Issue 203, Winter 2012
When I had first moved to New York from Reno, I found an apartment on Mulberry Street and planned to make films with the camera I never returned to the art department at the University of Nevada, a Bolex Pro. I arrived with the camera, my savings from selling my motorcycle, and a phone number for Chris Kelly, my single contact. I was twenty-one. I figured I’d wait to call mythical Chris Kelly, a UNR student I had known only slightly. He had been shot in the arm by Nina Simone when he tried to make a film about her. I’ll get situated first, I thought. I’ll have some sense of what I’m doing, a way to make an impression on him. Then I’ll call. I knew no one else, but downtown New York was so alive with people my age, and so thoroughly abandoned by most others, that the energy of the young seeped out of the ground. I figured it was only a matter of time before I met people, was part of something.
My apartment was about as blank and empty as my new life, with its layers upon layers of white paint, like a plaster death mask of the two rooms, giving them an ancient urban feeling, and I didn’t want to mute that effect with furniture and clutter. The floor was an interlocking map of various unmatched linoleum pieces in faded floral reds, like a cracked and soiled Matisse. It was almost bare, except for a trunk that held my clothes, a few books, the stolen or borrowed Bolex, a Nikon F (my own), and a man’s brown felt hat, owner unknown. I had no cups, no table, nothing of that sort. The mattress I slept on had been there when I rented. I had one faded pink towel, on its edge machine embroidered pickwick. It was from a hotel in San Francisco. I knew a girl who had cleaned rooms there and I somehow ended up with the towel, which seemed fancier than a regular towel because it had a provenance, like shoes from Spain or perfume from France. A towel from the Pickwick. The hat was a Borsalino I’d found in the bathroom of a bar. I wrapped my jacket around it, rather than giving it to the bartender. It decorated the empty apartment. Each morning I went to a coffee shop near my apartment, the Trust E on Lafayette, and sat at the counter. The same waitress was always there. The men who came into that coffee shop tried to pick her up. She was pretty and, perhaps more importantly, had large breasts framed in a low-cut waitressing smock.
“Hey, what’s your name?” a man in a yellow hard hat said to her one morning as he stared at her breasts and dug in the pocket of his work overalls to pay his check.
She glanced at the radio behind the counter. “My name is . . . Zenith,” she said, smiling at him with her slightly crooked teeth.
That was the precise moment I wanted to be friends with Giddle—her actual name, or at least the one I knew her by.
There are no palm trees on Fourteenth Street, but I remember them there, black palm fronds against indigo dusk, the night I met the people with the gun.
That was how I thought of them, before I knew who any of them were. The people with the gun.
I had been in New York a month, and the city to me seemed strange and wondrous and lonely. The July air was damp and hot. It was late afternoon. The overcrowded sidewalk, with young girls standing along Union Square in shorts and halters the size of popped balloons, electronics stores with salsa blaring, the Papaya King and its mangoes and bananas piled up in the window, all made Fourteenth Street feel like the main thoroughfare of a tropical city, someplace in the Caribbean or South America, though I had never been to the Caribbean or South America, and I’m not sure where I saw palm fronds. Once it became familiar, Fourteenth Street never looked that way to me again.
I remember a rainbow spectrum of men’s wing tips parked in rows, triple-A narrow, the leather dyed snake green, lemon yellow, and unstable shades of vermilion and Ditto-ink blue. All of humanity dresses in uniforms of one sort or another, and these shoes were for pimps. I was on the west end of Fourteenth. My feet, swollen from the heat, were starting to hurt. I heard music from the doorway of a bar, soft piano notes, and then a singer who flung her voice over a horn section. What difference does it make, which one I choose? Either way I lose. A voice so low it sounded like a female voice artificially slowed. It was Nina Simone’s. A piano note and a man’s baritone voice percussed together, and then higher piano notes came tumbling down to meet the low ones. I went in.
The music was loud and distorted by the echoing room, where a man and woman sat close together at the far end of a bar, the sole customers. The woman had the kind of beauty I associated with the pedigreed rich. A pale complexion, cuticle thin, stretched over high cheekbones, and thick, wavy hair that was the warm, reddish blonde of cherrywood. The man conducted the song with the tiny straw from his drink, jerking his arm in the air to the saxophone and the cartwheeling piano notes, which fell down over us as if from the perforations in the bar’s paneled ceiling. The horns and strings and piano and the woman’s voice all rode along together and then came to an abrupt halt. The room fell into drafty silence.
The woman sniffled, her head down, hair flopped over her face, curtains drawn for a moment of private sorrow, although I sensed she was faking.
“Why don’t you sit down,” the man called to me in a nasal and Southern voice. “You’re making us nervous.” He wore a suit and tie but there was something derelict about him, not detectable in his fine clothes.
The woman looked up at me, a glisten of wet on her cheeks.
“She’s not making anybody nervous,” she said, and wiped under her eyes with the pads of her fingers, careful not to scratch herself with long nails painted glossy red. I realized I’d been wrong. She was not the pedigreed rich. He was and she was not. Sometimes all the information is there in the first five minutes, laid out for inspection. Then it goes away, gets suppressed as a matter of pragmatism. It’s too much to know a lot about strangers. But some don’t end up strangers. They end up closer, and you had your five minutes to see what they were really like and you missed it.
“Come on, honey,” she said to me in a voice like a soft bell, “sit down and shithead will buy you a drink.”
I’d thought this was how artists moved to New York, alone, that the city was a mecca of individual points, longings, all merging into one great light-pulsing mesh, and you simply found your pulse, your place. The art in the galleries had nothing to do with what I’d studied as fine art. My concentration had been film, but the only films the galleries seemed to be showing were films scratched beyond recognition, and in one case, a ten-minute-long film of a clock as it moved from ten o’clock to ten minutes after ten, and then the film ended. Dance was very popular, as was most performance, especially the kind that was of a nature so subtle—a person walking through a gallery, and then turning and walking out of the gallery—that one was left unsure if the thing observed was performance or plain life. There was a man in my neighborhood who carried a long pole painted with barber stripes over his shoulder. I would see him at dusk as I sat in the little park on the corner of Mulberry and Spring. He, too, liked to sit in the little park in the evening, in his bell-bottoms and a striped sailor’s shirt. We both watched the neighborhood boys in their gold chains and football jerseys as they taunted the Puerto Rican kids who passed by. They were practicing for the future war. The Italians were going to exterminate the Puerto Ricans with the sheer force of their hatred. Or maybe they would just remove all the Italian-ice pushcarts and the pizza parlors, and the Puerto Ricans would starve. The man sat there with his striped pole jutting over his shoulder like an outrigger, one leg crossed over the other, his sunbrowned toes exposed in battered leather sandals. He smiled foolishly when the Italian kids asked what his pole was for. When he didn’t answer, they flicked cigarette butts at him. He kept smiling at them. Once, he walked past the Trust E, holding the pole over his shoulder as if carrying construction materials to a work site. “There goes Henri-Jean,” Giddle said.
“You know him?”
“Yeah. He lives in the neighborhood. It’s his thing, that pole. No sellable works, just disruption. Goes to gallery openings, bonks people on the head by accident.”
The children who taunted him in the playground all had fathers in the Mafia. Every Sunday, the fathers exited their social club on Mulberry, next door to my building, and got into black limousines. There were so many limousines they took up the entire block, lined up like bars of obsidian-black soap, double-parked along Mulberry so that no traffic could pass. The chauffeurs stood next to the open passenger-side doors all afternoon. It was summer, and sweat rolled down their faces as they waited for the men to emerge from the social club.
Every morning I sat at the counter of the Trust E on Lafayette, hoping Giddle and I might talk, and if business was slow, we did. I paid my rent to a Mr. Pong, who said I should contact him only if I was moving out or if the city showed up to inspect. I spent each day looking at the want ads and walking around. As I came and went from my apartment, I would say hello to the two teenage girls who cut and styled each other’s hair in the hallway. Sometimes they were in the courtyard between the two buildings—one building was behind the other, and I lived in the front—working out dance routines under the wet flags of hung laundry. Each night I went to a pizza place on Prince. The kind of young people I hoped to know, women and men in ripped, self-styled clothes, smoking and passionately discussing art and music and ideas, were all there. I didn’t interact with them except for once, when one of the men called me cutie, he said, “Hey, cutie,” and a woman near him became upset, telling him that the street was not his pickup joint, and the other women laughed, and none of them asked if I needed friends. Which was something people never would ask. I ate my pizza and went to lie in bed with all the windows wide open. The trucks rumbling down Kenmare, the honking, an occasional breaking of glass, made me feel that I was not separate and alone in my solitude, because the city was flowing through my apartment and its sounds were a kind of companionship.
I had met Giddle, but she was of little real help. The stream of New York, at least the one I imagined, moved around her as it did around me. She seemed as isolated as I was, which was troubling, because she’d been in New York, as far as I could tell, for many, many years. She would tell me about herself, but it often contradicted something she’d said on a different day. Once she said she was raised in a Midwestern Catholic orphanage. We wore green skirts, she told me, white blouses, white bobby socks, saddle shoes, green jackets. We watched the nuns shower. But then, on another quiet morning at the diner, she told me her father sold appliances. They’d lived in Montreal. Her mother stayed home, was always there when Giddle returned from school. She had three brothers. Got an F in French. And I looked at her and nodded and realized she had forgotten she’d told me about the nuns a few days earlier.
Something would happen, I was sure. A job, which I needed, but that could isolate a person even further. No. Some kind of event. “Tonight is the night,” I later believed I’d told myself on that particular night when I heard the music and Nina Simone’s voice, walked into the bar on Fourteenth Street, and met the people with the gun. But in truth I had not told myself anything. I had simply left my apartment to stroll, as I did every night. What occurred did so because I was open to it, and not because fate and I met at a certain angle. I had plenty of time to think about this later. I thought about it so much that the events of that evening sometimes ran along under my mood like a secret river, in the way that all buried truths rushed along quietly in some hidden place.
“This is my wife,” the nasal man in elegant clothes said as I sat down next to them at the bar. “Nadine.”
He said it again. “Nay-deeen,” and looked searchingly at her.
She ignored him, as if she were used to this audible pondering of her Nadine-ness in bars, for the benefit of strangers.
“We were at a wedding,” Nadine said, turning to me. “They asked us to leave. They asked Thurman to leave, I mean. But I don’t like weddings anyway? They make my face hurt?”
That was how she spoke.
“Why did they want you to leave?” I asked, but I could sense why. Something about their presence in an empty bar many levels below what the man’s clothes might suggest.
“Because Thurman lay down in the grass?” Nadine said. “He started taking pictures of the sky. Just blue sky, instead of bride and groom. He’d had a few too—”
“I did not have a few too. I was looking for something decent to photograph. Something worth keeping. For posterity.”
“Oh, posterity,” Nadine said. “Sure. Great. If you can afford it. You could have just told Lester you didn’t want to be the picture taker.”
There was a camera sitting in front of him on the bar, an expensive-looking Leica.
“You’re a photographer?” I asked him.
“Nope.” He smiled, revealing a tar stain between his two front teeth.
“But the camera—” I couldn’t think of how to say it. You have a camera but you aren’t a photographer. I sensed he would only keep meandering away, like something you are trying to catch that continually evades your grasp.
“Better to say yes,” Thurman said, “and then disappoint people. I mean really let them down.”
“Lord knows you’re good at that,” Nadine said in a quiet voice.
“I’m talking about building a reputation.”
“So am I,” she said.
“All I want,” Thurman said, “is for people to stop asking me to come to their weddings. And funerals.”
“I don’t mind funerals?” Nadine said. “Except when they buried my daddy in a purple casket. That was awful.” She turned to me. “Thurman knew my daddy? Daddy was a mentor to him? A teacher?”
“A mentor,” I repeated, hoping this might lead somewhere, to some explanation of who she and Thurman were. Because they were someone or something, I was sure of it.
“Well, my daddy was a . . . I guess you could say pimp. Pimp is acceptable—I mean now that he’s dead. And you know what? It’s 1975 and people just don’t say procurer anymore.”
I thought of the narrow wing tips in tropical-bird colors. Who knew what was true.
“And my mother was a whore, so they got along perfect.”
Probably nothing was true, but I liked the challenge of trying to talk to them. I had spoken to so few people since arriving that it felt logical to interact in this manner. It was direct and also evasive, each in a way that made sense to me.
“May he rest in peace,” Thurman said. “A gentleman. I wanted to ask him for your hand in marriage. You were fourteen and goddamn. I wanted to just marry the pants off you.” He grinned and showed the ugly stain on his teeth. “But then there was no point. It wasn’t marrying to get in your pants, since you were allowing it. Not with me. That motherfucker you did marry, later on.”
Nadine frowned. “Do you want a purple casket, Thurman? Because Blossom might have one all picked out for you. With a copper millennial vault, to preserve your—”
He got up, walked to the end of the bar, and aimed his camera at a sign above the register. sorry, no credit.
Three or four drinks in, still they hadn’t asked me anything. But what interesting thing did I have to tell? I was content to listen to their stream of half-reports on people I’d never heard of, stories I could not follow, one about a baby named Kotch. “This lady was nursing him,” Nadine said, “and then another lady and you begin to think, wait a minute, whose baby is Kotch? I don’t know who was his mother and who was a wet nurse—”
“I’ll make you a wet nurse,” Thurman said as he grabbed Nadine and cupped one of her breasts. She twisted away and then she was prattling about a McDonald’s she once went to in Mexico. I had been in a McDonald’s commercial when I was in high school, and I thought, as Nadine spoke, that it might be a story I could share with them.
“McDonald’s is supposed to be the same everywhere, right? Well, not in Mexico. They Mexicanize it. Hamburguesa con chile. No fries—fri-jo-les. I was with my ex. We were starving and I was ready to eat beans. We’re at the counter and find out we have no money. He had lost his wallet.”
She went on about this ex, the revolution he had been fomenting that never took place and had led to their harsh and vagrant life in the mountains of northern Mexico, the hole in his pocket that his wallet had wriggled through, leading to his inability to provide for her the most fundamental thing—a McDonald’s hamburger. That was how she put it, that he couldn’t provide even a hamburger. After which she left him and went to Hollywood, where the nightmare really began, a series of episodes and hard luck that involved rape, prostitution, and an addiction to Freon, the gas from the cooling element in refrigerators.
“What you get,” Thurman said, when she was finally finished, “for marrying a motherfucker.”
“I don’t want to talk about him. And stop calling him that, would you?”
“You brought him up.”
“Only to tell her about the Mexican McDonald’s.”
“I was in a McDonald’s commercial,” I said.
“Oh, you’re an actress!”
“No, I just did the one thing, I was sixteen and it was just something, an ad our coach answered and—”
“Thurman, she’s an actress.”
“Well, I . . . we did act, I guess. But that’s not . . . they needed a girl who could ski, and so I—”
“You’re an actress and a skier! I never meet anyone who skis.”
“Do you ski?” I asked, only vaguely hopeful.
“Do I ski. No, honey.”
The commercial’s director and crew had come to Mount Rose, where we trained. They talked to our coach and ended up choosing me and a racer named Lisa, a quiet girl no one really knew. There was a long day of takes and retakes. They wanted two girls with hair flying, snow bunnies on a brisk sunny afternoon. A week later they flew us both to Los Angeles, to a strange McDonald’s in the City of Industry where they only filmed commercials. It looked like a regular McDonald’s, with cashiers in paper hats, a menu board, the plastic bench tables where Lisa and I sat across from each other and smiled as if we were friends although we weren’t, each of us holding a hamburger in our fingers with hot lights on us, in this fake restaurant that looked real except they didn’t serve customers. I tried to explain this to Nadine, but she kept interrupting me.
When we finished shooting the ad, I flew home to Reno. Lisa was supposed to be on the flight but she wasn’t. She was eighteen, an adult, and I didn’t wonder. She had apparently gone to a bar near the fake McDonald’s in the City of Industry. No one ever heard from her again.
“Freaky,” Nadine said. “There’s no telling. Once I met the serial killer Ted Bundy. Can you believe it? He was real handsome. Real smooth. I was on a beach and here comes this hunky college guy. I was this close from ending up like the gal in that commercial with you.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that Lisa had been murdered. I assumed she’d been impatient to meet her future and had just fled into it and never bothered to let anyone know where she was and what she was doing. The representative who paid me could not track her down. He called to ask if I knew anything, and I’d said no.
“I miss Los Angeles,” Nadine said. “Don’t you?”
“I was only there the one night,” I said. “In the City of Industry, which isn’t really Los Angeles, and so—”
“The way the palm trees shake around,” she went on, “and it sounds like rain but everything is sun reflecting on metal. I once went to a house in the Hollywood Hills that was a glass dome on a pole, its elevator shaft. Belonged to a pervert bachelor and he had peepholes everywhere. He was watching me in the toilet. Same guy drugged me without asking first. Angel dust. I was on roller skates, which presented a whole extra challenge.”
Thurman was laughing. I understood she was his airy nonsense-maker, a bubble machine, and occasionally he would be in the mood for that.
“How the hell did you manage, drugged, on skates?” he asked her.
“Like I said, there was an elevator. Anyhow, there’s some use in being doped against your will. Before it happened I didn’t have my natural defenses. Some people don’t get the whole boundaries thing until they’ve had their mind raped by another person. It helped me to establish some kind of minimum standard.”
She turned to me. “Did you see Klute?”
“Yes,” I said, “I did, I—”
“I liked it,” she said. “He didn’t.” She gestured at Thurman. She wasn’t curious what I thought of Klute. But that very film had been on my mind, this portrait of a woman who is so alone in the dense and crowded city. In my empty apartment I’d been thinking of the scenes where her phone rings. She answers and no one is there.
Perhaps because I was so isolated, as darkness fell outside that Fourteenth Street bar, and more drinks were ordered, and a sense of possession over time faded away, a sense of the evening as mine loosened, one in which I would eat my habitual pizza slice and lie down alone, I began to cling in some subtle way to these people Thurman and Nadine, even as they were drunk and bizarre and didn’t listen to a word I said.
I heard the sound of a motorcycle pulling up on the sidewalk in front of the bar.
A man walked in wearing jeans tucked into engineer boots and a faded T-shirt that said marsden hartley on it. He was good-looking and I guessed he knew it, this friend of Thurman and Nadine’s whose name I did not catch. He walked in knowing he was beautiful, with his hard gaze and slightly feminine mouth, and I was struck. He had the Marsden Hartley T-shirt and I loved Marsden Hartley. He rode a motorcycle. These commonalities felt like a miracle to me. I realized when he sat down that he had made his T-shirt logo with a pen. It was not silk screened. He’d simply written marsden hartley. He could have written anything and that was what he wrote.
Compared to Thurman and Nadine it was like reason had stepped through the door. He didn’t speak in rambling non sequiturs or take pictures of the ceiling. Thurman started acting a bit more normally himself, and he and this friend of his had a coherent exchange about classical music, Thurman demonstrating a passage of Bach by running his hands over the bar as though it were a piano, his fingers sounding pretend notes with a delicate care and exactitude that the rest of him seemed to lack. There were several rounds of drinks. Their friend asked if I was an art student. “Let me guess,” he said. “Either Cooper or SVA. Except if you were at Cooper your enlightened good sense would keep you away from dirty old men like Thurman Johnson.”
I said I’d just moved to New York.
“You had a college sweetheart who is joining the military. He was also in fine arts. He’ll use his training to paint portraits of army colonels. You’ll write letters back and forth until you fall in love with someone else, which is what you moved here to do.”
These people seemed to want to have already located the general idea of the stranger in their company, and to feel they were good guessers. It was somehow preferable to actually trying to get to know me.
“I didn’t move here to fall in love.”
But as I said it, I felt he’d set a trap of some kind. Because I didn’t move here not to fall in love. The desire for love is universal but that has never meant it’s worthy of respect. It’s not admirable to want love, it just is.
The truth was that I’d loved Chris Kelly, who’d gone to the South of France to find Nina Simone, only to be shot at with a gun she’d lifted from the pocket of her robe. We were in an Italian film class together. He looked at Monica Vitti like he wanted to eat her, and I looked at her like I wanted to be her. I started cutting and arranging my hair like hers, a tousled mess with a few loose bangs, and I even found a green wool coat like she clutched to her chin in Red Desert, but Chris Kelly did not seem to notice. He was graduated and gone by my second semester at UNR and mostly an impression by this point, a lingering image of a tall guy who wore black turtlenecks, a cowlick over one eye, a person who had risked himself for art, had been shot in the arm, and then moved to New York City.
A few days earlier, I’d finally tried the number I had for him, from a pay phone on Mulberry Street. I’d gone downstairs, passing the teenage girls styling each other’s hair in the hallway, trying not to breathe because the Chinese family one floor below me slaughtered chickens in their apartment and the smell of warm blood filled the hallway. I’d dialed the number from the phone booth, nervous but happy. Someone was yelling, “Babbo, throw down the key!” It was the morning of the Fourth of July and kids were lighting smoke bombs, sulfurous coils of red and green, the colors dense and bright like concentrated dye blooming through water. I was wearing Chinese shoes I’d bought for two dollars on Canal Street. The buckles had immediately fallen off, and the straps were now attached with safety pins. Sweaty feet in cheap cotton shoes, black like Chris Kelly’s clothes. It was sweltering hot, children cutting into the powerful spray from an uncapped fire hydrant. As the phone began to ring, I watched an enormous flying cockroach land on the sidewalk. A woman came after it and crushed it under the bottom of her slipper.
The phone was ringing. Now there was a huge mangled stain on the sidewalk, with still-moving parts, long, wispy antennae swiping around for signs of its own life. A second ring of the telephone. Mythical Chris Kelly. Third ring. I was rehearsing what I would say. An explosion echoed from down the block. An M-80 in a garbage can. The key sailed from a window, inside a tube sock, and landed near the garbage, piling up because of the strike.
A voice came through the phone: “I’m sorry. The number you have dialed is no longer in service.”
It was true: I didn’t move here not to fall in love. That night, after I attempted to call Chris Kelly, I watched from my roof as the neighborhood blew itself to smithereens, scattering bits of red paper everywhere, the humid air tinged with magnesium. It seemed a miracle that nothing caught fire that wasn’t meant to. Men and boys overturned crates of explosives of various sorts in the middle of Mulberry Street. They hid behind a metal dumpster as one lit a cigarette, gave it a short puffing inhale, and then tossed it onto the pile, which began to send showers and sprays and flashes in all directions. A show for the residents of Little Italy, who watched from high above. No one went down to the street, only the stewards of this event. My neighbors and I lined our rooftop, black tar gummy from the day’s heat. Pink and red fireworks burst upward, exploded overhead, and then fell and melted into the dark, and how could it be that the telephone number for the only person I knew in New York City did not work?
I had asked Giddle if she knew an artist by that name and she’d said, “I think so. Chris. Yeah.”
We were on Lafayette, outside the Trust E Coffee Shop.
“I can’t believe it,” I said excitedly. “Where is he? Do you know what he’s up to?”
She tugged the foil apron from a new pack of North Pole cigarettes and tossed it on the sidewalk. I watched it skitter.
“I don’t know,” she said. “He’s around. He’s on the scene.”
The wind blew the discarded foil sideways.
“What scene?” I asked, and then Giddle became cryptic, like, if you don’t already know, I can’t spell it out. That was when I first sensed, but then almost as quickly suppressed, something about Giddle, which was that there might be reason to doubt everything she said.
I told this friend of Nadine and Thurman’s that I was from Nevada and he started calling me Reno. It was a nice word, he said, like the name of a Roman god or goddess. Juno or Nero. Reno. I told him it was on the neon archway into town, four big red letters, R-E-N-O. I made a film about it, I said. I set up a tripod and filmed cars as they came to a stop at the traffic light under the archway.
“Spiritual America,” he said. “That’s Thurman’s thing, too. Diner coffee. Unflushed toilets. Salesmen. Shopping carts. He’s about to become famous. He’s having a show at the Museum of Modern Art.”
Thurman was not listening to us. He was nibbling on Nadine’s ear.
The friend said, “He’s a great artist.”
“And what are you?” I asked.
“I turn the hands on the big clock in the lobby of the Time-Life Building. Twice a year it has to be reset, to daylight savings and then back to standard time. They call me. It’s a very specialized job. If you push too hard, you can bend the hands of the clock.”
There were tacit rules with these people, and all the people like them I later met: you weren’t supposed to ask basic questions. “What do you do?” “Where are you from?” “What kind of art do you make?” Because I understood he was an artist, but you weren’t allowed to ask that. Not even “What is your name?” You pretended you knew, or didn’t need to know. Asking an obvious question, even if there were no obvious answer, was a way of indicating to them that they should jettison you as soon as they could.
“I was in Nevada once,” he said. “To see something a guy I knew made, the Spiral Jetty. The artist, Smithson, had just died. He was a friend, or something like one. Actually, he was an asshole. A sci-fi turkey, but brilliant—”
I said excitedly that I’d been there, too, that I had read his obituary, I knew who he was, but he didn’t seem to think it was a remarkable coincidence.
“He had a hilarious riff about the ‘real authentic West,’ pretending he’s Billy Al Bengston, you know, gearhead who makes paintings, and he’d say, ‘You New York artists need to stop thinking and feel. You’re always trying to make concepts, systems. It’s bullshit. I was out there chrome-plating my motorcycle and you’re, like, in skyscrapers, reading books.’ Smithson was a genius. There are two great artists of my generation,” he said. “Smithson is one and my friend Sammy is the other.”
“What does he make?”
“Nothing. He makes nothing. He’s living outside this year. He doesn’t enter any structures. Right now he’s camped in a park in Little Italy. He had been out in the Bronx sleeping on a construction scaffold and they were shooting at him.”
There was another man, besides Henri-Jean with his pole, who was often in my little park at Mulberry and Spring. He slept there sometimes and I figured he was homeless but he didn’t quite look it, this young Asian man with shoulder-length hair. There was something too careful and precise about him. I asked if his friend Sammy was Asian and he nodded and said Taiwanese, and I told him I thought I’d seen his friend. He said Sammy had come to New York as a stowaway on a merchant vessel, and that whenever this came up people assumed it was an art project, a performance he had done, and Sammy would have to explain the obvious, that he did it like millions of others, to come to New York. To be an American. And people would laugh as if there were a deep irony under the words.
At some point Thurman and Nadine decided we were going to another bar. “You’re coming?” I asked the friend. I sensed his hesitation before he nodded sure. Under it, Why not? There’s nothing better to do. He left his motorcycle in front of the bar because it turned out Thurman had a car. Not just a car but a car and driver—a mid-1950s black and brushed-metal Cadillac Eldorado with a chauffeur who looked about fourteen years old, in a formal driver’s jacket that was several sizes too large and white gloves, also too large. I thought of the drivers on Mulberry. I said it was like Little Italy on a Sunday but no one heard me or they didn’t care.
We piled into the car with drinks in our hands. Nadine had picked hers up and carried it toward the bar’s exit, and following behind I thought, Yes, of course. This is how it’s done. Thurman paid our tab, and I was with them, in a Cadillac Eldorado, heavy rocks glasses in our hands, damp cocktail napkins underneath, the ice in our glasses ta-tinking as the car turned slow corners, honking so people would get out of our way, because we were important in that car, me on their handsome friend’s lap, our drinks going ta-tink, ta-tink.
“This is my favorite,” the friend said, pulling a leather datebook from a pocket in the door. “It actually comes with the car: the 1957 Brougham’s own datebook. And this,” he said, pulling out a perfume bottle from a little cubby in the armrest. “The cologne atomizer with Lanvin Arpège perfume. You could order this stuff at the GM dealership when these models were new. Thurman, what else is this thing loaded with?”
“Beats me,” Thurman said. “Blossom was willed the car. It belonged to Lady von Doyle.”
This Blossom had been mentioned several times now. I didn’t ask who she was, who any of the people they mentioned were. I wanted to study the way they spoke. Not interrupt the flow, be the person they had to stop and explain things to.
Their friend reached back into the armrest and retrieved a leather-bound flask with a big GM symbol on it, opened it, and sniffed.
“Scotch,” he said. “This is true post-Calvinist delirium. Like the Jews at Sammy’s Roumanian, eating steaks that hang off the plates, a big pitcher of chicken schmaltz on the table. It’s all about never going hungry again.”
He poured from the flask into our glasses. I felt the presence of his body as he leaned.
“I think Lady von Doyle was Jewish,” Nadine said. “Thurman, wasn’t she Jewish?”
The friend said that seemed about right, for a Jew to drive a Cadillac. “In a sense,” he said, “there is simply this axis of General Motors and Volkswagen. I myself have a VW Bug, a car we associate with Eugene McCarthy and flower power and not with Hitler, who created it. The VW doesn’t make you think of Hitler and genocide. It’s a breast on wheels, a puffy little dream. The Cadillac, now, that’s a different dream. Of the two, you’d expect the Cadillac would represent some unspeakable horror, crimes against humanity. Look, here’s the Brougham powder puff. The lipstick case. The pill dispenser. The Evans pocket mirror. All that’s missing is the Tiffany cocaine vial and a chrome-plated .44 Magnum.”
“Keep looking,” Thurman said.
“Ha-ha. Right. But you would never be tempted to chrome a .44 Magnum, Thurm. That’s strictly for rednecks and off-duty cops. My point is that compared to the humble little folks-wagon, the GM seems guiltier, more dissolute, and yet there’s no genocide or forced labor camps under this leather upholstery. Just cotton-wool batting—itself, unlike the beautiful car, not built to last. But these days, only people in the ghetto think it’s uptown to drive a Cadillac. In fact, only people in the ghetto think in terms of uptown and downtown. Are you aware there’s an oil crisis? I don’t even drive my Bug anymore, with the price of gas,” the friend said. “I got my little Harley.”
“I ride motorcycles,” I said. “I mean I used to, but I sold mine.”
He looked at me. I was seated sideways on his lap.
“You do have a kind of tomboy allure, I might call it. Yeah.”
Okay, I told myself. Something is starting to happen.
“What?” I asked.
“What kind of bike did you ride?”
“Oh, a Moto Valera.”
“See? This fits in with my general thesis. It just so happens I know one of them, though he’s not involved with the company. I like to rib him about those sexy calendars they print. They pretend this name, Valera, is about firm Italian tits and desmodromic valves, but actually, they used Polish slave labor to make killing machines for the Nazis. Perhaps not specifically. Not exactly. But they used some kind of x to make a y; fill in your human cost and slick modern contraption of choice.”
“Mine was a ’65,” I said. “Way after the war.”
“Which makes it innocent,” he said. “Just like you.” He touched his hand to my cheek, quick and glancing. “You don’t have it anymore? The Moto Valera?”
“I sold it to move here.”
“X for y.”
He had placed his hand on my waist, and I felt heat issue from it, and with that heat, something else, something sincere flowing from him to me, a message or meaning that was different in tone from the way he spoke.
I turned toward him.
“Do you want to know something funny?” I said quietly, not wanting Nadine and Thurman to hear.
“Yes,” he whispered back, and moved his hand from my waist to my leg. There wasn’t really any other place for him to put it in that crowded backseat. And yet I read the gesture of his hand on my leg as exactly that. A man’s hand on a woman’s leg, and not a hand that had no other place to rest itself.
“I don’t remember your name,” I whispered.
“That is funny,” he whispered back.
It seemed we’d been driving for quite a while, the teenage chauffeur working the wheel smoothly, readjusting the comb that was wedged in his Afro like a knife in a cake, as if he’d trained his whole life to drive an enormous Cadillac and retouch his hair simultaneously, and in white gloves whose fingers sagged at the tips, too large for his young hands. We must have been traveling in circles. Only later did I realize we were on Twenty-Third Street in Chelsea, just a few blocks north of where we’d started.
We carried our drinks into a crowded bar, a Spanish place on the ground floor of a hotel, full of color and noise and people they knew. A man called Duke, with root beer–colored chandelier lusters hooked onto his shirt, came rushing toward us. He said the lusters were from the Hotel Earle.
“You’re the Duke of Earle,” Nadine said.
“I’m the Duke of Earle,” he said and shimmied his crystals.
People crowded around them to say hello. I had the sudden feeling they would shed me. I was a stranger they had picked up in an empty bar, and I was irrelevant now that they’d found their place in a familiar scene. I scanned the faces, wondering if this were the sort of place I might find Chris Kelly. I wasn’t completely sure I’d recognize him. Pale skin, dark hair over one eye. This might be a bar he’d go to. I asked Thurman and Nadine’s friend if he knew an artist named Chris Kelly. “Who?” he said, cupping his ear. I repeated the name. “Oh, right,” he said. “Sure, Chris.”
“You know him? He’s from Reno. I’ve been trying to find him.”
“Chris the artist, right?”
It took me a moment to realize he was joking. As I did, I felt that he and his friends were unraveling any sense of order I was trying to build in my new life. And yet I also felt that he and his friends were possibly my only chance to ravel my new life into something.
He steered us to an empty booth. I slid in next to him. The Duke of Earle joined us. We ordered drinks and the friend punched in selections on the remote jukebox console. Roy Orbison’s voice entered the room like a floating silk ribbon.
“My mother had his records,” I said to the friend.
“Your mother had good taste, Reno. That voice. And the hair. Black as melted-down record vinyl.”
Someone passed the duke a big bottle of soap solution, and he and Nadine took turns dragging on their cigarettes and then blowing huge, organ-shaped bubbles. The bubbles were filled with milk-white smoke from their cigarettes, quivering and luminous, floating downward as Thurman photographed them. The next table over wanted the soap. The duke blew one final bubble of plain lung air. It was clear and shiny, and everyone watched it as it drifted and sank, popping to nothing on the edge of our table.
“You chose this, didn’t you,” Thurman said to their friend as a new song came on.
It was “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the M.G.’s.
“It’s still a good song,” the friend said. “Even if it was stuck in my head for almost a decade.” He turned to me and said he’d been in jail. Not a decade, just thirty days.
I asked what for. He said for transporting a woman across state lines, and Nadine erupted in laughter. I smiled but had no sense of the coordinates, of what was funny and why.
“The Mann Act,” he said. “Impure intent: what is impure intent? I did some time. And then I was free but my head was jailed in this song, so it was like I did a lot more time.”
He hummed along with “Green Onions,” nodding his head.
“At first, it wasn’t so bad. ‘Green Onions’ was this special secret. Something I was hiding, like a pizza cutter up my sleeve. I was pulling one over on them, jamming out to ‘Green Onions’ while my fellow inmates were getting their cold shower, eating their pimento loaf, reading letters from women who wanted husbands on a short leash. A really short leash. The men wrote back to these lonely women and did push-ups and waited for the women to come a-courting on visitors day, with their fried chickens and their plucked eyebrows.”
He had helped the other inmates write their letters to the women. “ ‘Reach out to your loved ones, thirty-nine cents,’ a sign in the common room said. You got an envelope, paper, and a stamp. These guys would be working away with a little pencil like they give you for writing down call numbers at the public library. ‘How do you spell pussy?’ they’d ask. ‘How do you spell breasts?’ ‘Does penis have an i in it?’ ”
“What was the pizza cutter for?” Nadine asked.
“For cutting pizza, sweet Nadine.” He gave her a puppy-dog smile. “When I got out, I thought, Okay, unlike a lot of my friends, I know what the inside of a prison is like. Most people don’t even know what the outside of a prison is like. They’re kept so out of sight. You only know signs on the highway warning you in certain areas not to pick up hitchers. While I know about confinement and boredom and midnight fire drills. Amplified orders banging around the prison yard like the evening prayer call from the mosques along Atlantic Avenue. I know pimento loaf. Powdered eggs. Riots. The experience of being hosed down with bleach and disinfectant like a garbage can. I know about an erotics of necessity.”
“Oh, baby,” the Duke of Earle said.
“There’s something in that. You think you’re one way—you know, strictly into women. But it turns out you’re into making do.”
“I am going to melt,” the duke said, “just puddle right in this booth. I had no idea—”
“I don’t want to disappoint you, Duke,” the friend said, “but I’d have to be in prison, and I don’t plan on going back.”
His arm was around me. I was in the stream that had moved around me since I’d arrived. It had moved around me and not let me in and suddenly here I was, at this table, plunged into a world, everything moving swiftly but not passing me by. I was with the current, part of it, regardless of whether I understood the codes, the shorthand, of the people around me. Not asking or needing to know kept me with them, moving at their pace.
“When you get released, they dump you in Queens Plaza at four a.m. Guys are darting in and out of the doughnut shop, wedded in some deep way to prison cafeteria code, drinking coffee, holding a doughnut in a greasy bag like they’ve got a bomb, strutting, but unsure who they’re strutting for, now that there’s no guard, no warden, no cell mate. They are just random dudes in Queens Plaza, wonderfully, horribly free. That same hour of the night women and children line up in midtown to get bused out to Rikers for visitors’ day. Buses letting out felons here, collecting visiting-day passengers there, while most people are sleeping. The prisons must stay hidden geographically, and hidden in time, too.
“After I got out,” he said, “I was incredibly happy. Freedom after confinement is different from plain freedom, which can sometimes be its own sort of prison. The problem was ‘Green Onions.’ Weeks turned to months and it hung around. That surging rhythm was always in my head and I mean always.”
He hummed it. “It woke me up in the middle of the night, like someone had turned up the volume and there I was, lying in the dark listening to the tweedling ‘Green Onions’ organ riff, waiting for the guitar parts to cut in, stuck inside its driving rhythm, this groovy song boring out the canals of my brain. It was so unfair, because I had paid my debt to society.”
“Green Onions” came on again, for I think the third time, and it felt to me that the whole room was conspiring in some kind of hoax. The friend hummed enthusiastically.
“If you had to hear it for ten whole years,” I said, laughing, figuring if I laughed openly, he would stop putting me on, “how can you stand to listen to it now?”
“Because you have to know your enemies,” he said. “How can you fight if you don’t know what you’re up against? Who are your enemies?”
I said I didn’t know.
Later we danced. My arms were around his neck, his Marsden Hartley T-shirt clinging to his broad shoulders in the heat and sweat of the bar. I had not kissed him but knew I would, and he knew that I knew, and there was a kind of mutual joy in this slide into inevitability, never mind that I didn’t know his name or if anything he said was true.
“You’re pretty,” he said, brushing my hair away from my face.
How did you find people in New York City? I hadn’t known this would be how.
“They could put your face on cake boxes,” he said.
“Until you show that gap between your teeth. Jesus. It sort of ruins your cake-box appeal. But actually, it enhances a different sort of appeal.”
Some women wouldn’t want a man to speak to them that way. They’d say, “What kind of appeal do you mean?” or “Go fuck yourself.” But I’m not those women, and when he said it, my heart surged a little.
The hotel, it turned out, was the Chelsea. I don’t know whose room it was, maybe it was Nadine’s, a room that Thurman got for her. There was the sense that Thurman helped her out when he felt like it and that perhaps she was out on the street when he didn’t. We were drinking from a bottle of Cutty Sark, and Nadine was not, it turned out, Thurman’s wife. From a phone pulled into the hallway he spoke with his actual wife, Blossom, or maybe he just called her that, not at all tenderly, a nasal “Blossom, I will call you in the morning.” He enunciated each word like the sentence was a lesson the wife was meant to memorize and repeat. “In the morning. I will call you tomorrow, after I’ve had my Sanka.” Which sent Nadine into hysterics. “Sanka! After he’s had his Sanka!”
After he got off the phone, Thurman seemed energized by a new wildness, as if the compromise of the phone call had to be undone with behavior that Blossom, wherever she was, might not approve of. He put on a Bo Diddley record with the volume turned all the way up, and when it began to skip he pulled it from the turntable and threw it out the window. He put on another record, a song that went “There is something on your mind,” over and over, with this clumsy but sexy saxophone hook. At the friend’s suggestion, I danced with Thurman. He smelled like aftershave and cigarettes and hair tonic. There was something synthetic and unnatural about him, the way his hair formed a perfect wave and the crispness of his fitted suit, clothing that kept him who he was, a person of some kind of privilege, through whatever degraded environment or level of drunkenness.
There is something on your mind
By the way you look at me
The friend was dancing with Nadine. Her arms were slung around his neck, her strawberry hair over his shoulder. She pressed her hips against him, and he pressed back.
There is something on your mind, honey
By the way you look at me
Watching their bodies make contact, I wished we could trade partners.
“Well, look at that,” Thurman said. “Take your eye off her for just a minute—”
I felt him fumble for something in his suit jacket. Nadine and their friend turned as a unit, slowly one way and then the other.
Before I understood what it was Thurman had retrieved from his coat pocket, something body-warm, heavy, he was aiming it at them, at the friend and Nadine, who danced to the slow rhythm of the song, pressed together and unaware. I heard a click. He was pointing it at them. A deafening bang ripped through me.
The friend laughed and asked for the gun and Thurman tossed it in his direction. The friend opened it and took out the bullets and inspected them.
“Blanks,” he said, and gave it back to Thurman, who grabbed Nadine by the neck in mock violence and stroked the front of her dress up and down with the gun barrel. It seemed a stupid and ridiculous gesture, but she took it seriously and even moaned a little like it turned her on.
I remembered hearing someone back in Reno say that blanks could kill a person. Thurman put the gun in a cabinet and brought out a new bottle of Cutty Sark. He poured us fresh drinks and then played “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” on the little electric piano that was in the room. The friend took me up to the roof of the building and narrated the New York skyline. “It’s up here on roofs where all the good stuff is taking place,” he said. “Women walking up the sides of buildings, scaling vertical facades with block and tackle,” he said. “They dress like cat burglars, feminist cat burglars. Who knows? You might become one, even though you’re sweet and young. Because you’re sweet and young.”
“What are you, some kind of reactionary?” I said.
“No,” he said. “I’m giving you tips. But actually, the roofs are somewhat last year. Gordon Matta-Clark just cut an entire house in half. It’s going to be tough to beat that. What now, Reno? What now?”
Back downstairs, Thurman barged into the bathroom while Nadine was peeing, for some reason not in the toilet but in the bathtub. He looked at her, sitting on the edge of the tub with her minidress pushed up.
“You know what I love more than anything?” he said.
“What?” she asked, with quiet reverence, as if the whole evening were a ritual enacted in order to arrive at this moment, when he would finally tell her what he really loved.
“I love crazy little girls.” He grabbed her and hoisted her over his shoulder, her underpants still around her ankles. Carried her into the bedroom and shut the door.
“You know what they do?” the friend said. “They shoot each other with that gun. In the crotch. Bang. Pow. It makes your eardrums feel ripped in half the next day.”
“Isn’t that dangerous?” I asked.
“Of course. That’s why they do it.”
The gun went off. Nadine shrieked with laughter. The telephone in the room began ringing.
The friend and I sat quietly, either waiting for the next gunshot or for the phone to stop ringing, or for something else.
“Hey,” he said. “Hey, Reno. Come here.”
But I was already right next to him.
We kissed, his pretty mouth soft and warm against mine, as the phone kept ringing.
When we’d finally lain down on my bed, the early sun over the East River filling my apartment with gold light, I told him I didn’t want to know his name. I didn’t think much about it. I just said it. “I don’t even want to know your name.”
He was wearing the brown Borsalino I’d found at the bar near my house. He took it off and put it on the floor next to my mattress, peeled off his homemade Marsden Hartley T-shirt, and pinned me down gently.
My heart was pounding away.
“I don’t want to know yours, either,” he said, scanning my face intently.
What was he looking for? What did he see?
What transpired between us felt real. It was real: it took place. The things I’d heard and witnessed that evening, their absurdity, were somehow acknowledged in his dimples, his smirk, his gaze. The way he comically balled up the Marsden Hartley T-shirt and lobbed it across the room like a man fed up with shirts once and for all. Surveyed the minimal room, nodding, as if it were no surprise, but information nonetheless that he was taking in, cataloguing. And then surveying me, my body, nodding again, all things confirmed, understood, approved of. And us, two people without names but as entwined as two people could be.
I had followed the signs with care and diligence: from Nina Simone’s voice, to the motorcycle, to the Marsden Hartley shirt. All the way through the night, to the gun and now this: a man in my room who seemed to hold keys to things I’d imagined Chris Kelly would unlock had I found him. I never did.
When I woke up in the late morning, he was gone. The day was mid stride, full heat, full sun. My head pounded weakly. I was tired, hungover, disoriented. The brown felt Borsalino was gone, and I remembered that I had wanted him to have it, had told him to have it.
I sat on the fire escape. It was Sunday. Down below, the limousine drivers were in front of the little Mafia clubhouse, waiting next to a long line of black cars. They looked sweaty and miserable and I envied them. To wait by a car and know with certainty that your passenger would appear. To have such purpose on that day.
I had said something embarrassing about the Borsalino being already his, that it had been waiting for him in my apartment. I was doing that thing the infatuated do, stitching destiny onto the person we want stitched to us. But all of that—me as Reno, he as nameless, his derelict friends against whom we bonded, and yet without whom I never would have met him—all of it was gone.
I had said I didn’t want to know his name and it wasn’t a lie. I had wanted to pass over names and go right to the deeper thing.
Rain fell. Every day, heavy rain, and I sat in my apartment and waited for sirens. Just after the rain began, there were always sirens. Rain and then sirens. In a rush to get to where life was happening, life and its emergencies.
Do you understand that I’m alone? I thought at the unnamed friend as I stood in the phone booth on Mulberry Street, the sky gray and heavy, the street dirty and quiet and bleak, as a woman’s voice declared once more that I’d reached a number that had been disconnected.
It was just one night of drinking and chance. I’d known it the moment I met him, which was surely why I was enchanted in the first place. Enchantment means to want something and also to know, somewhere inside yourself, not an obvious place, that you aren’t going to get it.