Manhattan was burning up that Bicentennial summer, and those without air conditioners, those who could not buy refuge in the cinemas or bars, were driven into the streets. Far into the spangled night, welling up from the muggy cross streets and streaming avenues, came the noise of tape-deck anthems, revving motorcycles, breaking bottles, dogs, horns, cats in heat, bag ladies getting holy, and children going off the deep end.
I was beginning a new life. I was still on the Upper West Side, but every change of address within the 13.2 square miles of Manhattan was, back then, before I knew better, a hymn to starting over. So, two rooms with splintered, softwood floors and walls the dingy, off-white color of a boy’s jockey shorts after scout camp; two rooms at 262 West 95th Street in a small, shaggy building of only two apartments, rooms sanctified by rent stabilization.
The old brick held the mean heat, sun streaked through the windows and lit up the smoky dust that hung in the air. The pipes leaked, the doors were warped, spider webs formed intricate designs in the corners. The oven and refrigerator refused to work on days that were not prime numbers. In the mornings paint dropped from the ceiling like debris idly flung into traffic from an overpass. The bathroom tiles had buckled and the cracks in the plaster resembled outlines of fiords in a map of Norway. Roaches? O yes, the totemic guerrillas of urban homesteading were there.
None of this mattered. I was unpacking boxes of secondhand and overdue library books, fondling dirty envelopes of tattered letters, hitting my shins on milk crates of blackened pots, tarnished flatware, and chipped Limoges plates. In the new ascetic life I imagined I would not need much. I was not made for keeping up the perfect kitchen for the right sort of dinner party, not equal to the task of digging up that intriguing print for the gleaming, glossy-white vestibule. I was through with telephone madness at 5 PM—that calling and calling to find someone home while a tray of ice melts on the thrift store table. And the nights of the wide bed, of the mattress large enough to hold the combat of two, were definitely over. The seediness into which I had slid held the promise of a cleansing, monastic routine.
My rear window looked out on a mews, on Pomander Walk, a strand of two-story row houses done in a mock-Tudor style. The shutters and doors were painted blue, green, or red. The hedges were prim and tidy. Boxes of morning glories completed the scene. An odd sight, unexpected, anachronistic, I thought of it as a pocket of subversion against the tyranny of the grid and the tower. But Pomander Walk’s claims were modest, as were its proportions—a mere sideshow of a lane that ran north and south, from 95th Street to 94th Street. Its survival probably had something to do with its being in the middle of the block, not taking up too much room, and that it was family property.
A little street in the London suburb of Chiswick was celebrated in the play Pomander Walk, first produced in 1911. I was told that an Irish-American restaurateur was so charmed by it that he brought the designer over to help build a replica of the set. That is what he got—a set. It was built in 1921, a rather late, unhistorical-sounding date. When Pomander Walk was finished the land immediately west of it was virginal, undeveloped. Residents had a clear view of thick treetops down to the Hudson River. Perhaps then it was close in mood to the ideals of the City Beautiful period, to the harmony of Hampstead Way or Bedford Park. Perhaps not. This was a mirage inspired by haphazard Chiswick, not by an architect’s vision of a utopian commuter village.
I was disappointed to learn that Pomander Walk had always been apartments. I thought each structure had originally been a house and, like those of Belgravia, they had been violated, cut up, humbled by the high cost of living well. Pomander Walk harbored high-ceilinged efficiencies “intended for and first occupied by theatrical people,” the WPA Guide to New York City reported in 1939. In the Twenties, so the lore went, it was a pied-à-terre for the likes of the Gish sisters, Katharine Hepburn, and Dutch Schultz. Bootleggers threw scandalous parties at which guests refused to remove their homburgs.
Pomander Walk had seen better days. The sentry boxes were empty. The caretaking staff had been reduced to two elusive Poles, the apartments themselves were in various stages of decay, and behind the valiant façades, in the passageways between the tombs of West End Avenue and the cheap clothing stores of Broadway, were fire escapes grim as scaffolds and mounds of garbage through which chalk-white rats scurried. These were the days before gentrification—where is the gentry?—before the ruthless renovations that would turn entire neighborhoods into a maze of glass, chrome, exposed brick, polished blond oak, and greedy ferns.
Pomander Walk had become a kind of fortress, as it had to be, surrounded as it was, like the enclaves of early Christian merchants in the Muslim ports of the Levant. Pomander Walk struggled against the tone of the blocks swarming around it. High iron gates at either end of the lane, at the steps that led down to the streets, spoke of a different order. “Do Not Enter.” “Private Property.” A peeling red rooster kept vigil over the main entrance. The fields sloping down to the Hudson were long gone. Sandwiched between dour, conventional buildings, Pomander Walk seemed an insertion of incredible whimsy and brought to mind Rem Koolhaas’s phrase in Delirious New York, “Reality Shortage.”
During my vacant hours I fed my curiosity about the inhabitants of that pastoral, pretentious, Anglophile fantasy. The tenants were mostly women. I imagined that they were widows surviving on pensions or on what their husbands had managed to put aside, and that there were a few divorcées sprinkled among them, the sort not anxious to define themselves by respectable jobs with obscure art galleries. Their custom, on those hot afternoons, before, as I supposed, trips to married sons at the Jersey Shore, was to leave their electric fans and gather on the stoops. They sat on newspapers, pillows, or lawn chairs for cocktails. Sometimes large, festive deck umbrellas appeared.
The women got along well with the blond or near-blond actors and dancers who lived in warring pairs in some of the smaller apartments. The artists, when they came out in tight shorts for a little sun, joined with the women in discouraging intruders from looking around. No, they said, there were no flats available and the waiting list was as long as your arm. Defenders of the faith. I kept the frayed curtain over my rear window drawn after some tourists, as nonleaseholders were called, stepped up to the bars and, seeing me, a black fellow struggling with a can of tuna fish, asked, “Are you the super?”
Once upon a time I was morbidly sensitive about the impertinence born of sociology. Taxi drivers would not stop for me after dark, white girls jogged to keep ahead of my shadow thrown at their heels by the amber street lamps. Part of me didn’t blame them, but most of me was hurt. I carried props into the subway—the latest Semlotext(e), a hefty volume of the Frankfurt School—so that the employed would not get the wrong idea or, more to the point, the usual idea about me. I did not want them to take me for yet another young black prole, though I was exactly that, one in need of a haircut and patches for my jeans. That Bicentennial summer I got over it. I remembered a gentleman of the old school who, after Johns Hopkins and Columbia, said his only ambition had been to sink into the lower classes. By the time I knew him he had succeeded and this gentle antique lived out his last days among harmless drunkards at a railroad yard in Norfolk, Virginia. I resolved to do the same, as if, away from Mama and Papa, I had been anywhere else.
As a matter of fact I had been sinking for some time. First stop downward: a bookshop. Not the supermarket variety where women phoned in orders for two yards of books, repeating specifications of height and color, completely indifferent to title. Not one of the new boutiques where edgy Parisian slang skipped over the routine murmur. But a “used” bookshop, one of those holes in the wall where solitude and dust took a toll on the ancient proprietor’s mental well-being, much like the health risks veins of coal posed to miners. That summer, unable to pay the rising rent, the owner gave up, wept openly at the auction of his stock. Next stop: office temp (let go). Waiter (fired). Telephone salesman (mission impossible). Then I found my calling—handyman. The anonymity of domestic service went well with the paranoid vanity of having a new and unlisted phone number.
I should have advertised my services in The Westsider. Even so, I lucked into a few appointments. Among my clients was an exalted bohemian on the upper reaches of Riverside Drive. I spent most of the day cleaning up after her impromptu séances. Two mornings a week I worked for a feminist psychologist who lived in one of the hives overlooking Lincoln Center. I walked her nasty Afghan hound, which was often woozy from pet tranquilizers; stripped the huge roll-top desk she hauled in not from the country but from Amsterdam Avenue. I was not allowed to play the radio and, in retaliation, I did not touch the lunch of tofu and carrot juice she left for me on the Formica counter. Then to Chelsea where I picked up dry cleaning for a furtive, youngish businessman. His mail consisted mostly of final notices from Con Ed, Ma Bell, and collection agencies in other states. I was certain that I was being tailed whenever I delivered one of his packages to the dubious factory outlets with which he had dealings. I made him pay me in cash.
One glaring morning someone I knew in publishing called to say that she knew of a woman who was getting on in years and in need of some help. The only thing Djuna Barnes required of her helper was that he not have a beard. I shaved, cut my hair, and fished out jacket and tie in spite of the heat, having been brought up to believe that I was not properly dressed unless I was extremely uncomfortable. I was so distracted that my socks did not match.
Miss Barnes lived in the West Village, just north of the old Women’s House of Detention, in a blind alley called Patchin Place. Shaded by ailanthus, a city tree first grown in India that in the days of the pestilence was believed to absorb “bad air,” the lime-green dwellings of Patchin Place had once been home to Dreiser, John Reed, E.E. Cummings, Jane Bowles, and John Mayfield. Through the intercom at no. 5 came a deep, melodious voice and after on anxiety-producing interrogation, I was buzzed in. I found the chartreuse door with its “Do Not Disturb” sign and, after another interrogation, it slowly opened.
The home of this “genius with little talent,” as T.S. Eliot said of Miss Barnes, was brutally cramped—one tiny, robin’s egg–blue room with white molding. The kitchen was such a closet that the refrigerator hummed behind French doors in a little pantry packed with ironing board, vacuum, boxes of faded cartes d’identité, linen, and, so my covetousness led me to think, hoarded Tchelitchew costume sketches. Great adventures, I was sure, awaited me in the clutter—bibelots on the mantel and side tables, picture frames on the floor turned toward the wall, shoeboxes under the fat wing chair. On either side of the fireplace were bookcases. Her low, narrow bed was flush against one of them. Two plain wooden desks dominated the dark room. Stacks of letters and papers had accumulated on them like stalagmites. Meticulously labeled envelopes warning “Notes on Mr. Eliot,” “Notes on Mr. Joyce” rested near a portable typewriter. The blank page in the Olivetti manual had browned.
The booming voice was deceptive. Miss Barnes was shrunken, frail. The Lazy Susan of medicines on the night table was so large that there was scarcely room for the radio, spectacles, and telephone. Her introductory remarks were brief. She came down hard on the point of my being there. “See that you don’t grow old. The longer you’re around the more trouble you’re in.” Miss Barnes had been old for so long that she looked upon herself as a cautionary tale. The first day of my employ I was told to see to it that I never married, never went blind, was never operated on, never found myself forbidden salt, sugar, tea, or sherry, and, above all, that I was never such a fool as to write a book.
Yet there was a hypnotic liveliness to her, moments when the embers of flirtatiousness flared. The thin white hair was swept back and held by two delicate combs. She wore a Moroccan robe trimmed in gold, opaque white stockings, and red patent-leather heels. Her eyes glistened like opals in a shallow pond and her skin was pale as moonlight. Her mouth was painted a moist pink, her jaw jutted forward, her bearing was defiant, angrily inquisitive. The tall, stylish eccentric of the Berenice Abbott and Man Ray photographs lived on somewhere inside the proud recluse who cursed her magnifying glass, her swollen ankles, overworked lungs, hardened arteries, and faulty short-term memory. “Damn, damn, damn,” she muttered.
My inaugural chore was to refill the humidifier. Under her scrutiny this task was far from simple. Her hands flew to her ears. “That’s too much water. We can’t have that.” Next Miss Barnes wanted me to excavate an unmarked copy of “Creatures in an Alphabet.” Stray pages were tucked here and there, none clean enough for her. She settled on one version of the poem, retreated to the bed, and set about crossing out the dedication. “Can’t have that. He ruined my picture.” The explanation of how some well-meaning soul had smudged a portrait when he tried to wash it gave way abruptly to a denunciation of modern pens, how they were not made to last. I gave her my Bic, told her to keep it. “Why thank you. Would you like to support me?” She sank into the pillows and laughed, dryly, ruefully, as one would at a private joke.
By some sorcery the laugh became a racking cough. She clutched a wad of tissues and coughed, coughed. I tried to help—water? A pill? She held up her hand for silence. The barking subsided. She sat for some time with head lowered, fists in her lap. Then she looked around, as if disappointed to find herself still in the same place. Fearing dizziness, she asked me to fetch her black handbag. She found the leather coin purse, from which she slowly extracted five one-dollar bills. She laid them on the bed in a fan shape and commanded me to “run along.” She pushed the pages of “Creatures in an Alphabet” away, like a patient trying to shove a tray of Jello and thin sandwiches from view. Miss Barnes was tired. Asking for a fresh copy of that poem was a symbolic gesture—she was no longer a writer at work. At least she had an air conditioner, I thought, as I closed the warm gate to the street and put a match to the cigarette I was not permitted to smoke in her presence.
I learned not to call and volunteer: Miss Barnes turned me aside with mandarin courtesy. I went when summoned, which was not often. If I arrived early she implied that the zeal of the young was inelegant, and if I came late, panting, she stated flatly that the young were hopelessly self-absorbed. Miss Barnes thought my given name, Darryl, with its contemporary dixie-cup quality, ridiculous, and my surname, Pinckney, with its antebellum echo, only barely acceptable. I had to admit that it had the goofiness of a made-up name. Delmore Schwartz, what a beautiful name! Delmore Schwartz is said to have exclaimed.
I went to the market—“What’s an old woman to eat, Mr. Pinckney, I ask you”—for bananas, ginger ale, coffee ice cream, hard rolls, and plums. “Not the red ones, the black ones. When they’re good, they’ve white specks on them.” I rushed out to the hardware store for pesticide and back again to exchange it for a brand to which she was not allergic. I went to the shoe repair and back again to have her black heels stretched even more. “I forgot. You’re young. Don’t mind running up and down the steps, do you?” And, of course, I stood on line at the pharmacy.
“I haven’t been out of this room in five years. You’d think I’d be climbing the walls, wouldn’t you?”
Miss Barnes was not above a little drama and I believed she exaggerated the extent of her isolation. She had a brother in Pennsylvania, a nephew or some such in Hoboken. Regularly her devoted “boy,” an East European in his sixties, came to wash the floors and walls. I had heard that two elderly gentlemen, her doctor and her lawyer, still climbed the stairs to pay their respects. There were romantic rumors—one had it that an heiress to the company that supplied paper to the US mint sometimes stepped from a great car to call on the friend of her expatriate youth. I hoped the radio was a comfort, that it filled her room with music, voices, but it was never on in my presence, during business hours, as it were.
She was reasonably informed about large events, seemed up on literary gossip. The TLS was stored in a basket like kindling, the light-blue wrappers unbroken. If she did not have much to say about the outside world, well, she had lived a long time. The ways in which most of us burned up daily life were, to her, pure folly. “What fools are the young.” I am sure Miss Barnes managed to do a great deal of wrangling by telephone. She had a combative, litigious streak, an outgrowth, perhaps, of the yearning to take hold, to fend for herself. Rights and permissions had become an obsession that filled the place once occupied by composition. She dismissed me before she dialed the number of some unsuspecting publisher.
It was bad manners to be too curious. Many had been banished. She spoke of one former helper as being “stupid as a telephone pole.” She fumed against one enterprising character who had insinuated himself into her confidence, gotten into her will “with both feet,” and then packed up cartons of treasure. She claimed to have been relentlessly ripped off, down to the monogrammed spoons, but I wondered about that since, evidently, she regarded the sale of her papers as a kind of theft. As for admirers, those pilgrims and would-be biographers who brought her “one bent rose from somebody’s grave,” she declared that they wanted her on 42nd Street standing on her head with her underwear showing. Some acolytes, she said, had taken advantage of her failing eyesight to smuggle out a souvenir or two. She complained that a bookstore in the vicinity had, without her consent, used the name her father had conjured up for her, and that when she called to protest the manager hung up on her.
Pessimism Miss Barnes wore as regally as a tweed suit and perhaps an early career as a reporter had taught her not to expect too much of the “hard, capricious star.” Everything and everyone came down to the lowest common denominator in the end. “Love is the first lie; wisdom the last.” The one time I was foolish enough to quote from her work she looked at me as if I had lost my mind. “Am I hard of hearing,” she screamed, “or do you mumble?” That was a break, the possibility she hadn’t heard. “You’re shy, aren’t you? Pretend that you aren’t.” I wanted to be different, to be one who did not ask about the cafés, the parties, Peggy Guggenheim, or her portrait of Alice Rohrer over the fireplace.
Her seclusion was a form of self-protection as much as it was a consequence of age. Even if she had been temperamentally capable of going off, like Mina Loy, and leaving everything to scavengers, it was too late. When Miss Barnes was on a roll, launched on a tirade fueled by grievance, her tiny figure seemed to expand and take up the whole room. The bold voice forced me into a corner, words came like darts. I had the feeling that the locksmith’s clumsy work stood for something larger, that it was simply an occasion for the release of fury. I nodded and nodded as she pointed to the scratches around the new cylinder in the door. “You mustn’t say ‘Oh really’ again, Mr. Pinckney.” Then the inevitable deflation, that rasping cough. I stood very still, like an animal waiting for a hunter to pass.
The temper had its source in the underground fire of physical pain. Once I was sent away minutes after slipping through the door because clearly she was having a rough day. Though Miss Barnes, like most old people, talked of her ailments—“I can’t breathe and I’m going blind. Damn.”—she did not want a stranger to witness her private struggles. She arranged five dollars on the bed and apologized for having ruined my Sunday. I told her that I admired her work, that coming to see her was one of my few joys. “You’re mad. You’re absolutely mad. Well, there’s nothing we can do about that.” I refused the money. Miss Barnes did not part with cash easily. In her life she had been broke and stranded more than once. My wage she regarded as wildly generous, a gift to, say, the United Negro College Fund, because she thought of dollars in terms of a prewar exchange rate. She insisted, gave me a bill to mail so that I would feel I had earned my pay. “I used to be like you. Not taking the money. It didn’t matter.” She wagged an index finger. “Make money. Stuff it in your boots, as Shakespeare said.” Behind me I heard the bolts slide across her door.
The summer unfolded like a soggy sheet and, except for Miss Barnes, my clients casually drifted away. I lived on an early birthday present from home but, somehow, I managed to get behind in the rent. I assured my parents that I was knocking on doors, sending out résumés, proving once again that if you nag your children they will lie to you. Days evaporated like spilled water on sizzling pavement. Rock bottom was not so bad and if sinking had not turned out to be as liberating as I had hoped, it was not without some consolations. The afternoons I traveled in humid subway cars from Pomander Walk to Patchin Place lifted me out of my torpor. The chance to see Miss Barnes struck me as an omen—but of what?
Fame was not much of a consolation to her. She was not rich, could not trade her name for much, and so reputation she treated as a joke—on herself mostly. “You may like the book but not the old girl.” Being a character, a survivor, made her one who had evacuated a large portion of her life, mindful of the clues carelessly left behind for detectives. “Would you believe I lived in Paris nine years and never learned a word of French?” Her memories, those she shared, had the quality of set pieces. Even when she talked of intimate matters there was something impersonal about it, and I wondered how many visitors had heard her say that she was never a lesbian, could never abide “those wet muscles” one had to love to love women; or that she was too much of a coward to take her own life.
A joke, yes, but not entirely. “No, don’t move those. I’m a vain woman. I want them near me.” Miss Barnes meant the translations, the various editions of Nightwood and Ryder. I was putting the bookshelf in order, not that it was needed. She was resistant to change: the autographed copy of Dag Hammarskjold’s Markings had to remain where it had been for ages, a red pocket edition of Dante was also happy where it was. “Mr. Eliot learned Italian just to read this poem. He must have liked it, don’t you think?”
I rescued a paperback, a biography of Natalie Barney, from under the bed. “Let me see that. Remy de Gourmont called her ‘the Amazon of love’ and she never got over it. That’s what you get, that’s what you end up looking like,” she, peering through her magnifying glass, said to a photograph showing Barney in later life. I broke my promise to myself and asked about Colette. “Yes, I knew that silly, blue-haired lady.” I got carried away and told Miss Barnes about a night at the opera when I, an undergraduate, just off the boat, was introduced to Janet Flanner. I mentioned to Miss Flanner that I too was from Indiana and she, taking in my costume of tan polyester suit, red, shiny tie, and platform shoes, answered: “I haven’t been back since 1921—and I would advise you to do the same.” Miss Barnes didn’t crack a smile: “Often she knew whereof she spoke.” I found yet another copy of Nightwood. “Sometimes I wonder, ‘Did I write this? How did I do it?’ Do it while you’re young, Mr. Pinckney. Put all of your passion in it.” She smiled.
But that was enough, not a syllable more. The shelves had to be swabbed down, and then the windows. So there I was, clinging to the fire escape, with Miss Barnes telling me over and over what a mess I was making. She leaned on the window sill, handed out bouquets of paper towels, pointed to the lint and suds left in the corners. She absolutely refused to hear my thoughts on investing in a sponge. “Don’t tumble into that Judas tree.” She groped her way back to the bed to prepare for another onslaught of coughing.
In the shelves of the bookcases were mysterious little phials solemn as votive candles. She said that they contained oxygen. They looked like cloudy, empty bottles to me. I had to wash them, all twenty-four of them. One lid got trapped in the drain. “Now you’ve done it.” I worked with a pair of scissors to pull it out. “Oh, you’ve done it now,” she repeated, swaying against the bathroom door, fretting with the collar of a pink, satinlike dressing gown. “Take down the trash and you may go.” The sad thing was realizing that there was really nothing I could do for her.
When I got the bright idea of devising a flow chart for her flotilla of pills—often she complained of headaches, of not knowing what to take when—she was offended. I argued that many of the prescriptions had been voided, that some of the tubes were empty, that it was amazing she could find anything in the jumble. We had a tug of war over a box of opium suppositories on which she depended for whatever peace she had. I made a little speech on obstruction, in the way one sometimes talks down to the elderly, on not being able to help if she didn’t let me. “I know what I’m about, thank you very much Mr. Pinckney!”
Miss Barnes ordered me to wash out a silk blouse in the sink. I said no. She started to say that she didn’t understand why blacks had become so touchy, caught herself, and said that she didn’t know why young men had such silly notions about what they considered women’s work. But I knew what she meant, knew it from the way she had swallowed the “knee” of “Negroes,” that despised word of her generation, knew it from the soft blush that spread like ink across the folds of her face. I don’t remember what I said, but I can still see the five dollars on the blue coverlet, Miss Barnes hunched over, her dressing gown slightly hitched up, she hitting her palms together slowly. I paused at the door—for an apology?—but she was too old to take anything back. She met my gaze with a look of her own, a flicker of bewilderment, then hard as a stone tablet. I walked out.
I went back to living in steerage at the edge of Pomander Walk. Families were staking out territory along the oily river to watch ships, couples were hiking with blankets and beer to fireworks, but I had other things on my mind. By nightfall, when bagpipes started up within Pomander Walk to commemorate the Queen’s walk down Wall Street to Trinity Church, the misunderstanding with Miss Barnes had assumed, to me, the magnitude of an incident.
In a punitive, self-righteous mood, I decided to “get” them all, to expose, as I termed it, the sins of Western literature. I set out the pens dipped in venom, the crisp, militant index cards. I turned up the flame under the pot of bitter Bustelo and started off, like a vigilante or a bounty hunter, in search of them. I was going to make Hemingway pay for the nigger boxer in Vienna in The Sun Also Rises. Fitzgerald was going to be called out for the Cadillac of niggers who rolled their eyes when they pulled up on the highway next to Gatsby.
I was going to get Dashiell Hammett for “darkie town,” and Evelyn Waugh, Ronald Firbank, even Carl Van Vechten. This was serious—no Julia Peterkin, Fannie Hurst, or Dubose Heyward. I was going to stick to the Dilseys and Joe Christmases. If Conrad had to go, so be it, Céline too for his scenes in Little Togo. Sweat dripped from my nose onto the index cards. The laughter boiling in the streets added to my sense of lonely mission.
I woke in my clothes determined to beat up poor Hart Crane for “Black Tambourine.” Not even William Carlos Williams was going to get off easy. The jig was up for Rimbaud’s sham niggers. Sins were everywhere: Katherine Mansfield in a letter spoke of one woman as “the sort to go with negroes.” I was going to let Shaw have it, show Sartre a thing or two about the aura of the text of Black Orpheus. How dare Daniel Deronda condescend to defend Caliban.
But by noon, thanks to hypoglycemia, I wasn’t sure that it mattered that in 1925 Virginia Woolf had come across a black man, spiffy in swallow tails and bowler, whose hands reminded her of a monkey’s. How far back would I have to go, to Pushkin’s Ibrahim or to the black ram tupping the white ewe? And to what purpose? Roussel’s Impressions d’Afrique didn’t even take place on earth, not really. Dinesen’s farm was real, but so what? What was done was done, though most of the “gothic horror” was far from over. “Let them talk. You know your name,” my grandfather used to say. I threw out the index cards. The motive for my note taking was pretty sorry: after leaving Miss Barnes I had fallen into the pit of trying to prove that there was more to me than she thought.
There was more to sinking, to being a handyman, to becoming a part of the streets around me, than I had thought. I had only to approach the surface of things, like a child coming too near the heat of a kitchen range, to discover that. Being in arrears made me afraid to meet anyone from Pomander Walk. I didn’t have the nerve to ask the caretakers to fix a faucet. I sold off some big books to keep the lights on. The curtain over my rear window stayed down. What companionship of the outside I had was provided by the view of 95th Street from my front windows. It was there that I sat on those penniless summer nights, watching the elderly across the street scrutinize me from their prisons. There was a parking lot belonging to a Salvation Army residence. Daily the employees dragged themselves to their horrible duties and in the evenings they exchanged gossip with the night shift before hurrying away. Sometimes, on Sundays, guilty families came to wheel their begetters into sleek sedans for useless outings.
It was a street on which anything could happen and a lot did happen. Sometimes the angry voices after midnight terrified me, as if a wife or a whore were being beaten at the foot of my bed. I gave up calling the police and got used to it. That accounted for Pomander Walk’s general fear of invasion. Between Riverside Drive and Central Park West, 95th Street was a no man’s land, a zone of foreign tongues and welfare tenements. There were enough stories of ivy being torn from the walls by vandals, of someone who had had her purse ripped from her arm by a fleet-footed phantom who could not have been more than fifteen. The chilling cry of “Motherfuckers! All y’all motherfuckers is gonna die!” was enough to send every light on Pomander Walk blazing, as if a whistle had been blown to alert the local militia.
The building directly across from me had the most unsavory of reputations. It was an SRO, a very dark, benighted affair embedded in a slope. I noticed that pedestrians crossed the street to my side rather than risk the building’s contagions that waited in ambush. A check-cashing joint occupied one of the rooms on the first floor and from the number of men coming in and out in their undershirts, wielding soiled paper bags from which the tops of wine or beer bottles were visible, I guessed that there was also a bookie joint somewhere inside. These men with missing teeth and shimmering hair who paced back and forth on the street, discussing their chances in that snapping, high-wire Spanish, made a strange tableau with the drag queens who also congregated outside the SRO.
The drag queens were impossible to miss, impossible not to hear. Hour on hour they milled around the entrance, dancing intricate steps to snatches of music that came from automobile radios. Most of them were in “low drag”—cutoffs, clogs, improvised halter tops, hair slicked straight back. Some appeared in wigs, curlers, black bathrobes, golden house slippers. They held cigarettes, long, brown More menthols or Kools, which they rationed scrupulously. They gossiped, waited, and played whist, “Nigger Bridge.” They taunted young mothers who pushed baby carriages and balanced Zabar’s bags and helium balloons; they hissed at broad-backed boys who sauntered up the street in Harvard or Columbia Crew T-shirts. “Honey, you need to go home and take off that outfit. That green gon’ make yo’ husband run away from you.” Or: “Come over here, sugar, and let me show you somethin’.”
Sometimes, for no apparent reason, just standing there, one of them would let out a long, loud, high scream—“Owwwwwww”—and then look around with everyone else on the street. This was particularly unnerving to the people who lined up with ice cream cones in front of the film revival house to see Fassbinder or Fellini. Equally unsettling to the neighborhood was their booby-trapped friendliness: “How ya doin’ baby? Okay. Be that way. Don’t speak, Miss Thing. You ain’t gettin’ none noway.”
I watched the people of the SRO every day as the buds on the gingko that grew at a slant toward my window failed one by one and the pigeons pushed through the litter of frankfurter buns, hamburger wrappers, and pizza crusts. I recognized some of the SRO inmates at the Cuban tobacconist, the Puerto Rican laundromat, the Korean deli, at the Yemenite bodega, the hippie pot store, the Sikh newsstand. I watched them with a kind of envy. I loitered on the corner one night but everyone stayed clear of me. Perhaps they took me for a narc. But it was perfectly natural to cross the street to get the instant replay after a Checker had slammed into a station wagon or a fire been put out three blocks away.
Of course I did not find friendship, no matter how swiftly some of the drag queens and youths stepped off into the personal. Raps about the doings on Broadway or in the park inevitably shifted to breathless, coercive pleas for loans, though I told them I had had to break open my Snoopy bank for cigarettes. The soft-spoken owner of Pomander Bookshop took me aside to give me a warning. More than one innocent had fled that SRO without watch, wallet, or trousers. Three “bloods” invited me up to discuss a deal. An alarm went off in my head. I remembered how, as a child, three classmates had invited me to join their club. They escorted me to a garage and kicked the shit out of me. Remembering that, I got as far as the lobby, made some excuse, and split. I had always been uncomfortable with their questions about Pomander Walk.
It is hard to recall the murky, inchoate thinking that led me to make those inept gestures toward infiltrating what I saw as the underside of life, hard to camouflage the fatuity of my cautious hoverings. One night, late, a young woman was attacked by two kids. I heard her scream, saw her throw herself to the ground and thrash about. The kids couldn’t get to her purse. By the time I got across the street others had come running. That was it, she moaned, she was going home to Baton Rouge. One grinding dawn I stumbled out into the haze with loose change for a doughnut. The intersection of Broadway and 95th Street was clogged with squad cars. Flashing lights whipped over the faces of the somber onlookers. There had been a shooting. A handsome Hispanic man in handcuffs was pulled over to the ambulance, presumably to be identified by the victim. His shirttails flapped like signal flags. A policeman cupped “the perpetrator’s” head as he pushed him into the rear of a squad car at the curb. The man’s head sagged on his smooth chest and shook slowly, rhythmically. Who was it that said the man who committed the crime was not the same man as the one in the witness box?
The violence was arbitrary. I was in a crowd that watched in horror as the policemen who had been summoned to defuse a fight beat a black teen-ager until coils of dark blood gushed from his head, his mouth, and drenched his shantung shirt. To my shame it was a black cop who used his stick with the most abandon. We were ordered to disperse, didn’t, were rushed, and the voltage of fear that seized us was nothing like that of the political demonstrations in another time.
Shortly afterward, I called home. It seemed that I packed more than clothes. I carried to the corner all the baggage of my youth. I thought, as a taxi driver slowed to look me over, that I could leave those weights behind, like tagless pieces chugging round and round on a conveyor belt. Pollution made the sunset arresting, peach and mauve like the melancholy seascapes of The Hague School. On the way to La Guardia, stalled somewhere near the toll booth, I, looking forward to my prepaid ticket, to the balm of the attendants’ professional civility, felt a wind. It came like forgiveness, that sweet, evening breeze, the first promissory carees of the high summer. The storm that followed delayed the departure of my flight.
December 20, 1984