Eddie “Cold Hands” Caponetto was the first writer I ever knew

Eddie “Cold Hands” Caponetto was the first writer I ever knew. He was a regular at the dive where my mother bartended, the His and Hers Lounge on Cropsey Avenue in Southern Brooklyn, and he lived in an apartment above the formerly-decent Skip Boy’s Pizza nearby. My mother introduced us one day when I was hanging out at the bar doing my homework, drinking Cherry Cokes, her telling him how I was going to be like Jimmy Breslin but better and not as much of a shithead. Eddie showed me his notebook of poems. The next time I was in, he brought a folder full of his sloppily-typed stories. There was one called “The Hunchback with a Hard-On.” At fifteen, you read something like that, you tend not to forget it.

Eddie wasn’t a very good writer. He had a lot of heart, which can’t be bought, and he never stopped working, which also can’t be bought. As far as I knew then, he just wrote poems and stories. They were definitely pure Eddie. Lots of bars. Women with dishrags and knives. Men with guts and sinewy ferrets living in small cages at their feet. Cockroach races. Love found and lost at the local OTB. Buses overturned by crazed elephants let loose in the city. A Coney Island of the mind where a drunken whackjob might try to fuck the spinning mechanism of a carnival ride and get his wang chopped off in the process. A lot of Eddie’s work was hard to understand.

As far as Eddie being a man out walking in the world, what can I say? He smelled of garlic and pencil shavings. He drank bottom shelf rye. His hands were enormous, and they were fucking freezing, almost blue like his circulation had long ago been cut off, which is how he got his name at the bar. He wore sweaters covered in cat hair though he didn’t have a cat. He cried whenever Peggy Lee came on the jukebox. He had a hundred doomed romances, slicing a line on his forearm with a razor each time a lady broke his heart.

When Eddie died eight years ago, I inherited four boxes full of his work. I’d moved away by then, and he’d made my mother promise she’d give it all to me. She kept it in her garage until I picked it up and hauled it to my new home in the Deep South. It was another two years before I opened those boxes and started picking through the detritus of Eddie’s life, stacks of rubber-banded notebooks and reams of loose paper, photos of the neighborhood, dream journals, pages clipped from newspapers and written on in an indecipherable scrawl, bar coasters with poems like little mazes.

One of the most surprising things I found in the boxes is dated November 1966, and it’s a script for an exploitation movie called Sinister Kittens! I knew Eddie had left Brooklyn and lived in Los Angeles for a stretch in the ’60s and ’70s, but I didn’t know he’d tried writing movies on for size. There are other scripts, too — for cheapo sci-fi and biker flicks — but this is notable because it seems to be Eddie’s attempt at writing a kind of arthouse nudie cutie. Since I discovered Eddie’s script, the question of whether or not it ever got made has nagged at me. Out of the gate, I figured it was doubtful — certainly he would’ve told me if it had — but I also knew there was just so much hiding out there in the giant trash heap of lost stories.

So, over the last several months, I’ve attempted to find out about Sinister Kittens!, to see if Eddie had been commissioned to write it by some Ted V. Mikels-like director or a production company, to see if — in fact — it had been shot and committed to film and was somewhere in the world, ready to be found, a curiosity by a failed poet and esteemed Brooklyn barfly. My main reason for this, to be honest, is because the script is so fucking weird. In fact, it’s the best thing of Eddie’s I’ve read by far because it’s somehow even weirder than his usual stuff. It’s also over two hundred pages, which is totally insane. I’ve got to imagine that scripts for most nudie cuties and roughies ran on the short side, if there were scripts at all. But Eddie — fancying himself as some kind of indecent Eugene O’Neill, apparently — filled his with stage directions and overwrought descriptions of furniture and pages-long monologues from characters that might normally have very few lines.

Eddie’s script starts with a couple of New York bohemians, Mark and Mirandle (did he mean Miranda?), having sex in an empty city pool. Eddie’s language is more strange than embarrassing. He describes Mirandle as being “thick like a penitentiary slab.” He says Mark “has onion-colored eyes.” Birds land on them while they’re going at it. Strangers watch through a chain-link fence. Eddie insists that “FRENETIC JAZZ SHOULD ACCOMPANY THEIR HEARTFELT FUCKING,” in ALL CAPS just like that. It’s a scene that deserves a page but gets twelve pages instead. Mark and Mirandle smoke cigarettes afterward, naked, having some sort of philosophical conversation about tigers and tarantulas.

Then, it’s as if Eddie saw a Kenneth Anger movie for the first time and totally lost his shit. The next scene is set in hell, but cold hell instead of hot hell, and he’s got demons fucking in freezers while pinned-down sinners watch.

What follows is a mish-mash of nightmarish unsexy shit, soft and hard misogyny, and wild-ass detours through decrepit alleys and bars. There’s lots of belly dancing. There’s even more sex, described in excruciating detail, as if Eddie hadn’t really had sex at that point in his life and was piecing together what it might actually be like from tug-off books. Mark and Mirandle fade in and out of the story. I think they murder a drag queen and rob a bank. I think they’re in Kansas City for a little while and then Denver and finally Los Angeles, some kind of twisted shithouse road narrative. The Sinister Kittens is the name of a bowling team that Mark and Mirandle join that’s really a front for a Satanic cult. Things go haywire, with the cult getting wrapped up in some kind of elaborate soul-selling ritual. The script ends with Mark and Mirandle pinned down in hell, watching younger versions of themselves ball on a giant rotating mirror.

If this picture ever got made, even by some other deranged fucker, it’d be an absolute miracle.

The first person I reached out to was my mother

The first person I reached out to was my mother, who never remembered Eddie even talking about his time in Los Angeles. She certainly didn’t know about Sinister Kittens! I told her all about it and she just shook her head, saying, “Eddie and his fucking schemes.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Everything was a scheme with that guy. He was always trying to ride the hot ticket and make a buck. When people started coming around the bar with bootleg videos, Eddie started selling bootleg videos. One time his scheme was recycling doorknobs. Poems were a scheme to him. He thought he was a story. This just sounds like him trying to write something dirty.”

I showed her the script.

“I’m not gonna read this shit,” she said, throwing it down. “Go talk to Extra Steve.”

Extra Steve got his name because there was already a Main Steve at His and Hers, and he was the Extra Steve. When another Steve showed up, he became known as Third Steve. That’s a lot of fucking Steves. I didn’t know Extra Steve well. I was away at college when he became a regular. He was bald and always wore a too-small shirt the color of soil. My mother did not think highly of Extra Steve, but I guess he and Eddie were pretty tight. And since Extra Steve was on disability, he had a lot of time to do nothing but latch on to Eddie. My mother said they went out to Los Angeles for a week at some point, on Extra Steve’s dime, so Eddie could retrieve something.

My first thought, of course, was that Eddie had gone for the movie. But when I met with Extra Steve — seventy now, withered by booze and stinking of various medicinal ointments — he said the trip to L.A. was a bust. There was nothing to retrieve. Eddie had no friends there, no sacred storage unit. He was simply chasing a lady, to no avail. Eddie and Extra Steve stayed in a cheap motel and hung out by the pool, watching a wastoid couple get fucked up and argue about what kind of sandwiches they should make and what kind of beer they should drink. Extra Steve said he’d never read one word of Eddie’s writing and never would and that — if there was indeed a movie of his invention — it sure as hell better be burned to ashes for the good of humankind.

Dead ends led to more dead ends. It was a strange thing to even care about the fate of Eddie’s script, but sometimes we have to obsess over dumb shit to make it in this world. That’s what I told myself anyway.

And I can’t, in good conscience, lead you on. There is no movie. I eventually tracked down Eddie’s oldest friend, Alfred Moran, known around His and Hers as the Dirty Neck Drifter, who had also been with Eddie in Los Angeles for a stretch, but back in the way early days, and he confirmed that Eddie wrote the whole horrific screenplay in a week, electrified by Benzedrine, subsequently bringing it to a few small-time production companies with no one biting. They liked his elevator pitch, “On the Road with devil worshippers and lotsa knockers,” but were baffled by the actual (and irritatingly enormous and sloppy) script. They couldn’t cut through the flab. They couldn’t get past the demons. Alfred said most of them tuned out by page twenty, if they made it that far. They didn’t see the work of a weirdo genius. They saw the work of someone who was deeply untalented and possibly unwell.

Alfred laughed when he related that last bit of information. “Eddie was a perpetual loser,” he said. “Find a low, and Eddie went lower. It wasn’t enough to write an eighty page script that sucked donkey ass. He had to write a fucking two hundred page script that you wouldn’t mop up your jizz with.”

The rub is that the Eddie I knew didn’t reek of failure. He was kind of happy-go-lucky. It was fun being around him, even (maybe especially) when he was busting my mother’s chops. Rereading Eddie’s script, I’m struck by his somehow joyously nihilistic view of the world. Sinister Kittens! is a mad mess, something big said by someone with absolutely nothing to say. And therein lies its beauty. What might otherwise be seen as pretentious is merely acknowledged as wasted words.

Eddie knew he was a waster of words. He didn’t care. He did it anyway. He did it because that was what he liked to do. As I get older, I find that kind of failure without restraint inspirational.

One year — I must’ve been turning twenty-three or twenty-four — Eddie gave me a handmade birthday card. It was a drawing of a one-legged man (he was also an unskilled artist) getting a blowjob from the Grim Reaper, whose sad sickle was set off in the corner of the bare room. Eddie’s note under the drawing said, Death can go suck a one-legged guy’s dick! You’re still young! Don’t worry so much!

Fucking Eddie.

When I’m back in the neighborhood, I see Eddie everywhere. I go to His and Hers, and I raise a glass for him and the bums at the bar just laugh. They all have a million Eddie stories. Third Steve, recent on the scene as he is, even has one about Eddie trying to sell him a bag of broken lightbulbs for the bottom of his goldfish bowl. Mac Dunlap, who has a droopy lower lip and likes to wear only one glove in winter, he’ll always chime in about the time Eddie pissed on a passed-out priest. (That had to have been Father Benny.) Me, I see Eddie in the bar, in the dirty glasses, in the jukebox, in the fire hydrant out front, just about everywhere. I hear his voice, and I remember way too much of the inane shit he said. Sometimes I flip through Sinister Kittens! or some of his other writing, imagining his big, cold hands punching away at his old Royal typewriter, and I think, Well, that’s one way to be free. Fucking Eddie.

Eddie “Cold Hands” Caponetto was born in Coney Island in 1944. He claimed to have lost his cherry to Sister Mary Aurora on the Wonder Wheel when he was twelve and she was just out of the convent, but — like most things with Eddie — that was probably strictly bullshit. He got out of going to Vietnam because he was half-deaf in one ear and those are the years he wound up in L.A., just another shitheel with a long-shot dream. When he returned to Brooklyn in the ’70s, his parents died and he was left with their savings, probably about fifteen or twenty grand. Unemployable or uninterested in employment, he split his time between the bars and the libraries. He occasionally played the races and less occasionally attended Christmas Mass at Our Lady of Solace in his underpants, cursing that old hypocrite Father Benny. In 2011, Eddie died of a heart attack on the D train late one night; he was alone in the car, coming home from a date in the Bronx with the shut-in sister of a butcher he’d beat at cards. Eddie wrote thousands of poems and stories over a fifty year stretch but never published a single one. Aside from Sinister Kittens!, he wrote several other unproduced screenplays, including Back Door Dan, Cancer Vamps, Biker Broads with Mechanical Snatches, and Elastic Aliens in Disguise. His photos of the old neighborhood, some of which accompany this essay, aren’t half-bad. Thanks for everything, Eddie. As you used to say in your final letters to me: “I hope wherever you are, it don’t stink like shit.”

William Boyle is the author of the novels Gravesend, Everything is Broken,The Lonely Witness, A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself, and City of Margins, and a story collection, Death Don’t Have No Mercy. His books have been nominated for the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in France, the New Blood Dagger in the UK, and the Hammett Prize in the U.S. He is from Brooklyn, New York and currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi.