We stand at the closed door of the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York, my friend Erica and I. It is 10:00 on a gray October morning in 1971, low clouds brooding snow. We just hitched here from the Thruway exit where a friend dropped us so we can visit the museum for architecture class. Now we learn the museum will be closed to set up for Yoko Ono’s art opening.
I’m 21 years old. At thirteen, my sisters and I sat on my chenille bedspread, poring over fan magazines, and I claimed John Lennon as my own. Now, in college and living with a boyfriend. I am supposedly way beyond my Beatle fantasies. But at that moment, in Syracuse, New York, fantasy and reality are at a crossroads. “We can getcha in,” says a guy with a Bronx accent. Chuck and Marty rattle off places they have crashed, establishing their credentials.
“Well, how?” I ask.
“Back way,” says Chuck, his friend Marty nodding.
“Okay, let’s go,” I say. “What have we got to lose?”
Erica gives me a mournful look. But it is Saturday morning, and even she has no desire to head back to school. Marty grabs her hand, Chuck mine, and we are off. “This,” I tell myself, “is an Adventure.”
Our odd foursome runs up a ramp that circles behind the museum and scrambles onto the loading dock We are contemplating where to hide when a station wagon lumbers up the drive. A balding man climbs out.
“Hey you kids! Give me a hand with this stuff, will you?” he asks. The stuff is three cases of pop (this is Upstate New York) for the reception after the press conference. “Here, under the table,” we are told inside. We are inside too. The press conference commences. There are a couple hundred people in the auditorium. A small flurry announced the arrival of Ono and Lennon.
I file away details in my brain to tell my sisters, to always remember: John’s tweed sport jacket and argyle sweater, Yoko’s short skirt and jaunty beret. Despite the fact that this is Yoko’s exhibit, John fields all the questions, discusses her ideas. The exhibition, “This Is Not Here,” he insists, is revolutionary, will change the concept of art.
The question period over, the Lennons rise and the rest of us follow. Private interviews are to be granted in an inner office. (No one tells us this, but it is telegraphed through the crowd all the same.) The Lennons walk into the annex they had commandeered. Some people join them. A glass door shuts, keeping the rest of us out. No one leaves. We stare at the glass, behind which people scurry. The Lennons round another corner, disappear beyond another door. Every once in a while, the glass door opens, someone is admitted, someone else is spat out.
It is close and uncomfortable in the packed, overheated museum lobby, especially dressed for a Syracuse October. Erica and I separate, swim with the crowd. All these strangers share one goal, the ultimate touchdown — John Lennon. But as in other games, there are points to be scored along the way.
“If there’s anything I can do for you…”
“Where did you say you were staying?”
“My card? Room 600. Look me up…”
“Tonight’s John’s birthday party… George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan... I can get you in, of course....” boasts a guy decorated with camera equipment. “Who’re you with?” he asks.
“Uh, I came down from school with a friend.”
“You’re not Press?”
“I’m with Rolling Stone,” he says. He doesn’t match my expectations for a photojournalist from the famous rock rag. He is short and a bit soft around the edges, and from the Bronx, judging by his accent. “If there’s anything I can do for you… I’m in room 437. Here’s my card,” he says, jotting his room number on the back and pressing it into my hand. “Sure,” I say. I’m learning.
Erica, nervous and pale, ducks away from a rather large blonde woman. “And this other character, an Italian from Texas…” she tells me, “Says he’s a promoter who’s booking Lennon into the Houston Astrodome. Hey, you know. I don’t even think They are here any more. I’m coming down with a cold. And I’m starving.”
Erica seems to be losing her sense of humor. But I’m hungry too, breakfast having been earlier in the last century. The crowd has thinned, and she is right; the Lennons have gone for the afternoon. We leave the Everson, comparing notes.
It’s cold, the kind of weather that leads to flurries. Erica suggests tea and something and heading for the Greyhound. I agree to tea. I have no money for something to eat, only enough for the bus back to school. But I’m not ready to go back yet.
So far, it’s been easy. My head is buzzing; I’m drunk with it. I want to be part of it. I’m not quite sure where this is taking me, only that I’m not there yet.
We find our way to the Syracuse Hotel by following the crowd. It seems the only place open on Sunday, and everyone, the Lennons on down, are staying there. The Lennons occupy the entire seventh floor. Talk is, one whole room is set aside for John’s birthday presents.
Before we can order our tea and English muffins (but of course), we’re joined by Erica’s friend, the Italian Texan. He will buy our tea, he announces. He looks a little like Mick Jagger, only maybe taller, better built. His name, Mangamiele, translates as honey-eater.
“What’s your sign?” he drawls to Erica, as our order arrives. She says she’s a Virgo; I’m Aries.
“I’m Scorpio,” he continues. “Scorpio rising. Moon in Scorpio. Do you know what that means?” he asks, one eyebrow raised... “Sex,” he answers himself. “Sex, sex, sex.”
“Is there really a birthday party tonight?” I ask, just managing not to choke on my muffin. There is, and of course he can get us in. If there is anything he can do for us...
I decide to leave a birthday present for John. I have, in the pocket of my Navy surplus pea coat, two horse chestnuts, smooth and round. I recall a piece in the papers about John and Yoko in Toronto and acorns. A man who likes acorns won’t snub horse chestnuts, I figure. I head to take the elevator to the seventh floor to leave my gift. Erica complains of a headache, but she follows. We leave the bill to Mangamiele.
A friendly young man named Dave guards the room devoted to Lennon’s birthday presents. He promises he will personally deliver my gift. He must be bored; he asks us who we are (21-year-old college students) and what we are doing (supposedly completing a class assignment). We tell him we have only enough money to get back to school. We wave goodbye and take the elevator to the lobby.
Erica insists we call the bus company, but all the phones are occupied. She needs to use the restroom, but the lines are long. While we bemoan these facts, we again bump into Mangamiele. And so we take him up on his offer to come to his room—to use his bathroom and telephone.
Once there, Erica makes a beeline for the potty. I call 411. “Mind if I change my pants?” the Texan asks me. “It’s your room,” I say coolly, studying the phone. Finally I get through to Greyhound and scribble down the schedule. Hanging on the wall is a huge Union Jack. “What I would give for one of those!” I gush, thinking of my boyfriend. “What would you give?” the Texan coos, and I turn to him. At this moment, Erica walks out of the bathroom.
Our Mangamiele, in white silk pants, is lying on the bed, spread-eagled, flagpole raised. “Um…” I say cleverly.
“We’re out of here,” says Erica.
“You’re not,” says the Scorpio.
“Bye,” I say. But the door is locked.
He clucks, “Looks like I’ve lost the key.”
“Don’t be silly,” I say, not finding this funny. “Where is it?” Erica is turning purple and red.
“Find it,” he says.
It’s not a big room. In a moment, I run my hand under a pillow and find the key. Now he says nothing but sits on the edge of the bed, chin on his hands. In a flash, Erica’s got the door open and is halfway down the hall.
“Don’t take it personally,” I tell him.
Again we are in the hotel lobby. It is half past five. The Greyhound will leave at nine-thirty. We’ve eaten nothing all day but an English muffin. “Should have ordered more when Mangamiele was paying,” grumbles Erica.
My brain is working. “We can still get a free dinner.” I fish in my pocket for a card. “This guy I met, the photographer from Rolling Stone.”
“You’re not serious.” Erica is aghast.
But this guy, I explain, is not at all like the Texan. I am quite sure I can handle him. What I can’t explain to Erica is that I am exhilarated by this game, the unlimited possibilities.
“Look,” I say, “He said he’d buy me dinner. What’s wrong with dinner?” Erica finally agrees to let me call him on the condition that from now on neither of us will be constrained by any decision of the other. This suits me. I pick up the house phone.
During dinner, Jeff talks and we eat. I nod appreciatively, mouth full. He repeats earlier rumors. “George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan…” He is sure he can get us in. Nothing could be simpler.
“But is there a party?” I ask. Jeff has a friend who has a friend who would definitely know. He suggests we go up to his room after dinner and give him a call.
Erica blows her nose.
The three of us are sitting in Jeff’s room, which is the mirror image of the Texan’s. Jeff is telling us the story of his life: his problems, the girlfriend who dumped him. Tomorrow, the official opening of Yoko’s exhibition is going to be videotaped for PBS. Jeff can get us in. We are waiting for Jeff’s friend to call. Erica definitely has a cold.
Jeff cannot understand why his friend has not returned his call. It is one hour to bus time. He dials again. This time, his friend is in. When he hangs up, Jeff says the party won’t be tonight, but tomorrow. Why don’t we stay with him, go to tomorrow’s opening and the party? He promises no funny business. I look over at Erica but she is getting on her coat. “See you Mudday,” she honks.
I decide to stay. I am fully confident I can handle Jeffrey, even if it were to come to force. But actually, I no longer know what I’m doing, only that it is not yet the end of the Adventure. Jeffrey engages in another hour or two of detailed personal history. The third time his girlfriend dumps him, I can definitely empathize — with her. Finally we agree on lights out. Jeff gallantly offers to take the floor, leaving me the bed. While Jeff is in the bathroom, I peel off my jeans and sweater, leaving on my underwear and tee-shirt, and slip between the sheets. I’m hardly settled before Jeff is next to me, complaining that the floor is uncomfortable. I offer to trade.
“Why can’t we both just lie in bed?” he asks, “no hands.”
“Okay,” I sigh.
Then… couldn’t he just put his arms around me?
Ten minutes later, he asks again. I try to paint a picture of the dire consequences of a jealous boyfriend. Another ten minutes and the arm comes snaking around my neck. I remove it. It is going to be a very long night for both of us.
In the morning, I wash and put on my sweater and jeans. Jeff’s face is long and hurt. Bone-weary, I am miserable. I’m not playing by the rules. Nobody is supposed to get something for nothing, I know that. Still, during breakfast, which Jeff buys, we discuss the strategy for getting me in. I am to be a reporter for Rolling Stone, a role that thrills me.
During the drive in the warm car, I doze, dreaming hazily that it is true. I’m a hot celebrity reporter, cheek-to-cheek with John…I wake as we pull up the ramp to the Everson’s rear entrance. Jeff announces our presence and flashes his press pass to the security guard checking off names on a clipboard.
But Jeff’s name and Rolling Stone’s are missing. The guard confers with another. Jeff’s ID appears genuine; I appear ingenuous. It must be an oversight, they agree, and usher us in. We are given name tags to identify ourselves and our publication.
Now we are in the same large anteroom as yesterday. The Lennons are due momentarily to officiate for the television cameras. Finally, they emerge from the glass-walled enclosure and trot upstairs. I am small and quick, unencumbered with cameras or anything else. I dart and weave until I am just behind John. When the camera rolls, I am next to the camera operator, the only reason I am not captured by its lens.
With the camera on them, the Lennons walk over to a print of the Mona Lisa. A sign beside it says “Please Touch.” John illustrates the point by drawing a mustache. He talks to me as he makes his point.
After the taping, the Lennons thank everyone and head toward the office they occupied the day before, inside closed doors, behind closed doors, the inner inner sanctum. From there, Ono will conduct individual interviews. As the pair moves down the stairs toward their office, I move too. I don’t have any plan. I haven’t had any from the start. But I am right behind them when the glass doors are shut; this time I am inside. This, I realize, is all it takes.
The Lennons, of course, have disappeared into the office once removed. The anxious press press against the glass, though occasionally one is allowed to enter. I see Jeff on the other side. Two men, Dave and Derek, direct the inside bunch: museum personnel, Lennon staff, hangers on like me. Derek, curt and British, is the person in charge. Dave is the guard we talked to yesterday, outside the room where we left John’s presents. He remembers me too, remembers I had just enough money for the bus ride back to school. He notes the Rolling Stone tag on my sweater. Will he blow my cover? But he looks at me with a sardonic smile. “Sleep well, last night, lady?”
“All right,” I lie, not cool enough not to turn colors. Derek sees me now, talking to Dave. He too focuses on my badge. “Rolling Stone?” he asks, not waiting for an answer. “Get out!” I stare at him. I fully expected to be unmasked, but this turn of events has thrown me.
“You heard me! Get out!” Hangdogged, I make it to the door, while all the gaggle on the other side of the glass watches. Dave, who had just alluded to what I must have traded to be present and knows I have nothing to do with Rolling Stone, escorts me out.
“Take off the tag,” he whispers, “and I’ll let you back.” I step out and remove the stigma of my pretended affiliation. Escorting me in, Dave explains, sotto voce, that Lennon’s people are angry at Rolling Stone for allegedly publishing interviews without permission. But now I’m back in favor; I see Jeff gesturing for me to get him in. But hey, he’s with Rolling Stone. I shrug, helpless.
The day wears on. Talk of the party, who will be there, how to get in. We wait and work in the antechamber where the king and queen hold court, catching glimpses whenever the door opens. Derek and Dave relay Lennon’s and Ono’s wishes. Dave asks me to run to the store for the Lennons’ orange juice and Coca-Cola. I return through the crowd with the precious cargo, feeling self-conscious and important. Thank God Jeff is nowhere to be seen. Inside again, I hand Dave the groceries. He looks at me.
“Don’t you want to bring in the drinks yourself?”
Yoko is talking earnestly to a young man. John, over to the side, seems unaccustomed to the position of second fiddle, relieved by the interruption.
“Don’t rush away,” he says to me. “Want a drink?”
He pours me some Coca-Cola. “Thank you,” I stammer. None of my dreams of meeting John Lennon have prepared me with anything to say when it happens.
“I don’t really belong here,” I apologize. I mumble something about my architecture class, and Lennon takes it from there. He discusses Ono’s idea of the grapefruit as an architectural model. He reaches behind him while talking and picks up a coconut from the clutter on the desk, holding it up before him like Hamlet and the skull of Yorick. Meanwhile, her interview complete, Yoko rises and edges towards the door. Lennon, still talking to me, follows her. But the coconut reminds me…
“Uh, did you get my gift, the horse chestnuts? They were all I had with me. I left them for you with Dave.”
“Oh, yeah. Thanks. I got them.” he says, standing by the door, the room now empty except for us. “Here, this is for you,” he says, handing me the coconut. We both laugh. He puts the coconut in my trembling hand.
The rest of the day falls off from the center, out of focus. In the afternoon, another segment is taped for TV. We, the chosen few, stand on an upper floor, looking down into the courtyard at Lennon and Ono, the gladiators. We point and whisper. Lennon looks up, I think, for a moment, and I think he sees me. The director is giving them instructions. Lennon picks his nose.
Also that afternoon, people begin arriving for the birthday party, not people like us, but People, as in the magazine. I do a double-take when I see Ringo. He laughs. He and his wife Maureen have their hair dyed a matching black for a movie. Later, I am called on to present Ringo and Maureen with exhibition tee-shirts, white lettering on black, proclaiming THIS IS NOT HERE. Ringo likes his. Maureen sends me back for a small.
No Paul shows, no George, no Bob Dylan, but Andy Warhol’s crew of actors and friends are present in force: I recognize Holly Woodlawn — or is it Candy Darling? A large birthday cake arrives for John. He never sees it. Holly (Candy?) holds the whole cake overhead and lowers it slowly to her mouth. Phil Spector is there, has started his party early. He flicks his Bic lighter at people until someone takes it away.
I am tired and hungry. It’s early evening, hours yet before the party. I know I can get in. I could smile my way. Dave would let me. Maybe he would take me under his wing. Another night being chased around a bed in the hotel? Or would I even refuse? It would be easy not to. All it would take would be to forget the world out there. This would be all that matters —the occasional glimpse or touch, the right to breathe the air.
I check my money, the Greyhound schedule. The show is called This Is Not Here, and, well, I guess for me, it’s not. I have a paper due tomorrow. I have just enough time to make the next bus out.
I will always have the cocoanut.
* * * * *
MY RECENT POSTS
- How I Met John Lennon and He
Gave Me a Coconut
October 09, 2008 03:03PM