May 10, 2010

Mickey and Me

Like most everything, I would consider my relationship with Mickey Rourke a work in progress. That is, it has never reached a point of satisfaction which would either inspire pride or admit finality. Rather, it rolls and pitches with a seemingly unending rhythm of fear and nausea. But to say that I haven't learned anything would be untrue. Because time spent with Mickey is time measured in lessons, lessons about living truly and fairly, no matter what the consequences.

I first met Mickey late in 2007 at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. As I was sugaring my latte, a burly, fragrant man thrust his coffee in front of me. "Spit in this for me Lola," Mickey said, "That barista has no idea how to make a Mexican mochachino." I obliged, dropping a small bead of saliva into his cup. "Lola! Give it some flavor goffammit!" Alarmed, I snorted deeply and delivered a powerful loogie into his coffee. "That's lesson one, Lola. When someone tells you to spit in their coffee, you'd better give it your all." Blowing on his Mexican mochachino, he walked outside and rejoined the Korean-language walking tour which was waiting for him.

Over a year passed before I saw Mickey again. I was in New York attending a performance of Der Erlkönig with a woman I'd been dating who enjoyed German opera and crying during sex, often at the same time. As the performance began and I attempted to simultaneously console her and keep her from grabbing my crotch, I failed to notice the large figure who had sat down beside me. "Lola, what the hell is wrong with your woman?" Mickey asked. "If she wants to dance with Admiral Bojangles, let her do it!" I would have explained, but we were being enthusiastically shushed by people around us.

As the performance continued, I looked over occasionally to see Mickey furtively eating some sort of kielbasa out of his breast pocket. He caught my eye and offered me some. I declined as I saw that it was not in fact a kielbasa but a tube of cookie dough, not that that made the offer any less or more appealing. Incensed, Mickey pulled me close and whispered through clenched teeth: "Lesson two Lola. Someone offers you a delicious bite of cookie dough at a performance of Der Erlkönig, you take it!" He stared at me for the next two hours, chewing on cookie dough and mouthing the lyrics between bites.

Although these episodes could be considered off-putting, they began to occur with a comfortable regularity. I was in Los Angeles in late 2009 at a book signing for the autobiography of a former member of the Hues Corporation, St-Clair Lee. I had a pressing question about the lyrics to "Rock the Boat" that had been plaguing me for years. I was standing in line, reading the acknowledgment section, when I detected a familiar musk. Mickey had a shopping cart full of the books, pushing it forward with his gut as he thumbed madly through the pages. Adjusting his reading glasses, Mickey said: "St-Clair owed me $500 and told me that in exchange he would include the story about the time we fought Paul Newman over whether The Towering Inferno was a metaphor for apartheid. We thought it was." When I asked him to explain, he gave me a gray stare. Pushing ahead of me, he said "Lola, lesson three: if Paul Newman tells you that The Towering Inferno is not a metaphor for apartheid, then you respect the man's opinion." He then began stacking copies of St-Clair Lee's autobiography on the table in front of the terrified author who was holding $500 in a shaking outstretched hand.

It was not so much the letter of these lessons that struck me but rather their spirit. Mickey knew that spitting in coffee and accepting foodstuffs from strangers were not the sole points of his lessons. Neither was arguing with dead celebrities or frightening esoteric singers from the 1970s. Mickey always knew what I know now; that there is no such thing a clear, coherent morality, but only a series of imperatives drawn from life lessons. And every time he subsequently showed up at one of my family gatherings telling me about the virtues of organic dental floss or sat in on a meeting at my work and whispered a four hour story about his discharge from the Bolivian coast guard to me, I knew that this was him sharing his code. I value those lessons to this day.

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