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THE OBSERVATION DECK by Les Bohem

For a long time I’ve wanted to tell the story of a girl I slept with almost accidently one night in New York sometime in the early 1980s. It’s a story that could be told in any time or place, and I’ve thought often about resetting it in whatever present I was living in at the time. It’s a story about the big city and broken dreams, and young people growing up so fast that when they look up from their party for the first time they see that their youth is over.

My own part in the story is so small as to be as insignificant as say the first-person narrator of some epic Russian novel. I shared a mutual friend with this girl’s boyfriend, and for a short time I worked for the wealthy rock ‘n’ roll manager with whom she was having an affair. My memories of our one night together are slim. I think she lived in Chelsea. I’m pretty sure that the boyfriend had gone back to Boston, where they were from, for a long weekend and that the record executive she was sleeping with had gone home to Connecticut to spend the weekend with his wife and children. I’m pretty sure the girl’s name was Carol, and so for the purposes of this story, Carol she will be. I don’t remember her boyfriend’s name. And it’s probably better for all concerned if I don’t name the executive who has by now no doubt retired after a long and rewarding career. I know that several years later he had a very public affair with a recording star he had discovered and signed to the label he was then running. I know that his marriage broke up over the affair, but I imagine that by now he lives in some sort of friendly truce with his ex-wife, has grown children and no doubt grandchildren whom he dotes on. I have absolutely no idea what happened to Carol or the boyfriend whose name I can’t remember, although I do know a bit of what happened on either end of my short appearance in the story, and it’s those events that I’ve always thought I’d write about one day. So here we are.

Carol was exceptionally beautiful, and I remember, about the night when she took me home, that I was very drunk and that I could hardly believe my good fortune. I have a vague memory of the direction in which her bed faced: south, towards the Village. I know that there was cocaine involved and I have a faint memory of gentleness. I also remember kissing the matching scars under her breasts, and only realizing several weeks later that they were the scars left by breast implant surgery. I was always fairly certain that the record executive had paid for those implants, although I have no way of knowing if that was actually the case. I remember that she went out in the morning and left me to lock up the apartment. I seem to know that she was going shopping to buy something to wear for an evening on the town that week with the executive.

I remember that she said something about the three of us, she, her boyfriend, and me, getting together when he got back from Boston. And although I stayed in New York for several months after that, I don’t remember that I ever saw her again. And that is the sum total of my involvement in the story that I’m about to tell. The bits of the story that comes after my night with Carol were told to me, later, by my friend Anthony, a former tour manager for Hall & Oates who had used his many connections in the music business to establish a good-sized cocaine trade that kept him surrounded with the sort of young women he had had to bring back to many hotel rooms around the country for his former employers. Anthony had one of the most open hearts of anyone I’ve ever met, and in the end, one of these young women destroyed him, but that’s another story in which I have no part.

Carol met Michael, for our purposes it will be easier if I give the boyfriend a name, at an all-ages night at the Channel, a club in south Boston. He and his brother were in a band called Love One Another. It was 1982 and the East Coast music scene was riding the CBGB’s wave with a vengeance. LOA was arguably the most popular band in western Massachusetts with a following large enough so that almost every club in New England booked them as the opening act for any British or New York band coming through on tour. They were booked partly because they were cheap, and partly as an insurance policy in case the touring band didn’t draw as well as had been expected. In those days every city in America was riddled with local rock stars, kids crashing and burning in a limelight so small that their excesses, overdoses, venereal diseases, statutory rape charges, and musical abilities came and went without anything more than a ripple of notice. Ask anyone of a certain age from Waltham, where LOA was from, if they remember the band and they will get a distant, nostalgic smile and talk about Michael and Tommy Fallon, and the night they saw them open for the Jam at the Banyan. There is something about the also-rans that can take a person back to the most glorious summer night of their youth in a way that no memory of seeing the Cure at Shea Stadium can come close to.

Carol was sixteen when she met Michael. She had started modeling the summer before that, doing catalog work for a local department store and booking one national job for Jordan Marsch. Several of the photographers who’d shot her had offered to do portfolios for her and send her work to the agencies in New York, although Tim, the photographer who had found her outside Newton North high school and who had taken her first head shots and gotten her her first catalog work, had cautioned her that while she had the most symmetrically beautiful face he had ever photographed, she was a bit too short for high-fashion, and should consider either going straight for an entire career in catalog work, or maybe going with an agency that booked girls for Japan, where height was not nearly as important.

Still, in the small scene that was her life here in the suburbs of Boston, she had already begun to feel that she was as much the local fashion model as Michael was the local rock star. And that, once they were together, they were Jerry and Nick played out in a microcosm. This is how young hearts are broken. Not with one enormous blow, but piece by piece with possibilities dangled and then removed one at a time until all that is left is the empty wasteland of your thirties, some photographs that, in those days, you still kept in a desk drawer, and if you are extremely lucky, a menial job in the industry that stripped you of your youth and dreams.

For Carol and for Michael, in 1982, that future was too distant to even be glimpsed on the edge of their horizons. They were young, they were gorgeous, and they were in love. That summer, LOA opened for the Pretenders at the Living Room in Providence and were offered a recording contract with Sire Records. That same month, a man from the Ford Agency called Carol, saying that he had seen her headshot and that he would like to work with her. By August, Michael and Carol were living in an apartment on St. Marks Place and Avenue A. Michael’s brother and the other members of the band had found a loft on Bowery, two blocks from CBGBs. The band rehearsed there and, with the exception of Michael, slept there, traipsing over to Michael and Carol’s apartment once or twice a week for a shower. The apartment was a seventh floor walk-up. There were junkies on the stoop and Junkies in Tomkins Square Park down the block. It was a tiny, one-room studio, with a kitchen that could only hold one of them at a time. But there was a long, narrow window over the kitchen sink, and when she lay on her back on the single bed that took up most of the space in the tiny room extending from the miniature kitchen, she could see the spire of the Empire State Building out that window. She would lie there for hours while the members of LOA took their showers one by one, staring at that wonderful spire and believing, for the only time in her life, that anything was possible.

In late October, Sire put the band into the studio to record. The hours were long and Michael was gone a great deal of the time. Carol was relieved. Sire had asked the band to stay out of the clubs; they wanted to avoid overexposure, and, since they’d moved to the City in August, she and Michael had spent almost every moment when he wasn’t rehearsing together. It was a stiflingly hot September, the apartment was the size of a matchbox, and, up until they’d moved to New York, they had never spent an entire night together, since her parents expected her home and certainly wouldn’t have let her twenty-two-year-old boyfriend sleep in her room. The guy from the Ford Agency had been in the Hamptons for most of August, and in mid-September, when Carol finally went in for a meeting, he told her that he had lost his job, but that he had a lot of prospects in fashion and would definitely keep her in mind. Since then, she hadn’t really done much of anything. Her parents called twice a week, trying to get her to come back to Massachusetts. She had been a straight A student, she had only one more semester of high school left, and their terror at how quickly and irrevocably she was throwing her life away was palpable on every phone call. Her father had come to the City only once, and when he’d seen where she was living, he had broken down in tears and she’d found herself telling this grown man, the rock of her childhood, that she was going to be all right.

For a long while, at least by the standards of the young and in New York, she actually believed that. She would be all right. There would be another guy, if not at the Ford Agency, then at some other agency. Carol believed in her own beauty. She had believed in it for as long as she could remember. And, she believed, with all her heart, in Michael. It was inconceivable to her that she would not be with someone who was destined to be equally successful.

But the world did not believe. LOA finished the album just before Christmas. They heard nothing from the company in January. Then in February, they got a short call from someone in the A&R department at Sire, saying that “Seymour had decided to shelve the project.” That was it. The small advance they’d gotten was recouped against the costs of recording the album. They were an unsigned band again, with a paper debt of 125 thousand dollars in recording costs. The drummer and the bass player left for Boston in late February. The drummer to work for his dad’s construction company, and the bass player for a gig at a Holiday Inn. Michael and his brother decided to stick it out in Manhattan. Tommy moved out of the Bowery loft and moved in, his futon taking up all the remaining floor space in the apartment. Carol turned seventeen lying on the single mattress, staring at the pastel-for-Easter spire of the Empire State, while Michael and Tommy sat with their guitars on Tommy’s futon, trying to write the hit song that would put them back on the path to stardom.

Carol turned twenty-one in the apartment in Chelsea where, two years later, I was to sleep with her. She had been signed to Elite for two years. She’d been on the covers of Redbook, Marie Claire, and Cosmopolitan, had appeared in several videos, including one for Hall & Oates, which is where she met my friend, Anthony. She had done hundreds of magazine spreads. She’d been approached by a William Morris agent about doing some acting. She was solidly in the second tier of the profession. Known, sought after, guaranteed to work at least until her late-twenties. Her mother kept scrapbooks with every picture ever published of her. Her father, when he called her, seemed a little intimidated by her. He talked to her the way that you talk to a celebrity. When she thought about the girl who’d lived in the walk-up on St. Marks Place and stared up at the spire of the Empire State building, it was like thinking about some distant relative. The only thing left of that girl and that life was Michael.

Nothing had ever fallen into place for him. He and Tommy had written their songs, formed several bands. From their years as an opening act, they knew everybody. They were always backstage, always invited to every after-show and record-release party. Some people, when failure looms, duck for cover. I am of that persuasion. When things go badly for me, I do not want to be at the center of a world where the same things are going well for someone else. Others participate. They read every new novel, buy every new recording, see every new movie. I imagine it makes them feel that they are still in the game. Michael fell into this latter camp. He never stopped hanging out. He could always talk the talk. He was still relatively young and he was handsome. And often, he had Carol on his arm.

I make my own brief appearance somewhere in the middle of all this. The truth is I felt a certain kinship with Michael. I was maybe ten years older and not nearly as good-looking, but my own rock-and-roll dreams had by then died on a similar vine. We met, as I said, through Anthony, all three of us, in our own way having found that drugs were the last trapping of the dream to go. Michael had an openness to him. He was sweet and genuine. Maybe this was why he was able to keep paying attention in a scene that had rejected him. Maybe it was why he’d been rejected.

I gathered that he dealt with the fact that Carol was having her fling with the executive in much the same way. I saw them all out together once at a bar that was popular then on the Upper West Side. They were at a table, the Executive, Michael, and Carol, with John Mellencamp and Billy Joel. Michael was talking to Mellencamp about guitars, talking like an equal, and I saw that the executive had his hand under the table and up Carol’s skirt. I think that Michael knew that, and that, in some peculiar way, he was comfortable with it. It made him feel that he belonged there, where both he and Carol had always known that he belonged.

I think it was that night that I first thought about writing the story of Carol and Michael. I had visions then of being the rock-and-roll Fitzgerald, chronicler of a different sort of broken youth, and their story seemed to me the story of the Divers from “Tender is the Night.” The trading of places, the girl made whole by time and circumstance, the boy destroyed by the same forces. But I don’t know that anything that potent ever happened. I do know that Michael eventually did go back to Boston. That’s really all that I know. I found that out a few years later, when I was back in Manhattan and visiting Anthony. He was dying then of liver cancer and had moved back into his parents’ house on Staten Island. His last joy was in reminiscence. In his mind, his Amsterdam Avenue apartment where so many sleepless cocaine nights had been spent that we had all called it, “The apartment of no return,” had become a sort of private club for the rock-and-roll elite. Rock stars, actors, models danced through the apartment of his memory where in reality, a few of us had just stayed up too late too often. The conversation turned to the model who had broken his heart and then, inevitably to Carol. I assumed that the manager, whose affair with the singer was now unavoidable tabloid news, had finished with Carol when he’d found the singer. Anthony confirmed this and then told me that Michael had gone home to Boston.

“What about Carol?” I asked. “Is she still around?”

Anthony had been back with his parents for about three months, but he said that, just before he had gotten too sick to go out, he had run into Carol at the Milk Bar, a club on 7th Avenue in the Village that had by then long outlived its moment. “It was a totally weird conversation,” Anthony said. “It was maybe three in the morning. She looked hot as fuck, by the way. So, I buy her a drink, right. She’s staring into it, like someone at a bar in an old movie, the kind where the picture starts to ripple and the flashback comes. And she says, “I couldn’t see it. I looked and I looked, but I couldn’t see it.” So I say, “What, what couldn’t you see?” And she says, “I went up there, today. Up to the observation deck on the Empire State Building. You know, where the tourists go.” And she tells me that she went over on the downtown side, looking out towards Brooklyn and the East Village. And she says how she just stood there and stood there, trying to see it, but she couldn’t see it at all.”

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AUTHOR BIO:

Les Bohem has written a lot of movies and TV shows including A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 5, The Horror Show, Twenty Bucks, Daylight, Dante’s Peak, The Alamo, Kid, Nowhere To Run, The Darkest Hour and the mini-series, Taken, which he wrote and executive produced with Steven Spielberg. And for which he won an Emmy award. He’s had songs recorded by Emmylou Harris, Randy Travis, Freddy Fender, Steve Gillette, Johnette Napolitano (of Concrete Blonde), and Alvin (of the Chipmunks). He is currently producing his series, Shut Eye, starring Jeffrey Donovan, KaDee Strickland, Angus Sampson and Isabella Rossellini for Hulu. His new album, “Moving to Duarte,” will be out in November.

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WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Observation Deck”

Author Les Bohem’s “The Observation Deck” is a memoir-like story about a story of the characters, or rather one character in particular, and it’s told in the way that William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald have done so successfully. His narrator takes us back in time and into the lives of his characters to tell us the story. The voice is compelling and strong, and Bohem’s prose effortlessly pulls us along to an ending that might at first puzzle before understanding dawns. The title, whose significance eluded us throughout the story, now comes back with a brilliant, metaphorical tour de force. And that is why we chose to publish “The Observation Deck.”