Tenth Between Fear & Trembling

We lived one floor up from a woodworking shop from which the tools had long since been stolen. It was on East Tenth Street, way over almost to the river, a view of the smokestacks of Con Edison’s 14th Street plant painted that year in patriotic shades of red white and blue. Every night Sherillee went to 49th Street to sing her heart out in the schlock rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar. I stayed home, studying the fading golden light as the setting sun streamed over the towers of the Con Ed plant. We were just beginning to discover how little we had in common.

Unable to find regular employment, my only income was derived from the sale of my blood by the pint on alternate days to a clinic known as the Vein Drain on First Avenue. The first time I went there I recognized the nurse from the movie Chelsea Girls. But she didn’t give me a break, she probably wasn’t a real nurse anyway. I thought she said ten dollars for that clean rhesus negative, and then after I had given my precious fluid she handed me a glass of milk and a cookie and six bucks, telling me it’s ten the second time you give. New York, I was learning very slowly. It still wasn’t as bad as the time in San Francisco when I gave plasma. They took the blood out then put it back in after they had extracted the plasma in some kind of centrifuge. It paid about $4 a pint. Horrible feeling to have the blood trickling back in because it was a lower temperature than the blood already circulating. I felt like Keith Richards in Switzerland.

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photograph by Ted Barron

Anemically strolling through the Lower East Side, totally connected, the city streets were more familiar to me than the streets of London had ever seemed in the four years I’d lived there.

“See London’s under the sign of Capricorn, but New York’s under Cancer, and you’re a Cancer, so naturally you fit here” somebody told me, and such pretentious celestial observations seemed perfectly acceptable. Every street looked like the cover of “Freewheeling,” redbrick buildings and steel fire escapes. It was my neighborhood, though I didn’t know it yet. Every day I roamed streets familiar from movies and dreams. I usually spent my blood money on a huge Polish loaf that would last for two days, a quarter pound of smoked ham, peanut butter. The rest was for thin tap beer at the St Marks Bar and Grill, though I never saw any evidence of a grill, on First Avenue, where the old Polish ladies danced to Frank Sinatra at 3 a.m. and wept over their lost lives in Gdansk, the loved ones they had left behind in Cracow.

My initiation into dread soon occurred. It was a black and Puerto Rican neighborhood, and east of Avenue A, there were very few white faces. Tenth between B and C was a particularly tough block, lots of prison fit youths hanging out on stoops, like coyotes circling the herd, watching for the weak, the unwary. I naively believed I had something in common with these people though. I was a bohemian, and like them I had no money. They could relate to that. Wrong. The bus cost 25 cents and it ran right by my door, along Tenth Street to Avenue D, but on this warm summer night I didn’t have a thin dime.

I had nursed one drink for several hours at Eileen’s Bar on Second Avenue, and finally embarked on the short walk home, more alert after I crossed Avenue A, the psychic borderline between the dodgy and the truly dangerous. I traversed the block between B and C without incident, crossed Avenue C and then walked at a casually rapid pace from the corner to my building, exactly in the middle of the block. I was opening the flimsy wooden door when somebody landed on my back and another pair of hands pushed me inside. As the assailant swayed around piggyback it dawned on me that this was my first mugging. Instead of being scared I became totally enraged at these cowardly scum attacking me in this chickenshit fashion.

“You fucking vatos, I kill you quick” I screamed into the stairway, pulling my voice from deep within the thorax, a Viking technique to intimidate the enemy. In the confined space it bounced around like a sonic boom. Out of the corner of my eye I had seen the glint of white metal but it was too late to stop now. Armed response was the only response. I had read that on a bumper sticker. I pulled the small caliber pistol smoothly from my waistband, placed it on my left shoulder, wedged my jaw against my forearm and squeezed the trigger. I felt the muzzle flash burn my cheek and a violent ringing in my ear. The mugger’s grip slackened and he slid down my back to the floor.

I turned to the other youth who was backing wide-eyed into the wall. His hand was open to show me that the metal was just a steel comb. There was a sharp reek of shit mingling with the cordite hanging in the air. I pressed the small gun’s barrel against his thigh and pulled the trigger. His leg kicked spastically and he fell like a racehorse at a fence, his scream filling the echo left by the gunshot. I started kicking his good leg, his ribs and his head with those solid state Frye boots and I was still kicking him when the cops arrived.

No, that didn’t happen.

The guy landed on my back and I automatically slipped my hand into my pocket, fingers sliding into the worn loops of the brass knuckles I always carried. I swung my fist back hard onto the top of his head and felt the brass knuckle bounce resoundingly on his cranium. Big headache coming up. He dropped off my back like a shot jockey. I turned and straight-armed the second youth as he came at me. My brass-covered fist smacked him square in the mouth. Teeth gave way as his lip, trapped between brass and bone, squirted blood onto my shirt in a furious arc. “Oh you asshole that’s my best shirt” I screamed in a high thin voice and hit him in the chest. I saw the soles of his sneakers come up toward me as he went over backwards like a poleaxed chicken in a TV cartoon.

Was that how it happened?

I had the door open when somebody fell like an anvil onto my back. That triggered a simian rage. I nimbly swung around as his partner tried to push me inside the hallway and close the door behind us, kicking the partner in the shins with the toe of my heavy boot. He yelped and hopped backward. I pushed him outside and slammed the door. The other guy was still on my back, screaming at me to give it up. Give up what? I didn’t have anything to give up. I backed into the brick wall as hard as I could. He half fell from his mount and I kicked his legs from under him. He obviously wasn’t aware that until recently I had been a college soccer star renowned for the excessive violence of my defensive tackling. I ran up about five steps of the staircase, turned round and jumped down, landing squarely on his stomach and spleen, where I briefly but emphatically clog danced a victory jig. With a low moan, he turned his head to the side and puked. I would be sent off the field for this, but my opponent would have to be carried off, yes the referee was signaling for a stretcher….

No, that didn’t happen either. None of these variations happened until after the real event, and then I constantly replayed these and other possible scenarios, the level of violence varying according to my mood.

What really happened: I opened the door and somebody landed on my back, pushing me inside. A second youth followed us and slammed the door. Then we were three in the small space at the bottom of a steep stairwell.

“Give us the fucking money man” said the bigger of the two, a solid looking brother with a gold earring that gave him a vaguely piratical appearance. The other kid was a light skinned Hispanic boy and he looked more scared than I felt.

I was quite calm because I didn’t have any money and that was that. And I was counting on the English accent to charm away their hostility. “I’m terribly sorry,” I said, “I’m broke, I mean penniless, lads, why do you think I was walking home instead of taking a cab or the bus even?” The accent had no effect whatsoever, and they methodically searched my pockets, forced me to remove my boots then checked my underwear. They became furious because I had wasted their time and obviously had no money. When someone decides, using their finely tuned instincts to choose you as a victim, and then discovers you have no money, they become angry at their own ineptitude. Since they had seen me open the door they knew I lived here. I wasn’t fast enough to bluff them into believing I was just visiting. They took the keys and we walked up one flight to the loft.

We went inside and I still wasn’t too concerned because there was very little worth taking. But after they had secured me hand and foot with extension cords I started to become slightly alarmed. Jeeze, if they didn’t get enough stuff, they might want a piece of my young ass, they might want some anyway, just for jollies…. The two began to load everything into a suitcase and the lovely old leather bag that had travelled with me from England, to the West coast and back again. When I saw that about to go I forgot myself for a moment.

“Aah please don’t take my travelling bag you chaps—-” I said, laying on the English accent as thickly as I could.

“Shut yo’ mouth muthafucka” snapped the pirate, sounding exactly like a character from Shaft. That quieted me down and I lay there and watched as they loaded up. Everything must go, a two dollar alarm clock, an old steam iron, even my cumbersome manual typewriter which couldn’t be worth more than five dollars on the street. When they had filled up the two bags and a pillowcase they took a sheet from the bed and loaded more stuff into that. How were they planning to carry all this junk? Did they have a truck outside? After they had trashed the contents of the desk I saw the pirate studying Sherillee’s headshots. “Oh they’ll see I’m shacked up with a black sister and let me go,” I thought, for two seconds.

“Where the woman at?”

“Oh she’s working late, she won’t be home for hours….”

“Shall we lay up for the bitch, man?” The smaller one said, and I prayed that Sherillee would stay out late tonight, wouldn’t just walk in the door in the middle of this and find me lying there helpless. There is a crucial scene in the movie Performance, when three thugs have beaten and whipped James Fox and trashed his apartment and he gets his hands free and that big automatic is suddenly there, he’s got the whole world in his hands and the power shifts and that’s where I wanted to be just then, my finger on the trigger of a large caliber gun pointing at these two petty criminals. They had put murder in me, perhaps the fear of my own death had roused murder in me. I could have pulled the trigger without a second thought, first thought best thought, no problem. Put them in the stairway first so as not to mess up the loft with their punk blood. Momentarily transported into a dense red rage by this violent fantasy, I soon returned to the brutality of the fact I was bound hand and foot, trussed up like a pig or a chicken and if they wanted to eat me or fuck me or murder me after they had robbed me there was nothing I could do.

They decided finally to leave, carrying two loads apiece, looking like they had just been evicted. After a while I crawled over to lock the door in case they came back for the toothbrush. I managed to get my feet untied but I couldn’t get the cord loose from my hands. I dialed 911 like a contortionist and gave the operator the address. Twenty minutes later the cops still had not arrived. Finally I walked down the stairs out onto Tenth Street with my hands still tied behind my back. A citizen was walking by.

“Excuse me, would you mind untying my hands?”

The man paused to untie the cord, handed it to me and walked on. Not his business.

The cops showed up just as Sherilee arrived home to a looted apartment. She began to clean up what was left while I rode around with them for a few blocks but they were more interested in my accent than in finding the perpetrators.

“They probably live right in the neighborhood, and chances are they’ll be back,” said one cop reassuringly.

“But they took everything already!”

“Don’t matter, they’ve been once, they’ll be back.”

What if I’d had a gun?

One cop looked at the other and they both laughed.

“You’d probably be on your way to the morgue right now. But if you ever get the chance, just say there was a scuffle, you grabbed the gun, boom, it went off. You’ll walk.”

I was in New York City, I had just been bound and robbed, and now I was riding around in a cop car with a policeman telling me it was alright to kill somebody. I might get really scared if I stopped to think about it.

Three days later, as I rode the bus across Tenth Street, I recognized one of my assailants sitting quietly on a stoop between B and C. So he was my neighbor. I knew where he lived but he knew where I lived.

-—an excerpt from 101 Nights, by Max Blagg

Max reads classic poems at the SSM#10 launch party, 10-5-13, Tribes Gallery in NYC.

Get this piece and more when you buy issue #10 in PDF format here for just $5.95, or get the full-color print version via Amazon and select bookstores.