“I would not have helped you if I thought you were one of them.”
Is this guy talking to me? Where do I know him from? Craggy pockmarked face, garish and green in the refrigerator case light. The cold cardboard quart I hold feels like contraband. I am stoned, interior, intended staying safe inside but came out to M. Schacht for cookies and milk.
Why is it you have to talk to people you don’t want to? Even when you’re stoned? Even in this supposedly cold and impersonal city? I came to this city hoping I would not have to talk to people the way you always have to talk to people in a small town and now here I have to talk to this creep I can’t remember having met.
He says, “You’re not one of them punk rockers, are you?”
What the hell does that mean? Okay, not too many people dress like me–worn Ramones T-shirt and black straight leg jeans–but what does he mean? I mumble something vague about the music. Why do I have to talk to this guy?
He’s a cop, for chrissakes. The main cop guy there at the assault. He wears a long dark shiny raincoat, NYPD, so at first I did not recognize him. That other time had been a clear summer night.
I stand guilty of wearing a black leather jacket. I stand up straight and confident and look him in the eye. What I want to do is, I want to hunch my shoulders and look down at my smudged sneaker toes. It was so tedious lacing them up. Can he smell the pot smell on me? I can’t. I try to focus my reddened eyes on him and not on the peripheral comforts of the cookie selection. Stella D’Oro, the ones with the fudge centers. Or Pepperidge Farm, all those Italian city-named cookies with gooey chocolate inside. I wish I was safe in Lido or Milano, warm, lone, curling up in my palazzo with bad Italian TV, shoving crumbling pastries in my face instead of talking to this guy. . .
This Guy! This cop. Pay attention. He’s still here, still talking.
“If I thought you were one of them punk rockers I would not have wanted to help you.”
What kind of a jerk is he? Mr. Officer, sir, who had been so kind and solicitous when little Miss baby-faced schoolgirl had been under attack now feels it necessary to make it clear to her that he would not have helped her if he thought she was something other.
Buddy, I am thinking, if I was not something other, why the hell would I be here?
September, 1975 two years earlier
Needles poke up at me, alarming, close-set on their island bed. I am looking out the airplane window. I do not, at first, recognize that the needles are skyscraper spires. My first-ever jet trip. A landscape nothing like the squares of green each with its own blue kidney of water that stretched for miles when I lifted off three hours ago. So unlike the sloppy sprawl of the only other metropolis I know that the drips from my occasional blinks stop, shocked. Destiny looks like nothing I expect. I expect a brown and friendly-stooped city where provincial escapees stroll evening-gowned in broad daylight, a paradise for bookish southern sissies. I expect to become rich and famous, a fabulous cliché. I have arrived at the capital of glamor. Of thought! I half expect Andy Warhol to meet me at the airport and declare me a Superstar on the spot. Someway, somehow, wonderful things must happen right away!
One month later, the city is bankrupt.
PRESIDENT TO CITY: DROP DEAD
I go home for Thanksgiving, spot a bumper sticker: LET THE MOTHERFUCKERS STARVE IN THE DARK.
Still–I’m glad. Glad because what else is there to be but glad, and glad because now this city is really all my own. Well, not mine alone, of course, but only for those of us willing to put up with the crime and the garbage and the poverty and the not-new-and-shininess of it while elsewhere glassy towers and squeaky-clean malls proliferate. The city in decay is divine decadence, literally.
. . . but I was talking about September 15, 1975
I do not know one person in this new and old and very close-set metropolis. Andy Warhol does not meet me at the airport. Neither does a skycap. My mother gave me two bucks and told me somebody called a skycap would carry my bags so I should tip.
I feel like a total dork pulling my humongous suitcases out of the airport. Dragging the edge across the filthy floor. No way I can lift them. I practically pull my weak little stick of an arm out of its socket. American Tourister. The bags. A really sick color blue vinyl. My mother bought them cheap from her Mexican maid who won them in a local contest. Like it matters that I have a matched set.
I take my first cab ever, give the driver the address they sent me. I share the back seat with my two-foot stuffed toy monkey. It wears a child’s T-shirt that reads “Wee-One’s Lib.”
We pull out of the airport and I look back. There is a white wingy sort of Jetsons type building I think maybe I saw before in a movie. A Sixties movie! It’s sort of like 2001: A Space Odyssey, except there are no flights to the moon or anything like that. There should be women in spacy orange pantsuits but nobody dresses like that anymore.
Look, here is a super-humongous rusty old globe in what appears to be a vacant lot. Oh my God! Could that be where the World’s Fair was? I envied the neighbor kids who got taken to the World’s Fair. I cherished the postcards. But this looks so desolate, so rundown and forgotten. The New York I grew up wanting to come to—what happened? It’s like Planet of the Apes. Except this is that globe thing, not the statue of Liberty. Wait—isn’t the statue somewhere around here, too? We are already past the globe thing and heading through this freaky landscape. The spaghetti bowl freeways are familiar, but the cheap-looking mashed-together house fronts are weird.
Everything just keeps getting denser and denser and stranger and stranger and finally the cab stops at the lower end of Fifth Avenue. Wow, the first famous street I have ever been on and it’s total jam city. I thought this was supposed to be a high-class street. The driver has to stop right in the street to let me out and I open the door and slice a strip of beige right off the Caddy Seville that’s double-parked to the right. The Cadillac driver gets out and starts yelling and so does the taxi driver so everyone is yelling and honking. Total chaos so nobody pays any attention to me while I drag one huge suitcase in one hand and an even bigger suitcase in the other while wedging Mr. Wee-Ones’ Lib under one of my suffering arms. This stuff I am dragging is for now my everything and this is how I am going to meet the first people I will ever meet here.
A few months later
It is not hard to sell drugs in a rich kid college.
I have to get the money together and go down to Times Square—scary!—and wire it from the Western Union. Another day I have to go back to Times Square to the parcel center to pick up the package.
Either way, I walk through a throng of men.
They have no idea. If they had any idea, they would cut my throat, easy, slice it wide, gaping, vulvar, in a second they would slice it, or do any other god-forsaken thing to me, they would do whatever they had to do if they knew what I carry in my brown cardboard box, they would slice me for a small fraction, for a hundred dollars they would slice me, maybe less. But they don’t know.
They do not know and so they look and look away. I am healthy, young, no makeup. They are every shade that people come in but mostly darker than my pale self. They are mostly men, sweatshirt hooded or bandanna headed, maybe a big blonde Afro on a white guy, flair-legged trousered and somehow sweaty in every weather, men, mostly, on the streets. Signs read Girls! Girls! Girls! so there must be lots of women inside. The men just stand outside, I do not know what they do.
Triple X’s all around, X’s like the eyes of cartoon characters konked on the head, three-eyed clubbed heads everywhere, soulless third eyes, empty like the eyes of the men that look and look away.
I do not look desperate, I look like I know where I am going but, then, why I am here? I keep walking and nobody even bothers me, they regard me for a moment, perhaps to see if I am for sale, but I do not move or dress like a person who is for sale, I keep walking like I know where I am going, which I do, not like when I was curious.
When I was curious I would walk around near here, the place where all the buses from the other cities and small towns come, walk around like an overalled waif who did not know where I was going.
Bored and lonely—how can you just watch TV in the city where the real stuff happens?–I walked around the bus place just to see if strange men would come up and try to talk me into selling myself for them. I wanted to see if it would happen like in a bad made-for-TV movie. Me, starring in my own stupid drama.
What happened in my brief stupid drama is a fat sweaty man came up and asked if I wanted coffee and I said no and he begged me please and I ran away.
I did not want to get too close to danger, not for no reason, but now I know the crime I am committing and it is not that one.
And I can be glad, glad because the sun is shining or maybe it is overcast, calm, reassuring, and I am here in this amazing city where things really happen and I am on my own and brave enough to put myself just this close to danger. Glad because I am not living the lives those men are living, not them or the Girls! Girls ! Girls! inside. Nothing too bad is going to happen to me, I don’t think so, that is why I am glad, I have always thought I was God’s chosen child, if I try as hard as I can to be good nothing too bad can happen to me. Right?
Janie Heath has worked in the newspaper, film, and music industries. She grew up in a small town in Texas and now lives in New York City. Her work has been published in Big Bridge, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Boog City, and Brink. An essay of hers is included in the liner notes for the box set G Stands for Go-Betweens Volume II. She is currently writing a novel.