Café Society: Down on Main Street

Photo by Anne Fishbein

CAGGI IS DOING HIS REGULAR FRIDAY-NIGHT GIG. HE CALLS IT Loop du Jour, and right now, through techno-gadgetry and his own guitar prowess, the crowd is being treated to "Sunday, Bloody Sunday," "Stairway to Heaven" and "All Along the Watchtower" in a staggered series of classic riffs over which he wails selected leads from each song.

Did I say crowd? By that I meant a dozen or so friends and Novel Café regulars, none of whom seems as impressed by Caggi's genius as I am. Well, one other maybe, and that's Caggi's girlfriend.

I worry about the future of his tip jar. There are about eight dollars in there, and two of them are mine. And so far there hasn't been a rush on Loop du Jour the CD. In fact, not one has been sold. Most of the people in here have seen this act before, and the novelty's worn off. That doesn't make it old, though, just familiar. Comfortable.

"Cheers for freaks" is how Caggi describes the Novel Café. I'm sitting at a table watching him with Crash and The Kid. Crash is the guy on whose couch Caggi has been flopping for nearly a year. The Kid used to be a hair model. He lives upstairs on the fifth floor, in the same shoebox he's been sleeping in and hijacking cable into for as long as I've known him.

Through the front window I can see a guy who answered to "Man Tits" when Crash said hello. With him is a young lady whose profession, I'm told, is to help make people's scatalogical fantasies come true. Beau's out there, too. She makes jewelry. Came to the beach from inland awhile back and set up right there at the café. Earlier I heard some of the regulars discussing her sleeping arrangements with some concern.

They look out for each other, in a manner, down here around Main Street. Even if they don't always know each other's last names. Credit is extended at the pub. Couches offered up. Keys given out. Cigarettes passed around. That type
of thing.

Caggi's a funny one. He's dead broke. But his dedication to Loop du Jour, which will pay for cigarettes, trumps more lucrative opportunities with actual bands. Band politics are a drag, Caggi says, and besides, Loop du Jour is "the future."

And the Novel Café is one place where his girlfriend won't get carded.

Did I mention that Caggi is 45?

Tonight, Amish John will be joining Caggi onstage for a spoken-word performance. Which means he'll be sliding his chair closer to where Caggi's set up in front of the window. When he does, Caggi starts improvising some jazzy hepcat lines.

Did I say spoken word? Well, that's what they told me, but it starts out more like a low, gurgling rumble that begins in John's diaphragm and takes on some kind of freight at the back of his throat.

The anticipation builds.

"Do it, John! Get Amish on us!" Crash shouts.

John lets out a forlorn whelp that builds into a few yaps --

"Come on, baby, go fucking Amish on our asses."

-- that submerges into a heart-wrenching growl, that finally surfaces in a torrent of yowls and moans and wails. I'm not sure what the hell is going on, but then I realize he's barking the blues. And doing a damn good job of it.

Caggi has also teamed up with Crash. They started improvising Billy Terwillerger, The Rock Opera at parties some time ago, and now it's sort of a local phenomenon. It's an epic about an adopted boy who thought his name was Billy Sfoot but later learns he's really Billy Terwillerger. It involves plenty of mother-son issues and a man's search for his identity. The Cloven Naef (Novel Café) is an evil character in the story. "Fengshui," "Magic Fatty Man Titties" and "Piñata Clash" are some of the song titles.

But I gotta tell you a few more things about The Kid. He's the one I go back with the longest. He's a heartbreaker. Almost guaranteed to break your heart and keep you coming back for more. He once looked like John Taylor from Duran Duran. Not anymore.

The Kid can pinpoint where and when it all started to go wrong. It was the time he got a call to do a show put on by Sebastian and was dissed for "recession" by a Laurent stylist who favored a young gun with thicker hair. The Kid bravely finished the show, but then he went out and got a "boy's regular" cut and never modeled again. Lately he's been reduced to trading the CDs he's scammed from record companies for Xanax.

In the middle of the barking, The Kid randomly pulls one of the hundreds of books off the shelves that line the Novel Café's walls. He takes a quick look at the cover and slaps it down in the middle of the table.

The book is a 1970 Harlequin romance featuring a beautiful brown-eyed blonde on the cover. Out of the anatomically wrong corner of her eye drips a single tear. The book's title is Bleak Heritage.

With one eyebrow raised the way the great ones can, he says, "Does that say it all?"

We crack up like tweakers watching Tom & Jerry.

Not to be outdone, Crash makes a grab and comes down with 12 Steps, 12 Traditions. Now we're shitting our pants. The combination of the two could be read as a message or a warning.

Take Junior. I haven't talked about him yet, because nobody's seen him since he got kicked out of France, where he went to try to get his girl back. Word is he's too down to come outside for anything but beer and cigarettes. His father invented the seat belt and liquid soap and discouraged him from bothering with much because nothing he could do would amount to shit compared to what the old man had already done.

Meanwhile, Crash, a computer guru who's sort of lived on the edge his whole life, is selling his vintage Rolls and fixing to split to Paris to mend a broken heart. That will leave Caggi without a place to flop, even though The Kid offered his couch. But The Kid might be out of there himself if something doesn't come through soon, since he seems to have run out of scams.

And at the last Terwillerger performance, I was told, things got a little out of hand. Caggi and Crash were in each other's faces. Apparently a blow was struck. Everyone says it was minor and quickly forgotten and that there's too much water under the bridge for that to cause a ripple in their friendship. I hope so. Still, I asked Caggi what the hell was going on down there.

"I don't know," he said, looking past me, "but change is in the air. I think it's the end of an era."

Tonight, Caggi finishes out the set with "Sultans of Swing." Still no CD sales. I put another dollar in the tip jar and we walk out into the night.

--Joe Donnelly

Girl Talk: Dot Days

ONLY THREE OTHER JOURNALISTS have shown up tonight at the Argyle Hotel for a cocktail reception organized to spread the word about NuvaRingÒ, a new monthly method of birth control that launches in July. But there are several doctors in the room, along with many representatives of the pharmaceutical conglomerate Organon.

"Waiting for something new to happen in the world of women's contraception is like watching grass grow," says Dr. Raquel Arias, an ob/gyn and dean at the USC School of Medicine. We nibble asparagus wrapped in prosciutto and pass around the flexible 2-inch NuvaRingÒ, which looks like a mini version of the snap-and-glow necklaces ravers wear.

"Here's the inside scoop," says Dr. Sally Osborne, a Florida ob/gyn who participated in NuvaRingÒ clinical trials, as she takes the podium. "There are 3 million unintended pregnancies in the U.S. each year. With NuvaRingÒ, romance can be full circle without pregnancy interrupting that curve. And the best part is, a woman doesn't even know she's wearing it."

"The first time I saw it, I thought, that thing's huge! It's not going to fit in my little vagina," says Zoe Haruyama, an ob/gyn resident at USC. Nevertheless, she agreed to be one of Dr. Arias' guinea pigs. "I don't even feel it. And my husband never feels it, or only in certain positions."

Before the writer from Working Mother and I can ask which positions, we're told that, since the turnout is small, we can all just hobnob for the rest of the hour.

We mill around the Gallery Room, festooned with fragrant sprays of white lilies, and manipulate the little rings between our fingers. Soon we're getting personal. One woman says Norplant grew a patch of hair where it had been implanted; Arias says cervical caps are the "most unpleasant form of birth control I've come across. Really, they suction so hard to the cervix you can't even get them out"; Haruyama says she forgot to take the pill so often, she became "the queen of breakthrough bleeding"; I mention that my partners have likened the diaphragm to a trampoline.

David Stern, an associate director of products management at Organon, escorts me to the bar for a glass of merlot and then whips out a small, flat, digital "hourglass."

"You see the little dots? Those are days," he says, as the 21 day-dots drop to the bottom of the hourglass. "This way, a woman knows when to take out the ring. She can keep it on the sink, or with her tampons, but the point is, she can't forget, because it's a monthly thing, just like her period. More wine?"

--Nancy Rommelmann