Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday; drawing by David Levine

“The unspeakable vices of Mecca are a scandal to all Islam and constant source of wonder to pious pilgrims.” As a pilgrim to Mecca, I lived at the Hotel Schuyler on West 45th Street in Manhattan, lived with a red-cheeked, homosexual young man from Kentucky. We had known each other all our lives. Our friendship was a violent one and we were as obsessive, critical, jealous, and cruel as any couple. Often I lay awake all night in a rage over some delinquency of his during the day. His coercive neatness inflamed me at times, as if his habits were not his right but instead a dangerous poison to life, like the slow seepage from the hotel stove. His clothes were laid out on the bed for the next day; and worst of all he had an unyielding need to brush his teeth immediately after dinner in the evening. This finally meant that no fortuitous invitation, no lovely possibility arising unannounced could be accepted without a concentrated uneasiness of mind. These holy habits ruined his sex life, even though he was, like the tolling of a time bell, to be seen every Saturday night at certain gay bars, drinking his ration of beer.

My friend had, back in Kentucky, developed a passion for jazz. This study seized him and he brought to it the methodical, intense, dogmatic anxiety of his nature. I learned this passion from him. It is a curious learning that cuts into your flesh, leaving a scar, a longing never satisfied, a wound of feeling hard to live with. It can be distressing to listen to jazz when one is troubled, alone, with the “wrong” person. Things can happen in your life that cause you to give it up altogether. Yet, under its dominion, it may be said that one is more likely to commit suicide listening to “Them There Eyes” than to Opus 132. What is it? “…the sea itself, or is it youth alone?”

We lived there in the center of Manhattan, believing the very placing of the hotel to be an overwhelming beneficence. To live in the obscuring jungle of the midst of things: close to—what? Within walking distance of all those places one never walked to. But it was history, wasn’t it? The acrimonious twilight fell in the hollows between the gray and red buildings. Inside the hotel was a sort of underbrush, a swampy footing for the irregular. The brooding inconsequence of the old hotel dwellers, their delusions and disappearances. They lived as if in a house recently burglarized, wires cut, their world vandalized, by themselves, and cheerfully enough, also. Do not imagine they received nothing in return. They got a lot, I tell you. They were lifted by insolence above their car loans, their surly arrears, their misspent matrimonies.

The small, futile shops around us explained how little we know of ourselves…

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