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Ammachi Is Giving Hugs In Woodland Hills
San Fernando Valley, California, August, 2000 Ammachi is coming to Woodland Hills; it is on the four o’ clock news, K-CAL, Channel Nine. Ammachi—a plump, East Indian woman in saris, a dark red jewel between her eyes—is a saint, a living saint who gives out hugs. This week she’s giving them at the Marriott in Woodland I sit on the couch in my one-bedroom apartment and watch the saint give out hug after hug on my TV screen, hoping to see something fantastical, otherworldly—a Xena-type maybe, or Wonder Woman in a sari, bolts of electricity shooting out of her hands, her head. But Ammachi looks less like a super-hero, and more like an overworked mother, who, despite chronic exhaustion, has still managed to remain in an upbeat (albeit slightly loopy), good mood. She sweats; a few helter- skelter wisps of frazzled black hair fly loose and crazy around her face. If I didn’t know better—say, if I were just watching Ammachi give one hug in close-up—I’d think she was a woman who’d momentarily paused, in between doing dishes, cooking dinner and mopping up spilled Kool-Aid, to take a moment for a child who’d skinned a knee. She laughs softly, good-naturedly: Ooooogh-ho-ho. A round, tired laugh that says, Ooogh- ho-ho, you’re fine, sweetie. Except these are not children she’s hugging, There’s the stiff, middle-aged woman with the ice-blond pageboy, who looks like she might break if touched, much less squeezed; a histrionic, weeping Madelaine Stowe look-alike (or is it really Madelaine Stowe, the real one? We are, after all, in L.A…); then a rotund, café au lait-complexioned man in a freshly-pressed, white Madras shirt, who nestles his face agreeably into Ammachi’s yielding breast. Hug after hug, blessing after blessing, each seeker approaches the saint, as if hoping to I first heard about Ammachi from my next-door neighbor, Kym. With her long, caramel hair and blue eyes, heart-shaped face, the childhood spent in the Palisades, Kym would be your classic California Girl-type, but for an excess of fifty-odd pounds on her tall, broad- shouldered frame. Now pushing forty and single, with a nine-to-five job fielding claims at an insurance agency, Kym can’t decide whether to spell her name with a Y or an I; she gardens, she rescues cats. There is a tiny kitten on a pink towel in her bathtub right now, as we speak. Minnow. She calls it Minnow because it is tiny-tiny, so, so small. Kym rescued it from death. Kym herself was rescued from death seven months ago, when she O.D.’d on her anti-depressant Effexor (which apparently wasn’t working very well) along with half a bottle of MAO-inhibitors. When she regained consciousness two days later in the I.C.U. in Northridge, Kym called to ask me if I would go into her apartment and check on her cats. She only had two then. I did go into her apartment, but I never could find the cats. Apparently they hide. Her three collies, however, filthy and starved for love, were there, looking shell-shocked and confused. Whoever Kym had called to take care of them wasn’t doing much of a job. They stood nervously shifting their weight from side to side amidst one of the biggest messes that I have ever seen contained within a one-bedroom apartment: mountains of dirty blankets and clothes, half-opened boxes of mail-order vitamins and anti-aging skin-care products, Styrofoam peanuts spilling out every which way past ripped cardboard and heavy packing tape, dirty dishes overflowing from the sink, the counter, the stove top, the interior of the oven, spreading down onto the floor. The smell of dog feces. Costco-sized bags of dog food and cat litter stacked up in columns along the walls. Bowl upon bowl full of dirty water, tufts of Bright, colorful pictures of saints. East Indian saints. Hindu saints. The Virgin. Christ himself. They lined up, those saints, in their standing-frames, as if prepared for battle, along the glass surface of Kym’s coffee table, looking strangely intent on protecting Kym’s couch from some invisible enemy. More saints floated and hovered above me from their places on the walls, winking at me conspiratorially from within the safe, protected confines of their Ikea-purchased frames: Krishna, Kali, St. Christopher, a smattering of swamis sitting cross- legged, one sporting a long, winding beard that trailed to his toes like a When you’re in the temple you wish you were in the whorehouse, and when you’re in the whorehouse you think you should be in the temple. That’s what Charlie Dierkop is saying, sitting next to me on a bar stool at Crazy Jack’s. He says that, or something very much like that, I wish I could tell you for sure, but the music is so loud. I laugh anyway. Charlie seems bombed but he’s only drinking 7up; I am drinking seltzer. This kind of talk is natural for him, even when he’s sober. It’s a miracle that I ran into him tonight. For starters, I was supposed to go to the Marriott in Woodland Hills with Kym to get a hug from Ammachi, but the time got all screwed up, so Kym went alone to Ammachi and I am here alone at Charlie’s an original, a sweetheart—one of the old Actor’s Studio actors. A few decades back, he was a regular on Policewoman, playing the hippie cop. If you’re old enough, you might know him from that. But he’s also been a mobster, a gangster, a goon, a henchman, a Hell’s Angel, a desperado and a tough—usually some kind of outlaw, because of the shape of his nose. The Sting, Butch Cassidy…, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. A half a dozen episodes of Bonanza. But Charlie’s signature quality is not so much his broken-shaped nose so much as it is his broken heart—a heart that was broken by his mother when she left him, at the ripe old age of three, but not out of malice. It was the Depression, Charlie’s mother needed money, Charlie’s dad was out of the picture; she went elsewhere, seeking. (An age-old story, one that never dies.) She was only going to leave her young child for a week, but a week turned into a month turned into a year turned into Charlie’s life. So. It’s that combination of broken- hearted-interior, and broken-nosed-exterior, that forms Charlie’s I’ve only met Charlie twice before: the first time, at a play when I sat next to him, solely by chance, in the third row center of the audience. The play—a one-act set out West in the lost and lonely Depression-era decade, was simple and slow, void of gun shots and histrionics, loaded with silences, long stretches of seeming nothingness—but still, oddly riveting. I felt nourished by it, that slow, simple play. And afterwards, Charlie—who was then a perfect stranger—tuned to me in his black leather coat, and said, as if having savored a meal, That was a perfect circle. And when he said that, about the play being a perfect circle, I knew exactly what he meant. And his slow, simple comment about the play being a perfect circle made me feel almost as nourished as I had been by the play itself. Because it put a word on exactly what I was Now, the second time I bumped into Charlie, I was in a play, a different one, and Charlie happened once again to be in the audience. The play, an ancient Lanford Wilson one-act thrown together with spit and glue, took place in a black box theater underneath a Thai restaurant on Gardner Street in Hollywood. After the show, Charlie had given me his card, with telephone number, home address, e-mail, the whole nine. I never called him because he seemed a little crazy, a little old—and also, because he was friends with Deanne, the other actress in the play, who would soon write me a three page letter listing everything she perceived to be wrong with me, all on account of us having artistic differences. (It was a smarmy letter, to be sure, full of feral, catty, clawing accusations masquerading as spirituality—complete with the standard-issue I’ll pray for you! sign-off —not to mention a prescription for me to read, of all things, some book by Deepak Chopra.) Before all the shit hit the fan, though, back when the play was still on its feet, Charlie had come to the show, sat in the audience, and then taken both me and Deanne out for Thai food at the restaurant above the theater. There, he launched into a rambling series of reflections about spirit, matter and God. From anyone else it would have been an irritation. What do I have to feel grateful for? I feel grateful that I’m capable of Usually, when people can’t stop talking, especially in big, lofty, spiritual terms, it puts me on edge, but oddly, Charlie’s nervous New Age patter that night in Hollywood soothed and calmed me. He wore a hand-crafted leather pouch on a knotted leather cord around his neck, and when I asked him about it, he explained he rarely took it off because it contained a lock of hair that had belonged to his son who had passed away years ago—sadly, from an overdose. He was not ashamed of the tears in his eyes when he spoke of his son. When he paid for my and Deanne’s meals, he said I’ll pay—not that it’s a guy thing or anything…Ha! And we all laughed, because we knew it was, and he knew it was, and he didn’t mind saying so, and so it was funny. And later, out on the street he would say to both me and Deanne, Well, I’m turned on by both you girls. And then, Here. Here’s my card. Call me any time, any time of the night or I’m here at Crazy Jack’s to rock myself to sleep. What’s it like to dance with Charlie Dierkop? Try it and see! Charlie says this as he hops off the bar stool, holding out his hand. When I don’t move immediately, he motions towards the dance floor with a nod of his head. A slow song plays. I slide off the stool and follow him, slowly, a little shakily, out onto the floor. He walks ahead of me, pulling me past people, pulling my hand. A couple of hours ago, I lay in bed on top of twisted covers, the sheets slightly damp from my own sweat, the fan blowing hot air all around the stuffy room. I saw a lump in my closet that threatened to attack me somehow. (You see, I had just seen an episode of Dateline about serial killers.) The shape turned out to be harmless—just a maroon floral dress, badly crumpled and draped at odd angles over a box. I picked it up, put it on—put on mascara, lipstick, perfume. I’m going out, I told my dogs. Be good. I’ll be right back. I may have missed my ride with Kym to go see Ammachi, but I Now, when I first spot Charlie there in the crowd at the bar called Crazy Jack’s, I’m not sure it is him. He’s dancing wildly with a slutty old blonde, all peroxide and long legs and bare feet and lips exploding with collagen injections. A hell of a dancer, but rough. She wraps her legs around Charlie and jumps on him, arms around his neck. They stumble together a little like that, he almost lets her fall. Still, I’m not sure it’s Charlie—in an East-Indian peach-colored shirt and high-top navy-blue Keds, hamming it up with the blonde. I don’t see the leather pouch around his neck. The pouch that holds his kid’s hair. But looking at him again, in profile, I’m pretty sure it is him. He has that unmistakable profile, with the nose that’s been broken several times, and always in fights, back in his Angry-Young-Man, small- town days. So I call out to that busted-up profile, Charlie! Charlie! Charlie! And we hug. And we dance and hug all night long. I tell him all about the problems I had with Deanne and he tells me she’s a shit and I’m good. (Well, to be honest, his exact words were, Hey—you can’t polish a turd.) We slow dance and he says things like, I love the way you move, and Hugs, hugs, feels good to get hugs, You really do it for me and No Viagra needed here! When he walks me to my car, he says You sure you don’t want me to follow you home? It’s a joke, of course, but I know he would if I just said yes. He backs off when I don’t—hops up on top of a parking bump and sermons from the mount, saying that he honors all women and the way to God for all men is through Eve. And he says that he will call me, that he is just here to help. He points to a plastic heart glued to the driver’s side of the dashboard of his white station wagon, says, How many men do you know that go around following their hearts? He’s got energy, this Charlie does. He gives me a light kiss on the lips and says I am a good person, an honest person, a joy to behold. And then he helps me back my car out of the parking lot there at Crazy Jack’s, back Hugs, hugs. Feels good to get hugs, says Charlie, when we dance. I think, Ammachi is giving hugs in Woodland Hills tonight. In the dark, he says, When I was growing up I had no mother no father no brother no sister so I started off minus one hundred per cent. And so I struggled and rebelled and fought it, but now I honor the struggle, I honor the My mom was a good mom, Charlie adds, but she liked to boogie. Charlie’s hands are shaking lightly against my back, just above my shoulder blades. I can feel them tremble. When I look at us in the mirror that takes up the entire North wall of Crazy Jack’s, this is what I see: Charlie’s back, hunched over to accommodate my size, the shape of us swaying just the slightest bit from side to side, his blue high-top Keds barely moving, barely leaving the floor; my own two dark eyes peeking back out at myself, out from over his shoulder. Behind us, the blonde in her orange fringed mini-skirt and white halter top drapes herself over the broad back of a man at the bar, her face a wash of mascara and tears. Shards of light from an ancient disco ball swim against every surface in the place, swirling in wide circles along the ceiling, the walls, our faces, feet, hands, the floor. Suddenly, I can’t remember how you keep your balance in high heels—I feel like I’m in one of those little snow-shaker things, the flurry of little white specks making me queasy, off-balance, somehow. I plant my focus down on Charlie’s shoulder, anchoring my gaze so I don’t throw up, don’t fall, and suddenly it dawns on me: my hands are shaking, too. And I’m embarrassed by this; I worry if my back is damp, if my body smells—or if Charlie can feel my hands shake. And I’m embarrassed that I’m embarrassed. So I try to get philosophical, try to get in my head somehow. I think, What am I so afraid of? What makes my hands so jittery just because I put them around somebody, anybody, anywhere, but tonight in this strange dark bar called Crazy Jack’s? Why the But I have no idea—no idea of anything at all right now. For example, I have no idea that tomorrow, in the bright, hot afternoon light, Kym will be knocking on my front door, a watering can in one hand and some dirt smeared along her cheek, wearing matching white sweats and a giant crucifix of moonstones blessed purchased through the home shopping channel and blessed by a holy healer who she’s just discovered and now swears by. No, I don’t know any of this, not right now, in the circle of Charlie’s arms, my balance compromised by a blizzard of light—no idea that Kym will soon be standing in my doorway, telling me the Marriott had been a mob scene, a nightmare; so many people had come for hugs from Ammachi that the saint had simply run out of time, and Kym had been squashed in a crowded waiting room off the hotel lobby where she watched Ammachi give out hugs on a TV monitor screen. See, right now, I don’t know any of this; I’m just trying not to faint in a bar. So I have no idea that Kym’s eyes will be wide and slightly frantic when she says, You’re so lucky you didn’t go; or that she’ll pat the round, white moonstones on her crucifix softly, almost absent- mindedly, when she says to me, Oh, Kerry, you would have hated it. You definitely didn’t miss a thing.

Source: http://www.shadowboxmagazine.org/issue1/Bottle12.pdf

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