When we were kids a Parks Department truck would drive through the backstreets of my hometown spewing behind it a billowing smog intended to kill mosquitoes. All the kids on my block would chase the truck, trying to lose ourselves in the cloud that looked so appealing in its perfect, unnatural whiteness, yet all the while we were running hard, breathing deep and inhaling toxic repellents. My hometown in New Jersey has a few intersecting highways, its own high school, both a main street and a shopping mall, one George Washington Slept Here sign, a Presbyterian church, a synagogue, and a Catholic church. Sundays inside St. James, the families on my block would sometimes cross paths (hands loosely clasped, heads drooping) and though we never greeted one another our eyes would light up with recognition as if we’d just caught each other doing the exact same thing wrong. The families on my block overlapped and merged, never so precisely as a Venn diagram, more like gravy and mashed potatoes mixing together on a supper plate, and this happened not only in church but also at school, on the street, in the backyards and… everywhere. We spilled in and out of each other’s houses, each other’s lives.
I began to babysit for the Doyles, who lived up the street, sometime around the time I turned 12. Usually they would call for one of my four older sisters, but if my sisters were busy with a shift at the bakery, I would be the one to substitute. I may have been a child myself, but Mrs. Doyle trusted me to sit like a mother inside her house and make any necessary sandwiches or bandage scraped knees or read picture books, but mostly I simply sat and waited as I watched Patrick, Timmy and Maggie run in and out the back door. Mrs. Doyle often commented, “Maturity runs in your family.” I loved to babysit and sometimes wished that I was one of the kids in that family, which seemed more singular than my own. Every year, each one of them celebrated (with cake and ice cream) not only a birthday but also a “great day” — the day Mr. and Mrs. Doyle had adopted them.
The Doyles honored their adopted children in other ways, too. Sometimes on our way to the mall, we would catch sight of them from the car, usually while waiting for the Main Street traffic light to change. Unseen behind the steering wheel, my mother would sigh one of her inscrutable sighs, “There’s Jim and Donna, at it again.” The Doyles would be picketing the clinic, carrying signs that read, “Adoption not Abortion,” marching around in a tight circle on the public sidewalk where they could not be legally barred (the clinic had threatened to arrest them again if they set foot on the property). On and on they chanted, the sounds of their familiar voices drifting in through the open car windows. Whenever I’d babysit, I’d see those same signs stacked demurely in a corner and I’d remember seeing Mr. and Mrs. Doyle on the sidewalk, looking half-beaten but still willing to fight.
An electrician, Mr. Doyle had once crossed the wrong wires and this resulted in an electric shock that knocked him to the floor, where he lay, out cold, until the ambulance arrived. Just as the EMTs climbed up to the building site, he awoke, Lazarus like, and asked if it was lunchtime. Everyone on the block knew this story, we’d heard it countless times and each time had rejoiced in his good luck. Somehow, his near death had been our near death, his uncanny resurrection our own.
Sitting in their house, I liked to look at all their books and records. Mr. Doyle relaxed by listening to his recordings of Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses, which were stage-ily read by actors with thick-as-Irish-stew brogues, their strange sounding names spelled any which way (Siobhan!). Mostly, though, I did my homework there and then read the books I’d borrowed from the library, though on occasion I found something matchless on their crowded shelves. I discovered the short stories of Frank O’Connor in this way. No matter how many times I read First Confession, I would laugh so hard I cried. I also discovered Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger, which fascinated me probably because I never completely understood the meaning behind those New York tales about the Glass family who lived lives so very different from my own—so different from anyone I knew.
In the same way the Doyles loved reading, my parents loved music. My mother would play West Side Story, Oklahoma! and South Pacific while cleaning bathrooms or baking pies, and in the evening she and my father would listen to Beethoven symphonies and Puccini operas and when I was in Junior High I went to my first opera at the Metropolitan Opera House, where we sat in the Family Circle, which actually was just the balcony farthest from the stage and closest to the ceiling. Between acts of Hansel and Gretel, I walked to the railing and peered down at women spilling fur wraps onto orchestra seats. I loved the sound of the chord struck to inform people to return to their seats and I marveled at the crystal chandeliers as they receded into the ceiling. During the performance, I sometimes looked away from the stage to observe the members of the Opera Guild, the tuxedoed men in box seats who sipped champagne and laughed…those men in fancy suits always seemed to laugh.
Of course, I’d been to the city before this, shopping or going to see movies with my family. But it was never like this. That night at the opera revealed some mysterious otherness, something like what was captured in the nine elusive stories of J.D. Salinger. Then and there, I decided in my usual hazy, half thought out way, that one day I would live in the city.
To get to Nuyorican Poets Café, I left my building on Prince Street, and walked up Elizabeth instead of Bowery, because I wanted to avoid the homeless guys hanging around the soup kitchen. I’d cross Houston and walk another block north, turning east on Bleecker and at that point I’d cross Bowery, travel another couple of blocks north and make a right onto Third Street before continuing east. I’d pass the Hell’s Angels headquarters (“safest block in New York City”), a dive bar called the Edge, and the Most Holy Redeemer Church. Glancing behind me as I walked, I would scan the block before committing myself to it and, if someone especially scary stepped out of a building or turned in from the opposite avenue, I’d simply turn around and walk back in the direction I’d come and then wait till I felt ready to try again. But once I crossed Avenue B and spotted Julio, doorman and former Golden Glove boxer, I’d relax.
Seeing the Lower East Side my very first time I’d felt stupefied. I had never before witnessed this magnitude of urban poverty: skittering druggies, the random odor of human excrement, boys I presumed to be gangbangers, mothers still in the first half of their teenage years, busted cars on cinder blocks, crumbling stoops, boarded up windows, plastic drug bags littering the sidewalks, the crippled and chronically addicted begging for change, and empty lots filled with garbage, overgrown weeds and smashed bottles. Each time I walked to Nuyorican’s, I re-experienced a still potent version of the original cocktail of emotions: fear, sheer dumbfoundedness, empathy, and horror.
After paying Julio my $5 fee and telling him, “No, I don’t want to be your girlfriend,” I’d push open the black door and step inside the café. Once inside, I felt an instantaneous gratitude seeing the graceful wooden bar, brick walls, and bold bright paintings. It all gave me a feeling of arriving home, safe and warm.
Bob Holman, a pointedly ridiculous hat on top of his head, was another welcome sight. He was always there on Friday nights, just like he was the very first time I’d made the trip with a couple of friends to see my first poetry slam. He’d introduced himself and, gesturing towards unusual colorful sets behind the stage, told us about the production called Julius Caesar in Africa, which had premiered there the previous night. For some reason, Bob directed a question, enunciated in a school teacher’s voice, to me:
“And do you know who wrote Julius Caesar?”
I paused to widen my eyes like a child and said, “Ibsen?”
Bob laughed in a rewarding way and then stepped forward to greet another arrival. My friends chose a table, while I, eager to explore on my own, stepped over to the bar and requested an Orangina. The bartender asked me to call him “Magic.” While explaining he liked to perform tricks, he made some obviously lame attempt to steal my watch from my wrist. I laughed, but I felt warned.
It was the earliest days of the Nuyorican poetry slams, a strange competition among poets with Olympic scoring. The event was made nearly palatable by Bob’s asides and explanations for the benefit of the audience: “The best poet always loses!” The winner of the first slam I witnessed was Dana Bryant, whose poem, “Dominican Girdles,” easily lifted her above the competition. Listening to her words, watching her stand strong-legged and tall on that small stage, I understood the coexistence of majesty and humility. Meanwhile, Steve Cannon, (referred to as the Professor by Bob) sat smoking and drinking wine at the far end of the bar and, whenever one or another of the poets would ramble on and on about what had inspired the poem or the definition of the fourth word in the second line of the third stanza, he’d yell: “Read the mother-fuckin’ poem already!” An open reading followed the slam and included a wider range of talent and tendencies, as language poets, ranters, performance artists, first time readers, formal poets, hip hop writers, and high octane ragers all stepped up to the mic.
Between sets of the slam and before the open mic, Magic emerged from behind the bar to DJ from the booth, and some members of the audience —maybe twenty people were there that first night? — stepped into the small area between the tables and the stage and danced to Lisa Lisa’s “Can You Feel the Beat,” Third World’s “Now That We Found Love,” salsa tunes, and whatever else Magic decided would help ignite this mash-up of dancing, music, poetry and art.
Nothing —absolutely nothing —could have been more fun.
Being there, I felt the soul of New York. It meant something to be a New Yorker and, though I’d just moved into the city, I was ready to be exactly that, to become more like these people I saw around me: unafraid, open and hip. And so I returned the next Friday and the Friday after that and then Friday after Friday after Friday until I lost count.
A voice drifted up to my floor from the bottom of the stairwell. “Wait, Mom, it’s too heavy for you!” Having locked my door, I began my descent as another voice, an older woman’s voice, said, “I’m okay.” The voice repeated. “Wait! Dad can help me lift it.”
On the second floor landing I paused to allow a guy wearing jeans, sneakers, and a t-shirt emblazoned with an NYU logo make his way up the stairs, a large box in his hands. My instant thought: Another undergrad. Two sophomores had moved into a studio on my floor last week.
His parents waited on the landing below, standing beside a stack of boxes, two people joined on the opposite side of a considerable gap between themselves and their son. As I passed them, the father asked me some innocuous question: Did the building have a cockroach problem? Or maybe it was: Does the super live in the building? Something vaguely reassuring came from my mouth and the look on their faces told me they felt relieved by not only my answer but by my presence. They were well-meaning people, who looked more like grandparents than parents, not rich judging from their clothes and general style, and I also guessed they were adoptive parents of the college kid based on the difference in their age and also race. Having made this assumption, I associated them with the Doyles. Immediately, a protective feeling stirred inside me, towards them and towards their son, who had now rejoined his parents.
His mother deftly inserted an introduction into our brief exchange: “Well that’s good to hear. And this is Glen. He’ll be your new neighbor.”
His polite hello was followed by a small grimace directed towards his mother. I sensed the embarrassment and excitement he felt, the exact emotions I’d felt when my own parents helped me move away to college, a means of escape, as I saw it, into the wider world. Looking from Glen to his parents and back again, I wished this small family good luck, and swung out of the building onto the sidewalk. Waiting by the curb their car stood with its Pennsylvania license plates and a “My Son Made the Honor Roll” bumper sticker. Briefly, I wondered if I should have delivered some small warning?
My own first morning in the building had begun with the sound of a shot; a small round BB gun hole remained in the outer safety glass of my double-paned window as a souvenir. Since then, the neighborhood had provided its share of psychic incursions that I tolerated because of my excellent rent compounded with a desire to be a New Yorker. I’d stepped over syringes and walked past nodding addicts, a painful sight I never exactly learned how to ignore. Once, two blocks south, an average-seeming woman lifted her skirt and with little fanfare, squatted to shit like a dog on the sidewalk before me.
But why tell them such things…why say anything? I crossed the street and turned around to look at my building. A well-proportioned five-story building, it had the face of an anonymous Asian man painted in the style of Chuck Close on its brick side. (No one, ever, had been able to tell me anything at all about the origins of this inscrutable mural.) Buffered by college, Glen’s experiences in this building, this neighborhood, probably would be nothing like my own. Soon enough he’d learn, I felt sure, how to find his own way in this place.
Returning to Nuyorican’s each Friday night, I began to read in the open mic scheduled after the slam. The host, CUNY professor and writer Lois Griffith, had pronounced my name correctly first try and that somehow gave me courage. I also preemptively befriended the other professor sitting on the business end of a glass of wine at the end of the bar as a way to prevent him from heckling me. Soon I was hanging with the other poets who read in the open. At night’s end, those of us walking in the same direction would leave together. Most often this included Rosa, who lived in Jersey City and needed to head west to the Path train, and Charles, who took the N or the R to his shared apartment in Brooklyn. Traveling together, our spirits high from our few moments on stage, we discussed the best poems of the night and how they stacked up against our list of all-time stand-outs. My personal favorites were the performance poet who wheeled a battered, empty baby carriage around the stage while rhyming about her life as a single mother and the eccentric woman “just flown in from Scotland” who intoned some strange verse in a language of her own invention.
One night when Rosa didn’t show— her son had come down with the flu — Charles and I made the journey alone. At that time, I was a sucker for guys from educated families who seemed utterly unlike people from where I grew up. Walking beside him, I felt admiring and our conversation, although nearly identical to all our past discussions, felt thrilling.
As we crossed Avenue B, Charles said, “I hated that pantoum.”
“What was his name?” I turned to look at his straight-nosed profile. He was walking with his head bowed as he always did.
“Mick Something. I hated villanelles in school and now I hate pantoums.”
“I kind of like repetition.”
“Yeah, but when you have to explain it… just loses something for me.”
“Maybe. But it’s a break from the usual.” Worried I’d been disagreeable, I added, “Don’t you think?”
“We’re all trying to avoid the familiar. Isn’t there some new way to do that?”
Impressed by his rhetorical question, I said, “I liked your poems tonight.”
We talked then about the two new poems he’d read and then I confessed my doubts about my own latest effort and we lapsed into silence just before reaching the corner of Elizabeth and Houston Streets.
I’ve always been the kind who, whenever she’s at a loss for words, goes overboard in the opposite direction. There on our usual corner of departure, I gushed a bit and then asked if he wanted to stop somewhere for coffee? He said okay but then neither of us could figure out a place to go because we didn’t want to be in a bar, the only places opened this late. So I offered to make tea at my place since it was nearby and wouldn’t cost us a dime. As we walked in silence down Elizabeth, I wondered if I’d made a mistake. Had my offer prompted this new feeling of tension between us?
Once inside my apartment, Charles asked, “Is there another room?”
I bit my lower lip. “This is it.”
“May I use your bathroom?”
I pointed to the door at the opposite end of the narrow hall that required trespass of the small area I referred to as “the kitchen.” After he closed this door behind him, I put on the kettle.
We never got around to tea. After we sat down side-by-side on my couch-bed, he made some overt gesture and I responded.
After that we began to see each other. Mainly we met up at Nuyorican’s but sometimes we’d go other places. I soon learned his best qualities: his knowledge of poetry, his love of writing, his love of Charles Bukowski, his sense of humor. Soon, I began to wonder if we might become a lasting couple and, sometimes, I even imagined living together. Daydreaming in my studio apartment that was quiet and beautiful with a brick wall and fireplace, I would look around and think, But not here. Too small, it just wouldn’t work for two people.
Another Monday: A cool day with clear skies but too much sun; I felt the heat on my back, like a weight, as I walked to the subway. When I arrived at my temp job at the investment bank, the secretary whose cube abutted my own said (without looking up): “You gotta see this.”
Sharon, mesmerized by her computer screen, pointed to different columns of numbers as she explained her discovery that the charge on her boss’s expense account was not from a restaurant. “He took the whole group to a whore house!”
I stared at all the numbers housed in their spreadsheet compartments. “How can you tell?”
“I called them. On the phone. There was a problem with the statement.”
I thought about this. “And they just told you?”
“I said something about the price of the meal and that’s when the woman said it wasn’t a restaurant. And when I asked, she just told me straight out.” She made a kind of mean sound that passed for laughter. She explained how they had closed some big deal that day, so this must have been the celebration.
Looking at her smiling face, I remembered learning in a psychology class that people in subordinate positions always know more about those above them than those above them know about them. The Mergers & Acquisitions department paid obscenely well and had generally been a pleasant place to type up my poems and learn the alien language of business. It was a place of discrete manners, sleek self-presentation and transparent-seeming conduct that had served as my alternative universe and necessary distraction from the more troubled world where I listened to and read poems.
Pointing to another spreadsheet, Sharon said, “They didn’t all go. Like Chris wasn’t there.”
“He’s always been nicer than the others.”
“Tony didn’t go either but the rest…”
“Are fun little boys,” I interrupted, seeing what she could not with her back to the hallway: Her boss walking toward us wearing his usual pristine, starched shirt and silky smile. Alerted, Sharon brought up another document on her screen and began to type.
My phone rang. Returning to my cube, I lifted the receiver, spoke my boss’s name in a dutiful voice and wrote down a message. After I hung up, I sat motionless, staring. My boss had been one of those at the whore house, according to Sharon. These guys in suits had always seemed like an entirely different species from those I’d become used to on “the scene.” This news of their own ugly behavior left a taste like plastic on my tongue.
Taking out my garbage, I got to hear the latest dire pronouncement from Dong, my neighbor across the hall. He taught martial arts and lived with both a pit bull and a handgun (or so he told me). “You see that new couple on the second floor?”
“Total druggies. They moved in with that NYU kid.”
Feeling skeptical, I sighed. “How?”
“How do three people live in such a tiny space?”
“People do it, man. They do it all the time. Anyway, it’s the kid and this couple. The guy’s dealing and when he can’t pay his nut, he pimps out that girlfriend of his. She’s nasty. You haven’t seen them?”
“I’m telling you, they’re trouble. Nobody wants them here.”
I said nothing. Yeah, I’d heard some noise coming from the kid’s apartment and smelled drugs, but not for a minute did I believe this story. Maybe some couple stopped by to party? Wasn’t that the likely scenario? Dong, who was dating another in a series of tiny women (to make himself look tall?), liked nothing better than to show me how much he knew about the seamy side of life. He liked being tough. Tough equaled cool in the early 90s, you never wanted to appear anything less than hard, it was a matter of survival… or so everyone said in those days before the city’s violent crime rate plummeted and sensitivity made a return appearance.
Even Charles cultivated a hard-boiled attitude. He relished giving me the scoop on his friends in AA: Gary’s a former pothead who lives in a squat on Avenue B… Becca’s an ex-junky who used to turn tricks… Darren did time for possession and now works on Madison Ave. At Nuyorican’s, I often saw Charles drinking a Negra Modelo. I asked him only once about this. He claimed AA kept him in line, prevented him from drinking too much and even though I knew other people who followed the program to a T, who insisted you had to—even though I sensed Charles was lying—I decided to accept his explanation.
I did not have to maintain this accommodating stance for very long. Little more than a month had vanished into phone calls and poetry readings and gentle, afterwards sex, when Charles happened to mention meeting an artist. A day later and he abruptly broke up with me, telling me, while we sat drinking morning coffee at Buffa’s, he couldn’t see me anymore because he didn’t think we had a future. Stunned, I had no response for a few moments, and then I stood, eyes filled with tears, and, bumping into this person and that, wove my way through the crowded tables to the door. The following Monday, Buffa’s counterman asked me as he handed me my morning coffee if I’d been sick? That’s what Charles had told him when he hadn’t had enough money to pay our small bill. Shamed, I paid our tab and then avoided the place for a week.
Charles stopped showing up at Nuyorican’s on Friday nights. Two weeks or so later, Rosa ran into him at some other poetry reading somewhere in Hoboken. She told me that he’d moved in with his new girlfriend.
“They’d probably been involved while he was seeing you.”
Rosa’s words jolted me: Charles, a cheat?
“Yeah, she isn’t what you’d expect. Older, looks like she works a good job. She owns her own loft,” continued Rosa in a whisper. We were sitting at a table in the balcony at Nuyorican’s. Onstage a poet was comparing her first kiss to a sip of cafe con leche.
“You saw her?”
I took this in. “How do you know she owns her own loft?”
“Jason told me.” She sighed. “I guess Charles needed a place to live… he’s got a habit to feed.”
“What?” I forgot to whisper and a woman at the next table turned to glare at me. “A habit?”
Rosa shrugged. “He smokes crack.”
“Why do you think he hangs out on the Lower East Side?”
Naively, I whispered, “For the poetry?”
In the half-light reflecting from the stage, Rosa’s eyes looked more pitying than scornful.
I defended myself in an internal argument that continued for the rest of the night. What did Rosa know? She, herself, was here. She didn’t smoke crack and she hung out on the Lower East Side for the poetry. Plenty of poets never did drugs, some didn’t even drink. It was a fact that not everyone downtown was into crack, I told myself.
In the days to come, Rosa’s more clear-eyed vision of Charles won the “slam” happening in my head. Her view helped me get past what had been…and that wasn’t much, I soon understood. Mostly daydreams. I accepted the facts: Charles had shown me a carefully curated version of himself and now he was living with some woman who owned a loft. As Rosa suggested, he probably needed and wanted someone who could support him all along. Though intense, the relationship had been brief. I felt hurt, sure, but not mortally wounded.
Time, skating on an icy surface, glided past. Mostly, I worked my temp job and met up with friends at poetry readings. Occasionally I would encounter Glen on the stairs. Usually, we exchanged swift hellos, while trying to avoid brushing against one another in the narrow passageway. His attitude seemed looser, now, he looked a bit disheveled, he’d lost the suburban non-style I’d first seen. I took this as a positive sign. Just as I had, he’d begun to adapt to the city. He had acquired a busy, anonymous look: just another person living with purpose in this city of millions.
Then came the day I passed Glen on the stairs and he did not even acknowledge me. Rebuffed, I took the absence of a polite hello personally. Then I rationalized. He was a student and I was some working woman his mother had introduced to him. He’d probably found friends his own age, and so, of course, he no longer had any interest in being polite to me and the other non-students who happened to occupy his off-campus building. He’s got his own life, now, I told myself. Good for him!
Increasingly during this period, I’d pass unfamiliar people on my way up to my apartment when I came home at night. Usually, they were guys, always they looked high, very high. When I would pass Glen’s closed door, I’d often hear music, unrecognizable bands played at the highest volume. (But I can hear everyone’s music on the stairs, I told myself.) Frequently, I’d smell pot drifting from his apartment and also an aroma that was vaguely sweet yet also like burning plastic—a scent I had not yet learned to recognize.
Despite Charles’ defection, I continued to go to Nuyorican’s and eventually I became polished enough in the open to be chosen for the main event. It rained the night of my first slam and, walking over to the cafe, the wind was so strong it turned my umbrella inside out. Shy and generally nervous, I stepped up onto the small rectangular stage and stood with my back to vivid paintings on a brick wall, I faced the audience:
I blink and grasp the mic. Having memorized my poem, I begin in a small voice, looking up to the balcony where faces, shining with reflected stage-light, hang like moons above me. At the start, my posture is slightly awkward, my gestures not entirely mechanical and then in the final stanza, I relax. Reading my poems there on a stage, unlike reading aloud in my room, I hear them in new ways. I am keenly sensitive to the audience. I feel their attention and each lapse. Moments dangle and loop as the nature of time shifts and bends.
That night, I won, beating my final opponent in a sudden death haiku round. With my open mic friends, I stopped afterwards at Nation, a narrow bar around the corner, a place where drinks were cheap, music played, and sweaty bodies danced. During my time with Charles, I hadn’t indulged but I began this night with a glass of wine. Joyous, I drank a second glass and danced with my friends. We left just before closing time and walked most of the way back to my place, separating on various street corners.
On Bowery, as I continued on alone, the street looked empty until an unseen homeless man who apparently had been sleeping on a curb suddenly stood and staggered toward me. I ran for the bodega where I lingered by the freezer studying the sodas. After a few minutes, I chose one, paid, and walked out of there. The street was empty now and when I entered my building, closing the door behind me, I felt the usual relief. I stopped to deposit my empty plastic bottle in the garbage can on the ground floor and hearing footsteps, I looked up the stairs.
The guy in front was not immediately recognizable. Glen looked not just high but blotto, and he no longer appeared anything like the well-mannered, middle-class kid I’d first seen—the adopted son of a well-meaning couple who’d celebrated birthdays and “great days” (as I imagined it). The NYU student had somehow disappeared inside this new person with filthy clothes and half-mast, empty eyes. Behind him came some older guy, clearly someone with no ties to academia. For a moment, I didn’t think (didn’t want to think) they were together but some muttered comment passing between them made things clear. The older guy eyed me in an unfriendly way and I sensed the streets on him. This guy hustled and schemed and bought and sold and he looked bone tired, desperate and determined to do whatever he needed to do. His glassy eyes lacked all light. He was followed by a skinny woman wearing a thin dress and no coat. An inflamed, blistering wound showed in the crook of her arm. She radiated hatred as her eyes slid across my face like a razor blade. Last came some white guy with dreadlocks, a red ink skull tattoo on his Adam’s apple, and shifty eyes. “You don’t got no more?” he was saying. “C’mon, you gotta.” Seeing me, he made a quick lewd gesture and laughed at my expression of fear.
I felt paralyzed seeing this brief parade pass before me. When the door slammed shut behind them, something inside of me loosened and I was able to move again. I ran up the stairs chased by the cloying smell of crack. My heart pounding, I bolted my apartment door behind me and then checked the closet and bathroom for intruders. Having witnessed for myself what Dong had described, I knew now that my peaceful home was no more.
As I paced the floor, my brain screamed: Move! Find a new apartment! Get out!
Moonlight streamed through the bars on my window as I remembered how much I’d loved this apartment when I first found it. I’d just renewed my lease. It would be expensive and difficult to find a new place and move. I lay down on my bed as I replayed the sight of Glen and his entourage descending the stairs. The phrase “Take Back the Night” occurred to me then. A college friend had described how she and other women had walked together late at night, refusing to be cowed into remaining safe at home. Another friend had recently joined her Neighborhood Watch association. Just the other day, I’d seen a Guardian Angel on the subway.
I turned on my side and peered up at the ghostly moon, distant yet visible, the eternal night light. Long ago and far away, I’d dreamed of becoming a real New Yorker and all that that had implied. I’d wanted to be someone bold and free. Sophisticated. Unafraid.
Could I call myself free if I ran from here in fear?
The weather grew warm and a whiff of unseen earth and budding trees scented the breeze. On my way to Nuyorican’s, a rat, the size of a small cat, crossed my path as it ran from the cellar of an abandoned building to the garbage piled up beside the curb. I froze but not a sound came from my lips. That night, many weeks after my original triumph, I was slated to read in the “Grand Slam,” where previous winners competed against each other. My spirit was weak. I read without color, without concentration, and my previous victory was easily overturned. The audience preferred another poet, and I had no one to blame but myself. Worse, I couldn’t care less.
Rosa told me she needed to tell me something before the open started, so she and I stepped outside, walked half a block and stood in front of the empty lot.
Lighting a cigarette she asked if I wanted one too. “Ehh, that was my last match,” she said.
She handed me her lit cigarette. After I’d drawn a flame, I handed it back and she took a long drag and sighed as she gazed in the direction of Avenue C. Swearing she’d just heard the news herself, Rosa told me that a friend in AA told her that Charles was HIV positive.
Feeling my knees buckle, I grabbed the chain link fence behind me. Panting, I found myself unable to find even the merest hint of oxygen there in the street.
Rosa said, “You okay?”
After a moment, I was able to speak. “Are you sure?”
“He talked about. Charles. At a meeting,” Rosa said. “He picked up the virus when he was shooting heroin. Or that was the story he told his AA friends.” Rosa had even talked to Jason, a poet we knew who was also one of Charles’ friends. He said the story was true. Charles was positive.
“You can ask Jason yourself,” she said.
I couldn’t speak. As Rosa crushed her cigarette beneath her heel, a car passed, its windows open, salsa filling the air, and the driver called out: “Mamasita!” As the sound of the music faded, Rosa turned back to me, pleased at having received this accolade.
“You’ll get tested,” she said, the smile dying in her eyes as the thought of my trouble. After a beat, she added in a voice lacking conviction: “It’ll be okay.”
She was asking me something else, something I couldn’t at the moment take in, when my brain suddenly produced a question of its own: “I need to wait six months, right?”
She looked puzzled.
“Before the virus shows on a test. It has to be six months.”
“Something like that.”
I calculated. “It’s been less than five.”
Rosa took a drag on her cigarette. “So you’ll wait. And then you’ll take the test.”
I said nothing, just stood there. Random memories of Charles mixed with a fear of dying a miserable AIDS death darkened my thoughts. The cigarette fell from my fingers. Rosa said, “Let’s go back inside.” Although I’d never done so before, there between Avenues A and B, I envied her.
Mechanically, I followed her back to the café, where the open mic had begun. Poets read, minutes passed, but I did not hear a single word delivered from that stage. Afterward, sleepwalking behind Rosa and a group of others, I went to Nation. I drank without pleasure and as I became drunk my thoughts descended and revolved, like a bruised pole dancer, around the same thought: If Charles knew he was positive and slept with me without telling me, was that an act of love or indifference? It felt like sheer hatred.
And so I watched the people around me as they joked and talked and danced, and I looked at guys and felt only wariness, only fear, and I stood there, sullen, growing more and more numb. When someone passed a joint, I eagerly toked.
Rosa stepped out of the crowd to tell me everyone wanted to go to an after-hours place—if Buena Sera had shut down then we’d try Save the Robots. I followed her outside and then separated myself from the crowd. Walking alone, I spewed, like vomit, some kind of verbal hatred into the night and staggered my way home. Just as I reached Glen’s floor, his door opened and some scruffy dude appeared on a wave of music and shouts and stench. Seeing me, he said “Wanna party?” Missing teeth showed in his smile.
Mutely, I continued to climb. Once inside my apartment, my door bolted behind me, I stared into the bathroom mirror. Hadn’t I just numbed myself with alcohol and weed? I couldn’t claim to be any different from “wanna-party.” I was just another user in a city full of users—users of alcohol, users of drugs, users of people.
“And Diane came to visit yesterday.” My mother sat in her chair, a book in her lap, recounting her week.
“How are the kids?”
“They’re fine. Maia’s report card wasn’t what Diane expected, but overall they’re fine.”
“That’s great.” My voice sounded lifeless in that room. I’d been lying to my mother by omission for a long time now. If I slipped now and told her the truth, she’d insist I leave the city. And although I had lost any and all reasons for remaining there, I somehow was not yet ready to go.
“And what are you up to?” Her voice broke into my thoughts.
Eluding her stare, I shrugged.
Suspicious, my mother challenged me. “What about your job?”
“I’m still at the investment bank.”
“Are they going to offer you a real job? How long has it been?”
“Believe it or not it pays better than the editing jobs I’ve looked into.”
“You need a real job with benefits and a… a future. You’re not using your education. What you have is not enough.”
“I’m happy there.”
After a silence, she resuscitated the conversation with news of my brother and I was once again free to merely listen and comment. After dinner I prepared to take my leave, my face in the bathroom mirror looking flinty. In my former bedroom, I stood in the window and looked up the street. Just then, the Doyles came outside their house to load their picket signs into their Chevy. Secretly watching, I understood that these families I knew so well, not rich and not poor, these people who I once called my people, possessed their own unseen toughness. Right or wrong, they were strong enough to truly love and fight for what they believed.
Warm, silent tears wet my face. Unlike them, I was unhappy… and alone.
On the train back to the city, I watched the passing scenery until night turned the window into a darkened mirror. I thought of Glen. How had he gotten mixed up with those people? He’d seemed just like me at his age, another kid eager to leave home to start his own independent life away from home. Maybe the older guy represented authenticity to him, someone living a more “real” life than his parents.
In a whoosh the train entered the tunnel connecting New Jersey and New York. I turned away from the window. What did I know? The city had changed Glen for the worse, only that much could be seen. In this way, too, maybe Glen wasn’t very different from me.
I woke before my alarm feeling strangely energized. Descending the stairs, a burning scent emanated from Glen’s apartment, unusual for that hour, and I paused, listening, outside his door. At the sound of sudden, guttural laughter, I hurried down the remaining stairs. I arrived at work early and began my inquiries, calling various clinics from the empty conference room where the secretaries made their private calls, trying to find out where and when I could get an AIDS test. As I suspected, I needed to wait a month before taking it. Hanging up, I felt upset and despondent knowing that patience, never my strong point, would be needed.
My temp job felt like a reprieve in the weeks that followed. I knew full well that it was a place where discrete manners masked ugly behavior, but it felt okay being a tangential part of that charade. At least it was preferable to witnessing the more overt vile happenings taking place in my own home. Dong told me the woman renting the apartment next to Glen’s had moved out, breaking her lease and sacrificing her security deposit, while the guy in the apartment below Glen’s had called the cops last week. “They came. They did nothing,” Dong said with a cynical eye roll. “Everyone’s pissed off.”
The days slipped by in a routine of work, endless rambling notebook entries during lunch, and uninspired, solitary dinners at home. I did not write a single poem. On Fridays, I did not go to Nuyorican’s. Mostly, I stayed home all night. I just didn’t feel like seeing any of my friends. Instead I read novels purchased used for a dollar or two at Mercer Street Books. During this time, I grew to appreciate Patricia Highsmith as much as I already liked Raymond Chandler. Reading “Junkie” by William S. Boroughs, I figured I understood much more than I would have a year or so ago.
Saturday morning felt humid. Drinking coffee, I plotted my day: I needed groceries, I wanted new books. I began my descent to the street, and, reaching Glen’s floor, I saw the door of his apartment wide open. Apprehensively, I peered inside and saw the super, an older guy with a paunch and a Polish name, standing in the center of the room holding a baseball bat. The place looked like a fire had swept through it, leaving one wall black with smoke and a gaping sinkhole in the hard wood floor.
He gestured with his trusty bat. “I got rid of them.” On an impulse, he walked to the window and opened it wide.
A welcome breeze fluttered the singed curtains. “I didn’t think… wow. They’re gone.”
“We’re going to clean out the rest of their junk and make repairs.” He poked at the hole in the floor. “Bring in someone new.”
I felt light, lighter than I believed possible. “This is just… great.”
“Yeah, they had to go.”
“What about Glen? The kid?”
He shrugged. “He’s on the street with the rest of the trash.”
Trash. The word hit me hard. I didn’t know what to do with it. I couldn’t deny that’s what someone might think given the trouble he’d caused some other tenants. Turning to leave, one question remained: “Don’t they have keys?”
“I’m changing the locks. On the downstairs door, too. You’ll get a new key when I bring the locksmith in.”
I skipped down the remaining stairs and opened the door. Stepping jauntily, “gratitudinously,” I crossed the street to walk beside the original St. Patrick’s cathedral with its surrounding stone wall stretching the length of Prince between Mott and Mulberry. I liked to call it “the Great Wall of Chinatown.” As I walked, my hand reached out and patted this wall. In a sudden rush, my original elation and love of the odd beauty of this neighborhood had returned.
That evening, I went to mass, something I hadn’t done once since moving into my apartment. I prayed fervently for a negative AIDS test and then remained on my knees to ask that the dealer and his girlfriend never return. Finally, I added a simple request that Glen might somehow find his way back to his parents, who I mentally pictured as the Doyles since I couldn’t remember what they looked like.
On a Tuesday morning, I told my boss I had a dentist appointment so I needed to take a longer lunch than usual. Riding the train to Chelsea, I sat in a near-empty car and silently repeated memorized poems. At the clinic, I filled out forms, paid my fee and allowed a nurse to take blood from a vein in the hollow of my left arm, the same vein favored by addicts. She told me, “Two weeks, give or take.”
As the days ticked past, I did not waver in my routine; I worked days and stayed home nights, reading thick novels, dwelling in the minds of other writers to escape my own thoughts. When, finally, the message on my answering machine told me my results had come in, I felt nervous excitement as well as dread. My ordeal would soon be over… one way or another. For this appointment, I called in sick and went directly to the clinic.
The nurse sighed as she eased herself into her chair and simply said, “You’ve got nothing to worry about, dear, you’re negative.” Relief, unlike applause on a small stage, is neither loud nor wild; it is a mild peace. She passed me the results and I thanked her.
That afternoon I wrote a new poem and when I read it Friday night in the open at Nuyorican’s, I heard rhythms that sounded sluggish in places yet also phrases that cast beautiful shadows. Rosa, the one person I wanted to see, had not been there. The following day I called to ask how she was. She was happy to hear from me and told me she would be in the city tomorrow: “It’s the Puerto Rican Day parade!”
I agreed to meet her and told her my own good news.
“I knew you were fine,” she said.
The sun drenched the city in a glaring light. I wore a sleeveless t-shirt and jeans while Rosa looked radiant in a white, off-the-shoulder blouse and flowered skirt. As we approached Fifth Avenue, we heard the cheers of an assembled crowd. Hurrying, we arrived just in time to see the launch of a makeshift float, the Chevy beneath it barely concealed. Bedecked with girls in red and gold tinsel hula skirts, the float moved majestically down the Avenue as the girls atop blew kisses and shimmied. The sound of voices echoed against tall buildings, while beside me, Rosa waved a miniature flag. Turning, I caught sight of my reflection in a storefront and saw, for the first time in weeks, an effortless smile. Just then the exhaust pipe of a passing float belched out a cloud of smoke and a flash of memory resurrected my former self, one child among many, chasing a truck through the streets of my hometown, laughing, running fast, trying to disappear within a billowing cloud.