Where are Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo?
Author: Mykola Dementiuk
December 28, 2013
I still recall prowling the stacks of the Epiphany branch of the New York Public Library on East 23rd Street, as I usually did, and seeing a book cover which for some curious reason attracted my attention. It was the corny drawing of a lanky cowboy wearing a cowboy hat and holding a transistor radio to his one ear, while his other hand clutched a beaten suitcase; the picture showed he was on the road and drifting to God knows where? It was 1965 and I was just a kid, cutting school on a rainy day and hiding in the library stacks, but I sure wanted to be that traveling cowboy, the Midnight Cowboy from the book by James Leo Herlihy. Little did I know how much I was to be influenced by that book and how much the later movie version would pore over and sweep through me, washing the various bad years away.
But back in those early years before I even became a writer I already had my role in life chosen and was slowly easing into it. I drifted through the crazy night streets of New York City always hearing echoes of the theme song, “Everybody’s talking at me/I don’t hear a word they’re saying/Only the echoes of my mind…” And more and more I began to live out and survive not in the elegant cool Midnight Cowboy/Joe Buck role but the sleazy, slimy Ratso Rizzo part, his low-life partner, which was to become my eventual destiny. Living in broken tenements, condemned apartments which awaited the wrecking ball and surviving in downtrodden cheap restaurants, just scraping along on anything I could get. The promise I got from so many library books and held onto; the reading memory from years ago still was with me. There was always a cheap paperback I could rob or somehow pilfer, roosting in my back pocket and whether I wanted to be a Ratso Rizzo or not, more importantly was that I wanted to be a writer and that book, Midnight Cowboy, with its corny illustration of a cowboy on the road was imprinted on my soul, along with other books that I sometimes spent a dime or a quarter on at a used downtown bookstore.
But as the 1970’s rolled along I couldn’t keep living like that; reality stepped in and showed me I couldn’t necessarily do everything what I wanted to but had to follow different rules. After many grueling years on the streets, I cleaned my act up, presented myself as clean-cut ‘straight’ man and worked at some stupid office job, but by working through the evenings, I had finally succeeded in finishing my first novel Holy Communion, which when it did see publication, went on to win the Lambda Award 2009 as Best Bisexual Fiction. Boy was I walking on air, but I had proved nothing, as the book went nowhere–sales wise. A few more novels had been written, Vienna Dolorosa, Baby Doll and all I kept doing was writing them down as best as I could. It was many years into that period before I suffered a stroke which knocked me on my ass, and whether it was from my drinking or my devil-may-care living arrangements, something definitely had to be altered. No more could I walk normally or use my body physically as before. I ended up with just a movable left hand and one index finger of the left hand, but to me that was all I needed. By then any prospect for a productive job had frittered away and I began doing what I was meant to do, writing, typing a letter by letter, word by word until the novels and novellas all came out, Times Queer, Times Square Queer, Times Square in Brooklyn, Murder in Times Square, The Facialist (which won another Lambda Award 2012), Sissy Godiva (is up for a third Lambda this year) among many, many others.
I quickly discovered that my life of living as a fake Ratso Rizzo, if I was living as such, was really going nowhere and that my physicality had certainly put a hamper on things. Maybe I looked like a sleazy worthless street bum but I really wasn’t. All I could do now was write and relive those old memories of Times Square in the 1960s and 1970s when I lived there. My most recent novella of those years, The 42nd Street Jerking-Off Room, is my remembering those crazy 42nd Street days and nights when I “truly” became alive, no matter what it may have brought.
Times Square/42nd Street is vastly different from what it was once before when I prowled there. Gone are the shady street hustlers, the whores, the junkies and other malcontents replaced by rich tourists and lookers-on. I don’t think the sleazy aura will ever return; it’s faded forever…
Until I hear an irate Ratso Rizzo screaming at a breaking taxi cab, “Hey, I’m walking here!” Instantly, I feel better and know that the phantom of Ratso Rizzo still limps and prowls the streets of old New York City, as I still dream of doing, and that Joe Buck is close at hand. I smile, turn the page and continue walking, and singing to myself, “Everybody’s talking at me…”