(Lydia Tomkiw, 1959-2007)
You remembered the day we met better than I did. I'm still not completely clear on it; my memory of it has been inflected by your various tellings of it. If you were alive, I could call and ask you to tell me again how it went. Sometimes you'd just go into it — "My God, Sharon . . . you can't fool me . . . I remember you when" — and I hated when you did that. So maudlin, in your "red rum" voice. The same voice that said, "I have at least one bit of information on all my friends that I could ruin their lives with. But I won't." Now I miss that voice. I want to hear it again, telling me anything.
It was 1978, our first day of college, Columbia College, and our first class — Paul Hoover's "Pound, Eliot and Williams." I had actually cried before I left for school that day, knowing that my life would change as soon as I stepped on the 44 Wallace-Racine bus out of the south side. I think I saw you for the first time before class, in the seventh floor lounge, smoking and writing in a notebook, before a vast panoramic view of Grant Park and Lake Michigan. I thought it was cool that you were writing in a notebook — a "journal." I kept a journal, too, 'cause that's what poets did. I wanted to ask you if you were a writer — a poet, like me — but you looked too cool to talk to. Then I saw you again in class. Did you walk in first or did I? I think I did, and watched you make your entrance. Your hair wasn't red yet, but it was down to your ass, and your dark eye makeup was dramatic. How did you get your lashes that long? (An eyelash curler and Maybelline's "Great Lash" in black.) The next part I don't remember, but you did, although now I don't remember how you told it. You must've sat down next to me as I was talking to some hyper gay kid about the punk scene or something. I mentioned I wrote for the Gabba Gabba Gazette
(I'd only written one thing for them at that point: a rant about being a teenage punk on the south side). He asked me my name and I said "Sharon Sharalike." "Oh, I read your personals in the Reader
all the time," he said. "You're famous!" I was pissed that he knew me from the stupid personals and not from "real" writing (even though what "real" writing had I published? ). I was going to be a famous poet, and this was not an auspicious beginning. He'd said it so fucking loud, too, and I was embarrassed. Mercifully, Paul walked in, and I turned to you and said, "I hate when people think you're famous 'cause you sent in some personals." "Oh, I don't think you're famous," you said, deadpan. Then we both laughed.
I don't remember how things progressed after that, but by winter we were going clubbing every weekend (we groupied Devo together, after their show at the Park West) and you went to my boyfriend Arnie's wake a few months later; he died on the Ides of March, 1979, and you were the first person I called with the news. We'd been with him at the last concert he attended — Elvis Costello at the Aragon Ballroom. We'd stood in line in the freezing cold in the alley, waiting to get in, with Miss Elinka and her boyfriend, Rover. As soon as you walked into the funeral home you pressed a couple of valium into my hand. After the service you took the bus to work (St. Mary's Hospital in Ukrainian Village) and I went to Wax Trax with Joe Bryl, Arnie's best friend. By that time I was in Paul's beginning poetry workshop, you were in the advanced class, you'd dyed your hair red and we were starting a school of poetry: the Neo-Contempo Movement. What was our point? You'd remember. Something along the lines of We're going to write good
We did our first reading together, at the Paul Waggoner Gallery, April 8, 1980. Instead of reading one after the other we alternated three poems each. The title of one of the poems I read was the name of the perfume you always wore: Night-Blooming Jasmine. I made the poster:
I remember that photobooth session: it was at the Woolworth's on Broadway near Belmont (I think; I wish I could ask you). I wore a black beret and a black and white striped top from Amvets; you wore a black dress. The photos later appeared in the Banyan Press Anthology
(sponsors of the Paul Waggoner reading). Your bio: "Lydia Tomkiw, ghetto kid, pom-pom girl, college kid who dresses funny, fond of things priced under 79 cents; dyslexic, arthritic, devout pantheist . . . craves only revenge through fame and a leather couch against her thighs in summer." My bio: "Born 19 years ago. Early honors were spending the entire second grade in the corner and almost getting thrown out of eighth grade for spitting on holy statues. Began writing poetry at 14 and printable poetry at 18 . . . Currently employed as a WMAQ Dancing Dollar." Our work statements: "All art is non-utilitarian . . . if it can't amuse you, if it's not any fun, it has no purpose and is 'useless' and thus is nothing but a waste of time" (you). "During this time of staunch conservatism, I would like my poetry to be heart-wrenching, surprise-giving and easy to dance to" (me).
The Step-Hi: the bar across Harrison Street from Columbia. On the jukebox: "Cleo's Mood," "Satin Doll," "Misty," "Train in Vain," "You Can't Hurry Love." The bartender: Texas Bob. Always on Thursday nights and sometimes in the afternoons. I turned twenty-one there. Twice. I started going out with Tom Corboy (who you had a crush on) there, one night after Paul's workshop. You never let me forget that. (You also went out with Chris Holda before I did; in his poem "Flag" he referred to you as "Veronica Leather.") We both wrote prose poems about the Step-Hi with pinball-playing dwarves in them.
Remember the first poetry slam at Tut's on Belmont in the spring of 1981, put together by Al Simmons. It wasn't called a slam then; what was it called? Jerome Sala was in it, and you went up against Michelle Fitzsimmons who was dressed like a waittress and won. Sue Greenspan yelled "Sell it to Hallmark, bitch!" A riot broke out. I had done blotter acid for the first time the night before.
Remember when Allen Ginsberg came to town and we decided to ask him if he'd let us kidnap him so we could get on the cover of Time
magazine and become famous, and he agreed?
Remember when I was going out with Bob1 from Devo and you were going out with Johnny Bentley from Squeeze? Remember the night you, me, Cy K. Delic and Bob1 ended up at the White Castle on Milwaukee Avenue and Cy and Bob1 agreed that you looked like Lily Munster (a good thing)? Remember the drummer from TuTu and the Pirates who liked me? What was his name? Remember when I interviewed Lenny Kaye in his Holiday Inn room? Remember "We're on the guest list"?
Remember how we couldn't keep from laughing at the Robert Bly reading at Mundelein College and some woman told us to leave?
Remember how we used to call each other in the middle of fucking?
Remember when I was your maid of honor and I got into a fight at the reception with your Aunt Lydia? Remember how I knocked over a candelabra and the wax got all over your dress? You had two wedding receptions, one was a Halloween party, and Chris and I came as a B&D couple. You and Donny were Lucy and Ricky. Or were you Carmen Miranda?
Then came problems. My engagement to Chris broke up and I had a breakdown and drank a lot. You were in the foyer of his building, by the mailboxes, when I slit my wrist. We were supposed to be going to Project 1999, on Sheridan Road, to talk to the guy about starting the Gizmo Reading Series. The first time we met him (Ed ... something ... what?) he pointed to the cover of my book, Jayne Mansfield's Head
, and said, "This cover is good." Then he pointed to yours — Popgun Sonatas
— and said, "This is better." I was jealous of you for some things, and you were jealous of me for others. A few months after I slit my wrist you dumped me with a letter saying I was too out-of-control to deal with, and we didn't speak for many years, the years when you and Donny formed and performed as Algebra Suicide; when Debbie Pintonelli, Connie Deanovich and I started B City
; and when Debbie and I went on to do letter eX
with Carl Watson. Carl and I moved to New York in 1988, when you were doing Lower Links and seemed incredibly successful, with an international following. I couldn't wait to leave Chicago and live somewhere where people didn't assume I wrote poetry because my boyfriend did. (You, of course, knew the real story.) I saw you again in 1991, when you were in town and Debbie invited you and Donny over to watch me in "Live From Off Center" on PBS. You had long blonde hair, you looked great, and I didn't know if I was happy to be with you again or not. Nothing was re-established that night, but at least we were civil to each other.
Then, I don't know why, I wrote you a letter a few years later. No, I know why: I missed you, and from that night at Debbie's I knew that I must've seemed more together to you. Despite you blowing me off when I needed your strength and humor the most, I missed our intense friendship, totally focused on poetry. You were always the best reader of my work. Your work inspired me. You were my older sister because we came from the same place: working class, immigrant, Eastern-European. Our parents had never gone to high school. Our grandmothers barely spoke English. You wrote me back that you'd been in rehab for alcoholism (alcoholism? you?), Donny left you, Lower Links had gone under, the band was history. You said while you were in the hospital you ordered yourself a room full of flowers from FTD and posed on the bed with a lily on your chest. It didn't sound like you. The whole letter was crazy and flailing and I felt sorry for you. I said maybe you should move to New York and start over. You came for a visit to check things out.
You were supposed to meet me and Bart and Jose and some other people at The Levee for dinner. This was in the days before cell phones so we couldn't call you. But you called at the restaurant and said you'd gone to my place instead, sat on my steps for awhile (just like Lorri Jackson had done), and my downstairs neighbor, Al, had let you in. You'd wait there for me, so we should all just eat dinner and not rush — everything was copacetic. When I got home I almost didn't recognize you: your beautiful hair had been badly permed, your clothes weren't you, your eyes were all wrong. You'd spread pesto on a piece of bread, folded it over, and were eating it like a mouse that'd never eaten before. You said you'd made out with Al. "It wasn't gross," you said. "He didn't have old man smell." When you left after a few days I discovered our vodka had been replaced with water.
Still, New York seemed the place for you. Especially since you'd seen the aurora borealis on the plane coming over, and I'd had a dream about us sitting on a curb in Soho fashioning a mental movie of the story of our lives. Debbie was going to sublet her place to you, you already had a reading at the Poetry Project. It all seemed perfect. We'd be poets together again, as you started over. Your life would turn around.
It didn't happen that way.
Lydia, I hate myself for behaving. I didn't used to behave, but somewhere along the way I got whittled away by bad boyfriends and negative poet-friends into behaving. Into being afraid. You, on the other hand, never stooped to behaving. That was what drove people away — it's what drove me away. I was so angry at you. I still am. But I love how you were never afraid, in a way. You wanted to feel like the most beautiful, smartest person in the room, but when you drank to feel that way you were the opposite. Still, you'd go to any length to get that feeling back, and I understand because I had that feeling once, too. You were there to see it.
You told me not to tell you about the problems I was having with a mutual friend, then you went and talked to him about me. Did you tell him I'd gone to an AA meeting with you when you asked? Did you tell him about the Chicago concert at Jones Beach? When we sat in the half-empty stands (it was Chicago, after all) with the wind off the water almost blowing our words away and I told you I was jealous that you seemed completely okay with getting drunk and barrelling around and letting your life go to hell, while I obsessed about every word I said? You said you understood how I could feel that way. I said I knew you were trying to keep it together, but it was too frustrating to hear your "red rum" voice every time I called, or you called. Too frustrating to have to wonder what was happening to you, if you were still alive. Because you were once so utterly alive. I learned how to be alive from you.
We had some really horrible times. Like that weekend at the house with Bart and Nina. I was angry with you, I yelled at you. I'm so sorry. But when we were making plans I asked you to please not drink, just as an experiment: with all your friends around, you'd see how you didn't need it. But you were drunk when you got in the car (you always smelled a certain way — salty — when you drank vodka). You spent the whole weekend in bed. On the floor, a bottle of vodka was visible in your purse. At some point you came up to me and said, "Don't hate me." I did hate you, and I didn't. You were stepping all over my attempt to get you to not drink so you could see that you didn't need it. There'd be no pressure to perform. In fact, we could all be as ugly, boring, and untalented as we deeply feared we were. It would be okay because we so weren't. You most of all.
Right now, the person I want to cry with most of all is you. Even though during the last months you lived in NYC you were the last person I could talk to. You betrayed me so many times, in little and big ways. And I betrayed you, too, ultimately. For that I am truly sorry.
When I was in Chi in 2004 for AWP and staying at Karen Volkman's apartment in Ukrainian Village I walked over to look at the house where you lived with your parents when we first became friends in 1978. Standing outside in the cool March night, the first time I was back in Chi since my mother died, I really wanted to call you and tell you I was standing in front of your old house and it looked exactly the same (I could almost smell the gangrene stench from your downstairs neighbor's apartment) but I couldn't get a number from Phoenix info. And it made sense that the connection had been been broken. But not lost: it still existed somewhere because there was still palpable proof in the landscape — we had been there. Some things still stand, and can't be ruined. There's always a moment outside of time, when all the hurts and resentments go away and you're left looking at the physical proof that something beautiful and important really did exist once.
We both know it did.