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…”

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3 Responses to “Where are Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo?”

  1. 28 December 2013 at 2:59 PM #

    Excellent piece, Mick, your writing just gets better and better.

    My Midnight Cowboy connection? It’s kind of roundabout. Literary agent Jay Garon’s first big client was James Leo Herlihy – Midnight Cowboy had made the rounds and nobody else wanted to touch it. Soon afterward, Jay became the first big time NY agent to handle gay paperback writers, myself included. It was a big breakthrough for many of us and was another of those steps that so changed the gay publishing landscape of the 60s and 70s.. I should add that not long after that, Jay took on an unknown writer that, again, no one else would touch – In no time at all, John Grisham had made him many times over a millionaire – and he dropped all his other clients. Still, had it not been for Jay’s championing of me and other gay authors of the time, I doubt that the gay publishing revolution would have ever gathered the steam it did. Not bad for a former Broadway “gypsy” which he had been in a previous life.

  2. 28 December 2013 at 5:05 PM #

    I remember seeing the film for the first time and being blown away. I didn’t know any other queers. But the love between Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo was so real, and so full, that it made me realise that I was not alone. Curious how imagination and dreams can sustain you even though you are in fact alone and an outcast.

  3. 29 December 2013 at 6:59 AM #

    Mykola Mick Dementiuk is a true friend to me as a writer. I met him through his work & via. Amos Lassen and there began an association of kindred spirits. Back at the time Mykola writes about,I’d walked the Deuce meditating on a mantra I built at Ira Progoff’s Intensive Journal Workshops on West 23rd Ave and staying at the YMCA near the United Nations. My mission? To touch masculine beauty through art. I was role-playing John Rechy’s story, and had courage based on MIDKNIGHT COWBOY–a sort of consensual validation that my “hustler imago” was indistinguishable from the “true” hustlers. I had it down pat. I was welcomed at Cowboys as one of the hustlers, and I found on the streets of Manhattan exactly what I’d read about. Nights on these streets supplied tremendous writing material, but the writing had to wait. I was busy meditating on a reality surrounding me–the hustlers and the other queers–the point here: By using the writings and the movies about the 42nd street scene I was able to fold right in with the natural habitat. I know of no better proof of fiction’s validity than to say I successfully took a role from the pages of the books and lived it out in real time and it worked. What’s strange is Mick Mykola might have been out on the same streets. Every summer for 15 years I headed out at dusk and spent the nights prowling the Deuce and deepening into the image and roles of the hustlers and witnessed the drama unfold while I played my dual role, working the streets and writing about it. I was so careful that I kept out of the actual financial transactions for sex, but was privy to everything leading up to, and following the sex scenes except the money. WHEN I CAME ACROSS Mykola Mick Dementiuks’ books I was excited to find even more validation that what I’d seen at the 42nd street scene. Bruce Benderson’s USER confirmed and goaded me on in similar fashion, but it was Mykola’s first person confessions that so sensitively paralleled and validated my experiences best. I saw the same buildings, theaters, and streets, (even probably seeing he same players) and centering into the atmosphere of this hustlers’ and sexual playground I kept voluminous journals of every step I walked while meditating on the mantra, “Joe walking the streets alone.” Out there, looking into the raw humanity of my sub-culture I was looking for my identity, and I got a lot of info from the experiences, but I got a whole image, a concentrated and integrated vision of the scene through Mykols’a writings. What I thought was probably a true valid street life experience was validated and is validated by Mykola’s work. I have read every word he’s written, Mykola, and have given him a place of honor on my website http://www.writegay.com. When i write about the scene of street sex and m/m sex I always get a gracious “beta” reading of my current Work In Progress from Mykola and use him as the standard of validity for my work. I look to Mykola as to a wisdom figure. He’s so honest, and humble, and filled with the life of New York City in a time and place we all owe our identities to in some form. Roots that are my gay core generally have some valid origins related to the part of the world Mykola writes about. Mykola’s books are carriers of archetypes I once meditated upon, but now can go back to reading and rereading this material that is source material, foundational material to my history that I want to preserve through my writings–and for those of us who have lived openly as sexual creatures of the CITY OF NIGHT Mykola is a fountainhead of validation of our common histories. Mykola is dedicated to the truth of our origins and experience. What he documents is as important at Stonewall for the future of our culture.

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