MARCO VASSI: MY AUNT NETTIE; WHERE'S WALDO?
On January 14 it will be four years since Marco Vassi died, and I'm going to take a moment to think a little out loud about Marco and his life, about what this man who I knew as much from his writing as from the times we met face to face, means to me.
Marco Vassi (Marco Ferdinand William Vasquez-d'Acugno Vassi, to be exact) will probably be remembered by most people for his writing. He wrote 13 novels, hundreds of articles and short stories, poems, plays, and assorted riff raff. His books were published for the most part by trash porn houses -- presses like Banner Books, Manor Books, Carlyle Communications, Pleasure Books. Olympia Press, who first published Henry Miller in this country, got Marco into writing and published some of his work, but he never really made it in mainstream publishing, at least with his sex writing. His publishers would pay him a few thousand dollars to produce formulaic porn tracts, and from Marco's point of view, that's what he did. But there is something unique about his writing, about the way he spoke of sex and all the complications and contusions that come from entering the realm of the sexual as fully as possible. As fantastic and exaggerated as his stories and novels often are, there is something undeniably genuine, intriguing -- even profound -- that distinguishes Marco's writing from the other pulp novels of that time (the 70s and early 80s).
What is most important to me about Marco is that he was one of those rare people who choose to make sex the organizing principle for their lives, no matter what the consequences might be. By his own accounting, Marco delved into the sexual world as deeply and broadly as anyone ever has. Sex with women. Sex with men. Sex with various numbers of partners, and in various combinations. Fierce sex. Tender sex. Intimate sex. Casual sex. Anonymous sex. Fetish play. Power play. Gender play. S&M. Loving sex. Cruel sex.
Sex for Marco wasn't just about getting laid (except sometimes), not just a question of neurons and orgasms. For Marco sex was a lens on life itself, a magnifying glass through which the dynamics and foibles of being human become intensified, and so his pursuit of sexual knowledge and experience took on the color of a philosophical quest. He saw himself at once as the Avatar of Eros and an eager student of Zen enlightenment.
"Sex is a key to doorways of knowing," Marco wrote. "For me it has been a yoga through which new qualities of self evolved. Like the alchemist who works with a potion for decades and in the process brings about a transmutation of his essence, I spent all my conscious life since the age of eight mixing elements in the crucible of sex, sifting enormous amounts of material to produce a few grams of pure substance. I had fucked or been fucked by over five hundred different women, and twice that many men, in circumstances ranging from brief gaspings in alleys and whorehouses to lengthy relationships. I had gone through all the possible scenarios. And with the suddenness of total change, I became a different kind of person. At the far end of bisexuality I realized that all that had gone before was but the task of perfecting the instrument, the mindbody that is myself. My adventures had served a single purpose: to exhaust all the subjective aspects of the sexual act. The many modes, which had been challenges, areas of exploration, were now my tools -- homosexuality, heterosexuality, bisexuality, abstruse psychosexual states and practices, the so-called perversions, the many masks of libidinal displacement... these were now at my command, to be used the way a director uses a cast of characters to realize a vision."
Not surprisingly, Marco's vision, the sense of life that emerged from his far-reaching sexual explorations, was anything but simple. Marco was a lover of irony and contradiction. In his life as in his writing, he created situations that gained power from their inherent contradictions, and he would emphasize the topsy-turvy nature of reality every chance he got. He knew, for example, that every lover, every circumstance, every moment, is uniquely magical. And he knew equally well at the same time that, in another sense, all partners are interchangeable and ultimately meaningless. "In the end," Marco liked to say, "we are all just fucking ourselves anyway."
"Why have any partners at all?" Marco asks in one short story about a woman who locks herself in a darkened room for weeks, to explore the inner recesses of her sexual nature. "Orgasm is the quintessentially private experience," she decides. "The notion that we must share it with others is the final corruption of what's left of civilization."
Almost every bit of Marco's writing has a twist, a jab, a way of saying that things are not what they seem, not what we like to pretend they are. He is, in this sense, a true Sadeian. He writes the perfect New York subway fantasy (carried, it seems, by every man who rode the subways as a teenager, pressed belly to belly up against untold numbers of perfumed strangers in the sardine can of rush hour) in which a man and a woman gradually become aware of each other, approach, touch, become increasingly sexual -- only to have the woman turn out to be an undercover cop who busts the man for molestation.
In another story, a man who is attracted to other men, yet not wanting to be homosexual, undergoes a sex change operation only to discover that after his transformation he is now only attracted to women. In yet another, a woman goes through the ultimate psychosexual therapeutic catharsis, transcends her debilitating paranoias, only to be run down by a bus as she crosses the street, totally free from fear. In The Other Hand Clapping, perhaps his finest (though least sexual) novel, there are so many twists and turns on the nature of reality, jealousy, theatre, and life, that by the end the reader is in a state of pure ecstatic vertigo.
As a person, Marco was no less contradictory than his writing. He was at times able to give another person complete and absolutely focused love and attention, and at other times so self-absorbed and inaccessible as to be totally infuriating. He could at one moment be open to all the complexities of multi-partner relationships, free of possessiveness, ego, and the like, and then descend in a matter of hours into simpleminded jealous tantrums hardly worthy of a TV soap opera. He was able to look the most complex, difficult truths -- about sex, about relationship, about life -- directly in the eye, yet he was often unable to sustain even the most elementary forms of honesty and compassion with partners and friends.
He was thus, to me, the finest sort of hero: the wise man who is also a goat, the monkey who is also a monk. During the final months of his life, after he was diagnosed HIV-positive, Marco went into a deep depression that put him beyond the reach of even his closest friends. He wandered from east coast to west, tried to commit suicide twice, was continuously morose (despite his relatively good physical health), and totally self-absorbed. He did not, in other words, take to dying gracefully. He did not die like a hero with a capital H. He was, you could say, a bad sport about it. A (suddenly) very ordinary human being. Just another guy afraid, confused, and, largely by his own construction, surprisingly alone.
I saw Marco for the last time in August of 1988, at Annie Sprinkle's apartment, where he was spending much of his time. I went to show him my new book, Erotic by Nature, which included a story of his, and to give him his contributor's copy. He looked through the book carefully - - the photographs and the stories -- taking time with each page. He saw it for what it was. He liked it. He appreciated its quietness, its depth, its complexity. Then he went off to his PWA support group. That winter, he spent a day walking around New York in the snow with practically no clothes on, caught pneumonia, and secluded himself in his room. When friends finally located him weeks later (letting the phone ring for a half hour until he finally answered), he was all but gone. A flurry of phone calls got him to a hospital and the indignity of being connected to a bevy of minimally life-sustaining machines. On January 14, 1989, he died.
And so, four years down the road, I (for one) offer my thanks to Marco for all of who he was -- the wisdom and the folly, the light and the immense darkness, the times of transcendence and the times of sheer imbecility -- and for what he was able to write down, to give to the rest of us to do with what we will.
[Twelve of Marco's erotic novels, long out of print, will be re-issued during 1993 by The Permanent Press. More about this in a future column.]
My Aunt Nettie
Not all sex explorers are public figures, and not all sexual free spirits are products of the "sexual revolution" of the 60s. Being sexually outrageous has a long and distinguished history and tradition, even if it's one that has been expunged as thoroughly as possible by all the good folks who control our knowledge of and access to such information. I want to tell the story of my Aunt Nettie.
Well, actually it's my mother's Aunt Nettie, which puts her two generations back, born 1890 or so in Russia, come to this country as part of the great influx after the turn of the century. Once in New York, Aunt Nettie married Uncle Hymie and the two of them moved to Connecticut, where Hymie ran a "junk store." I'm not exactly sure what a junk store is -- something like a second-hand store, but furniture and odd items, not clothes.
Anyway, Hymie's junk store did quite well and eventually Hymie sent money for his younger brother Alex to come to this country. Alex, who was maybe 15 or 16 when he hit Ellis Island, moved in with Hymie and Nettie and went to work in Hymie's store. Hymie was about 28 then, Nettie maybe a year or two younger.
To make a long story short, for the next 20 or 25 years, Nettie was, well... you know... getting it on with both Hymie and Alex. For most of that time, apparently, no one but the three of them knew anything about it. They would show up at family functions, just like all the other members of the family. Hymie was well off compared to everyone else in the family. He was the only one who had a car. Some people thought Hymie was a bit of a show-off about his money, but others saw them all as just anxious to share their luck with the rest of the family.
Everyone liked Nettie. She was lively, generous, vivacious. She liked to wear lots of make-up, put bright red circles of rouge on her cheeks. For at least 15 years, no one had a clue that Nettie and Hymie and Alex were anything but a regular couple with a live-in brother.
Then one day Nettie got mad at her sister Sarah and told Sarah the whole story, just to blow her fuse. It was quite a scandal. Sarah and her younger sister, my grandmother, never spoke to Nettie again. When Nettie's 5-year old second child developed melanoma and died, everyone said it was God's punishment for Nettie's wickedness. Of course, every fault of Nettie's was magnified and given great significance. Like Nettie was never much of a housekeeper, so people would say, "Well, what do you expect: A dirty house, a dirty life." And then there were all the wonderings about what had really happened: Did Nettie seduce Alex when he was a tender teenager? Maybe Hymie was not so good in bed. Did Hymie even know what was going on with Nettie and Alex? Maybe he just pretended not to notice. And who was the father of the children? Did even Nettie know?
Meanwhile Nettie and Hymie and Alex went on with their business as before and, as far as I can make out, were quite happy together. When Alex was 40 or 50 he moved away to live by himself. He never married. A little later, Hymie died. Nettie moved to California, where she lived a long, long time. In fact, as far as anyone knows, she's still alive, though I guess she would be pushing 100 by now.
I only met Nettie a few times as a kid, What I remember is that she was attractive, lively, and full of good cheer. I wish I had known her and her story when I was older, so that I could have asked her what it was like -- how she did what she did, how she felt about being exiled from the family, how she dealt with the two brothers, with jealousy, what it was like to be sexual with a teenager at 28, how things really worked among the three of them. I mean, they lived this way for some 25 years and made it work. They must have learned all sorts of things that went to waste for lack of a friendly ear.
See, as far as I'm concerned, Nettie is as much of a sexual hero as Marco, and there are probably thousands of Netties and Normans tucked away everywhere -- people who define their sexual lives as they please and are willing to deal with the consequences. Sexual existence above and beyond the confines of "the way it's 'spozed to be" has been going on since the beginning of time, and I for one take heart and support from knowing that those of us pushing the boundaries here in the Brave New World of 1993 are heirs to a long and great tradition of sexual assertion and self-determination.
Wouldn't it be great to sit down with the sexual outcasts of earlier times, however old they might now be, and hear their stories? Compare notes, ask questions, puzzle through some of the dilemmas that stay the same, despite our different placements in history. There was a little of this at the Henry Miller Centennial last year, when old lovers of Miller's and other Miller-related life spirits talked about what it was like with Henry back in those days. It was wonderful to watch these women and men -- many now in their 60s, 70s and 80s -- get that familiar sparkle in their eyes, talking about this and that sexual adventure or outlandish experience. When I'm 70, I hope I get to sit down with my grandchildren (when they're old enough to understand, of course, what do you think I am, a pervert?) and pass on some of the current sense of possibility and wonder. "Have I ever told you what it was like in San Francisco back then, in the 80s and the 90s, ["Oh, Grandpa, not again!"],when sexual exploration was going every which way, when all the different subcultures were emerging and flowering, when there were sexual happenings and groups, and our own magazines and books, and workshops, and theatre and art everywhere? Let me tell you, it was a marvelous time, even when Meese was Attorney General, even when Bush was President, even before we had a cure for AIDS...."
Meanwhile, back in America, Eileen Godfrey, "mother of two," is fuming because out of the thousands of cartoon figures that appear in the children's book Where's Waldo on the Beach? there happens to be exactly one woman with (gasp) a bare breast. The Where's Waldo? books are puzzles for children. The kids have to search for the figure of Waldo among hundreds of others that crowd each drawing. This particular twopage spread includes one female sunbather who has undone the top of her bikini, been splashed with water, and is lifting herself up, showing her breast. She is, you understand, about three-quarters of an inch long, head to toe. Waldo, by the way, is not even in the vicinity.
"I just never expected this in a children's puzzle," says the horrified Ms. Godfrey. "How can they say 'for ages 5 to 12' and put a naked woman on it?" After borrowing the book from a 7-year-old friend and squinting at the picture for a very long time, I finally was able to locate the offending breast. I must say that I am, most of all, impressed by the meticulousness of Goodwoman Godfrey's investigative eye (let's get her a job at the Government Accounting Office), and amused by what I take to be a winking sense of humor in Waldo's creator, Martin Handford. But, hell, this is no laughing matter: let's throw the lout in jail for peddling porn to kids. I mean, if we open the door to naked micronsized breasts in children's books, there's no telling where we'll end up.
Spectator, January 8, 1993
Copyright © 1993 David Steinberg
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