Toni… a Sorrow…


Toni Berry…

During the Gelb years when Kevin and Henry had the store I used to take my Dobro over to Kitty and Errol’s, the Powers sisters, two pretty Montessori schoolteachers. We’d play music. They both played a little guitar, Kitty was a guitar student of mine. They both sang so we’d have a nice time making music, folk songs mostly. We all enjoyed the exchange and this was a once or two night a week bit of business.
Well, after about a year of friendship the two girls were suddenly chatty about ‘Toni’ and how Toni was coming up for a visit.. “Wait ‘till you meet her. You’ll love her. And then they’d look at each other and would say words to the effect that I “wouldn’t know what to do with that one.”
“Can she sing?” I asked.
“No, she doesn’t sing. You just wait. You’ll meet her.”
Well, it came to pass that there was to be a dinner party and I would get to meet Toni.
I had no idea what to expect and I just hoped that whoever she was that we would be comfortable with each other since Kitty and Errol obviously loved this person.

So I show up and there are people milling around. The girls lived in a rented house and had room for a nice party if you know what I mean. Their friends were an intelligent bunch… no Bubbas…no Valley Girls. Also no Toni.
Great. Got some dame coming up from L.A. and can’t even show up on time for her own party!
I didn’t give it much thought…you know how it is… I wasn’t that concerned.
I was in the kitchen, I hear the conversation tone change. Evidently Toni has arrived. “Perfect,” I thought. “I’ll be able to ooze into the mingle if I wait a minute”.

Well, the kitchen door swings open and there she is. I had no idea what she was supposed to look like but I found that was always a good thing because in that way you’re never disappointed.

She was short…maybe five five, round face…brown hair styled nicely…collar length and full… brown eyes. Cute, rather than pretty…pretty rather than beautiful.
“I’m Toni.” she said.
“I’m Norm.” I said.
She looked and at me with a smirk and said, “I’m a hooker.”
I looked at her for a second. A little at a loss for words.
“You want something to drink? A sandwich, maybe?” I asked. She laughed and just then Kitty and Errol came in and said “You met Toni!” in happy voices.

Yes indeed. I’d met Toni

Now I’m basically a country boy. I had never in my life met an honest to god ‘working girl’ that I knew of. She certainly didn’t look anything like what I’d imagined what one would be like. None of the stereotypical descriptors of “hooker” or “prostitute” that one reads about in novels seemed to apply. She had a nice figure and was wearing jeans and a long sleeved blouse.

I was, and still am, big on ‘reading edges’ trying to ken what a persons “aura” might be saying. I didn’t actually see auras (except in special circumstances) and I didn’t see one on her but I could tell she was Going To Be Different.

I like to look at hands. Ideally, on a woman, I like ‘Vargas Hands’, the kind that have long tapering fingers with lonish enameled nails but those are rare. Still, some of their personality is reflected in thier hands. I always look at their hands because to me it speaks volumes of how a woman views herself. It’s part of the whole picture.

“Let me see your hands” was a question I was never afraid to ask . The way they put their hands forth told me things. I would do my “study” and sometimes do a jackleg imitation of a palm reader which allowed me to touch her hands and pick up little hints about their persona. A lot of tactile signaling can happen doing this.
When I asked her to show me her hands I noticed a bit of a hesitation and she presented me with two gently clasped fists that she ever so slowly opened. A person who trusts but only reluctantly…

She had “Urchin’s Hands” which are hard to describe. They aren’t and never could be ‘Vargas Hands’ but long nails wouldn’t enhance the hands that much. But I could see she had a well keptness to them. Honest and sturdy but still maintaining femininity.

I took her two unclenched fists in my upturned palms and was startled by her wrists. She had deep scars on both of them the ones on her left wrist a bit rougher in scar tissue than her right.
I gently stroked them with my thumb.
“Are you O.K. now?”
She cocked her head at me said “Kitty and Errol told me you’d let me know if I was OK or not.”
“Well, you really ought to get into another business if it comes to that, y’know? You need to be good to yourself”

We talked for a little while. She said she wasn’t a street hooker…no, she was a ‘call girl’ and she just had a couple or ‘regular clients’. More like a kept woman was how she put it. She made it very plain that she had no pimp. “No man ain’t taking any money from me.” I listened to her story with absolutely no judgment to it at all except to sniff it lightly to see if it was a true tale. It certainly seemed so.
Oh, well, another trippy person living an interesting life but the scars on her wrists bothered me. These weren’t little white lines… she had done a real hack on herself .

The rest of the night passed uneventfully. She and I mingled with the others and eventually Kitty, Errol and myself played about an hours worth of music. A good time was had by all. Toni and I didn’t say much for the rest of the evening . I’d catch her looking at me sometimes. Sometimes her face would be expressionless other times she would have her smirk. a certain knowing smile.

Finally I went up to he and very quietly said “Y’know what?”
“What?”
You think you’re pretty rowdy. Yeah, you do. You think you’re pretty rowdy but you’re just a rowdy little punk which is to say you ain’t all that rowdy at all.” She thought this was very funny. I started calling her “Rowdy” after that. She loved it.

She was only up for a weekend. The dinner party was on her arriving Thursday. That Friday we went to an Emerald Hills burgerie and played pool. When we got there I found she was only 20 which would be a problem because the Canyon Inn, the burgerie, was a beer and wine joint and she had no ID.
We just wanted to eat and shoot a little social pool so we had Toni drinking Cokes. I got another revelation when we got there. She asked me if the cops in this area write citations for needle marks. Whoops! Needles! This explained why she was wearing long sleeves on warm nights.

That gave me something to chew on as we played some pool. We eventually got turned out because Toni couldn’t produce an I.D. so it was a short night. She was on a plane that Sunday and I figured that would be the last of her.
Just as well. It’s hard for me to understand someone so into a substance that they are willing to inject it into themselves. We ain’t talking medicine, here. Her world was so different than mine I didn’t think we would ever be more than casual aquaintances.

A couple of months later, to my surprise, here comes Toni strutting into the store.
“The Rowdy Little Punk is here!..” she announced, kissing me in the process.
She invited me up to the Powers house that night and of course I went. We had a nice time. Played music, sang a little, Toni just taking it in and enjoying it. Talking during that second weekend visit I found out that she made really good money at what she did but she had nothing to show for it except a lot of clothes. She said that’s where most of her money went…to clothes.

She told me that she had been involved with an “outlaw” motorcycle club for a while. She liked the big bikes and the lifestyle. And the drugs available. She had pretty much quit that life but still kept in touch with some of the guys. After all, she had built some friendships with some of them.
She wanted me to write to her so I did. I think I saw her on three, maybe four separate weekends. Never even approached intimacy… no kissing, well, no necking, making out…that kind of thing. But still, a deep, caring, love and affection was growing between us.

I wrote to her for a year or so. She would get depressed and I would somehow cheer her up. And I would keep gently pressing her to get out of the business. She asked me to call her a couple of times and introduced me to her mother over the phone. She lived with her mother and would meet her clients at whatever rendzevous they arranged. Never at home.

One night her mother called me. She was worried because Toni was stoned or something and would I talk to her. I had no idea what I could do that far away. Looking back on it, she should have called the paramedics but maybe it was a financial thing or she was afraid of getting her put in jail, I don’t know. But talk to her I did and she was a mess. Obviously depressed but not actually suicidal that I could tell. But she was loaded on something. Just what I never found out or cared to find out. I talked to her and got her from mumbling to coherence, somehow.
I got a promise from her to call me the next day and once more I told her she had to find something else to do with her life but I felt out of my depth. I mean, why am I even talking to this girl… she likes bikers and uses drugs that require needles.

I’m not exactly sure what it was that did it…she always said it was me…but she got reconnected with her father who ran a catering truck business and who had a small fleet of “roach wagons” as people call them. She got a job driving one of these and found that she loved it and claimed that she had quit The Business and the drugs except for a little pot. Quitting the business was not an overnight thing. She may not have fully quit it, I don’t know. But her letters took an amazingly upbeat tone. She was starting to save money and just all in all felt happy.
This went on for a long time. She never came back to the Bay Area. But I had no idea that I would never see her again.

This went on for a while. She was happy and proud to be out of her olld profession and lifestyle.
One night I was thinking about calling Kitty and Errol and see if they’d heard from her…when the phone rang. It was Kitty. Toni was In Something more than trouble.
It turns out she went on a ‘run’ and a good time was had by all. During the revelry she had gone into someone’s tent and indulged in a needled drug. I have no idea what it was but likely it was heroin.

She passed out. She had overdosed herself because she had tried to throw up and aspirated on her own vomit. This is usually what kills in an overdose. It isn’t the drugs necessarily, that kill them. It’s the incapacitating effect so that your body doesn’t react to things like aspirating your own vomitis. You drown in it. She didn’t die but it caused oxygen starvation… brain damage…and all that was Toni went away forever. She was alive but she was pretty much going to need institutional care for the rest of her life.

A day later I got a letter from her. She had written it and mailed it just before she went on that fateful trip. In it she said she knew I wouldn’t approve but she was going on a run with this bunch of bikers she used to ride with “just this once and never again”. She told me she would be careful and signed it with love as she always did…

I cried. Deep and hard. The adult version of that little kid’s shoulder shaking shuddering, gasping sobs. There have only been two other incidents that moved me that deeply and I have to say it is Not a fun cry to have.

When I went to LA on what I call “The Johnna and Deedee Caper” I decided to try to find out more about her. Kitty gave me a phone number of one of her friends in L A and while I was down there I called the number and stated my business… was there some way I could visit Toni. The guy made me leave a number and I’m sure he made a couple of calls to have me checked out.

He called back and said, “Look. I don’t think you should go see her. She’s really fragile now. In fact the person you knew as Toni Berry isn’t in her any more. She’s changed a lot physically and she would not like to know you saw her like this.” His voice was gently…not hostile or defensive bit full of empathy and sadness.
“Remember her as she was, man. Everyone would be better off…”

And that’s the end of it.

Of course, now, there are lots of ‘what if’s’ but they won’t fit in the slot and you don’t get to play them anyhow…

I’ve only composed two songs in my life. Both instrumental, both played on the Dobro.
One is called “Travis” and the other…

…the other is called “Berry Pickin’ Waltz”

One thought on “Toni… a Sorrow…

  1. I wonder whether Toni is still alive today, even in her changed state. Thankfully, she had you, a true friend, and you have her final letter.

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