A dozen years ago, the sniffier parts of the classical music industry were shocked by a book by Blair Tindall, describing the sex-and-drugs underside of an oboist’s life in New York. The book was titled Music in the Jungle and it went on to achieve a different form of fame, much applauded by the sniffier parts of the industry.
Now there is a new contender for candid oboe player of the century. Marcia Butler’s book, The Skin Above The Knee, published on Monday, is a graphic memoir of being a young, single musician in Manhattan. It pulls no punches and delivers quite a few, going all the way to Rikers Island jail to pursue an elusive grail. Beautifully written and making no excuses, the book is a must-read for all who immerse their hands and minds in music.
Slipped Disc is privileged to published an exclusive chapter-length extract below. It is not for the sniffier types. You can purchase a copy of the book here, from today.
In 1982, living a post-Mephistopheles life in a sublet on West 70th Street tasted like a bittersweet concoction of welcomed solitary confinement and endless loneliness. I had everything I needed, living in the furnished apartment of an actor on the road for a year with a touring musical. I took great comfort from my oboe and Kirsten, always on call in my headphones. Spot, my lucky black cat, although still showing signs of trauma from the rough removal from her equally rough home, quickly made her nest inside the coat closet, curling herself up in a tight, protective ball. But after the first few weeks, she gradually ventured out to laze on the bed with me, watching the pigeons on the windowsill overlooking 70th Street. We spent hours examining their lovely cooing life. I could be a pigeon and enjoy that underrated perching life. But Palsson’s was down the street, and Gato was playing nightly. And Gato’s jukebox “Europa” beckoned with long, sinewy arms.
About a month into my newly single seclusion, curiosity came sniffing. That evening I’d ordered a curry dinner in and was feeling sated and content and very safe. Safe enough to wonder about all the people I knew from my late nights at Palsson’s. Ron and Stella, for example: they’d been my built-in 3:00 a.m. social life, and I was curious.
I heard him—Gato—wailing away before I even opened the door to Palsson’s. Ron, at the back of the restaurant, vaguely nodded to me. Like a junkie, I gave in to temptation, and as my eyes got accustomed to the smoky air, I began scouting for connections—both personal and maybe even medicinal. Once I’d settled myself at the bar with a club soda, a woman I vaguely remembered walked over and offered me a Quaalude. Sure. I accepted the pill and took half, pocketing the other side.
I was not a typical drinker or drug user. I was the cheapest of dates, high even before booze kicked into my blood—one drink would slide down my gullet to leave me instantly weak-kneed. And cocaine was always just a vehicle to drive me to a place of chatty connection with people. These were the accomplices I required to imagine identifying this “love” thing. To pick it out of a lineup: Ah! So that’s it. That’s what they’re all talking about! And for the short time I was with Mephisto, this combination—alcohol and cocaine—seemed to be a raging late-night success. Curious and lonely now, I had been nostalgic for that perfect synthesis of gossamer edginess when I walked out the door of my apartment and headed toward Palsson’s.
Gato played on. A well-dressed couple approached. His shoes: a shiny patent leather. Her lipstick: much too red. She struck up the chatter.
“Hi. Are you a regular?”
“No; not really. I used to come in a lot, but this is the first time in about a month.”
“We just saw a show and then had dinner downtown. We’re staying at the Excelsior.”
I turned and looked them up and down. It was curious they were telling me all this: not the typical anonymous chitchat in a bar.
“It’s a pretty dingy place, actually….We were expecting a bit more.”
“Well, it attracts mostly Europeans who can’t afford the Plaza.” I knew the Excelsior Hotel, on West 81st Street, myself, because I’d stayed there a few times when Mephisto and I were at particularly nasty odds and I needed an overnight safe house.
They were silent, not knowing if my comment was a putdown or a disguised compliment on their international élan. Their accents revealed their homeland: New Jersey. Rubes from the countryside.
“You seem loopy. Did you take something? Or is it just the booze?”
My head jerked back in reflex. This was also unusual—to call out someone’s drugged look. They were novices. But about an hour into my half Quaalude, I went along with it.
“I took half a Quaalude. Just relaxing.”
“Oh. Well, we have something to help with that. Want some?” “Sure.”
They slipped a glassine packet to me under the bar along with a short, cut-off straw. Off to the ladies’ room I sauntered, smug and self-assured, hoping to counter the Quaalude’s loopy effect with some free coke.
About ten minutes later, back at the bar chatting with my new friends, I felt a roiling of nausea come up, very fast and intense. Knocking some chairs over, I ran for the bathroom and jammed myself into an empty stall, my head over the toilet. The curry dinner came up, all orange with bits of spinach floating to the top. Sliding down onto the floor next to the toilet, panting and waiting for the next wave, I broke into a fierce sweat that soaked right through my blouse. I retched for what seemed like an hour, but it could have been just ten minutes.
The Jersey woman came back and helped me up. My feet felt bottomless, with the contrary sensation of no floor beneath them.
“I see you’re a novice. It hits people that way sometimes with the first blow.”
“What do you mean? What the hell was that?”
With my arms around her neck, and me bandy-legged, she danced me back to my bar stool. Together they got my bar tab paid and stuffed me into my coat. Out on the sidewalk, the fresh air was not helping much. I staggered to the curb and, leaning against a car, bent over to vomit again but heaved up nothing. The man asked where I lived.
“Oh. Just around the corner. But I’ll be okay.”
“No, no, no! We want to make sure you get there. Come on…let’s just go.”
Not in a position to resist or even walk, I put myself in their hands. Down the street we all walked, arm in arm in arm—old pals, it would seem. The man took the keys out of my purse to unlock the front door of the brownstone. We tag-teamed up the three flights and fell into the apartment. Spot made a dash for the hall closet.
It felt normal and sweet and very kind. They said they would take care of me, and I wanted that. I wanted friends, and in my dazed mind, they became the best of friends—at least for that long, zigzagging walk to my apartment.
Then the evening became a swirl of small resistances and gentle acceptances, each of which floated up and down, according to the heroin’s whim. My impressions held moments of sharp focus before panning back for a gauzy long shot.
As I succumbed, almost happily, to passive sex with her, he remained in the background, pacing back and forth, his reflective shoes glinting in the lamplight. Looking for something, or just looking at us on the bed—a voyeur, maybe. His head zoomed in for a close-up more than once. I felt my eyelids being pulled back as he assessed my state. I couldn’t move or didn’t want to. Maybe I was smiling; I thought I saw him smile back. His movements were fluid and continuous as he roved the living room, me in a four-legged puddle with her. I allowed her to love me and pushed down the questions swirling in my brain: Is this okay? Is this what I want?
Heroin was doing its damnedest to show me a different version of letting go. I was not unhappy. With the help of this new and awful drug, I was a willing prisoner, not wanting to shake clear the lovely film that encased my mind. Except for the vomiting, it wasn’t all that bad. These people were not evil, just strangers. In fact, they were the sweetest of strangers. After all, they had walked me home.
Daylight—two o’clock in the afternoon: the door to my apartment was slightly ajar, and Spot was trying her best to look through the cracked opening. I was lying alone on the sofa, somehow in my clothes but not the same clothes as the night before. A blanket had been neatly tucked over my legs. My feet poked out at the bottom of my body and seemed very far away. I noticed my socks were on upside down, with the heels at the top of my feet. As I tested getting up, my diaphragm muscles seized from throwing up all night. Feeling a need to pee, I couldn’t make my legs move to get up off the sofa. My arms collapsed as I tried to lift myself up, and I fell back down to sleep.
Four o’clock in the afternoon: I came to with a start this time. Spot sat very close to my head, right on my chest, dozing and moving in sync with the rise and fall of my breathing. This was her usual destination when she wanted food: my chest. But the front door was closed now. Someone from the building must have shut it. Not wanting to disturb Spot, and afraid to reawaken the pain in my midsection, I turned my head to look around. The living room appeared in order.
My eyes focused in and out; I was not yet in control of my pupils. I settled my gaze on an object in the middle of the floor about two feet from me. This seemed to be the optimal distance for me to get my visual bearings. I stared. As I looked, confusion set in. What was that thing? The rectangular box was carefully wrapped in a pillowcase, tightly bundled, as if ready to be shipped off in the post. A curiosity. My head started to clear, and I began to study it. Gently releasing Spot to the floor, I reached down to pick it up and set it on my belly. With a quick intake of breath, I knew immediately what it was: my oboe. Wrapped in a pillowcase.
Now I was afraid. Adrenaline jammed into every inch of my body as I shot up from my prone position onto my feet. I ran to the bathroom, urgently needing to evacuate. My abs felt very tender, as if I had been punched. At the sink, water encouraged and braced me, and I lapped it up through my cupped fingers. Glancing into the mirror, I saw her red lipstick smeared all over my face. It was thick and everywhere. My ruby scarecrow face sickened me almost as much as the wrapped oboe, and I heard myself begin to whimper.
I returned to the sofa after washing my face and rocked back and forth with Spot rubbing around me, flicking her tail in my face. Slowly, the next, more intense level of fear knocked me back. Not for my personal safety but for the one thing in life I could not replace: my oboe.
I discovered telltale signs of theft. They had left my keys, so I felt some pretense of security. But a few pieces of jewelry were missing, including a watch that my grandmother had given me. About a hundred dollars in cash that I’d hidden in some socks in the very back of a dresser drawer were gone. They had left some rings that had little value. I couldn’t figure it out.
Throughout that evening, as the heroin left my body and the haze lifted, I took several showers and examined my body for any marks—some sort of road map for what might have occurred over the course of those eight hours or so: maybe a bruise or a sore area. I determined that the man had not penetrated me, or at least I sensed he hadn’t.
But I was a damned lucky trickster. My oboe was intact, with the reeds still in their zipper case: untouched, unharmed. And clearly ready to be stolen. Over the next few weeks I instinctively made a little ritual for myself. Whenever I left the apartment, I wrapped the oboe in the same pillowcase, in exactly the same way, placing it in the exact same location on the floor, not wanting to break the spell that I imagined had been cast upon me.
Cracked open, raw and vulnerable, I reached out to the most remote person in the solar system: my mother. And why not? I had a lucky oboe. I was a lucky girl. Maybe she would join me in my new aura.
(c) Marcia Butler