Wednesday, June 17, 2009

My Age of Aquarius

I’d been attending a Montessori School in Stony Brook, Long Island, NY, by far the least educationally rewarding experience of my life. An aging hippie named Mark Brubaker ran the franchise. Perhaps Mark had a family member or college buddy on the Montessori board of directors, but it was certainly neither his business acumen, nor brilliance as a teacher of children that secured him his position as director. He smoked pot with a chosen few of the students, myself included. I helped him by doing some light tutoring of the younger students, in return for which he relaxed my attendance requirements and inflated my grades. How the doors to this school remained open, even through the brief period of my tenure, remains a mystery to me.

Mark struggled valiantly but hopelessly to keep the school staffed with teachers and attended by students. After turning down Mark’s generous offer to give me a high school diploma for simply sticking with him through the end of the school year (he was lonely, and short on both intellectual stimulation and smoking buddies), my boredom had reached an unbearable level and I was looking for any way out.

My friend Paul, with whom I’d spent the previous summer in Stowe, Vermont, called and told me that he was working in Manhattan at a waterbed store, that it was blast, and would I like to come work with him. Given my current situation, I couldn’t resist. Despite Mark’s begging and bribery, I wished him well and, two weeks later, headed for the City, into an adventure that was anything but boring.

It was, technically at least, a “sales” job at Aquarius Products, a waterbed store above a pet shop on Lexington Avenue. The Different Drummer, Manhattans hippest rock and roll apparel store was one floor below us in the next building south. The store was located at the epicenter of midtown retail activity, three blocks north of Bloomingdale’s and Alexander’s, both of which sat atop the 59th Street stop of the IRT subway, and the foot traffic alone guaranteed any business located within five blocks more than a fair shot at success.

One benefit of the job was living in the store. In addition to sparing me the hassles and expenses of having to rent an apartment and commute to work, I wouldn’t have to worry about sneaking in and out of my sister’s at all hours of the day and night. Despite living only three blocks from the store, she had her own life, including a child to raise in an already cramped apartment. I kept what few belongings and clothing I owned at her place, showered there when necessary and otherwise kept out of her hair. Jill had always been kind to me in the past, opening her home to me for the immediate period after my mother died and at several other points later. Although grateful, I didn’t want to burden her further.

Having my choice of a half dozen sloshing mattresses on which to spend each night was a benefit that I found extremely compelling, and knew would come in useful in future romantic endeavors. And it certainly did.

Although it had not been disclosed to me at the time of my initial interview with Daniel Finestien, the company’s president, I quickly discovered that the store sold more than waterbeds. Although on the one hand it was indeed, an active, legitimate upper-east-side retail store, it turned out to also be a den of illicit drug dealing. The absentee owners, who took a cut of both the legal as well as extra-curricular profits, showed only waterbed sales on their books, and largely overlooked the day-to-day activities involving the sales and on-premises consumption of the drugs.

Danny Timmons was a tall, thin amiable fellow who visited the store only occasionally. He acted as liaison between management and the store staff, and oversaw the books. Danny didn’t party with the in-store crowd. He did his job when he came to the store and, although not entirely innocent, played an innocuous role in the business, mostly reviewing the finances and focusing on the company’s legitimate aspects.

Prior to the arrival of the new “store manager”, I’d been working and living in the store with Paul and later joined by a longhaired, blue-eyed money whiz named Jon. We sold waterbeds, to everyone from neighborhood residents, to loft owners from SoHo, Park Avenue brownstone owners, even the occasional hospital for use in their critical care and burn centers. We installed the beds as well and, once I learned the ins and outs of the various models, I got pretty good at assembling, as well as selling them. It was a very different kind of job, one that, at first, I enjoyed tremendously.

There was a romantic element to the waterbed business. It turned out to be something of a magnet to females. Upon finding out that my apartment was actually a playground, filled with a variety of bouncy, warm, water-filled and sheepskin covered beds, it usually wasn’t difficult to persuade them to at least visit. Paul, Jon and I took every advantage of our little Playboy Mansion on Lexington Avenue.

Word came down that a new manager would be arriving to take over the day-to-day operations of the store. Daniel Feinstein called a meeting and announced that he had hired a new man, named John Weiss. He was purported to be a brilliant sales manger from the auto industry and would lead us all to the next level of success. Aquarius was already the #1 name in New York City waterbeds. John Weiss was going to widen the gap between us and #2 and seal us into the spot permanently.

Weiss was an acne-scarred, nasal-voiced scam artist, who pounced on the opportunity that Aquarius offered him like a hungry cheetah on a weakened baby gazelle. John was in his late twenties but looked considerably older. He was gay and as it turned out, something of a sexual deviant, bringing barely legal boys, the younger the better, up to the store for drug addled sex and debauchery that sometimes lasted for days.

Once Weiss arrived on the scene, the mood rapidly shifted to one of negativity, even danger. If a business could be said to have its own karma, Aquarius’ was turning bad. Things began spinning out of control. The fun went out of the job. It was as if something poisonous had been loosed at the store and it quickly began to seem that we weren’t in the business of selling waterbeds at all anymore.

I had spent over a year at Aquarius, nine months of it prior to Weiss’ arrival. Although increasing the illegal profits, and thus pleasing management, Weiss’ addition to the staff had an increasingly negative impact on everyone around him. As he got more and more out of control with his use of drugs, he seemed to become more and more seedy, a frightening, pervert. His sexual habits, never previously hidden, became flagrant, filthy and outrageous. He abused his power over the rest of the staff, who became servants to his whims. We were charged with doing his work in the store, bringing him his drugs, cleaning up after his days and nights of debauchery, long K-Y jelly-soaked sexual escapades in the back of the store with his boyfriends. It was disgusting and he flaunted it.

Weiss brought in a shady heroin dealer who became a daily fixture at the store. Tony seemed, on the surface, a friendly, neatly dressed black man, quick to befriend everyone. He began, as many dope dealers do, by giving everyone free heroin for the first month or so of daily visits to the store. Then he began charging. Weiss’s heroin consumption alone certainly kept Tony profitable, but the rest of the staff eventually began to chip in as well.

One summer day, Weiss called me into the back office. He had a “fun” opportunity, he said. It involved driving a friends car, something I rarely got the opportunity to do, so at first, I became excited.

I was to drive up to Wilton, Connecticut with David, his boyfriend, to pick up a case of drugs that had been stolen from a local pharmacy by a group of teenagers. As he explained the “mission” I became apprehensive. I knew this was a bad idea, really bad, and I resisted with every argument I could think of. But John held firm, forcing me, threatening that I’d be forfeiting my job if I declined, enticing me with drugs themselves, which he promised to share with me. He stressed the ease of the trip, “just a stones throw” up I-95…but mostly with the threat that I would do it or else…I reluctantly agreed.

The following day, we made the two and a half hour drive and arrived at the home of one of the kids to find that another teenaged had overdosed on Dilaudid, a synthetic morphine derivative. To characterize the drug as powerful falls laughably short of accurate. Dilaudid (clinically known as hydromorphone) is said to be eight times stronger than morphine and three times the strength of pure heroin.

When we arrived at the house, the kids were panicked and clueless as to how to handle the situation. Knowing nothing myself, but wanting to get out of there immediately, I told them to put him in the shower, get ice from the freezer and apply it to his testicles. Hoping for a good outcome, we left the crowd of clueless teenagers, some in tears, huddled around the blue/gray body of their friend, laying fully clothed and soaked in the bathtub, pants pulled down to his thighs, a small mound of round-edged ice cubes piled on his crotch.

Once in the van, we backed out of the driveway, pulled away from the house and around the corner, and stopped at the end of the block. We looked through the box, amazed at the enormous assortment of potent pharmaceuticals. We came across some Merck cocaine, two bottles of it. It is the strongest, purest form of synthetic cocaine available. David and I opened one of the bottles and snorted a huge quantity, a typically impetuous, almost reflexive act that we would realize later, was a tremendous mistake. The soaring, euphoric high of cocaine that entices users to seek it out, lasts for a mere half-hour at best, making the drive back to the city a horrifying three-hour journey of paranoia.

The intensity was magnified to the level of nightmarish when we came upon an accident scene on the interstate, moments after it had occurred. As we slowed, we saw a broken male body lying face down in the far left lane of the highway, a stream of blood running from his head clear across all four lanes of concrete to the right side of the road. Fear and disgust, combined with the nerve-scraping crash from the cocaine and the knowledge that we were carrying a box filled with enough narcotics to send us away forever, silenced us for the remainder of the awful ride back. I drove, maintaining exactly 55 miles per hour until we hit the Triborough Bridge and crossed into Manhattan traffic. We spoke not a word.

When we finally got back to the store, shaken, crashing from the coke and worn out, I was exhausted and panicked. Weiss greeted us, big grin stretching over his pock marked face, grabbing at the box. “Al-right!” he said, walking the box into the back office and starting to empty the contents onto the desk. “Beautiful job, boys. Took too long, but beautiful work.”

“John, I can’t do this any more.” I said. “I won’t do this any more. It’s not worth it. You don’t know what happened up there.”

Weiss didn’t look up at me; he showed no reaction whatsoever. His eyes gleamed as he read the labels on the brown and clear bottles of medicine, a smile growing larger as he read the names of each one. He got to the Dilaudid and opened it immediately. He reached into the desk drawer and retrieved a set of works – syringe, teaspoon, a q-tip, from which he pulled off a piece of cotton. He dug into his pocket and pulled out a disposable lighter. He unbuckled and pulled his belt free, re-threading the end through the buckle and sliding up his forearm to his triceps. I left the room.

That day marked the end of my willing participation in an adventure that had started out as innocent fun and soured the day John Weiss entered the picture. Whether related to his entering the picture or not, and not to refute my responsibility for the part I played in the whole mess that Aquarius had begun, John Weiss seemed to drag with him, a karma that infected all those around him.

Over the preceding three months, I’d been robbed on three separate occasions, all work related. Once, while waiting for the elevator at the Aquarius factory, a smallish Hispanic man with a largish stiletto approached me from behind, wrapping his arm around my neck and pressing the blade to my throat. He asked for my money. It was payday and I had been paid only hours before, cashing my check on the way to the factory. All of the cash from my paycheck was in the right back pocket of my jeans. I reached into my back pocket, searching with my index finger for the crease in the center of the wad of bills. I carefully separated two twenties, pulling them up through the center of the folded bills. Once free, I handed them to him. He said nothing and backed away from me vanishing out the door.

The second incident, this time a street robbery, occurred less than two weeks later as I was about to enter a building to which I was delivering a waterbed. I had unloaded the boxed bed frame and several other boxes containing the mattress, liner, hardware, tools, etc. and had piled them together just outside the main entry door to the building. Again, seemingly from thin air, a man appeared, this time in front of me. Again, a blade was pressed to my throat. This time the tip was pressing straight into my Adam’s apple. “Give it up” he said. I gave it up. He ran away. The financial price I paid was more significant this time. He had taken approximately $200. Dan Feinstien looked quizzically at me as I recounted the story in his office the next day.

“Pretty odd coincidence.”
“I know,’ I said, hanging my head as I stood before him. I felt somehow guilty of being robbed too often. “I don’t understand it either. It’s freaky.”
Dan believed me and knew I was trustworthy. For all of the crazy, illegal things I did, I would never steal, and Dan had a solid belief in my integrity.
“This is the last time you’re allowed to get robbed” he said seriously. “No shit – stop it.”
“I’ll do my best” I promised.
Dan reached into his own pocket, unfolded his own, thick wad of bills and counted out ten twenty dollar bills.
“Get back to work” he said, a half smile breaking over his small lips. “And no more getting robbed.” He tossed the bills across his desk, landing them near to where I stood.”Thanks you, Dan, I appreciate it.”

Believe it or not, less than one month later, the final robbery took place inside the store. It was a sunny Saturday morning, always a busy day and I was alone in the front section of the store near the large plate-glass windows that overlooked Lexington Avenue. While I tidied up after a morning influx of customers, Danny was seated at the desk in the back office, doing some accounting work.

I had vacuumed the entire front area of the store. I switched off the vacuum and sat down on the edge of the wooden frame of a bed, no more than three feet from the front door. I leaned over to pick up a rubber band that I’d dropped next to the bed earlier and didn’t want to get caught in the vacuum. As I stood up, a man suddenly burst through the doorway, nearly crashing into me. He came to a jerking halt in front of me and raised his arm up to my face level, waving in front of my face. He seemed a bit crazy, maybe angry.

“Give me your money, mother fucker!” he shouted. “Now!!”

In his hand was a gun. But the gun appeared to me to be a toy. It had a green handle and a blackish barrel. I looked at him, then down at the gun, then back at him. I stared straight into his face.

Then I laughed.

This appeared to severely anger the man. “You think something’s funny motherfucker? I’ll blow your motherfuckin’ head off, goddamn it!!” At which point I grasped the seriousness of what was happening.

“I’m sorry, sir” I pleaded. “Take my money. Here.” I reached into my back pocket and pulled out the bills that were there. “Here you go. Please don’t shoot me.” He started to mumble something as he took the money and looked at it. And then…


An enormous explosion of breaking glass came from the back of the store. Danny had dived through the window of the back room, out onto a small ledge that hung above the back courtyard. I had no idea where Danny could go once he got out there, but I realized that now the robber knew he had two people to deal with.

The bad guy looked towards the back, and then broke into a run in the direction of the back office. As soon as he started toward the back, I made a dash for the front door. I made it through and started down the long, steep flight of red-carpeted stairs, toward the door at the bottom that opened into the street. Two steps at a time, I thought I could make it if I hurried.

I made it down only about eight steps before his voice yelled from the top of the stairs, behind me: “Stop mother fucker!!” I stopped instantly and covered my head, crouching down, waiting for the gun to explode. “Getcha ass back in here. Right now!!” I started back up the stairs – slowly, trying to give Danny more time. “Hurry up, goddamn it!!” he yelled and I moved a little faster, not running.

He waved me into the store and moved toward the back, looking back at me every other step. He glanced into the back room and, realizing that Danny was probably safely out of reach, cursed, rushed past me and out of the store. I slammed the door shut and locked it behind him. I ran to the back and saw the glass all over the back room and out on the back ledge. I picked up the phone and dialed 911.

We later heard that there had been a rash of robberies at second story stores in the neighborhood, specifically, waterbed stores, of which there were three or four in the general vicinity. The robber was a black male who carried a loaded .38 caliber handgun with a green taped handle, which he had use to shoot one of his victims. He was also in the habit of making his victims undress and perform acts of sexual perversion on each other, while he watched.

Fortunately, thanks to Danny’s fast thinking and sheer courage, he and I were spared that humiliation, not mention being shot dead. Danny later said that he’d been sitting at the desk when he heard someone yelling profanities and looked out through the very small area between rooms, through which all he could see, he said, was my face, and a shaking black hand holding a gun up to it.

He’d had to make the decision, he said, of whether to open or just dive straight through the window. He’d known that the amount of old paint combined with the weight of the massive window would make it a noisy opening. His decision sure worked for me.

Once again, fate or God, guardian angel or my intuition, perhaps all of the above, had combined to save me from a frightening situation that could have ended so much worse. How does one get so lucky? Is luck involved at all? I think not.

I began to suspect that looking for new employment might be in my best interest. Whether karma was evening up some score unknown to me, or I was just continuously placing myself in the wrong places at the wrong times, I was on a losing streak of such gargantuan magnitude that I could no longer chalk it up to bad luck. This being the third time I’d been robbed, it seemed that my circumstances were in such a state of decline that, if I didn’t change something soon, I was going to wind up seriously hurt.

At the age of seventeen, years from realizing that I was the architect of my own circumstances, I found myself surrounded by negative influences and events. I’d been repeatedly victimized by criminals in the big bad city, as well a by the tyranny that I was subjected to daily by John Weiss, whose drug use had by then turned him into a mean and hateful, babbling zombie. I’d started enjoying the heroin that Charlie brought around more than occasionally and even found myself missing it when he didn’t show up. This, I knew, was a dangerous sign. I was but a step short of needing it, and that needing impulse is the line which, once crossed is the kiss of death for many users.

All of these negatives combined to stir in my gut, telling me that a change was desperately needed, that I had to get out. And so I did.

(This story is followed by our exploits in Puerto Rico, one of which is described in the "Knife Fight" post)


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  3. Wow, GREAT READ, you laminated it! I could feel the pain, the thrills, the fun, the jiggling of the water beds, the highs, the fear, and re-live the era. So much for the love & peace of the early seventies. And so much I didn't know about your life back then... such compelling, fascinating, suspenseful stuff. Did you know about the guy from Different Drummer (a salesman or co-owner, I can't remember)? - He was truly a "fashion victim." He was wearing extremely high platform shoes as he rushed down the stairs to the catch a subway, he fell, broke his neck, and died, OD'd on fashion, no joke. Thanks for this, Lo

  4. You describe a dark side of New York I can remember all too clearly. The drugs, the violence, the careful balancing act between safety and danger. We lived life between a rock and a hard place in those days, and our white middle/upper class upbringing didn't provide us with much practical help for life on the street. It WAS down to a lot of luck that the likes of kids like us came out of it alive.

  5. I found it funny, interesting & cool, very easy read and wanted more...skip book, go for script.

  6. Kerry, I was never in as bad position as you at any time during the Age of Aquarius. However, I still wonder how I survived the '60s. It wasn't a great time to say the least. Fortunately, with age, I have the power of nostalgia; and can blot out the bad, and even make it beautiful. Others do too. I know someone, though who doesn't and has been trying to forget the '60s.

  7. Richard, I wonder who that person is...! Thanks for the read and the comment. Those were some days, indeed.

  8. Kerry, the person who wanted to forget his Age of Aquarius badly was no one I really knew. I spoke with him only a short time. On the other hand, the person who told me about him was very nostalgic indeed. You couldn't get him to admit anything bad about the Age of Aquarius. By the way, he has been more successful in life than all of us. At the time, he worked in the Pentagon where he was an Assistant Secretary of Defense.