Guido Michelini smashed his fist into a bathroom mirror in San Francisco. He didn’t like what he saw. A middle-aged man who was unemployable. This was due to his “erratic trajectory,” according to Johnny O, a newspaper editor who once gave him a job. “You may have dug your own grave.”
Johnny O was his hero, someone he would like to have been. Guido told him this once in a drunken phone call from the lobby of a $120-a-week hotel in Times Square. Drunks and madmen circled the lobby.
He was “between jobs,” as the saying goes, walking along Fifth Avenue watching for his unpublished novel to miraculously appear in bookstore windows. Reality had no place on Fifth Avenue
But it did in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District when he rolled into a stale room at another weekly-rate hotel. He looked in the bathroom mirror. The mirror was the mouthy kind: Let’s face it, hotshot, who’s going to hire a vagabond reporter who worked a couple of years in
Detroit, ten months in Chicago, six months in Miami, three months in Las Vegas, and four hours at the L.A. Herald Examiner? Just because you are losing your nerve now and decide you want a steady paycheck and medical coverage and all the rest of it is not going to make up for all the great opportunities you squandered. You had every chance and you blew it, time after time. This is the damn mirror blabbing away.
But listen, Guido tells the mirror, I wrote some great stories in those places, exceptional in some. Even the four hours at the L.A. Herald Examiner produced a Front Page murder story, above the fold, goddamnit. I started work at eight and by noon on my first day the paper was running my story above the fold, man. I won a writing award in Detroit. You have to be damn good just to get a newspaper job in Chicago. This is what he’s telling the mirror in a hotel bathroom in San Francisco.
But the mirror sneers and snarls and Guido thinks it’s going to spit at him. It despises him. So he lashes out. He gives it a right cross to it’s ugly mug. Bam! A broken man. Glass and blood all over the place. He had to beat up on it out of self defense, but he had to agree with it. He did have a problem in the workplace. It wasn’t a drinking problem, although he did down many a gin-and-tonic. It wasn’t a drug problem, although he did pop many a Valium. It was a problem of psychotic restlessness and a fixation on becoming a novelist; being a reporter wasn’t good enough for him.
Going from town to town would have been fine if he’d been in a rock band. The jobs were all gigs to him. His typewriter was a guitar. His hair was long and he was having a great and grisly time, spending money like a rock star, boozing and bedding women every chance he got. For ten years he bummed around America in this manner. It was all a glorious pub-crawl with the Eagles belting out “Take It To The Limit” over and over.
ON THE ROAD
Even between jobs, he had op-ed pieces published in the New York Times and L.A. Times. He was a bicoastal op-ed writer. He was a hot vagabond and the best dressed bum in town. They’d have to carry him out in a body bag before he’d give that up.
One of the quickest ways to sober up and face reality is to smash your fist into a mirror. The glass flies back in your face and blood squirts from deep cuts in your hand and your face. You grab a towel and soon it’s soaked with blood. It looks like there has been a murder in the place. You leave the broken glass all over the sink and the floor. You think that if you start picking up the pieces one might find its way to your throat. You have, after all, seen the light and it is black.
Guido went from Bal Harbour to Friday Harbor looking for a steady writing job. He travelled in planes, buses and ferries. He saw a lot of hopeless, doomed, crazy, lost people out there. A battered young woman and her baby going as far as $59 would take them on a Greyhound bus; a young man in heavy boots still going to Alaska to chase a dream; a wild-eyed old man running away from his wife in Bakersfield to go fishing in British Columbia; a teenage girl with a tattoo of an eagle on her bare shoulder bumming with a boyfriend named Duke. “Here it is, Duke, our new home,” she said excitedly as the Greyhound rolled into Seattle. Duke was asleep with an Oakland A’s baseball cap over his eyes.
Guido thought at the time that all these people were worse off than him, because at least he had an American Express credit card — thanks to Susan, who he left behind in Miami Beach. But then he realized, seeing the Seattle skyline rise out of the mist and thinking beyond into British Columbia and Alaska, that these people still had dreams; even the old guy had some kind of half-assed dream. Guido had a gold card but he was all out of dreams.
He was on the road to six weeks, calling up editors, dropping off newspaper clips, racking up bills in hotel rooms, waiting for callbacks, eating alone, mapping out his next campaign like an over-the-hill general who should have died in the trenches
It was a failed mission. The night he smashed his fist into the mirror he slipped out of the Tenderloin District and jammed one more flight on the credit card. The red-eye carried him back to Miami. The plane touched down at noon and he took the airport bus up Collins Avenue to Susan’s apartment and let himself in with his key. Susan was at work. Guido lay down on the bed. There was a big gold S on the wall over the bed.
He waited for S to come home. S for Sanity, S for Security, S for Savior, S for Sex, S for Shoot yourself in the head.
The sirens go all night in Detroit. Eight hundred homicides the first year I was there. the majority listed as police briefs in the newspaper. Every now and then a killing warranted a separate story.
A 12-year-old Free Press carrier girl was shot to death in a hail of bullets early Tuesday as she delivered a newspaper to a house on Joy Road. Jenny Peach died in hospital, her body riddled with at least 15 bullets. Her father and sister, who were helping her with the paper route, witnessed the shooting from their car. When police arrived at the house, it was empty. Two hours later, in a traffic stop on Cass Avenue, police arrested Goyo Velasco, 23, and charged him with first-degree murder. Velasco, a convicted drug dealer told police he fired the shots because he thought the car that was driven by the girl’s father was that of a hired killer. State police said there was a contract out on Velasco for a botched drug deal.
Sirens directly below my window now. You won’t get me, death screamers! My name is Guido Michelini. I am an alien with a green card in love with America.
I’m lying on my bed in a room on the fourteenth floor of the Jefferson Hotel. It’s really the thirteenth floor. In the elevator the numbers jump from twelve to fourteen. Who are they kidding? As if that would change anyone’s luck in this city.
The Jefferson is a residential hotel on the corner of Bagley Street and Cass Avenue. I have a corner room. Small bathroom, double bed, chest of drawers, two chairs and a table. A window directly behind the bed looks out onto Cass Avenue—the “Cass Corridor,” a surreal strip of sex, drugs and death. There is no screen on the window.
The room contains all I need. No TV. The mind-deadening box is gone, a portable I threw out the window in a state of stoned drunkeness. I’m lucky I didn’t kill someone. It ended up a busted boob tube on the sidewalk. Pedestrians walked around it until a homeless man put the pieces in a shopping cart and pushed off down the street. The absence of the TV gives me a sense of freedom. I just have the Sony radio and tape deck Lynda left behind. Lynda, nineteen years old, long brown hair, slim taut body.
I’m listening to WRIF Rocking Stereo: The soul’s escaping through this hole that is gaping… and smoking a joint. I’m waiting for Barbara to come to my room. Another woman was in the room earlier, Darlene, eighteen, skinny and black like she jumped out of a Motown song. The contrast between our bodies tangled up in black and white was startling in the half-light on the room.
Sirens swirl around in the darkness outside. I look out the window, looking for Barbara, aka Vampira, long black hair, pale face, bright red lips and long red fingernails. She’s a reporter at the News, the evening paper. I’m a reporter on the morning Free Press.
While waiting around for Barbara, I messed up my chances with Lynda. I phoned her around 8 p.m. She’s a reporter in Windsor on the other side of the border. She told me she was on her way out with another guy.
“You’re too late,” she said over the phone. “I’m not going to sit by the phone waiting for you to call at the last minute. Fuck you!” That had been the general idea.
The sirens stop below my window. What’s this? Is the hotel on fire? I’m too stoned to move. Barbara, where are you?
I’m asleep in my clothes when she comes to my room around 2 a.m. We’re sitting on the bed, both still fully clothed for the first time of being on the bed together. It’s lucky we are.
That last siren. We smell smoke and see it coming through a vent in the wall. I jump off the bed and open the door. Smoke filling the hallway. People in night attire running from their rooms. I grab a reporter’s notebook and Barbara snatches two towels from the bathroom and we start running down the hall. Barbara knocks on doors to rouse residents as we head for the stairs.
The stairwell is filling with people and smoke. We run down the stairs with the towels over our mouths. Around the fourth floor the smoke is black and there is a moment of real fear when we wonder if we should keep going down or go back up. We go down.
We reach the ground floor and run outside. A crowd is gathering in the street. Tenants who got out are guzzling beer out of cans and laughing with the sheer joy of being alive. A crazy, drugged, drunken carnival.
Everybody is looking up. Flames are leaping up the Cass Avenue side the building. Faces of people in the windows, a wall of smoke behind them. A woman on the top floor leans out the window screaming. Horror. Fear. Firefighters doing their thing. Ambulances arriving.
I tear a handful of pages from my reporter’s notebook and hand them to Barbara and we start talking to people in the street, emergency workers we can intercept and the assistant fire chief when we get the chance. We run across the wet black street tangled in fire hoses to the Picture Bar and phone our respective city desks with what we have so far and then run back to the scene.
Four people die in the fire. Many others are taken to hospital. I spend the night at Barbara’s apartment.
If she hadn’t come to my room at 2 a.m. I would have been asleep when the fire spread and it might have been too late to escape. I’d be another frightened face hanging out the window. Saved by a slender young woman from the northwest side, five-feet-five, 108 pounds, raven black hair.
It is in this manner that I am introduced to America.