As most in our circle know, Elyse Steinman, bottle slide guitar player for Raging Slab, sexy, earthy, sassy, high octane shiny mama, died a few days ago, from lung cancer.
In the meantime, Curt and I began our usual dance back into relationship-hood. And around that time he got hired to play bass for Raging Slab, a band that had been around for a few years and were pretty well-established at that time.
Raging Slab was led by Greg Strzempka, who everyone called Greg Slab. His adept song-writing talent distinguished the band as leaders on the New York scene, and his aesthetic had a sort of brown, Southern flavor that none of the others did at the time. We were all still pretty gothy and glammy in the mid -80’s, with dyed hair and black eyeliner, while Greg wore a mustache and a goatee, with his hair very long and naturally brown. He was already headed into the biker-esque territory that was still on the horizon for most of us. Raging Slab were ahead of their time.
Greg’s wife Elyse was the other fixture in the band. He taught her how to play slide guitar, which became essential to their sound. Elyse was a short, sexy, rough and tumble girl with shaggy brown hair who appeared to be ever on the prowl for new conquests, male or female. I think that in that atmosphere it was impossible for any couple to remain faithful to one another for long, so like the rest of us, they had their ups and downs and dalliances.
I hated Elyse immediately upon our first meeting. She came up behind me as I sat with Curt at the bar at Wah Wah Hut and yanked three times on my fake ponytail, hard. My hair was long but I always wanted more drama, more glamour, and often wore a ponytail that hung down to my waist with a big red bow at the top. Luckily I had spent enough time around drag queens to know how to do my hair properly, and although she pulled as hard as she could, intending to embarrass me by removing it, the ponytail stayed put.
I turned around, my head throbbing, enraged. She wouldn’t look at me. She bleated, “IS THIS REAL??” directly to Curt with her side to me. “IS THIS YOUR GIIIRRRLLLFRIEND??” Curt mumbled an introduction, she gave me a cursory glance. I glared at her with burning hatred. I came there ready to meet the people in a band I really liked and was unprepared for this fight. I should have known better, though. Curt and I both inspired that kind of competitive edge in women. I don’t know if Elyse had a crush on him or just didn’t like that I was pretty, but she was a real asshole either way. I turned back to the bar and refused to acknowledge her further while their conversation finished. It was official; I wanted to punch her in the face. But I would wait until she walked away and then torture Curt about it instead.
A few weeks later a gig was scheduled, and I got dressed up to go to the show and went with Curt to meet with the band at Greg and Elyse’s 13th Street apartment before heading to the club. I was apprehensive, but Elyse was a bit better on this day. She was friendly at least, although she still got her snide comments in here and there. “OH, SO THAT’S WHAT YOUR REAL HAIR LOOKS LIKE…” She and Greg bickered nonstop that night; exchanging brittle quips like George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the banter had a sharp edge to it as they collected their gear. I sat quietly drinking a beer and observing the dynamic until it was time to go.
Curt and I trudged down the stairs behind the couple, still bickering. At the bottom of the landing Greg threw out a snarky retort at Elyse. I don’t know what it was, I can’t remember anything they were arguing about. It was all the kind of shit that only two people who have been together a while would be able to master: a comment that looks harmless enough from the outside but is designed to push the other person’s buttons. Elyse shrieked and threw her open beer bottle at him, he jumped out of the way and it hit the ground and shattered into pieces, spraying beer everywhere.
It was shocking, Curt and always I waited until the end of the night to start throwing things at each other. I looked down and saw a remarkable amount of blood pooling on the floor around my high heeled shoe. My ankle was pumping sheets of it out faster than I would have thought possible.
I screamed in terror. “I’m bleeding!!” Greg looked angry and Elyse acted concerned. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
It was clear I was not going to the gig. Curt told them he would take me to the emergency room and meet them at the club. I stood crying on the sidewalk as he hailed a cab and Elyse pushed $40 into my hand. “Here, for the cab and whatever.”
Curt, God bless him, carried me into the emergency room of Beth Israel like Dudley Doright. The attending nurse, a big black woman, rolled her eyes and said, “You don’t have to be as dramatic as all that! Put her down!” Curt said, “Look at her ankle, it’s gushing blood!” She gave us a pile of gauze to staunch the flow and sent us to sit down with the rest of the waiting throng. Curt kissed me goodbye and left for the gig. I felt so alone at that moment, so frustrated and abused by this woman I didn’t even know, bleeding in an emergency room at night by myself. Eventually, after an hour or so, I got to see a doctor, who put several stitches in my ankle and sent me home with a cane and the promise of a bill. It was the 80’s so you could get still get away with payment at a later date. And I, being a good girl at heart, did pay the $250 bill when it came in the mail a couple of weeks later.
After midnight in the city and if I’d had any money I would have been ripe for the plucking. I couldn’t walk at all. Hobble/hopping to the corner was excruciating and took so much time and effort that by the time I was able to hail a cab I was covered in sweat from the exertion in the hot summer night. Then I had to hop up the curb to my building on First Street and crawl up the five flight of stairs to my apartment. I sat on a step and used my arms and good leg to hoist my butt up to the next, then the next, then the next, until I finally reached my floor. I unlocked the door sitting and slid in backwards, still on my ass.
Since stairs were out of the question I spent the next week and a half holed up in the apartment, unable to walk to the bathroom or kitchen without feeling shooting pain. I was stuck. I couldn’t work, I just laid in bed, depressed, bored with television and feeling mightily wronged. Curt and Gini brought me food and watched television with me when they could.
Fourth of July hit a couple weeks later, and I ventured outside with Curt to hang out with friends at the Hell’s Angel’s annual 4th of July block party on 3rd Street. He helped me down the stairs and walked slowly next to me as I limped painfully on my cane. We spent some time sitting on stoops, drinking beer and watching bands play while the Angels blew up fireworks. Then I hobbled home, exhausted, but so grateful to have gotten out of the house. The ankle saga seemed endless.
Curt had an out of town gig with the band after that, and he and I were fighting again. As I slowly limped with him to their designated meeting spot in front of the Wah Wah Hut, we argued, over God knows what now. He was going through a coke shooting phase at that point so it could have been drugs or it could have been the dubious feminine company that went along with the drugs. When we got there Curt was happy to be able to escape my nonstop rant for a moment to help load gear into the car. As he worked Elyse pulled me aside.
“Hey Raff, when do you think you can get that $40 that I loaned you back to me?”
My mouth dropped. I was stunned. I almost couldn’t wrap my brain around it. This woman had caused me so much pain with her bad behavior, not to mention a substantial emergency room bill with no income to support it, and now she wanted her measly $40 back? Could anyone really be this awful? I had no answer for her. I just looked at her for a moment, snapped my mouth shut, and turned to Curt and began arguing with him again. Eventually he hopped into the car and the band drove off while I was still yelling, cane in hand, Elyse shouting, “Drive, drive!”, laughing at me. Curt told me later that she and Greg really got a kick out of how I looked holding my cane and yelling as they drove away.
Now I wanted to set her on fire.
[Interesting side-note bit of trivia–Jesse Malin was driving that van and confirmed the story from his point of view many years later.]
Curt was fired from the band after that gig. He was not a great bass player and his drug habit didn’t work in his favor. I pointedly ignored Elyse and Greg whenever I saw them out, which was often.
One night I ran into them, of course when I was at my most vulnerable. As one of the few responsible people working for our rock and roll home base Lismar Lounge, I was often obligated to close out the bar at 4 am. I lived two blocks away and would wait up watching movies, then scoot through the streets as warily as possible, praying for safe passage. On this particular occasion I had put rag curlers in my hair and just didn’t feel like keeping my makeup on until going out in public. Usually there would be no one left in the bar. I pretty much looked exactly like this, except there was no smile. I probably had that same forehead zit.
This time there were at least four or five people in the bar, two of them being the dreaded Greg and Elyse. Ugh. First the cane waving, now curlers. It was too humiliating. I leaned against the ice machine, not looking at them, praying they would leave.
Nope. Elyse walked up and stood in front of me, forcing me to acknowledge her. I turned my head to face her. She was shaking, so tiny, and said, “Hey Raff, I don’t know what happened between us, but I really am sorry about your foot and I wish we could be friends again.”
I looked down at her, mortified. I could see the rags in my peripheral vision. But at least I had a little height on her, especially since I tend to stand up stick straight when uncomfortable. I was practically bending backwards at this point.
I said, “What happened, Elyse, is that you cut my ankle open, which caused me much pain, loss of work and a hospital bill, gave me $40 for it, and then asked for that $40 back.” I couldn’t even get into the hair pulling and constant mocking that had ensued around that.
I can’t remember what her response was, I think she had forgotten that she asked for the money back. She seemed so contrite and nervous and sincere that I had to let it go. I told her it was fine. After that, although guarded for a long time to come, I said hello when I saw them and eventually became friendly enough to appreciate the wicked sense of humor underlying much of what they did and said. I still think of her whenever my fingers happen to pass over the scar.
That was written quite a while ago. Then Elyse sent a message through Instagram in October of last year. I cut a few things out of our exchanges because they’re too personal…
What a champion firecracker she became. Ballsy from start to finish. Rock on, Sister Shining Star. I’m grateful for every last second near you, good and bad.