Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
A very loud car stereo, and then I am wide awake. “Thank God this is only temporary,” I tell Sue, getting out of bed and slipping on some pants. “What, that?” she says, grabbing my crotch, “All things are temporary.” I get back in bed, reach up and close the window. “No, the noise,” I say.
My narrow, crooked street, tucked up in the very northeasternmost corner of Manhattan, is the noisiest street in New York. A narrow, crooked echo chamber. In the summer, it overflows with sounds: horns, alarms, stereos, people screaming at each other. For some reason this tiny sunken backstreet is a truck route. You can hear the elevated train blocks away. Sounds bouncing back and forth across the street until they dissolve out over the buildings. But really, it’s not the noise that bugs me; I can turn up my own music. It’s the smell. In the summer, especially, it steams up with heavy rotten stenches that waft flies and mosquitoes up through my apartment, the stink of people’s waste made in the trashed alleyways out back. Raunchy, revolting waste, thrown out of upper-floor windows: tampons, condoms, old food, dirty diapers. A rain of shit and viscera. Savage rats fight immense insects for sole rights to the heap. But to tell the truth I’ve mostly gotten used to the smells and the vermin. I can smoke, and cook; the bugs are bad, but I bought screens; sometimes I think I could get used to anything. Only, when Sue is here, it becomes a point of pride, like why can’t I keep these people’s voices out of my home. It’s a stupid feeling, and Sue doesn’t even mind—because she doesn’t have to live there—but I’m going.
For a long while we held out. We didn’t do what most couples we knew did: move in with each other immediately to save on rent. We talked about it—at length—and both decided against it. It seemed a kind of permissible prostitution. “Do you love me?” “No.” “What about for $600 a month, do you love me?” “Still no.” “Good.” But finally we’ve caved; we’re looking out in Brooklyn, close to where I grew up. Still, even now we both get a little loony over our space. “We’ll need at least three, four, five bedrooms,” Sue says. “I’d settle for two on each floor,” I say, “with soundproof windows and bulletproof doors.” “You’ll have a whole section of the house to yourself,” she tells me, “with all your crappy, broken furniture.” “And we’ll live on the quietest street in town that our very modest sum of money can fetch—or your parents can pay for it,” I say. A little snarl between us. “Best to leave them out of it.” “Fair enough.” “And every night we’ll eat fresh root vegetables dug up in our rooftop garden.” “And we’ll take dance classes and ride to work atop giant tortoises.” “We won’t have to work.” “Sweet.” “And you’ll have to pop out some kids pretty quick to cement our irregular union,” she says. “Holy shit.”
Later that day we’re out on Long Island, sitting around my grandparents’ house with my whole family. Sue is off in the other room looking at baby photos with my sister. I ask my grandfather if he’ll come into the city with me sometime and go to the booth in Grand Central Station where people take their grandparents to make digital recordings of their voices. “I’m not dead yet,” he refuses. I see his logic: why record his voice before he dies.
“The life expectancy for a man born in 1921 was 57 years,” he says. “I’m a whole three decades into my grace period and I’m still plugging away at my potatoes. Everything up here is working just fine,” rapping on his head, “Better than it ever was—but the rest,” indicating his body, “The rest is slowing down. I used to be able to down a liter of vodka without feeling anything, I could swim 50 laps without taking a breath, I could run a five-minute mile. And Grandma here can tell you what I was like in the bedroom.”
“No no—I was an animal, really. Now it’s all slowing down.”
“You’re 87, Pop,” my dad says. “If your biggest problem is you can’t put away liquor like you used to—that’s probably a good thing. It’s about time you quit drinking, anyway.”
“Shit on a stick,” Grandpa says. “You’re one to talk.”
“This is my inheritance.”
“It’s the only thing keeping me alive,” Grandpa says. “Except these days, if I drink too much, I black out. Don’t remember a single thing. What the hell is that all about?”
“The same happens to me when I go overboard,” I say. “It’s a universal condition.”
Toward the end of the day, Grandpa sits down next to me on the couch.
“Your father says you’re going to shack up together, you and your little lady.”
“Oh boy, oh boy,” he says. “You know, when your grandmother and me were just married, we lived in a veterans’ barracks on Staten Island for about a year when your daddy was a baby, and I had two jobs—I worked at the machine shop up on 207 Street, and I swept up one of these Irish pubs around Dyckman Street at closing time. Paydays, I’d leave your Grandma with a nickel—in case she had to run downstairs for a phone call—and a few cigarettes. I had to ration out the rest of the pack until we got paid at five o’clock—this was before smoking was bad for you. So I wake myself up at two, still dark outside, and haul myself all the way up to this bar, where the micks would be hammered—I mean rotten drunk and rowdy, with broken stools and bloody noses. They see me coming in, and they know that means closing time, and you can imagine that didn’t sit well with them. ‘Jew,’ they’d say, ‘first you killed our Holy Christ, now you take the last drop of Jameson.’ I was younger than you, and small, too, but the bartender told me not to take any guff from these boys, so I say, ‘I didn’t kill your Christ, he killed himself drinking whiskey, like every other Irishman.’ Most of them would laugh, but every now and then one of them would take a tone with me. This one black Irish—Pete—rambles up to me, starts spitting beer in my face—this close, and swaying around like a balloon—and he says, ‘Say that again,’ with that heavy accent. And it gets kind of quiet, because everybody thinks this guy’s gonna chew me up. ‘Let the man do his job, Pete,’ they say, but he’s adamant, you know. ‘I want this little Jew to say it again,’ he says. ‘Ah c’mon Pete.’ ‘He says it again, and I go out.’ Everybody circles round, starts tugging at Pete’s arms, and he’s flapping them off, tottering around. So I say, ‘Go eat your eggs,’ and—wham—give him one good sock in the stomach, and he’s down on the floor, covered with peanut shells. And then it gets real quiet, like they think he might kill me. But then Pete starts laughing, still on the floor, and says, “This little Jew—he’s the hardest working little Jew west of the Promised Land—somebody buy him a shot,” and he grabs my leg and kind of chomps down on it in play, and then he stands up and gives me one of these big Irish hugs, and I show him the door, and take my shot—and remember, I’ve got to be at the machine shop at six o’clock. Sometimes I’d get there and I’d be just regularly stewed—the whole place spinning around me—and I’d climb under an IRT car and take a little snooze, work until five, and then we’d hit the bar around the corner, come home without a dime—I didn’t do much sleeping in those days, either.”
“It sounds pretty grueling,” I say. “That’s a hell of a commute to begin with.”
“Oh yes—but it wasn’t so bad. And we always had food on the table,” he says, “And your grandmother, she tolerated me.”
“At any rate, you’re in for a real treat, moving in with your little lady.”
Back in the city, Sue and I go on the hunt out in Brooklyn. “We’re willing to pay this much,” I tell the broker, “But we’re not willing to pay it for a broom closet.” “Oh sure,” he says, “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
I hadn’t wanted to go through a broker at all, and hopefully we won’t have to—but prospects otherwise are disheartening. We walk by two posters for a redone loft building in Williamsburg. “The Lofts at the Steel Mill,” it’s called. “How rustic,” Sue says. Each poster has a sepia-toned photograph over a black background and a big, bold, white slogan. The first is a man in a metal mask, with a welding torch, and it says, “Made by Brooklyn’s Finest.” The second shows Rosie the Riveter, or one of her coworkers, and reads, “They Worked Harder, So You Can Live Better.” At the baseline, “Studios Starting at $700K,” each with “views to Manhattan” and “proleptic access” to the “forthcoming Brooklyn Waterfront Rehabilitation Area (BWRA)” and with “sunny wood floors” and an “on-site trash impactor.” “What’s a trash impactor, and why advertise it?” Sue says. We stand there before the ads for a couple of minutes, and I start to boil up. “Where do they get of—” I begin, but Sue cuts me off. “Relax,” she says, “We don’t have to live there.”
We wind up plodding around Brooklyn all day with a broker with sunglasses too big for his head, who won’t stop talking on his phone, even when it’s clear there’s no one on the line, and who introduces himself to us each time we get to a new apartment as though we hadn’t walked there together. “Donald Daniels, at your service.” He’s got hair gel on his hand when he makes me shake it. Most of the places we visit are what I’d call broom closets, and at each one I get the feeling we’re trespassing on someone’s property. Daniels doesn’t have the keys to any of the buildings; he has to ring three or four doorbells before we can get past the front door, and when we finally get into an apartment he keeps making mistakes—not like he’s never been there before—that’s a given—but like he’s not really there right now. “Here’s the eat-in kitchen,” he says. But it’s clearly a small bedroom. “Stove and fridge are on the way,” he tells us. “And here’s the servants’ quarters.” He gestures at a small, broken-down, wooden stepping stool. I look at Sue, then back at the stool, then at Daniels, then back to Sue. I see she’s as fed up as I am. “This guy is whacked,” I mouth to her. She nods gravely. “This one’s a hot mover,” Daniels says, “a real double-D finger-banger, so if you want to sign right now I totally understand.” “It’s just a closet,” I growl. “Why are you wasting our time?” Sue snaps. “I totally understand, I’ve got just the place for you,” he says, and walks into the bathroom, trying to leave.
At the end of the day, we’re exhausted. The broker dogs us, won’t leave us alone for a minute. He buys us coffees and pastries and ushers us into an outdoor garden behind a café, still talking on his phone to imaginary clients. If he’d give us just one second to ourselves, I’d turn to Sue and say we need to get the hell out of here, because I’m convinced that this man is the devil. But he won’t leave, and along the way I seem to have lost Sue. I watched it happen. It was in the sixth apartment, a walk-up, and on the first turning of the second stairwell, Daniels turns to us and says, “To be perfectly honest, I’ve been having a hard time moving this one.” I glare at him and he smiles back. “I don’t usually get so intimate with my clients, but this one, I don’t know what’s the problem. It’s absolutely lovely.” He lets us in, a rare, happy accident that he has the key ready, and we both immediately see that he’s right. It’s large, it’s got rooms and windows and it’s filled with light; there’s a stove, a refrigerator, and a toilet; the floors are hard, worn wood, the ceilings are high, and the heaters are new. I sense that Sue really likes it—I like it too, it’s fine, out of our price range by almost $500, but then again, it’s fine. Daniels’s phone rings. “I’m very sorry but I have to go rather quickly,” he says. He sticks out his hand. Sue looks up from examining a built-in cabinet, sees his hand is bleeding. A puff of red smoke, and Daniels is gone, the sounds of glass breaking and of dead laughter out the window trailing off to nowhere. There’s a small tuft of white coming out of Daniels’s shirtsleeve. “What’s that?” Sue asks. “I’m so glad you asked,” he says and, smiling, pulls on the tuft and begins to draw out, first only the corner, then a whole page, and then, page after page, a whole packet of pages: a lease. “So, what’s the verdict?” Daniels says, coming back into the room with one hand behind his back. “Well …” says Sue, looking at me. I look blank. A dark-eyed grin from Daniels.
And then we’re in the garden café, Sue and Daniels taking in the sun, him like a lizard, me moping and glowering and being a regular asshole to both of them. “We need some time to think about it,” I say. “Is that right?” Daniels asks Sue. “That’s too bad.” Sue squirms. “We can put down a deposit, can’t we,” whipping out her checkbook. “How much? Two hundred? Three? Four?” “Sue,” I say, “relax.” She scrawls out some hasty figures and tears the check out of the book. Daniels takes it and laughs, laying his phone down on the table, saying, “Relax is right.” He shreds the check into little pieces, slides them into his briefcase. “This is unheard of, but I don’t even need a deposit—just say the word.”
We’re at my sister and her husband’s new house in Philadelphia, having a political discussion with my grandfather.
“Election night used to be a very different thing,” he explains to Sue and me. “All we did was we took a bunch of old boxes out back to the alley and set them on fire. Then the cops would come, and we’d scoot off before they could club us. And that was election night.”
“But what did that have to do with the election?” Sue wants to know.
“Oh I didn’t know—I wasn’t political,” he chuckles. “It was Roosevelt. I was just a kid.”
We go join the rest of my family in the newly renovated kitchen, admiring the high-end appliances and granite countertops. My sister has ushered in a new era of middle-class idolatry for the family, and everybody knows it; the house is, by far, the nicest piece of property in the immediate bloodline. My father is fixated on the seven-foot refrigerator, which makes ice when you push a button, tossing fresh cubes into the deep, stainless-steel sink; the butcher-block island is a solid rock upon which my mother leans, drinking wine from three glasses to feed the hungry dishwasher; each time it beeps, my grandfather slaps my brother-in-law on the back and yells, “There it is!” When the oven timer goes off, a soft, effeminate machine voice murmurs, “Oven, oven,” and my grandmother silently mouths the words along with it, a mantra for the new age.
I’m focused on Sue, wondering if she’s ever seen a family so mystified by ordinary household amenities. Her family has had dishwashers for years, since they were 12 feet tall and coal powered, I think to myself. But Sue hasn’t even noticed my family, beyond my sister and brother-in-law. She’s watching them dance around their new home, pushing buttons and turning knobs. A dance of youthful cohabitation. She watches who peels potatoes and who minces garlic, who clears the table and who takes out the trash; takes note of who cooks and who cleans, who jogs and who does yoga; who drinks what, and when; who sleeps on the left, who says things, and why; who wakes up first and goes quietly down the steps into the kitchen to set the coffee machine gurgling in the morning.
At bedtime, we’re trying to figure out how to lie down on the air mattress. It’s harder than it should be. If Sue lies down first, my weight sends her flying when I lie down. But if I lie down first, her side balloons up and she rolls down to my side and bumps me, and I wind up on the floor. We decide to both fall backward, Sue just a split second after me. We land with a thud, and it shakes the house. The bed deflates with a hiss. “Oh-ho,” we hear my Grandpa yell, “the young ones are at it.”
Coffee in the kitchen the next morning.
“So, did you find a place to live?” Grandma asks.
“How’s your sex life?” Grandpa wants to know.
“For Christ’s sake, Dad,” my father says.
“Hell,” Grandpa says, “can’t an old man ask his grandson a decent question?”
“It’s just great,” Sue steps in. Everybody turns to her, and she blushes. “I mean looking for an apartment. It’s going great. We’ve basically found something. Okay, everybody stop looking at me.”
“She’s blushing,” my mom says. “Our family’s too crude, we’re embarrassing her.”
“Our sex life is dead,” I say. Everybody turns to me.
“Oh boy,” Grandpa says, “You’re too young to die.”
“We don’t have enough money for an adequate erotic life in New York,” I tell him. “It’s very costly to make love and we’re putting all our money into our shiny new home anyway. It’s cheaper just to imagine sex the way we’d like to have it, draw a few pictures, maybe talk about it a little, than actually to buy all the whips, chains, handcuffs, rubbing oils—”
“Oh boy! It used to be much different.”
Sue glares at me.
“Wave of the future,” I say. “You can’t have it both ways.”
I’m upstairs brushing my teeth with the door open. I hear Grandpa’s slow shuffle in the hallway. “Hi, Gramps,” I say, drooling a little foam. “Brushing your teeth?” “Mm hmm.” He shuffles past the door and I go on brushing. Then he shuffles back and says, “Why bother? I haven’t brushed my teeth in decades and I’ve still got my healthy chompers. There’s no point.” “Really?” I say. I rinse. “You don’t brush your teeth?”
“Why bother? I read a book about it—it’s a pointless, filthy habit. When we went on strike at the shop—for our pensions, mind you—we all stopped brushing our teeth. And we all retired at 50, a full deal. I rest my case.”
“I don’t know if it works that way.”
“It does, it does …”
Then he rolls his eyes around like pool balls, until he’s looking at something just above my head, falls back against the hallway and slouches down to the floor. He’s propping himself up with one arm. I stare at him through the doorway with my toothbrush sticking out of my mouth. “Are you okay?” He moves his other hand to his head and lets out a little moan. “Aaaah.” “Grandpa?” “Yes, yes.” “Are you okay? I’ll go get Dad.” “No, no, no, this is okay, it’s over.” He unfolds himself uneasily and gets back on his feet, holding onto the wall. “You’re really all right?” “Oh yes,” he says, “Don’t bother anyone, just a dizzy spell. Keep it to yourself.” “You’re sure?” “Wanna know something?” “What?” “Try not to get old,” he says, and shuffles off down the hall.
“Hey you—hey! Would you please turn that down?” Nothing. “Turn down the fucking music or I’ll call the cops and they’ll come and turn it down.” Nothing. “For fuck’s sake, if you don’t turn that shit down, I’ll find your goddamn car when you’re sleeping and rip the goddamn speakers out myself.”
He doesn’t turn it down.
“I don’t think he heard you,” Sue says, and takes a bite of her sandwich.
“He didn’t even see me.”
“Why don’t you yell a little louder?”
“Don’t get snotty,” I say.
“Or you could call your own bluff and actually call the cops,” she says, looking down. “Or is it too early?”
I go and get a pot of water from the kitchen.
“What are you doing?”
“Dumping some water on his car.”
“Why don’t we just close the window and go in the other room?”
“Why don’t I just dump a pot of water on his goddamn minivan?” I say. “I’m not gonna hole up in the other room and wait for him to drive off. I can’t take this shit much longer.”
“Well, you’re moving, so you don’t have to,” Sue says.
“I’m not going anywhere unless that asshole outside turns off his fucking stereo.”
“Great, that makes a lot of sense.”
“Well, if you don’t like it you should just call off the whole goddamn thing,” I say. I steal a glance at Sue, put the pot of water on the floor, and then look down and prod at my food. The bass line outside has the salt and pepper shakers on a rattle race across the table, and Sue and I watch them go until pepper is about to fall off the edge and I catch it and return the two of them to the middle and they start over again. The table, too, buzzes with each rumble and inches its way from the wall and then inches its way back. And I keep thinking my phone is vibrating in my pocket—but my phone isn’t even in my pocket, it’s on the table; it’s my whole leg that’s vibrating, my haunch swinging side to side, and my teeth that are grinding against each other, and my fingers that keep squeezing my leg, groping through to the pocket in search of my phone until I remember that it’s not in there, it’s on the table, it’s just my whole leg that’s got the shakes. And the water in the pot is rippling rhythmically as though someone were stomping their enormous foot in the other room, or banging on the ceiling beneath it with a broom, telling me to keep it down. I regard the pot, and hear the water cry out to me, daring me to toss out the window.
Then I lose it. In one fluid movement, I jump out of my seat, sweep up the pot and make a lunge for the window. Sue starts and kind of gets in front of me, although I think she was trying to get out of my way, and my foot gets tripped up in the leg of her chair; and, as I’m thrusting forward, the lower half of my body freezes up and the pot shoots out of my hands and clangs against the wall to the right of the window. It almost hits Sue in the head, soaks the corner of a print tacked into the plaster, crashes to the floor beneath the table, and drenches one of my shoes. Then the saltshaker falls off the table and mixes a little puddle of tears. Then Sue starts yelling at me.
“What the hell are you trying to do, kill me?” she shrieks, and bounds across the room. “You’re a fucking maniac; why couldn’t you just close the stupid window instead of throwing a freaking metal pot at my head?”
“I didn’t exactly throw it at your head, I was going for the—you know what, you know what I was doing, I don’t need to explain a damned thing.”
Then the music dies down, just long enough for us to hear a car start. Then it pipes up again, but much lower, and trails off down the street, out of earshot. “For fuck’s sake,” I say.
“Why don’t you go chase him down with a water gun and give him a civics lesson,” Sue yells. She sits down on the sofa across the room from me while I start soaking up the salt water with a couple of napkins, with little success. “Just drop it,” I grumble.
“That’s what you did,” she says, “And now the whole room’s a freaking mess.”
I indicate for her to drop it again.
“I don’t get it,” she says, “You’ve been ignoring all the shit you have to put up with in this crappy neighborhood with these crappy people for years, and now you’re finally leaving for somewhere better and all of a sudden it’s too much for you to bear.”
I go into the other room and bang my hands on the sofa a few times.
“Great, ignore me,” she calls in. I come back and sit down at the table. I could dump a pot of water on Sue’s head right now, although, at the rate I’m going, I’d probably kill myself trying. Whenever I get really heated, I aggravate my clumsiness; and it doesn’t matter how aware of my tendencies I am, as soon as I lose my temper, I’m all trips and pratfalls—last big fight Sue and I had, I went to run out of the house in a fury but had managed somehow to tie one of my shoes to the coffee table, and I dragged it across the living room before my stubbornness gave way and we both started laughing. Or the time I flew into a rage and squeezed my eyes shut, and nothing Sue could say would coax them back open, and she led me around the house and into the bedroom, and she read to me until we’d finally forgotten the original infraction.
And the other side of it is I get all tangled up in my own thoughts and wind up saying inane things that don’t even remotely make sense. I’ll be ranting and raving, like I’m sure I’m about to do right now, and then I’ll blurt out, “Well fine then everything you always say is never my fault like you say is your fault I guess you’re right then fine then just fuck it.” These overwrought, elaborate concoctions—I don’t know what region of my brain they come from; but just one well placed turn of phrase will usually do the trick of showing me up while I’m steaming self-righteously over some minor point of contention. Especially if I fall and bust my head open or walk into a broom closet right after I say it.
“Why don’t we go downtown and take a walk,” Sue says.
“I don’t need you helling me what the tell I should do,” I say. Sue smirks. “No, I’m fucking serious.”
“You really can’t talk to me like that.”
“I’ll talk how I want.”
“What the hell is the matter with you anyway?”
“You’re a spoiled little brat, that’s what,” I say, “so why don’t you just go home.”
I’m still seething when I get off the train in Chinatown and a blond-haired family of ten waddles in front of me, each wearing T-shirts that read, I’M FROM NEW YORK WHAT’S YOUR EFFIN’ PROBLEM. Three generations of pudgy mainlanders—four kids tethered by plastic cords to their parents’ maps, four grandparents taking in the Chinese language through ancient opera glasses—all bobbling along like they were on the bocce deck of a cruise ship. I’m caught behind them, veering out into the street trying to pass, then hopping back on the curb when a truck whizzes by. I try to cut through and get the plastic ropes wrapped up around my feet. “Mother!” the youngest one squeaks. The whole group encircles me, and father steps out to meet me, like we’re going to duel. “I’m entangled in their leash,” I explain. “Oh thank God you speak English,” mother gasps. “Sorry about that, sir,” father says, and drops the cord for a moment so I can unravel myself. Mother holds out her map, like an offering. “Do you know which way ‘Cay-nal Street’ is?” she says. “Canal Street?” I ask. “Yes, it must be.” One of the kids is rubbing its hands on my jeans as though they’re made of some special moon fabric it had never felt before. “It drapes itself in our everyday cloth,” the kid tells its siblings. They confer in a private huddle. “Will you take us safely to ‘Canal Street’?” mother says. “You’re on it,” I say. Blank looks. I point and gesture to follow, and lead the family to the open north.
What the hell is the matter with this town where nobody knows their way. I ditch the family bewildered at a bank on the Bowery when they go inside to pay me for a guided tour I never promised I would lead. But I haven’t gone half a block before an elephantine, black Mercedes lumbers up in the crosswalk in front of me and the window slides down and an angry man’s bald head looms out. “You know which way’s the bridge?” he says. “Which bridge?” “I’m going to—hold on a minute,” he says, exasperated, and punches a few buttons on a glowing console, spits out the window and mutters, “This thing really knows how to push my buttons.” Then it beeps, and he says, “Hello! Brooklyn—which bridge is for Brooklyn?” “There’s a bridge right there,” I say. “Where? You sure?” he says, and motions towards the console. “Yeah, I’m sure.” “This thing doesn’t think so.” I turn down Grand to get off the Bowery, but it’s no use. Again, a small child is tugging at my pants. “Where’s my mother?” he asks me. “I’m sorry, I don’t know,” I say, and stop to look around. Mother comes running out of a natural foods store with a quart of milk, wearing a T-shirt that reads, LOWER EAST SIDE TO LOWER EAST SIDE IN TWO GENERATIONS grabs the kid and glares at me. “Hands off, creep!” “Bye!” the kid says, and waves me off.
At Kenmare Street there are two posters for the same apartment building me and Sue saw when we were on the hunt. One of them is the same as before—“They Worked Harder, So You Can Live Better”—but the other is new: “This is the Land. We Have Our Inheritance.” It’s got a picture of some bones assembled into a little lean-to, and beneath it reads, “Stop Wandering. Studios Starting at $750K.” Without Sue, these ads really dig into me. And this time, they’ve called in reinforcements: a sports-club poster pasted up alongside them that reads, “Redistribute the Health,” a handbag ad for a museum exhibit announcing, “There’s a hole where your poverty disappeared;” there’s a dessert on a menu board called the “Si Se Pudding,” an Asian bistro called “Eminent Lo Mein,” and a yoga studio called “Shantih-Town,” outside of which hard-bodied women buzz and throng, none of them more than five foot two; one unties a pug she calls “Pierrot,” and, while she walks it, answers her phone, which she calls “Richard;” and she squawks at Richard to “get a job” while she touches her sweaty head, and then she squats to pick up a plump, round turd Pierrot leaves behind and wraps it in a leaf of wax paper. “Shantih shantih shantih,” she tells it.
Houston Street is clogged with cabs, and a middle-aged woman, eastbound and haranguing the driver to go faster when he has stopped for a light, shoves some money through the partition, opens all the doors, and storms out to the sidewalk. “Do you know which way is west?” she asks me. “That way,” I say, “Toward the sun.” “Pardon me?” “Walk toward the setting sun,” I say, and she bounds off. A couple of French women approach me to ask where “Café Colonial” is. “It’s just down the block,” I explain. It’s the one with the mosquito netting and the slow moving bamboo ceiling fans, with the sugar-cane planters and the exceptionalist service. “You can’t miss it,” I say, and establish myself on the corner to direct foot traffic. “Where’s the metro?” The what? “Where’s the subway?” Underground. “And how can I get to—” Don’t bother. “And the new one?” Closed, just like the old one. “Really?” Closed for expansion, and no, they don’t take cash, only trust. They don’t take reservations, either, only direct action. No babies, no dogs, no service. Those are the rules. No news is good news. No Jews or blacks. No piercings below the waist. No talking on cell phones. No talking on politics. No talking. Make sure you chew 30 times each swallow—if you plan on swallowing—or they’ll slit your throat. They’ll slit your throat if you spit it out. “Danke!” “Welcome to New York.”
It’s night now, and Avenue A is overrun with people spilling out of bars and smoking. I zigzag my way up towards St. Marks. At East 7th Street, I’m forced to a stop where a large crowd blocks the way in front of the Ukrainian restaurant. Inside the circle two groups are facing off: three young white men in cargo shorts, flip-flops, and shirts buttoned up their thick necks on one side, and on the other, a tall black man in white pants and a linen shirt half-unbuttoned, and a thin white man in tight jeans and a V-neck tee. One of the guys in shorts is saying, “You just watch where you’re going, faggot,” and the man in the V-neck is holding his friend in the white pants by the shoulders, while he yells back, “Why don’t you watch your fucking mouth you fucking Jersey trash.” “We live here, faggot,” cargo shorts shoots back, “we haven’t gone home to Jersey in over a year.” The three laugh and slap each other five. Then white pants breaks free from his friend and spits at the three in shorts, but a gust of wind carries the spit off target and over to a girl in a short skirt half-watching the scene, half-trying to hail a cab. The spit hits her in the face, and she screams and prepares to swoon, but then her legs prop her up. “Gross,” she yells, wiping her cheek with her purse. “You total jerk, you—spit—on—me!”
“Look what you did, boy,” one of the guys in shorts yells. Everybody looks at him, and it gets a little quiet.
A big black man in a blazer steps up and says, “What the fuck you just call him?”
“I said ‘bro,’ I called him ‘bro.’”
“You’re a fucking liar,” white pants says. “I should rip your throat out.”
“Then do it.”
“That’s not what I heard you call him,” the big guy says.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” says the friend in the V-neck.
“That—asshole! He spit on me!”
From in the crowd somewhere: “Kick his ass!” “Fuck ’em up!” “Fucking yuppie frat boys!”
“You motherfuckers better get the fuck out of here,” the big guy says, pushing his way in front of the other two, “or you’re gonna wind up with your motherfucking heads even further up your motherfucking asses.”
“Yeah, well, you’ve got your idea of what happened, we’ve got ours,” says cargo shorts.
“What the fuck’s that supposed to mean?”
“C’mon, I mean, you know what I meant.”
From low in the crowd: “We all heard it,” and then: “He’s got a gun!”
He doesn’t, but people edge back and trip each other up, and a boy’s shrill voice cries out “niggers” and a figure darts off, disappearing into Tompkins Square Park. You can see his hooded sweatshirt and narrow black jeans, and then only some white patches with writing pinned to his back. In the meantime, someone must have called the cops and told them there was a full-scale riot on Avenue A, because just then a dozen squad cars pull up on the curb real quick and start wailing their sirens and directing everyone through their bullhorns all at once. “No loitering, people, let’s go.” Bloop bloop. The thing is, it’s no more crowded right here than it is in front of any other bar up or down the street. “Move it along.” “To where?” “Anywhere, just move it along.” Bloop. “Remember the riots,” a crackly old voice calls out, “Remember ’88.” Two other voices: “I was six in ’88” and “Give up the ghost Grandpa.” Chuckles in the crowd, which begins to thin. Bloop bloop. “No loitering, people, show’s over.” “Fucking pigs.” “Get the show on the road folks, don’t make us get out these cars.” “Stop class warfare.” “Yuppies go home.” Bloop. “Hurry up please, it’s time.” Bloop bloop, once more—and everybody disappears. All gone. All of them back into the bars they were in ten minutes ago. The cops stick around another minute or two and then fall out in formation, silently, with their lights flashing and cabs darting in and out of their way. I spot a ten dollar bill crumpled up on the ground and squat to pick it up, but it’s just an advertisement for an escort service, and off to the side a voice is snickering. Four girls in sequined shirts and furry moon boots ask me if I know where the karaoke bar is. I tell them I don’t, but there’s probably a sign, and one of them pukes into her hands as I move off and make my way to Union Square.
When I get close there’s a small but passionate mob of demonstrators wielding hand-written signs that read, OUR VOICE WILL BE HEARD and A STINKING MOB IS AN ANGRY MOB and I SMELL A RAT. Young and old people marching up Broadway near the Strand yelling slogans and laughing and shaking their fists and grabbing and goosing one another. It comes as a relief. I fall in line with the marchers—not with any purpose, but I don’t make any effort to press through the herd, either—and somebody offers me a sign that says, THE CITY STINKS: REFORM. “No thanks,” I say, “I’m just going to the train.” I walk the two or three blocks up to Union Square, tacitly complicit with the demonstrators. I don’t know what they’re demonstrating—and it turns out I don’t really care, at that, except for the sense of minimal involvement I have just from moving along with the group. I turn to the woman beside me and ask, “Where are we headed?” “Just up to Union Square and back,” she says, “And then back up again, and then back down to Astor. We got the permit until midnight. The weather’s great and it’s pretty good for the money too. Look would you hold this for a second, I gotta itch my foot,” she says, and thrusts her sign post into my hand. It says, HELP IS ON THE WAY.
A man pushes in between me and the woman and starts hitting on her before I can ask what she means or hand her back the sign. I start thinking about how I’ll have to make up with Sue when I go back to her place—I’m not schlepping all the way back uptown tonight—and about how many of my words I’ll have to eat. A little bit more than usual, most likely.
There’s a small man with a megaphone in the square, and everybody gathers round him. “Terminate our torment,” he cries. A hundred fists and peace signs thrust up into the air. “End the apathy,” he shouts. Cheers. “Godliness is cleanliness.” He smirks.
“Good people of New York,” he begins—crowd hoots and screeches—“we are not gathered here tonight as a motley and disheveled crowd with scattered and disparate interests”—“No we’re not!”—“We’ve come together in this square tonight so we can speak with one voice, and put our minds to one purpose, and so we can act as one body”—“That’s right!” “Yes we have!” He drops his voice to an amplified dramatic whisper. “Our grandparents and great-grandparents did not break their backs in this city in vain. They would not tolerate this sweaty cesspool of filth and unfeeling in which we make our homes.” His voice rising back up to a preacher’s pitch, he says, “We are New Yorkers, and our demands are simple.” He picks up a leather satchel by his feet. A long pause. “What do we want?” he cries.
“Relief!” the crowd cries back.
“When do we want it?”
“Well, the mayor can’t give you relief,” he sneers. “The mayor stinks like the rest of the stinking politicians—our grief is no sweat off their brow.” The crowd laughs, and jeers. “But if we will not tolerate dependence—and if godliness is indeed cleanliness—then, I ask you, who will give us what we so desperately need?”
“Favela-Fresh!” the crowd roars, “Fa-vela-Fresh, Fa-vela-Fresh,” with the little man reaching into the satchel and then tossing out small black canisters into the waving, grasping hands of the people. “Fa-vela-Fresh!” I catch one against my chest: “Favela-Fresh Ocean Spray Deodorant: Relief for the City That Stinks.” “Relief!” he calls out. “Down with hygienic indifference! We all deserve better and we can get it!” “Yes we can! Yes we can!” the crowd chants, dropping the canisters into little designated baskets pock-marking the ground, marching away, winding past the commuter supermarket, the megastore, and the movieplex; “Fa-vela-Fresh” trailing off back down Broadway to Astor Place and leaving me alone in the empty square, before I lay my sign down, descend the stairs, and hop on the train.
My grandfather is in the hospital due to near-total kidney failure, and Sue and I grab the Long Island Railroad and then a taxi to go pay him a visit. He’s lying propped up in bed watching a baseball game. He looks small but comfortable, though he’s clearly unnerved by the catheter tube snaking out from under the sheet, which he pulls down when he sees me and Sue walk in. I say hello and lean in to give him a hug, and he reaches his hands around to my lower back and digs his fingers hard into my kidneys, saying, “Jeez, what I wouldn’t give for one of those bad boys.”
“Hands off, old man,” I say. He laughs.
“What I really wouldn’t give for a drink.”
“There’s no bar service in here?” Sue asks.
“Oh, it’s pretty damn bad, you know,” he says. “‘Bring your own booze.’”
“But you’re holding up all right?” I say.
“Nothing wrong with me at all. It’s just every so often I get sick of Grandma’s cooking and check myself into one of these pricey hotels.”
Sue chats up Grandpa while I cut the stems of the flowers we brought and put them in a vase, which we also brought, and look off out the window at the parking lot. It was nice of her to come out here with me. Our one last noxious feud over the apartment, which we signed for last week, shook us both up pretty good—I was a “holier-than-thou and arrogant, thickheaded dickhead”—and I take it this is her way of making peace with me. It’s also her way of telling me to knock it off, for good, about the apartment. “We’re living together, we’re doing it,” she said, to settle it once and for all, “And we’ve gotta live somewhere, and, at this point, I don’t give a crap whether you think our neighbors are capitalist missionaries or Stalinist librarians. If you wanna go on feeling guilty about nothing, suit yourself, but it’s a nice apartment and we can raise organic babies on the fire escape and feed them locally-grown, bionic seeds from the golden earth-garden.” Or something to that effect; point being, I need to get over myself, she said, and she gave me five minutes to do it. And she set her stopwatch, barred the door, and wouldn’t let me storm out for another useless stroll; and she saw, or at least thought she saw, that I was bluffing myself, and she poked fun at me until I cracked a smile and we took off our clothes and had sex on my bare mattress, because I’d boxed up all my sheets already, and it was a deal.
“We’re picking up the truck tonight,” Sue is saying. “It’s a nice neighborhood. Lots of trees. Mr. Moralist over here has a bone to pick with it, but really it’s just beautiful. It looks like the West Village.”
“Oh, the Village,” Grandpa says, a little faint. “When I was your age, we used to go down there to beat up the queers. Are there still queers there?”
“Jesus,” I say, and steal a glance at Sue.
“It was mostly Italian guys from Arthur Avenue, and we’d meet up and head down to West 4th Street and jump some gays, steal their rings.”
“We stole his ring.”
“Grandpa, that is not okay.”
“Well we did it,” he snaps. “I wouldn’t do it now, but now I wouldn’t do half the things I did back then—that’s why I used to land myself in the jailhouse—and I don’t need you preaching at me like your father used to.” He turns to Sue and hands her an envelope. “The check’s got his name on it,” he says, gesturing to me, “But you take it, you’re in charge of it. Buy a new sofa or something, and don’t let my son-of-a-bitch of a grandson bring you down. He’s a real winner.” He adjusts the pillow behind his head. “Now it’s time for my snooze.” He gives me a big hug, sneaks one last kidney squeeze, and plants a wet kiss on Sue’s forehead; zaps off the television sound and unfolds the bed back for the nap.
“Just carry that lamp upstairs, we’re almost done.” “Let’s take a break in a minute.”
“Fuck!” “What?” “I locked the keys in the truck.” “The truck’s open.” “Oh, I thought I locked it.” “I’ve got your keys right here.”
We’re moving on the hottest day of the year, and even this early in the morning it’s already well near unbearable. New neighbors regard us impassively from within air-conditioned bay windows as we run up and down the stairs with boxes, furniture, coat hangers. When, finally, everything is out of the truck and strewn across the floor, Sue lies down on the mattress in the middle of the living room, staring at the ceiling fan cutting around slowly through the heavy air. I’m sitting on the windowsill, watching the street cleaner across the street whip up a cloud of dust, bottle caps, and cigarette butts that precedes it to the corner. It idles at the light while a garbage truck carries a mountain of trash down the steaming avenue, before I turn back to Sue, whose short black hair fans out on the unprepared mattress, and her small damp breasts seep through her T-shirt, and her thin arms drip sweat and slip around mine.
Zach Samalin is a writer from Brooklyn. He is working on a doctorate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, and teaches at the City College of New York.
This issue of First Proof is sponsored in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.