After a college search that can most charitably be described as haphazard, I matriculated at William Paterson College in Wayne, New Jersey and began attending, and also not attending, classes there in the fall of 1977. I was excited to try out at the college newspaper, The Beacon, winner of multiple awards and stuff. I convinced the arts editor, Michael Reardon, a gangly Joyce nut from North Bergen, to let me interview The Ramones, who were playing at Dover’s Show Place, near my home in Lake Hopatcong, some time soon. I pulled off the interview (it was backstage at the Show Place where I actually asked the immortal question, “Where do you guys get the ideas for your songs?” to which Johnny Ramone gave the immortal answer “Oh, you know, the usual. We watch movies, read comic books, take long walks.”) and transcribed it and Michael added an intro that waxed highly skeptical on the Ramones and punk rock in general. I objected, but not too strenuously, as I wanted to continue writing for the arts section of the award-winning paper, and I did so, making an ass out of myself pretty frequently (I once mocked the size of Mel Lewis’ drum kit). Michael’s pal Joel Lewis took note of what an idiot I was and gave me frequent correction. (Joel, a superb poet, became friendlier with me over the years and we are still chums.)
Another fellow hanging about in the Beacon office was a guy with blonde shaggy hair and a walrus mustache; aviator glasses and denim shirts were also prominent in his presentation. He had no discernible function there except to needle the paper’s editor-in-chief, Stewart Wolpin, his on-and-off roommate of several years. His name was Don Markle.
Don had an unusual sense of humor. In the early summer of 1976, he and another roommate of Stewart’s conspired to have Stewart killed by the United States Secret Service. President Gerald Ford was scheduled to come to Paterson for a dedication of the Great Falls there as a National Historic Site. Don and Stewart and Joe (for that is the third roommate’s name) shared an apartment on Front Street in Paterson and President Ford’s motorcade was scheduled to pass right in front of their house. At the time Stewart was employed as a Good Humor truck driver, and he had a uniform and everything. The idea was that Joe and Don would spike Stewart’s morning orange juice with vodka. This would discombobulate him. They would then Krazy-Glue a fake gun into his hand. Then spin him around several times, as if he were being prepared to take a swing at a piñata. They would push him out the front door as President Ford’s motorcade was passing. Stewart would then be taken down in a hail of gunfire.
The plan did not come off. There was a torrential downpour on the morning of the dedication. The conspirators were enervated by this development. The motorcade proceeded nonetheless, and the fellows, with umbrellas, stepped outside to watch it. President Ford braved the rain with open sun roof and waved to the boys as he passed.
Don had plenty of other ideas, though. When the refrigerator in the Front Street apartment crapped out, he thought it would be salutary to float it on the Passaic river (right behind the house!) in the direction of the Great Falls of Paterson, and film its transit and eventual descent; this footage would form the basis of a horror feature he would call Blue Water, White Kelvinator. Then there was Stewart’s campaign for Student Government Association President, a Marxian farrago which had the candidate, egged on by Don, distributing citrus fruits decorated with a ribbon reading “Orange You Gonna Vote For Wolpin” and so on. Once Don got to know me, he decided I had “potential” with respect to SGA campaign stoogedom and began to concoct a campaign heavy on Darth Vader imagery.
I will not speak here of his Nazi Christmas Carols (except to cite one title, “Oh Little Town of Düsseldorf”).
It was probably not, in many respects, a conventionally beneficial thing to have Don Markle as one’s first and most significant collegiate mentor, but that is how it turned out for me. He was really great at not doing anything—I didn’t even know if he was enrolled at the college or not. One day in the Beacon offices I had said something funny enough to solicit his notice, and then, to the mild chagrin of the older crowd he hung with, I was included in what proved to be formative activities. These included White Castle runs and sojourns at Paterson’s Plaza Theater, a husk of a onetime movie palace, where the gang would take in a double feature of, say, Horror High and Dracula’s Dog. Well before Harry and Michael Medved published The Fifty Worst Movies Of All Time, Don was exceptionally conversant with what I would come to call by Michael Weldon’s term, that is, Psychotronic Cinema. He was particularly besotted with They Saved Hitler’s Brain, which we would never see together.
Don also introduced me to weed. First time I smoked a joint, I think, I was deposited back at the Beacon offices where I stared mutely at a typewriter for maybe three hours. That was pretty much how my thing with weed turned out overall.
He also offered attractive solutions to various existential crises. As I grappled unsuccessfully with the fact that some boring science class was a required course, and I needed to both attend and pass it, Don shrugged the whole thing off and suggested I accompany him to Gregory Battcock’s Film Appreciation class over at the art building and watch Triumph of the Will or some spectacularly tedious Warhol film that Battcock, an esteemed critic and intimate of artist, would pull from his personal collection and screen to annoy the presumptive “easy A” students.
“We’re not in the class though, won’t he kick us out?”
“Oh, Greg doesn’t care,” and that was that. Greg did not care.
It was decided that in the fall of 1978, Don, Stewart, and I, and whoever else in our circle cared to pony up, would rent a large place in Paterson together. (Don, experiencing poor cash flow on account of unemployment issues, had been shacking up in his ancestral home for a while, but hoped to be liquid by this point.) Various Markle-initiated social rituals, such as Spaghetti Feast (with Meat Spheres), would be reinstated. I was delighted by my inclusion in this scheme.
On the third weekend of April 1978, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, with the Erasers and the Ghosts, were playing three nights at CBGB. I very much wanted to go, and I mentioned to Don that week that it might be a fun trip. Don took a contemplative draw off his pipe (did I mention he smoked a pipe, for God’s sake?) and said “As much as I’m interested in punk rock as a sociological phenomenon”—and it’s only been in recent years that I’ve begun to marvel at the fact that guys only three or four years older than myself were so affronted by “punk rock” that they could only consider it as a “sociological phenomenon”— “I can’t. I’ve got to go to Lakewood and be a Jew with Stewart.” By which he meant he was accompanying Stewart to the latter’s ancestral home to observe Passover. I don’t think Don was interested in this as a sociological phenomenon; it was more he was providing companionship for a buddy who was ambivalent about a family obligation. But nobody at that time would put it in terms so corny. Jesus.
Long story short, in part because I want to spare friends the embarrassment of revealing how stupid they were about dealing with automobile mishaps at the time. They set out with two cars, one of them broke down, a professional tow was considered too expensive, a makeshift tow line was contrived, and it did not hold. They were obliged to pull over on a poorly lit road near Lakewood and re-contrive the makeshift tow line. A pickup truck driven by an intoxicated person plowed into them. Stewart managed to leap to safety and Don was killed.
All sorts of things happened after that, including of course a wake and funeral. Don’s family insisted on an open casket, despite the fact that Don’s arm had very nearly been severed in the vehicular assault. The funeral director was a regular Bonasera—he used all his skills, etc.—but you could still see an absence. It was upsetting.
There was another wrinkle. Stewart, the aforementioned Joe, Don, and a fourth party had, some time before, established an entity called Tormentors Incorporated, intended to promote all-around japery in Passaic County and also, I think to produce some kind of humor magazine. Don and the boys drew up a charter that stipulated that as the founding members died off, their wakes/funerals would feature pie fights, and they would be buried wearing clown wigs. They actually went to the trouble of notarizing said charter. The idea at the time, of course, was that all the members would kick the bucket in old age, after having amassed substantial humor-magazine fortunes.
Given the circumstances, a pie fight at the wake was out of the question. But after some discussion we resolved to somehow bury Don with a clown wig in his casket, if not on his head. With the help of a sympathetic campus clergyman (thanks Father Bob, and why are the sympathetic clergymen in stories such as these invariably named Father Bob?) we managed to secrete this item in Don’s casket right before it was sealed. (It may well have been the same clown wig in which Stewart was to have been killed by Secret Service agents. Incredible irony.)
What can I tell you. We were a bunch of young adults who did not know what had hit us and did not know what to do about it. At one of the post-funeral gatherings, I was introduced to a fellow who had been at The Beacon and was part of Markle’s crew; he had decamped for NYU to get a degree in film production. He was a legend for that (in Passaic County New Jersey, achieving legendhood is not particularly difficult) but also for a specific ability, which I queried him about.
“I hear you can recite all the dialogue in King Kong from memory.”
He looked at me like I had grown a second head. “I can, but I’m not going to do it at a funeral.” Point taken.
Despite the awkward meeting this fellow became my second collegiate mentor, and eventually we peered, if that’s a verb; we formed a band together and had lots of other adventures and we remain close. Stewart and I did get a place together in Paterson, in the fall of 1978. We were kicked out of that place less than a month after moving in, by the owner of the house, who inhabited the upstairs apartment and was not amused at my playing the first album by Art Bears at what I thought was a reasonable volume. We moved to a shittier place on the top floor of a house about ten blocks up. It was a time of no money, lots of frozen ravioli, and dope-enhanced evenings at the Plaza, just down the street from the new place. I saw Suspiria for the first time there—the projectionist skipped an entire reel (the one before the maggot infestation) and no one knew the difference.
Despite Don’s inability to manage my campaign, on account of his being dead, I ran for SGA President in 1979, in Don’s memory I suppose. I won, in large part because I was the only person on the ballot. I resigned the position, which I was fucking up royally (I did manage to hire an excellent secretary for the organization however) on the night John Lennon was shot, albeit before the event took place. Ah, memories.
Gregory Battcock, for whom I became a TA after I actually signed up for his class, died on Christmas in 1980, stabbed to death. Lee Lipsenthal, who I met shortly after moving into the apartment on Jasper Avenue, and who also thought I was an idiot on our first night out, died in 2011, of esophageal cancer. Michael Reardon, who became a professor at Passaic Community College, died in 2012, age 53.
Today a couple of the guys and I went out to Jersey and paid our respects to Don, revisited the cuisine of our youth, and checked out the would-be location of the climax of Blue Water, White Kelvinator. It was a good day.
This was waiting for me in the mail when I got home: