Issue 65, Spring 1976
I suppose you would have to call our apartment cozy. Two and a half rooms in a basement on Fourth Street, where the coats and the roaches mingle freely in the bathtub, the sink works often as not and the people wash their feet in the toilet. Cozy but not sanitary. Our few friends affectionately call the place Ward #3, but it is officially known as apartment 3. For the moment I am considered the responsible person in the apartment because I am the only one with a job. The fact that this job is night managing the Red Barn, supervising the greaseburgers and the soybean milkshakes, does not seem to disturb anyone here, although my constant inability to hold a job for more than a month is a little more of an apartment concern.
That the four of us ever got together is a mystery to me, that we are still living in the same apartment is more of a miracle or a catastrophe, depending on the day of the week. There is Andy Meltzer, formerly one of the youngest violinists in the New York Philharmonic, later a violinist in a Hollywood movie orchestra, and currently one of the foremost fiddlers in the New York subway system; Josh Wyman, a tall, bleached-blonde gigolo, who spends his working hours in the lobbies of Atlantic City hotels; and Janice Kasoff, whose only claim to fame is that since she has been living with three males she has become a very straightforward lesbian.
I first met Janice when she was serving drinks at the Lime-light Cafe, and one night we got to talking after I had lost my job at the Eighth Street Bookstore and she offered to let me stay with her for a while. She was very sympathetic, almost motherly, and somehow we got involved with each other. Sleeping on the same bed had something to do with it. I moved in permanently, and then, when I was no longer interesting to her (for reasons I am still not certain), instead of asking me to move out, she asked others to move in, to help her pay the rent. She could have made more responsible choices, but not, apparently given the company she keeps. So here we all are, sleeping on one king-size mattress, very little going on between us, doing occasional battle with insomnia and cold feet. Every once in a while we hear one big sigh, almost coming out of the mattress, a sigh of relief that we’ve made it through another day.
What distinguished the day I stopped sleeping with Janice from other days is hard to say. I remember getting home from work (this time as a runner in the Forty-second Street library) and finding Andy (although I didn’t find out his name was Andy until later) in bed with Janice, not doing anything but talking. Although the bed is the apartment’s only real piece of furniture, this did not stop me from being a little taken back, even shocked. I fought every bourgeois impulse in my body to keep myself from saying, “What the hell is going on here?” and instead just sat on the mattress and joined in the conversation, finding Andy pleasant enough if not overwhelmingly interesting. Janice and I had never discussed the assumptions of our relationship because there simply weren’t any, but when I saw Andy on the bed I began to feel we needed some. I asked her to come out into the hall for a moment, and then asked her what was going on.
“Is he an old friend of yours or something?”
“No, I just met him today. On the IRT. He was playing a lovely Bach partita.’
“Is he going to stay for dinner?”
“No, he’s going to live with us.”
Somehow I had expected it all along. “Is there something I’ve done?” I’m ready to let myself in for anything. “Was I becoming too possessive?”
“No, you were becoming too boring.”
“I see. You want me to go?”
“Not as long as you’re willing to split the rent. What attracted me to Andy, aside from his beautiful playing, was the seventeen dollars plus I saw lying in his violin case. I got fired from my modeling job today. The instructor said they were going to do still-lifes for the rest of the term.”
I could think of nothing else to say. I remember being scared to death that first night the three of us slept in bed, with plenty of room but not able to dare touch Janice, and the second night wanting to try anyway but discovering Andy fondling Janice’s breasts while she stared at the ceiling, and the third night when nothing happened I began to forget about our intimacy, as though I were sleeping in some kind of decompression chamber. And while I feared I could not sleep in the same bed with them while they were making love, it turned out, when it did happen once, I could, and I was fascinated and horrified at the same time, like a man allowed to witness his own funeral. And I found out that everybody does it primarily the same way, that neither Andy nor I had anything special to offer in the way of lovemaking. It never happened again, so I assume it must not have been all that terrific.
Of course it occurred to me that I should get out, that our living conditions were far from ideal, that I had never been able to take all that stress, but what did not occur to me was where I could get out to; my occupational status was even more precarious than Janice’s, and in reality there wasn’t a person in New York I knew well enough to move m with, even for a short time. So instead I called a meeting of the three of us one night when we all managed to be around at dinner time, and I suggested that there was a way we could eliminate some of the chaos around the apartment. It would not be a bad idea, I said, since we were all living together, it we started sharing some responsibilities.
“What responsibilities?” Janice sneered.
“I can see you’re basically an anarchist,” I said. “We could plan meals, divide expenses more efficiently, clean the place up, arrange to be away if someone wanted to bring someone over, and so on.”
“I can see you’re basically an idiot,” she said. “There s nothing wrong with the way we do things around here, at least as far as I’m concerned.”
“I don’t give a shit,” Andy said.
“We don’t have enough money to pay last month’s rent, for one thing,” I said. “If we could get some of our priorities straight, I don’t see why we couldn’t manage.”
Janice became furious and turned to Andy.“How much have you been pocketing out of your take? Honestly, you make me so mad, Andy, I take you off the streets and you cheat me out of the goddamn rent money.”
“Janice, what are you so angry about?” I said. “Sometimes I can’t believe how rotten you can be to people.”
“I guess that’s just because I’m a castrating bitch,” she said and walked out, slamming the door melodramatically behind her.
“Well, there goes your communal living,” Andy said. “Why don’t you leave her alone? We’ll manage somehow.”
“How much did you spend on that Zuckerman concert last week, Andy?”
“Forget it. Mister Military. You’re not making enough money to balance my books.”
For a couple of days none of us spoke to one another. Janice slept on the floor, restless and without a blanket, and I tried to think of something we could do to pay the rent. But then Janice arrived with Josh, who had tried to hustle her in front of the Saint Marks Cinema. “I usually get twenty-five for the act itself,” he said as he walked in the door, “and forty for the entire night. But I can see you’re pressed, so I’d take twenty and run.” And then, after looking at us, he added, “Unless there are going to be spectators. Then the price goes up accordingly.”
“Take it easy, pretty boy, I’d never sleep with a guy who bleaches his hair. But I have a proposition to make. How would you like a permanent base of operations? Where were you planning to sleep tonight?”
“I was planning to make a hit for the night. In fact I’m still planning to.”
“Wouldn’t it make sense for you to have a real place to stay? Twenty-five dollars a month for everything? You could make that with one half-hour grunt.”
“You’ve really hit bottom, Janice,” Andy said, shaking his head.
“No thanks,” Josh said. “You just made me lose a good hour of street time.”
But three days later Josh came back with a handful of books and a large collection of cosmetics. “Sometimes the city is real slow,” he said. “And I need a place to relax. I work too hard.” For two weeks Andy refused to speak to him.
If I had counted on history I would have realized way in advance that I was not destined to be a junior executive at Red Barn. What I did not think about when I took the job was the basic impossibility of motivating a bunch of pimply teenagers to work when their parents had forced them to get a job and they hated every moment of cooking, cleaning and serving in their waking life. One night an assistant Mr. Red Barn himself came in to inspect the premises while I was providing the employees with my usual deluge of obscenities; what I did not know was that hamburger kings have principles, that I couldn’t expect to serve sterile malteds and little fish fries and have a filthy mind at the same time. And I knew after I’d said, “Get those miceburgers rolling,” I had buried myself beyond apology.
What bothers me, I suppose, is given that I can’t hold a job like this, what job could I hold? And what would happen to me if I just stopped looking? That explains my willingness to trek to the hinterlands of Queens for the Red Barn; and if I walked through the old sites and abandoned exhibitions of the old World’s Fair, it was because I secretly hoped I would get mugged. What I really wanted to see was the desperate face of the junkie opening up my wallet and finding it absolutely empty. It would be more satisfying than looking in the mirror.
When I got home to tell everyone I’d been fired, Janice gave me a look that let me know I was absolutely, hopelessly pathetic, and she turned away from me indignantly. It was a look I had seen on her face only once before, and both times it made me shiver. The other time we had gotten free tickets to, of all things, a hockey game, and surprisingly enough to both of us, we went. And even more surprising, we screamed and yelled for blood like all the rest of the fans, almost in spite of ourselves. I threw Janice’s hat into the rink, and Janice pushed some adolescent who was rooting for the visiting Blackhawks. When the Rangers lost, we got depressed beyond reason. We went home and made love mournfully. The next morning, when I came to my senses, I told Janice I never wanted to go to a hockey game again. I didn’t like what it did to me. That’s when Janice gave me that look. “It did what it did to you; why don’t you let yourself enjoy it?”
“Because it’s horrible, that’s why. It brought out the worst in both of us.”
“You’re a sad case,” she said. “You wouldn’t know the worst in both of us if it stared you in the face. I’d never let myself get involved with someone like you. I mean that.” And the next week Janice went to a hockey game by herself.
When Janice threatens to throw me out unless I come up with my share of last month’s rent. Josh generously offers to take me with him to Atlantic City, and I, for some reason, accept his offer. So we take an afternoon bus down and sit in the lobby of the Richmond Hotel, which reminds me of 1940: the faint odor of mildew, the overstuffed chairs, the faded oriental rugs. It is the kind of place where you’d expect to see only geriatrics and degenerates, but it turns out that the majority of the guests are semi-wealthy Jewish widows and divorcees who take their vacations in Atlantic City either because their parents used to take them there or because they have nowhere else to go. Josh is sitting back in his chair smoking a cigarette and I am nervously watching him. Finally a woman comes over to him and asks, “How have you been. Josh ? Are you ready for an evening on the town ?”
“I’m always ready, Ellie, but I brought a friend along tonight.” Ellie looks in my direction as if noticing me for the first time. “Do you think we could find a lovely for him? From what I hear he’s very good.”
“Don’t look at me,” she says. “I don’t want to break in a new one.”
“Well, champ,” Josh says, getting up from his chair, “I’ll be back in a couple of hours. If someone comes up to you be very nonchalant about it. If not, start hustling the cocktail lounge. By nine, if they haven’t found what they want, they’re either ready to get drunk out of their minds or try anything.”
After Josh leaves me I of course feel foolish, and of course no one comes up to me. In spite of the ridiculous situation, I feel somehow rejected. I must look inexperienced. But I know I can’t back out, not unless I want to be thrown out of the apartment. And besides, I have a round-trip bus fare invested in the project, so I know I’d better come up with something.
When Josh hasn’t returned by ten-thirty, I do go into the bar and nurse a beer with my remaining change. My inability to be aggressive is very disturbing and it must show. Finally sometime after eleven a woman around forty-ish comes up to me and says, “Why the moping? Performance bad or business slow?”
“Oh,” I say, trying to keep my voice at an even pitch, “I’m just sitting here.”
“Oh,” she nods, “I’m just sitting here too. Would you like to sit up in my room? I just love to sit with strange-looking men.”
“Thanks,” I say.
“Thanks yes, or thanks no?”
She turns to the bartender. “A pint of Gordon’s and a six-pack of tonic, Jim.” Then she looks at me. “Is that OK?”
“It beats Schlitz.”
“Damn right,” she smiles. “Don’t be so nervous. I have no diseases and I come from a long line of good families.
Somehow she manages to make me feel comfortable. When we get into her room I am surprised to find it’s not a flea trap, but that the furniture is antiseptically modern, almost like a dormitory. There is a painting of the Steel Pier over the bed and the usual tourist information under the glass-top desk. The room is painted and not wallpapered as I had expected.
“My name is Marion. How can I put you at ease? Should we talk? Do you have time?”
“I have all night.”
“Good. What do you do during the week?”
“Right now, nothing. I used to hold a very responsible position at the Red Barn before I was heard swearing in front of the customers.”
“No, the Red Barn is no joke.”
“I’ll say. But I had you pegged as a college-type. Dropout, maybe, but definitely the type.”
“You were right.”
“But now you’re living the underground life, right? It’s more romantic.”
“It’s more nothing. I don’t know what I’m doing any more than you do, although it’s probably pretty simple. Like it’s impossible for me to hold a job.”
“Oh you’re so dark. If I were the night manager of the Red Barn I probably wouldn’t be able to hold a job either.”
“That wasn’t a compliment. You’re way too grim. Let’s talk about me. What do you suppose I’m like?”
“Well, let’s see. You must be lonely, unsatisfied, frustrated and generally miserable. And you probably don’t have all your own teeth.”
“True, I don’t have all of my own teeth. All the rest is false.”
“You like the seashore.”
“False. I like to get away from New York and meet new men.”
“Aren’t there enough men in New York?”
“Only the ones I work for, and they are notable only for their lack of attractiveness. Listen, we should talk more and I haven’t even poured you a drink. Could we go to bed first?”
She doesn’t even wait for me to answer before she starts taking off her blouse. Her body is still attractive, more so perhaps because of the way she carries herself. Only now she makes me nervous because she is so accomplished, as though she were the prostitute and I were going to have my first sexual experience. The reversal is impossible to deal with. Moreover she is good in bed, there is no reason why she could not be living with a man and making him happy. Any man. Me.
But afterwards she is so tired she falls asleep in my arms. “We got a late start,” she says. “Why don’t you take fifty dollars out of my purse? Unless you can stay the night.”
Her trust is difficult to understand. I want to tell her fifty dollars is too much, I haven’t done anything. I should be paying her, I’d like to talk. When I wake up in the morning she is gone. There is fifty dollars on the dresser, and a note. “Thanks,” it says. “I hope I’ll see you again. You were very nice. Almost innocent. Marion.”
When I get into the lobby Josh is sitting down reading a newspaper; he breaks out into a smile when he sees me coming out of the elevator. “So that’s where you’ve been,” he says. “I was beginning to think you’d taken the midnight bus home.” When I say nothing he asks, “Was it a beast?”
“No, actually she was pretty terrific. I think I love her.” We both laugh for an unreasonable amount of time, drawing attention to ourselves. In the morning the lobby is full of a different kind of clientele, the older people you would expect. They sit here reading newspapers, looking out windows, limping about with or without their canes, smelling the way you would expect old people to smell. I feel very uncomfortable and tell Josh I would like to leave.
“Do you think you’ll ever come back?” he asks.
“If I don’ t get a job I probably might.”
“I wouldn’t get a job,” he says. “I just made a hundred bucks last night.”
“I know,” I say, “but there’s no future in it.”
I finally found a job that lasted more than a month. Six weeks, to be exact, as a psychological testee for the space program. And this time nobody terminated it, the experiment simply ended. The experiment went as follows: first six of us were closed in the same room for a period of a week, then, they studied us individually for another week to test how we had responded to the environment and to one another. Then we went back into the same room for another week. We knew each other by letter only (I was Q, and the other letters were A, G, L, R and Y), in order to protect ourselves in case we did anything embarrassing, which, as it turned out, we did. The purpose of the experiment was to see how enclosure affected group dynamics. My guess is that if they followed our experiment closely, they would never leave the earth again.
Of course the sampling was very strange. Only weird or desperate people would volunteer for such an experiment, and all of us looked slightly more deranged than your average space employee. We began by being very cordial to one another, almost flirtatious, but that broke down by the second day. One of the women, G, took off her clothes before she went to sleep. R said this disturbed him to no end, that given the circumstances it was unnatural and made it difficult for him to get to sleep. G said that was his problem, that it was her body and she was free to deal with it in the way she wanted, and that if she had to worry about every neurotic in the world before she did something she’d never do anything. Y took her side immediately and by the fourth night they were making love on G’s bed, noisily and arrogantly. Although I sympathized with G’s assertion, somehow I identified with the victim, R, and stayed up with him when he couldn’t sleep. I told him it was impossible to control other people’s behavior, no matter how much we might want to.
“What are you talking about?” he said. “I live here too. If we’re going to have to live together we’re going to have to be thoughtful of each other.”
“What does being thoughtful mean?” another letter asked. “That no one can do what he or she wants?”
“Maybe since we don’t know what thoughtful means, it will be easier to slit each other’s throats,” R said.
“Maybe it will,” Y said.