Our History in New York

by Linsey Abrams

By the time Labor Day weekend came around, Helen and I had just about had it. So much had happened that summer, you wondered what could be left for the future. We hadn’t made plans to go out of town, either with friends or by ourselves. But though we were looking forward to a quiet time, it didn’t work out that way. Friday evening, we got three phone calls, inviting us to parties on each of the next three nights. First from Nick, whom we hadn’t seen since Gay Pride Day, when he was on the job as a cameraman for Channel 4. Next Roz, who was in town with her new husband from LA. Then Ann and Jenny, friends of Nick’s co-worker Wendy, from her short career as a lesbian.

Helen said it was just a coincidence, that probably half the people in New York had invited friends over, at the last minute, that weekend. But even she couldn’t account for the fact that no one had chosen the same date.

Saturday night, we took the car up to Ann and Jenny’s. It was around sunset, and the river shone like fishscales, as we drove along the FDR. I got off at the 96th Street exit, where only one other car was stopped at the light. The gas station on First Avenue was closed, and the playground opposite, evacuated. While we sat there, a jogger crossed the footbridge that spanned the water, up ahead, to Randall’s Island. The way it looked, he might have been running in the sky.

There wasn’t any crosstown traffic, either. And none on any of the avenues. Soon, we entered Central Park, where you could suddenly and surprisingly smell nature. Tree branches made a ceiling overhead, magnifying the sounds of our tires and wind rushing by the open windows. We passed two strollers, near the reservoir, their clothes losing color in the twilight.

Returning to civilization, understaffed though it was that weekend, we headed downtown. Ann and Jenny lived on Central Park West, though we’d never been to their apartment. Recently, I’d read that two bedrooms and a view, in that neighborhood, cost three million dollars. While we were looking for a parking space, Helen and I speculated about how a freelance artist and a textbook editor could afford to live there. We decided one of them was an heiress.

Their building, opposite the park in the ‘80s, was only five stories. Its exterior chipped and dirty, the brownstone had seen better days. But it had those filigree and glass double doors, whose beauty makes a part of you hate modernity. After listening over the intercom, Helen and I walked down a flight of stairs, which was our first answer to the question of finances. It was Wendy who met us at the door, while our hostess Ann stuck her head out from behind the refrigerator and said she’d join us in a minute. We followed Wendy from the kitchen back into a bedroom then straight through a small study, out to a yard. Here, Jenny, Ann’s lover, was putting chicken on a grill. There was a certain calm radiating from her body, a woman’s sense of gravity that I felt attracted to, as she stood there in shorts and a navy T-shirt.

The other guests turned out to be just a handful of people, because everyone else they’d invited was out of town. Present company included Larry, a handsome but bland-appearing art director, who sometimes employed Jenny; Herb, interesting-looking but not handsome, who worked at Pratt Institute, and a straight couple. The man had a dark curly beard that didn’t quite disguise a cherubic face, and worked as a journalist, while the woman, who was fair-skinned and slender, said she edited copy for the AP. As representatives of literature, herself in publishing and me a professor, Ann and I were outnumbered in this art and media crowd.

Just then, a striped cat padded out of the study. Everybody watched as it took a spectacular, ten-foot leap to the top of the chain link fence, before hurling itself to points unknown. Twilight had deepened, giving the night that third dimension that drops like a canopy just before dark. People kept looking up: it’s human nature to raise your eyes to sky, probably because you can’t do the same with your body, like a bird, or even that cat, light in her mind as some spore in a breeze. I thought of the jogger on the footbridge.

Helen and I sat on a cedar bench, one piece of an old picnic set pulled up to a glass-topped table. It took up most of the eight feet across the yard, which I realized, now that my enthusiasm at being outdoors had waned, was actually a long, narrow alley. The others sat scattered on lawn chairs. While Jenny turned the chicken on the grill, people got acquainted.

“The current landlord bought the building six years ago. I’ve been here for 16,” Jenny said, in answer to my question about how long they’d lived in that apartment. “He got almost everyone else out of the building by harassing them, then charging a series of rent increases.”

“That’s illegal,” said the man of the couple whose names I couldn’t remember for most of the evening.

“Yes, but what you have to go through in court to prove it made most people give up,” Jenny replied. “There’s only three apartments left that are occupied by the original tenants.”

“They’re paying $2,000 a month,” added Ann, who’d finally come out from the kitchen. She was carrying a tray of salads, and after she’d rested it on the table, she pointed to some windows three stories up.

“What do you pay?” Helen asked Jenny.

“Three hundred seventy-five dollars,” she said, with an apologetic grin. People shook their heads. “The judge gave each tenant who sued for damages a 20% rent reduction. It hurt because this is the only building the landlord owns and he’s always strapped for cash. He didn’t even pay Con Ed last winter . . . so we got notices to deduct our share from the rent and send it in directly. He’s got all these kids . . . I didn’t recognize his wife, the other day, in the lobby, because it was the first time I ever saw her that she wasn’t pregnant.” Suddenly, it struck me that here we were, a party of nine healthy people in their thirties and forties, and no one had mentioned a child.

“See that balcony?” said Ann, pointing to what looked like a large wood raft, fastened to the side of an adjoining building. It made me think of childhood, something you’d construct in your imagination, in order to tie a sheet to it then sail off. “It’s illegal,” she told us. Illegal was becoming the theme of the evening.

“How did they ever get away with that?” asked Wendy, who’d been unusually quiet since our arrival.

“They’re owners, so they had to have bribed the city inspector in order to get the construction permit,” Ann answered.

“Two yuppie girls live there.” Jenny waved the chicken fork at the same building. “One on the fourth floor and the other on the third. They have these unbelievable conversations out the window . . . like they’re on the telephone. Their topics are men, their mothers, and hand laundry.”

“But what if they hear you?” said the journalist’s wife or girlfriend, it was never clarified.

“Oh, we make fun of them all the time,” Jenny replied. “Nina . . . Margo” she called loudly, then continued in a normal voice, “They know we despise them. They despise us, too. Besides, they’re in East Hampton . . . All during May, they discussed whether they could afford shares in a summer house. It turned out, they could.” Suddenly, it seemed funny that Helen and I were sitting with these people we hardly knew, discussing their neighbors, whom we would never know. That’s when Wendy got up to make a phone call.

We began to hear apartment stories from some of the others. Larry, the handsome but unremarkable art director, wearing a tan suit over a T-shirt printed with a surfer riding the word wipe-out, said he paid $900 for two rooms, in some déclassé building over a donut store on 14th Street. Most of the other tenants were prostitutes. The items Larry described finding most often on the staircase were needles, condoms, and Kentucky Fried Chicken boxes filled with bones. But once he found a wig and once a corpse.

Larry’s tactical error was not moving from Mercer Street when most of the businesses did. After the neighborhood started to look good to people who were able to pay $300,000 for a loft someone like Larry was renting for $300, so much for Soho.

The other single man at the party, Herb, who wasn’t handsome, but looked interesting, like some minor character from The Conformist, must have lived with someone and broken up, though he didn’t say so, because he’d been in his current apartment just a year. Located at 105th Street and Columbus, it had been robbed three times since he moved in. For this privilege, Herb was paying a rent almost as high as Larry’s.

“It’s the crack smokers.” Herb seemed resigned to his troubles; there was something dispassionate, even good-natured, about the way he laid them out. By now the chicken was being passed around, and I had to think of Larry’s prostitutes. We began to eat as Herb continued his story, “They smoke in my building lobby, but there’s nothing you can do about it because if the police actually come, they turn the sirens up so no one will be there when they get out of the squad car.”

“You can’t blame them,” said Wendy, who had spent the last fifteen minutes on the phone and was now re-entering the yard through a window in the living room. She kissed people good-bye, before excusing herself to go to another party, and we couldn’t blame her either, because she was looking for a boyfriend, the thankless pastime of so many heterosexual women in New York.

Herb and Larry were probably both gay, or maybe they weren’t. Certain hip straight men look gay, and there’s also the type of gay man who’s like those quiet, non-aggressive feminist types . . . who don’t need to dominate women or parade their egos. Maybe life has squashed such men and they’re damaged goods, I can’t say, but they are more pleasant to talk to. And who isn’t damaged goods by the time you’re our age?

Well, it turned out that Herb’s landlord jacked up the rent on his apartment by $380 a month (he knew this because the last tenant, a friend, gave him all the records of what he himself had paid) and that Herb had had the case pending since the month after he moved in. And though he said he’d get back all he’d overpaid if he won, he didn’t make nearly enough money to meet the rent he was paying now. So he’d gone into debt, at 18% interest. If Herb lost the case, he’d have to move out. But even if he won, he might have to. Herb worked in student records at Pratt, a job he said he enjoyed.

The mention of Pratt got us talking about the days when you could support yourself on part-time work and about the East Village in the early ’70s. Helen and Herb remembered it best: A commune called God that lived one summer on a sidewalk on Avenue B; from a distance you could recognize the children, skinny as poles, flying capes sewn from American flags. A building on 11th Street, powered on the roof by a windmill that acidheads regularly mistook for a hallucination. “The Young Marxists’ Pavilion,” “Integrated Chess,” “Free the Animals,” “Natural Everything,” were some of the hand-painted signs we recalled hanging from the storefronts.

Men were more feminine then, with their shoulder-length hair and velvet jackets . . . the women, too, dressed in long skirts or jeans embroidered with flowers and peace symbols, floppy hats, tie-dye tunics. People used to sit for hours in coffee houses or take the whole day to browse, barefoot, through the second-hand clothing stores and head shops . . . air vibrant with guitar riffs and walls psychedelicized with posters of Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, the Doors. I still have a black-and-white blow-up of Janis Joplin and Grace Slick, standing side by side, like some pair of girls from another planet; they couldn’t have been more than 20 in that photograph, the two of them looking, to my eye now, so beautiful, so serious, so young.

Panhandlers, Hells Angels, potheads, kids from the suburbs in elaborate costume . . . for several years running, it was like Halloween. Everyone was happy but the Polish immigrants who lived on First and Second Avenues, and the Italian-Americans on the cross streets. But they might have been happy, too, if they’d guessed what was going to happen later: an army of schizophrenics, winos and black men down on their luck pouring into the neighborhood each morning from the Men’s Shelter on Third Street; people selling their belongings, big charms detached from the bracelet of life, laid out on cardboard runners up Second Avenue. Those families who could, moved. Theirs were the sons flown back, in bags, from Vietnam.

“When I was in art school, one weekend I met a French-Canadian, Bernard, at a concert at the Fillmore. He spent the night with me then stayed for eight months,” said Helen.

“People didn’t break into your apartment to support their LSD habit,” Herb added. “You could buy dope, on the street . . . a nickel bag. You could afford dope then. There wasn’t shit in it. Maybe mescaline, but no horse tranquilizers or whatever that stuff is now . . . particles from the moon mission . . . that makes you chop up your parents in the middle of the night. If you didn’t have any money, the dealers would share their smoke. We were against private property, at the time.”

“I snorted heroin once,” Helen said. “I threw up for three days . . . and that was the end of that.”

I thought of all the crazy chances we took then. I thought about my own checkered past, in which both alcohol and love had brought me to my knees. Though I’d never want to live that way again, there was a part of it I still missed. A part of myself, really.

“When I was in college,” I said, “I knew a dealer, a high school chemistry teacher who had his students make up batches of Black Beauties during lab period. That was the best speed in Yonkers . . . he told them they were making vitamin pills.”

“Was it really that innocent then, or did it just seem innocent?” the woman from the AP asked. She had a good point.

Then Helen remembered the time before abortion was legal in any state but New York, whose law newly had gone into effect, in 1971, when she took her friend Annette to a clinic up in Dobbs Ferry. The women they met were from all over . . . mostly middle-class white women, but an occasional rich matron, not to mention someone who claimed to be the highest-paid call girl in Harlem and who was beautiful enough to be. And all the teenagers . . . with their mothers, sometimes a boyfriend, or in pairs. I picture them in black and white, like my poster of the two girl rockstars: the knowledge of sex having set their serious expressions.

The conversation moved to Andy Warhol, whom Herb had known years ago from the Factory and Max’s, when there was still a scene in New York, not about money but energy, when everybody went out every night. The artist had died in February, under mysterious circumstances, in a hospital, after checking in for a routine operation. Helen, who remembers everything, named a theater on 45th Street that for a few years in the seventies showed only Warhol movies. We went on to discuss foreign films . . . what had happened to our favorite actors . . . the French . . . cinema now.

The night went on, and we talked about our pasts in New York, and before. Ann and Jenny had met at Yale, of all places, the year the first class of women was admitted. The two of them spent a moment mythologizing their earlier selves, the way we all do. In your twenties, you don’t yet know what you can’t do, or what you can, that will make impossible so many of the other things you’ll want in a lifetime. Later, it becomes obvious. And by then you’re smart enough to see that a lot of what sustained you was youth itself. It’s humbling, because you thought it had to do with your own way of looking at the world, some hallmark of character.

After that, we had our first disagreement of the evening: over the revoking of the “Fairness Doctrine,” which for decades, through Democrats and Republicans, had ensured presentation in the media of opposing views on public issues. Helen as a TV person, felt it was more of the same of what we’d seen for more than a decade: another assault on free speech. But the journalist with the beard saw it as just the opposite. His thinking was informed by the tradition of print, of course, and looking at it from that standpoint, I was tempted to agree with him. Only, the problem was, you couldn’t go by those rules any longer, any more than you could expect to get cured in a hospital, or find an apartment you could afford.

You could call that evening a lament, if you wanted to, though it wasn’t just sad, the way that word might suggest, but also pleasurable, to recall what we had lost. None of us had had any trouble talking to one another from the moment we sat down, as though the assembled company had recognized what we were there for from the start. It never would have happened if everyone who had been invited had come or if any of us had known each other better, and already developed a private and repetitive language, the way friends do.

A clock somewhere chimed midnight, which is when a few of us rose under the stars, to head inside. Afterwards, we drove downtown, dropping the art director at 14th Street and Third Avenue before continuing east. Helen and I decided we felt close to those people, none of whom we had really known until that night, and most of whom we would probably never see again.

 

Since Roz had gotten married in LA, where her husband, Robert was from, and where she’d been living since spring, they’d decided to spend August in New York. The apartment Roz had here, and where the party was being held, was in one of those old lefty buildings on upper Central Park West . . . large and airy, with big rooms separated by solid walls. That Sunday, the morning and afternoon had been hot, but by the time we sat down in her living room, after dark, a cooler breeze blew in the window, a sure sign of fall.

This group was my friends, though by now Helen knew most of them pretty well. Roz and I had met in college, which she dropped out of to act, while I finished, which was a good thing, since I went on to years more school and a PhD after I left the theater for good, myself. Robert was an actor, too, which is how they met, but then he got interested in shiatsu massage, and gave it up, like a lot of us.

So this party was a New York celebration of the marriage, with Roz’s cousin Ed and his wife Althea, and myself and Helen, and Burt, who still had no steady boyfriend even after a stint as Romeo at a small theater downtown. Robert and Roz would be leaving at the end of the week for LA, where he was going to enroll in a holistic medicine program and she would get a West Coast agent for TV and films. They thought they might return to New York, at least part time, in a few years.

With Ed and Thea in publishing, and the rest of us associated somehow with the theater, this time it was Helen who was outnumbered. Over dinner, we got onto the topic of language, when Ed began explaining the etymology of its and how in the 16th century there was an uproar against the formal inclusion of the word in English. It was thrilling to think that people four centuries ago had cared about such things, but awful to see where we’d ended up with this project of literacy. Our discussion led next to the use of the possessive pronouns his and hers, as opposed to the generic theirs, and the awkwardness in prose of trying to be gender neutral. We identified gender as the obsession of the age.

“It was sex that obsessed Western culture, until we got the pill,” said Thea.

“And before sex it was love,” Burt added. “Romantic love.”

“So now it’s gender,” Helen remarked. “You have to wonder what’s beyond gender.”

“Dying,” I said. We’d been living with AIDS for years now.

Over dessert, Roz and I began reminiscing about the people we had known in college, some of whom we still saw and most of whom we didn’t: we cited betrayals, and friendships that simply had faded when common interests did, love affairs gone wrong, changes in sexual orientation. That’s when Roz remembered her college boyfriend, George. I guess a wedding brings on a kind of nostalgia for those lovers you didn’t marry.

Being gay, some of the rest of us thought about significant others differently, but even Helen was married once, to Luis, the Costa Rican lover of her friend Martin, so he could get his green card. A lot of people got married then, to keep their friends’ lovers in the country. But in Helen’s case it turned out badly, with immigration coming to her apartment at 6:00 AM to look for Luis, and when he wasn’t there, asking her questions to which she hoped never to know the answer: whether he wore jockeys or boxers, favorite words for the genitals, recurring sexual fantasies. It ended when Helen threw a chafing dish (who else our age but two gay men would own a chafing dish in New York City in the early ’70s?) and hit Martin in the head, causing Luis to file for divorce.

“George looked like an angel, he was so handsome,” Roz said.

“He was,” I agreed. But actually he looked more like you’d envision Lucifer: dark good looks, often a scowl on his perfect mouth, knitted brow below a center-parted mane of ringleted black hair, piercing brown eyes. Not too tall, nevertheless he had a perfectly muscled body, and such regularity of features that if his chin hadn’t been weak, he would have been too pretty for a man.

“He should have been more of a shit than he was. But George was basically insecure. His father was a Freudian analyst.” Everyone groaned.

“I’d forgotten that,” I said, and that was the beauty of Roz’s story, the way that evening all I’d forgotten about such an important time in my life came back to me.

Roz had arrived at our progressive college, a member of the original cast of the musical Hair, and immediately became everyone’s first-choice for female lead. That was the year we mounted a student production of Hamlet, a musical whose running time was six hours. The first woman I ever slept with constructed the sets, tall wood platforms from which the characters, like statues on outsize bases, delivered their lines. Roz was Ophelia and George Hamlet. We had no idea that we didn’t know anything then.

“Well, to backtrack a little, I had heard something from my next door neighbor about how her daughter-in-law’s nephew had seen a girl in Hair whom he had fallen in love with and who we figured out was me, because of these gardenias I held in the second act. How this information ever came full circle is unclear to this day. The point being, how did the subject come up in the first place?” Roz looked around, taking the time that is one mark of a good actress, then continued, “Well, I didn’t think anything about it until later.”

“You mean you’re just going to leave us hanging?” said Robert, who seemed not to have a jealous bone in his body.

In fact, Robert looked like he had no bones at all, where he lay, supple as a fish, at his wife’s feet. When I’d first met him, at Roz’s sister’s funeral two years before, what I noticed was his hands. I can’t describe it except to say, if I had just lost my 41-year-old sister to cancer, I would have chosen those hands to touch me, too.

“George and I did a little verbal sparring all during the rehearsal period,” Roz went on. “I thought he was incredibly handsome, though I wasn’t about to chase after him. My friend, Ellen, did . . . but she didn’t have a chance. She wasn’t good-looking enough.” As an actress, Roz understood the caste system of beauty.

“Half the girls that year were in love with George . . . and I got him,” she added, though without self-congratulations. Tossing her head, which caused her hair to open like a fan in the air, Roz reached for Robert’s cheek. The story of those two and love was that he had carried a torch for her since they’d acted together in summer stock, in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, 12 years before. In LA, last spring, they’d met again.

“But, you know, he was a strange boy . . . with fits of temper . . . dropping me off in his car on 125th Street at 3:00 AM and telling me to walk home. He had nightmares, too. Once he even sleep-walked . . . .”

Roz pointed into the other room. She had lived in this apartment then, her parents both dead already, and her stepmother, too. Her sister still alive, in California. She had lived in this apartment all her life till now.

“Well, one night in bed he started telling me about this girl he’d fallen in love with at first sight in Hair. After I recovered from shock, I told him that was me. He just shook his head. I told him I was the girl holding the flowers in the second act . . . you see, he was the nephew. He didn’t say anything, but I could tell he still didn’t believe it. I had to get the program.”

I decided that the next time somebody asked me what I thought about love, I would tell them that story about George and Roz and the gardenias. “What happened after that?” asked Thea.

“Well, after that our relationship deteriorated until finally we broke up, and then he started going out with the most beautiful girl in the school, Stephanie.” Stephanie had been one of Roz’s best friends, and now they never spoke. But it had nothing to do with George; that had been years before.

“He went into advertising, I heard,” I said.

“As an accounts executive, and he’s married,” Roz told us, “to a very conventional woman. I met them at the theater, at a Tom Stoppard play, four years ago . . . George looked so uptight, standing there in his tweed sports jacket, and then all he talked about was Stephanie and how beautiful she’d been. I was jealous myself,” she said. “Imagine how the wife felt.”

I remembered that that Stoppard play was about passion, how it’s like some curtain drawn across a stage, ending one act, beginning another. Only in life, you never know when to expect it.

“His father, the analyst, put so much pressure on him that eventually he gave up acting,” said Roz. “But it was all George really cared about . . . He wanted to be an actor in the worst way.” She pulled her husband to sitting, against her legs.

“That rage that used to come out of him,” Robert concluded, “maybe it was because he already knew that he would give himself up.” The others nodded.

It was 1:00 AM, and I was about to suggest we go, when Robert mentioned a documentary on medicine in China that he and Roz had seen, the night before, at the Asia Society. What captured my attention was his reference to a “miracle cure.” Tired as I was, I sat back to listen.

In the film, Robert recounted, a traditional village doctor was visited by a man with a cockroach in a jar. The man explained that he felt both that the cockroach was ordering him to be manic—he had hardly slept or eaten for weeks—and also that he was the cockroach’s double, the two of them living parallel lives. I thought of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and suddenly I realized that I’d been attracted to literature precisely because the things in it that at first seem accurate only in a metaphorical sense often turn up, concretely, in the world.

The man’s wife sat by his side, as he spoke, listening to his fabulous tale. With awe, Robert explained. Her expression was not one of shame but awe. Well, the traditional doctor prescribed the man a nerve powder whose ingredients had been passed down for centuries, and one month later the patient returned, in the documentary, cured of his psychosis. A miracle. It occurred to me, that thanks to science, that was the problem with the world now: People think you have to be able to explain something for it to be true.

We finally did leave—by then, everyone was tired—we piled into our car on 103rd Street to head downtown. We dropped Burt in the West Village, where he wanted to stop at some bar, then Ed and Thea on Broadway, so they could hail a cab over the Brooklyn Bridge. Near home, we had to cruise a while to find a parking space.

“God, I remember so many things I’d forgotten,” I told Helen, “about what we did in that crazy production of Hamlet.”

“What did you do?”

“I was stage manager,” I told Helen. “I was in love for the first time in my life, during those months of rehearsals.” Suddenly, I remembered the intensity of that need to make love to a body that matched mine, to claim something of myself in the sameness. There was a physical longing I had with women then, that I feared I’d never get to the bottom of. I imagine it like a person who has had words but never syntax, suddenly unable to stop thinking.

People may believe it’s about anatomy. But it isn’t . . . at least not about the part that’s different between men and women. It’s that when you touch someone who you think you might finally be able to love, your hands feel like they belong to you. Maybe that’s why I noticed Robert’s hands.

“I wish I’d known you then, Chloe,” Helen said, “when you were 20.” I’ve seen pictures of her at that age, thin, dressed in vests and bellbottoms, the wire-rim glasses of the era, hipper than I ever was.

“We’d never have gotten together,” I told her, and I thought about Robert and Roz, how when they first met, and he’d fallen in love with her, she hadn’t even been moved to sleep with him. What you think you want, or need, or even who you can love, will all be transformed over a lifetime.

 

Monday night wasn’t technically a party, I guess, because there were only four of us at dinner . . . Nicholas, Helen’s friend from work; his boyfriend, Walt; and Helen and I . . . on the roof of the building at Avenue B and Houston Street that Nicholas bought with friends, years ago. It was like a college dorm in which, inexplicably, all the people had remained, into their thirties and forties.

The air started to get chilly, soon after we arrived, so Walt brought up sweaters with the first course. A graduate of Columbia’s philosophy department, he made his living cooking and serving food. As we ate, Walt reported some of the things he’d overheard that week in the dining room of the large Wall Street bank where he works lunches. We decided that the fantasy of white men is omniscience.

One by one, as we talked, the four of us donned our sweaters: Nick, a letter sweater from Grennel, where he’d played football; Walt, a cardigan of pink mohair that I had declined; Helen an NBC sweatshirt; and myself, a perfectly fitting navy pullover. By the time Nicholas and Walt had finished a bottle of wine, the conversation started to heat up. We’d gotten onto the topic of American Indians.

“What I’m saying,” said Nick, "is that at the same time that there’s racism against Native Americans, particularly in the West, there’s also a positive cultural image of the Indian as strong and brave . . . an archetype of our shared American past."

“I don’t think that’s true . . . or, if it is true, relevant,” Helen replied. She operates with a literalness that I will never understand.

“I agree with Nicholas,” I said.

“I agree with Helen,” Walt added. Helen and Nick were enjoying themselves, both with the type of personality that won’t let go of an idea until they’ve convinced the other party they’re right.

We talked while we ate, moving from the Indians to the Eskimos, and the racism against them in Alaska, where Helen had gone on vacation . . . without me, because I was still teaching, in April. She hired a helicopter to ride out over a glacier, which in the videotape she brought back looked as hard and shiny as some landscape of the mind after death.

That’s when Nicholas said, “The issue here is that you have compassion for the oppressed, Helen, but never for the oppressor. You excuse the Eskimo who drinks himself blind every night but not the white man who steps over his body. You don’t see that both are just living out a destiny. They’re each just doing what’s been set up for them to do.” I agreed with him.

“I agree with Helen,” Walt said again. The four of us smiled. Walt was African-American, and Helen a Jew from a working-class family in Queens. Blondehaired and blue-eyed, Nicholas and I were the WASPs; our ancestors had been the oppressors for centuries.

Someone changed the subject, yet again. Information addicts, we were amazed at the text of the world. The conversation then settled on the topic of Tongans, vast numbers of whom had recently moved from their tiny island in the South Pacific to Utah. You had to wonder if the Mormons knew what they were getting themselves into when they first went as missionaries to convert them. Helen reported the story of a Tongan who bought a pony for his son’s birthday, and, immediately after placing the money in the hands of the former owner, clubbed the animal dead. The daughter, whose pet the pony had been, fainted on the front lawn, before her father tried clubbing the Tongan. Here was the misunderstanding: Tongans barbecue pony for a son’s coming-of-age.

For a moment, we marvelled at how the peoples of the US, or the world, for that matter, had co-existed at all . . . the Indians, Eskimos, African-Americans . . . WASPs, Jews, Tongans, Mormons. At the same time, we had to consider ourselves.

After that, the conversation became more personal. Walt mentioned a break-in, two nights in a row the week before, into the basement of Nicholas’s building. The Lower East Side’s always been full of desperate junkies . . . The only difference is, so’s every neighborhood now.

“The sad part,” said Nick, “is there’s nothing down there to steal. All that guy must have done the first time is scrape his skin off, getting through the razor wire into the aluminum bulkhead. It’s really only a half-basement . . . . He must have had to crawl. But then the second time, he got smart and broke up through the plasterboard into the hall and wheeled Walt’s bicycle that he put together from a kit right out the front door. The door was open all night, and we have to think of Oscar downstairs.” Nick was referring to the two-year-old son of the couple who lives on the first floor.

We took this opportunity to talk about our favorite children. What came up was imaginary friends. Oscar had four, whose names Nicholas remembered perfectly as Hiram, Percy, Walrus, and Guinevere. Helen reported that her god-daughter, ΒJ, had one, Celeste, who was also the main character in an imaginary novel called Celeste Sings. I said my niece Lily was so young, she probably thought Helen and I were imaginary. Helen reminded us that BJ and Lily and Oscar, together, had lived about 2000 days.

Maybe that’s what moved us so, thinking about the children that night: the specificity of their desire after so little living. I thought about how later, we find more oblique languages to express those earliest longings about ourselves and others. A lot of people just make fun of, for example, a drag queen. But a drag queen carries important information in her costume: like the man who felt bonded to a cockroach, it’s an otherness we all know. And people never imagine ahead of time the lives they’re handed. I, for one, am amazed by a world where love comes so often in the guise of the person least suspected.

As we continued to sit in the chill air, the buildings of Manhattan our personal chandeliers against the skyline, we were quiet for a while, before Nicholas told about getting the building reroofed, during the 100 degree heat-wave in July. When the roofers, a team of Poles, arrived around five o’clock one Thursday afternoon, Zbishek, the foreman, let Nicholas know that they intended to work through the night, when it would be cooler, and to have the job done by morning.

“I told him it was fine with me,” Nick said. “Anyway, we left them up here, to go out to dinner with some friends, and didn’t get back until late.”

“We listened from the street,” Walt continued the story, “but we didn’t hear anything. It was about 1:30 when we let ourselves into the apartment, and when I climbed the last flight of stairs to the roof, I found the crew of five men, stretched out under tarps and lying on the chaise lounges, all asleep. I called Nicholas up to look at them.”

“The neighbors had complained from all the noise, we found out later,” Nick explained, “and so Zbishek decided just to call it a night and start again the next morning.” Nicholas wrapped his arm around Walt’s pink Mohair shoulder, where they sat on a plastic loveseat that matched Helen’s and my twin lawn chairs. “It was so sweet,” he said. “We must have stood there for 15 minutes, watching them sleep.”

This story reminded me of the way the world once was and would never be again.

Suddenly, there was a commotion from the front of the building, and the four of us made for the edge of the roof, to see into the parking lot of the discount gas station across Houston Street. It was two young drug addicts up to no good, probably after something they could pawn, since there was no cash to be had, the attendant sitting in one of those plexiglass booths, with a drawer you put your money into before pumping your own gas. The slowest of the boys was overrun and, as we watched, tackled by a burly man in his forties, who then held him in a bear hug, after jerking him to his feet, while a bystander left to call the police. As minutes passed, the landscape of activity below kept shifting.

Their cars abandoned at the pumps, a half dozen Puerto Rican men made a circle around the couple at the curb, though no one moved to help either the green-suited attendant or the boy, whose Hawaiian shirt glowed unnaturally under the floodlights. He would struggle wildly, every few seconds, like a woman trying to break from a man’s unwanted embrace, then settle back into utter stillness. After a while, the other junkie reappeared, hanging at the edge of an imaginary circle, slightly larger than the ring of men. In a desperate attempt, he lunged forward to shove the attendant, whose shoulders shimmied, like a bull annoyed by flies. One of the onlookers swung with a baseball bat but missed, as the boy dashed back to the free zone he’d defined in his mind. As a woman, I was amazed at the ways of men.

Finally a siren sounded up the block, before, like Houdini in chains, the slender junkie made a last attempt to wriggle from the arms of his captor. It had been so long, the man’s muscles must have been strained from weakness, either that or panic gave the boy a burst of strength, because the arms that held him began to part. It happened so fast, it’s hard to say just how the knot their limbs had formed came untied, but suddenly the boy was free, running, like you might imagine that pony before the Tongan. His friend appeared at his hip, then, the two of them galloping, the one as before and the other now with his chest bare, he was so young, it was hairless—because, as the attendant made his half-hearted pursuit—he could never overtake those two adrenaline-high youngsters—he had clutched in his hands the junkie’s shirt. By the time the squad car arrived, the men had returned to their cars and driven off, while the attendant still stood looking at the bright fabric in his hands.

 

I thought, that night, about my own life, how I would never have children and I would never make a lot of money or be famous, even for Warhol’s 15 minutes . . . and how none of us would ever get back the things we’d had in the past . . . our friends, our apartments, the ideas we had cherished. But all of these things were acceptable because that’s how human life parcels out experience, much in the same way we know love . . . which burns brightly for its time, till like a candle, suddenly the nub is left and we never saw the last inch go. Your hands hold a shirt, where before they held your lover’s body.

Life is an awful compression. Light years into seconds . . . that’s retrospect. But what we can’t bear losing is our history . . . which is why we’re so driven to tell stories, about ourselves and to ourselves. For the briefest moment, I felt I understood why all of us live together in the world.

 

—Linsey Abrams is the author of two previous novels, Double Vision and Charting by the Stars. Her third, Our History in New York, forthcoming from Global City Press in June, grew out of this story. Abrams’s short fiction, reviews and essays have appeared in such publications as the New York Times Book Review, Central Park, Christopher Street, and the Review of Contemporary Fiction. She is a member of the Sarah Lawrence College faculty and writer-in-residence in the Masters program at City College.

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BOMB 51
Spring 1995
The cover of BOMB 51
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