An excerpt from East of Bowery
The next morning I was awakened before dawn when a squad of SWAT cops in vests stepped into the alley to talk over their day. One of them saw me and gave the courtesy of a thumb signal to vacate the premises. I brushed myself off and complied, walking across Roosevelt Park to a row of tenements slated for destruction.
Some of them were inhabited, some not. I went around back and looked for an open window. The first building was all locked up. I scaled a homemade fence made entirely of plastic bread palates. The first floor storm door was wide open and I walked in. It got real dark real fast. I felt along the hallway before I came to a door that gave. When I pushed it open, there was a guy I knew standing there. Voila, he said.
He gave me the quiet sign and motioned to a couch in the corner. A skinny guy that I knew from basketball in Tompkins Square, and as a dealer over on Ludlow Street. This came to me as I was standing against the wall, still half in the nod-world. My day was beginning before I had planned with less than 20 dollars to face it with. There was a pack of cigarettes on an old side table with an opened bottle of red wine. I lit a smoke and took a pull from the bottle. An adjacent door opened and the room filled with other young men of the Spanish persuasion. My man Flaco sat down and palmed me two bags, smiling. I kept my money in my pocket. As he watched benevolently I took the pack of Newports from the table as if it were mine all along. I offered him one and slipped the pack into my shirt pocket. Someone came out of a small bathroom and I took his place. I pissed, snorted half a one of the bags then retook my place on the ratty, overstuffed couch.
Flaco pointed me out to his friends with a smile.
You want a job? one of them asked. He passed the wine around. We lit cigarettes. By now there were nearly twenty other guys in the small room. I bided my time, careful not to make the wrong move. One man skinnier than the rest read a book to his three year old child. I saw your wife the other day, another kidded him. Shut up, the skinny one said and motioned to the child with his chin. He kept reading all the while.
She was on the street, the other said, a chubby man with black curly hair and greasy lips. The father reached over and punched the other in the nose and blood spurted. The kid read quietly to himself, repeating the words he knew them all with the concentration and focus of the early damaged trying to hold onto the ship going down, so he could swim away when it was rent to splinters and he could survive on his own wits on the open seas. You might think I am off on another tangent, but I was that kid and in my exalted and desperate state I saw him everywhere. A railroad apartment, a head would appear and each man in turn was motioned into the next room. Each of them disappeared for a few moments then came back out and left. Flaco watched me watching them and raised his eyebrows. He patted his pants pocket and winked.
I raised my own eyebrows.
He winked again, smiling. You couldn’t tell if he was laughing with or at me. Reality had already been outstripped by something stronger and more intoxicating.
A faint knocking sound could be heard. One man went into the hallway. Another shut the door. Suddenly the door burst back open and hurled him into the wall, where he slumped to the floor. I was just starting to nod. I remember noticing that the ash on my latest cigarette was at least an inch long, a clear sign of a pretty good high. I blinked and looked around.
I came to with the room full of SWAT vests and drawn weapons. The exit was blocked. In the next room police were shaking down dealers. There was a table full of dope and beyond it an open window, but no way I could get to both, so I ran for the window, climbing through with a quick hop and dashing up the fire escape. They were the same cops as the alley, I was sure of it.
No one followed after me. After a few moments of breathing hard two floors above, I climbed to the roof and lit a cigarette. The sun had just come out and you could see the river in shades of beautiful silver yellow and blue-green, like the side of a big rainbow trout.
But, I was still feeling stetchy. What if the cops came up the stairwell to look around? I could jump to another building rooftop like you see in all the movies. But when I looked, the gap was almost seven feet by and we were six stories up, a little too far for me. I looked down to the street and saw that there were two police vehicles in front of the building, a truck and a squad car.
But neither had their lights on.
It was a double building with wings of apartments on each side. I mounted the opposite fire escape and began to climb down. The first window I came to was locked. A rose-haired woman in a bathrobe sat over a cup of coffee with a newspaper. Fresh lipstick on her cigarette. You could smell it through the window. She had bacon in a pan on the stove. She turned, saw me and waved, scowling, like I was a nuisance pigeon. Maybe I was.
What I really wanted was a vacated apartment. I could chill for a couple hours then walk right out in a few hours if all went well, counting my blessings. I climbed in the window and sat down at a chair at a kitchen table. I smelled coffee and heard a shower in the next room. I took a cup down, turned and sat just as an old man came into the room. He was wearing a bathrobe that hung open to reveal a graying, scarred chest. He burped and sat down at the table, pulling the robe over his knees. He was cold. When he looked up, straight at me, I saw that he was blind. My grandmother had cataracts but I had never seen anything like this. Both of his eyes were a blotted gray. You could tell he knew someone else was in the room but he just nodded. Whoever he thought I was he expected to be there.
I could have jumped up and ran out but something kept me in the chair. I don’t really know what. The whole day was a surprise, maybe I felt untouchable, maybe just because I was high, but I sat right there. I sipped off my coffee. There was an ashtray on the table so I lit a cigarette. When I did, he smiled and felt for the pack. I pushed it toward his hand like we had done this before and upon grasping the pack, he smiled and winked not at me but toward me. You would have had to be there to understand what I mean exactly.
When in a few moments the shower went off I stayed where I was. An old woman came into the room, toweling herself off. She wrapped the towel around her head, Nefertiti-style and sat down. She paid no mind. It took me a moment to realize she was blind too. She didn’t have the eyes like he did. She was wearing only a damp slip that evidently she had put on in the bathroom. She made a show of waving away the smoke from her face.
She turned to where she must have known the old man would be. He had gotten her a cup of coffee and poured her juice.
Did you hear those sirens Abe?
Woke me up. Always does.
Did you sleep well, sides that? she asked in a lilting, wifely voice.
The man grunted and drank from his cup.
I heard it might turn toward snow later.
Wouldn’t that be nice? he smiled and blew smoke towards the window.
They both had those old-timey New York accents you don’t hear anymore.
Do you have to smoke so early in the morning? she asked, the slightest nagging edge to her tone.
Oh that’s not me, he winked my way. That’s Jimmy.
She smiled and tugged her slip higher toward her breastbone. Oh Jim, I didn’t think you were up.
So to them, for now, I was Jimmy. Whoever he was. I finished my coffee and rose to leave.
When I turned I saw a rather big man filling the doorway with his frame. Dark circles under both eyes and his tongue jutted out from his lips. A chalky film whitened his lips. When he saw me, something flashed in his eyes and his whole body tensed. Brother was a little tardy by the looks of him, but he had six inches and maybe 100 pounds on me. I lurched for the window.
From the fire escape when I looked back, he just stood there, a patch of drool darkening his shirt front.
I climbed down two more levels. A siren sounded from the street and then two more. I slipped through another unlocked window: the apartment was empty and dark, and something smelled foul. I opened a door, just dust bunnies and something small crawling into a corner. I sat down in a corner, lit a cigarette and closed my eyes.
I have no idea how much time went by. Part of me is still there. We leave parts of ourselves everywhere. It could have been twenty minutes or two years. A loud noise awakened me. It took me a minute to come back far enough into the world to get that there was an exchange of gunfire on the floor below me.
In the bathroom there was an old shower curtain over a claw-foot bathtub. When I touched it the plastic felt brittle, like it was made of seashells. I lay down in the bathtub and pulled the curtain back tight, then took out the half-bag and snorted it down. Closing my eyes with another cigarette. It was really great dope. It slowed down everything.
More shots sounded and with my eyes closed, I counted them in a soft whisper to myself.
On the fire escape, where I came to, it was dark and the wind was blowing. I climbed down, with coast clear, leaped to the dirt and climbed the bread palate fence again. In the park a twitchy dealer sold me two more bags. I still had ten cigarettes. I headed toward Sophie’s where I knew the barman would take my check and I could drink black and tans and smoke until four.
Dedicated to Kevin Wendell, RIP.
An excerpt from East of Bowery