"Greed is good."
The Ballad of “Do-Re-ME! ME! ME!”
“Radical Chic, after all, is only radical in style; in its heart it is part of society and its traditions. Politics, like Rock, Pop, and Camp, has its uses.”
Of course, like anyone else, I’ve got my preconceived notions. As I drive across the upper level of the George Washington Bridge, only moderately mired in late-morning traffic, the litany of stereotypes cantillate and clatter across the gray matter of my brain like the lyrics of some bad wannabe Steven Sondheim musical number: Avarice. Greed. Take whatever you need. If you’ve got it, flaunt it! Don’t worry; be happy! Just make sure that your jacket and jeans have got the right label: Member’s Only. Calvin Klein. Liz Claiborn? She’s divine. Everything is big, big, BIG! Egos. Double-digit inflation. Expense accounts. Kobe steaks and contraband Cohibas. Victoria’s Secret. Hostile takeovers. Leveraged buyouts. Monolithic shoulder pads and leviathan coke habits. Sky-high hair. No limits. No morals. No worries. Table’s waiting, right this way—get whatever you want, without delay!
“In point 5 miles, take exit 73 toward Route 67/Fort Lee/US-9W,” my GPS interjects.
“Yes, Jack,” I reply automatically.
“In point 2 miles, take the Hudson Terrace ramp toward Fort Lee…” A few minutes later, I pull into the parking lot of the Red Oak Diner*. I scan the booths and the counter. No sign of him, but I’m early.
A cheerful, faintly mustachioed hostess greets me. I am about to explain that I am meeting someone, but she precipitates me. “You are here to interview our famous friend?” she asks.
“Yes,” I tell her, involuntarily running a finger along the underside of my chin. Damn, I missed one.
The hostess hustles me along the aisle to a choice booth and motions for me to sit, which I do. “This is his table,” she says with gravitas, handing me a menu. “You want some coffee while you’re waiting?”
More than world peace, I think, but I just say, “Yes, please. Don’t bother with milk or cream.” Nodding, she bustles away. By the time a waitress returns, steaming pot in hand, he has arrived. Standing in the doorway, he strikes a pose. Even now, he can’t keep from vogueing.
He is taller than I expected, and, considering the wanton excesses of his hallowed heyday, at first glance at least, he has aged remarkably well. (And yes, for the record, he is indeed wearing a Member’s Only jacket.) His handshake is commanding, with just a hint of power play, dialed back a few well-practiced notches s from being uncomfortably firm. He slides into the booth, lifts the oversize tortoise shell Foster Grants from the bridge of his chiseled nose, and lays them on the table with a precision that speaks of long-held habit. He smiles and apologizes for being late. “This old Swatch has done me great service,” he sighs, lifting his wrist with a gesture that’s almost coy, “but I do miss my Rolex.”
I study his face: A hard yet pleasing mouth; blue eyes the depths of which seem indecipherable, and dark hair, graying in a suspiciously Grecian Formula-esque configuration. His features are a cross between an A-Team era George Peppard and Miami Vice Don Johnson, but closer inspection reveals his skin is more a George Hamilton/Ricardo Montalbán circa Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan vintage.
Perhaps his unexpected humility isn’t feigned. Considering how many pegs he’s come down in the world, it would be well earned. I am reserving judgment, however. He is, after all, the consummate player, and I have the distinct impression that I am being played. Still, it’s time to dance the dance.
“Do you mind?” I ask, laying my digital voice recorder on the table.
He picks it up, examines it, and puts it back in its place. “Wow, that’s totally awesome,” he says. “It’s so…tiny.” He pauses a beat, reflecting. “You know,” he confides, oozing conspiratorial camaraderie, “I still have my old Sony cassette player. Works like a charm.”
I nod and smile. Suddenly I’m starting to feel a bit like a Wade Boggs bobble-head doll on the dashboard of an ’87 Chevy Nova. “Is it all right if I turn this on?” I ask. “I’m a total loss at taking notes, I’m afraid.” (Which happens to be true.)
The waitress arrives and places a plate in front of him: Dry whole-wheat toast, a scoop of cottage cheese—low-fat, I’m guessing—and a small bowl of fruit salad. From the orange plastic collar on the carafe, I surmise the coffee she’s pouring him is de-caf. “The usual,” shrugs. “Doctor’s orders. Cholesterol’s through the roof. Go ahead and have whatever you want, though. They do a great breakfast here.”
Although a lox and everything bagel is tempting, the prospect of conducting an entire interview with poppy seeds lodged tragically between my teeth dissuades me from ordering. “I’ll just stick with the coffee,” I say, thumbing the DVR on. “Shall we get started?”
“Word has it that you’re making a comeback?”
“From your mouth to God’s ears,” he says with a wink.
Great. Two minutes in, and we’ve reached the winking stage. “Well, for better or worse, you do have a reputation that precedes you.”
“Should I plead the Fifth?” he grins. “Kidding. Just Kidding.”
“Some of our demographic skews pretty young,” I explain. “We’re going to need to establish some context for the members of our audience who weren’t around when you were…”
“King of the world?” he offers.
Now I’m not sure if he is, in fact, kidding. “So, is it good to be king of the world?” I ask.
“You bet your ass it is, Honey,” he says, apologizing immediately for the expletive—but not the “Honey.”
“That’s all right,” I assure him, “our audience loves ass—and tits, and pussy and cock.”
“My kind of audience,” he says.
“All right, let’s just start at the beginning and put things in perspective,” I say, trying to regain control of this tennis match. “Jimmy Carter has just been thoroughly trounced in the Presidential elections by Ronald Reagan.”
“Ronald Reagan?” he asks incredulously, his eyes bugging. “The actor?” And then in perfect Christopher Lloyd delivery: “Who’s the Vice President? Jerry Lewis?”
“All right, Professor, you got me on that one,” I concede, realizing I’ve been McFlyed. I can’t help but smile. Damned if I’m not beginning to like this guy.
“Hey,” he says, “I got an idea. Road trip!”
“Road trip?” Uh-oh….
“C’mon, let’s book,” he says, tossing a twenty on the table. One thing I’ll say for the ’80s, he’s a damn good tipper.
I Just Can’t Get Enough
Ten minutes later, we’re tooling up the Palisades Parkway in his well-maintained BMW E-28. (“You were expecting a Delorean?” he jokes when we get to the parking lot.)
“Hey, let’s have some tunes,” he says. “There’s a mix tape in the glove compartment.”
Oh, this is going to be choice, I think in horror as I pop the box, expecting Dan Fogelberg, Air Supply, and Olivia Newton John. As if to confirm my dread, a Rubick’s Cube drops onto the floor mat. I pick it up, and, resisting the temptation to twirl its multicolored segments, banish it to from whence it came. Underneath the BMW owner’s manual, I find a 60-minute audiocassette manufactured by TDK. The liner is neatly annotated with the tape’s playlist: “Let’s Dance”/David Bowie, “Der Kommissar”/Falco, “London Calling”/The Clash, “Just Like Heaven”/The Cure, “Red, Red Wine”/UB40, “Pretty in Pink”/Psychedelic Furs, “Rock Box”/Run DMC, “Don’t You Forget About Me”/Simple Minds, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday/U2, “Hungry Heart”/Bruce Springsteen…Queen, Dire Straits, The Cars, Wham, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, The Buzzcocks, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Bon Jovi, Depeche Mode, INXS, Joy Division, Big Country, Elton John, The Pretenders. Not bad.
“What? No hair bands? No metal?” I tease as I pop the tape into the deck and hit play.
“Sorry,” he says, “wasn’t a huge fan. I mean, I got the concept—Poison, Ratt, Twisted Sister, Def Leppard, AC/DC—but the music just didn’t speak to me.”
“Fair enough,” I reply. “So, let’s talk about influences. Watershed moments. Your biggest accomplishments…your love life.”
“Now you’re getting personal,” he says, his depthless eyes glinting.
“God, I hope so,” I laugh. “Tell me about the women.”
“Well,” he replies, his voice dropping half an octave with testosterone, “it was the rise of the supermodel. Ric Ocasek married Paulina Porizkova…that was near the end, of course. Billy Joel and Christy Brinkley. Ron Greschner and Carol Alt. Gilles Bensimon and Elle Macpherson. I was dating a runway model then. Really hot. Legs from here ’til Sunday, and man, she could suck the whitewall off a tire.”
He turns to see if I am offended, but as I am not, continues: “She wanted to be an actress, of course. She was actually up for the Joan Cusack part in Working Girl.”
“She didn’t get it,” I point out.
“Well, duh!” he laughs. “Number one, she had a bit of a lazy eye.”
“Not good,” I reply. “And number two?”
“She couldn’t act her way out of a paper bag if it was on fire.”
“And there you have it. So what happened to her?”
“We broke up. End of story. I was screwing a lot of chicks back then. Doing a lot of coke. Just riding the wave. Didn’t really have a plot line, I guess.”
“Well, I hate to be a buzz kill,” I venture, “but what about AIDS?”
“I don’t want to talk about that,” he replies, visibly shaken.
“I think we have to talk about it.”
Suddenly, he swerves the car. My heart is in my mouth, but at least, I don’t pee my pants. We’re riding the shoulder, careening toward God only knows what—oblivion? And then, mercifully, he pulls back onto the road.
“That’s what AIDS was like to me,” he says matter-of-factly, as if nothing had happened. “You’re driving along, having a great time, enjoying the scenery, then, Blam! Your friends are dying. People you love. People you’ve fucked. People you don’t even know. Rock fucking Hudson—one minute he’s queer, the next he’s dead. Freddy Mercury. Keith Haring. There was just no making sense of it.”
“Pretty sobering,” I remark. “So you got tested. Practiced safe—or at least safer sex?”
“You’d like to think so, but no,” he says. “Like I said, I was doing a lot of drugs. I was high on power. I was invincible.”
“Only you weren’t.”
“No, God damn it,” he sighs. “I wasn’t. I was lucky. Next Question.”
If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was crying. “All right, let’s move on. Let’s talk about something totally stupid.”
“Okay, you pick one: hair or fashion.”
“Hey, I’m making a comeback here, remember?”
“Fashion, maybe,” I tell him, “hair, over my dead body.”
“You’re probably right on that one. The hair was pretty extreme.”
“Cotton candy on steroids.”
“All right, let’s talk fashion. You know, it wasn’t all bad.”
“For example? Give me a high point. Something worth bringing back.”
“You remember those Calvin Klein ads with Brooke Shields? Man-tailored shirt, straight jeans, boots?” he asks.
“I remember,” I tell him.
“You can’t tell me that shit wasn’t hot.”
“All right, you can have that one, but it’s a classic. You didn’t think it up.”
“No, but I perfected it.”
“Okay, okay,” I concede. “But what about neon? Acid washed jeans so tight you couldn’t breathe in them? Jellies and rubber bracelets—that whole Madonna street urchin chic contingent? Androgynous Boy George? Oh, and those ridiculous sweaters that were so big you could drown in them? Do you remember that Stephanie chick on Newhart? Jeeze! And don’t even get me started on Cliff Huxtable. Bill Cosby, what were you thinking? Oh, and Spandex. Spandex should be a privilege, not a right you know.”
“Mea culpa,” he laughs.
“And what about leg warmers?” I ask.
“What about them?” he retorts. “They’re back.”
“No lie,” he laughs.
“I never saw that one coming. Next thing you tell me, they’ll be bringing back shoulder pads.”
He just smiles.
Kill me now, I’m thinking. Well, at least we’re over the one-gloved Michael Jackson phenomenon, and red leather jackets with safety pins.”
“He was a damn fine musician,” Mr. ’80s says, only half indignantly. “But you’re right. I don’t see that trend coming back anytime soon.”
“Amen,” I sigh. “All right, let’s change the subject. Let’s talk watershed moments. Pick three.”
“Three? That’s a tough one,” he replies. “Gimme a minute.”
For a little while, we drive in silence. From time to time, I catch glimpses of the Hudson glinting between the green foliage.
“All right,” he says after a minute or two. “For culture, I’m gonna have to go with MTV.”
“I want my…I want my… MTV,” I chant.
“Well, look at what it did,” he says. “It changed music, it changed fashion, it changed the way we get information about what’s going on.”
“Yes,” I reply, “but video killed the radio star.”
“Exactly,” he says. “It was time for him to die.”
“Point well taken, I suppose.”
The Last Legs
“For technology,” he continues, “ya’ gotta go with the personal computer.”
“Did you buy Apple stock?” I ask.
“How do I know you’re not with the IRS?” he jokes.
“Um, because the IRS isn’t likely to tell you that its audience is into pussy and ass and cock,” I reply.
“Let’s just say I made out,” he says. “Is that three?”
“No, that’s two,” I tell him. “So, what’s number three? Chernobyl? The Berlin Wall? Cats? Farm Aid? Nintendo? The fitness craze? “
“Olivia Newton John… ‘Let’s Get Physical.’ Let’s get physical, physical, I wanna get physical, physical.”
“Stop that right now,” I hiss. “That is one of the worst songs ever.”
“Admitted. But she looked hot in Spandex.”
“She did look hot in Spandex, but please, for the love of God, don’t sing that song,” I plead. “So, number three?”
“We already talked about number three. AIDS. Subject closed.”
“All right … Favorite movie?”
“Favorite TV show—and don’t you dare say Dukes of Hazzard.”
“Hill Street Blues.”
“Dangerously stupid trend?”
“Killing for sneakers…or maybe malls.”
“Princess Di, but I gotta qualify that—for who she was, not who she married.”
“Weird Al? That’s your guilty pleasure?”
“Yeah, I don’t feel guilty about the rest of it.”
“For me, nothing beats that shower scene in Flashdance, so I’m gonna go with Jennifer Beals, although Tina Turner was smokin’ in that post-apocalyptic S&M chainmail she had on in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.”
“Not getting away with the money, natch.”
“I’m not sure if I believe you,” I tell him. Looking up, I see that we are back at the diner. “Well, I guess we’ve reached the end of the road.”
“Looks like,” he says as I gather up my things.
“Just one last question?”
“Okay, shoot,” he smiles.
“Why is there a watermelon there?”
“I’ll tell you later,” he says, laughing. And then he drives off.
Funny, I think to myself, that’s exactly what I thought he’d say.
* This is a work of fiction. All similarities to persons living or dead are strictly coincidental. I have never had occasion to frequent the Red Oak Diner in Fort Lee, New Jersey. I apologize for any discomfiture that may result from suggesting that the fictitious hostess is possessed of superfluous facial hair. Maybe the diner doesn’t even have a hostess. Perhaps, they have a host. If so, the point is moot, but who knows? I’ve never been there. Not that I wouldn’t go there. I just don’t live anywhere even remotely nearby anymore. Rock on New Jersey!