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Jim Carroll at The Back Door

This is the first piece I wrote about Jim Carroll. --Webmaster

Jim Carroll captured my heart in the fall of 1987, when I read The Basketball Diaries for the first time. Judging from the title, I expected the diary to be a boring boys' book about basketball; once I had read the first few pages, however, I realized my assumption was wrong, to say the least. This 13 year-old kid was living in a nightmare world of pedophiliac coaches and priests, gang wars, racism, and poverty; he was a star basketball player hooked on heroin, sampling every drug he could get his hands on, mugging people in Central Park, and hustling gay men for money. But he was doing more than surviving. On the basketball court, he moved with the grace of a cheetah; each basket, each slick pass, transformed him into something greater than himself. And he described his nightmare world even more elegantly, in street lingo and metaphors and sly jokes, somehow making this nightmare beautiful.

By the time I reached the middle of the book, I was hopelessly entranced, crawling along New York City's dirty underbelly alongside Carroll. As fate would have it, I discovered he would be appearing at SDSU's Backdoor nightclub and, needless to say, I bought my ticket on the spot. Then I waited.

On Friday, November 13, 1987, the day of Carroll's reading, thinking that multitudes of avid fans would have camped overnight, I arrived at the Backdoor two hours early. No one was there. With nothing else to do, I sat in a wire-mesh chair outside the door, pulled my copy of The Basketball Diaries out of my purse and started reading. I sat there, immersed in the book, for at least an hour, until a strange feeling began creeping up my spine. I heard voices behind me, and one of those voices kept slipping into the pages of my book. The sensation was so strange that I was almost afraid to turn around; I finally did, though very cautiously.Jim Carroll was sitting directly behind me, in a wire-mesh chair just like mine. It was unmistakably him: the long red hair, the pale white skin, and the thin, athletic body; his voice, with its pronounced New York accent, was the one that had crept into my book. He was talking animatedly about an upcoming film version of The Basketball Diaries, obviously excited about it.My god! A character had suddenly jumped out of the book I was reading!

I was so stunned and scared that I couldn't think of a thing to say to him. A thousand words raced through my mind; I rehearsed and revised all the brilliant things I might say, developing entire conversations in my mind. Then I abruptly realized that he was walking away. I heard him ask his friend, "Well, think we awta head ova to the aw-cade faw awhile?" I watched his lanky body disappear into the arcade, duffel bag in hand.By the time I recovered, a long line had formed at the door, and Carroll strolled straight to the front of the line, to the locked sliding-glass doors of the Backdoor. Apparently I wasn't the only one there left speechless: while Carroll struggled to open the doors, no one said a word; not even, "Hey Jim! No cuts!"

When the reading finally began, I had a front row seat. Carroll strode onto the stage, eyes glued to the floor, and attempted, almost unsuccessfully, to untangle the microphone. That taken care of, he began reading "A Day at the Races," from Forced Entries. His manner was amazing: here he was, reading a story about pubic lice and laughing at his own jokes. He read with a sort of insecure cockiness, as if to say, "Okay, I'm going to read this thing about crabs now. I kinda like this thing, so here I go." He was so cool about it, and the piece was so beautiful and funny, he had the audience nearly rolling in the aisles with laughter.I was mesmerized by this guy . . . this wonderful, scraggly, nervous-looking guy with long red hair, white white skin, hands moving constantly, dressed in black with his shoes untied. It took a while for the quiver to leave his voice. I hadn't really noticed it until it started to fade.

His art grew with each selection he read, towering over us with him on top, cracking a crazy smile. He peered over our heads from underneath that red hair, watched his hands, or focused on a face floating six feet above us.Then came the song lyrics; a request, he said. He held the mic in his hands like a prayer and paced across the stage like a cheetah, back and forth, hypnotizing. There was no band, but there was music--invisible music. His words struck like heartbeats, and he handled them like explosives:

I want the angel that knows the sky
She got virtue, got the parallel light in her eye

I want the angel that's partly lame
She filters clarity from her desperate shame

I want the angel that knows rejection
She's like a whore in love with her own reflection

I want the angel whose touch don't miss
When the blood comes through the dropper
Like a thick red kiss

And he walked back and forth across that stage, wrapped up in those words as if he were somewhere else, as if the words were speaking through him, forcing themselves out of his body through a too-small mouth.

I'm still swimming in his words, his images, his scraggly red hair. Cockroaches and crabs and bats claw at my skin, invading my veins. I'm breathing the hot smoky stench of his velvet underground. I'm licking the dirt off the streets of New York . . .


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