Current Issue :: –> Things we've agreed to out of desperation.

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Interview with Steve Geng

I reviewed Steve Geng’s memoir when it came out and I liked it so much, I decided to interview him. We met in a Chelsea café near where he lived. The energy of the book and its subject matter made me expect –- I don’t know exactly, maybe some kind of louche, fast-talking wildman who would go through my wallet if left it on the table. I definitely wasn’t expecting the soft-spoken, thoughtful man who sat across from me eating a bowl of soup. That left me with a new question: how could this be the same guy who’d done so many outrageous things? It was only as we became friends that I realized Steve was both those people, and that writing had allowed him to direct the demons that had made the first forty-plus years of life such a (colorful) struggle. The man who’d had the energy to go on nation-wide shoplifting sprees was also the man who could evoke early-1960s Paris on the page with such gusto that you got a tactile sense of the place, from the jazz clubs to the whorehouses. — RA

1. In your long and checkered life, what are some other things you’ve agreed to out of desperation?

Once, desperate to win back a girl’s affection and make amends for smacking her, I agreed via phone to return a blanket she’d given me. When I showed up at her door and held out the blanket, she grabbed me by the wrist and yanked me thru the door, behind which lurked her brother who then caved my skull in with a claw hammer. I still have an egg-shell dent in my head and was lucky to have survived (pp 138-144 in Thick As Thieves: A Brother, a Sister–a True Story of Two Turbulent Lives).

Another time, I was an up-and-coming actor in Miami, desperate for work. I went to my agent and begged her for a gig. There’s not much, she said, except for one gig that I doubt you’d want because it only pays a hundred bucks. No, I said, I’ll take it, I’ll take it, whatever it is. Okay, she said, it’s a children’s birthday party and they want a guy to come as the Cookie Monster. She gave me an address downtown on calla ocho to pick up the costume. An hour later I showed up at a burbsville house on a Miami summer afternoon in this sweltering hot royal blue nylon-furred Cookie Monster outfit, full bodied, replete with headpiece with a little wire grille over the mouth to let air in. The living room was filled to bursting with small children in party hats running around like crazy, and I walked in growling like Tom Waits on a bad day—-Rrrrrrr, Coooooookie, rrrrrr. The kids were terrified of me. They all got very quiet and a few started sobbing, then they retreated to the kitchen. About fifteen minutes later I walked into a den where one of the parents was having a stiff-looking drink of something in a rocks glass. I was sober for about a year, and I could hear the ice clinking in the glass. Man I was thirsty. But in order to drink I’d have to take the headpiece of the costume off, in which case I wouldn’t get paid.

The guy looked at me woozy-eyed and said, Hey Cookie Monster, you ain’t drawing no big fucking crowds, are ya? Heh-heh.

I agreed to all kinds of shenanigans out of the desperation for drugs, scenarios that nearly got me killed or locked up and that I’d later regret. I don’t want to just rehash the memoir, but every time I copped smack from a stranger on the street was an agreement born of desperation, trusting that whatever he sold me wouldn’t stop my heart or freeze my brain when I cooked it up and geezed it. Sometimes the powder would bubble up and harden in the cooker—this was sadly called “a birthday cake.” One time there was a city-wide panic for heroin and we went down to Chinatown and copped little brownish crystals from a guy who told us it was “Chinese rocks.” When we shot it there was a loud buzzing in our ears, so we called it “the buzzer.” It smelled vaguely familiar when water was added to it but we couldn’t be sure if it got us high. So we went back and copped more of the buzzer. Turns out it was kitty litter. And of course there are all the times I was junk sick and gave my money to some character who’d say, “Okay, give me your money and wait here.The connection is leery of anybody he don’t know. I bring you up and he’ll cut me off.” I once caught up with one of these beat-artists, who I especially loathed because they preyed on fellow junkies. “Of course you got beat,” the guy tells me unapologetically. “I’ve been in the game ten years before you showed up like a shiny new penny. For all I know you’re a cop or a snitch. This is why everybody pays their dues in the beginning, brother. So what do you want to do—you want to fight? Or you want go make some money and go cop?” It made perfect sense. Having paid my dues, I felt a new sense of brotherhood and camaraderie.

The things I agreed to in order to get off drugs were equally desperate—six-day detoxes, twenty-eight day treatments and rehabs. Once I agreed to a year and a half commitment in a therapeutic community called Daytop in lieu of extradition to Florida where I owed five years state time. This was during the late sixties when TCs were old-school—shaved heads and sandwich board signs hung round your neck listing the negative behavior: “I’m a sleazy dope fiend and a thief–please confront me.” (That for getting caught stealing cookies or somebody’s toothpaste.) I lasted six months in Daytop and none of those treatment centers ever helped me stay off drugs. The only thing I agreed to that ever helped was when someone suggested, in a moment of desperation, that I try going to twelve-step meetings. And finally, beaten enough to try their technique of spiritual regeneration with total williingness, I was home free. It’s been over twelve years now drug and booze free, and the real change is my ability to be useful to others instead of obsessing about myself. Or as a friend of mine put it, “You substituted self-awareness for Why did I wear this?.” I’d never been useful to anybody—I was trying to seduce others and get them stoned or wrangle money out of them for a fix. To be helpful to others caused a radical change in my perspective.

2. When did you start writing? Why? Who are some of your influences?

I began writing in the late eighties toward the end of my brief acting career. I was reading scripts to audition, and complaining “Christ, I could write better than this!” Everybody said, “Well shut up and do it!’ So I wrote two screenplays, neither of which got picked up for production, although I got very positive feedback from some very famous people and one was optioned for a year. If I had any influence in writing those scripts it was probably David Mamet’s dialogue in “American Buffalo” after playing Donny Dubrow for several months in a Miami Equity production. That screenwriting effort gave me the experience and confidence that I could tell a good story in long form. A decade later in 1998, after relapsing into heroin for seven years, then getting clean and sober again, I was going to Gay Mens Health Crisis for free lunch. One of my lunch companians was a guy I was then helping get sober, and he told me to put my name into a lottery that GMHC held every semester. If your name came up you got to take a class at NYU or the New School or several other great schools around NYC that participated. I won for NYU and took a class called Make Your Novel Happen. By the end of that semester, after bringing in a scene every other week, I was a third of my way into a novel. I won that lottery three more times, and always took a workshop on novel writing. Then another guy came to me for help getting sober, and when he got his life back together he started working as an editor at a really good publishing house. So I showed him the novel I was working on. Turns out he knew of my sister, Veronica, and though he liked my writing, he kept asking me for anecdotes about her. Finally he confessed that he didn’t have enough juice at the publishing house to bring in a new writer. But he told me that if I wrote a brother-sister story about me and Veronica that it would be an easy sell. I didn’t want to write about her. It was too sad and the memories too painful. But out of desperation to get a book published, I agreed to try it anyway, and the memoir sold and got rave reviews. So in a way, I never really set out to be a writer. I was just helping other guys get sober and sort of following my nose and walking through doors that popped open.

3. What are you working on now?

I’m now working on the novel that I started writing in those workshops, a story that my sister had for years encouraged me to write. It takes place in Paris in 1961 during the Algerian Crisis, and the impetus for the story came from an image that remained in my head after living there as an army brat, a half-page photograph in the Paris Herald Tribune that showed Algerians marching down a boulevard and gendarmes battering them with truncheons—in the background of the shot a sign over a jazz club, Bop City, gives the scene dramatic irony. Algerians were terrorizing the city in an effort to win their independence from France, and my guys are GIs stationed there, black-marketeers selling US Army goods to the Algerians to finance their own jazz club in Pigalle. The hero is an army brat whose father is stationed nearby, and his dream is to play piano in a jazz band. When I was writing back in those NYU workshops I was really just having fun, trying to duplicate on paper the textures of the time in a coming of age story with the Café Wars as a backdrop. But after the experience of publishing that memoir I gained so much confidence that I found I could really get into the heads of Algerian terrorists and Pigalle pimps, research what I didn’t know or remember, and so the story went from slice-of-life to a real thriller with narrative drive. The title, “Bop City, is all that remains the same.

4. Where do you live?

I live in a residence in Chelsea half-a-block from the Hudson River.

5. How long have you lived there?

I’ve lived there for about thirteen years. At one point when I was dying of AIDS, barely subsisitng on minimum disability, unable to pay the rent, and still throwing money away on drugs, a lawyer at GMHC suggested I put in an application for “congregate housing.” At first I thought he’d said “conjugal” but it all worked out great anyway.

6. What do you like about your neighborhood?

Chelsea is safe, attractive, and over by the river people walk their dogs every morning on the way to a dog walk and the dogs all know me. It feels very much like a neighborhood this far West. There is a little park on the corner, across from the now defunct Empire Diner, where I practice tai chi. A man approached me the other day as I was “grasping sparrow’s tail” and said, “We love what you’re doing. Adds somethng aesthetic to the place. My kids are interested now in studying, uh, what is it—Chinese?” The form of tai chi I practice keeps me turning in a circle, and the little tots love trying to sneak up on me while my back is turned. When I catch them at it they squeal little strangled Bruce Lee sounds, “Heee-yahhh!” They call me the kung fu man.

7. What do you like about the changes in New York?

I like some of the changes in NY because I don’t see drugs for sale so much out on the street. It feels safer and less tempting. But then, I’m not looking for the junk scene anymore so maybe it’s just my perspective.

8. What do you dislike?

What I dislike are all the fast food chains and mega-stores and multiplexes that have driven neighborhood diners and Greenwich Village shops and art-movie houses like the Bleeker and the St Marks and the Waverly and the Thalia and really good inexpensive Italian restaurants like Emelios out of business and have changed Times Square into a sleazy version of Disney World. It’s all aesthetically deadening and tiresome to look at, never mind eating the processed junk they turn out, or shopping in sterile K-Mart type department stores where helpful clerks are scarcer than a good bag of Harlem doojie.

9. When and where were you happiest? Unhappiest? What woman made you happiest?

Tell you the truth, I am happiest at this very time in my life, and have been for the last five or ten years. I thought romance was over with, and was content with the fact—I’d wasted half my life chasing sex and romance, and two of the women I thought I was in love with tried to kill me—one had her brother cave my skull in and another slipped me a mickey in my coffee and when I passed out she torched me with lighter fluid. So I was a confirmed bachelor who writes books and helps guys get sober. But I have a woman in my life now who is not only a writer, but shares a similar checkered past, and I’ve never had so much fun with another human being as we’ve enjoyed for the past three years. I was also happy as a child in Philly, and running around Paris as a teenager, but the past is always seen through a scrim of selective memory, so that judging happiness or unhappiness of those times in unreliable at best.

10. What do you do when you’re not writing?

I’m always writing, even when I’m not sitting at my computer and cranking out text. Once I realized I could write a book that would not only get published but would get rave reviews, writing became another way of looking at life and the world around me. I read a lot, mostly novels, crime thrillers and sci fi, but also writers whose prose I admire like Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy and recently Johathan Franzen. I also do a lot of research, and go to movies and hang out with my girlfriend who is now happy to be referred to as my fiancé. The rest of my time is spent attending twelve step meetings where my experience makes me useful to others in a way that is totally divorced from career or money or getting what I want. I remember a time when my sole purpose in life was in getting what I thought I wanted, and the hell with everybody else. Every relationship was quid pro quo, “this for that.” Thing about “this and that” is that they’re quantitative like money and heroin—the more “this or that” you get the more you want, a bottomless hole that circles downward and inward. My life today circles upward and outward. I can still get needy and selfish—just start obsessing why my book isn’t selling better—but not for long. It’s much more fun to think of others and stay out of my own way.

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