We are in Michael’s boyfriend’s apartment getting into Michael’s boyfriend’s bag. It is 1993 and Michael is gay before anyone else in Pittsburgh. It isn’t a display, it’s just who he is. The purple scarves and golden hoops, the flowy hair that’s done just so. Michael’s elegance makes the ceramic bong seem discordant as the bong is one of those 1970s Hell’s Angels units comprised of skulls and snakes coming out of the eyes. It feels like you could brain someone with it in one blow. It has the weight and heft of a cudgel.
Michael insists on giving me the first hit and his eyes twinkle by the candlelight. And I am well aware of the dynamics because all this seems weird with Mariam on the other side of the table watching, making funny eyes at me like she does when we’re at work, and Michael squatting gorilla-style on his boyfriend’s rug. The boyfriend is older, Asian-American, forever off-camera. He has some state-supported financial aid that prevents him from having to work due to an illness Michael won’t specify. We hear the boyfriend scuttling in another room but never meet, which feels strange.
Mariam and I walk back to my apartment high with Mariam coiled around my arm, bent into my side for warmth. There is an appeal to messing around high because we can drift in and out of our own worlds with the impression of being together, a combined self-indulgence and intimacy. And this, I come to learn, is a pattern of the drug-taking. It feels like getting on a ride where everyone’s buckled into their own seats but no one can really see each other or experience the ride together. It’s like being with someone and alone at the same time.
It is 1993 on Pittsburgh’s south side, the south side in relation to the Monongahela river, a heyday for local artists who live in a community I’ve unknowingly just joined. In fact my apartment is so close to the café where I work I’ll sometimes go home during break. Or when I later learn to roast coffee, I’ll run home and back in the 12 minutes the beans are in the hopper.
Christian Downs is the coffee roaster kid who teaches me how to roast coffee. He is a gifted musician but doesn’t really play and suggests at 21 he’s already moved on from it, to comic book doodling. All his characters have an odd resemblance to him, each engaged with a smoking apparatus with eyes bugged out to cartoon stars like something you’d see from R. Crumb. In fact, Christian’s artwork emulates the south side’s biggest hotshot artist, Rick Bach. And Rick’s characters oddly reflect him too. But for a scant goatee they are hairless (like him) with wan features and sad, hollowed glares. Yet there’s a depth and distinctness that make them seem real.
On this day Christian invites me to tag along with him to Rick’s place and hang out. Christian is delivering a bag to Rick. Christian is forever high it seems. When he is not high (first thing in the morning) he is blurred-over, detached. He is maybe 105 lbs., 5’8″ and wears a postal jacket he got from an actual retired postman (i.e. the jacket is legit, the postman emulates Christian, the two routinely share a coffee at Christian’s table up front, by the roaster). Christian’s hair is bleached blond, shaved on both sides but crashing like a wave up top. On mornings before he’s high it crashes to the wrong side.
The first thing you have to do to get into Rick’s place is ring the intercom because Rick likes to vet his guests pre-entry and Christian (somewhat embarrassed) mentions I’m with him (which wasn’t planned), and then has to elaborate more precisely who I am because even though Rick sees me every day at the coffee shop he still can’t place me. I’m just Bill from Arabica. The one who runs the open mic. Rick allows for a long moment of silence to hang in the air with me feeling foolish, Christian looking perplexed. And then the door clanks open and we ascend the narrow stairs.
Rick’s apartment is like one of Rick’s paintings. You get the sense that his life and art are intertwined and both of them are fucked. It is a chaotic unspooling characterized by disorder and destruction, real punk rock. Rick’s band (Hell Belly) is a three-piece sonic version of Rick’s artwork and life, the soundtrack, and today Rick is jamming with his drummer who goes by the moniker Andrew the Shrewboy and is part of the Circus Apocalypse side-show featuring a guy named Beanloaf who eats live bugs and cuts himself on stage, pretty standard stuff. Everyone has monikers (stage names) on the south side except for real pros like Rick. Or Rick’s next-door neighbor William Wessel, the metal sculptor, who’s always making hideous scraping sounds which seem to fit nicely with the sound Hell Belly is going for. Rick is wearing a straw hat and sun glasses and looks drunk. Horsey is in the backyard naked with someone videotaping him. Horsey is banned from Arabica for reasons no one can articulate but involve a customer named Blanche, who has mental problems. I could elaborate but it would sound like parody. She thinks she can shoot lasers from her hands.
Rick does not acknowledge me until he hears about my guitar, the Guild John gave to me. The Guild is world-class caliber, in fact the luthier was the same one who built guitars for Clapton. I debate if I should bring the Guild to Rick’s like he asks (you should go get it) and have the good sense to decline. There is the ceremonial getting high scene at Rick’s feeding table but Rick looks uncomfortable-slash-self-conscious smoking with me (aka paranoid). It is 1993 and still illegal. We feel like bad asses doing it, more so with a legend like Rick.
Over time I come to admire Rick, even emulate him myself. Though his eyes are small, beady-like, there is a warmth there, a way about him that comes through when he’s not wearing his sunglasses. It’s like the real Rick. And the eyes in his paintings have a similar quality. I can see why others emulate him, he is the real deal. His art pours through him. Perhaps it is a look of sorrow even. Like, can you believe this happened to me? I can’t help it, but I’m going to damn well do something about it.
And that is the sentiment here as we move from place to place along Carson Street. Not knowing, just feeling our way through. Though we are all here for a time, one by one we will all disappear. It will be hard to remember what even happened here. There is a look in his eyes that’s the same in my memory, a look in his paintings too. He has found a way to cut across time and space, to feel his way through. And that, I’ve come to learn, is what is really real.