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By Bob Ingram

He speaks now in my dreams and we are again comfortable, but it has taken the decades since he died for him to move from a vague, silent, accusing dream shadow, to a distinct presence, still silent, never a factor in the dream action, still hustling his guilt trip, until now, gradually, finally, it is all apparently forgotten, and we go about our dream business together like it was better times.

It was that fucking Frankie G., telling Bobalew that I had abandoned Hotlips to the flame of his heroin addiction. The embers were always there, smoldering, and then God knows what ill wind fanned them to life –– and eventually death. One of his sons shinnied up the rainspout to our old apartment at Third and Pine and he was sitting dead on the couch with the spike still in his arm, his face stretched into a tight death mask. Skag did that to him; almost before he took the needle out of his arm, his face would go all hollow and his cheeks suck themselves in and he’d look like he’d just shot embalming fluid. The fucking heroin was dark and patient magic and it waited him out. He stayed away for decades and then it reeled him in. It only took that first hit -- one and done.

So Frankie G. through Bobalew planted that guilt seed that I hadn’t done anything, left Hotlips alone with his enchanting demon. And so my dreams took that long path of subliminal guilt. Of course, love was the key. Nobody can have that much subconscious sway unless you love them. I didn’t know that for a long time.

My closest male friends have been four dope dealers and a critic at the British Film Institute who died of AIDS. Hotlips real name was George, but his name in our dope circles was Hotlips because that was the name he used when he wrote articles for me when I was editor of The Drummer, the Philly underground paper.

Actually, I tried twice to do something for him. Then he died. Then the dreams. I was out of all that, living in Narberth, the land of rosebushes and mortgages, with a straight job, but I drove him down to Margate and the first thing he did when we got there was snort some heroin and start ragging on me. I went for a run on the Boardwalk and drove home.

The second time I went to our old apartment. He was pretty far gone, scratching his face distractedly and pulling at the skin as if tiny dope bugs were tunneling there. I said I had a project, but he had to come to Narberth and be straight. He never showed. Then he was dead.

I knew George since I was 16 and he was 14. He was a basketball outlaw then, hitch-hiking down Route 130 from Riverside every day in the summer to play at three or four outdoor basketball courts. There were a lot of summer leagues in South Jersey then.

His nickname at that time was “Bucky” and his first words to me ever at the Collingswood courts were, “What’s your average?” He said he averaged twice as many. He was cocky, and even then was built and moved like a boxer. He had a lot of fights and won most of them. But there was a lost boy behind the basketball bravado. His father was a bartender at the old Pub around Ninth and Chestnut, a brutal drunk who beat George like a red-haired step-child. Later, George went to his father’s in Cherry Hill to try to get money to go into rehab. His father told him to wait for a minute, and while George was watching his step-brothers playing basketball, his father came up behind him and hit him in the head with a brick. That was his rehab.

I had gotten kicked out of Rutgers in New Brunswick and was finishing up in Camden when George showed up in my life again. He was a true outlaw by then, a bicycle and pocketbook thief whose nickname now was the Roadrunner because he was in perpetual motion around the rundown Camden campus, hustling and robbing and chasing the college girls.

One day, four of us, including George, were sitting in a booth at The Grille, the bar near Rutgers in Camden. Across the way was a young couple, probably students. They both got up to go to the bathroom and George was there in a flash, in the girl’s pocketbook, out with the money from her wallet, and right out the door. We all looked at each other. Nobody was unduly surprised. The Roadrunner strikes again.

The young couple came back and began to leave. When the girl found her wallet empty, she set up a hue and cry. Dick Large, who owned the place and whose brother was the chief of police in Camden, came hustling back from the bar to quiet things down. The girl and the guy told him what had happened.

Just at that moment, who should come bustling in the door but George himself, all smiles and innocence, and plopped himself back in the booth.

"What’s going on, guys?” he chirped like he hadn’t seen us in days.

“You!” Dick Large bellowed. “I knew it was you. I told you to stay out of here!”

“What? What?” said George, holding his palms up, all offended virtue.

“Was he here before?” Dick Large asked the couple. They made faces, trying to remember, but they couldn’t.

“How about you guys?” he asked us. “Was he here before?”

We fucked around and sort of shook our heads because George had a violent edge that you could somehow sense, so our cowardice was both a physical one and the old mental one about snitches and squealers. I think he came back to intimidate us, and he did. He didn’t answer to anybody, and that made him both dangerous and beguiling. He had the manner of a fighter, the tough black Irish mien, too, a handsome IRA gun pug. To him, Dick Large was just another fucking bartender like his father.

When I became a Philly guy and was editor of the hippie Drummer newspaper –– twice –– George emerged in my life again, and even wrote some reviews under that Hotlips byline. We wrote a screenplay about Big Daddy Lipscomb, the pro football player, and actually got a little money from a guy who took it to Sam Solomon, the B movie mogul at American International, but it never went anywhere. That was a shame because in his heart George wanted to write movies and then direct them, but that was hard when he had to be out there hustling a fast, funky buck.

He finally ended up with a nice little pot trade, all high end people he knew -- low risk, decent reward. We were living in that apartment at Third and Pine, and George had also rented a hall on Fourth Street between South and Bainbridge. He ran dances there and after-hours parties when the bars and clubs closed and the demimonde that George was so much a part of drifted down to South Street and rocked there until it was time for breakfast at the Famous deli. This was when South Street was still an adventure and every gypsy, tramp, and thief in town usually showed up. Big fun.

I learned so much from George. I learned to travel light. I learned at first hand the Digger credo of “stay high, keep moving, and give all of yourself away” although I’ve always had trouble with the last part. And I learned the arcane language of the streets, perfect and alive. He called someone a “stuffer” and when I asked him to explain he said the guy was a heroin addict and because heroin was known as “stuff” the guy was a stuffer. My conversation is still peppered with his language; the few of us left from those days still call marijuana “Ralph.”

He was the ultimate outsider. He hustled in Atlantic City in the winter before there were casinos, and that is hard core. He had his own glamour and style, like a Belmondo character: he wore a tight leather jacket with nothing under it at times and was always commando. He basically didn’t give a fuck and that is a strong pull to someone like me who is basically an observer. With him, there was action and adventure; he knew everybody from Mayfair to welfare, as he put it.

There could also be danger. We were in the office at the back of the hall he rented, smoking weed and bullshitting. It was evening and we had no particular place to go. The office was at the top of wide stairs and we could see the door to Fourth Street open and three kids from the projects come in. George knew them and they apparently knew of his pot business because they stood at the bottom of the stairs and told him they wanted his weed. They were a little drunk. He laughed and told them he didn’t have any weed here although there was a pound in a desk drawer. These were big, tough project kids. They popped knives open and said if he didn’t give them the weed they were going to take it.

This was now serious and dangerous. George was a tough dude, but he’d never been up against knives. As for me, what with the weed and the charged atmosphere, I kept focusing on the ashtray on George’s desk. It was a bronzed, full-size Rawlings baseball glove. Would I have the balls to use it as a weapon if they bum-rushed us up those stairs.

Then the phone rang.

“Let me get this,” George said and picked it up. “Hey, Billy. Man, long time. Yeah. Yeah. I’m okay, except there’s some young brothers here who want something that’s not theirs.”

It was Billy Webster. He was a self-styled jeweler and ex-boxer who mainly sold meth. Billy was bad to the bone and ended up stabbed to death with a bayonet by a bull dyke when he made a pass at her girlfriend in a cowboy bar.

He told George to keep on talking and he’d be there with two Vietnam vets he was shooting meth with.

Billy lived on 13th Street up by Dirty Frank’s. For the next ten minutes, George talked into a dead phone while the black kids edged up the stairs. He kept telling them he’d be right with them. Even on the brink of mayhem, there was a kind of telephone courtesy that kept them at bay. But that was wearing way thin.

Then the street door quietly opened and Billy and two hulking dudes slid in and began to tiptoe toward us. One guy had a .45 pistol in his hand and the other a machete. They were in a killing mood.

Billy sensed that and sprinted the last distance, spun one of the kids around and landed a giant right hand to his head. There was a loud pop and Billy started cursing and shaking his broken hand. That de-fused it.

The Vietnam dudes put the gun and machete under the other two kids’ chins while Billy told the kid he’d hit, who was on the floor, that if they ever came after George again they would be dead. Then they kicked their asses out onto the street.

George, Billy, and the vets actually had a laugh about the whole thing and then they left. We left, too, in case the kids came back with reinforcements.

At George’s funeral, his three ex-wives sat in a little triangle. They were so beautiful. We all loved him. We just couldn’t handle him. Like he would say, “How do you get under somebody whose bottom line is fuck it?”

From March, 2015

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