Friday, May 15, 2009

Next Stop Times Square

Born of condensation and wind on top of the world, the snowflake is one of the most spectacular objects of the earth and beyond. Beautiful, intricate, and complex: for a while it lives: floating down from heaven to corruption on earth lasting only as long as the conditions that made possible its existence.

My last morning was like any other. I awakened with my mouth open, in the snow, with no shelter to speak of. Some of us called the empty lots behind the old matzo shop, at the corner of Norfolk and Rivington, the toxic waste dump. One never knew what or who might end up there, shiny needles, wine and other more intimate fluids were exchanged freely, we kept each other warm with song, spit and stories, of better, longer days and places where the sun filtered soft and lovely through fluttering leaves and left Indian paint patterns on our innocent faces.

Maybe there were fifty or so of us in the lot that night, none of our mothers when they walked us to kindergarten that first day and left us in the parking lot imagined their lovely child would ever end up in a place like this, even for one night. Everyone knows vacant lots are haunted by the men who once came home here where the walk was and hugged their pealing children tightly to their chests. It was almost an entire block, big enough for a baseball field. Some of us had fashioned temporary bivouac structures out of discards: cardboard boxes, found pieces of wood and orphaned plastic tarp.

The snow had begun sometime in the night as you remember waking up, pissing steam against the brick building side and watching the flakes outlined against the moon’s face like falling keepsakes fashioned by the delicate hands of virgin weavers somewhere who all looked like young Judy Garland and sang as they worked in voices that were plaintive but not yet broken up.

My mother had given me the money for rent.

“I can see you’re trying, son.”

“I promise, ma.”

We wished together over spaghetti and meatball at the last Italian diner on Delancey Street, a counter where the old street disappears into Kenmare at Cleveland Place, two blocks across Bowery for some reason I could not picture my mother in the far east.

“Do you hear from your wife?”

“I see her on Sundays in church, ma.”

“Oh, that’s nice.”

“Sometimes we talk to the minister together afterward.”


“Sure we do.”

She watched my plate. “It’s good to see you eating, son. You’ve gotten so skinny.”

Her marriage had broken up after we boys had bailed, like a ship caught in a storm and rent to pieces in the shoals in sight of the land’s break, each of us ended up hanging on to a separate piece of wood and swimming ashore. Everyone survived with only our hearts broken, scratching our heads and wondering how the hell it could happen. My father had tried to kill himself in the garage, my mother moved to Jersey to sleep in the bed where she had dreamed as a teenager of something much more pleasant.

She never liked the city but for once she did not ask me to come back home and live among our own people. She feared the chaos I would bring to grandmother’s house. I took the money, some $350. I went to the Laundromat, three shirts, two pants, two pairs of socks, underwear, all of it fit into a messenger bag. I left the apartment without a word to my roommates as they had already taken me aside.

“You can choose using or staying, man.”

What if I can’t?

I could have said but did not. The words did not come.

"Well, you paid for this month.” Neil’s declaration filled up the silence of the dusty hallway.

I turned the rest of the money my mother gave me into dope. My actual plan was to cross the Williamsburg Bridge by foot to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway travelling west and hitchhike south from there. I would stay with my brother until I got myself together. Maybe—that’s all it was. I walked over the frigid bridge. There’s no place as cold as high in the sky atop a bridge. As I crossed to Brooklyn and looked over the water, the snow had stopped and everything looked gray and frozen it was still light of day. The sun set like an abscess over the river.

I knew I would never get a ride, that it was a ridiculous plan but I kept walking. I had a lot of dope and I would do it all that night, ending up on a bench under the highway fashioned out of the very steel structure of the great bridge, a traveler in space and time, the snowflake either disappears or joins the greater whole.

I stayed on the bench watching the headlights careening into the darkness above me one of the coldest nights of the year until I finally shivered onto the subway, looking for the best place to melt away into nothing I remember riding out to Coney Island and walking on the beach to the edge of the shore, I must have got back on the D train because I was awakened by a cop below Times Square, who gently suggested I move on and just thus ended the chronicle of my first life in the East Village.


"Dream Weaver" mp3
by Charles Lloyd Quartet, 1966.
available on Dream Weaver

"Better Git It In Your Soul"
by Charles Mingus, 1959.
available on Mingus Ah Um

"Angel Eyes"
by Art Blakey, 1968.
available on Live! At Slug's N.Y.C.

photo: © Ted Barron
Snow on Grand Street, 1996.