04 April 1981

My friend Tommy

He was my best friend, Tommy was. For a year at least.

The year was 1981, and we were sixteen years old, and we were both in Grade 10. We both looked like twelve, we both were dumb and lazy, and we both were openly defiant to authority. We both liked girls and neither of us had the slightest idea how to get them.

All the ingredients of a great friendship.

It was in the spring. I had dropped by Michaela C.'s house to teach her how to drive her brand-new Vespa, but she wasn't home. I was about to leave, when Tommy came around the corner. We knew each other from school, of course, but we hadn't talked much. He offered me a cigarette, which I took, and he told me he lived next door to Michaela, on the top floor too, but the other penthouse apartment.

Out of the blue he asked me for advice.

He had been skipping school with this girl, I can't remember her name, and they had been smooching around, and he was taking off his shirt, and she was taking off her blouse, and he was pulling down his pants, and she was pulling up her skirt, and she said she didn't have any contraceptives, so he handed her a foam tablet he had been carrying around in his wallet -- don't ask.

And then he took off his underpants, and she took off her panties, and when she was inserting the foam tablet into her vagina, which was awkward, he said, and I agreed, he became excited and ejaculated all over the place.

What could he do in the future?

I stared at him blankly. He didn't flinch, and I didn't flinch, and we both took a drag from our cigarettes. And then I told him that I was probably the wrong person to ask because, although I was carrying my own foam tablet as a badge of honour, I had not even seen a girl's vagina au naturel.

We laughed.

Friendship is a two-way street of shared embarrassments.

Shortly after that Tommy was expelled from school.

It was his own fault, really. They were just waiting for something to pin on one of us, and we were not being careful, and they knew they wouldn't have to wait long.

I walked out of the cafeteria and was on my way back to the classroom when suddenly I hear a ruckus coming from the floor above. This was nothing unusual, there was always some ruckus during the ten o'clock break, and I didn't pay it much attention. But as I was walking up the stairs the noise was getting louder and suddenly I see Susi T. hobbling down the stairs, her face red and distorted from laughing and screaming.

Susi was in Grade 9. She was cute but not pretty, and she was usually wearing lots of make-up and a bra and therefore had a large following of teenage boys. A few months earlier she had been in a car accident that had crushed her leg, and now she was supposed to use crutches to relieve pressure from the plates and screws, and allow her leg to heal properly. But she was vain and never did. And that was why she was hobbling rather than running.

(We didn't know then that the hobbling would become worse. Years later I saw her from afar at a public swimming pond. She was wearing a bikini, and as she had grown some more, her bad leg had not. The bad leg looked like a withered twig, and she was walking on the tip of its toes.)

After Susi had run past me I saw Tommy come flying after her, hobbling in the same manner she did but fake, grunting and hissing obscenely, and thrashing out at her with a black bullwhip, its braided long lash just missing her every time, and also missing me by a hair.

It was the whip that led to Tommy's expulsion.

(Coincidentally the whip belonged to me, and Tommy had borrowed it for a couple of days. Again, don't ask.)

Tommy's parents were angry with him and my whip, to understate their reaction, and they enrolled him in a boarding school near Vienna and sent him off. But he was expelled for truancy from there within a month.

When he came back to Salzburg his parents confronted him with a terrible choice. He had to go to work. Either he served the customers at the hot-dog stand they owned and operated downtown or he manned the public toilets for which they held a contract with the City of Salzburg. One of the two.

Tommy chose the toilets. He would be less exposed there and therefore less embarrassed.

The public toilets were located in a little cement house outside at the Communal Cemetery, not far from where they lived. The front entrance had a tiny vestibule which to the left led to another room which had three or four toilet stalls along the wall. Opposite the stalls were three sinks and a door which led to a small backroom, which was furnished with an old sofa, a coffee table, and a couple of chairs. I hesitate calling it a living room, but for us it felt like it.

There was a large window looking out onto the bus loop and large pass-through looking into the tiny vestibule. It was at this pass-through that Tommy set up a booth with grave candles.

And so the little house really served two functions, one as public toilets, obviously, and the other as a candle shop. In fact, Tommy never called it the toilets, none of us did, we called it the candle shop, although it was really more like public toilets.

It was a quiet business with customers far between, and Tommy set up an easel to work on his paintings, abstract paintings really, which were beginning to become quite good. He usually sat in the little backroom smoking and painting, and when somebody entered to use the toilet, he would get up and listen. Using the toilet was three schillings, using the toilet and the sink was five.

(There was a back door to the little cement house which led to the pissoir, a French word which has more gravitas than the word urinal. Using the urinal was free, but there were no sinks to wash your hands.)

The money Tommy made from the toilet users went to a cleaning lady that came every couple of days, and the money he made from selling grave lights he could keep. His money mostly went into cigarettes, and paints, and alcohol.

Michaela and I met frequently at the candle shop, by accident initially but more and more by arrangement, when we both skipped school. We would sit in the backroom, talk, drink tea, listen to music, watch Tommy paint. Tommy and I were smoking, Michaela did not. These were easy times.

Just before Christmas that year Tommy invited me over to the candle shop. It had been snowing heavily all day and it was getting dark, and he told me to wait outside while he finished something. After a couple of minutes he opened the door and called me. There in the vestibule stood a freshly painted Waffenrad, burning candles stuck onto the frame with hot wax.

"Merry Christmas," he said.

The Waffenrad was a robust bicycle with a single gear that had been produced since the end of the 19th century. The manufacturer of the bicycle was the Österreichische Waffenfabriks-Gesellschaft, a weapons producer trying to develop some peace time business. The Waffenrad was very popular amongst teenagers at the time, especially hippies and punks. I was a punk at the time.

(What happened to my Vespa? That's another story. Let's just say my mother had something to do with that.)

Tommy had noticed the old bicycle in the basement where he lived. It had flat tyres and was covered in dust, and obviously nobody had used it in years. So, one night Tommy took it to the candle shop, cleaned it up, painted it red, filled in the air, and -- Hey presto!

He told me that I was never to park the bicycle at his house, but leave it at least one block from it. Then he gave me a hug, and handed me a square-shaped smaller present, a single record of Queen's Under Pressure that had just come out. I didn't have anything for him.

As for Michaela, Tommy's Christmas present for her was a big, fat blue candle that he had decorated with toilet flush chains. On it he had engraved the words MASTURBATION CANDLE. The single he gave her was Tainted Love.

Little did I know how ominous the titles of the two records were.

New Year's Eve we all spent at a party. Some girl named Sylvia or Sylvie had locked herself in the bathroom to have sex with a boy named Armin E. while her lesbian lover was going berserk outside, hammering her fists against the door and promising to kill Armin when she got in. (There were a lot of lesbian girls at my high school, and I never knew whether it had just been a fad.) In any case, everybody took sides, and there was a lot of yelling, and everybody got drunk or stoned or both, and Michaela was mad at me for some reason but then we kissed for the first time.

Just before we left, it must have been two or three o'clock in the morning, I went upstairs to see whether Tommy was all right. And who do I find riding him, her miniskirt up to her hips? Susi T..

Yes, he would be all right.