing a pink bowling shirt with “Carl” stitched on the pocket, and the kind of black and metal eyeglasses the nerdy math boys in high school clung to after everyone else had moved on to wire rims. “I’m Michael Trossman, artist and resident wit. And you are…?”
Michael was an illustrator and lived in one of those Hobbit-like apartments. He backed me into a corner and held me captive there. He was cracking wise, keeping me amused, and then the drugs kicked in. “Wow,” I said. Michael grinned. “Don’t drink too much. I’ll get you a beer.”
Before my brain left the building, I made myself promise that I would not sleep with anyone at this party, despite the erotic feeling of oneness and love I suddenly had for all of them. It was Love Potion No. 9; I would have kissed a cop. A look around the room proved that everyone was feeling the same chemical bliss; couples were dancing, gazing into each other’s eyes, stroking faces and hair, preludes to a kiss and more. It was a real life version of the fake orgy I had been in that afternoon.
Michael, the guy closest to me — actually a little too close — was not my type: those glasses, that nose, his hairline in full retreat. But the psychic tendrils of MDA wove their way from him toward me, disturbing the air. Then through the fog of drugs and the buzz of sexual arousal, up popped the memory of Gerry begging me to hit him, and my libido shriveled up and ran away.
Michael picked up on this shutting of the bedroom door that the MDA had cracked open. He downed his beer and took a small step away from me.
“So you know George?” he asked. I nodded. I guess I knew George, having spent the day naked with him.
“He’s a great art director. The people who live here are artists and designers,” Michael said, and pointed out some of the other Burton Place residents: Ronny was a skinny French guy with long side-swept bangs, a photographer. There with his cute blonde girlfriend. Fred, a relocated California surfer, was an air-brush illustrator who had more work than he knew what to do with and a smiley, brown-haired wife who looked even more corn-fed Midwestern than I did. An older woman, the only person who was not out of her mind on drugs, was the architect’s daughter; she lived in the biggest, most Art Nouveau apartment. “It’s amazing,” said Michael. “She doesn’t invite too many people up, but if you like, I can get you in to see it. I did a charcoal drawing of her father; it’s hanging above the fireplace.”
I did not want to be alone someplace with Michael, nor did I want to commit to a future date. “Um, sure, yeah, that would be great,” I murmured, and changed the conversation.
Michael was 29, smart and funny, quick-witted, had read most of the books I had, had seen a whole bunch more movies, and could do dead-on impersonations. As the drug streamed through us, Michael fell into confessional mode. The folks of Burton Place had been throwing these MDA parties for months. Under the drug’s woozy influence, Michael had fallen in love and slept with Ronny’s girlfriend. When she broke it off, Michael fell in love and slept with Fred’s wife. He felt terrible about it — Fred and he were friends — and was trying to end the affair. “Look at her. Isn’t she beautiful?” Michael sighed, gazing at his beloved who was sitting on her husband’s lap. She had clear skin and shiny hair, I gave her that.
Now that I had gone from potential bedmate to good listener, Michael babbled on. His first and truest love was his ex-wife, an actress and comedian at Second City, whom he had knocked up while he was still a student at the Art Institute. Her ogre Irish parents demanded that Michael — even though he was that devil’s spawn, a Jew — make a daycent woman out of her and shot-gunned him to the altar. His son was born, and then another son (those crazy Catholics, I thought), who he loved more than anything on earth. “Then she divorced me,” sighed Michael, which threw the final wet blanket on any tiny glowing ash I may have felt for him.
Loose lips sink ships and they drive girls to put down their beer and stumble home alone on a night that was lit up by rainbows and stars and meteors, the drugs still coursing hot in my veins and clouding my mind. I might have been okay with the incestuous goings-on at Burton Place, but the divorce and the two kids were too much. The sidewalk wobbled beneath me as I walked the three blocks to my own front door, and a bed I shared only with my little dog Groucho, who seemed oblivious to the fact that the room was swirling about us.