The last time ever I saw your face


December 30, 2010

            I said the last time I saw Peggy was at the Little Falls Quick Chek in 1990.

            This is not exactly accurate. I saw her again 14 years later – five years after her suicide – working a mark at a Cedar Grove tavern called the Grass Hopper Inn.

            I had come to see what would turn out to be the last performance of a group of musicians with whom I had grown up, an unofficial reunion of a band I hung out with during most the 1970s.

            For me it was a nostalgic night, hobnobbing again with many other people who had followed the band as well, and by coincidence, Peggy was there as well.

            But she was not there to see the band, but sat on the far side of the bar side by side with a typical, white, middle class and slightly overweight man that Peggy had made a point of targeting for most of her career.

            She was an older Peggy, then in her mid-40s but she looked exactly the same as I had last seen her, the same painted-on eyebrows, the same close-cropped hair, even the same smug expression, and more telling, the same loud laugh, and the same horn-like boasting voice.

            I was sitting directly across from her. She sat in a well-lighted section of the bar. I had a camera in my hand from taking photos of the band, but was afraid to raise it, remembering the dark looks she gave me the last time I snapped off pictures of her in Garfield years earlier. She hated having her picture taken and the only photos I ever saw of her in her Lodi apartment had been of her as a maid of honor at her best friend’s wedding.

            I was also too stunned at seeing and hearing her voice again to think of sneaking a shot. So I just stared.

            Eventually, she looked up, then over at me across the bar. It was almost like the old days except there was no go-go dancing stage in-between us. Unlike my last experience with her at the Quick Chek, this time she remembered me – but clearly couldn’t remember where she remembered me from. So she just smiled and nodded and I smiled and nodded back. Then the veil fell between us again and she returned to her talk with her latest target and I went back to taking pictures of the band. A little while later, I thought to take a picture of her, but by that time she was gone.

            It was a remarkable moment, I thought then, because it made for a happier ending to our troubled relationship, closing a chapter on my life with a smile rather than a blank stare. For the new few years I lived with the idea that she had managed to survive after all, and still played her barroom games on unsuspecting fools like me, getting free drinks and perhaps even cocaine while having to give up little or nothing of herself, a classic barfly aging in place, never changing expect to grow old.

            Then, of course, this all fell apart when I found out by accident that she had committee suicide on St. Valentine’s Day Eve five years before our encounter in Cedar Grove.

            Her dying made unfortunate sense. The Peggy I knew back in 1987 was already on the decline, steering her life straight towards the end her obituary and family claim she came to, unable to turn her life around, she simply ended it.

            It is simply not logically for me to have seen Peggy in 2004 when official records show she died in 1999.

            I must have been mistaken. The person I saw at the Grass Hopper that night was not Peggy, but someone who looked, sounded and acted like her, someone hanging out at a bar very near to where Peggy once lived and worked, a curious coincidence.

            But there are so many other unanswered questions about Peggy’s life and the dark people she was connected with, her drug dealing she claimed involved very powerful people in the other world.

            “I only do big deals,” she once told me, trying to comfort me by assuring me she wasn’t a street corner pusher or hooker for that matter.

            How much of this is true, I can’t say, but her profession as a dancer put her in intimate contact with some serious mobsters – some of which still operate as if untouchable by the law. While Satin Dolls in Lodi where she lived when I met her is among the most famous of the mob dives, several of the clubs she danced were deeply involved with the hard core porn industry, and possibly worse.

            While Peggy didn’t have the best of digs when I met her and was always struggling for cash, she had expensive tastes and claimed to have hobnobbed with some heavy-hitters before I met her. Tom, her strange guardian angel, worked at the Meadowlands Sports Complex, a notorious local for illegal gambling and drug distribution.

            While Peggy at times seemed to exaggerate her own importance, she seemed to be legitimately connected in some ways, and protected.

            The owner of Mr. B’s on Wall Street hated Peggy, but seemed reluctant to challenge her. She even danced at his club at times, although I do not think she engaged in porno and other activities some of the other dancers there did.

            Even Peggy’s car which she had named Charlie suggests someone was looking after her. She tended to name the gifts she got from people after the people who gave them to her.

            Early on, I thought her car was named after Charlie Moan, her mother’s boyfriend and later husband, except that Peggy got the car before her mother men Charlie, suggesting that there was another, more generous and probably better connected Charlie in her life from those earlier days when Peggy was still hobnobbing with the rich and notorious.

            When I asked her about the car’s name, she smiled and told me she had gotten it from “a nice man” who lived nearby.

            Unlike the famous mid-1990s disappearance the other mob-connected dancer Susan Walsh, there is no evidence to suggest that Peggy may have faked her death. It is very difficult to fake suicide. And there are obits, a record at the funeral home and a grave near Garfield with her name on it.

            But I still wonder who that woman I was that I saw that August in 2004, and why that woman who looked, sounded and acted like Peggy, seemed to know me, too.





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