Gay Haubner is taking a hiatus from her weekly series. Look for occasional updates in the future. For more about Gay’s life, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
1980 was the winter of my discontent. I had a dream of a life in Manhattan, barely working at Penthouse magazine, enjoying my own expense account plus our advertisers’ largesse, and going home at night to Michael, my artist boyfriend, to party in our own tiny apartment, or out at bars and clubs with a slew of musician, artist, and writer friends. But inside me there was a gnawing worm, a niggling “What if?” that had taken root when I turned down an offer to join the crew of a Mediterranean yacht as cook and bottle washer.
Where in the world would I be if I had dared to accept that job? What adventures, what interesting men had I missed out on? Who would that girl be if she had walked the gangplank onto the yacht with nothing but her passport and a handful of pesos, leaving her New York City life behind? I rode the subway to work, turned in my magazine copy, kissed Michael good night, and rued that sensible decision to stay in my enviable rut.
I was a latent dumpster fire in need of a thrown match. The spark that blazed my life to the ground was lit at a party at the apartment of the Penthouse production manager, in the midst of a mass of people who had collectively reached that level of inebriation where everyone is dancing. Rockpile’s “Girls Talk” was blasting at a volume of 11 and I was swirling in the arms and trampling on the feet of a wiry, bushy-haired, Brooklyn-tinged guy from work, one of those cute Canarsie kids who can pass for Italian.
I wasn’t sure what Jeff’s real job was; I knew him as the coach of our Penthouse Pet softball team, which had recruited me to pose as a fake Pet, barnstorming across New Jersey and Long Island. I played left field like Ferdinand the Bull, smelling the flowers while ground balls and popped flies passed me by. It didn’t matter. These were charity games against the Elks and VFW and Rotary Club, teams made up of civic-minded suburban dads, good clean Penthouse fun for good causes.
My softball coach’s hands wriggled down to find my ass, a move that might have been cause for a lawsuit 30 years later. We were both out of our minds, bordering on blackout unconscious, but I felt lips and hot breath on my ear and heard words that singed me: “I could really go for you Gay…if I didn’t like your boyfriend so much.”
It felt like another door closing, another option cut off…because I had a boyfriend.
The next weekend I rounded up a bunch of my Penthouse pals for a night out at the infamous, ridiculously popular Mudd Club. The Mudd Club was the last hurrah of NYC punk culture; it had its own obliging PR agent. “I’m calling from Penthouse magazine, we’re interested in doing an article on the Mudd Club,” I had fibbed on the phone. The PR guy assured me my name would be at the door and asked how many. “Oh, there’ll be a few other people from editorial,” I said.
We showed up at the Mudd Club at midnight: me, my boyfriend Michael, six people, not necessarily editors, from Penthouse, their dates, my softball coach and dance partner, Jeff, and random friends we had picked up earlier. I wormed my way through the crush of punk hopefuls to the Bluto in charge of admittance, who, mirabile dictu, found my name on the guest list. I waved to my friends, shouted, “Come on!” and was swept inside on a wave of shoving, thrusting bodies.
The door slammed shut behind me. It was as dark as a mine and I was at the center of a throbbing mob, unable to see if everyone had gotten in with me. The whole place was a filthy mosh pit, floors so sticky you could barely move your feet, everything, even the ceiling, painted black and covered with graffiti, ear-shattering music that made conversation a ludicrous idea, an atmosphere tinged with piss and sweat and spilt beer.
A strong hand grasped my arm and pulled me over to the wall. Jeff handed me a Rolling Rock and a Quaalude, never my favorite drug but an old pal from Mexico. I took them both. “Who else got in?” I yelled, and Jeff shrugged.
Then we leaned back against that grimy brick wall and we were kissing and hands were maneuvered inside clothing and Jeff and I were doing everything outside of actual sex, which at the moment seemed like the most appropriate thing one could do at the Mudd Club, like snorting coke at Studio 54.
The hour we spent in fervent frottage wasn’t enough. “What time do you have to be at work Monday?” I asked when Jeff let me up for air. He looked puzzled; were we going to do this for the next 36 hours?
“Ten?” he answered.
“I’ll be at your place at nine,” I said, extracted myself, and found my way outside, almost certain in my addled state that my boyfriend Michael would still be hanging around. He was at home, rightfully furious, and drinking straight from a bottle of Jack Daniels. I was tousled and plastered myself as I apologized and told untruths about how I had searched the Mudd Club for him, certain that he had been right behind me, and then couldn’t find a taxi.
The actual, real, illicitly thrilling sex happened Monday morning; then Jeff and I split a cab from his apartment uptown to the Penthouse office. We rode in silence. That was fun, I thought, it’s good to get it out of my system, once was certainly enough.
Once was not enough. I did not escape from my perfect life on a yacht or a plane, and certainly not on a train to glory. I climbed into a handbasket to hell. I plunged into a dirty affair, heated even hotter by our struggle to find somewhere to do it: Jeff’s roommate regarded Michael as his good friend, as did everyone I had ever introduced to Michael.
I imagined our affair as a stain on a shirt, I just had to keep putting it in the washer until the stain was gone and the shirt was wearable again. But there was no out for this damn spot.
As all successful cheaters do, I became an accomplished liar, especially to myself. But now I can see the awful truth. It was fun. It was a champagne fizz of feelings, a flip-flopping stomach, skin ready to burst into flame at a touch. Even my eyesight sharpened; it was like getting my childhood once-a-year glasses upgrade, the world in high-res.
And my hearing was dog-pitched; every bar and restaurant I went to, every car radio that passed was tuned to the Miscreants station: “Me and Mrs. Jones,” “Dark End of the Street,” and “If Loving You is Wrong” on repeat all over New York City.
Michael didn’t seem to notice that I was being invited to more nighttime press events, even when those events morphed into weekend affairs.
My job had always provided me access to test drive cars, a perk I had never taken advantage of, Michael being completely disinclined to leave the city for the wilds of upstate New York or Connecticut lest he be lost in the woods, eaten by a bear, or more than a block from a bar.
Jeff and I took stolen weekends in borrowed Datsuns and Subarus, headed for the homes of friends of his who had never met Michael, so Jeff could pass me off as his girlfriend.
A Sunday night, we headed back from Providence, Rhode Island, ostensibly visiting one of Jeff’s high school pals, but spending most of the weekend in the friend’s basement guest room. We were on an almost deserted highway that stretched ahead of us in the dark, a long way to New York City, a long time for me to ponder my sins.
I have to do something, I scolded myself. I love Michael, I can’t go on like this. Meanwhile the part of me that wasn’t lying knew I certainly could until something made me stop.
The single car in front of us accelerated and began to swerve from one lane to the next. I had been so quiet for so long that I couldn’t find my voice to cry “Watch out!” not that Jeff had a clue where to steer to not be in the path of this lunatic, who now sped across all four highway lanes and side-swiped a sixty-foot floodlight. In what seemed to be slow motion, the streetlight pitched towards our car like a felled redwood, hit ten feet in front of us, took a bounce, and landed inches in front of our loaner, a factory-fresh Nissan 280ZX. The flashing lights of the highway patrol appeared in the northbound lane, coming for the guilty parties; Jeff inched our borrowed car onto the shoulder and around our brush with a well-deserved death.
A believer in signs and portents, I almost saw the light. “We can’t do this anymore,” I said to Jeff after we dropped off the car at the dealership, even while we were in a clutch that made passersby either grin or avert their eyes.
My resolve lasted about a week, until I realized that I had an out-of-town trip in my future, a Penthouse expense account junket to the Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Mecca of the dirty weekend, a city made for cheating hearts. “This is really, really it,” I fooled myself, “three nights with Jeff in the Holiday Inn, clean sheets and towels, room service…it will be the perfect ending.”
Holiday Inn, Las Vegas.
Of course it wasn’t. But the champagne was losing its fizz, my guilty conscience turning vinegary.
A few weeks after Las Vegas, the Penthouse editorial staff was summoned by our boss, Jim Goode, to his office, always an evil omen. “Caligula,” intoned Jim. “It’s finally going to open.”
Caligula was the fabled, almost mythical motion picture that we had been hearing about forever, a cinematic epic featuring Bob Guccione’s penchant for fake Roman anything, large-breasted girls engaging in deviant sex, and out-of-work British actors, wooed by oversized checks. The magazine had already run dozens of articles hyping the film, as well as several pictorials of “The Girls of Caligula” taking off their togas to veni, vidi, vici. (Uncovered by Penthouse were the lawsuits from both screenwriter Gore Vidal and the original director desperately trying to extract their names from this pornographic debacle.) From the stories and movie stills, it seemed like it was as if it wasn’t enough for the Roman Empire to fall, Caligula had to kick it in the nuts on its way down.
“And…” here Jim looked utterly defeated, “we all have to go to see it.” Everyone in that room suddenly developed plans for their rest of their lives, but there was no escape. The staffs of Penthouse, Omni, Forum, and Variations (really, really deviant junk) were marched up Third Avenue like POWs on their way to Bataan, only more unhappy. At the door to the Trans Luxe Theatre, re-christened the Penthouse Theatre in honor of its round-the-clock showings of Caligula for the next six months, come hell or high water or the Catholic Legion of Decency, was a stern-faced woman taking names.
I managed to nap through the unsimulated sex scenes, but was woken by the sound of gagging. I caught a soul-scarring glimpse of an early Roman bulldozer shearing off the heads of vertically-buried slaves, before snapping my eyes shut again. My best pal Annie, seated next to me and in danger of having the gagger behind us puke on her, bravely stood and headed up the aisle towards freedom, tailed by the woman with a clipboard.
I found Annie outside on her tenth sanity-reviving Newport and we headed back down Third to P.J. Clarke’s and the relief of alcohol. I felt as soiled as I had back when I was editing Penthouse letters. I was worse than Caligula’s horny cousin, Messalina (a role played with the skill of a potted plant by Penthouse Pet Anneka di Lorenzo, who later became another litigant against Guccione, then drowned under suspicious circumstances); at least she was an honest whore. I cracked.
I put my arms and head down on the bar and wept. I bawled, “I’m a horrible person! I’ve been cheating on Michael for months.”
“I know,” said Annie, and patted my back. “With Jeff.” Wait, what? The tears were sucked back in and I straightened up.
Annie sighed, “Gay, everybody knows.” I started crying again.
“What do they think?”
“They all think you’re an idiot.” Annie answered. “I think you better move in with me.”
A coward to the end, I did not tell Michael why I was leaving. I called him from Annie’s that night. “I’ll come by tomorrow to pick up my stuff.”
My stuff was waiting for me, strewn about the courtyard, slowly being covered by a freak late October snowfall. It looked like the crime scene I knew it was. My clothes were heaped in a pile directly below our bedroom window. It was harder to find my jewelry, which had sunk into the snow; my silly “Gay” necklace from Mexico vanished forever. Michael had tossed the LPs he decided were mine like Frisbees from the second floor; some of them were intact in their soggy cardboard sleeves. He seemed to have aimed my cosmetics at the iced-over concrete fountain in the center of the courtyard, which was spattered with broken glass, creams, and lotions; there was still perfume in the air. I picked up a silvery canister that had survived with only a dent; it was the scent Jeff liked on me best, Eau de Charles of the Ritz.
Eventually one of Michael’s multitude of friends let the truth slip. I am thankful that Michael was not a Russian romantic in the Tolstoy tradition. There were no pistols at dawn, no one crushed under a subway train.
Annie’s apartment provided only a limited refuge for me. Breaking up with Michael was not enough; if I was going to be with Jeff, I needed a clean slate, a different life where I was not reminded thirty times a day of what a heel I was, how I had betrayed the dearest man alive, whose only faults were that he hated the outdoors and liked to take a drink.
Jeff had a vision quest. He was going to be a running back with the Falcons; he would train in Atlanta for a few months to get ready for the team’s walk-on tryouts. Jeff had played football in college, before leaving the program to follow vegetarianism, the Dead, and the Rainbow Family. He had seen Rocky too many times. Now he was starring in the role of the contender with heart who just needs one shot. All Jeff was missing were the turtles.
I had no idea what the actual chances for success this plan had. Could a guy who topped off at 5’9” and 145 pounds get into the NFL? It seemed no more unlikely than my own half-pint stab at modeling. I was besotted, desperate to make a getaway, and Atlanta started to sound romantic; like “Lolita” its three syllables tripped from my tongue like a kiss.
We bought a pick-up truck for $600. I loaded my surviving possessions on top of Jeff’s things and we headed south, looking for all the world like the Clampett family, especially after the gale-force gusts on the Pulaski Skyway ripped the tarp covering our worldly goods free from our amateurish knots. I turned around and through the small window in the back of the truck watched the square of blue plastic sail off into the sky, while the dreaming spires of Manhattan dissolved in the mist.
Gay Haubner is taking a hiatus from her weekly series. Look for occasional updates in the future.
For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
I was enjoying a beer at an ocean front café in Ibiza, (courtesy of the generous and deranged Tourism Board of Spain) when I was offered a new job: cooking for the crew of a private yacht, whose mysterious owner sent it criss-crossing the Mediterranean while rarely bothering to show up himself.
The captain of the yacht threw in a signing bonus in the form of a mystery pill.
I turned down both pill and job. The angel on my right shoulder TKO’d the imp on the other side who had been prodding me with her pitchfork and urging, “Take it! Go!”; I had a boyfriend and a job and I loved them both. I couldn’t just disappear on a boat. And the nice PR lady from the Tourism Board of Spain would be stuck having to explain how she had lost one of her junketeers in Ibiza, when we were supposed to be in Madrid.
I returned to my job at Penthouse magazine and my artist boyfriend Michael, waiting for me in our postage-stamp-size, slanty apartment on the second floor of a Chelsea mews, a place so small it was a test of true love.
But the Best Job in the World had jaundiced me. The free trips, the lavish press parties, the gifts from advertisers that arrived daily — a spoiled brat, I started to consider this my due, my just deserts.
The lunches I didn’t spend getting drunk with my boss, Jim Goode, or with one of my writer pals, I spent in the company of PR hucksters desperate to get their clients a mention in Penthouse magazine.
My hosts rattled on about watts per channel or large-displacement V-twin engines, and I chewed my steak and ordered another glass of white. If the lunch was really nice and I liked the PR guy, I snuck their product into the magazine. A fun, drunken meal of shish kebabs and stuffed grape leaves and there was a tiny photo with a one-line caption in my Penthouse Holiday Gift Guide, suggesting that a bottle of Izmira, vodka imported from Turkey (which the PR person wisely did not let me taste), would be the perfect Christmas present for grandma.
I had some time to kill before lunch, so I picked up my phone on the sixth ring. On the other end was, of course, a public relations person, a woman pitching me on some nonsense, a company I had never heard of, someone calling from an agency in Ohio, for crying out loud.
“I’m sorry,” I yawned, “Can you just send me a press release?” that I will throw immediately into the garbage.
“I’ll be in New York next week. Could I take you to lunch?” I perked up.
“Yes sure, how’s Tuesday?”
“I’ve never been to New York before. Is there a place you like to go?”
You bet, sister. The Palm. Home to plain-as-seltzer décor, nonexistent menus, black and blue steaks, lobsters frighteningly gigantic enough to stand in for the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the world’s gruffest waiters, who make it easy by insisting that you want the shrimp cocktail and the Caesar salad and the cottage fries and the creamed spinach and maybe the cheesecake. I had eaten there once.
I found Cindy from Ohio at The Palm, the only woman sitting in a booth by herself, and introductions were made. My white wine was set in front of me (Cindy sipped her Tab and tried not to look shocked at my lunchtime imbibing) and we were bum rushed by a white-aproned waiter, a dead ringer for Wallace Beery. He spoke out of the side of his mouth, like an old bootlegger. “Filet, lobster, T-bone, rib eye. We don’t got the lamb chops…” Cindy looked about for a menu or a rulebook, finding none asked, “Do you have chicken?” and settled for salmon. I appeased our surly waiter by ordering lobster and his choice of sides.
Since Cindy was footing the bill for my lobster etc. and x-number of glasses of wine, it was only manners to listen to her pitch.
“Personal computers. It’s the future. This one company is going to control the market, the CEO is a genius, he wants to make computing simple enough so anyone can do it.”
Computing? What the hell? I thought Cindy represented a tire manufacturer.
The food made its happy arrival, accompanied by an unrequested but welcome refill of my wine glass. I concentrated on deconstructing my lobster and let Cindy witter on.
“The new model was the hit of the West Coast Computer Fair…”
Crack, chomp, swallow swallow.
This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, I thought. Who in their right mind would buy a computer for their home? What would you even do with it? Even the world’s most successful men’s magazine didn’t have a single computer; the clattering telex in our front office and the new-fangled adding machine in accounting were the height of technology.
Lunch was over, I was drunk, and it was time to go back to the office and amuse my boss. Cindy picked up the check and looked as if she had seen her own grave gaping wide. The blood drained from her face as she tried not to gasp.
I felt a stab of guilt that I had let this poor rube blow her entire New York City expense account on a single lunch with someone who could give a rat’s ass about computers, in the home or elsewhere. I suspected our tab was for quite a bit north of $100.
I threw her a lifeline, suddenly remembering part of the one-sided conversation. “You know, I can certainly meet with the CEO at the show in Las Vegas next month and see the, ah, computer. What was his name again?”
I hope Cindy got to keep her job. I did keep my appointment with her client, at the Consumer Electronics Show, now relocated from the Chicago Convention Center. I would bet the house that I am the only person in the world to have attended CES as both a trade show model and an editor of a national magazine. I made it a point to avoid the car radio section.
Las Vegas in the summer was not an improvement over Chicago. It was a hundred and three degrees and to hell with anyone who says the words “dry heat.” My hotel, the paddle steamer-shaped Holiday Inn, was five long, scorching blocks from the convention center; the doorman just shook his head when I asked about a taxi. I took one step outside and fled back to my room to change out of my suit and pussycat bow blouse and into a long floaty gauze skirt and embroidered peasant blouse (souvenirs of Ibiza), clothes that let a bit of air circulate about my body, and headed off to the convention.
Where the Penthouse ad saleswoman stared at me and hissed, “What are you wearing? You look so unprofessional.” I took the list of advertisers she wanted me to meet with and threw it back at her. I did not mention that the dark stains in the pits of her Oscar de la Renta didn’t look all that professional either.
I finally located the “Home Computers” section, stuck away in a basement side room, and found the Apple exhibit, where I locked eyes with my old boyfriend from high school, Michael Vlasdic, who seemed to have made the unfortunate decision to grow some facial hair. It was not Michael, but a Xerox copy.
Steve Jobs and Michael had the same adorable round face, with tiny dimples that played hide-and-seek, and wore the identical John Lennon wire-frame glasses and serious, slightly frowning looks. They both had shaggy dark hair in a side part. Chills, not from the convention center’s super frigid AC, ran down my arms.
“Can I help you?” Steve asked.
“Ah…Cindy…I’m Gay Haubner. From Penthouse…Cindy…” Having established my bona fides, I let Steve demonstrate the Apple II Plus. He punched the keyboard with two fingers and neon-green characters scrolled up the dark screen of a tiny TV, as he glanced over his shoulder at me. I guess I was supposed to be impressed but I was baffled at what I was looking at and couldn’t imagine who would buy such a thing. I wrote on a typewriter, listened to music on the radio or vinyl LPs or cassettes. We didn’t even have answering machines; my phone messages came scrawled on small pink slips of paper. As the electronics editor of Penthouse magazine, I struggled for something nice to say.
“I like your rainbow apple. It’s like the Beatles logo, only prettier.” Steve sighed, and gave me his version of the Apple Corp vs. Apple Computer Inc. lawsuit. (Thirty-two years later Apple purchased all the rights to that Beatles logo.)
I made suitable sympathetic noises and confessed “I was never a big Beatles fan.”
“What music do you like?” asked Steve, and we were off to the races. We left the Apple Computer Inc. booth, Steve taking my gauzed and goose-fleshed right arm. We wandered, chatting and stealing glances at each other, down to the lounge area of the convention center, a few ratty couches and vending machines.
Over cans of sodas and stale sandwiches, we talked about his beginnings in that California garage and my tortuous path to Penthouse. We discovered that we were both college dropouts, and as we were children of the ’60s, the conversation turned to drugs.
“You’re not anything like I expected,” said Steve, confirming that he had not heard about my drunken, lobster-devouring, overpriced lunch.
“I had no idea what you’d be like,” I said and realized I was flirting.
“You’re so different from anyone at the show,” Steve said indicating my outré attire. “Do you want to have dinner tonight?”
This was one free meal I turned down. Steve was adorable, but obviously unhinged to believe that ordinary people would buy his goofy machine. I had a boyfriend back in New York City. And I had another guy stashed in my room at the Holiday Inn.
For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
Because I had miraculously achieved the position of service editor at Penthouse magazine, responsible for articles serving the deep-pocketed advertisers’ needs, Kawasaki had treated me to an all-expense paid junket to Finland to test drive snowmobiles, four days of lovely, nose-hair-freezing, bracing winter weather and four nights of drunken hijinks with the all-male, all-Midwestern snowmobile press.
Kawasaki graciously did not browbeat me for an article in return for my free trip; my boss, Jim Goode thought it was one thing for me to enjoy myself buzzing around the hills of Lapland, but quite another to run a puff piece on snowmobiles in his magazine. Jim believed that the men who bought Penthouse were much more interested in reading 10,000 word articles on “The CIA’s Secret Plot in Chile” or “Taxes We Should Never Pay.”
It was a blessing that I did not have to come up with an article. I scrolled sheet after sheet of typing paper through my battleship grey IBM Selectric, stared at the same blank whiteness as those Finnish ski slopes, came up with a few headlines — “Going (Sno) Mobile,” “A Lapp around Finland,” “Where are the Snowmobiles of Yesteryear?” — and then got lost in the memory of a long table covered with dead soldiers, and a bunch of guys and me pounding our fists and feet as we hollered “To the shores of Tripoli!…” letting the nice Finnish families around us, there for a quiet cross-country skiing vacation, know that Kilroy Was Here.
I was suffering from my first case of writer’s block, triggered when I got off the Finnair flight and trudged through JFK airport, my eyes drawn to the monitors hanging above me, offering so many destinations: Amsterdam, Cairo, Athens, Buenos Aires…
That trip to Finland was my first time outside of the United States in years; now all I wanted to do was to get back on a plane to anywhere. In my ascent from secretary to editor my salary had reached $15,000 a year, not enough for anything more exotic than an egg drop soup and arroz con pollo at an 8th Avenue Cuban-Chinese eatery. The only vacation my artist boyfriend Michael and I had been able to afford in our time in New York City was to a borrowed house on Cape Cod.
The next press invitation I received, to an MG-sponsored road rally in Wales, I sullenly handed over to Jim Goode, who as executive editor of Penthouse claimed the captain’s share of the loot.
“Why the long face, Haaauubner?” growled Jim, as he pawed through the inserts in the invitation, printed on heavy card stock and engraved with the MG logo, promising airfare, first-class accommodations, gourmet meals, and drinking to excess in the best British tradition.
“I got to go on one measly trip to Finland, and you take all the rest,” I pouted, consciously ignoring the fact that wrong-way driving and roundabouts would be the death of me.
My small, sullen insurrection was not worthy of a response from Jim. “Find out if I can bring the dogs,” he ordered, and I was dismissed.
The next morning my phone rang, and there on the other end, as if I had willed it to happen, was another press junket.
“Buenos dias! I’m calling from the Spanish Olive Oil Consortium. Do you know much about Spanish olive oil?” asked a softly accented, trilling voice.
I had to confess my ignorance about olives in general.
“That’s why we’d love to have you join us on a tour of olive groves in Andalucia!”
Had this woman or any other member of the Spanish Olive Oil Consortium ever seen a Penthouse? Some of the models gleamed like they had been liberally anointed with oil, but outside of that…
Yet Andalucia! Granada, Seville, Cordoba! I girded my loins to face Jim again.
My carefully prepared spiel never got a hearing. As soon as the word “olive” fell out of my mouth, the full wrath of Jim was unleashed.
“Food, Haaauubner? Food? You will never see an article on food in this magazine,” Jim ranted, punctuating each word by banging his index finger on his desk. Food was not one of Jim’s pleasures, or even interests. Eating impeded the effect of his martinis; it was something that had to be faced twice a day, like tooth-brushing. Jim put down his size 13 work boots and “Spanish Bombs” stopped playing in my head.
I called the nice olive lady back. “I am so sorry, I have to decline. Olive oil doesn’t quite fit in with our editorial strategy right now.”
“That’s too bad. You know, I also represent the Tourism Board of Spain and I’m putting together a press group to attend the opening of the new Madrid casino. Perhaps you’d be interested in that?”
My mouth dried up in speechlessness; I managed to squawk out “Thank you can I let you know?” before hanging up the phone in wonder. This, I thought, is a sign. The universe wants me to go to Spain.
I campaigned like a crooked pol to get Jim to let me go on this trip. I spent hours on the phone with underlings at the British Embassy, in a doomed effort to get Jim a special waiver so he could bring his damn dogs to England. I picked out the choicest, most expensive items from my haul of gifts from advertisers and presented them to Jim on bended knee. I volunteered for more than my share of Take-Jim-to-Lunches, and managed to set a new record in keeping him out of the office longest.
After a four-martini lunch at The Magic Pan (dubbed The Tragic Pan; its thin, scantily-filled crepes barely qualified as a meal), I sprung the question.
My strategy was to convince Jim that an article on casinos would be a sop to Bob Guccione, something to weigh against Jim’s anti-fur crusade and his other nutty hobbyhorses. The office rumor was that Guccione was planning to funnel some of those Penthouse millions into a casino in Atlantic City, even though the Penthouse casino in London was under investigation by Scotland Yard, and Atlantic City was just barely beginning to shake off its seedy, down-on-its-luck reputation.
“So if I write a piece on the opening of the Madrid casino…” was my reductio ad absurdum, and Jim was too drunk to refuse and too stubborn to go back on his promise after he sobered up and I was headed to Europe.
I met my fellow junketeers, accompanied by the nice but now rabidly frantic woman from the Tourism Board of Spain, at the check-in for Iberia Airlines.
These representatives of the fourth estate were as mismatched as a sock drawer. There was only one other person from a national publication, a stringer for Women’s Weekly, which I thought was a knitting magazine. There was a freelancer from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; on the plane he passed me some pages of his work-in-progress to read, which I thought was complete crap and became a best-selling horror novel. There was a man so drunk, so often, I never even caught his name, much less what magazine or newspaper or handbill he represented. There were two older women from competitive Philadelphia Jewish weeklies; they were locked in a Semitic death match, refusing to even make eye contact. Plus some other freeloaders too dull to remember.
The PR woman was frantic because she had just learned that the Madrid casino was so far from being complete that all we junketeers could expect to see was a hole in the ground. We flew to Madrid anyway, then rushed on to a small plane bound for the island of Mallorca. The Tourism Board of Spain thought it better to show us people throwing away money somewhere then to cancel our trip. “There’s a casino in Mallorca,” promised the poor PR woman.
And some Louis XIV, Xanadu, Versace, Mad King Ludwig shit that was. El Casino de Palma Mallorca was stupendously palatial. An excess of immense crystal chandeliers blazed down from ceilings painted with chubby nymphs and cavorting cherubs. The towering walls and the thick Corinthian columns holding up nothing were made of richly veined marble, yet all the raucous noises of gambling were reduced to the soft chink of dice, the swishing of cards, the ticking of a roulette wheel, thanks to the thick-as-fur carpet that caught my high heels with every step. Anything that could be gilded was. I made sure to keep moving; if I stood still I might have gotten the Midas touch myself. Every man in the casino outside of our motley crew wore black tie; all the bone-thin women smoked and clutched tiny jeweled evening bags. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Our Man Flint had showed up, shooting his cuffs.
Mission accomplished, we had been to a Spanish casino. Not one of us honorable members of the press risked our own money gambling, and to our dismay, free chips were not part of the junket. Just seeing the casino was not enough though: we had to dine there every night in a private room.
“Why are those men standing around us?” I asked the freelancer/novelist from St. Louis. “They look like extras from The Student Prince.”
“I think this is called Russian service” he said, which I learned required waiter after waiter delivering course after course, always starting with oysters and going on to entrees as heavy as the sterling: forks, knives and spoons that marched endlessly on both sides of the disappearing and reappearing plates.
My St. Louis friend also told me that the PR woman was scrambling for activities for our group; had we gone to Madrid to admire the hole in the ground we would have seen the Prado, Toledo, El Escorial. Outside of the casino, the island of Mallorca was best known for catering to drunken, sunburned Brits on package holidays.
Our PR senorita filled our schedule with meals. In the mornings hotel waiters delivered full, artery-clogging English breakfasts to our table. Lunch was at white-washed, red-tiled restaurants perched above the sea and was always freshly caught and always deep-fried fish; we washed the olive oil grease away with cold, crisp vino blanco and then took a group nap on the bus back to the hotel.
I hit the eating wall on my next-to-last night dinner, kicking off my shoes under the long mahogany table so I could race to the marble and gilt ladies’ room, undone by lobster bisque and beef wellington. The kind ladies’ room attendant did not hold my hair and pat my back, but she did have a cool towel ready for me when I finally was able to lift my head from the toilet.
We spent one afternoon at a non-eating venue, the Caves of Drach; we drifted in rowboats through a garishly lit underground grotto, while violinists floating alongside serenaded us with Italian arias. It was ghoulish and charming, like a tale from Hoffman.
The Philadelphia ladies finally set aside their professional and religious differences to request a visit to the Majorca pearl factory, the rest of us dragged along like kids on mom’s boring shopping trip. We learned that Majorca pearls are not real pearls from oysters. They are made from fish scales, billions of fish scales; the whole place stunk like a giant can of tuna left out in the sun. We all balked at the offer of a tour inside; the Philadelphia ladies bought their souvenir jewelry as quickly as possible and we fled back to the bus.
Having exhausted the wonders of Mallorca, our PR lady arranged a day trip to Ibiza and turned us loose on the island. The poor thing was probably wiped out herself having to improvise a press junket on the fly.
Our undistinguished group huddled for a minute in the square, then my fellow junketeers bolted off in search of souvenir shops or bars. I stood alone, entranced by the combined scents of patchouli oil and pot that streamed behind the handsome bearded boys who strolled arm in arm with long-haired smiling girls dressed in kaleidoscope clothes. I followed “Are You Experienced?” down a cobbled street lined with stores offering tie-dyed tops, batik trousers, and patchwork skirts, bongs and chillums and flavored rolling papers, black-light posters, herbal teas, and van trips to Afghanistan. I had died and gone to hippie heaven.
Jimi Hendrix led me to a waterfront café and an icy Estrella beer. I side-eyed the man at the next table, a shaggy blond with a deep tan, dressed in a blue and white striped pullover, white jeans, and deck shoes without socks. I wasn’t expecting the American voice that asked, “Mind if I join you?”
Another beer and a below-the-table joint appeared and my life was complete. The blond was from Florida and worked as a captain on a private yacht; he pointed out a very large boat gleaming in the marina.
“We hardly ever see the owner. Most of the time I move the boat to another port and he doesn’t even show up.” He gave me a head to toe appraising look and asked “Can you cook?” I blinked.
“Our crew cook just left. Nothing complicated. Eggs in the morning, sandwiches, burgers, fish if we catch ‘em. The owner always brings his own chef, so then all you have to do is sit around in a bikini.”
My better angels were banging in alarm on my brain, which was already mapping out the wine-dark seas, the white towns of the Greek isles, the turquoise coast of Turkey.
“We have a lot of fun,” Captain Blond continued, popping one small pink pill in his mouth and offering me another.