THE ABSENCE OF ANGELS, a novel/memoir by Christian X. Hunter, about his growing up in NYC, from the time of the Fillmore East to the AIDS era, was published by Sensitive Skin Books in April, 2023. You can find it on Amazon, or order it from your local trusted bookseller. Here’s a brief excerpt:
I’ve always loved Manhattan in the hot weather. As a small kid I was sent away to stupid summer camps in the country. I hated them. While being forced to learn the breast stroke in ice-cold water in some mountain lake, I’d be wishing I was at the heavily chlorinated Twenty-third Street pool near the East River, surrounded by thousands of New Yorkers playing and shouting in dozens of languages. While sitting around the campfire with my eyes tearing from smoke and burning my mouth trying to suck some shitty marshmallow off a pointed stick, I’d be thinking about how I’d rather be on Manhattan Avenue hanging out on the hood of a car, downing a slice with Paul, Eddy or Hector.
The walk along 157th St. from Broadway to Riverside Drive was, for me, an act of faith. I rarely ventured north of 125th St. and certainly never alone at night. During my short stay in Vermont I’d grown accustomed to a world where people looked each other in the eye as a matter of course and said hello to perfect strangers. In the course of my ride down from the Bronx on the #2 train, I quickly reverted to my New York ways. The idea of talking to total strangers in an unfamiliar neighborhood now seemed like some kind of extraordinary bumpkin affectation. Despite being a lifetime New Yorker, in neighborhoods like this I would always be the stranger amongst the stones.
There was never a moment when I wasn’t missing the gritty yellow brightness of Times Square at night, switch blades and sex toys, inflatable Oh!-mouthed latex love dolls, store shelves lined with pimp hats, the glaring green fluorescence of the Playland arcades on Seventh Avenue, their windows full of clown masks, fake I.D.s and pissing statues, or the late night fast-food snack cemeteries, where artistically basted month-old-chickens turn over in perpetuity in glass and metal coffins alongside dusty tombstone Bisquick boxes, desiccated Cheerios, Tampax and miniature bottles of Pepto Bismal. You know, there wasn’t a minute spent in those green, pine-scented fields when I wasn’t missing the dull surprise of being caught by head-on blasts of hot greasy air from the kitchen exhausts of Mi Chinita and La Taza D’Oro, the vivid sanctity of bleeding Jesus botanicas, or the morbid and unnatural colors of internal-organ-shaped mutant foodstuffs piled up in the glass cases of the cuchifrito stands on Ninth Avenue. Fields of daisies pale beside the flash-and-spin birds of paradise cruising up Christopher Street, the restless shadow cowboys by the trucks on the West Side Highway, and the chain-mail leather dogs at the hot-fudge sex show. Hiking in green meadow and serene walks down paths alongside clear running brooks don’t signify next to the freedom to walk from Fourth Street to 14th St. to 42nd St., no passport required, the way mist kisses the back of your neck as you cross the street to avoid an open fire hydrant, or Heinekens and pasteles with hot sauce eaten barefoot out on the end of the pier at Coney Island. Looking down from atop some lofty peak in the White Mountains will never produce the little shudder of mute and detached white boy’s gratitude experienced while passing high above some hellish looking section of an inner-city landscape on an elevated #6 train, smoking stolen cigarettes in the air-conditioned comfort of an empty and sun-blinded subway car rolling lazy for the Bronx.
157th Street going west, away from Broadway, curves gently uphill veering southward for a distance and then arcs to the north, terminating at the Hudson River. It’s a neighborhood of night porters, gypsy cab drivers, newspaper vendors, security guards, short order cooks, Chinese laundry owners, bus drivers, the silent old Ukrainian lady who sits at the back of your AA meeting delicately nibbling stale donuts and sipping free coffee, the faceless guy high up on a ladder screwing in lightbulbs as you pass through the lobby of your doctor’s as you make your way to the bank of perfectly polished elevators, the 65 year-old busboy at the fancy steak house, the lady in the booth of metal and bullet-proof glass who wordlessly skips your tokens and change into the worn wooden coin scoop when you’re rushing for the #6 train, the middle aged dropout who never looks up when tearing your ticket at the movie house – the invisible. Nearing the crest of the hill, I caught sight of three diesel tugs towing long empty barges up-river. Creeping north across the horizon, funereal black smoke rose from their stacks, blotting out the crushed remains of the gritty crimson sunset winking out along the Palisades. All around me the push-pin lampposts that held to earth the Harlem sidewalks were slowly flickering to life.
–Christian X. Hunter