City of night, p.1
City of Night, p.1John Rechy
CITY OF NIGHT
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OTHER WORKS BY JOHN RECHY PUBLISHED BY GROVE PRESS
The Sexual Outlaw: A Documentary
The Fourth Angel
The Coming of the Night
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CITY OF NIGHT
Copyright © 1963 by John Rechy
Introduction copyright © 1984 by John Rechy
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, or any facilitation thereof, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Any members of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or publishers who would like to obtain permission to include the work in an anthology, should send their inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003.
The publisher wishes to express his thanks to the following sources for permission to quote extracts from copyrighted songs: “Children, Go Where I Send You,” special permission through arrangement with Unicorn Music Company, New York City; “Heartbreak Hotel,” written by Mae Axton, Tommy Durden, and Elvis Presley, copyright © 1956, Tree Publishing Company, Inc., Nashville, Tennessee; “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” copyright © MCMXXII by Shapiro, Bernstein and Co., Inc., 666 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10019, used by permission of the publisher.
Published simultaneously in Canada
Printed in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
City of Night.
PS3568.E28C5 1984 813’.54 83-49451
eBook ISBN-13: 978-1-5558-4725-8
an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
for My Mother
and the Memory
of My Father
“The City is of Night: perchance of Death,
But certainly of Night. . . .”
—James Thomson, The City of Dreadful Night
City of Night began as a letter to a friend in Evanston, Illinois. It was written in El Paso the day following my return to my hometown in Texas after an eternity in New Orleans. That “eternity”—a few weeks—ended on Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras. The letter began:
“Do you realize that a year ago in December I left New York and came to El Paso and went to Los Angeles and Pershing Square then went to San Diego and La Jolla in the sun and returned to Los Angeles and went to Laguna Beach to a bar on the sand and San Francisco and came back to Los Angeles and went back to the Orange Gate and returned to Los Angeles and Pershing Square and went to El Paso . . . and stopped in Phoenix one night and went back to Pershing Square and on to San Francisco again, and Monterey and the shadow of James Dean because of the movie, and Carmel where there’s a house like a bird, and back to Los Angeles and on to El Paso where I was born, then Dallas with Culture and Houston with A Million Population—and on to New Orleans where the world collapsed, and back, now, to El Paso grasping for God knows what?”
The letter went on to evoke crowded memories of that Mardi Gras season, a culmination of the years I had spent traveling back and forth across the country—carrying all my belongings in an army duffel bag; moving in and out of lives, sometimes glimpsed briefly but always felt intensely. In that Carnival city of old cemeteries and tolling church bells, I slept only when fatigue demanded, carried along by “bennies” and on dissonant waves of voices, music, sad and happy laughter. The sudden quiet of Ash Wednesday, the mourning of Lent, jarred me as if a shout to which I had become accustomed had been throttled. I was awakened by silence, a questioning silence I had to flee.
I walked into the Delta Airlines office and told a pretty youngwoman there that I had to return to El Paso immediately. Though I had left money with my belongings scattered about the city in the several places where I had been “living,” I didn’t have enough with me for the fare, and a plane would depart within an hour or so. Out of her purse, the youngwoman gave me the money I lacked, and added more, for the cab. I thanked her and asked her name so I might return the money. “Miss Wingfield,” she said in a moment of poetry not included in this novel because it is too “unreal” for fiction.
I thought I had ripped up the letter I had written about that Carnival season; I knew I had not mailed it. A week later I found it, crumpled. I rewrote it, trying to shape its disorder. I titled it “Mardi Gras” and sent it out as a short story to the literary quarterly Evergreen Review.
From childhood, I had wanted to be a writer. My mother was Mexican, a beloved, beautiful woman with truly green eyes and flawless fair skin; my father was Scottish, a confusing, passionate, angry man with blue eyes, which, in my memories, seem always about to shed tears. I learned Spanish first and spoke only it until I entered school. At the age of eight I began writing stories, all titled “Long Ago.” At about thirteen, I started a novel called Time on Wings—about the French Revolution, which I researched diligently. The great enlightenment that comes only in midteens led me to “deeper” subjects, and I began an autobiographical novel titled—oh, yes—The Bitter Roots. It was about a half-Mexican, half-Scottish boy, doubly exiled in many ways: by his “mixed” blood (especially significant in Texas), by his present poverty contrasted to his parents’ memories of wealth and gentility; he was “popular” only during school hours, after which he rushed home to secret poverty.
At sixteen, my “works” included many poems, among them two “epics” about angels at war in Heaven, more than 500 pages of Time on Wings, about 200 pages of The Bitter Roots, both started in pencil, continued on a portable typewriter my father, in one of his many moods of kindness within anger, bought me. I abandoned both books and went on to finish a short, strange novel titled Pablo!. Set in contemporary Mexico and the jungles of the Yucatán, it was framed about the Mayan legend of doomed love between the moon and the sun, who saw each other at the dawn of time. The main character in this “realistic fantasy”—in which animals talk, witches incite grave violence—is a youngman who tells the story of a “beautiful woman who died.”
On scholarship given by the newspaper I worked for as copy-boy, I went to college in El Paso. After classes, I often climbed the nearby Cristo Rey Mountains, bordered by the Rio Grande, usually waterless here. I read a lot, eclectically; my favorite writers included Euripides, Faulkner, Poe, Margaret Mitchell, Lorca, Melville, Jeffers, Hawthorne, Camus, Milton, Ben Ames Williams, Dickens, Emily Brontë, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Donne, Gide, Henry Ballamann, Giraudoux, Pope, Djuna Barnes, Tennessee Williams, Proust, Joyce, Frank Yerby, Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe, Capote, Mailer, James Jones, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Beckett, Farrell, Nabokov, Kathleen Winsor, Swift. I saw many, many movies.
An English teacher offered to recommend me for a scholarship to Harvard, his school. But I went into the army. I didn’t tell anyone except my immediate family—and I burned most of what I had written, except for Pablo!. I had been gone only a few weeks when my father died and I returned to El Paso.
The rest of that time of my life in the army is as “unreal” as an attached memory, with the exception of “leave time” in Paris. I went in a private and came out a private. Released, I went to New York to enroll in Columbia University. Instead, I discovered the world of Times Square.
My life assumed this pattern: I would invade the streets and live within their world eagerly; then I would flee, get a job, walk out of it—and return to the waiting streets like a repentan
In El Paso, a letter arrived from Don Allen, one of the editors of Evergreen Review, in response to my story-letter, “Mardi Gras”; he admired it and indicated it was being strongly considered for publication. Was it, perhaps, a part of a novel? he asked.
I had never intended to write about the world I had found first on Times Square. “Mardi Gras” for me remained a letter. But thinking this might assure publication of the story, I answered, oh, yes, indeed, it was part of a novel and “close to half finished.
By then, I was back in Los Angeles under the warm colorless sun over ubiquitous palmtrees. But the epiphany of questioning silence which had occurred in New Orleans made me experience the streetworld with a clarity the fierceness of the first journey had not allowed. I could “see”—face—its unique turbulence, unique beauty, and, yes, unique “ugliness.”
“Mardi Gras” appeared in Issue No. 6 of the famous quarterly that was publishing Beckett, Sartre, Kerouac, Camus, Robbe-Grillet, Ionesco, Artaud. Don Allen wrote that he would be in Los Angeles on business and looked forward to seeing the finished part of my book.
Instead, I showed him part of the setting of the novel I still had no intention of writing. I took this elegantly attired slender New York editor into one of the most “dangerous” bars of the time (“Ji-Ji’s” in this book). Pushers hovered outside like tattered paparazzi greeting the queens. Inside the bar, the toughest “male-hustlers” asserted tough poses among the men who sought them or the queens. Don Allen said he thought perhaps the bar was a bit too crowded. As we drove away, the police raided it.
Later, Don—he became Don—would confess that he suspected there was no book. So he encouraged me to write other short pieces, which appeared in Evergreen Review; a lyrical evocation of El Paso and a Technicolor portrait of Los Angeles. Then Carey McWilliams, editor of The Nation, asked me to write for the magazine. For Evergreen Review and The Texas Quarterly, I translated into English short works by some young Mexican authors. The writing was yanking me from the streetworld, the “streets” pulled as powerfully. To connect both—and with sudden urgency—I wrote a story about Miss Destiny—a rebellious drag-queen who longed for “a fabulous wedding”—and about others in “our” world of bars, Pershing Square, streets. The story was very “literal”; I felt that to deliberately alter a “real” detail would violate the lives in that world. I sent the story to Don. He admired it a lot, but some in the growing staff of Grove Press, publishers of Evergreen Review, did not, and the story was turned down. That day, when I saw the people I had written about, Chuck the Cowboy, Skipper, Darling Dolly Dane, Miss Destiny, it seemed that not only my story but their lives and mine among them had been rejected: exiled exiles.
Alone smoking grass on the roof of the building where I rented a room, I looked in the direction of Pershing Square just blocks away. Nearby church bells tolled their last for the night. Everything seemed frozen in darkness. As children, we had played a game called “statues”: Someone swung us round and round, released us unexpectedly, and we had to “freeze” in the position we fell (always—and this would assume importance for me later—adjusting for effect). Now the image occurred of a treacherous entrapping angel as the “spinner” in a life-game of “statues.” It was that imagery which was needed—and had been there behind the reality—to convey Miss Destiny’s crushed romanticism. I rewrote “The Fabulous Wedding of Miss Destiny,” imbuing it with a discovered “meaning.” I had begun my “ordering” of the chaotic reality I was experiencing and witnessing.
I had been asked by one of its editors to contribute to an adventurous short-lived quarterly, Big Table, which had broken away from The Chicago Review in a dispute over censorship. Soon, Miss Destiny debuted there, among Creeley, Mailer, Burroughs.
As sections from the growing book continued to appear in Evergreen Review, I began getting encouraging letters from readers, agents, and other writers, including Norman Mailer and James Baldwin. When several editors—at Dial, Random House, others—expressed interest in the book, and there were two offers of an advance, I telephoned Don; I could not conceive of this book’s appearing other than through Grove Press. Not only was Barney Rosset, its president, publishing the best of the modern authors—and battling literary censorship—but Evergreen Review had created the interest in my writing that others were responding to. As my now-editor, Don came to Los Angeles with a contract and an advance for the book I had begun to call “Storm Heaven and Protest.”
But I still didn’t write it.
I plunged back into my “streetworld.” Hitchhiking I met a man who would become instrumental in my finishing this book. I saw him regularly, but I kept my “literary” identity secret; I had learned early—but not entirely correctly—that being smart on the streets included pretending not to be. Not knowing that I had graduated from college and had already published sections from a novel I had a contract for—but concerned that I might be trapped in one of the many possible deadends of the streets—he offered (we were having breakfast in Malibu, the ocean was azure) to send me to school. I was touched by his unique concern, and when he drove me back to my rented room on Hope Street, I asked him to wait. I went inside and autographed a copy of “The Fabulous Wedding of Miss Destiny” and gave it to him. He looked at it, and then at me, a stranger.
Then I needed to flee the closeness increased, perhaps, by the fusion of my two “identities.” Consistent with another pattern, a letter arrived from a man who had read my writing: he would be happy to have me visit him on an island near Chicago. A plane ticket followed. Painfully trying to explain to my good friend who had picked me up hitchhiking that I had to leave Los Angeles, I left and spent the summer on a private island. When summer was ending, I migrated to Chicago, quickly finding its own Times Square.
But I was pulled back to Los Angeles. Extending the understanding that makes him, always, deeply cherished and special in my life, my friend who had wanted to put me through school—and whose “voice” is heard in part in the character of Jeremy in this book—now offered to help me out while I went to El Paso to finish—where it had begun—the book I again longed to write.
I returned to my mother’s small house and wrote every day on a rented Underwood typewriter. My mother kept the house quiet while I worked. After dinner, I would translate into Spanish and read to her (she never learned English) certain passages I considered appropriate. “You’re writing a beautiful book, my son.” she told me.
It was difficult to write that book. Guilt recurred as I evoked those haunting lives. Oh, was I betraying that anarchic world by writing about it—or even more deeply so if I kept to myself those exiled lives? I increasingly found “meaning” in structure: In “Between Two Lions,” I wanted to create out of the reality of Times Square a modern jungle in which two of its powerful denizens connect momentarily, but because of their very natures inevitably wound each other. The story of Miss Destiny found fuller meaning in the childhood game of “statues.” I attempted to tell the story of Lance O’Hara as a Greek tragedy, the chorus of bar-voices warning of the imminent fall of the demi-god, the almost-moviestar on the brink of aging, the whispering Furies conspiring to assure the fall. From my early fascination with mathematics, I “plotted” the chapter on Jeremy as an algebraic equation drawn on a graph, the point of intersecting lines revealing the “unknown factor”—here, the unmasking of the narrator. Memory itself, being selective, provides form; each portrait-chapter found its own “frame.” (The most difficult chapter to write was Sylvia’s.) My rejected Catholicism was bringing to the narrator’s journey a sense of ritual—and the bright colors of garish Catholic churches are splashed in descriptions throughout this book. As I wrote, stirred memories rushed the “stilled” prese
Before writing, I often listened to music: Presley, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Bartok—to absorb the dark, moody sexuality of rock, the formal structure of classical music, the “ordered” dissonance of modern composers.
Each chapter went through about twelve drafts, some passages through more than that—often, paradoxically, to create a sense of “spontaneity.” The first four paragraphs that open this book were compressed from about twenty pages. The first chapter was written last, the last one came first. Although four years elapsed between the time I began this book—with the unsent letter—and the time it was finished, most of it was written during one intense year in El Paso.
Three titles had been announced with published excerpts: Storm Heaven and Protest, Hey, World! and It Begins in the Wind. The intertwining chapters that connect the portraits were called “City of Night” from the start. But I did not conceive of that as the book’s title. I did consider: Ash Wednesday, Shrove Tuesday, The Fabulous Wedding of Miss Destiny, Masquerade. Finally, I decided: Storm Heaven and Protest. Then Don Allen—always a superb editor—suggested the obvious: City of Night.
The book was finished. That night—and this is one of the most cherished memories of my life—my mother, my oldest brother, Robert, and I were weaving about my mother’s living room, bumping into each other, each with great stacks of the almost-700-page typescript, collating it—I had made three or four carbon copies.
The manuscript was mailed. I went to return the rented typewriter, but I couldn’t part with it. I bought it; I still have the elegant old Underwood, now comfortably “retired.”
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