Issue 41, Summer-Fall 1967
I had been trained as a hospital technician in the army, and instead of the gleaming lab job uptown by which I had hoped to pay for graduate school, I was working in a defunct office building on the edge of the Lower East Side. It was a lab job, but what a lab! My cornflakes-and-cream face began to thin. I lived in a hair-raising rooming house, wondering what my BA was going to be worth and what would become of me. At the same time, however, life down there seemed prancingly rich. The pigeons of Venice wheeled over the roofs and the fountains of Rome spouted up from the hydrants. Churches in eight languages. You could buy diamondback terrapins and whole sheepskins, octopuses and sackfuls of beans. I still think somebody who lived near me could have traveled all over the world without seeing a face which really surprised him. The streets had the spicing of danger a young man likes—“Count Draculer” ruled in the block. Next door to my room was a death’s-head guy who wept more than most people laugh. “My wife, my poor wife.” I used to smile when we met on the stairs, being polite and supposing that he was laughing, until finally I distinguished the words. The family across the backyard kept roosters which woke me up in the morning.
Where I worked was a bleaker. Chicago-like district of factories, empty at night. It had been bustle about 1900 and was full of April-fool structures with gargoyles that goggled down. A fop stood on the edge of a perfume warehouse looking into an oval mirror. A large Christ close to him held a cross, and our wild-faced, collapsing building had MARY along its front in archaic lettering between wreaths of stone. My boss was a man named Darwin Hanes, forty-five. He wore a Purple Heart pin. and ties that announced that he was a fruit. He was earnest, kind-natured, a furrier at work, and rather the pure scientist in his intentions except that he’d flunked out of medical school and dieted on nothing but personal bloody noses in the twenty years since. Anyway, he kept a room for projects of his own. with tubes of Tb and guinea pigs sneezing—we mopped down the floor with iodine. He was round-faced, pouch-eyed. He made his acquaintances uncomfortable by staring at them for long, long stretches when he talked to them. Alone in the world, he was in that state seen commonly in New York where you give the person about five more years before he goes into a mental ward.
His cronies were Puerto Ricans,flattered to have an American friend. Darwin had learned Spanish during one of his self-improvement spates, and blew hot and cold on them, both sexually and just as chums. Hot and cold otherwise, he was touching answering the phone, full of belief and civilization and a scientist’s pride; then the choked pain in his voice (the doctors thought him a nut) when the man on the other end said he was sending a couple of patients over for tests and expected a kickback. He’d start shivering slightly, almost as though exhilarated. The world was all black, and. bastard of bastards, he’d make his way! If the girl in question came in with starched sleeves she preferred not to roll up for her blood test but took off the blouse instead, Darwin insisted on coughing, despite my embarrassment, until I pushed into watch. He had a blackboard on which he did gene transposition equations, patterned on Oppenheimer, perhaps. He put on a mystical stare and brushed at the chalk on his hands absently, living the life of a genius as far as he could. He’d come in in the morning having “seen the whole thing in front of me” just before falling to sleep, and would sit half the day at his desk muttering over the records he made of experiments, without much result—he’d “lost it.”
A great man’s life was variety, so he never stinted on phone calls or shopping around for equipment. He was interested in immense centrifuges, in the newest of sterilizers, and barrels of culture media. He believed busy men picked up the phone on the first ring—“Yes, yes, this is he”—taking notes on the margins of whatever was close. He had a soft voice that strung the salesmen along.
There wasn’t much work, although enough not to pass the day reading, and I looked out on Lafayette Street a good deal, which was a large brutal one-way thoroughfare, always a drama in progress. At my window I got to be sort of a fixture. The drivers sped by, keeping up with the lights, and under the traffic’s roar it was hard to distinguish other sounds, only the most frantic yells. More than once, happening to glance outside, I noticed everybody on the street had stopped and faced in our direction because of some appalling thing which had been going on underneath us for minutes. A cross section of business people came into the area along with the garment workers, but the neighborhood acquired its peculiar tone from the bums wandering in from the Bowery a few blocks away. Though they were only a handful at a time, because of them nobody could ask for a drink of water at the soda fountain, get a car pushed, or ask any favor whatsoever. When the traffic light went kerflooey we must have had six or eight accidents before it was fixed, since ever)’body assumed someone else had called up about it. They were shoe less and bloodied bums, heaving, gasping and threshing bums. One never knew what might be wrong with them and never investigated. Once during the summer I remember a woman sat on the sidewalk from lunchtime on, apparently making different sounds. Several men stopped and peeked up her skirts but didn’t do anything for her. A telephone company driver talked with her awhile from his truck; and a lady and a friend did busy themselves, except they hurried on all the more hastily for their distress when three cabs refused to carry the woman.
It wasn’t possible not to watch, just as it wasn’t possible for me to be very effective in helping without it becoming a full time job. No one else did any more, not the priests or the nuns walking through, not the cops, though the cops did whatever eventually was done. The station house soon knew my voice as a crank’s. It seemed I was running downstairs all the time—feeling pulses, dragging bums who passed out out of the road. I considered myself a kind of a last resort. The gas station group across from us would boot a man in the seat of the pants and bait him into “insulting” them so that they could grab their billy clubs, wrenches and tire tools and give him the run of his life. I shouted as loud as I could;I’d point from my window, establishing that I was witnessing it. Darwin never looked out, even when nothing was happening, and if he saw me hunch up from what I was watching, he left the room in a blaze of exasperation with the street and with savagery and with his own tender heart. He was sometimes hysterically harsh when he found a derelict trying to get warm in the hall but then was unhappy the rest of the day.
I was the laughing, skinny young man full of minority sympathy. I’d laughed at fraternity life, laughed at the army, and now in uncertainty I laughed at the city here, although it was the thinnest defense. In the bazaar-like streets around where I lived I began to flinch at the richness, not that it didn’t delight me but because I was living a midst it too; nobody was going to come get me out. I had a girl in the building named Ida with a preschool son and a husband long gone. We shopped from exotic market stalls or ate in great Chinese restaurants or went to the Statue of Liberty. She had nice black hair when she looked after it but malnourished skin—an eager vulnerable girl scalded as tough as a cat. Her eyes were marvelously brown and big, a very light, shining brown. We used to joke that she polished them, and, without contradicting the skepticism which had got knocked into them, they fluttered with accessibility. The lids constantly closed as if holding them in when I turned on my little charm, such as it was. Since she was the first person who’d ever been specially taken with it, I turned it on as hard as I could.
How she needed a man. She’d trot at my heels as close as a colt when we went down the stairs. She was a Japanese whorehouse in bed, and scornfully mocked me for being a mere boy. years younger than her, when her lopsided liking for me stuck out. She ate on eighty-five cents a day Welfare money with Tony, her son—powdered milk, pork hearts in government cans, and peanut butter. She fried powdered eggs and baked surplus flour. A forkful of butter and peas was a pleasure to her. and herring on crackers or a lamb chop was food for a queen. Her boy needed galoshes and toys and everything else and already worried about his mother. “Somebody” would give her a new pair of shoes, “somebody” would give her a sweater, he said, much too young to be hinting. He’d ask me to carry their garbage can down, and if I had change from an errand I’d done for Ida, he ran to her with it as if it were some kind of medicine.
She got colitis, bladder infections, aches in her ears, and every few days appeared to be out of her mind—she yelled in a hollow monotone. Her ovaries formed knots from nervous tension, and it was at one of these times that she thought she had gotten pregnant, which pulled us apart even as we pretended to join together. Fiendishly helpless, she was dependent on clinic interns and procedures whenever she or Tony got sick, and since the furnace broke down about once a week, this was often. At midnight Tony would suddenly wake up laboring to breathe, his temperature a hundred and two. A doctor or ambulance wouldn’t be sent unless it went higher than that; and without my handouts she hadn’t a cent for a taxi. One autumn night when I wasn’t home she went into the street with him in convulsions in her arms, and found and convinced a patrolman that help should be called, afterwards standing beside him for twenty minutes. He was a young man and kept wanting to stop the police cars which passed. He went up on his toes, looking to see if the policemen were friends, but knew he would only be reprimanded for not having waited for the ambulance. In all these problems, the money I gave her was scarcely a starter because if her sanity really had cracked for as long as a couple of days, wheels would have been set into motion by the Welfare Department for taking her son away.
With each of us frightened, we sometimes had quite ecstatic excursions, as gay as one gets when the roof may fall in. We rolled the stroller along the East River at Delancey Street. The freighters that came sliding by seemed to fill it completely. We’d race them, while Tony hollered. I was fascinated by him. Week by week he was developing, and very much looking around for an older male. He watched me shave in the morning—“Is that how we do it?” He peered in when I took a shower and came up for regular battles with me. I grew very tender, toting him upstairs when Ida stayed late in my room and we put him to sleep on my couch. Then they spent the night, both in the bed. Such cooking, and dashing with tidbits for me—if she didn’t claw me she gave me the moon. Once I had become a passion, she used every tool. She encouraged my fondness for Tony and told me he loved me, prompting trips up by him too to say that he did. The next time we were alone, he would say carefully, “I don’t love you. Gene. I don’t, you know.” She thought me elegant, gentle and fine, and the security she needed so desperately came into it.
We went out at five in the afternoon, when the pigeon fanciers were up on their roofs. White swoops and black shadow patterns. And every Friday a farmer sold tomatoes, comb honey, and cider and cheese in the storefront he rented—yellow cream, to make the sick well, and even cornflowers in the summer. He talked Ukrainian with his old neighbors, having left Ninth Street twenty-five years before. It was a link for him, and he was the man who’d made good in their block, and their tie to the woods and fields. He had flat farmer’s arms, blue eyes, and a reprobate’s face, the slack cheeks and lax mouth. “Just the pure stuff, nothing put in it,” he said, like an article of faith, when we asked if the cider was sweet. His pear crates and his heavy old shirt and work boots were as good as a trip out of town.
Often we whooped out to Tompkins Park where there were the modern, sinuous slides. Dusk was the ideal time. Tony crawled through the whale-shaped pipes, giving out screams, and went up to the other children. He always seemed infinitely dearer than them. I followed as if he were mine. He’d negotiate some over a toy, then turn to me and throw his ball, or hike onto a higher slide, wheeling down with the tentative relish of someone enjoying what he knows is likely to be his chief recreation for the day. He always was interested to hear what we thought he’d particularly like to do next year, and he enjoyed these dusk go-rounds in much the same way that we did, for the magical sinking light and the teeming park emptied except for a few muted kids at the swings. He climbed the big slide with boosts from me—it was too high for him—and slid cautiously down. One afternoon they had got hold of a pup tent and we helped put it up on the baseball field.
Tony had a voluminousness, a resonance to him that was pitched very clear, a sing to his affections and words, perhaps just from growing up in a kind of state of emergency. After each bout with flu he seemed changed, a little bit older. He had awful dreams and toilet troubles and slept with his mother, but otherwise wasn’t more nervous than plenty of children, so that whatever effect all of this would have was left in the air. Though he cried during Ida’s lengthiest rages and spent many consecutive hours at the TV with that dead weight stare of a child, he remained promising. Of course Ida’s hope was Tony in school, that here he would get the support he needed; some bright, cultivated teacher might take him in hand. He’d begun at a pilot-program nursery school and the teachers excited her with their comments. She and I had our ups and downs. My helping hand would be abruptly withdrawn, if only because she’d refuse it. In a day the world of dried Navy beans would return, the hard-as-nails mother. There was a lesbian middle-aged woman who paid Ida’s phone bill and gave other aid in emergencies in exchange for the loan of the place certain mornings, and these visits increased. The plastering fell more frequently, provoking wilder reactions. The laundry piled up when the hot water failed and fifty cents wasn’t forthcoming from me to take it around the comer. I wouldn’t know what was happening downstairs, except that I’d hear a groan or two when I went past and resolve all the more to keep my distance, tired of catching sore throats from them, but worrying about the boy.
That Christmas: what a Christmas that was. No money, his mother bewailing into the phone. She’d determined to find some means of buying him a decent spread of presents but she had failed, and the failure knocked all her palisades down, the wolves howled—she was terrified about everything. We had had no contact for a couple of weeks, but the day before Christmas I overheard part of it and went down with a ten dollar bill for a tree and so forth.
“For Tony and us,” I said, in the door.
“More games. More games and games and games,” she told me in the most utterly exhausted tone, although already letting me rub her forehead. She rocked with it. “The dog act,” she called it.
“You won’t leave me alone. You won’t stop knocking, will you? I must fill a function for you. I’m a pool you can splash in and see some results. You can see what a kick you have. You won’t stop dropping in.” Her skin shone with sweat and her eyes with exhaustion and her pale face looked flattened out. Soon she ran out of words and stood there, the unclean able apartment in shambles around her—a two dollar strip of linoleum that was colored to look like a rug. “It’s so painful when you just come and go. You don’t stay, you don’t say anything, you watch us and after a while you go again.” But she gave up resisting and we rushed out and bought a bristly green tree and a bundle of presents, threw snowballs, and put on the radio for the carols, got benevolently drunk, and poor Tony had the kind of a day that he had much too often, a hectic heaped one which he was supposed to appreciate to the hilt, after the climax of weeping and tensions in which all the bones of the holiday had shown through—all the bones of grownups’ needs, of which his enjoyment was intended to be the relief.
She showed me she made up his bed like an adult’s, since he was in school, and showed me a plant he’d been given and a drawing he’d drawn. She talked about getting a job once he was old enough, when she’d get off Welfare and bum all her rags. Rags they were. too. a pitiful closet. I was brought up to date on everything, except hints were thrown out about new boyfriends in order to keep it all interesting. We talked through the weekend, Ida rooting for me wholeheartedly—my absurd boasts. Her mouth was like her accessible eyes, vulnerably wide, with a deep-set survivor’s smile. a beautiful smile that probably owed part of its permanence simply to being such a large one. I loved looking at it while lying beside her, force-feeding her eyes. She was very acute but always the all or nothing type, and I was experimental. I had never been loved before and was somewhat the tyrant, or anyway fascinated by how variable women were, passion was so different from friendship. Her hair, if it wasn’t limp, was lovely and springy. She had heavy long slick-skinned buttocks on rather short legs; sharp breasts. I hung a bath towel on myself to show how potent I’d gotten. She said she was glad we had met while she still had some of her youth left to give me. Her cheeks, as wide as a cat’s, could be middle-aged- sullen or wonderfully girlish. She had toil-ridden hands and a workhorse neck because she’d supported her family from the age of fifteen. She believed in the soothsaying stars as well as her dreams, the latter of which sometimes awed me. On the street, if I spotted her half a block down, she looked intimately linked to me like a relative, but all out of whack, preoccupied, miserable. She lived such a hair trigger life that she’d wait half the night by her door for me to come home when we’d fought, yet be far from amenable. And I played her the dirty trick of connecting her in my mind with the maids my family had had in my teens whom I’d never got up the nerve to try and lay but had wanted to. It was especially dirty since she was so conscious of caste. She’d had to leave school to scrub people’s floors, and she would have hated me.
Darwin, meanwhile, was fizzing along. He concocted electrical devices as well as his medical stuff. He was the kind •whom one feels the sorriest for, where the energy’s there but amounts to nothing. He set a room aside for Ohm’s Law, with shelves that almost met in the middle and equipment that hummed from the floor to the top. He began buying equipment in earnest, having inherited a few thousand dollars from an uncle who died in Colombia, and at once became secretive. This was the break that would bring the bonanza. Nights and Sundays he gave to the Law (Sundays his favorite day now), alone in the building except for the painters who had studios; and no love was lost among that bunch. Whenever you stayed in the building late you discovered new mysteries about the people. The fad was to buy camouflage cloth from the war surplus stores, so that, seen from the outside, the windows looked kooky and jungle.
The crazier a person was, the less tolerance he seemed to have for his neighbors, the less mercy or pity, and the harder he was to deal with. We had a woman we used to give leftovers to after lunch, but she wouldn’t open the door no matter how loudly you called out your name. You had to put the food down, knock, and then leave, making plenty of noise so she’d know you were gone. Garbagecan Maisie. Darwin was called Quasimodo by the painters and, in turn, was raucous about their dead ends. He called me lad, which, feeling as green as I did, I didn’t mind. In his wilder states I was Androcles, never suspected of plots against him. He was quite like Quasimodo, in fact, once I had heard the name I couldn’t forget it. He was cheerful and singing much of the time, blinking and deaf to the outer world. I could see him up in a bell tower kicking and pushing away at the bells. His own plots were hair-raising, involving his tubes of Tb as they did. Of course he never carried them out but I had my first taste of powerlessness listening to him, because if I’d phoned the Health Department it was I, not him, who would have been judged to be nuts. With his animals, while he was humane in the short-term ways like water and food, his experiments grew very probing.
At my window, being left to myself, I went through a knightly period. If I saw a colored lady unsuccessfully trying to persuade a taxi to stop for her, I would go down and signal one and hold the door, so that the driver wouldn’t realize that I wasn’t the passenger until it was too late. And a muscular, rebel Negro in a wheelchair lived around the comer. He would need to go out for food or a bottle of liquor, hating to ask a favor, and yet there was no other way to get over the curbs. When he was sober you’d see him swallow his pride and do it, but if he was drunk he would spin in his chair in circles for fifteen minutes on the edge of the traffic, yowling and sobbing, as the people avoided him all the more. So I used to go down for that.
Darwin took to working far into the night and bought a cot to sleep on at the office in the midday. Either he slept scarcely at all or he slept like a dead man, wildly irregular. He cooked for himself and cooked for his mice, and the smells combined with the hammering from the locked room (he was putting up still other shelves) was crazy. As always when he was most withdrawn, he looked his most clean-cut and pleasant. He quit joshing with patients, worked in silence, and contaminated some of the culture plates in his haste. He had laughed at the neighborhood’s burglar alarms, which were always going off, ringing all night, but now he installed one himself The work we were given fell off. I spent long lunches watching the bocce on Houston Street, more Italian than Italy, really, or walked to the library or to one of the kosher sandwich emporiums or, in the summer, to the public pool near Avenue C where upwards of a thousand children would be swimming and the universal shrillness was like sunlight. Long lines waited behind the diving board: two lifeguards stood ready. Each kid climbed on and walked to the end, every step broadcasting that he hadn’t the faintest idea about how to swim. In he’d plop. The guards took turns going in. Sometimes, leaving the lab at night, I passed by the local high school and found the whole street spread with trumpeters blowing away, the very bleakness everywhere else accentuating the gaiety. Postponing going home, I’d look through the paper for anything uptown to do. If worse came to worst, I just sat in the subway where it was warm, reading the news with the men who dreaded going home to their wives. It was a year of intense wretchedness and happiness mixed, each deepening and giving the other color. On the subway, I amused myself by imagining that everyone sitting there was in armor of various sorts.
Ida’s laugh became nearly as throaty when I kissed Tony as when I kissed her, since it was plain that I loved him a bit and that her hopes of marrying again weren’t going to suffer because of her son. Her dependence made her even more of a hothead and made me take her for granted, besides. We avoided each other for days, despite his pathetic attempts to bring me back, when he’d knock at my door on his own initiative and tell me his mother wanted to see me, “needed” to (this after I’d heard her drunken yelling). But if we suddenly met, we’d get into each other’s arms again, the sarcasms crackling, and her soft buttocks filling my hands. She’d lean her head back for a kiss. She compared her husband and me, both bastards, and laughed, “Has the dance palled?”—meaning her rivals. I’d never made so much love before and found it was habit-forming. Success brought success. I chased, phoned, and dashed about, pushing, pushing defenses down, wet in the pants and wet in the mouth, this brimstone to her, naturally—the poor girl could hear the high heels through the ceiling if I brought someone in—I soon didn’t. She’d upend her apartment and clean and explode, and the next day, hearing her yell at her son, I’d show up scared at her door for his sake, wondering who I should call. She asked who I was; had she met me before?
“You thump in here as if you’re some king. Well you’re not, you’re just Johnny Average to me, and you better believe it. You’re disgusting. You walk up and down those stairs—you’re as arrogant as a turkey—I don’t listen for you any more, you know. I’m not your biddy. You think he loves you. He doesn’t love you. And I don’t love you. I’m just curious to see what you’ll come up with next. I learn, you know. I don’t give a damn if a man like you drops dead in the street. You’re just a fucker—yes, you’re flattered, aren’t you, you’re such a boy. You think that’s a good thing to be. You love me to kiss your chest. You think it’s such a magnificent chest, don’t you? You think it gives me a charge.”
When she didn’t drive me out, she clutched at me like a life ring, and didn’t hear a word she said, because if I left she hadn’t a clue as to why but would stand with the tears slowly penetrating the glaze in her eyes. Holding each other, we watched Captain Kangaroo, who was such a slob that he was a comfort. Tony, letting his oatmeal congeal, stared funnel faced too. My notion was that, regardless what happened be tween me and his mother, some day I would help to put him through college, or get him out to the country for summers. I hoisted him over my head, gulping down my delight in being a father; and the two of them lined up next to the door when I left for work to kiss me off.
Once she thought she was pregnant everything was intensified. She talked about Tony for hours, as though lonelier now, bored with romancing, only the mother. The round robin trading of germs went on, like her crescendo-type suffering, standing past midnight behind her door. I felt horribly trapped. Why in god’s name was I having down here? Half my attraction from her standpoint was because I came from another world. And why had I gotten myself in the fix—I’d forgotten how new the experience of winning love was. I’d made use of her and now it was nothing but castor oil pains and a sanity stretched to its limits. I was scared to death. She with her neat, small ears, French nose, and her scrub-woman’s lumpy arms—at my dreariest, I could imagine us going through the clinic mill and the intern’s glances directed at me wondering why. The battered old tenement faucets rang like sleigh bells, and we were as merry as mourners, she sitting beside my knees. She hated men, work shipped men, and I rubbed her forehead, where the slamming she’d taken had registered most, the deprived and underdog bones. But she bloomed in exultant, maneuvering her figure. She looked like a movie star. It was my baby. We were knitted together now. I was chilled to the bone! I’d never imagined such passion existed, much less that I might be the object of it.
When this aghast reaction of mine was clear, Ida got into more of a rage than anything could have put her in. The luster went out of her skin. She turned into a fiery sick cat, bedraggled and humped. “Why didn’t you let me alone? All right, we played house nicely and you found out you couldn’t care less for the likes of me, I was beneath contempt; so why didn’t you leave me alone? Why did you leave it up to me? It was so peaceful without you, I was getting along perfectly. But no, you wanted me on the string for the times when you hadn’t anyone better. You revolt me, my friend. I don’t want your baby. You figure out how to get rid of it. I haven’t the energy to spare for you—I need what I have for my son.” And, indeed, her efforts were all to shield him and keep up his routines.
Darwin puttered or pounded throughout the day in either his guinea pig room or his “juice” room, while Lafayette Street grew still grislier. Bums are straight out of a comic strip anyway, with their charcoal-smeared faces, their staccato gaped teeth and gallows-bird postures that look like they’ve already been hung. When I watched a man chased down the street by a man with a knife, it was slapstick, like the comics, not TV representational ism. In the first place, the knife was out sized, and the man completely the wrong shape for running, and the man following him, though less bloated, ran like his feet were in boxes, plus the outlandish pursuers who were trying their best not to catch up. Real street fights were broken up into whirring fragments with baby-like waaahs, and bums fought with wood slats like Punch and Judy—the outcries, the shadow-show fury—till, after a long inaudible speech, the winner would take a few theater bows. My troubles at home didn’t help remove me. On the contrary,I lost my perspective, I could see only the suffering. When I was pipetting something, I’d distinguish a child’s shrieks under the rush of the cars and look out the window and see one being whipped on the legs for minutes on end by her father. What could you do ? To step in directly would make it worse for the child—the mother already was doing her best to distract him—and to call the police would be more drastic yet, once the guy talked his way out of it and got the girl home. The only weapon was simply to watch—to watch, so that the fellow knew. Long after the family had left, I would be jumping up from my desk to lean out with cramps in my chest as if it were still going on.
In the army I’d worried about being “dehumanized,” although the army had softened me, but here was a vastly more brutal environment. The truck drivers shouted Giddyap at the bums pulling pushcarts. Even the street was caving in because some foundations had been misdug, and it threatened to block up the subway. I was just high enough to be out of throwing range if I shouted at people. When I was outside myself, though, I quickly got expert at looking away. Either you watched pointedly or, for safety, you looked away. One time a troop of housewives and I followed four or five friends who were beating the wife of one of them, stopping and pulling her into doorways until our staring, our numbers, dislodged them.
Ida was shifting furniture to cause a miscarriage and doing hot baths. Going by on the stairs, I heard the brass ring to her voice, on the phone calling friends. After a minute she’d tap at my room to tell me the latest, since it was me in her body budding. Steaming with fear, she went up to Central Park and leapt off the boulders. My hair stood stiff to hear about it. I hugged her, begged, and yet finally had nothing to say, realizing how little the difference was between jumping off boulders and going to the doctors that Darwin knew. She was petrified; she said that her life was a wreckage; she felt hot to the hand as if she were running a temperature and could hardly put two words together, afraid that they might take Tony away, and frightening the daylights out of me. All of a sudden, however, worried that it was some cruel piece of egotism, I would look at her and be tremendously pleased at the pregnancy, sexually excited, and go over her with my hands. She felt the same way immediately. We made the most tender, delicious love, with her stomach the center of it, never so sexy.
Darwin considered me some sort of link, and joked about “raping girls” and the rest of it, though disarmingly gentle. He told World War II stories, sitting across from me at his aluminum table and wiping his ribs with a towel if he wore no shirt. He liked to keep to a schedule, to overwork, which wasn’t easy in a lab such as ours, and occasionally to take time off for an indulgent talk with me.
“I’ll tell you, lead your own life. Nobody has any business with you. They won’t understand what you want to do. They’ll laugh at you out of ignorance. So you don’t ask permission from anybody when you pick out something you want to do, you just go ahead, and then you won’t have any problems,” he said, the brief phrases to add pithiness. But his successful man’s manner was rendered incongruous by the misfit’s tone he gave everything; he pronounced like a solemn schoolboy. It was in his mouse room that he could be bluff the most briskly. The hundreds of rustling creatures did seem like employees—another twill factory in operation. He inspected with overseeing interest, or picking them up, injected their stomachs, their poor little pots, with that undeniable affection which experimenters, seeing them always as plural, have for their animals as a group.
Our peppiest moments came when a bold bum would wander in wanting his heart listened to. Darwin got shorty, but if the guy didn’t run out of the office or wasn’t insulted he usually would change around. He rapped his stethoscope affably into his hand like the doctor he’d wanted to be. He’d sit on the edge of the desk and chat like a boy with a younger boy, wrapped in smiles, not so puffy-faced now. These were his cheeriest periods of all, as if he realized that he could still be a part of the world. The bum inevitably blossomed out too, thought he was awfully skillful to get so much free attention—blood pressure taken—and even forgot his worries about his health. The loudest voices are the voices of bums. The final survival energies, drawn if necessary from everywhere else, seem to go to their throats. We had several memorable specimens, stuffed into their clothes like badly made puppets, the clothes brown and gray and all torn—stains, a scrap of a beard. They were body less heads. They were so badly off the only reason they still could walk was that they had wasted away to nothing. But the voice mushroomed, as strange as the lush, unnatural plants which grow out of dead things. Or sometimes the only piece left of a bum was his laugh.
“Wherever I happen to be I’ll come in for a checkup every few months, just to be on the safe side. I’ll look-see if I can’t see a fairly intelligent-looking doctor some place pretty close around. I don’t like to walk too far away for it. That way you don’t have to worry, you know nothing is sneaking up on you, and if you do what the fellow tells you to do you’re gonna be okay until the next time—little heart murmur or something, it’s gonna be all right. Oh I can take the cold, I’m very good on that. I know the techniques. They trained us with that. I was up on the DEW Line three years you know. I was up in the Arctic. A lot of these bums wouldn’t last a day. Three years of that and you’ll take the cold fine; you can take anything. Yeah, you’ll see some snow up there, you’ll see some dandy cold.
He was like a boy who was shining shoes, with his pert line of gab and the patronizing smiles we gave him. He had hands like a turtle’s skin, and strips of newspaper inside his socks, a red toucan nose, a white and red face like a ham bone, and he shook like a soaked sourdough from his illnesses. His ragged coat flapped in the wind like a flag when we watched him leave. Right away he begged from a car at the light, not to lose the boost to his confidence: he put his hands carefully behind him and stooped like a bon vivant to speak to the driver.
We watched the fences at the garage. I laughed but Darwin was bitter like any respectable citizen under a siege. It was hard to tell what was going on because they also worked at the regular jobs. They filled up the place with cars and sweated all day, with a reputation for piddling cheating. But then these cryptic vans would pull in. Pongs Produce, Old Reliable Pipe and Joint—ten-year-old trucks which had been painted over a dozen times. They’d move the whole garage full in order to stick the truck in the back, getting very excited and busy.
There is nothing likeable about criminals. They’re sneering creatures, ready to turn vicious in an instant, and it was an exacerbation to have them placed opposite us. Of course it made little difference to them when I waggled my finger. They’d grab up tire lugs and chase a man. If a Negro drove in for gas, they gave him a Queen Isabella bow and had him wait, pretending to be just about to come, in order to see how long they could keep him. “You goddam bow-and-arrow, get outa here!” They worked, they threatened, in absolute incoherence—a shrug, a lunge at the breastbone. They couldn’t talk without jabbing their hands at the person, the mark of respect being not quite to touch him. My stomach got turgid and hot as I’d watch an incident develop. For some reason I went back to the screw-you signal of my boyhood and pointed with that, trying to make myself heard. I shook in confusion for the next half hour whether I’d stayed to watch the scene out or whether I’d ducked away like Darwin. They robbed their own pay phone when they needed change, and the Puerto Ricans hated them too and used to write “warps,” “gunnies,” on the wall at night after the place was closed. One Sunday Darwin watched a car which they hadn’t been able to fit inside completely stripped, down to the axles, by three Negroes. He was delighted. It yawned there Monday, while the men fumed.
The four were related, I got the impression, except for a muscle-bound fellow who seemed the most decent. The dominant guy was a blast of straight vigor. He worked a twelve-hour day in his shirt sleeves into December, never ceasing to bluster and shout. He ate with his left hand and worked with his right, talking over his shoulder to the hired, muscle-bound one and yelling ahead to his fat husky brother. The brother, with an unpleasant face, kept up with his share of the jobs but sourly. He had the children who played nearby, attractive twins. The fourth man, who was maybe a cousin, was nervous-nature and thin and tall. He had lithe, precise hips that pumped when he walked. He was the most unpredictable and independent and had an oddly chic wife who came and sat in their car every few days while he worked. She looked nice; she was a softening influence, very much gentling him. A snide scowl snuck over him when he got the snow shovel and ran for a bum (they’d let the guy go in a comer and start to pee first). The two children did not have a dampening effect, but when his wife was around none of this happened. He resented me—he was the one who stared back. If I passed on the street he usually quit working sarcastically, though we never spoke.
Virgil Grissom and Hubert Humphrey were driven through on their way up from City Hall. We had a vegetable wagon clatter by daily that serviced the luncheonette downstairs. I looked down at the part in the horse’s mane. The Hoodoos fought with the Roman Emperors in the next block. And we had Light and Gas men. They were trying to pump out a manhole before doing some job, except that it filled up again every night. In the morning they strung tapes around the hole, hung warning flags, and set the pump going, and smoked and Coked the day away until the last hour, when they took everything down again. And a mailman made constant pickups—it has to be seen to be believed how many are made.
By the garage was a liquor store owned by a man with a villainous voice and a face shaped like smoke, gray as smoke, who flapped one hand smartly behind when he zipped along on a delivery. He parked in the station and was friends with the bunch, although he considered himself a cut above them. Ours was the civilized side of the street. Right below me was a classical tailor, who suffered like a sunfish in a pail; and, next door to him, a womanly printer whose window display had not been changed for fifteen years and whose mouth was as large as his stomach, the better to laugh with, presumably. He cut the ads for his son-in-law’s business out of the paper and carried them around like snapshots. Then his cobbler friend, as skeptical and as seamed as a jockey. He hammered so neatly it was like a stage set: stroke, stroke, the sole was fast; and the nails in his mouth for comic relief. He had a comedian’s mouth anyway, and he’d go out and pet the vegetable horse. Two Puerto Ricans ran the luncheonette in eager immigrant fashion. The best thing about them was how they walked off at six o’clock, rolling like seamen, relaxing so hard. They were agreeable and got along fine until the slapdash cooking cut into their business. They responded by cooking more hastily still and by stinginess with the portions and reducing the menu, so that it was another sad story.
We had plenty of people around and yet we had nobody. When something happened and I would go down I would be on an empty street. In my way, I was expert at preserving my own skin. I never “closed” with anyone, just put myself close at hand. When a car jerked out of the traffic one time with screams from inside, I opened the door on the girlfriend’s side to help her get out, not the man’s, and retreated as he came after me. “Oh you better run, he’ll kill you!” she shrieked. I could see Darwin’s pale face above me, and the jockey squinted behind his window as if he were watching a dangerous jump. Darwin believed he had a sixth sense, which made him especially fearful. By now he was sure I’d get clobbered. He told oodles of war stories, remembering more as he went along, and displayed the scars of a beating he had received from some young homosexuals in an earlier phase. They’d tattooed the star on his hand, he claimed, which alone would have made it impossible for him to return to a more normal life. Breakdowns and other new chapters were revealed. An old anxiety about robberies returned. He stopped inviting his Spanish friends up because they might see the equipment and be tempted. He checked the door to the roof twice a day. That’s where they come, off the roof” While he was scared to sleep in the lab, he was even more afraid to leave it unguarded. He used army phrases, shaking his head and gritting his teeth. He even quit leaving our leftovers outside the old lady’s door down the hall in case she broke in some night after more.
But he was for me, telling me twenty times that he would be my character witness. It was often the police I was battling. In civilian clothes a guy would march off a vagrant, refusing to show him his badge, just whacks. Or when they stormed in in response to a call,arrowing down Lafayette the wrong way—these were the large, lengthy scenes, spreading across the wide street, repetitious but excruciating after you had seen a few. The gold badges slapped with open hands, as a detective would. The silver badges poked their clubs like bayonets until a pretext came for swinging down. I bought a camera and drafted letters to the New York Times. I fretted on the outskirts, trying to copy cap numbers, and more than once I only saved myself from being arrested by backing down. The standard ending became to find myself being forced to lay my ID cards across the roof of a police car while all the stuff was written down, to stand there, hands on top of the car, in front of the open door—it functions as a sort of station house—until the decision was made as to whether to arrest me or not.
I got nutty, no question about it—more compelled and susceptible, quick to tear and quick to tremble. My eyes had been rubbed raw. The fire escapes on the garment factories filled up with people if a Negro was involved, and some of them would rush downstairs and fuss with me on the edge. My ragged nerves were like theirs. I had seen so much violence by now, so many atrocious injustices, that any beginning carried its whole plain progression for me—I understood Darwin’s sixth sense. The police were the same, for that matter, and so were the gas station toughs. Everybody picked up from the last time. Anger from then, or anguish, whatever it was, piled onto the new occasion. In a flash the despair poured back, and I would be leaning over the patrol car hood again, my teeth practically chattering. “No, no sir, buddy, you take out your fucking license yourself! I don’t handle nobody’s wallet!”
It was December, that awful Christmas, and we had the procession of Santa Clauses coming out of the subway all day with their locked boxes and Santa Claus bells. Their terminus was a mission on Houston, so we had the entire city’s street Santas, who were really just ordinary bums dressed up in red and white, limping along much as usual—they didn’t bother with stomachs for them. We also had Fire Department exercises going on within a couple of blocks. I needed a vacation badly, needed to get to the country; I was irritated simply by humans and human activity by this time. If a bus driver reached the end of his route and wanted to turn around, I argued with him. The signs on a church or a synagogue that said that it closed at 8 pm. struck me as pharisaism. At my cheerfulest I typed myself with the bearded, anachronism Jews in shiny black coats, only a very few left, who still hauled their pushcarts through all this madness in the old style, purple with sweat, having no relation whatever to it.
Though the frog tests I did on Ida continued to run negative, she wouldn’t menstruate and the doctor thought that he felt a pregnancy rather than cancer—he said it was something. I would drop in on the way to work, if possible, because of my own shakiness, instead of at night when I would have to stay longer. I gave her money and horrified hugs and pained, gingerly looks which tried to convey affection. It’s hard to reconstruct exactly what she was feeling since I was trying to avoid being aware of it. She “suspected” I didn’t love her, though of course I had never pretended to, and she really thought a good deal of the time that she was going to die or at least be made sterile. She dreamt of water, of babies, of me, of death, and raged against being a woman, while at the same time she was trying to shield me from what she was going through, that is, except for the nights when she heaped her sufferings on me in blinding half-hour explosions, her voice like a flatted comet. She ate and threw up as if she were pregnant, and looked taut and scrawny with that violin-string attenuation of a cat which drags itself. Then, next morning, what a Liz Taylor opened the door, bellying gay as the clouds! I’d bite her. I had a permanent cold from exhaustion.
Her room and a half had her marriage furniture in it, appropriately mismatched and in faded bright mummy like colors. When there wasn’t another reason, my heart went out to her for the apartment alone, so unspeakably dismal and small, and she without even the subway fare to get out. The layers of paint and linoleum extruded dirt from tenancies fifty years past. The two beds took most of the space. The books were her husband’s Genet, the decorations her own sporadic attempts which she couldn’t get rid of when the mood left until she saved enough money to buy something else. I regarded the place as mine for loafing (“your: doll house,” she said), and we still had rather happy, whimsical evenings sometimes, with billing and cooing, no barbarities. We lived on three different planes, mine being the mundane. Ida was in a shadow world, smelling life, smelling death, the surface realities scarcely a glimmer part of the time. She drew upon every ounce of her concentration to manage the details of Tony, yet he chirped out the window obliviously. He had the most marvelous shrieks and chirps, like nothing I’d ever heard before. I almost wanted the baby born. He shot with his gun out the window too much and chased the cat hard, had very pitiful moments, but mostly one wondered whether he wasn’t living on borrowed time, whether such glee in defiance of logic and of his surroundings wasn’t going to have to be paid for. Certainly in other respects he could go either way. He was slummy-faced, coarse and tough for a while, as if growing up to be somebody I wouldn’t be able to care about. Then in the afternoon, maybe, his eyes would spread open, his face would go soft, as he listened to one of his mother’s tales of Aesop. He was precociously gentle whenever she reached her rope’s end, just as Ida after an incendiary couple of hours always stopped short and knelt down in order to make it up to him with an effusion of playing and intuitive love.
Twice the social worker dropped by unannounced for what was called a Complete Drawer Count. And the tenement pipes rang like railroad bells. “Just hold onto me,” she’d whisper, as crazy as eels. It was ”Please don’t stare!” or else “You’re not looking at me!” when I was too anxious and pitying. The truth, as we waited for word from the doctor to act on, was that the danger that she’d have a breakdown was worse than the risk of any abortion. She was Catholic, and I rubbed her resisting back by the hour while he talked. I was a futile substitute, but she was afraid she’d lose Tony if she went to a priest, and she made me afraid to go to one too. Listening, I couldn’t fix on a plan for any of the eventualities. There were other shouts in the building but not pitched like hers, and she lay with her head in my lap, so that I saw the tears in her nose and the swollen blood vessels. Tony writhed on the floor.
“I’ve taken so much and what have I got to show for it? I have you here, younger than me, almost a child really, because you were hard up, and now you like to think of yourself as wonderfully kind and honorable. I don’t care who’s with me. I don’t even know where I am. Have you ever felt neuter? Well that’s how I feel. I don’t feel like a man and I don’t feel like a woman. I’m dead, I’m an idiot, I don’t feel. I wish I were a tree, or have I read that somewhere? I must have. Nothing is original with me, is it? I don’t believe in God but I’m afraid of Him. I don’t particularly like you, but I loved you—that’s not original either. I don’t want to sleep with any more men or have any more babies but I don’t want to be sterile. I see horrible figures in dreams, but they’re the best company I have except for my son. I’d do anything not to die, but I want to die.”