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  • Simon Howard

THE MOST FAMOUS MAN IN AMERICA

Updated: Mar 14, 2020

Tom’s been on the Columbian Gold again. It’s a humid Thursday in August, 1978, and ever since his arrival in New York people have been shoving joints at him. He’s standing in Riverside Park, swaying slightly back and forth, surveying the scene. There’s a cigarette in his mouth and a copy of Anaïs Nin’s diaries in his pocket. Back home, he’s a theatre man, a drama student. All around him are stoned people lying flat out on the arid grass. Loud children – probably stoned too – play baseball too energetically. Throughout the park people follow their dogs around with little spades and plastic bags: patiently, lovingly, waiting for them to shit. Sitting on a bench nearby, Tom’s English actor friend Derek is rolling his fifth joint of the day. With some difficulty. Thank God he adds tobacco – otherwise, thinks Tom, they might have died from an overdose during the fortnight they’ve been here. They’ve been taking a lot of pills too. Tom is trying to remember why they’ve come into the park and finds himself looking at something wrapped around his wrist. What the fuck’s that? he wonders. It’s a leather strap, and his eyes follow it stretching from his hand into a bush nearby. He remembers. Basco! At the other end of this dog-lead – leash – hidden in the bush, is a huge and delightful Great Dane of eighteen months. Basco. He belongs to Tom and Derek’s host Reuben, who is too stoned to leave his apartment nearby. Unseen by Tom, a policeman rides past on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle sixty yards away. ‘Come on, Basco,’ he says, stubbing out the cigarette under his shoe on the path. As he looks up he notices the policeman riding by, this time in the opposite direction. He wonders if he’s stoned as well. Basco is taking his time in the bush, and Tom regrets having given him chicken liver last night. Derek has keeled over and is lying on the path, smiling at the sun with the joint pointing towards it from his mouth.

‘You all right?’ asks Tom. ‘Lovely, love…’ ‘Oh, good.’ ‘Okay, lovey,’ says Derek, closing his eyes, allowing the lids to be nourished by the sun. He falls asleep. Tom turns back to the bush, where there’s still no sign of Basco. There’s no sign of the policeman on his motorbike, either. He’s hearing strange sound effects, like the wind howling in a desert. And the trees look stoned. For a moment he actually thinks he’s stepped into an early Seventies record album cover. All very deep. Profound. That’s Columbian Gold for you, AD 1978. And then the enormous policeman is standing next to him, having parked his Harley-Davidson a few yards away. Broad as well as tall. He looks at Tom without affection from behind a tinted visor. On his huge shoulder Tom thinks he reads the words ‘Sanitation Police’ on a badge, but this could be the drugs at work. A gun sits in the holster at his side. ‘Hurry up, Basco,’ mutters Tom needlessly. Then, politely to the policeman: ‘How do you do?’ ‘How d’ya do what?’ replies the policeman. Mmmm, thinks Tom, always surprised by charmlessness on his travels. ‘Yanotallowedtaletchadawgshiteindapoik,’ says the policeman. ‘I beg your pardon?’ Tom is determined to keep up the pleasantries. ‘Isaidyanotallowedtatakeyadawgintadapoikanlethimshiteinit’ ‘What?’ ‘Isaidthereainttabenoshiteindawgindapoiksee!’ Tom perseveres patiently. ‘Look, I’m terribly sorry, but I can’t understand a word you’re saying. ‘You’re under arrest,’ says the policeman, elucidating. At this moment Basco leaps from the bush, jumps up at the policeman and licks his hand, which instinctively grasps the safety catch of his revolver. Derek wakes up, disturbed by the commotion. ‘What’s going on, love?’ he asks as an elderly, loudly dressed couple pass by. ‘I think I’m under arrest,’ says Tom. The elderly woman’s face lights up. ‘Oh, what a lovely accent,’ she says with glee. ‘Would you say that again?’ Tom obliges. ‘Certainly. I’ve been arrested.’ The elderly woman turns to her elderly husband. ‘Isn’t that beautiful?’ she says. He beams. ‘Sure is, hun.’ A crowd is gathering. Cries of ‘I just love your accent!’ and ‘Oh, what a beautiful voice!’ rend the humid air. ‘He didn’t scoop the poop,’ explains one helpful bystander. ‘He’s under arrest,’ adds another. ‘And he’s English!’ A man in a suit pushes his way to the front of the throng. He is in his early thirties and has Harvard Law School written all over him. ‘I hear you’re under arrest,’ he says to Tom. ‘That was quick,’ answers Tom a little ungraciously. ‘Who are you?’ asks the policeman. ‘My name is Pilgrim. I’m an attorney.’ He turns back to Tom. ‘You’re being taken in for failure to clean up your dog’s mess.’ ‘But I’m in the park,’ Tom protests. ‘That’s right, he’s in the park,’ says a voice in the crowd. ‘That doesn’t matter,’ Pilgrim tells Tom. ‘They brought in the new law four days ago.’ ‘Yeah, we’ve been watching it on the telly,’ says Derek, who’s done a great deal of watching telly stoned since he’s been in New York. ‘But it’s not my dog,’ pleads Tom, irritated by Derek. ‘Then that’s great!’ shouts the lawyer triumphantly. ‘It’ll mean a test case. Who’s guilty in law? The owner of the license or the person on the other end of the leash? You must plead not guilty! All America will be watching. You’ll be on all the TV stations, in all the papers. You’ll be the most famous man in America!’ The crowd is overjoyed. They applaud warmly. ‘He’s going to be famous!’ says a jubilant voice. ‘And he’s English!’ cries another. ‘He’s so well-spoken. I just can’t wait to see him on TV!’ Basco wags his enormous tail, barks loudly and tries to lick everyone. Even the surly policeman seems quite uplifted by this fortuitous turn of events – touched minimally as he is by Tom’s impending fame. The only person less than happy is the actor Derek, who feels a little upstaged by his friend’s celebrity. Tom and Basco, conquering heroes both, return to the apartment where the policeman, flushed with success, attempts to arrest Reuben for possession of narcotics.


*****


USA | August 2008

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