In late summer, two Double Bubble Cadillacs could be found parked at any hour outside the Chelsea. One was pink, the other yellow, and the pimps wore suits and wide-brimmed hats matching the cars. The dresses on their women matched their suits. The Chelsea was changing, and the atmosphere on Twenty-third Street had a manic feel, as if something had gone awry. There was no sense of logic, even in a summer where everyone’s attention was riveted on a chess match in which Bobby Fischer, a young American, was about to topple the great Russian bear. One of the pimps was murdered; homeless women shifted aggressively in front of our door, shouting obscenities, rifling our mail. The ritualistic sparring between Bard and our friends had come to a head and many were being evicted.
Robert was often traveling with Sam, and Allen was on the road with the band. Neither of them liked leaving me alone.
When our loft was broken into, Robert’s Hasselblad and motorcycle jacket were stolen. We had never been robbed before, and Robert was upset not only about the expensive camera, but about what it indicated: a lack of safety and invasion of privacy. I mourned the loss of the motorcycle jacket because we had used it in installations. Later, we found it hanging from the fire escape. The thief had dropped it as he fled, but he kept the camera. The thief was possibly daunted by my mess but did steal the outfit I had worn to Coney Island on our anniversary in 1969. It was my favorite outfit, the one in the picture. It was on a hook on the inside of my door, freshly dry-cleaned. Why he took that I’ll never know.
It was time to go. The three men in my life—Robert, Allen, and Sam—hashed it out. Sam gave Robert the money to buy a loft on Bond Street, down the block from him. Allen found a first-floor apartment on East Tenth Street, within walking distance of Robert and Sam. He assured Robert he was earning enough from the band to take care of me.
We decided to leave on October 20, 1972. It was Arthur Rimbaud’s birthday. As far as Robert and I were concerned, we had upheld our vow.
Everything would change, I thought, packing my things, the madness of my mess. I tied a string around a stationery box that had once been filled with fresh onionskin. Now it held a stack of coffee-stained typed pages rescued by Robert, picked up from the floor and smoothed by his Michelangelo hands.
Robert and I stood together alone in my section of the loft. I had left some things behind—the lamb pull toy, an old white jacket made of parachute silk, PATTI SMITH 1946—stenciled on the back wall—in homage to the room like one leaves a portion of wine to the gods. I know we were thinking the same thing, how much we had been through, good and bad, but also a sense of relief. Robert squeezed my hand. “Do you feel sad?” he asked.
“I feel ready,” I answered.
We were leaving the swirl of our post-Brooklyn existence, which had been dominated by the vibrating arena of the Chelsea Hotel.
The merry-go-round was slowing down. As I packed even the most insignificant of things accumulated in the past few years, they were accompanied by a slide show of faces, some of which I would never see again.
There was the copy of Hamlet from Gerome Ragni, who imagined me playing the sad and arrogant Danish prince. Ragni, who co-wrote and starred in Hair, and I were not to cross paths again, but his belief in me bolstered my sense of self. Energetic and muscular with a wide grin and masses of curly hair, he could be so excited about some crazy prospect he would leap onto a chair and raise his arms as if he had to share his vision with the ceiling or, better yet, the universe.
My blue satin sack with gold stars that Janet Hamill had made to hold my tarot cards, and the cards themselves, which divined the fortunes of Annie, Sandy Daley, Harry, and Peggy.
A rag doll with hair of Spanish lace given to me by Elsa Peretti. Matthew’s harmonica holder. Notes from Rene Ricard scolding me to keep drawing. David’s black leather Mexican belt studded with rhinestones. John McKendry’s boatneck shirt. Jackie Curtis’s angora sweater.
As I folded the sweater, I could picture her under the filmy red light of Max’s back room. The scene there was changing with the same speed as the Chelsea, and those who had attempted to imbue it with a Photoplay glamour would find the new guard was leaving them behind.
Many would not make it. Candy Darling died of cancer. Tinkerbelle and Andrea Whips took their lives. Others sacrificed themselves to drugs and misadventure. Taken down, the stardom they so desired just out of reach, tarnished stars falling from the sky.
I feel no sense of vindication as one of the handfuls of survivors. I would rather have seen them all succeed, catch the brass ring. As it turned out, it was I who got one of the best horses.