October 15, 2010

Retro Ryder


Retro Ryder
by Robert Caporale

The houselights fade.

Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company file out onto the stage with guitars dangling off their shoulders. Janis steps up to a microphone and taps it. An intense single spotlight suddenly illuminates her, setting her long tangled hair ablaze. She squints through the beam at the standing-room-only crowd in the old New York Armory. We’re sitting front row center in the three dollar seats looking through her gossamer skirt at her shapely legs. She winks down at Ryder. Ryder winks back at her like he expects nothing less from an iconic female rock and roller. Ryder is too cool for his own good. Janis bangs the heel of her sling-back shoe down three times on the hardwood stage and the band breaks into “Piece of my heart.” The room goes wild.

* * *

Near the end of the concert Janis whispers into the bass player’s ear. The bass player nods. After the last curtain call and as the houselights go up the bass player leans over and invites Ryder to the backstage party…tells him Janis is expecting him. Ryder motions to the rest of us. The bass player checks us out, nods.

* * *

We follow Ryder up a steep flight of narrow stairs towards a sliding metal fire door with a muffled roar and an intense glow coming from under it. Ryder rolls open the door and we step into a bright florescent cafeteria-style room that reeks of pot and military floor wax. The party is in high gear. Janis is on the lookout for Ryder. When she spots him she jumps up and waves us past the bouncers. Janis saved Ryder a folding chair right next to her at a long table lined with the Holding Company, some local promoters, FM disk jockeys and a couple of razor-sharp Army recruiters adorned with combat ribbons.

We’re left to our own devices.

Everyone is eating free food from platters of cheese and shrimp and chicken wings. Ryder offers Janis an unfiltered Camel cigarette. She accepts. Ryder lights it in spaghetti western style with a stick match and his thumbnail.

We mingle.

Shots of tequila and pipes of Lebanese hash start getting passed around. The hash is moist and lethal. A couple of NYPD boys sporting mustaches and long sideburns are in the thick of it, eating shrimp and smoking dope with the best of us.

Gradually the whole room turns into two big glossy eyeballs.

Garfunkel shows up. He’s juiced and without Simon. He leans his tall thin shabby bones over Janis and they chat. Janis introduces Ryder to Garfunkel. Ryder shakes Garfunkel’s hands like he’s just another stoned dude at a party. Same thing happens when Joe Willy Namath limps in wearing a full length leather coat. Ryder appears quite comfortable in the middle of the celebrities. This is going to make him impossible to live with.

The party thins out and we all hit the sleepy streets just in time to watch a sickly predawn glow wash across the eastern skyline.

Ryder is among the missing.

Won’t be the first time he blows us off for a better gig.

We shrug and give a perfunctory glance around for him. We catch a glimpse of Ryder stumbling up into Big Brother and the Holding Company’s black metallic tour bus idling on the corner. Janis is all over him like smoke at a tire fire. They’re both laughing their asses off.

Out on the street we try to remember where we parked the car. And then we’re not sure if we even had a car. And if we did have a car whose car was it? What does it look like? What color is it? Paulie finds a hotel key in his pocket. It’s from The Mayflower. The Mayflower is a borderline fleabag hotel just a couple blocks away…we walk it and talk about Ryder’s good fortune, having no idea that we will never see Ryder again.

* * *

For months rumors fly of a torrid love affair between Janis and Ryder. He’s been spotted backstage at her concerts and in Paparazzi photographs of Janis...one photo ran in Rolling Stone Magazine with Ryder’s face in the background shadows.

Then rumor has he gets dumped…a new guy named Kristofferson is in and Ryder is out.

We’re expecting Ryder to roll back into town anytime now licking his wounds. He never shows. A couple months later word hits the streets that Ryder is dead.

Someone saw his obituary.

Apparently he died in a motorcycle accident just outside of Malibu. He hit a soft shoulder along the Pacific Coast Highway and lost control of his Triumph and careened over a cliff down some 300 feet where he hit the rocky shore and crushed his skull. The article goes on to say that Ryder was an up-and-coming rock concert promoter in LA.

Go figure.

We sanctify Ryder’s death by talking about how majestically he must have floated out over that cliff with his hands gripping the handlebars and his head erect and his long golden hair flowing behind him.

No way Ryder met his maker with a load in his pants. In our minds Ryder died the way he lived his short sweet life: with attitude and cool.

* * *

Ryder is shipped home airfreight in a shinny lacquered Mahogany box trimmed in brass.

We all show up at Saint Michael’s Cemetery for the liturgy of Christian burial.

Ryder’s mother sobs uncontrollably. She was a nurturing and protective woman to a fault…she ironed his underwear. Ryder’s kid brother has designs on Ryder’s room up on the third floor and his father is trying his level best at keeping a tough Teamsters local 101 I-told-you-so look on his face.

* * *


* * *

After the funeral we linger. We watch the last limo with Ryder’s family roll off down a long narrow road, leaving us alone in the middle of Saint Michel’s cemetery. It is a warm morning. We peal off our blazers and drape them over marble headstones. The sky is a blinding brilliant blue. There is a pleasant off-shore breeze rustling the leaves on the rows and rows of knurly swamp maples and weeping willows edging the grid of roads crisscrossing Saint Michael’s. The bright morning sun is still low enough in the sky to flash through the leaves and refract in a rainbow of colors as they sparkle off acres of polished marble headstones and carved angel wings. It is silent except for the leaves. Someone fires up a bone and we pass it around Ryder’s gravesite and watch the cemetery get creepy and out of focus as it turns into a macabre lightshow. We pay homage to Ryder by recalling just how slick and way cool he was…and how one cannot acquire such cool. You can’t buy sell or fake that kind of cool, Paulie says. You either have it or you don’t, JoJo says. We all agree. Even those of us that thought Ryder was slightly hypocritical and a bit superfluous…but still we agree because this is no time to debate affectations…plus Ryder was part of the original crew…and only the second to pass.

We hang-out for a few final moments instinctively knowing that this is the last time any of us will ever come here again.

We slip our blazers back on and pat Ryder’s marker and move slowly to our cars. JoJo starts singing the Doors tune. “This is the end…our only friend the end.” At first we think it sounds a bit hokie-doke but we submit and shoulder up in a long line arm and arm and join in harmonizing in bass tones “break on through…break on through …break on through to the other side.”

* * *

The world has changed.

We know this.

It is an uneasy time.

We had a good run, and at the very least we got people thinking about things differently…important things like war and race and the environment….

That alone is an accomplishment.

But the counter culture is essentially over; Woodstock was the grand finale. Madison Avenue is spoon-feeding cool to mainstream America and they are eating it up, homogenizing it by accepting our ways and embracing our styles. The suits are making plenty of money by marketing us like any other commodity to the point where people think all they have to do to be cool is go out and spend some cash on trinkets and things like Nehru jackets, love beads, Monkee albums and Sonny and Cher posters.

And the beat goes on.

Madison Avenue, Wall Street and the mass media are the antithesis of cool.

Always will be.

Cool comes off the streets, not out of boardrooms.

* * *

In time we will come to realize that maybe Ryder is the lucky one. He will never grow old. It will always be 1969 for Ryder and in our minds he will always be slick and lean and twenty-two.

* * *

The first sighting of Ryder’s ghost is in Provincetown, Massachusetts a few months after his passing.

A lone figure materializes out of the predawn light and walks slowly down Fishermen’s wharf with a stiff salty breeze at its back and a hard rain in its face. The murky figure’s poncho flaps in the wind as he crosses Commercial Street past a stretch of colorful hotdog stands and clam shacks and a salt water taffy shop before turning down Bradford. After a block the figure climbs up a flight of slippery-wet wooden stairs and bangs on a door with a big peace sign painted on it. The wind howls around Pilgrim Monument.

George, all sleepy eyed, finally opens up the door to a dripping wet Ryder’s ghost standing on the back deck in the driving rain.

According to George it slips his mind that Ryder is dead. George pulls Ryder in out of the rain and makes him a strong cup of tea and hangs his poncho up to dry. Ryder tells George he needs a place to crash for a couple of hours…just until the ferry to Boston leaves in the morning. Not a problem, George tells him. The teapot whistles. George drops a mug of hot tea in front of Ryder and points to a divan and then walks through a doorway of hanging beads and climbs back into bed.

It’s when George awakens the next morning that it hits him…Ryder is stone cold dead. George charges through the beads and checks out the divan: it’s empty. George convinces himself that he dreamt up the whole thing until he spots the remnants of a puddle under the coat rack and an empty cup on the table along with a couple of unfiltered Camel cigarette butts in an ashtray. George gets this icy cold rush that swirls up his spine and spins his head around a couple of times. George drops into a chair, takes a deep breath, leans his head into his hands, listens to his heart pound and gives serious thought to getting on the straight and narrow.

* * *

Pretty soon other people start in with stories about running into Ryder’s ghost in places like Chinese restaurants and bluesy nightclubs and Filenes’s basement and church socials and even Paris, France. It seems like Ryder is getting around pretty good for a dead guy. It’s getting to be a fad running into Ryder’s ghost and slowly but surely, story by story, year by passing year, Ryder’s ghost becomes a living urban legend.

* * *

The latest official Ryder sighting came just a few weeks ago around the forty year anniversary of his demise.

JoJo swears Ryder is delivering snacks to the rehab facility he’s staying in after having a hazelnut sized brain tumor removed through his nose.

According to JoJo, Ryder is driving a big white delivery van and filling up the vending machines at the rehab center with bags of Lays potato chips, Cheetos and Doritos.

How’s he look? we want to know.

Twenty-two, JoJo tells us.

We like that and smile at each other.

I confronted him, JoJo says, getting excited and trying to sit up in bed. Of course he denies it up and down…says he never heard of Ryder and that his name is Walker…get it…Walker?

We nod.

But I know better, JoJo says. Walker is forever laying free packs of those malted peanut butter crackers on me. I love those crackers, JoJo tells us. Always have. Ryder knows that.

Relax, we tell JoJo, laying him back down.

Paulie asks him if there is anything he needs.

The food here sucks, JoJo whispers. I crave an order of fish and chips from The Union Street Fish Market.

With coleslaw? George asks.

Of course, JoJo shrugs.

You got it, Paulie tells Ryder. I’ll be right back.

* * *


* * *

The door is locked on The Union Street Fish Market and the sign reads: NO FISH TODAY…GO HOME.

Paulie presses his face up against the plate glass, shades his eyes, peers into the dark store and spaces out staring at the rows of white dry ice in the empty display cases.

* * *

Editor’s Note

The title image is Janis Joplin in 1969 by Vinicius Mattoso. The image and its copyright information can be found here.

* * *

Robert Caporale lives and writes in Massachusetts and has over thirty published stories to his credit. Check out his web-site at www.robertcaporale.com.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

Some just follow me around and make my life miserable until I write them.