I miss my friends. That’s because most of ’em are dead. One of ’em was Rockets Redglare, born 1949, died 2001. I didn’t see much of him the last year of his life because I had to ban him from my bar lest he croak in the place. A stiff in a bar is bad enough, but a 400lb stiff the texture of jello is even worse.
I don’t remember when I first met Michael Morra aka Rockets Redglare but it was within the first few weeks of coming to New York City in the spring of ’77. We became friends on first meeting as we had many common interests including old movies, books, crazy women and hard narcotics. We worked together at the Club 57 where I was the dj and he did a stand up comedy routine (as did Steve Bushemi). Rockets did well for himself as an actor, he appeared in numerous movies and tv shows including Oz, Talk Radio, Mystery Train, Down By Law, After Hours, Animal Factory, etc. His filmography can be found here. Eventually his addictions and poor health caught up with him. By the end his liver was pumping ammonia, he knew he was dying and was in great pain and had limited mobility, he could easily drink a quart of vodka in one sitting and the local methadone clinic had him at 180 mg. a day, the highest dosage I’ve ever heard of.
In his final months he attempted to write his autobiography, which was to be titled User’s Manual. I’m not sure if more than this exists, this may be all he managed to get on paper before his battered and bloated body finally gave out. He was the subject of an excellent documentary by the late Luis Fernandez de la Reguera (who worked for me at the Lakeside tending bar during Rockets final years), the trailer can be seen here.
In retyping the manuscript I have corrected only the spelling (for instance, clothes is spelled cloths) but have left the grammar and other mistakes the way they were written. The manuscript ends with the words “to be continued” but I’m not sure if he wrote any more.
If anyone out there has more of the User’s Manual manuscript let me know and I’ll gladly log add it to this.—The Hound
User’s Manual: An Autobiography by Rockets Redglare
My first memory is one of excessive behavior. In the 50’s you could buy a plastic razor, with soap and a brush (to get what was then called a good lather), this was not a toy-not a disposable real razor that adults buy today. This toy came with cardboard blades (double edged) and a mirror. Proudly written across the package was the declaration: “will not cut”. Obviously, the person who wrote this had never come across a shaving fool like a five year old Rockets Redglare. I Lathered and shaved, lathered and shaved for a good seven-eight hours, all the while gazing in the mirror provided and marveling at the close shave I was getting-so close, in fact, that for the next two weeks my face was a raw, sweating scab
Unfortunately, this experience set the tone for how I would react to anything I enjoyed for the rest of my life.
I Am Born:
Bellevue Hospital is located on the east side of Manhattan in the mid-20’s. This is the hospital that most policemen who have been gunshot are taken to. Their trauma center is supposedly fabulous. On any given night it is like a grand guignol of medicine. One the night of May 7th, 1949, a fifteen year old girl who had had no prenatal care and a sizable heroin habit walked into the emergency room. As she was filling out the required forms, her water broke. This girl, who was recently married to an up and coming wise guy, gave birth to a nine lb. plus baby boy. She had the constitution of a horse, as her husband liked to say. The baby also was as healthy as they come, but there was a complication.
In the years to follow a the good doctors at Bellevue would be seeing more and more of this particular complication. The baby had inherited his mother’s incredible constitution, but he had also been given his fifteen year old mother’s heroin habit. In these days doctors were at a loss to prescribe treatment for a heroin addicted baby. Both mother and child suffered severe withdrawals. These were the days before Methadone. The mother was kicking, the baby was kicking, (as babies tend to). Even so, the baby was so healthy that the nurses teased the mother saying “this baby will be the first to carry is mother home”.
How did this lovely Italian fifteen year old come to this situation? Well, and there is no other way to say this, she was wild.
My first memory of my father was seeing him in a strap t-shirt trying to fix something. Unlike most fathers who might be working on a radio or something, I think he was cleaning a gun. In those days the gun of choice was a .38 in New York. It did not go through walls or through people too often; this was the time before Uzi’s, nine millimeters, rocket launchers or assault rifles. Yes, it was a kinder-more gentile time.
But the thing that mystified me about “daddy” was his tattoos, those pictures on his arms drawn in colors I had never seen before. These had a very Catholic flavor if you can give me a certain license of description. To this day, I can not tell you what the exact images on his arms were, yet I can see them like the face of a long forgotten lover.
My father’s occupation is listed on my birth certificate as “printer”. His real occupation was “soldier”- not for the U.S. Army but for the Mafia; their are some right now who will read this and say “yeah, sure”, but all I can say is that I lived through this and wish it was not true. My father was deported when I was six and my mother was sent to Bedford prison, these are matters of public record. My “uncle Eddie” was probably public enemy #1 did evade the police and the mob for two years, all the while making frequent trips to see me on my birthdays. My father’s partner was my uncle Eddie, or Crazy Joe Donahue or Vinnie Russo. This man was my surrogate father–a five year old boy’s best friend and guardian angel. Sometimes I still think he watches over me and maybe he does.
As far as I know, my Uncle Eddie was born Vinnie Russo. He took his first hit out on a woman’s husband who beat her and molested is own daughters. The fee was twenty-five dollars. He did it with a baseball bat. He was sixteen yeas old. The same Saturday my father told me he hit a triple and two doubles in the Little Italy softball league game, with the same bat. Years later, the TV show Naked City would do an episode based on my uncle about a hit man who had gained so much notoriety he was being pursued by both the Mafia and the cops. Strangely enough, my Uncle Eddie had told me the story of the “Bridge Of Sighs”, years later he would escape for that very corridor.
A Bridge Of Sighs
One day Uncle Eddie took me to Canal St. to “Dave’s Corner”, my favorite hot dog-egg cream emporium. We walked over to the federal building and he pointed to a corridor some fifteen or twenty stories up that connected the two federal buildings, one held the federal courts, the other the federal jail. Uncle Eddie told me that the connecting tube was called the “bridge of sighs” since this was the sound that could be heard from the men sentenced to long federal time being led from the court house to the holding cells in the jail.
This very corridor was the place from which Eddie would make his historic and gallant escape a few years later. But, in those days he was free and blissfully unaware that my family was unlike any other in the world.
I did not know that families did not eat past with grated cheese for two weeks in a row and then after the father and uncle were gone for a day or two the couch would be covered with hundred dollar bills and their would be new cars and restaurants every night for months and clothes, tailored to fit in an hour, toys from Hammercher Schlemmer along with stupid gadgets that were never used. This feast or famine brand of economics was to haunt me through my entire life. There were times I did not see a ten dollar bill in a week and there were times when I would lay a spray of hundred dollar bills across the bar and keep going until it was gone.
All the good times fell apart on a night that was so crystal clear and for some reason seems so super-real I can still still smell the fear. I was watching TV and Mom, Uncle Eddie and Dad were carrying on in the kitchen when their was a loud and insistent knock on the door- it was the FBI.
It seems the last time there was general rejoicing in my household, my father, Uncle Eddie and my mother, she drove the car, robbed the Mineola Post Office. Somehow the word had gotten back to the investigating agent that my father and Uncle Eddie had been involved. Several federal agents were knocking at the door, then pounding, then breaking it down. I remember my Uncle Eddie pulling his gun (which I loved, as kids will) and threw on his trench coat, telling my mother he was taking me to my Aunt Fay’s house. He tied the belt of his trench coat around my waist ad e and Uncle Eddie went down the fire escape into the night. An hour later we were at my Aunt Fay’s house. Uncle Eddie had told my Aunt Fay that I had been living there with her and my Uncle Frank and my cousin Madelyn for the past month. Aunt Fay went to the basement, got my clothes (I always had a truck of clothes at Aunt Fay’s, just in case) got my room ready. I was now five years old, I never saw my father again and I would not see my mother till I was eight years old.
She would spend the next three years in Bedford Hills Connecticut Family in Upstate New York. My father was deported to Italy where e was born and Uncle Eddie would spend the next few years on the run. Despite the fact that Uncle Eddie was hunted by both the mob and the police, he would still come to visit me at my Aunt Fay’s. One day, he took me into Brooklyn to see the film Pinocchio, on the way back from the show, my Uncle Eddie saw this guy in front of Shermmackers Bar on Myrtle Ave. The guy had been the man who ratted on my father and Uncle Eddie. He put me on the hood of a Buick, turned and shot the guy four times in the stomach-since a gut shot is the most painful and takes longer to kill you. Uncle Eddie then picked me up and said “don’t tell your mother about this”. I was confused by this since I had just seen Pinocchio’s nose grow longer when he told a lie– I wondered what would happen to my nose, and I never told.
My Cat– Champ
I saw a cat that been ripped apart by a dog. He was half dead in the alley behind my apartment. My father and Uncle Eddie tried to help him but he would hiss and scratch at them. I went out with mild and wet clothes and, for some reason, he let me touch him and get him fixed up as much as a five year old could. I begged my father to let me keep him. Since my dad’s hand was still bleeding he did not think it was a good idea for a kid to have a vicious cat. I showed him that the cat “would never hurt me” and I had my first pet– I called him “Champ” because he was so tough. No one could touch Champ but me- he would maul anyone who came near him. I could swing him by his tail and he’d just purr and cuddle. My mom made a cat box for him, but it was never dirty– it was not until she found the cat’s scratches on the toilet bowl cover that she realized that Champ used the toilet as he had seen me do. One day I came home and Champ was gone- I’d like to think he found himself a beautiful girl-cat who loved an outlaw cat, wherever you are, Champ, I love you, and still miss you.
Aunt Fay, Uncle Frank, Madeline and Stability
The years between my mom’s arrest and my dad’s deportation and the arrival of Harry (which explains itself later) were some of the most secure and happy years of my life. I was whisked away from a loving , but horribly confusing environment when guns and drugs and fear were the coin of the realm to a suburban paradise where there was a loving, but consistent presence in the form of my Aunt Fay and a male dominant figure, not an overgrown child who still needed a best friend to validate his manhood. My Uncle Frank was a hard working, honest man. Maybe not the most romantic figure, but a guy who, if he had to, would die for his family. It was not until the last few months of my Uncle Frank’s life that we got along. Even at age six years old, I considered him a square. His idea of right and wrong I saw as antiquated and foolish. How many times I have regretted the way I felt I can not tell you. He reached out to me so many times and I was not there. But, I’ve always had problems with male authority figures.
My Aunt Fay was the matriarch of our extended family, she was always the one to host Christmas, Thanksgiving, etc. She had one of the most caustic tongues I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear humiliate anyone. She was everything an Italian other was supposed to be. She was furiously protective of me and my cousin Madeline. Madeline was only born because I was, my Aunt Fay had never wanted children, but when she saw me in the hospital she decided to have one too. Madeline was born ten months later. Figure the math.
Unfortunately, my Aunt Fay thought Maddy looked like a baby rat and so she would put a blanket over her face when she took her our in the carriage. Later Maddy would be a model and one of the most beautiful women I could hope to see.
When Madeline was a teenager she would complain to my aunt (jokingly) that any deformity she had was due to this smothering of the blanket. My aunt would say “but you looked like a rat, I prayed that gypsies would kidnap you, just come and scoop you up”.
The Reach Of The Mob
This is not chronological at all, but, it does prove a point–years after y father was deported and Uncle Eddie was dead, this was in the early seventies, I was running an after hours club. It was called The U.K Club and we paid off to “Matty The Horse” Ianello. Some “made men” had a birthday party for one of their own in the upstairs private room. They had hired a hooker to service the birthday boy. I went upstairs to check on things– there was a full bar, about three ounces of coke and quite a crow. All of them wiseguys. After they brought out the coke, etc. they brought in one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen and she was going to fuck the guy whose birthday was being celebrated. He seemed surprisingly shy about taking his clothes off, but his friends stripped him down When they took off his shirt there was really a drastic change in the mood. I noticed a six by three inch rectangle of shaven hair from his chest. (He was an especially hairy guy-hair on his back, neck, etc.) Two of the guys sent me downstairs and told me to stay at the door. When guys like that tell you to leave it is hazardous to your health not to do so immediately. I mulled the situation over and realized the shaved chest could only mean that this guy had been wired recently. It was obvious that some law enforcement agency had planted a buy on him to record conversations with his colleagues. About a half hour later two guys walked him down with a Burberry raincoat thrown over his shoulders. There was spots of blood seeping through the material. Now, no one had ever let on who it was, but a guy came over and said “you’re the son of Dominick Morra and the grandson of Cryin’ Joe Donahue, do the right thing about this”. He handed me five hundred dollars, I should not even write about this now, since there is now statue of limitations on murder. But, hey, fuck it, this did teach me that things that the mob knows and acts upon and the guy on the street can’t ever conceive of. It had been a good thirty years since my dad had been deported and I was using the name Rockets Redglare, how did these guys know? Obviously information is the greatest asset in any business. The U.K. Club was perhaps the most decadent place on the face of the earth. On many occasions we had as our guests Hells Angels (one who shot the DJ, another who broke a man’s face apart with a hammer). There were mobsters and bank robbers who got blowjobs from transvestites in the bathrooms. A woman who managed a city convention in the morning who blew me in the upstairs lounge four hours before she went to put on her gown. John Belushi freebasing for three days straight and then something down the stairs laughing the entire time. We had a mother and daughter from Connecticut who liked to fuck the same men and pull trains. The celebrities who came through there were Bill Murray, Rip Torn, Chris Walken, Jon Ford Noonan (who wrote a couple of something chicks sitting around something). It was always one a.m. at the U.K. Club.
Mom Gets Out Of Jail
By the time my mother was released from Bedford Hills Connecticut Facility, I was eight years old, I had spent the last three years living in the bosom of a normal family. My cousin Madeline and I had bonded and were inseparable. My uncle had been a strong male presence and my Aunt Fay , of course, taught me “normal” values. She used to make on exception in her straight arrow approach to life, my Uncle Eddie. My aunt used to say “Uncle Eddie is the most honor-bound man I’ve ever met, except the fact that he kills people for a living”.
Now I would be with my mom again, but I was also wary. This was to be a new and improved Mom, though free of dope, mom now had a beautician’s license. She immediately rented an apartment for she and myself. In two years she would own her first beauty parlor, we lived in Brooklyn, she worked constantly and prospered. I was send to a Jesuit boarding school– Coindre Hall, in Huntington, Long Island. I won the General Excellence medal at graduation from the fourth grade. This meant I he best overall average of any of the lower school (grades four through eight). My mother bought a second beauty parlor. She took me to the Allen Freed Rock and Roll Show at the Brooklyn Paramount. We went back stage and I met Jackie Wilson. He was already a friend of my mothers We went to Greenwich Village and my mom introduced me to Lenny Bruce who was another friend. The thing I remember most about Lenny was that he wore a pair of white jeans and a white Levi’s jacket, but they had been taken to a tailor so they fit perfectly. In the 1960’s prices it probably cost fifty bucks to tailor all for a twenty dollar outfit. What I remember about Jackie Wilson was that he was, without a doubt the greatest performer I’ve ever seen, he gave his heart, soul and guts. He moved like was pure electricity. His performance was like a great film- it took you for a ride on a roller coaster. When he broke into “Lonely Teardrops” you simply wanted those moments to last for eternity. At one point, he was lying on the floor, tapping a tattoo on the microphone singing low and sweet “my heart, my heart”. Somehow I always feared that it was at this point he had his stroke on stage that left him comatose. If he had been upright and fallen; medical help would have been instantaneous and his brain would have gotten the much needed oxygen in time to prevent the coma.
My mother also took me to poetry readings, plays (off-off Broadway, off Broadway, and Broadway) and movies. The movies would prove to be the force that would change my life. As a child I wanted to be a priest, years later, while waiting for my mother in Bickford’s Cafeteria on 23rd and 8th Ave (where all the white dope fiends went to cop heroin) I saw a bunch of jazz musicians setting at a table and was so impressed I wanted to be a sax player. But, when my mom took me to see James Cagney’s Man Of A Thousand Faces, the story of Lon Chaney Sr., I knew I had to be a film actor. I also knew that this was a goal that would be almost impossible to realize but, I would try. And so I lived in the theaters. I spent entire days, doing from one theater to the next, this was the day of the double feature, I could easily see four movies in a day. Also in those days, the TV was rampant with old movies. I studied my favorite actors, I read all the criticism I could. I wrote scenes from imagining films and I performed them mapping the shots and soundbites in my head. When I read a novel, it was a movie in my brain. Life was starting to make sense. Mom and I lived in Manhattan or Brooklyn until I was fourteen years old. She worked hard and gave me an unbelievable allowance, I went to a lot of movies. Mom was gone from the home mot of the time (she was working twelve to sixteen hours a day) but, we still spent a lot of time doing great stuff. And then, things came off like a prom dress. Harry showed up. If ever there was an envelope that evil fit in like a chain letter, it was Harry. While in prison, Harry found out that my mother was doing well for herself. This was an incentive for him to contact mom when he was released. Now the real horror began. I was basically a sweet thirteen year old kid. Suddenly my mother is going out with a guy who could care less about me. I knew my mom was lonely and hurting but, Harry was a creep. Firstly, his ex-girlfriend started to call the house and say all these foul things about my mother. I did not know my mom had a drug problem, ever. Yet this woman called my mom a junkie and a whore. The phone would ring at ten p.m.- I’d pick it up hoping it was my mom saying she was on her way home, especially since it seemed that since Harry had come around she was never home–sometimes I’d be left alone for two or three days. Later, I would wish I saw my mother even two or three days. She came banging on the door one night, I opened the door, thinking it was my mother, it was Harry’s ex–she pulled me by my hair and went into the apartment. She looked for my mother and Harry, I was crying by this time, she left a horrible letter on the couch and simply stepped over me. From this point, I thought of Harry as the enemy, an invader. If only I had acted on this even at thirteen or fourteen, I could have saved my mother’s life, and myself untold (until now) grief. The next five years would be a hell on earth for me. I would see my mother go from a prosperous loving and beautiful woman to a prostitute, junkie who would time to time show up to steal whatever meager resources I had managed to put together. My father, who I prayed would come back home, was in Italy, perhaps dead. My only hope was Uncle Eddie, who I knew would kill Harry in a microsecond. I was to find that Uncle Eddie who was actually public enemy number one had been captured, sentenced to the electric chair (one of the last men to be sentenced to die in New York) but, instead the teamsters, who were under mob control, are also the union of the prison guards, was put in a tier of cells with nineteen blacks and himself. When they returned, there was a few black prisoners with broken noses, etc. and Uncle Eddie had been beaten to death. There was no one to help me. The rest of the family chose to believe that my mother was fine. I never told them for fear that she was addicted to heroin. I would be a detective or sorts for the next few years. Always looking for her, I was left alone for weeks at a time. I washed my shirts for Catholic school. I played poker with the older boys so I would be able to eat lunch.
to be continued.