Kathleen de Azevedo: The Cougar Man


The Cougar Man

Almost everyone at some point in their lives thinks about jumping from a window, but usually a flash of acrophobia slips in and saves them. Some succeed in ignoring the laws of nature, especially young people cut off at the knees and I’ve seen a few of those. My generation was stupid, even Tomasina who has survived in my memory as clearly as if I had actually loved her. The day she entered my crystal shop, which everyone said had healing powers, I almost believed any sickness of the heart could be cured. As she walked among the crystals, each piece of glass illuminating her untouched skin and waist-length hair, I couldn’t imagine anyone more beautiful. She was breathtakingly pregnant, carrying a child underneath her loose flowing dress.

She was a girl and a woman at the same time. Sometimes I imagine her still in the city, working downtown, legit and in a suit and all. But mostly, I imagine her homeless wearing a long oversized sweater, the kind yuppies sell at yard sales once they raid the closet of their dead mothers, and sleeping under a tree in Buena Vista Park. Maybe she remembers when someone set fire to the half-built Walgreens Drugstore where we thought we could change the world one cinder at a time, or when the Gap took over the health food store and an art gallery took over the Gap. A lot of stores have come and gone since then, but I still have the small crystal shop across the street where the Cougar Man turned the world upside down. No one remembers him now, but back in the day, he was one of the most important things that happened around here, on Haight Street.

Back then, the apartment across the street from my crystal shop spilled over with people. The apartment had two flats, both crazy places. The bottom flat was a little less so because it was set at the back of the building, but the top floor with the window facing the street was truly nuts. There hadn’t been any electricity in the place since God knows when. If there was a light at all, it was probably from a Coleman lantern. Kids cooked with Billy tins on camping stoves right in the living room. It was as if the landlord just said fuck-it and left. I don’t remember most who lived there because people came and went all the time. The front of the place had huge crowds during the day, kids without any place to go. A lot of them went inside at night, but the flats seemed noisy then too, especially the upper flat with the red light glowing through the windows as if the place had caught fire, and always with some distant music. I was a tall and lanky young man, and looked like everyone else in those days: hair long and flying, though I kept mine tied in a uni-braid. I lived in the back of my store where there was a bed, a small kitchenette and a toilet supposed to be for customers but I ended up being one of the first merchants on Haight to claim they never had a toilet because I was tired of cleaning after guys who shot up and left a mess of needles and blood. Nevertheless, people believed that my crystals and bowls of turquoise and cat-eyes had magic powers. The candles and incense I sold along with the rocks made the place seem like a church, and that was enough for me.

Crystals: They start off as measly particles of sand that are pressed together with an incredible amount of heat until these chunks of sand turn into jagged milky rocks, which then become see-through when they are broken at the right spot and polished by some guy wearing a jeweler’s monocle. Then a piece of rock is drilled with a small hole and threaded with a string so it can dangle in front of a window and catch the light. From there, the consumer sees the fire of the earth somehow.

Amazing divine notions aside, the whole street was a toilet of humanity. We weren’t supposed to think that way, during the Great Social Experiment where everyone would be equal whether man, woman, animal or vegetable, but no one could deny it. Kids slept on stairs if the flats were too crowded. Their weird clothes looked torn off some clown. They wore awkward earrings made from pigeon feather dream catchers, and they trudged cow-like through the neighborhood, searching for free food. Both the crystal buyers and the I’m-just-looking.

It was the usual business until Tomasina arrived. I had been in back of my store smoking weed and contemplating the garbage can. On the other side of my back fence was a quiet house of squatters who stuck around to grow vegetables for the free store. No in and out like the flats in front. In the middle of toking, I heard an unusual amount of screaming from the street all the way from the back of my store, and as I was afraid something would happen to my volcanic wonders, I went through the shop and looked out the window in front. Then is when I first caught a glimpse of Tomasina standing next to a motorcycle. Her long hair had twisted into a matt, but she looked beautifully mad. She wore thick old boots. Her skirt pinned to her waist in front so it wouldn’t be caught at the wheels, looked like a sexy dhoti. Long and willowy legs, with the kind of knees you kiss. An old sweater buttoned up to the neck. The man she was with looked evil with flaming red hair and a porcine pink face, the kind of man you’d call “Rusty.” His large freckled hand grabbed Tomasina by the arm and he hoisted her up the stairs and into the upper flat. For some reason everyone could find the place; the door was open and they went in. As soon as they left, the street in front erupted. People began fucking around with his bike, climbing on it and faking Hell’s Angels rides. Rusty’s face appeared at the top window and he shouted: “Get off my bike!” Then he disappeared into the house and came out the front door, pushing people out of his way, sending them tripping over each other and crashing in a big bundle on the street. Of course I could have told Rusty that anything on the street became public property but he didn’t know that yet. He bounded down the stairs, yelling at the guys around his motorcycle. Chaos poured out from the flat, strung out pip-squeaks with oversized Adam’s apples. Long hair so greasy you could see skulls underneath. Tomasina came down with the others but stood apart from the mayhem. She just stood watching, she wasn’t a fighter. So goddam outtasight you could go blind. The type everyone would have sex with. Lesbians with jean-zippered crotches. Midwesterners on tour buses ready to hump her raw on the lean-back seats. Everyone who saw her melted down to pure instinct. The men set on Rusty like hounds. Rusty fought back with a full swing of his fists without holding back; but there was one of him and a lot of the others. Finally, after a lot of screaming, and after a few kids got smacked to the pavement, they got tired of kicking his ass and let him go. At that time, I thought Rusty might have gone to get a gun, (although that is probably what I think now; back then, not that many people had guns. Now they do. I’ve been robbed four times at gunpoint). The crowd ran after Rusty on his motorcycle, baying as they tried to outrun him. Once he disappeared from sight, everyone went inside and the flat and it became unusually quiet, probably just Tomasina and some lucky guy fucking by candlelight. The winner of it all.

The next day, Tomasina and a strung out dude came into the store to check it out. I didn’t know her name at the time, so I asked her. She had brushed her hair and it hung long like a beautiful curtain, as did her long granny dress puffed over what I imagined to be her pregnant belly. A long neck decorated with a leather thong, a small cowrie shell right in the dent that pulsed with breathlessness. She moved around the shelves like someone who understood crystals, and how the power of pent up earth-core heat could turn dirt into something beautiful. The strung out dude she was with though, was a different story. He was unbelievably skinny, all bone points like a splintered body that had fallen from a 20 story building. Long blonde hair; not pretty like Tomasina’s but the kind that collect leaves. An angular face, his thick lips almost like a snout. He would be called the Cougar Man later on, but I could see how he’d get his nickname before he even thought of his act. Half-dude half-creature the way he gave off a smell of wet fur. But he was with Tomasina, her eyes wide from the wonder of crystals. For her, anything, a free crystal, dope. Rice and beans. But she had the eye for jealous men, so I didn’t dare. I grinned so foolishly (I must have looked halfway decent. At least my clothes were clean, being I ran a store and all. At least I bathed in the back yard with my garden hose). She was shy but she ended up talking to me. She said she was from the country and she had run away from her family. I asked “are they looking for you?” realizing just then what a narc-y thing to say. She thought for a moment, and said she missed her sister. My instinct was to say: is she as good looking as you? Does she have the same sweet shyness, the large generous eyes, the way of gliding through the world, giving every man alive a hard on? I would think with Tomasina, there would be some love involved because there was so much nonchalant beauty there, that getting laid would reach tantric proportions. I can imagine a man would see his soul with absolute clarity, as he really was, as –he hoped — as beautiful as she.

She ended up not buying anything, nor did Stinky. But the smelly guy became his own entrepreneur by staging a performance in front of the apartment and he quickly got the name Cougar Man. He would perch on the stairs crouched, then spring like a cat, and land on all fours on the sidewalk. He shook his head so that his long hair whipped around his face and spilled down his back. He growled and looked all gleamy at passers-by and pattered softly on all fours, boney thighs trembling with the unnatural tension of a cat man loping back and forth as if in a cage. He managed to nibble on the edge of some Aztec-print poncho and the wearer gave him a cuff upside the head. He howled when people ignored him. With his yellowish peaked skin, and greasy mane, the name Cougar Man just really stuck to him.

Back then, anyone on this street could become famous, even a Cougar Man nut with the most beautiful girlfriend known to man. He had Tomasina pass around the bowl of money and she raked it in. If she was not there, he put the bowl down on the ground and mostly he collected joints. His act got more ambitious too; he ran down the block, stalking people, snatching in his teeth, the hem of a t-shirt or pair of jeans, or a long dress. Sometimes he’d use Tomasina and maul her playfully while people cheered in a laid back, hangdog sort of way. He’d nudge up the hem of her dress with his head or he’d leap in back and pretend to enter her from behind while he chewed on her neck and screeched. People loved that part.

I cannot say Cougar Man was good for the crystal shop business though. Before I had enough customers who always found some money to buy a piece of glass, but the spiritual way of glassy rocks gave way to even worse animal behavior and people just came into my shop to rip me off. The big fringed bags and oversized army jackets, the uniform of rip off artists. It wasn’t a big place and these kids were bad at it; many had never shoplifted in their lives and I could always catch them. I thought of my store as a look into a future they did not like, a future that entailed money to survive and some initiative, a future where unrequited love made a man crazy; in short, the future pissed them off.

Once the kitten act got tired, which it did in a week, people began to goad the Cougar Man. They hit him with sticks so he could rear up and snatch a stick with his jaws, and with his insanely quivering paws, take the guy down and gnaw at his forehead. They kicked him on the rump so that he flew up with a spiral in air. They challenged him to jump from higher and higher stairs and sometimes he would miss, hitting a lower step and tumbling down the sidewalk, but ultimately, he always landed on the street like a cat on all fours. They would bring him plates of some kind of food, the more disgusting the better just to see if he would dare. And he would eat it too, then vomit next to some building.

I waited for his girl Tomasina to step in and say, “that’s enough, it’s getting to be too much,” because someone that beautiful must also have some kind of soul. No matter if a crystal is born from fire and ice, it gradually emerges to reflect light in a beautiful way. And it endures. I thought that if she really loved him, she’d take some kind of pity because she was a giver of life, being pregnant and getting people to do anything for love. I thought she loved the man, because though a lot of the kids in those days acted crazy, the Cougar Man reached beyond the act and touched the truth. An animal. A few twists of the human body and you are on all fours. A few twists of the heart, and you’ve lost your way completely. But Tomasina didn’t see the truth of what was happening. She began to blend in with everyone else and her dress became grey and filthy and she grew thin and her skin turned as sallow as the Cougar Man’s. And she wasn’t pregnant. There was no life in her after all. But I had convinced myself that though I was a businessman, my crystals had news they could use. Love. The Light.

Well, I could intervene, I said to myself, but who was I fooling? The huge crowds wanting Cougar Man, and me trying to stop the action? The world had gotten too big and out of hand. The Cougar Man was beyond repair; he had taken to sleeping curled up on the sidewalk, and snarling at passers-by to the point that I didn’t know if he had been kicked out, gone mad or was just so extremely into his part he took on another soul entirely. Whatever the reason, no one cared anymore. Eventually, he left this scene. Once in a while he’d come back to try and see Tomasina, but every time he did he was kicked out of the apartment almost as soon as he went in. One guy followed Cougar Man down the stairs and on the last step, pushed him into the street. The Cougar Man limped away. Finally, he disappeared for good.

One late afternoon in the summer when the flat seemed unusually quiet, Rusty came back. Things quickly turned into pandemonium when Rusty came down the stairs of the upper flat, dragging Tomasina by her arm. She was screaming for him to let go. A bunch of guys followed them out, shouting, but no one touched him. Rusty examined them with his puffy sad face, angry eyes searching through the fat. I kept my eyes on Tomasina who by then drifted to his motorcycle and climbed up. I thought at this moment I should dive in and do my “don’t take her away” thing and stand up to the beefy guy. I imagined elegantly pulling her away by her waist, the way I’d seen guys do in movies, before the world turned into shit. But of course, we all ended up just watching Rusty and Tomasina drive away, as if we were in a sequel to the Cougar Man where the beautiful maiden is taken away by a bull and we are left wondering what the hell happened. Later one of the guys from the flat told me that Rusty was a Vietnam vet and had gone wacky from being ambushed and he was never the same. But that’s all I got. The whole scene blew my mind so much, that I didn’t even realize two guys had come into the shop and snatched a couple of crystals. I ran after them as they left the door and I shouted my feeble “hey” but they took off. One had the crystal dangling by the string and I could see the sparkle jostling down the street and disappearing into the crowd.

Nowadays, I get these high school kids who come into the store to ask me what it was like in the 60s, like when they are doing their school reports and have to interview someone. I try to explain that it was a time when I thought crystals had spiritual power, only to find out they were only as powerful as people wanted them to be. A lot of people buy crystals hoping for more than what they get and that is why my store even exists today. “Isn’t it a lie?” one of the kids inevitably asks me, “to sell something and pretend it is magic?” “I never said crystals were magic,” I tell them, “people believed they were.”

“So,” a smart kid from Lowell-The-High-Test-Score High School, said to me once, “weren’t you just a chump or did you really believe there was another way to live back then?”

Yes. We did believe there was another way to live. The kids think that I have found a new way to live because today my store sells stationary and Tibetan jewelry and fine scarves and purses along with the crystal and turquoise and cat-eyes. In other words, my store is more successful now than it was then. But a new way to live is not that simple. Obviously, it’s not about a store.

When Tomasina left, the Cougar Man came back. It’s like with Tomasina gone, people left him alone. One night, the streets became strangely quiet and warm. I pulled a chair out to the sidewalk in front of the store, which I don’t do now, because times aren’t the same, and the streets are not for fun. I looked up and saw Cougar Man on the top floor flat. He had managed to lay on the window sill on his belly, one arm and leg hanging outside, like a cheetah sleeping on a tree. I could almost see his tail switching back and forth. I have seen cats on windowsills looking at us attentively, zeroing in, as if they see the trapped mice in our heads. But I watched Cougar Man, wondering if he cared that he had turned into an animal. I wondered, considering how he was treated and all, whether being an animal wasn’t better than being a human. I almost wanted him to creep here beside me and lay his head on my lap so I could stroke his ears and feel against my legs, the deep vibrating hum in his throat. It’s like I wanted to feel the light inside him, and the contentment of his heart.

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