May 24, 1988.
On the afternoon of his 30th birthday—a date he shared with Bob Dylan, the day Elmore James took a cannonball from the Delta to the South Side to the empyrean—Basilio walked to Miss Bonnie’s to have a few in the Shadow of the King.
It was the middle of the afternoon. If there was going to be a party to mark the occasion, Basilio wasn’t aware of it. So he partied with Miss Bonnie and his old friend Hettleman.
“On the house,” said Bonnie, pouring a shot of Wild Turkey to go with the cheap draught he’d ordered.
“In the alley,” winked Hettleman, jerking his head toward the side door as Basilio downed the shot.
The alley was Port Street, a narrow lane of worker houses that ran alongside of Bonnie’s Bar and through the length of East Baltimore, from the harbor rim far north past Johns Hopkins Hospital.
“So which one are you banging?” chuckled Hettleman, passing a fat joint to Basilio.
The artist tried to laugh it off—he had seven portraits of Elisabeth at Grandpop’s house and nine of Nieves in his head—but it wasn’t funny.
“Neither!” said Hettleman.
They finished the joint, went back inside for another beer, Hettleman gave Basilio a second reefer to take home and our hero began the walk east along Fleet Street to Highlandtown, the word “neither” ringing in his ears long after Miss Bonnie’s heartfelt and off-key rendition of Happy Birthday.
Not long after Elisabeth and her husband and their two little kids moved into the rowhouse across the alley, Hettleman visited to have dinner with Basilio and Grandpop and talk shop.
After the meal—fried fish and boiled potatoes, juice glasses of wine and day-old bread—the three of them sat together on kitchen chairs in the backyard to feel the evening breeze. Conversation stopped when the young mother, a girl playing a housewife, dressed the way women do when they’re trying to make a new home, came out back to shake out a rug.
Grandpop, the gentleman, touched his fingers to the brim of his hat. Hettleman drained his wine and clocked Basilio’s longing.
“If you were born without arms,” he said. “You’d find a way to touch her …”
In 1973, back in the suburbs where he was raised, the 15-year-old Basilio attended a neighborhood pool party with his parents, some of the men his father worked with and their wives. The people with the pool in the cul-de-sac down the street—a guy who sold stereo equipment and his fat-tittie wife—hired a band. And the band got drunk and, as the grown-ups started acting like teenagers, began playing what they wanted.
"Give me, your dirty love … like you might surrender to some dragon in your dreams …”
The wife of one of his father’s younger tugboat friends, a skinny woman with long straight hair, all of 27 years old, took Basilio by the hand and walked him poolside to dance in front of the band. His mother was watching in fear, the long-haired woman’s husband was watching with jealousy and the fat-tittie woman seethed with resentment.
All good fun over the Summer of ’73.
As the band wailed on Frank, seemingly playing off the CYO moves of the skinny housewife in tight jeans, she looked straight into Basilio’s eyes as they danced and the 10th grader realized that he’d been born with a fortune.
The only question was how he would spend it.
It was a mile-and-a-half walk from Bonnie’s Bar to home and for the first time since he’d moved in with Grandpop, Basilio wished that he had a car. He’d sold everything except his easel when his marriage blew up in his face like a cheap cigar. When Hettleman dropped him off at the old Spaniard’s house less than a year ago, he had $1,200 in his pocket and a suitcase full of clothes, notebooks and broken crayons.
In eight months with Grandpop, he’d spent next-to-nothing of that nest egg. Over the next three days, he’d spend $300 of it on Nieves, who never asked him for a thing.
Now, he wanted a car to take Elisabeth and Nieves to the parts of the city that no one remembered.
“He’s crazy about you,” Nieves was telling Elisabeth as the artist trudged beneath the Eastern Avenue train trestle that marked Grandpop’s neighborhood.
“I know,” giggled Elisabeth.
A car to cruise to the end of Clinton Street and Basilio more than willing to trade both of his arms on the chance of a touch.