Older but No Wiser

 

 

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The disappearance of these two class mates remained key to unlocking the

Susan Walsh missing person story, though I was not aware of this at the

time, a kind of comic, not cosmic dance, in which Sue continued to play

her mind-games on old friends, as if from beyond the grave. Michael's

wife, while dismissing the fact that Michael ran off with Sue, believes

Sue encouraged Michael to leave, as an act of viciousness only a woman

like Sue could devise, luring Michael towards "the edge" with promises

of sexual freedom and purity and truth the way a molester might lure a

child into a car with candy.

 

"Sue might have thought she was hurting me by talking Michael into

leaving," Michael's wife told me. "But in the end, she did me a big

favor. I've never been happier in my life."

 

If Sue was indeed partly to blame for Michael's leaving, she would never

have followed him to Texas, seeing the sweltering life in a cowboy city

like Houston too much like exile. And while she was willing to seek "the

underground" the way Abbie Hoffman suggested in his various books, she

would never give up her access to the avant garde, and refuse to scratch

out an existence as an artist among the oil rigs and shrimp boats, just

another cheap prostitute in a bordertown full of rednecks, wetbacks and

rifle-loaded pickup trucks.

 

Nor would Sue have found satisfaction with Michael, whose legendary

behavior among the Manhattan and Paterson prostitutes was marked mostly

by his failures, and she testing men's ability to contain her habits,

telling them how little sex mattered in order to make them strive harder

to make her happy.

 

"She would drive him crazy," one former school mate told me. "She would

egg him on, and egg him on, the way she did every man she ever knew,

finding new and better ways to test him until he either killed her or

himself."

 

Perhaps she had already done as much, stoking up Michael's already

overheated imagination about what lay beyond the edge, at each meeting

in the months before they both disappeared. At go-go clubs in Lodi or

New York, Sue would paint a grand picture of honest love for him, or

perhaps even went on with her usual spiel, aware of just how Michael

would shape it all into its opposite, seeing every sinner as a saint,

and every nasty manipulating naked lady as the goddesses of a new world

faith.

 

But in the end, Michael could not serve Sue's purposes beyond being a

plaything and a means of gaining revenge on Michael's wife -- who Sue

had come to hate over the years. Michael was too innocent, too

vulnerable, too much the poet to ever serve as the kind of patsy Sue

needed in her passion to survive. He would always lack money and

prestige, and even as a writer, he would serve as a poor source of

ideas, his poetry too far above her mental powers for ever to even

understand, let alone steal.

 

While he made a perfect butt of a joke, one of those little side shows

for which she was famous at school, he would miss the point of her

alcoholic act (something she clearly had studied and perfected and used

to gain sympathy and power over other people with in the past). He could

neither feed her ego nor her paranoia. His delusion was his own, shaped

around the concept of finding purity among the prostitutes, enjoying

perhaps the side benefits of blow jobs and cheap sex, yes, but never

could his kind of fantasy fit in with the elaborate plots Sue

manufactured. Michael might believe in UFO conspiracies yet not give a

damn for those generated by the CIA. He preferred Russian poetry to its

Mafia, and would not likely understand or care about Sue's hysterical

ranting. Michael, I feared, would more likely become the victim of AIDS

than he would one of Sue's imaginary stalkers.

 

I'm not saying Sue would exclude Texas from her thinking. She could hide

anywhere, use anyone, but would not be able to sustain her paranoid

illusions with Michael the way she might with more vulnerable souls, the

drug addicts and the pimps, foolish dancers and cocky club owners, porno

publishers or writers for prestigious New York tabloid newspapers. And

her methods of manipulation would suffer if she'd gone to Texas (as it

probably did later when circumstance required her to take Abbie

Hoffman's next step to slip even deeper into the underground, when

police claim Sue fled, not just her Nutley home, but the streets of

Newark where she was reportedly sighted). Sue needed to bolster her

helpers with late night whispered telephone calls, like a hypnotist

seeking to strengthen her unconscious suggestions or a magician seeking

to recharge her spells. She had to constantly reinforce the fear in the

minds of her minions, reminding them of the shadowy characters who

haunted their footsteps and the dangers they faced from these shadows if

Sue's commands were not obeyed.

 

Sue ran her minions like others might run a business, having her

underlings make phone calls for her, fetch supplies for her, check on

people, gather information, even create more trouble for her. She would

call and stress just how important all this was, how if this particular

person or that particular person didn't do this or that, real trouble

would come about and poor Sue would suffer. Not only would Michael --

who was hardly the most responsible person to begin with -- failed to

suit her purposes in this, Texas would have served as a poor staging

area for anything Sue had in mind. Long distance calls could be traced

more easily than local, and the phone-booth to phone-booth contact Sue

was so famous for would be restricted by distance.

 

Houston would have failed to serve her purposes in a much more

fundamental way. Sue was a player, a soul who needed to seek "the

scene," the way the upper crust of the 1960s did when groovy on the jazz

and heroin thing. While she could have found the dark side of any city

-- and Houston has as dark a side despite its location as New York or

LA, full of the same boiling hormones and the same meat market go-go

scene -- Sue would have come to it as a stranger, someone who would have

had to learn the ropes from the beginning. That was never her style. She

knew New York. She could flow through its seamier underside with the sky

of a string ray, nodding to the familiar faces, and they nodding to her.

This aspect of Sue was what apparently attracted Ridgeway to her, not

her writing ability. It was this aspect of Sue that he used to gain

access to the underworld, and possibly the reason why he kept in good

favors with Sue, introducing her to other producers to keep her strung

along until the book was published. For all Sue's bullshit, for all her

distortions, for all the crazy plots she manufactured around her life,

in this regard, when it came to understanding what the dark side of the

human sex industry was about, Sue was connected -- something she could

not be in Texas, or in many of the other places she routinely said she

would go.

 

Although she once threatened to run away with Florida, and before that

to other places, promising to drag her child with her, Sue could no more

leave the New York area than Babe Ruth could the New York Yankees, or

Jordan, the Chicago Bulls. These streets of Newark and Manhattan defined

Sue's turf, and her two-decades of experience here gave her power she

would lack elseSue could no more leave the New York area than Babe Ruth

could the New York Yankees, or Jordan, the Chicago Bulls. These streets

of Newark and Manhattan defined Sue's turf, and her two-decades of

experience here gave her power she would lack elsewhere. She would be

blind in Houston, or Miami (another

 

One other important difference made a union between Sue and Michael

unlikely. Temperament. For all Michael's bluster about finding "the

edge," he was and always will be a romantic, a wannabe player seeking a

thrill, without a real understanding of the dangers he faced, like the

mythological moth drawn to a candle's flame, fluttering around it,

excited over the slight singes his past experience has brought him, but

never fully aware of the utter holocaust such a world would bring to the

unwary and the unwise.

 

Behind Sue's apparent paranoia was a wisdom even her closest friends did

not totally understand, an internal radar that allowed her to flutter

dangerously close to the hottest fires of the street, and still come

away unscathed. She was dancer in more than just the literal sense,

practicing moves that allowed her to ooze around her opponents, creating

webs and illusions to confuse those who would do her harm. In fact, she

talked so much about how much danger she was in and how helpless she was

(through depression or drug use) she confused many of those of her

contacts with truly evil intent. To do her harm, they needed to know

where her lies ended and her vulnerabilities began. Sue -- who despite

some people's claims -- was indeed vulnerable, but survived the harsh

world of the sex industry by manufacturing layers of reality around her,

layers of lies, overlaid with layers of truth. She weaved these

constantly into a tapestry of protection. People couldn't hurt her, she

figured, if they didn't know where she was, what she was doing, or

whether or not she was crazy, drunk, drugged or dead. In the past, Sue

was content with hiding herself in a psychological unreality, playing

roles that kept her one step away from the meat market porno scene that

would have loved to have pinned her down. I had come close to the edge

of that world. I had looked over and seen the shards of people's lives

on the other side, people whose hopes and dreams had been dashed against

the much more solid reality of dope dealing, prostitution and

money-laundering. The view scared me. I had no wish to look again, to

revisit that world where Sue survived by double and triple dealing, or

by committing any act with anyoneallowed her to flutter dangerously

close to the hottest fires of the street, and still come away unscathed.

She was d

 

I once asked one of her lovers what Sue did for a living. He looked at

me oddly then said: "Whatever it takes."

 

But Sue's kind of wisdom is a cheat, and for a long time I stared at the

missing person's poster in her apartment window, hoping to find some

sign of that greater wisdom people achieve later in life, when they have

shed the illusions of their youthoping to find some sign of that greater

wisdom people achieve later in life, when they have shed the illusions

of their youth, the wisdom of solid relationships and honest

friendships, the wisdom that comes with basing your reality on truth.

While Sue's talents may have served her well in the underworld where

everything is a lie and all the people liars, truth is the fundamental

building block for success here in the straight world. Words like

"integrity," "honor," "sincerity," or "love" acted less as abstractions

than bonds of trust, more secure than the webs Sue weaved, more

enduring, people depending on people for a mutual defense against the

greater e

 

The photograph was too old to reveal any sense of change, nor did the

newer ones I saw later show anything more than the same, defiant Sue,

challenging the world with her grin, pretending as if she needed no one

and no one needed her, emphasizing the use of other people, not need,

building connections, not friendships. She maintained her smug

indifference to the world, even when her philosophy had so obviously

failed, and that all her plots seemed miscaluations. Slowly, day by day,

year by year, the portrait of desperation she had so carefully

manufactured in college -- with her as the helpless victim to fates she

didn't understand and couldn't control -- was slowly coming true, and

indeed, she lived the life of Dorian Grey, her beautiful exterior

disguising the horrible reality of her interior. Men would fall in and

out of love with that face, they would puzzle over her actions, worry

over her tales of woe, and yet never really understand who they dealt

with or how they might really help her. Only a precious few men could

even resist her charms or walk away from her machinations. Many would

spend their lives clinging to the hope she might return their affections

some day.

 

I knew one man who had survived her from college, who had even kept in

contact with her over the years, who had in some way become one of her

few unsullied friends. Glenn Kenny, who had seen her within weeks of her

vanishing, had been a victim to her webs as school and had cut himself

free. He had talked with her, allowed her to cry on his shoulder. He had

even replaced Mark as one of her regular men during her Show World sex

act in 1984. Glenn had no more illusions about "the edge" than I did,

and defined it best when he told me "it sucks." Perhaps, in his eyes,

Sue was as deluded as Michael was. She just had the ability to handle

herself better -- for a while.

 

Then, struck by the odd urge to have none of the rumors true, I pushed

the door bell and heard the sound of its chime echoing in the empty

interior. I didn't need to push the button again. The sound had told me

everything, but it had also drawn the attention from upstairs. The

second floor window shuddered open. A blonde-haired woman -- who was not

Sue -- poked out.

 

"Can I help you?" she asked, lacking the same suspicious tone I'd

received from Mark a moment earlier, but clearly curious.

 

"I'm looking for Sue Walsh," I said, having to shout over the sound of

engine starting up at the used car dealer next door.

 

"Isn't everybody," the woman said with a sigh, her head slowly shaking

as if she couldn't make sense of the situation herself. "It's such a

shame."

 

The woman motioned that she would come down, the vanished from the

window again. The mail box claimed her name was Rizzo, and she rushed

out from the front door and down into the parking lot with that friendly

bumbling manner I had seen numerous times at school, the innocent,

helpful gossips upon whom Sue depended, never mainstream players in her

emotional games, but supporting characters, people who would give her a

ride or change for a phone call, or would deliver messages if asked. She

looked about 40, though with her bleached hair, she obviously wanted to

look much younger, having the disadvantages of both looking young and

old at the same time.

 

"Susan was a real nice girl," she said, clearly disturbed by the

disappearance, but puzzled by it, and full of her own suspicions, things

she'd seen didn't make sense and she made this perfectly clear to me.

"It's real sad that anyone would want to hurt her.

 

I only nodded.

 

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Something Strange

 

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