by Jonathan Carroll Look at this hat. The worst, right? You wouldn’t be caught dead in it, right? Whoops, maybe I shouldn’t say that, seeing as how where I find myself at this point in time.
I found it in a two dollar bin on 14th Street. You know, down where all those cheap-o stores are lined up like fifty year old whores, selling everything you don’t want. T-shirts that say “Yes, I am Elvis,” toy robots, twenty dollar stereos.
But I was in this mood, you know? It was a nice day out. Mary and I’d been in bed all morning, doing the black act... like that. So we’re walking down 14th, trying to figure out what movie to see. Suddenly I spot this ug-ly-fuck-in’ hat in a two dollar bin. I pick it up with two fingers like the thing is radioactive or got cooties.
I say to Mary, who can go along with a joke better than anyone, “Waddya think of me in this?” She walks back and forth with her hand on her hip, checking me out like I was the Mona Lisa or something. Finally she says “You look like a big plate of ham and eggs when I’m hungry, baby. That hat is you.” But you know, she was kidding. If she really meant was she was saying, I would’ve punched her out because that hat wouldn’t look good on anything that breathed, believe me.
I start posing like a model. Mary’s laughing, and it’s turning into the best day of the year. “I’m buying this.”
“Good idea.” She’s laughing so hard, she puts her hand over her big kissy mouth and I love her more than ever.
So I go into the store and put it on the counter in front of the Oriental guy there. The place smells strange. Like smells you never had in your nose until that minute? That’s what weirds me out in this city when I’m around the Orientals or the Arabs or any of the others. The Greeks are okay. The only thing they ever do is buy up luncheonettes and change the names to the Sparta or Athens or Zeus and serve their coffee in blue and white cups with pictures of Greek statues on them. The food stays the same. Corned beef hash. Burgers.
But with the others, even thought they’ve lived here for years, you go into their places and it’s like you’re back in the old country. Or on some other fucking planet. Star Trek stuff. I went into one Arab store once and every goddamned person in there was wearing a white robe over their heads.
And not only do things smell different in these places, they got calendars on the walls with nutty writing, the kids are sitting in the corners eating weird food, and a lot of them got that blank look in their eyes like they’re either stoned or goldfish. Know what I mean?
I guess it’s natural, but look, you come to a new country, especially America, you should adopt to the place now that you’re living here. If it was so great in I-rak, why not stay there? I mean, falafel’s okay, but don’t say you’re American if you’re eating that shit three times a day, or with chopsticks or something.
So I go in to pay for the ugly hat and Wing Ting behind the counter barks out “Two Dah-luh” like a Pekinese dog. Like I couldn’t read the sign outside. Now remember, I’m probably the only idiot in the whole city of New York who’d be willing to give up two bucks for this head horror. But when he says it like that, like I was a bum or was planning to rob him, I’m instantly pissed off. That little midget in his Michael Jackson T-shirt and the crap he’s selling in that store: Big pink dolls, Martin Luther King paintings on velvet, gold plastic gondola boats holding clocks that aren’t working... He should’ve been down on his chink’y knees praying at my altar, thanking me for giving up my two Dah-luh for his hat. But no, he wasn’t doing that. His voice was sounding like I’d stole his two dollars and he wanted it back.
The whole thing started as a joke. We’re out for our walk, I see the hat, Mary gets into it, we’re laughing...
But now I’m angry. I should’ve walked out and just kept going, but this guy was pissing on my paradise and I didn’t like it. So I take out the money and drop it on the counter. One of the bills catches a breeze and floats down to the floor on his side. He doesn’t move.
“I want a receipt.”
“I want a receipt for my two dollars.”
“No receipt. You go now.”
There’s where I could’ve gone World War Three but hey, this man had already taken up way too much of my life. That’s what Mary always says-- don’t let them take any more of your life than you have to, and she’s right. So instead, I tell the guy Va fongoo and walk out with my new hat.
As I’m going, I realize I want Mary to see me in it when I come out the door, so I put it on just as I’m getting to the street. But two things happen right at the same time. The first is, no Mary. I’m looking up and down the street but she’s nowhere. Mary’s as dependable as they come. She’s got her bad sides, but this isn’t one of them. If she tells you she’ll be there at ten, she’s there on the dot. She says it’s because she’s Sagittarius. But this time she’s not there, where’s a minute ago she was. Strange.
While I’m looking around, I notice this big stretch Cadillac limo parked out in front. Thing’s nine miles long. The back door is open and a black guy in a chauffeur’s suit is standing by it with his hand on the door. He’s looking at me and smiling. I don’t pay much attention because I’m wondering where’s Mary?
Then I hear “It is him! Oh my God! It’s him!”
I’m looking to the left while this comes from the right and by the time I turn my head, these three very foxy looking Latino girls are rushing up to me.
“Ooo, I gotta kiss you. Please please, can I kiss you? I love you, Rickie!”
Now, the one who wants to kiss me is like a seven and I’m thinking, you wanna kiss me, I’m up for it. But her friend, who’s at least a nine, shoves her out of the way, grabs me around the neck and takes first shot. I mean, she pushes her tongue into my mouth like a plug into a electric socket. I’m so shocked I’m just standing there helpless. Sort of. The kiss is all over my face and it’s nice, but her tongue’s as big as a truck and I can’t breathe.
“Hey, hey, that’s enough. Leave him alone!” The chauffeur grabs nine and pulls her off me, really rough. But she doesn’t mind because even held back, she’s looking at me with steam in her eyes. The third girl, who’s pretty damned nice too, tries to come up but the chauffeur is right there and blocks her off. While he’s keeping her back, he says to me over his shoulder “I think we have to get out of here, Sir. We’re going to have a riot in a minute.”
I don’t know what the hell’s going on, but it’s all nice so I don’t know what to do. And where’s Mary? Why’re these girls going ape? Where am I supposed to go with this guy? Most of all, why me? Who do they think I am to be giving me such a treatment?
This friend of mine, Dave Pell, was walking down the street one day when a guy came up and asked for his autograph. Dave’s quick and went along with it, but signed his own name and handed it back. The guy looked at it and got angry. “Come on, write your real name.” Dave says that is. The guy says no it isn’t, you’re Elton John. Dave looks a little like Elton, but only in the dark at three in the morning, but that’s not what this shadrul thinks. By the end of the thing, the two of them are screaming at each other and Dave’s an inch away from giving the guy big pain.
I’m thinking this is the same thing, mistaken identity, so as the chauffeur is pushing me towards his car and the girls are all yelling Stay with us! I yell at them “Who do you think I am?”
“Rickie, we love you!”
“I wanna have your baby!” Nine said this. Number nine’s screaming she wants to have my baby on 14th Street in the middle of the day.
I was almost into the car when one of them shouted that. I stopped. That’s me-- Rickie Prousek. If they knew my name, they hadn’t made any mistake. They wanted to kiss me. Why?
Before I could ask, the chauffeur’s pushing me into the back of this fuckin’ limo the size of a 747 and since I don’t have my balance, I just go forward. But soon as I’m seated in there, the girls are pressing up against my window, kissing it all over the place and leaving these big red smudges. Now get this-- one of the girls yanks up her halter top and shoves her chee-chees against the window. Beautiful! I’m going nuts. Get me some of that, but it’s too late-- the driver jams away from the curb and I’m looking through the back window at the nicest set I’ve seen since last month’s Penthouse.
“Did you see that?” I caught the driver’s eye in the rearview mirror and he smiled.
“I did, sir.”
“I don’t know what the hell is going on here.”
He just gave a little laugh and looked back at the road.
“I walk out of that store and suddenly all this comes down.” I don’t know whether I’m talking to him or me. The truth is, I’m kind of nuts at the moment. “And by the way, where’re we going?”
“To the book signing, sir. It’ll be quite a scene there too. I’ve heard they’ve been lining up all morning.”
“What book signing?”
He just kept chucking like wasn’t I the funny one but didn’t say anything more. But it isn’t every day you get to ride in a limo and I thought what the hell, go with the flow and see what happens.
Anyway, there were things to look at in the car. There’s this mini fridge and a telephone and a TV with a built-in video. Everything’s this kind of dark blue and reminds me of all the times I’ve watched limos pass by and tried to look inside through the tinted windows at who’s in there.
“So this is a limo, eh?” I open the fridge and there’s everything you’d ever want to drink riding around New York with your head up your ass, not knowin’ what’s going on. I reach in and take out a bottle of beer. Dos Equis, no less. I open it up and sit back.
The guy takes a left on Park Ave and floors it. The city’s passing by and I’m drinking my beer and why not? I’m thinking I wish about a hundred people I know could see me now. Hey, Mr. Osborne, remember in ninth grade when you told me I wouldn’t amount to nothing? Well, check out old Rickie now, gliding uptown in his black limo, you little faggot. Or Tanya and her snooty fucking attitude. Wanna ride in my limo, Tanya? How about a glass of Chivas to smooth you out? Hah!
Then it hits me-- Mary! Mary set this whole thing up. Like a surprise or something. “Hey, excuse me?” The driver looks in the rearview again. I say “Did Mary do this? I mean, did Mary DeFazio arrange for you and all?”
He shrugs and goes on smiling. I wish he’d do a little less of that and more explaining. But that’s got to be it. It’s not my birthday, but as I said, that woman can pull off a joke better than anybody so maybe this is one of her crazy brainstorms. But why isn’t she here to enjoy it with me? And what about the girls back there? She didn’t arrange for that flash job, that’s for sure. I don’t call her Queen Jealousy for nothing.
We tool along in silence for a while and then he takes a few lefts and rights and pulls up in front of a store. There’s a few hundred people standing out in front of it and there are so many that they’ve got cops out there keeping order.
Soon as the crowd sees our car stop, they come forward. I don’t know what’s going on but figure I’d just better sit tight till someone gives me the word on what to do.
The driver gets out and comes around to open my door. He smiles in and offers me a hand but I don’t need no hand to get out of a car, so I do it myself.
Nuts. The whole world out there goes nuts. Rickie! Rickie! All of them are screaming and yelling and rushing forward and even with everything that’s been going on in the last hour, it takes me a few seconds to realize they’re screaming at me- Rickie, not some other one. They’re here for me.
Before I get a chance to react, two cops come up on my sides and grab hold of my arms. They start pushing me towards the door of this bookstore, but it’s not easy because the mob is all around us.
“Rickie! We love you!”
“I’m your greatest fan!”
“Rickie, sign my book. It’s for my mother. She’s dying!”
“Sign my head, Rickie. I got my hair cut like this just so you could sign my head!”
“Rickie, this is for you!” This big fat chick like a lineman for the Jets is pushing forward and she’s holding this huge purple cake. It’s as big as a toilet seat and across the top of it it says “Rickie Prousek Fan Club” in yellow squiggly letters.
“Get back!” One cop yells and stiff arms the fat chick so hard that her cake goes flying. But I don’t see where because they’re jamming me into that store and there’s nothing I can do but keep moving.
Once inside, the crowd is even bigger but the cops get me through to this little table where there’s this stack of books about a mile high. The manager of the store is a smoky-looking blond and she’s looking at me like I could scratch every itch she has.
“Mr. Prousek, it’s such an honor.” She shakes my hand and hers is so soft and warm I want to curl up inside it and take a nap. But there’s no time. Everybody’s churning around and howling to get started. So I do what they tell me and sit down at the table with all the books on it. Before I’m crushed to death by the mob, I just get a second to take a look at the cover. On it is this big color picture of me smiling, under the title “Immortal Me by Rickie Prousek.”
To tell you the truth, I don’t like to read and the idea of me writing a book is about as far away as fuckin’ Antarctica, but what was I supposed to do, tell them you got the wrong Rick? Don’t think so.
They give me this fat black magic marker and the crush starts.
I look up at this guy. “Izzat right?” I write “Hiya Leo. Love Rickie” on the cover of his book and hand it back. The owner says “Ooo, you signed the cover, what a novel idea.”
“Please sign ‘I love Diana.’”
“Sign ‘To my dear friend, Ed. I’ll always remember the cinnamon toast,’ please.”
“What? Why would I sign that? What toast? I don’t know you!” As soon as I say that, the guy looks like he’s going to cry. Then he apologizes. Do you believe it?
It goes on like that till my hand is shaking. People come up with ten books but two’s the limit. The good looking blond stands right next to me and watches over everything like a hawk. She keeps asking if I’d like anything to drink or eat. What I really want is a cigarette, but you can tell this is definitely a smoke-free zone, so I don’t say anything.
Just when I’m starting to get really tired, the fat woman with the purple cake comes up, looking like she just crawled out of a Stephen King swamp. I mean she’s fat anyway, right? But now I see where that cake went when the cop sent it flying-- all over her front. I mean, she’s smeared with purple frosting and chocolate cake, her hair looks like she stuck her head in a clothes dryer, and to top it off, she’s got a look in her eye that scares the shit out of me. She’s holding one of my books, but even that’s smeared with purple.
“I’ve been waiting for three days. You have to sign my book!”
“Sure. Waddya want me to say in it?”
But she squeezes it up to her chest like I was trying to steal it away. “No, you don’t understand! You have to sign it to me!”
“TO ME!” She screams out and the whole fucking place stops dead. Then before I know what’s going on, she’s shoving the table aside and coming at me. The cops try to get between us but it’s no good. Too late. She’s here already and grabbing hold of me by the front of my shirt. “You have to sign it to me, to Violet! You have to sign it--”
The cops jump her and wrestle her down, but she’s no small thing, plus she’s still got hold of my shirt and she’s so big there’s nothing I can do.
Well, that’s not true. For a while there’s nothing I can do, but when she pulls me in and I’m sure she’s going to kiss me, I gave her a quick left hook that rang her fuckin’ bell, believe me. Then the blond from the store hit her over the head with a big mother stapler and down goes the purple whale.
“That’s it! I’m outta here! Game over.” I push for the door and even though the crowd’s still thick as ten hands in one pocket, they let me through. But they’re still screaming and yelling and grabbing at me. Rickeeeeeeee!
Luckily the car’s right out front, motor running and the door’s open, thank God. Soon’s I’m in, the door slams and we’re off again. I look through the back window and everybody’s wavin’, for Christ’s sake!
“What the hell was that?”
The driver’s shaking his head. “Terrible. Terrible. They promised they would have good security. That shouldn’t have happened.”
I was about to say something, but at that moment I looked at the floor and saw my two dollar hat lying there. That started me thinking and I said to the guy “Who am I?”
“You’re Mr. Prousek.”
“Yeah, that’s right. But who am I? I mean, why am I so famous?”
“That’s right, why? Let me tell you something. This morning I walk into a store to buy a hat and when I come out, my girlfriend’s gone, but I got a limo waiting and girls goin’ ape for me. Then you take me here and a purple nutcase tries to rape me with a book. So that’s what I’m saying-- why am I suddenly so famous? What’d I do?”
He smiles again but it’s not so big this time and I can tell he’s confused. Maybe he thinks I’m pulling his leg or testing him about something. But I can tell from the look in his eye my question makes him real nervous.
“I’m serious. What’d I do? I sure didn’t write that book. So what else am I famous for?”
“I don’t think I understand the question, sir. Everyone knows why you’re famous. You--”
BAM! He plows right into this big yellow Ryder rental truck stopped at the light in front of us. Two soul brothers jump out, combined total weight ten thousand pounds of mean-looking black flesh. And that’s not all-- they got on various T-shirts that advertise the fact they hate every white person on the planet. The bigger one is in a Louis Farrakhan “Million Man March” shirt and is holding a silver baseball bat in his hand which itself is the size of a grapefruit.
My driver gets out and I can see the whole thing going south. The brothers check out this Oreo in his chauffeur’s suit and they think ”What you drivin’ Whitey around for, Fool?”
And that’s exactly what it looks like for a while. They’re lookin’ mighty pissed off at my chauffeur for hitting them and now everyone’s gesturing around with their arms, trying to make their points. The guy with the bat’s not saying much, but he’s tapping the damned thing against his leg like he’s ready to start whompin’ any minute now. After a while the other one-- who’s wearing a “It’s a Black Thing” shirt and got on nasty-looking camouflage pants-- goes back to the truck and is back a minute later with what looks very much to me like a piece, thank you very much.
Now I know what’s up because the chauffeur comes over to the car and knocks on the window for me to open up. He’s gone over, the traitor! He’s turning me loose to his brothers so they don’t kick his ass too in the bargain.
So I’m thinking Fuck you, Bro! Let ‘em try and get in here!
He shakes his head like I don’t understand, but I understand just fine. Then the guy with the piece comes over and leaning down on my side, smiles and shows me it’s not a gun. It’s a camera!
He yells out at me “Can we take a picture?”
Next thing I know, I’m standing in the middle of 1st Avenue with ‘Black Thing’ on one side and Baseball Bat on the other and we’re all smiling at my driver holding the camera.
Which draws another crowd. Seems like the whole city of New York has been waiting for me all day. Every time I show my face now I’m flooded with people.
“It’s Rickie Prousek! Holy Christ!”
“Rickie! Oh God!”
I’d had enough of that for one day, so I jump back in the car and tell the driver to get going.
We peel out but two blocks later, even before I got a chance to get an answer from him about who the hell I was, he pulls up in front of a restaurant called “Secrets.”
He looks at his watch and breathes a sigh of relief. “We’re just in time for your luncheon date. I didn’t think we’d make it.”
“In here? I know this place. I saw it on ‘Entertainment Tonight.’ This is like the hoity-toitiest restaurant in town.”
“You’d better hurry, sir. You’ll be late.”
Now you gotta remember I went out that morning planning on a movie and maybe a bite to eat somewhere after. Now here I am supposed to be going into Mel Gibson’s favorite place. I look down at my clothes, not like I forgot what I was wearing or anything, but just checking. I mean, after everything else that happened today, maybe my fairy godmother changed me from a pumpkin into a princess or something when I wasn’t looking. But no such luck. I’m still in my jeans and sweatshirt.
First I think, now what? But then, hey, I’m Rickie, everybody thinks I’m famous. I get to do anything I want! Which gives me the guts to pick up my two dollar hat and waltz right into the place like I owned it.
Inside it looks like a garage, you know? It’s, like, cinder blocks and white paint. But the people in there make up for the no-frills look. They’re either beautiful or rich looking and then two feet away from me is Jay Leno! I’m stunned, but not so stunned not to notice people are staring at me too. They’re smiling and nodding like not only do I belong there with the likes of Jay, but they’ve been waiting to see me.
“You bum! I’ve been here half an hour.”
The voice isn’t anything special so I don’t think she’s talking to me. Then I feel this really sharp pinch in the middle of my back. I whip around because there’s nothing I hate more than a pinch.
Madonna. I swear to God, it’s Madonna there and she’s looking at me. “Where have you been, Rickie?” I was pretty angry when I left an hour later. The lunch was good, I mean the food was, but I’d give you back the lunch. All she did was talk about herself. I didn’t get a word in edgewise. I mean, she talked the whole time. About ten times I wanted to ask her how she knew me, why I was famous, all those types of questions. But once she started talking about Madonna, there wasn’t any air left in the room. Like a Virgin, my ass.
When I get out on the street, I can still hear her voice whanging away in my head. I ate too much, I gotta headache and I still haven’t found out what I did to get here.
And then the limo wasn’t there! I’m standing out on the street like an idiot wondering where’s the car. Then I think maybe it’s gone ‘cause I just imagined all this. I’m running through all my maybe’s, confused, angry, weirded out of my socks and not having idea one about what I’m supposed to do next.
I look around and see a phone booth. A light goes off in my head. Mary! Give her a call and she can tell you the secret. The only good idea I’ve had all day. I go over to it, fish a quarter out of my pocket (Madonna paid for lunch), and call her number.
“Oh yeah, right. Real funny, and I’m Meryl Streep.” Click.
She hung up! And I didn’t have another quarter. I’m standing there saying every curse I know in the world when suddenly the door to the booth bangs open into me from behind. What the-- I turn to whoever’s out there, ready to kick their ass. But when I see who it is, I stop fast.
It’s me. And not only is it me, it’s three me’s. And one of them has a gun.
“Get out of the booth, Rickie.”
“Get out of the booth or I’ll shoot you right here.” He points the gun at me and giggles like a girl. So do the others. Then I get a better look at them and they’re not really me. At first you’d think they were, but even though they got the hair jelled back like mine and other things, none of them really look like me. They’re like those bad Elvis impersonators. You know what I mean? The ones who’ve got the hair and the sideburns and the spangly suits, but one look and you start to laugh at the pathetic fucks for even trying to look like the King.
One of these guys is about a foot shorter than me, one’s a foot taller and the other is a fucking Arab. The one with the gun, naturally. But you don’t say no to a gun so I open the door, real slow.
“It’s him, it’s really him. You were right, Hassan!”
“Of course it’s him. All right, don’t do anything funny, Rickie. Just walk out and get in the cab.”
Down the street a ways is a yellow cab parked. I walk in front while Hassan-Rickie comes up right behind me. Every few steps he gives me a poke with the gun. The others are a few feet behind us. It’s a normal cab, but on the bumper is a sticker that says “My Heart Beats for Dachshunds.”
What was I supposed to do? I climb in. Hassan gets in next to me while the other two fakes get up front. When we’re all settled, the little guy pulls away from the curb real slow like the world’s safest driver.
“What’s going on?”
Nobody says anything for about twenty blocks until the passenger up front says “Could I see your hat?”
I didn’t even know I was wearing it by then, but I took it off and handed it over. He put it on and suddenly all three of them are laughing like maniacs.
“We did it! We stole him.”
I don’t say a word.
We drive way uptown till we’re like in Riverdale. Then we’re out of the car and walking into a beat up apartment building. The three of them are talking to each other but I got nothing to say.
We go up a few flights and then one of them gets out some keys and opens a door. They point me to go in first.
I take one look and whistle. Not only are there six dachshund dogs in there, just kind of rambling around. Six dogs in an apartment! Plus the whole goddamned place is ten thousand pictures of me. Magazine pictures too, not any snapshots or anything. There are Rickie dolls on one shelf, at least ten copies of Immortal Me, a life-size dummy made up to look like me and wearing the same clothes all of us are wearing... It was a shrine to Rickie Prousek.
There’s a ratty green couch in the middle of the room and I sit. Two of them plop down on either side of me and the other on the floor in front of us. All the dogs go up to him and kind of cuddle around. Nobody says a word for I don’t know how long. I sure don’t have anything to say. The room’s like a cemetery, except for the dogs snuffling and scratching.
The Rickie who’s wearing my hat finally says “We’re sorry we brought you here, but we had to.”
I just nod, trying to be cool and get some thoughts together in my head.
“We’re your greatest fans.”
I look around that ka-ka room and say “Looks like it.”
“We’ve been following your career for years.”
“Yeah well, then you can tell me why I’m so famous. What’d I do to, you know, get here?”
They all think I’m joking.
“No, I’m serious. Please, willya tell me what I did to be so famous? I really want to know.”
The guy with the gun shakes his head, but big Rickie says “I paid a thousand dollars for your ice skates at a celebrity auction last year.”
“Yeah well, you got robbed because I don’t skate.”
He immediately pulls back like I hit him. “You don’t have to be rude.”
Hassan says “You don’t understand how important you are to us. We brought you here because...”
“--because we have to talk to you.” little Rickie blurts out. “You’ve got to tell us how you did it. The real truth. We’ve all read your book, sure, but we know most of the media stuff is lies or exaggerations. We needed you here, alone, so we could talk quietly and you know, connect.”
“ Connect what? I don’t know!” I’m cheesed to the max and start to get up. Enough of this. But gun guy tells me to sit back down. “I don’t know nothin’! I wish I did!”
Like they were all reading each other’s minds, the three of them stand up like they were one person. I’m on the couch staring up at three me’s and the looks on their faces were not have a nice day.
“You’ll tell us, or you’re not getting out of here alive. Do you understand? You may think you’re so big and famous and we’re nothing, but not today, Rickie. We got you and you’re not moving till-- ”
“But I just--”
Hassan bent down and put the barrel against my forehead. “No more bullshit.” His voice was ice cold; like my father’s when I was a kid and I’d done something really wrong.
The little guy sat down right next to me. He reached over and put his hand on top of mine. That more than anything sent a chill up my spine. “We know everything we could find out. But we want to hear the truth from you. Now’s your chance to tell the real story, Rickie. Why don’t you start at the very beginning, We’ve got all the time in the world.”