StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

A Sorcerer on Montmartre – (Chapter 10 – Part I)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on June 18, 2014

Lions

A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

© 2013

Tenth chapter (part one)  from the novel I’m writing

(Click the following for Chapters 1234, 5678910 (p. i)10 (p.2)10 (p.3)111213)

CHAPTER TEN:

Cockatoos (Part One)

And so Simon went back to clocking in as much OT as he could at work. He also got up the gumption to go all by himself to Citibank on Second Avenue to open his own account. He was surprised how easy it was. He just had to ask a lady who greeted him at the door how to do it and she directed him to a glass-paneled office. A guy in a tie got up from behind a desk, shook Simon’s hand, offered him a seat and asked what kind of account he wanted. Simon pulled out a wad of paychecks and tips and said, “Whatever works best when this s’all you got to work with.” The guy chuckled as he counted up what Simon had to work with and nodded like he’d been in that spot before. Then his head tilted a little at how Simon could be all dolled up in Kenneth Cole and DKNY while holding out such a meager nest egg and talking like someone fresh off a bus at Port Authority. But whatever his new customer’s back-story might be, the bank representative was just glad to see Simon opening his own account instead of handing his stash over to a man in a fedora and shades like so many other young hopefuls getting off at Port Authority. It seemed like such an adult thing to do, opening an account, and Simon gave himself three cheers for walking out of Citibank with his very own checkbook and ATM/debit card.

And, in fact, it was an adult thing to do: To be approved, Simon had to produce a driver’s license or state ID that said he was 18. The age on his Georgia driver’s license also ensured that Simon could walk to and from work without fear of milk cartons, unlike so many of the runaways on St. Mark’s Place and around Tompkins Square Park, many of whom dressed like Belinda and some of whom, bless their souls, even had their faces covered in tattoos of cobwebs and black widows and pentagrams and other macabre things you might find in a haunted house at Halloween-time except they were branded on their faces all-year round and for life. Some others had been snapped up by the International Society of Krishna Consciousness and walked around in bright robes and saris, shaking tambourines and proselytizing in states much more euphoric than those of the uninitiated and much scarier than anything in a haunted house. No matter what the kids’ affiliations, though, they were all set to beat it whenever they saw a cop coming who might recognize their faces from milk cartons or missing persons’ blotters. But Simon was free, at least inasmuch as he was in his majority. Even if Menard had decided to file a report to get Simon back down south so he could tyrannize over him all over again, no-one, not even the law, could make Simon go back. That was the good news.

The bad news was that he was hanging by Robert O’s string until such time as he could put together a month’s rent, plus at least one month’s deposit, to go live somewhere else. It wasn’t lost on him that being a busboy wasn’t the easiest way to make this happen in Manhattan and, even though Belinda was pulling down a lot more bills per diem than he was and might have been able to make up for his shortfalls, he’d decided that he would not be living with her in his next place. (For one thing, her rear end required too much clean-up.) He’d been checking roommate ads online at the 23rd Street library and on bulletin boards in delis, along with listings in real-estate brokers’ windows, but right now he couldn’t afford to pay even a fraction of a fraction of even the lowest rents advertised. Robert O’s it’d have to be for the foreseeable future, but if Robert O had another one of his turns, Simon knew he might end up living rough and fighting off Krishnas just like the pariahs in and around the park.

That’s a big reason Simon’s heart went out to guttersnipes. He might have needed every penny he’d be taking to the bank from now on, but he’d still always slip the street kids at least a few dollars a week when he’d see them whiling away on collapsed supermarket boxes or mud-caked duffel bags. And they always looked up with smudged faces and said thank-you and beamed like they weren’t used to getting what they were holding out their hands or holding up signs for, which always made Simon’s heart bleed just a little more for them. But when they’d ask Simon his name, Simon couldn’t bring himself to do what he knew Jesus would have done and tell them. Instead, he’d just smile and keep on walking in his snazzy duds, lest he get roped into a conversation long enough for their lives to rub off on his, for their straits to become his. But whenever Simon felt bad about walking away after tossing a couple mites into their grubby cups or palms, he reasoned that Sartre theoretically would have approved of his wish to remain independent of a group, any group, and its collective fate, however lowly and in need it might be.

To avoid being kicked out of Robert O’s, Simon was now making a game out of making himself scarce at the apartment. This meant now he had to listen whenever someone at the diner said there was some touristy attraction he should check out since he was still so new in town. It meant doing all the things he could do for free, like going to free days at the Met or tailing subway buskers from line to line or going to Times Square and just watching the 24-hour carnival of lights, Jumbotron ads and people or walking from one end of Central Park to the other and marveling at what Olmsted and Vaux did with not much more than one square mile of green. He’d pick up any kind of complimentary New York visitors guides he could find in plastic sidewalk bins or restaurant vestibules and jot down little itineraries for himself in a pocket-sized spiral notebook he’d bought from a catchall bin at a Hell’s Kitchen bodega after seeing that end of town for the first time and being surprised it was no longer full of speakeasies and ladies of the evening like its name suggests. Just walking aimlessly through Manhattan on any given day, north or south, until his legs buckled amounted to an education, to doors of perception blowing open in his mind, down corridors he never knew existed. He started thinking that being run out of house and home, whether Menard’s or Robert O’s, was a good thing since it gave one a chance to walk where they might never have walked and see things they might never have seen.

And then there was always learning at the library to do too, and he found the best of the best of libraries at 42nd and 5th. It beat the one on 23rd Street all the hell. One of the pamphlets said it was a Beaux-Arts building. He knew the term from books by and about Beauvoir and Sartre, the ones that kept mentioning Paris’s Beaux-Arts buildings. One of his new pamphlets said there were a lot of them in Manhattan too and the library was the most famous of them all. It had two majestic lions, made of Tennessee marble, sitting in grand repose above some steps. The pamphlet referred to them as the Top Cats, guardians of the scholars inside. One of the lions represented Patience and the other Fortitude, and Simon wished there were a way to bring both cats to life and have them always walking on either side of him wherever his new life might take him.

Failing that, though, he entered the Top Cats’ den. The entranceway, Astor Hall, was made of all white marble. There were porticos with pagan statues and Corinthian columns so grand and mighty, even Samson with his locks at their longest, at his lion-fighting best, would have had to strain until his heart gave out to send those colossuses crashing to the ground. And then there was all the artwork on the walls that could have given a lot of the oil paintings he saw on free days at The Met a run for their money. The great unwashed sat on the steps outside or milled around in the lobby or climbed the grand staircase in awe like Simon did as he read inscriptions from past masters on sidewalls, but others looked like they were in there to do book work and live the life of the mind—the tweed-wearing types with the elbow patches, sitting at lacquered oak tables in the main reading room, going bleary-eyed over tomes lit by bronze lamps. If Sartre and Beauvoir had been New Yorkers, Simon could have seen them coming here a lot when they needed a break from café society.

Simon started taking the F train up to the New York Public Library at least a couple times a week. He’d spend hours on end in there, reading even when his mind wandered, trying his best to shut out the immensity of the city and the shock of change. It didn’t matter that it was a reference library and he couldn’t take books out. He didn’t have a library card anyway and couldn’t get one until he could show a utility bill with his name on it and there was no telling how long it’d be before he’d be able to show one of those. But he always had books of his own that he’d bought at The Strand and, since spring was on its way, he could also sit right outside in Bryant Park on warmer days and read or just plain muse and watch the London plane trees break into bud and try to make sense of how he had died to one life and was reborn into a new one that hadn’t become clear yet.

Simon still hadn’t made friends in New York but he hadn’t made that many in all his years in Wizard’s Stone either, so life in that regard was no different. But customers did chitchat with him at work and so did Paula and Margie, so there was some kind of fellowship to be had with others. Paula ran a much tighter ship than Desiree. Her kitchen was right behind the counter, not in back behind a door with only a small window to see into, so she could see almost everything that was going on and the kitchen staff couldn’t get away with as much as they could in Simon’s last job. So long as you did your work, though, Paula wouldn’t crack a whip. She was no Menard in drag.

On one of the lunch shifts, though, Chelsea Night & Day’s phone rang. Simon was hefting a tubful of dirty dishes back to the kitchen. He saw Paula pick up the phone and then lift an eyebrow as she said, “One moment please.” She held the phone out to Simon in a hand bejeweled in gold-platinum trinkets and red press-on nails. “It’s for you,” she said. Paula looked at him, pupils like the tips of ice picks. Simon stood at sea on the tile floor with dirty dishes weighing down his arms. “For me?” he asked. “For you,” she said with a lingering nod, the mascara piled-up on her lashes more ominously than the cobwebs or pentagrams on the street kids’ faces. Simon set the tub on the diner counter, but it was only after Paula affixed her fist to her hip that he realized that was a no-no thing to do. But by now, he was already on the phone, saying “Hello?,” and doing his best to pull a face that would express both confoundedness and innocence to Paula.

“Hey, retard. How come you never home?” said the voice.

“Who—?”

“You know who. The guy who’s putting your sweet ass up.”

“Sorry, Robert O. I just been busy.”

“Yeah, busy not being home. You got a boyfriend now?”

“No. No. Just been workin’.”

“Well, you’re not working next Saturday night.”

“Um…yeah…um, yeah, I am. I’m on the schedule.”

“Um, no, um, no, you’re not. Get off the schedule. We’re having a party.”

“A party?”

“You going deaf as well as absentee, bitch?”

“I’ll have to—”

“You’ll have to get your ass home that night is what you’ll have to do.”

Paula stepped a few paces closer and drummed her acrylic nails on the counter next to the tub of dirty dishes that she was making clear shouldn’t be there. Simon held his index finger up to her, the one-moment-please sign, and Paula’s fist went right back on her hip at this, but only after her eyes went popeyed behind her bifocals and she shifted her weight again, and Simon got the point that the finger gesture he’d made was an even bigger faux-pas than the tub on the counter. Simon said to Robert O, “Look, I’m not supposed to get calls at work.”

“Then get a fuckin’ cell phone. And try being home for a change. I’m not runnin’ no fleabag, where you can’t just shove off on that bed I bought for all that money—”

“I’ll be home that night,” Simon told him (and he was careful not to specify which night in front of Paula, who made up the schedule). He hung up without saying goodbye and envisaged his boss. She nodded to the dirty dishes, which Simon promptly removed from the counter. Margie came by with a wet rag and wiped off the space where the tub had been. “Thanks, Margie,” Simon said to her and turned to his boss, “Paula, I’m sorry. I never told him he could call. He looked up the number—”

Paula leaned in, “It was a mistake.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Simon said, curling the tub of dishes back up like a barbell as they ripped and burned his arm muscles.

“People make mistakes, Simon,” Paula said. Then she took a beat, this time pointing her finger upward just like he’d done, “They make ’em once with me.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Simon and, when Paula broke eye contact, he walked back into the kitchen and did the dishes at warp speed. Actually, he noted, he’d made a few mistakes before—the broken glasses; coming in late the morning after he’d had sex with Robert O—but she’d only now put him on notice.

The rest of the week came and went. Simon continued doing his best to keep his head down. He continued working whatever overtime he could and made a specter of himself in the apartment. Even so, Simon wasn’t going to get on worse paper with Paula by asking for Saturday night off like Robert O had told him. He did tell Robert O he’d be home that Saturday night, though, and he wanted to be a man of his word so he resolved to make an appearance—but…later…after the dinner shift, and even hours after that. If keeping his word to whomever he ever gave it hadn’t been such a priority to Simon, he might have slept by the kitchen door in the restaurant all weekend, lest he meet up with the kind of company he suspected someone like Robert O might keep. And who knew what kind of friends Belinda would be bringing home? No doubt the kind that kept her out all night and in bad habits this whole time up north.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010). He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband and two cats.

A Sorcerer on Montmartre – (Chapter Nine)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on June 17, 2014

Opium Den

A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

© 2013

Ninth chapter from the novel I’m writing

(Click the following for Chapters 1234, 5678910 (p. i)10 (p.2)10 (p.3)111213)

CHAPTER NINE:

The Imaginarium of Dr. Feelgood

So, here’s what that conversation was all about…

Like the actor said, Robert O had set Simon and Belinda up in a Roche Boibois apartment of sorts and, like Simon said, it was the most spectacular residence he had seen to date, one that Robert O had in fact spent more time sprucing up than the actor had supposed. Most of the furnishings had bedecked the condo that Robert O had shared for many years with his oncologist-ex Andre on Telegraph Hill, where the decor had been even more prismatic than the local parrots’ coats. The sofa, rugs and sectionals, low-slung and exploding with colors, from top designers like Gaultier, Hopfer and Manzoni (to name a few), now occupied the lion’s share of the 400-square foot living room in Robert O’s one-bedroom apartment on Clinton Street.

For his first couple years in New York, when he was sober enough, Robert O had spent many of his days off haggling with artists in DUMBO, the Meatpacking District, Soho and the Bowery for the paintings that now lined his walls—most of them were expressionistic à la Rothko in their bold reds, blues and blacks (his interior-design consultant told him to go for those) or jubilant like Kandinsky in a kaleidoscopic vertigo of pastels and geometric shapes (some guy in a paisley ascot, who looked like he knew what he was talking about, at Södermalm Gallery, told him to go for those), though one was a naturalistic recreation of a Weimar café where a patron has his head between the wide-open legs of a chorus girl, smoking a cigarette between sets (Robert O knew nothing about pre-World War II Germany but he owned the Cabaret DVD and a couple early nineties Madonna CDs and concert t-shirts, so he impulse-bought that one). Also on every wall hung a series of mirrors in steel baroque frames to increase the main room’s sense of space, although its arabesque of reflected colors did more to make one feel trapped in a funhouse.

If anyone had pointed out to Robert O how daunting all this was to a visitor, he still would have felt he’d succeeded in his decorating mission since his presiding motto, especially when dyeing and cutting hair at the salon, was “Too Much is Better than Not Enough.” When Simon and Belinda came to stay, Robert O had added another piece of furniture to his collection, a tent bed, complete with a Stearns & Foster queen-sized mattress under a four-point canopy that had soft, translucent white drapes cascading from it. He installed the tent bed in a side corner near the window, where the two Georgia vagabonds could sleep and where there was no fear of them staining the oriental rugs that Robert O had warned everyone were from Victoire.

Simon could not help but notice the jarring contrast between the apartment and the neighborhood itself. No amount of fire-hose water or rent hikes would ever dredge up all the generations of grime that had accumulated on the brick facades of those jerrybuilt walk-ups. Slung down them in black and rust were fire escapes that reminded Simon of cages at the circus or zoo, each linked by black-and-rust iron ladders, and strangers who’d never be anything more than strangers to Simon flickered in and out of sight behind the windows, quick and enigmatic as ghosts. At any given hour, one could find at least one or two people rummaging through trashcans on the block with steely resolve, as though their pride were on its way to the city dump along with everything they’d chosen not to salvage out of the bags on the sidewalk.

Robert O’s building stood apart from everything around it, though. For one thing, it was only twelve years old. There was no grit on its golden yellow bricks yet. It looked more like something on its way to Oz than something that should be rising out of the grunge-caked sidewalk. Unlike anywhere else up the street, if graffiti went up, his building’s super would swash it over with masonry paint the same day. If anyone grubbed through the dumpster, the manager would be right out to tell them to wait till the bags are on the curb on Friday. Neighborhood stalwarts remarked that this building must have slipped right under the Landmark and Preservation Commission’s noses and the more the warhorses looked at it, the more they clung to their landmark and rent-control statuses and petitioned the governor to build more affordable housing and keep their low rents low.

Robert O’s building had debuted in the shadow of so many of the bistros and specialty-cocktail bars that had sprung up like ritzy weeds near Tompkins Square Park. That’s why he lived there. Robert O liked the neighborhood’s boho-chic but always scowled at the garbage-pickers, who reminded him too much of the days when there was no work and his family had to scrounge, scrape and scavenge for food in the dusty roads, highways and fields outside Laredo. Now that he had shoes on his feet, good shoes, and his income and rent were high and his hair and clothes were clean, mostly dry-cleaned, he wanted to see success and nothing but success surrounding him at all times, even if it came in a thin veneer of trash. “So, let’s see what happens with this twink,” he’d told Belinda on the phone before she’d driven out of Whimbrel Creek with Simon.

If it weren’t for all the drugs they trafficked into the apartment, all from right down the block, Robert O and Belinda’s little Pygmalion experiment might have worked. No doubt, Simon made for quite the nouveau Eliza Doolittle, chased out of the Bible belt with a deer-hunting rifle, making his way through the concrete jungle, where he suffers from ice cream headaches because he eats too fast. The right impresario could have trained this babe from the backwoods, trotted him out, made him make some sort of society splash and put him on the circuit with ballads about how he emerged from nothing like Leigh Bowery and, from nothing, managed to set the big-time ablaze. But Robert O and Belinda never drew up any grand plan for Simon beyond getting him up to the big city, getting him in the right hair and wardrobe and seeing how much he’ll get laid and how much he’ll change as a result of getting laid. But the more Robert O and Belinda caught up on old times, the more their drug use escalated until they became more Sid and Nancy than Higgins and Pickering, and all but forgot about Simon.

As Simon’s first month at Robert O’s wound down, he had seen more than he’d ever cared to see of Robert O and Belinda’s booze and their weed and he had seen all too much of the coke and meth and even the heroin they took to snorting on Robert O’s Bassett Mirror table. Simon wouldn’t touch so much as a drop or a speck of it himself, so he spent as little time as possible in the apartment. Otherwise, he told himself, he might end up like Robert O, whose assistant had a key to his apartment so she could come drag him out of bed, sometimes in mid-afternoon, and stand him up and slap him awake under a cold shower, all so he could go tend to whatever high-profile client had been waiting for him for over an hour. Lucky for Robert O he had talent and could do even an emperor’s wedding party stoned, but Simon suspected luck had a way of running out even on the luckiest hophead, and he also knew busboys were more fungible than lead stylists, so Simon stayed clean and made it to work early and stayed late.

As for Belinda, the job hunt had worked out for her almost as well as it had for Simon. She did a quick scan of craigslist’s want ads and went on to land bartending spots at Mars Bar on 1st Street and 2nd Avenue and Lucky 13 Saloon in Park Slope. Both were punk bars, so she never had to pump herself up to achieve any kind of Über-professional persona before walking into work like office people do. Off the clock, she could do whatever she wanted and sleep however late she wanted and still come on strong for the night shift. Afterhours on weekends, she was out with Robert O or any of the number of friends she started making through her jobs while Simon would sit home and hit the books (novels, mostly, by names he remembered from Beauvoir’s index) now that he didn’t have school and knew he needed whatever smarts he could muster now that he found himself so out of his league in the big leagues.

Simon imagined Belinda was more than canny enough to hold her own in the naked city but he lamented how he hadn’t seen her with a book since that day at Copenhagen Essentials, how she was frying away what could have been a great mind, one he wished he had, at least when it came to IQ. Simon often looked back on one night when Belinda had sat in Desiree’s and shown him all her tattoos, at least all the ones Desiree would let her show in her restaurant. She had lots of crazy buddhas from a long time ago that she’d found in a picture book on Mahassidas at Cody’s Books in Berkeley but she admitted she wasn’t a Buddhist and never even meditated so Simon didn’t see the sense in gawking at iconography that only went skin-deep. But he stared a good long time at the tattoo of Morgain, goddess of Avalon, shrouded in Medieval mists on Belinda’s inner right arm after Belinda said she’d gotten it after reading a book called Mists of Avalon and her eyes went wild as she described how the women of Avalon worshipped their own bodies and how having Morgain on her arm was a constant reminder to her to do the same. Belinda still smoked a lot of cigarettes and pot but Simon was thrilled that, somewhere in that wacky-tobacky mist, she at least had the intention of going clean. Then she moved to New York. Now even the intention behind the Morgain tattoo had gone up in smoke.

Simon never expressed his sorrow over this to Belinda, though. Anyway he barely ever saw her anymore, except when he would wake up in bed next to her. He knew Robert O wasn’t going to let them freeload forever but Robert O never fixed any kind of end date either, so Simon held on to his wages (which was easy to do since Belinda still hadn’t taken him up to Citibank to set up an account like she said she would) and hoped Belinda hadn’t been spending too much of hers, though she already was doing a bang-up job of squandering the money Hilda had given them.

As for the mismatch between Simon’s job and clothes, it turned out Margie and Paula had nothing to worry about when they saw Simon donning his glorious raiments on his first day of work. He’d assured them when they asked that he didn’t dress himself, the people he was living with did, but he rolled up those silk sleeves and got to bussing and scrubbing as only a Wizard’s Stone stepchild could. Even so, it took a couple weeks to sell them on what a hard worker he was, but this is where living at Robert O’s helped—not wanting to go back to the apartment, he’d ask for whatever extra shifts were available. Often he’d work a triple. Sometimes he’d work the breakfast shift and hang around in back reading books he’d bought by the pound at The Strand until he’d have to go back on the floor to work the dinner and graveyard shifts.

New York itself was still too much for Simon to take in, so he preferred to stay within Chelsea Night & Day’s four walls instead of venturing out between shifts. Long hours and dishpan hands were never any big deal to him. He needed the money so he was all gung-ho for going into a bathroom stall before work and stepping out of his new glad rags and into the uniform Paula had given him, which was all white cotton, just like at Desiree’s. And Paula couldn’t help but notice the new cache of regulars the restaurant was reining in once word got out about the cute southern busboy with the dyed hair. Soon enough whatever open shifts Simon wanted, he was more than welcome to and Paula let him eat whatever he wanted for free, which meant he didn’t have to spend on groceries and get dirty looks eking out space in Robert O’s fridge.

In short, all habits aside, all three inhabitants of Robert O’s Clinton Street apartment were good enough at their jobs to keep them, at least for the time being, but Simon learned from the gate that even functional users weren’t always so functional when it came to cleaning up after themselves. It was bad enough Belinda left her dirty bras and panties all over the floor instead of putting them in the laundry bag, but a few times, she’d passed out after a night out and had accidents in bed and it fell to Simon to clean it all up, even though every time he’d just come home from working a double or triple and was tottering on his aching feet. Twice he’d even had to drag Belinda’s dead weight to the tub and clean her up like a pig in slop or something just as far down from Simone de Beauvoir, and even though Simon felt no temptation to sin with her, it still felt sinful looking at, scrubbing down and sleeping next to a naked woman who wasn’t and never would be his wife. Then again, Simon started thinking to himself, who’d want to make a wife out of a woman who goes to the bathroom all over herself like that, on top of everything else? Lucky for Belinda, Simon was handy with cleaning products and laundry needs or Robert O might have shown them both the door their first week. And lucky for Robert O, who hadn’t always made it to the toilet either after binges, he had both Simon and a cleaning lady who came in twice a week to keep his sty in style.

The best investment Simon had made in his time at Robert O’s, besides in books, had been in a $1.58 pack of earplugs from Duane Reade. Simon had just started reading Balzac, specifically Lost Illusions, and he was entranced by how the character Lucien Chardon hailed from the provinces, just like Simon and, just like Simon, found himself thrust into too big a beau monde. Simon also pawed a good deal through a 1977 edition of the Webster’s Dictionary, one he’d excavated from a remainder bin at The Strand so he could bone up on Lost Illusions’s big words and esoteric allusions like “aleatory,” “oleaginous” and “Janus head.” Often the translator left in French phrases that Webster’s didn’t have definitions for, but Simon just skipped over those, suspecting he’d know them some day when he got better educated. Lost Illusions was over 650 pages in small print, just like The Second Sex, so Simon felt like he was scaling a whole new mountain of erudition and the abecedarian’s story was taking Simon into a whole other time and country, so he plugged up his ears to stay focused on the story, or, on something other than his roiling belly and quaking hands as the same fire that had burned up his past refused to illuminate a single instant of his future.

Even when Simon had the apartment to himself, staying focused on the book proved no easy task, given all the noise on Clinton Street, but it proved insurmountable the few nights Robert O had decided to stay in too. While cranking VH1 or some equally obstreperous cable station, Robert O would hang on his cell phone, smoking joints and Dunhills and saying things he knew Simon could hear through his earplugs like: “So, our lil Eliza’s in tonight—Eliza-doing-little, Eliza-saying-nothing, Eliza-paying-nothing…Yeah, he’s cute. So what? So was I when I was his age…No, no rent money yet, but there are ways of making lil Eliza—Liza!—pay.” Robert O would laugh after saying these things, so Simon just chalked it up to so much pettiness; plus Menard used to say a whole lot worse, so it was nothing more than white noise to Simon’s ears, which he pretended were too stuffed up with foam to hear a thing Robert O was saying.

But one night—another one of those nights Robert O had also decided to stay home—Simon had a dream. He didn’t know he was dreaming at first. A couple minutes earlier, he had been at least half-awake in the tent-bed, sitting up and reading all about Lucien Chardon’s forays into Paris’s salons. Now, though, he saw that the tent-bed he’d been sitting up in wasn’t in Robert O’s apartment anymore. It was stationed on the sidewalk outside Chelsea Night & Day Diner. He was still in the bed and it was still nighttime but now he was wearing white pajamas of a much finer silk than the black pajamas he’d gone to bed in, the ones Robert O had bought him at Macy’s. Candles were lit all around him and white incense smoke plumed above his head. A couple sewer rats streaked by on 7th Avenue and the pavement was scored with the same kind of encrusted black gum and gook that Simon had espied on the sidewalks to and from work all this past month. His eyes raced every which way until they settled on an old Chinese man, who was dressed in the same white silk that Simon found himself wearing. The old Chinese man bowed to Simon and held out a hand to Chelsea Night & Day’s door as if to conduct Simon through it.

Simon had heard good things about Chinese people, although the first time he’d ever seen one in the flesh had been that time he’d driven out of the Holland Tunnel with Belinda but, ever since then, he’d been seeing them everywhere, except they weren’t always Chinese like Simon thought, sometimes they were Korean or Japanese or Thai or Cambodian or from countries (or at least partly descending from countries) Simon had only heard about in passing. In any event, he saw them all over New York now and sometimes he cleared their plates at Chelsea Night & Day, but if they’d ever set foot in Simon’s part of Georgia, Simon had never seen or heard about the incident.

One time, though, Menard had invited a Reverend Saber to take the pulpit at Calvary to share his experiences of Christianizing the eastern world. Reverend Saber held forth on how people from the Orient were easily redeemable because they were descendents of Noah’s greatest son Shem—unlike the Africans and their diaspora, sons and daughters of Ham, the son whom Saber said “took advantage of Noah in the vilest of ways” and who was “the progenitor of the race who,” according to Saber, has needed all the luck it could get finding redemption ever since “God-fearing plantation masters were outlawed from keeping them in line with the Living Word.” All this said and done, Reverend Saber brought his own son, also named Noah, who had just graduated from Oral Roberts University, up to the pulpit.

Simon, then 14, had snapped to attention when he saw Noah Saber at the microphone. In a low, sonorous drawl, Noah spoke of how he’d accompanied his father on a Liberty Missionary Fellowship to China. Noah elevated his chin and his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down in an even rhythm as he stressed the need for more Christian missionaries to counteract the spread of Islam in X’ian and Linxia Hui. Simon’s eyes had been a lot more open than his ears, though, as they riveted on to Noah’s honey-dark skin, sapphire blue eyes and lean, sinewy body belying the white Oxford Shirt, brown-and-pink striped tie and navy blue suit coat. Simon had to cover his crotch with his arms as he watched Noah mouth the words “brothels,” “iniquity” and “opium.” Simon’s breath caught. It was all he could do to keep his hands gripping his arms and his arms on his lap to further conceal the effect Noah was having on him in church that day. Menard took the pulpit next and invited everyone back to the house for refreshments but Simon never dreamed Noah would come too, not until Simon walked into his own living room to see Noah holding a paper plate and eating a piece of lemon-vanilla cake that Simon’s mother had whipped up from a Betty Crocker box that morning. Not only did Simon get to shake Noah’s hand but, about half an hour later, he found himself sitting next to him on the calico-covered couch. Reverend Saber pointed at Simon and said to Noah, “Think we got a future candidate for a China fellowship here?” And that’s when it happened: Noah put his arm around Simon and said, “Could be.”

Not for all the tea in China would Simon have moved from that calico-covered seat. Noah did not take his arm out from around Simon for the rest of the hour as guests milled about in their Sunday best, thinking nothing of Noah’s half-embrace of Simon, though it went on a full 48 minutes. Simon knew he couldn’t take his arms off his own lap through it all, not even to reach for his punch cup, not if he valued his life. When it came time to stand up, Simon held his King James Bible upright below his belt, excused himself to the bathroom, and didn’t come back out until he could say goodbye with impunity. Last Simon heard of Noah, he was back in China, but the memory of that time on the couch would live in Simon’s cells to the grave, and now it was making its way into Simon’s dream.

The Chinese man in white silk smiled and nodded to Simon. Simon left the tent-bed, whose sheets and curtains rustled in the 7th Avenue winds. Simon walked barefoot to the door and turned around and bowed to the Chinese man before going in. Chelsea Night & Day didn’t look itself inside. All its tables, chairs, booths, dividers, even its kitchen had been cleared out. In their place stood a large, dark room, lit by candles, much like the ones on the sidewalk. Arabian pillows and cushions dotted the floor with people of all races either passed out or fornicating on them. Another tent-bed, just like the one he’d fallen asleep in and just like the one on the sidewalk, stood dead center as the room’s lone piece of standup furniture. Propped up on pillows, smoking a hookah and wearing the same white pajamas as Simon and the Chinese host, was none other than Noah Saber, looking as young and as good as he did at Calvary’s pulpit.

Noah seemed to have aborted his missionary mission. He seemed to have taken to the very things he’d denounced that day at Calvary—brothels, iniquity, opium. Simon kept hearing those same three words, in that same order, whispered throughout the room over a lush string arrangement from exotic instruments Simon had no recollection of ever having heard in real life. Who knows?, Simon thought as the music played and he crawled on to the bed where Noah smoked, Maybe Noah Saber is one of those Muslims now? Noah exhaled smoke and offered Simon the pipe. Brothels, iniquity, opium. To Simon’s own surprise, he took it and imbibed it. Noah put his arm around Simon’s back like he had a long time ago on the calico-covered couch but he didn’t stop there. He traced the side of Simon’s face with his index finger, hooked him under the chin, and brought Simon’s lips to his before inserting his tongue into Simon’s virgin mouth. Simon had heard people did these things when kissing but it always sounded disgusting. Now, though, Simon laid back to take Noah’s tongue in all the more as Noah’s embrace went from half to full and Noah sprawled his tawny, silk-covered body out on top of Simon. Brothels, iniquity, opium.

In waking life, Simon stirred and twisted on the tent-bed in Robert O’s apartment. The dream faded but he wanted to be back in it so he kept his eyes closed and pressed his hand over the space where Noah’s back had been. Simon found, though, that in flesh-and-bone reality he was drawing a real figure to himself, something other than the air he’d been expecting to find, something he could feel, something flesh-and-bone, something that weighed on him. Feeling two tongues in his mouth, Simon opened his eyes and awakened with a start to find Robert O looking down at him. “Shhhh,” Robert O put his finger over Simon’s lips, “Don’t be scared, lil Liza. I’m just showing you how it’s done.” Robert O had already unbuttoned Simon’s black pajama shirt and his lips travelled one kiss at a time down Simon’s chest and stomach as he untied the belt to Simon’s black pajama bottoms. At first, Simon closed his eyes, hoping to bring Noah Saber back to mind, but the Liberty Missionary Fellow and Oral Roberts grad faded from focus as Simon opened a whole new set of eyes to Robert O, who’d always seemed too dangerous to contemplate before now.

Yet Simon noticed that Robert O was even darker than Noah and he had a firm, if bony, body and he knew what he was doing as he took Simon’s bulging erection deep into his mouth, letting it glide from his lips all the way to the back of his throat and back again, and again. Simon arched into his pillows, closed his eyes and took a few long, slow, deep breaths until an oceanic feeling settled into his body. Robert O crept back up, kissed Simon’s lips and with unaccustomed gentleness turned Simon around. Simon could hear a wrapper crinkle open and a light snapping sound behind him. Robert O said, “You’ll feel a little pain, but it’s good pain, trust me.” No sooner did Simon close his eyes and cringe than he relaxed and let it happen, only to find that, whatever the eternal consequences, there was something good about the pain.

Simon was late to work the next morning. Only about 10 minutes late but still late enough for Paula to notice. Paula didn’t feel she could bawl him out for it, though, since Simon was always early, by a lot, unlike everybody else she’d ever hired. Besides she wagered that something’s gotta give when a boy so young is picking up so many shifts. Simon had a whole sink full of dishes waiting for him, which was good because he didn’t want to be out on the floor now. He didn’t want to be around people. He wanted to be steeped in suds and dishes so he could be alone with his memories of the middle of the night and his fantasies of more to come. He wanted to get into some kind of flow with rinsing dishes and loading and unloading the hulking steel dishwasher, a flow that could reinstate the oceanic feeling he’d been up with all night.

As he worked, Simon’s mind kept drifting back to the dream he’d had about Noah Saber and, better still, the reality he’d woken up to with Robert O. He thought of how he’d ended up on top of Robert O. He’d been running his fingertips over Robert O’s ribcage and nipples. It was the first naked chest he’d ever done that to, other than his own. In fact, he’d straddled Robert O. Isn’t that what someone who knows what they’re doing does? And yet he did it on his first time.

Simon got so swept up in these ruminations that, when he went back on the floor to get to clearing and setting tables, he dropped a whole tray of glasses and dishes. A saucer and three water glasses broke. Customers gaped. Paula didn’t have to say much about it. Just, “What’s with you today?” but that alone was enough to snap Simon out of dreamland. He went and got a mop, rag, and broom. As he swept up the broken pieces, he slipped a shard from one of the water glasses into his apron pocket. He silently warned himself that he’d prick himself with it next time he got lost in daydreams about Robert O. He couldn’t afford to lose this job.

Still and all, Robert O had shown Simon something he’d never expected, something that felt good, something hard to keep his mind off. Simon’s conditioning had left him thinking he’d done a bad thing and he’d long been told bad things tend to feel good, at least at first, or else people wouldn’t do them. He also began to consider, though, that maybe the dogmatists were wrong and also maybe he’d misjudged Robert O. Maybe there was something soft under Robert O’s rough edges that just needed a little love and coaxing to come out. He wondered if it might be worth seeing if Robert O was his mission, what fate had driven him out of Wizard’s Stone for. Maybe with a little rehabilitation and encouragement, Robert O could prove a prince among men.

Soon, Simon had stopped volunteering for overtime at Chelsea Night & Day. He started going straight home at the end of each shift. He wanted to be there in case Robert O might decide to stay in too. Night after night, Simon still would find himself all alone with Balzac, though, and any number of other books he could no longer keep his mind on in the motley apartment. Simon would wait up but neither Robert O nor Belinda would come home until well after he’d fallen asleep, if even then.

Yet after ten days of waiting up nights, Simon woke up at about 2 am to hear Robert O snoring in his room. Simon got out of the tent-bed naked and tiptoed over to the bathroom, where he sprayed his whole chest with the Armani aftershave that Robert O kept by the sink. Simon inched open Robert O’s door as bands of moonlight and city lights cast over the slung-out figure of a sleeper, many fathoms under from liquor, drugs and work (but mostly the first two). Simon crawled into bed next to Robert O and stroked himself as he kissed Robert O’s jaw and cheekbone. Robert O lay motionless. He’d managed to struggle out of all his clothes before passing out, except for a t-shirt with a print of a nude Bjork covering herself with a frond as she laughs and frolics through a pastoral fen. By the time Robert O felt a thing, Simon’s tongue was in his ear—and not just the tip but the whole amateur mass of it.

Robert O wrenched up to sitting position. Simon gave a sly smile and said, “Don’t worry. It’s just me.” Robert O gathered up his comforter and blankets and lurched back. “What’s wrong?” Simon said. “Fuck off!” Robert O shook. Simon said, “It’s just me. Simon. Here. Look,” and Simon turned on the lamp revealing the whole scrawny length and breadth of himself. Robert O brought his comforter and blanket in all the more, covering as much of himself as he could. He shot Simon a look that Simon had only seen on cornered raccoons. This wasn’t the same rapier who could yawn and cut someone to ribbons at the same time. This wasn’t the same rake who’d turned up in his bed ten days ago. This was someone or something as ferine, wretched and, for some reason, scared as a baited raccoon. Robert O might as well have been frothing at the mouth for how lupine his eyes looked. Simon wanted to say he was sorry but he didn’t want to be told to fuck off again. And it was obvious Robert O was coming down off something, or many things, so Simon backed out of the room and closed the door behind him as Robert O wept and hyperventilated.

Once in the main room, Simon put his pajamas back on and jumped back in bed, bracing himself for Robert O to come out and tear the place apart and Simon with it. But minutes passed and all Simon heard was some rustling, followed by a cold silence that did not stir as the hours passed. By and by, Simon managed to lie back. He closed his eyes and pulled the covers up to his chin, but it was a full hour before he could fall asleep again and, when he did, he woke up within fifteen minutes with his heart battering like a newly caged bird against his ribs.

By now, it was five a.m., so Simon decided to wake up and get ready to head down to the restaurant to get an early jump on his morning shift. After washing the aftershave off his chest and brushing his teeth, Simon came out of the bathroom to find that Belinda had come home and crashed on his side of the tent-bed with her black Subhumans t-shirt still on and her boots, jeans and panties kicked off. Simon walked up and saw there were now scabs and bruises on the Morgain tattoo on Belinda’s inner right arm. He covered Belinda with their 1,000-thread-count Egyptian cotton comforter while she moaned to be left alone. He hoped that, after work, he wouldn’t have to put all the bedclothes through an emergency wash cycle like those other times Belinda had been at her passed-out worst.

The first thing Simon did when he got to Chelsea Night & Day was ask Paula if he could work overtime. She said, “Sure, hon,” and he went off to clear tables.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010). He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband and two cats.

A SORCERER ON MONTMARTRE – (CHAPTER EIGHT)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on June 16, 2014

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A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

© 2013

Sixth chapter from the novel I’m writing

(Click the following for Chapters 1234, 5678910 (p. i)10 (p.2)10 (p.3)111213)

CHAPTER EIGHT:

RAMSHACKLE

Not six weeks into his new life in the City that Never Sleeps, Simon found himself on his knees in a ramshackle East Williamsburg apartment, kissing the crotch of a blue-eyed, black-haired actor’s blue jeans.

“What are you doing?” asked the actor.

“Paying up-front,” said Simon.

“I didn’t say you had to pay.”

“Everything has a price.”

“Shit. That sounds so canned. Who taught you shit like that?”

“Just learned it being around.”

“Around? Boy, you just got here.”

“Learned it just by livin’ and breathin’.”

“You’re what, 18? 19? You’ve hardly lived yet—and you’re breathing out a lot of hot air in my kitchen, is what you’re breathing. And this is not a good way to start out, especially in this town.—Here. Get off your knees. Just have, have some tea. It’s made now.” The actor turned off the heat on the front burner and took the kettle off it. “This is a shit habit to get into, Simon.”

“You don’t want it.”

“No, I don’t want it. Get up. And my boyfriend doesn’t want it he gets back either.”

“Just trying to pay you.”

“You have no idea the ditch you’ll end up in if this is what you—I told you you can stay for a while. I didn’t say nothin’ about payment.”

The actor poured Simon a cup of hot water and dropped in a bag of black Lipton. He pulled out a kitchen chair and Simon sat down in it, shaking.

“Everything has a price,” Simon repeated.

“You mean he had a price.”

“Who?”

“The Roche Bobois apartment guy.”

“The what?”

“It’s a furniture store. Gotta say, your friend knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, don’t he?”

“You just make that up?”

“No. I wish. Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde.”

“Rush Boo—”

Roche. Roche. Roche Bobois. Stan works there. In Midtown.”

“Rush. Rush Boo—”

“Stan’s getting back from Pennsylvania in another couple hours. I’m gonna have to tell him what happened. I’m sorry, Simon. It’s the only way he’ll agree—”

“Boo-bois. I like that. Is it all French stuff?”

“Looks like your friend just bought up a showroom floor and passed it off as his own nuanced taste. Sure his asshole friends don’t know the difference.”

“I was amazed by it.”

“Oh, Simon.”

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010)He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband and two cats.

A SORCERER ON MONTMARTRE – (CHAPTER SEVEN)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on June 16, 2014

soho

A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

© 2013

Sixth chapter from the novel I’m writing

(Click the following for Chapters 1234, 5678910 (p. i)10 (p.2)10 (p.3)111213)

CHAPTER SEVEN:

LOOSENING-UP

Simon did get a new sweater the next day, more than one (ones that fit), along with a top-to-bottom makeover, starting with his hair. Robert O’s styling credentials in San Francisco, as well as all the hair shows he’d either won or placed in both cross-country and in Europe, had opened doors for him in Manhattan by the time he’d decided to relocate there three years before. He’d had his pick of the litter when it came to finding a spot in a high-end salon, so he took a booth at Copenhagen Essentials, a premium Fifth Avenue salon where head stylists often give $600 haircuts to the kind of A-List clients who can afford them. This is where Robert O took Simon and he quoted the $600 price to Simon again and again, from the time his assistant first brought him to the shampoo sink, reminding Simon just as often that he would be performing his services free-of-charge. Much like the night before, Robert O said precious little else to Simon, who knew too little about the world to know there’s no such thing as free-of-charge when Robert O is behind the chair.

When Simon came back from the sink, his chin-length wet mop of dark brown hair left Robert O with no less than a wheat field of split ends to thresh down. Robert O didn’t ask Simon what style he wanted. He’d already appraised Simon’s face and had a Layer Cut in mind, the kind he had given to male models on catwalks from L.A. to Hamburg for the past few years. Every now and then, from across the room, Belinda would look up from her book—a raggedy paperback copy of The Loved One, which she’d picked up for a few bucks down the street at The Strand—to hear clippers roaring and see whole Gryphon wings of hair flying off the back of Simon’s head. Belinda smiled, wishing she could see his Simon’s face too but Robert O was jumping around like a monkey on a stovetop full of hot skillets, attacking Simon’s erstwhile hairdo on all fronts and monopolizing all his station’s mirrors in the process. In next to no time, Simon’s hair was cut medium short and Robert O was already going in to texturize the top with a razor. Once that process was completed, Robert O’s assistant shampooed Simon a second time before helping Robert O apply tiny foils to a new array of blond and red highlights. After all the color had processed and Simon’s hair was washed and blow-dried one last time, Robert O shagged out the new style with his fingertips before applying Pierre Cardin’s American Crew Pomade and dabbing Simon’s neck with Armani aftershave. Lastly, he dusted off his neck with Taylor of London talcum powder.

Simon had never asked to be Cinderella on her big night out, but this new cut was proof positive that he had been spirited away from Wizard’s Stone every bit as much as the redheaded stepchild had been spirited away in her pumpkin carriage. He kept looking in the mirror, running his fingers through his hair and over his forehead as if to see whether his face had managed to make it out of the makeover in tact. He even pawed at the air where his weighty locks used to be, still taking in how much more than just his hair had vanished these past several days.

“I think you mean to say thank-you,” Robert O snarled, putting his clippers and shears away.

While this transformation was still too new for Simon to be altogether sure he was altogether pleased, he erred on the southern side of telling a polite lie, “I can’t thank you enough.”

“That’s right you, you can’t,” said Robert O, not even looking at him.

Belinda sashayed over, “Thought up some threads to stuff him in?”

“Hmmm…Do we want him warding off angels like you do, Mortitia?”

“Nah-uh, sugar,” Belinda said, spreading out her hands in self-presentation, “Mine is a signature style. Simon is way too nice for it.”

“Fine. We’ll go get him something off the rack.”

Robert O left his assistant to clean up the tonnage of hair on the floor and, since Simon was his only client on what otherwise would have been his day off, he grabbed his coat and Simon’s hand and herded him and Belinda out the door. First, Robert O and Belinda took Simon down to Soho, where they fitted him with form-fitting sweaters from DKNY, black leather zipper boots and a black leather jacket from Kenneth Cole, along with back-in-vogue plain white Nikes and a few pairs of Levis in varying shades of blue. From there, they took him up to Macy’s on 34th Street, where Simon left the various retailers with bagsful of Merino wool sweaters and scarves, silk button-down long sleeve shirts, and even a pair of black silk pajamas, so he no longer would have to sleep in a 1940s nightgown or in the nude, like he had done with Belinda the night before (and he could have sworn she’d gotten handsy when she’d gotten back from the clubs, though he was half-asleep, so he couldn’t say for sure). Then there were pairs of Calvin Klein underwear, dress socks and even a good stock of athletic socks, odds-and-ends that added up to a high-end bill. It was all paid for too, on Robert O’s platinum AmEx card and from over one grand of Belinda’s get-out-and-stay-out stash, which Simon had told her she shouldn’t spend on trifles but she’d told him to shut the fuck up so he did.

The outlay of this new haul put Simon into a greater state of shock than anything that had transpired up to now, although he did manage to say thank-you a plethora of times but his thank-yous were not met with you’re-welcomes but rather with stony silence and a lot of cursory up-and-down looks. Simon had become a clotheshorse and he didn’t know why, but rather than questioning it, he just decided to go with it and, in the meantime, admired his sudden style reflected back to him in store windows as he walked to the subway home with Belinda and Robert O.

Simon said, “I don’t know how they’ll like this at work tomorrow.”

Robert O said, “With any luck, they won’t.”

“Why would that be lucky?” asked Simon.

“Wise up, Simon,” said Belinda, “You think you can get by here just picking up dishes and washing them?”

“I’m gonna have to.”

Robert O blew a stream of smoke from the Dunhill he’d just lit, “A little loosening up’ll set him straight.”

That line hung around in Simon’s mind a lot longer than Robert O’s cigarette smoke did on 7th Avenue. The “set him straight” part, Simon could understand. He was the first to admit how much he didn’t know and, looking in any direction of this newfound Babylon, he knew he was getting only the faintest intimation of how much was around to school him in the things he ought to know. But “loosening up”? Simon thought all that was over and done with now that they were actually paying for the stuff they were walking out of shops with, yet it seemed Robert O and Belinda had other practices in mind too. But Simon said nothing, nothing at all the whole rest of the night, which wasn’t hard since Robert O and Belinda just went on talking to each other, about old times—which mainly consisted of times they’d gotten wasted together and what they’d gotten wasted on—as though Simon weren’t even in the room.

Meanwhile, he just sat saying silent prayers—though he wasn’t sure whom he was saying them to anymore now that he was doing his level best to be a nonbeliever, Sartre-Beauvoir-style. Nonetheless, he prayed that he could toe the line at Chelsea Night & Day Diner so he could wean himself off Robert O and Belinda’s meal ticket, especially now that his keepers had made it known that what they had in mind for him was a lot of loosening-up, whatever that meant to them. And whatever it meant, somewhere in between the after-dinner bong Belinda and Robert O smoked and the lines of coke they did, Simon had decided he wasn’t going to join in any of their kind of loosening-up, lest he become the prodigal son, booted back home to a shotgun-toting daddy who’d do to him what the daddy in scripture did to the fatted calf.

When Simon walked into his first day of work the following afternoon, Paula greeted him at the hostess stand with a few menus in hand, “Hi, sweetie, how many of you will there be?” Simon said, “Paula, it’s me…Simon.” Paula said nothing but peered closer. Simon said, “I came Saturday. I’m here to start work.” She looked at his ensemble. It wasn’t anything like what he was wearing Saturday and it wasn’t anything a busboy would wear.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010)He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband and two cats.

A Sorcerer on Montmartre – (Chapter Six)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on June 12, 2014

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A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

© 2013

Sixth chapter from the novel I’m writing

(Click the following for Chapters 1234, 5678910 (p. i)10 (p.2)10 (p.3)111213)

CHAPTER SIX:

CHELSEA NIGHT & DAY

Once past Canal Street, Belinda and Simon were well on their way to Chelsea Night & Day Diner, courtesy of Mapquest, which they had logged on to one night at an Econo Lodge in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, while they both had been wearing Nuetrogena mud masks and a couple Rita Hayworth-era nightgowns that Belinda had picked up thrift-diving in her days out west. If that weren’t enough, they also had been watching All About Eve on Turner Classic Movies. It was one of the first movies Simon had seen that didn’t involve either Bible patriarchs or Charlton Heston, so he had scarcely been able to tear his eyes off the TV screen long enough to map the best route from the Holland Tunnel to 7th Avenue and 14th Street.

No matter how hooked he had been on the title character’s cunning, though, it wasn’t enough to keep his mind off all the drag on his own body. The letters where St. Paul inveighs against the Romans doing these kinds of things had scrolled through his mind on continuous loop, but he’d told himself the second-hand, crepe-de-chine nightgown was all there was for him to sleep in since he didn’t have pajamas (they weren’t in either of the Hefty bags he’d snatched from Menard’s lawn). It hadn’t been long, though, before he was flouncing around the motel room like Caligula in his seashell-collecting phase, doing Anne Baxter and Bette Davis impressions from the moment the end credits had rolled, and Belinda, guzzling New Amsterdam Gin straight out of the bottle, had been thrilled to see he had it in him—he’d need it for where they were going.

Simon could see why they called Sixth Avenue, Avenue of the Americas. It looked like everyone from both American continents—and most of Asia, Africa, Europe and maybe even Antarctica—had either driven in to clog up traffic or had at some point parachuted in to swamp the sidewalks. He had long heard you practically had to rob a bank to pay a month’s rent in the buildings they drove past, but the facades were still as grimy and sooty as the garbage-laden pavement. Imposing as they were in their dirt and dominion from Soho to the Village, the buildings seemed to grow even taller and bolder the farther they edged uptown, and the horizon promised no end of towers. However, just as Belinda turned west to go to Seventh Avenue and Simon wondered if he would ever find any room to breathe in this megalopolis, a parking spot opened up right in front of Chelsea Night & Day and they were able to pull right into it.

“I’m calling Robert O,” said Belinda as she threw blankets over their bags in the backseat. Simon stepped out of the car, fed the meter with a stack of quarters and walked to the middle of the sidewalk as Belinda made her call from the curb. A light snow started swirling around Simon as he stood stock-still among the masses thronging down the avenue on this leaden-sky, late-winter Saturday afternoon. He knew he was pushing his luck by taking up space where there was none, but no one hassled him. In fact, one woman accidentally bumped into him and said, “Oh, I’m sorry,” and he said, “No trouble at all, ma’am,” and she looked back and smiled at his civility. Everybody else just weaved around him like creek water to a boulder. In the course of only a couple minutes, he had already seen several men holding hands with other men, some while carrying shopping bags, and nobody hassled them either. No one made it their business like they would have in Wizard’s Stone.

As Belinda wrapped up her phone call, Simon turned one way, slowly, and looked in the eyes of a man in a camelhair overcoat, who walked toward him and past him. Simon noted, That guy doesn’t want to beat me up. He turned another way and made eye contact with a tough-looking Italian guy in a black leather jacket, who also kept walking past. Him either, Simon observed, even if I am…y’know…the third sex. His soul thrilled at how he was still standing on the same slab of concrete, not getting knocked over. If I knew any songs from that cat show Connie saw at that Winter Garden place, he told himself, I might be singin’ ’em now!—heck, if it’s still in town, maybe I’ll even go see it…once I’m settled in.

Belinda grabbed his arm and marched him to the restaurant door. “He’s meeting us here,” she said, “He works nearby.” Simon left his feel-good moment behind and opened the frosted glass door for Belinda like a gentleman, a hoary patriarchal custom Simon suspected Beauvoir would have abhorred but Belinda knew Simon could never shake as a southerner.

Once inside, Belinda unwrapped her long black scarf and soaked up the atmosphere. In one corner sat a preoperative transgender female with beefy forearms, a mane of goldilocks ringlets and stubble that was only a week or so away from growing into a full beard. She was drinking hot cocoa in a booth with a frowsy old man who wore a blue Yankees cap, a red plaid flannel shirt, and gray polyester pants held up by both suspenders and a belt. The trans woman seemed to be doing all the talking and all the gesticulating at the table as the old man warmed his palms on his cocoa, with his head down, half-listening in the same daze it looked like he’d been in for years. Some other tables were full of much younger men—white, black, Filipino, Puerto Rican—dressed with much more expense and savvy than the old man, many of them with big muscles that showed through their shirts and sweaters as each vied to get a word in at their tables with as much avidity and gesticulation as the old man’s companion, often forgetting all they’d been fighting to say as a result. Over the crackling speakers, Carolyn Johnson from The Exciters warbled something about how she knows something about love. A few old ladies in fuzzy sweaters were having Celestial Seasonings Lemon Zinger or Darjeeling tea with cherry pie, carrying on like gravel-voiced sopranos doing recitatives in a yenta operetta. A longtime unwashed man in longtime unwashed clothes stood stooped at the side counter and the cashier came by with a bag of leftovers for him from the kitchen. “Here ya go, hun,” she said, “A whole bag. Just take it outside, ’kay? We’re pretty slammed.”

As the stooped-shouldered vagrant shuffled out, the same cashier-cum-hostess came up to Belinda with a couple menus (never minding Belinda’s black-arts appearance, Simon noted, she just didn’t seem to care like places back home did), “Hi, sweetie. Two?”

“There’ll be three, actually,” Belinda answered, “But my other friend will be a while.”

As they followed the cashier-cum-hostess to their table, Belinda rubbed Simon’s arm. “Good call, kid,” she said, looking around the room. Never before this moment had Simon felt two high-highs in a single day, but now not only had he had his sidewalk epiphany but he-who-knew-nothing-about-the-world had shown something new to she-who-knew-all, she who had ten years on him and had brought him all this way.

Simon took off his rust-orange down jacket (providentially, it was in one of the Hefty bags he’d seized, unlike his p.j.’s) and rubbed his hands together as he took his seat. The waitress wasn’t at their table yet but still he said, “Cocoa, pronto!” with a chuckle and smiled at Belinda who looked up, snapped open her menu and looked down again, not smiling back. He knew that look. She’d given it to him lots of times. It meant he was being a dork again and not in a cute way. The look seemed harsher now than ever too. Somehow it was uncool to say “cocoa, pronto” and everybody was just supposed to know that or be penalized with a glare.

Simon pulled down the hem of the V-neck sweater he was wearing. In Wizard’s Stone, he rarely had to wear winter clothes, so he didn’t have any besides the down coat, which meant that up here he was forced to double up on t-shirts to stay warm—the one he wore on top was an Atlanta Falcons t-shirt, and the name showed, making him out to be an even bigger hayseed among these east-coast sophisticates (the old man in the Yankees cap being the lone exception)—under a holey black wool sweater that Belinda had come prepared with. Belinda had fished the ill-fitting sweater out of one her suitcases in Pennsylvania and told him to put it on. She’d said she’d take him shopping for one that fit later. The sweater clung to his chest, even though she had bigger breasts than he did (she was no Dolly Parton but he was ribcage-flat), it only went down to his navel and the cuffs barely cleared the flesh between his wrists and forearms. Simon looked over at the dandies a few tables away, who spoke as glibly and looked as decked-out as Cleopatra’s court, and his heart plunged at the thought of how much catch-up ball he’d have to play out here. But, then again, all of them also looked to be about Belinda’s age, so maybe there was hope for him cooling out in time.

Simon pored over the menu, which wasn’t altogether different from the one at Desiree’s. There was the chicken club sandwich and there was the double-decker cheeseburger and they had breakfast all-day and he surmised from the picture that home fries were just another variation on hash browns. But Chelsea Night & Day’s prices dwarfed Desiree’s like Goliath did David. Simon doubted he could stick it to Chelsea Night & Day the way the puny future king did the giant, and the way he himself had stuck it to A&W and Applebee’s and all those other restaurants on the way to Manhattan, the ones that had the gall to charge customers money in exchange for food and services. Based on what he had seen so far, it seemed this diner was a microcosm of New York itself and, from what he had seen so far, this city was no place he’d want to monkey with.

Furthermore, even if he were powerful enough, or slick enough or lucky enough, to come out on top in a clash of wills with it, even if he could bring it down with a slingshot, he wouldn’t want the giant to fall or even stumble. It seemed an oddly friendly giant despite rumors to the contrary from people like Connie. Look at all the people who had found belonging here. Look how many people already had had their chance to beat him up on 7th Avenue but didn’t. Look how the lady at the counter gave the beggar food. Suddenly he found himself following the urge to risk looking like a dork again to tell Belinda, “I think we should pay this time,” and he even dared to look at her like he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Belinda screwed up her face and leaned across the table, whispering, “Of course we’re fucking paying. You think I’m stupid? We gotta pay from now on.” For however much Belinda played the stiletto-packing mandarin, she also watched her share of the boob tube on the sly, including almost every season of NYPD Blue. She took the show’s thugs at their word when they said almost—almost—nothing gets past the law casing every joint in this town. After coming this far, the last thing she wanted was to end up in Rikers, which she was pretty sure would make for even worse bondage than the human condition itself. As for Simon, he was just breathing a sigh of relief that, for one thing, they wouldn’t be shoplifting when she’d take him shopping for that new sweater. He was already thinking of retiring his Barabbas jersey, which fit him worse than that sweater he had on.

Belinda closed her menu and flagged the waitress, who was finishing up with another table, “Robert O says start without him. He’s in the middle of a Baylage, plus extensions.”

“I know just what I want,” Simon cheered.

The waitress came by. Belinda ordered a cob salad and a coffee, no milk. Simon ordered a Belgian waffle with strawberries and ice cream, home fries and a large vanilla malted milkshake.

“You’re having all that,” Belinda jerked in her seat.

“It’s time to celebrate!”

“He’s a growing boy. Give him what he wants,” the waitress enjoined, “Whatcha celebratin’, doll?”

Simon said, “Moving to New York.”

“Oh, yeah? From where?”

Belinda sat mute with the same glower that had hung on her face when she’d heard Simon’s order, so Simon assumed stewardship of the conversation, “Georgia.”

“Ah, for school?”

“No. Just…look for a job. Start over.”

“What do you do?”

“Well,” he said, “I worked in a restaurant, a lot like this. And on the street, I saw lots of restaurants, so…”

“What are you looking to do?”

“You know, go in for some busboy work…wash dishes, that kinda thing.”

“That’s what you did before?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The waitress gave him a big once-over, “Got a place to stay?”

“We’re staying with a friend for now.”

“Whereabouts?”

Simon drew a blank so Belinda jumped in, “Lower East Side.”

“What’s your name, sweetie?”

“Simon.”

“Simon, I’m Margie. How about you come with me?”

Margie took Simon to Paula, the cashier-cum-hostess who also turned out to be the owner. To anyone looking, it might have gone down as one of the fastest, most unexpected interviews in the history of job hunting. Chelsea Night & Day just happened to be needing a busboy who also could help with doing dishes. All Simon had to do was give Paula a thumbnail account of a typical day at Desiree’s, lie a little and say he’d worked there a year instead of eight months and add he wasn’t just passing through and that his residence (he didn’t even know what street Robert O’s apartment was on) was semi-permanent enough for him to show up to work on time. After telling her everything she wanted to hear for now, Paula paused, nodded and told him he could start training after the lunch shift on Monday. He could fill out paperwork then. She also told him how much he’d be making and it was a dollar more an hour than at Desiree’s, plus part of the tips. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said, gasping like he’d just won the $100,000 Pyramid, “Thank you,” slathering on the southern twang, not just for charm but so Paula would know that Immigration wouldn’t be on her back since no one but an American could sport that drawl. (He also wondered if Paula was the one who, so many years before, had played the antagonist in “The V8 Incident” but she seemed too nice, but then again he also expected age might have mellowed her since the eighties.) Margie the waitress smiled, said welcome aboard and told him she’d be right on over with their food and just this once their late lunch would be on her. Simon thanked both women with Dixie alacrity and returned to Belinda, whose frown was now supplanted by raised eyebrows and nodding.

“Boy, things sure happen fast up here,” Simon said with a lot of huffing and even pinched himself, “And with me looking like this!” Once again, he pulled down the ratty sweater’s hem.

Belinda folded her arms and nodded, “Now we can tell Robert O you got a job already. How’d you manage that?”

Simon threw back his shoulders and puffed out his chest to the point where buttons would have popped off, had he been wearing a professional shirt, “It must be that Sorcerer magic of mine.”

“You’re a busboy. Don’t get cocky.”

“My conjure-man wiles.”

“Leave daddy back home, Simon.”

“Why, what you think it is?”

“You’re in the right place. The Universe is telling you something.”

“You mean a sign?”

“Yes.”

“Well, Belinda Quell, I do declare! Sounds like you think there’s something up there arranging things for us.”

“Even I have my less skeptical moments—don’t get used to them.”

“Oh, Belinda,” Simon leaned in, “I’m sorry. I shoulda got you a job. You want I can—”

“No, Simon. No. I don’t want to work here. I’m happy for you. But no. I’m getting a job somewhere else.”

“Where?”

“We’ll see. But Robert O will be glad to know you’re not just gonna be bumming around his apartment.”

“What’s he like?”

“I think you’ll like him,” Belinda said, “He’s Mexican, so he’s got a certain respectfulness about him.” That’s all she said on the matter and Simon wasn’t at all sure what to make of it, although he did remember the Mexicans in Desiree’s kitchen were all salt of the earth when they weren’t taking time out to horse around and moon each other or pucker up and say uno beso to the waitresses carrying orders out of the kitchen.

Margie brought out the food. “For a new colleague,” she smiled as she presented the dishes.

“Thanks, Margie,” Simon beamed, “Oh, this is my friend Belinda.”

“Pleasure,” Margie said out the side of her mouth, not feeling the need to extend a royal welcome to a banshee who wouldn’t so much as look up at a middle-age waitress in a burgundy apron giving her free food. Meanwhile, a group of tourists at a neighboring table sat in giggling awe of the mountains of vanilla ice cream, whip cream and preserved strawberries sitting atop Simon’s waffles, not to mention his pearl-opaque milkshake, and he giggled right along with them all as he dug into the squishy heap with his spoon.

Belinda hid her face, “Are you going to be a total spaz-attack when Rob gets here?”

“Huh?”

“All that sugar.”

“I have hash browns too, Belinda. Salt takes the edge off sugar.”

“Remember, they’re called home fries here. Home fries.”

Lifting a fork to her cob salad, Belinda couldn’t break focus from Simon’s wolfish sugar consumption, wondering if he’d be fat by morning. Meantime, he went right on tunneling through his late-lunch, but halfway in, got an ice-cream headache and had to stop. As Simon held his eye with one hand and gripped a chair leg with the other, the long-awaited guest appeared on the door runner, surveying the room as he dusted snow off his gray herringbone scarf, tied in a European Loop that draped down his multi-zippered, black cashmere jacket. A lot of the dandies’ eyes settled on him, setting off highly individualized fantasies all around the room.

“Mortitia,” the swarthy man intoned, “As I live and breathe.” Belinda vaulted from her chair and tore over to him. She hugged him and jumped up and down, and hugged him and jumped up and down, and hugged him again with lots of two-cheek kisses as though Robert O had just come back from war, albeit after trading in his fatigues for haute couture, with red hair dye, not blood, on his hands. Simon thought maybe he should go over and say hi but they were making such a spectacle and he could see his new boss watching the spectacle as though it were nothing but a spectacle, so he decided to stay out of it. Belinda ran the palm of her hand all over Robert O’s tawny shaved head and tiny black Mohawk. “What’s happened to all those gorgeous locks and waves?” she asked.

“Ain’t you been readin’, bitch? The butch is back-back-back,” Robert O said snapping his fingers between each iteration of the word back.

Belinda threaded his scarf through her fingers, “I hardly call this butch, m’dear.”

Margie came by to refill Belinda’s coffee while Belinda was still up front with Robert O. As she poured, she whispered to Simon, “I’m only buying two lunches, okay?”

Simon said, “Oh, Margie, this one’s on us.”

“Yours is still on me. And your lady friend’s. But—”

“Understood, ma’am. Understood.”

Margie patted his shoulder and walked off. Simon looked down at his waffles, fearing that Belinda and Robert O had just blown the good impression he’d hoped to make on Margie and Paula. Once his eyes took in all the ice cream and whip cream dripping down his plate, though, Simon forgot all about good impressions and his fading ice-cream headache and started scarfing everything down again. This, in turn, would become the first impression he’d be making on Robert O whom Belinda had just now drawn up to the table.

“Well,” said Belinda to Robert O, “He requires no introduction, does he?”

“Holy shit balls,” Robert O shrieked, stepping back and wincing as though he were witnessing a python swallowing a rabbit whole, “Does he always eat like that?”

“Good metabolism,” said Belinda.

“Not if he keeps it up,” said Robert O.

Through this whole exchange, Simon had stopped eating and was looking up at them both with his spoon halfway to his mouth. He had ice-cream glaze on his lips and some powdered sugar at a corner of his mouth. A creamy waffle chunk dropped off his spoon as he looked at Robert O, lean and ravaged-handsome, the kind whom even Simon could tell knew how to work a club (and Simon had never even been to a club, much less seen a roué work one). Simon remembered his manners, got up, wiped his palms off on his pants and held out his hand to Robert O, “I’m—”

“I fucking know you,” Robert O said and began futzing with Simon’s hair, “Needs work. It’s almost matted.”

Margie intervened, “Is this your third party?”

Robert O turned to look at her wide-eyed but Simon had the instinct to step up before Robert O could say something smart, “Yes, Margie. Sorry we’re standing here. Can I help clear dishes? Just let me know where to take ’em.”

Margie said to Simon, “Monday,” and she said to Robert O, “Coffee?”

Robert O winked, “It’s the only FDA-approved thing gettin’ me out of bed in the mornings, honey.” Margie turned over his cup and poured, “Please have a seat.” Robert O smiled and sat down in slow motion, like he was easing into a hot bath.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010)He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband and two cats.

Permission to Waste My Life

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on May 16, 2014

 By Kyle Thomas Smith

Image

Here and now, I’m doing something my younger self would have sooner died than done.

I’m saying die.

I’m saying die to my old ambitions.

I’m waving the white flag. I’m surrendering, abandoning all hope of accomplishment as a writer.

I’m already 40 anyhow. It’s not like there’s still time to be a wunderkind.

And in doing this, I feel extraordinary relief. It’s as though all shackles and tethers have fallen off me.

I simply want to write because I love writing.

I don’t care if I ever write another book. I’ll still fill up notebooks.

I don’t care if I ever again get published. I can publish myself, I’ll still blog.

When I was 26, I went to a psychic of some renown. It was a stupid thing to do. A couple years before, I’d read one of her books, which was all about how to get this, that and the other thing you want from the universe. We were living in the same city, the psychic and I, and I’d looked up her home address and had written her a letter in which I’d let her know that I found her pseudo-spiritual approach way too materialistic and acquisitive. (Looking back, it was pretty bitchy of me, but I was only 24 at the time of postmark and as such, felt an inordinate need to be the false-prophet police.) Then I experienced a dismal failure in my life and went looking for answers, so I went to see her.—It was dumb. Dumbest thing I’ve ever done so far in my life, which is saying something. But I did it, and it made no sense, but I did it, so…SO…

In her books, she brags about how people schedule a year in advance to see her, but when her assistant told her I’d called, she’d scheduled time for me the next day. She took my money at the door, took one look at me and she said she knew I was a writer. (Gee, how’d she guess that? Could it be that I’d said so in my letter?—The letter, the proverbial elephant in the room, which—plot spoiler—neither one of us mentioned even once in the session we went on to have.) I told her I didn’t feel I’d gotten far enough as a writer by the ripe old age of 26. Once she saw I had a complex about it, she started screaming, “YOU HAVE WASTED COLLOSAL AMOUNTS OF TIME!…YOU HAVE WASTED COLLOSAL AMOUNTS OF TIME!” I told her I was writing night and day. “No you’re not,” she said. Well, yes, I was but…her word was law in her chambers.

She took some other slaps at me, pushed my money deeper into her pocket and showed me the door.

Karma is a faulty system. They say, if it doesn’t get you this lifetime, it’ll get you in the next. That’s not soon enough. I’ve lived to see this woman go on to great things, and it’s not fair. By now, she’s even conned the top New Age gurus in America into announcing her as their personal advisor. (I’m sure she tells them just want they want to hear, and I’m sure they introduce her to all the right people in publishing, especially when her stopped clock gets something right.) Her regular clients swear by her. Just ask her. She writes book after book about how she’s always batting a thousand setting each of them straight. Jim Jones’ followers swore by him too. Look how they ended up.

Still: “YOU HAVE WASTED COLLOSAL AMOUNTS OF TIME!” That got to me. She hoped it would.

Today I wonder what she’d say about a friend of mine. He and I have known each other for years. He’s in his late thirties and works at a coffee shop I go to a lot. (Usually, I name the names of people and places but he might be reading this, so I have to be discreet.) He moved here from New England (how’s that for specific?) ten years ago. He thought being in New York would spur him on as a painter. He took a café job so he wouldn’t drain his brain working for the Man, and he was fine with scraping by on what was left in his tip jar if it meant he could devote more of himself to his art. Problem is, he had to work twice the hours he would in any other city if he was going to make rent. The years went by this way. And a couple weeks ago, he told me he’s moving back home. He says he gave it ten years here but he’d put all his energy into making ends meet and hasn’t produced any art. He’d hope to be a name by now. Not only did it not happen for him, it really didn’t happen for him. I don’t think his story is so uncommon. It might even be the norm.

I’d always known him to be chipper at any hour of the day. He always had a smile on and always seemed to be jumping from espresso machine to cash register to ice-maker to sandwich station. He never seemed to be kicking himself like I do, despite myself, about not living up to some imaginary standard.

Looks can be deceiving, though. You never know what’s going on in people’s heads. We’ve been talking over the past couple days and I’ve seen a whole other side to him. His head hangs now. As his days tick down at the coffeehouse, he moves a lot slower behind the counter. And he’s talking frankly at last, “I have no career plan past moving back.” Worse, the universe has set it up so that, as he spends his last weeks with the friends he’s made here, he keeps running into So-and-So, who came here at the same time he did and now he or she is a rip-roaring success. He says he’s got nothing to show for his years in New York.

My friend says he plans on going back to painting once he’s moved back in with his folks. He says there’ll be nothing else to do up by where they live. He’s going back so he can finally do what he came out here to do. I said, “Moving back might be just the thing for you.”

It wasn’t just a pep talk. It plain made sense. After ten years in New York, he’s seen a lot, experienced a lot and interacted with all sorts. He’s not the same New England sprout he was when he first turned up. As long as he keeps going at his canvasses, the life experience he’s racked up will transform into images and colors and concepts, far more nuanced than they would have been had he not taken his chances here. From where I stand, these past ten years weren’t a waste of time for him. And yet the grifter I’d gone to see 14 years ago might have delighted in tearing him apart: “YOU HAVE WASTED COLLOSAL AMOUNTS OF TIME!”; when, in fact, he was broadening and deepening.

Let’s recall: even the experience of shame is valuable if we transform it into wisdom—and the experience of wisdom is more valuable still if we transform it into creative expression.

Why, oh why, can’t I always view my condition as I view my friend’s?

And my friend despairs as he looks at his age—a baby’s age to those who’ve lived long enough, and it will be a baby’s age to my friend if he’s lucky enough to live long enough, but I understand—boy, do I ever understand—that his age might seem “up there” to him if he’s looking at his current age with a teenage mind, which we too often do when it’s ourselves we’re looking at.

I told him what I try telling myself when wrestling back my own inner critic: THE WORLD NEEDS LATE-BLOOMERS. It’s my battle cry. The world needs us late-bloomers if only to show other late-bloomers that their own personal prime might be well beyond the age dictated by the social metric. The world needs late-bloomers so that other late-bloomers might have hope.

Now, of course there’s hope and there’s false hope, but I don’t care what the nihilists say, there is hope—and I have every reason to believe there’s hope for my friend.

And yet I struggle to find the same hope for myself. Julius doesn’t struggle to see that there’s hope for me. It’s as evident to him as day turning into night, and night turning into day.

Julius gives me a swim-team analogy: Don’t Look at the Lane Next to You, It’ll Only Slow You Down. I give the same analogy to my friend and he gives me a free iced coffee for giving him that analogy. It makes total sense.

It makes sense to me now as I write this. But how often I have to remind myself!

And yet I maintain what I started out saying: I surrender.

But let’s talk about what that means.

I have a different way about me. Frankly, it’s un-American. That is to say, it’s organic, not manufactured and mass-produced. It’s not the Steven Pressfield, War of Art model.—I can’t get with that at all, though I understand why others can. (There’s a machismo and bravado to it that’s particularly attractive to straight men, though some gay guys I know get with it too.)—Mine is more the Natalie Goldberg model. If you’ve tried her and she’s not for you, I understand. If you think her compulsive free-writing method is a waste of time, I understand. It’s a process that requires tremendous patience, just like fallow fields require tremendous patience and tremendous care, but in my own experience, it’s a model that’s yielded the best I’m capable of producing.

My mom died a little over a year ago. My dad died this year, less than a year after my mom. One of my brothers asked me if I wanted anything from their house. I said all I wanted were some boxes of notebooks my folks let me put in their crawl space before I moved to New York, more than a decade ago. Over a three-year period in my twenties, I’d been filling up notebooks with stream-of-consciousness free-writing a la Natalie Goldberg and had even run writing workshops around it. I’d forgotten how many notebooks I’d filled up in those days. My brother found the boxes in their crawl space and sent them to me via UPS from Chicago. All in, they weighed over 140 lbs.

Since moving to New York, I’ve continued the process and have probably filled up at least three or four times as many notebooks.

Yet so far, I’ve only gotten one book published. I’ve amassed many personal essays but do they quite hang together as a book? Julius says I should probably get about five or six more finished before we go looking for an agent. To do that, I either need more life experience or I need to dig even deeper for material than I’ve dug so far.

If the tonnage of notebooks I’ve filled hasn’t given you enough of a sense of how deeply I’ve been digging, please also note that I meditate two to three hours a day outside of writing. “And wadd’it getcha?” I could hear my Midwest roots barking, and yet it’s gotten me all that I’ve been able to get done.

It’s not laziness on my part. I’m showing up every day. I’ve done it the other way. I have tried the Steven Pressfield way of trying to grind material out of whole cloth but nothing worthwhile has ever come of it. I’ve read the cute quote by W. Somerset Maugham about how he can’t work without the muse but luckily the muse shows up for him every morning at 9 o’clock, and there’s Flannery O’Connor’s line about how she’s at her desk even if the muse isn’t.

And let me tell you, I’m there too—every single day—whether the muse is there or not, but so far there’s no War & Peace by Kyle Thomas Smith. I’m simply gathering meditations for a compost pile that I hope will grow a garden, and in my experience, it can take many years.

And I often despair as my friend despairs.

The best literary analogy I’ve ever found for this dilemma is in the South African dramatist Athol Fugard’s elderly character, Helen, in his play, The Road to Mecca. At some point in her old age, Helen had found that she has a gift for sculpture, so she continues to sculpt Gothic images that send shockwaves throughout her community, most of whom are superstitious and view the sculptures as some strange voodoo. Consequently, they view Helen as a mad woman, possessed of evil powers. A young woman friend, Elsa, comes to visit Helen. Elsa says she sees that Helen has not finished her newest series. “Roll up your sleeves and get on with it,” she tells Helen.

Helen responds with the following (redacted) monologue:

It’s not as simple as that, Elsie…You see, that’s the trouble. It’s still only just an idea I’m thinking about. I can’t see it clearly enough yet to start to work on it. I’ve told you before, Elsie, I have to see them very clearly first. They’ve got to come to me inside like pictures. And if they don’t well, all I can do is wait…and hope that they will. I wish I knew how to make it happen, but I don’t. I don’t know where the pictures come from. I can’t force myself to see something that isn’t there. I’ve tried to do that once or twice in the past when I was desperate, but the work always ended up a lifeless, shapeless mess. If they don’t come, all I can do is wait…I try to be patient with myself, but it’s hard…suppose that I’m waiting for nothing, that there won’t be any more pictures inside ever again…Oh God, no! Please no. Anything but that.

(Athol Fugard, The Road to Mecca)

I meditate. I write. I wait for the pictures myself. But suppose they don’t come and I waste my life.

Well, if that’s wasting my life: here and now, I give myself permission to waste my life. To waste colossal amounts of time. To become no-one and nothing, in the face of my society and Steven Pressfield and that sham sibyl I went to when I was vulnerable and in need of answers, I give myself permission to waste my life and let the pictures come, if they have the heart to come.

I find that I can only produce something worthy of publication if I’m riding the crest of a creative wave, if I’m writing with alacrity, a kind of flow. It’s how Van Gogh painted. Look what happened to him. Yeah, and that concerns me. But he had a lust for life that, to me, made up for how his life ended. I write to pay homage to life, to prana, to that source of vitality. Without that source, that prana, life is nothing and writing is nothing.

But don’t you want to make a name for yourself? I’d be lying if I said that superego shit doesn’t keep me up at night, but it’s that superego shit that also militates against prana.

And so I surrender.

I’ll wait…even if all my waiting comes to nothing…and even if I come to nothing.

I once read a quick-sketch bio of Euripides that said, “Euripides went on to live a life of introspection.” And that seems a worthy occupation to me. But where I’m from, anything beyond the barest minimum of introspection is considered a waste of life. And so, if those are the terms, I give myself permission to waste my life. It seems to be what I was called to do.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010). He lives in Brooklyn with his husband Julius and his cats, Marquez and Giuseppe.

@Sardi’s (Crossing 40: Part II)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on May 14, 2014

By Kyle Thomas Smith

SardisSardi’s, Manhattan, May 11, 2014

Julius (collared shirt) and I (uncollared) celebrate my 40th*

birthday after Bullets Over Broadway under an autographed

caricature of Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

Overheard at Sardi’s – Old Lady in hornrims to meaty-armed Old Man, eating steak in Cabana shirt:

Old Lady: Any interest in seeing this play? Where’s my Playbill? S’pose to be good. Something like “Hedge-Wig and…and…the Inch.” One of those transvestite plays.


Old Man: Y’know, they can say all they want but (pauses to chew on potato and consider) those transvestites are okay by me.

(Both nod, resume eating and don’t say another word until waiter brings dessert menu.)

* On a separate note, I’d thought about doing a series called “Crossing 40” in infinite parts with infinite Roman numerals to document my experience of the new decade. However, upon further (albeit early) consideration, my experience has been that there’s no need. Turns out, crossing this threshold has been no big deal and I don’t need to make it one by always naming the experience in the title. From now on, I’ll simply blog in the hodgepodge way I’ve always blogged. I still intend to blog more than I had in the past, though.

Subway Car of Souls (Crossing 40: Part I)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on May 13, 2014

By Kyle Thomas Smith

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I turned 40 on Sunday.

It’s My New Decade resolution to blog more.

We’ll see how I do.

The other day, I was transferring from the 2 to the 1 at Times Square when a little white man, in his forties (like I am as of this past Sunday—40, that is, not little), shoved his way in front of me as the train pulled up. The crunching tumult of the opening subway doors served as his battle hymn as he blitzed through the throngs attempting to exit. The conductor must have witnessed this scene because, right as the little man embarked on his rampage, you heard over the P.A.: “Let ’em out first, let ’em out first! Hey. Leddem owww-tah!” He attracted a score of leers, not the least being mine as I trundled in after him.

The little man was wearing a featureless orange baseball cap, a stuffed-up black backpack and a green coat that I think I once saw on sale at Urban Outfitters in the early 2000s. He dove at a couple stomped-on gatefolds from the Times that lay at the feet of a young African-American college student, in thick bifocals, clutching her chemistry textbook, and a squat old man with a musty tweed coat, a yarmulke and a feral Einstein mane.

“Is this yours?” the little man asked them as he bunched up the gatefolds like they were the books of an unfaithful lover, who always took up too much shelf space and now was about to find their books airborne out the apartment window.

“No,” they both answered, shaking their heads in tremors like he was grazing the edge of a trash-pick across their throats.

The little man took a deep breath, the newspaper pages bundled at his side, and walked over to wait by the door for the next stop, 50th St, casting back a glance that read, Yeah, well, they better not be. But did the man even look to see how many footprints were on the pages? They were like a low-rent version of the Gauman’s Chinese Theatre walkway. They’d probably been on the ground since Wall Street. He should’ve looked miles back for scapegoats. Now, I’m all for reducing our carbon footprint, but this guy was acting like an Earth Day capo. Plus, good as it is to put litter in its place (and I do, at least my own), the MTA does have a clean-up crew at 242nd St even if our green avenger hadn’t arrived on the scene.

The Scandinavian bombshell, sitting near where the man was now standing, removed her earphones and said in a Swedish Chef voice, “Thanks for vat you’re doing.” She must have been an off-duty model, cheekbones high as the white cliffs of Dover and sapphire blue eyes with eyebrows that a cosmetologist has to train for years to arc to such an apex, yet she was decked out in granola grubbies with a thick white fisherman’s knit sweater and hiking boots. Clearly, he’d scored a better find than dirty newspaper pages just now. The fire tearing through the man’s veins guttered to a slow, flickering burn as his face and voice ebbed from Charles Bronson to Potsie Weber, “Oh, well, thank you. Yeah, um, y’know…” He fumbled for a talking point and damned if he didn’t find one: “Recycle, Reuse, Restore, Replenish.” He sniggered, only to brace back up after an ill-timed snort obviated his cool.

The eco-conscious model smiled, though, and a ray of hope began to shine once more in the man’s eyes. The model, however, went back to staring into space as she reinserted her earplugs. Lest he blow his last chance with her like our greed-and-turbine-driven society has with the planet, the man piped up again, “It’s better than being pissed off.”

The enchantress removed her earplugs, “Excuse me?”

“It’s better than being pissed off.”

“You’re pissed off?”

“No. Well, yes. But no. I mean, it’s better than being pissed off.”

“What is?”

“Helping.”

“Helping?”

“Yeah, helping is better than being pissed off.”

“Oh, yes. Yes. I agree. I agree. Helping…better than being pissed off. Any day. Yes.”

“Yeah.”

She smiled and nodded, and he smiled and nodded, and she put her earplugs back in. He jumped in again, “The earth, right—”

She took her earplugs back out, “I’m sorry?”

“No, it’s just…important. You know. They say it’s too late but…you know…it’s important…the earth.”

“Yeah,” she said, “Important.” She held up her canvas bag. She nodded. She smiled. She reapplied her earplugs and turned back to oblivion.

“Thank you,” he said.

She took her earplugs out, “Excuse me?”

“Thank you,” he said.

“For what?”

“For your bag.”

“My bag?”

“Your bag,” he said, and he pointed to the green recycling arrows that decorated the exterior.

“Oh, yes,” she smiled and nodded.

“It’s important.”

“It is. It’s important,” she nodded, returning her earplugs to her ears.

Never before had 50th Street seemed so far away to anyone observing this exchange, much less to the two participating in it. When the subway finally pulled up to his destination, the man who’d stormed the car like the cavalry now mooned around by the doors until they opened, his spirits slung lower than the rats scrambling beneath the tracks.

“Have a good day,” he told the model as he took his first step out.

“You too,” she smiled and nodded, earplugs wedged in her ears.

I still had two more stops to go. I was on my way to the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library. It’s where I go when I want to write a book. I’ve only published one book so far and I started it there. I started it as a short story but it became a novel, got published and won lots of awards. I sometimes go back to the library thinking I’ll get lucky again.

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What got me to go there the day I started the-story-that-became-a-novel was the movie Wings of Desire, which I first saw at The Music Box Theater in Chicago in 1990, when I was 16 years old. The Music Box Theater is hands-down my favorite venue in all Chicago, possibly in all the world. We’ve got nothing like it in New York. I mean, we have great theaters for art movies but none as majestic as the Music Box, whose main theater is a veritable cathedral with vaulted ceilings and gilded walls, ornate cornices and niches harboring vined putti. At prime time, they even have a guy playing the pipe organ in a Tuxedo. It was my Cinema Paradiso growing up—where I came of age, where I witnessed cultures and vistas worlds away from the Midwest.

For me, Wings of Desire remains the crowning cinematic achievement. Two angels, dressed like those chain-smoking existentialists I so adored in my youth, roam Berlin and listen in on people’s thoughts. The mindscape the angels inhabit is rendered in austere black and white. Every now and then, director Wim Wender splices in color sequences to portray the sentient world of mortals, whose hearts ache but who also have the capacity to fall in love and to experience the groundedness and earthiness of ordinary life. One of the angels longs to have this capacity himself, even with all the trouble it causes, and so he must choose: does he stay in his exalted but colorless sanctum or does he cross over and endure the strife of being human, just so he can meet and fall in love with the woman he’s been watching over throughout the film?

This is also where I first discovered both Nick Cave and Crime & The City Solution, both of whom perform in a Berlin nightclub during various sequences of this neo-expressionist masterpiece. Both acts also figure prominently on Wings of Desire’s soundtrack, which also contains a haunting operatic score called “Cathedral of Books.”—But…thing is…someone once told me the song’s called “Library of Souls”…and it isn’t…but…I like that title better and think it comports better with the scene I’m about to describe, so…let’s just call the song “Library of Souls” anyway, okay? So, this track, “The Library Souls” (really, “Cathedral of Books,” but remember our deal) comes in when the angels go to a library in Berlin to audit the thoughts of the young and the spry, the old and the weary. The orgasmic crescendos that come and go throughout this number are enough to spirit you away, no matter how much reality might beg your attention, and all the while the library denizens are simply reading or sifting through the stacks for books.

The Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center attracts a similar mélange of old and young, spry and weary, so it seemed a good enough substitute for the Library of Souls the day I began writing what became my first published novel, and I remember hoping an angel would be standing over me to ensure that the piece would come to fruition. It did, so maybe an angel had been standing over me and maybe one would again if I went back.

Still seated on the subway, I began to wonder how it would be if I were one of those angels. I don’t mean angel as in someone who behaves well, but a Wings of Desire angel who can drop in and hear people’s thoughts. I looked around the subway car. It was a model of diversity, a motley, laid-back panoply, pretty much all world cultures represented sheerly by dint of each of us having places to go, people to see in this crazy, mixed-up town. How the hell should I know what any of my fellow passengers is thinking? I could make assumptions but we all know what happens when you do that. I’d end up yet another white guy, saying I know what’s going on in other people’s heads, when I don’t. Would I end up portraying the babushka-capped matron in the bulky man’s frock coat as someone wringing her hands over whether gay marriage will win the day in Arkansas even though the attorney general  has vowed to appeal the case, even though in principle he supports marriages such as mine with Julius? Will the Nigerian man in the fez and tunic puzzle over what wine to pair with paella (a seafood paella, say, like the delicious one my friend in Clinton Hill served at the dinner party we went to the other night)? Would whole passages from D.H. Lawrence drift in and out of the young Japanese student’s consciousness, even though she’s carrying a textbook called Let’s Learn English, Level 2?

If I were one of those angels, I’d never get my wings. In our debriefing meetings, God would say, “You’re just making shit up.” Even more damning, he’d say I lack imagination. And here I was, on my way to the Library of Souls…or the Lincoln Center library anyway.

As soon as I got to the library, I sat at a long table with sundry other souls. I opened my notebook. I looked up and down the table. Some people looked at me, like, what the hell you starin’ at, asshole? Others sat as lost in their earphones as the Scandinavian model had hoped to get in hers.

Just as an exercise, I started scribbling out a scenario in which the Scandinavian model had leapt out of her seat and, in slow motion, run after her prince in reusable rags. My first shot at their exchange didn’t yield much. I couldn’t leave it at a movie ending where they’d just fall into each other’s arms at the turnstile and smooch. We all saw Into the Woods. (Or maybe we all didn’t. It’s a Sondheim musical, after all, and not all the world goes to those, nor does all the world have access to the TKTS booth at Times Square if they can’t pay full-price.) We all know there’s much more to a story than the happily-ever-after kiss. (That much is something, I can safely say, anyone with any sense knows.)

So, I had to put the Green Avenger and the Scandinavian model on a date. What restaurant can I send them to? What’s around Lincoln Center? Then I remembered that Jean Georges (Julius took me there a couple times, eight years ago, when we started dating) is right across from Central Park in the Trump International Hotel—and never mind that the Green Avenger would sooner die than enter an establishment paying rent to Donald Trump and that the maître d’ would never allow him in, what with all the dirty newspaper pages sticking out of his backpack—this was only a first draft, and this would be where the Green Avenger and the Scandinavian model would walk in hand in hand and say in unison, “Table for two.” The maître d’ would guide them to a corner table, beneath a sparkling chandelier. The enchantress would find the environmentalist’s social conscience so enchanting, she’d toss her headphones away like so much salt over her shoulder and he’d be so enchanted by her, he’d say nothing about how she just littered. Besides, Trump had it coming. Inevitably, their eyes and then their lips would meet over candlelight. Before leaving Jean Georges, the man would open his backpack and they’d both surreptitiously toss in their cloth napkins, which the Green Avenger would launder himself in eco-friendly detergent before returning them to their rightful owner.

The story was a no-go from the get-go. I kept looking over my shoulder, shrugging, turning my palms perturbedly to the ceiling, as if to call my Wings Of Desire angel over to the long table where I sat in my Library of Souls. I would tell the angel, “You can take my order any time, you know,” but it seemed the angel—the muse—doesn’t work at that library anymore—the angel, whom I’d somehow conflated with the waiter in my washed-up story, in the Library of Souls, which I’d somehow conflated with Jean Georges. Worse still, there was nothing on the menu and all I was left with was a series of bad metaphors that would find no other home than this blog post.

I packed up and walked all the way down to Rockefeller Center to clear my head. The crowded streets were exactly that, a series of crowds, multifarious but somehow indistinguishable from all the other crowds crowding all the rest of the Midtown streets. I caught the F train back to Brooklyn.

The week before, Julius and I had taken the F train all the way to Jackson Heights. My friend Mike, who was the best man at my wedding, is getting married in Barbados next month to Padma. Julius and I are going. Padma had come to our wedding in a scarlet sari with gold trimmings that put my black-velvet jacket, ruby Tibetan shirt and striped pants to shame, and Julius, for the first time in his life, didn’t wear a tie to a semi-formal occasion. Now it was Padma’s turn to be sorry as both Julius and I were going to go get fitted for the best Sherwanis we could find. Our stomachs were growling for lack of breakfast, though, so we went on a mission to find a good Indian buffet before we’d go looking for a good Sherwani merchant. We stopped in a sari shop for advice. The bejeweled owner told us to go to Jackson Diner. She looked like a Bollywood grand dame but her voice was pure Queens, “I know, I know, it’s an American name, but trust me, hun, it’s Indian. I order from their awl the time.” As luck would have it, she said she also sold the best Sherwanis in the neighborhood, right across the street from Jackson Diner, at her other store, Aura.

Both places were magnificent stumble-upons. Only, I kind of felt like Adela Quested in A Passage to India, eating at Jackson Diner. Remember that classic scene in the book? She expresses her desire to see “the real India” and someone tells her, “Try seeing real Indians.” The crowds on 74th Street were mostly Indian and Southeast Asian. Aside from the staff, however, almost everyone in Jackson Diner was as white as we were and gobbling up Tandooris and Samosas with a wolfish relish, just like we were—and it was hard to make the case that all those other white people were ruining our cross-town exotic escapade without also feeling we should have the word Hypocrite tattooed across our foreheads; moreover, it seemed that everyone was thinking the same thing about us, so we all just seemed to pretend that we all weren’t there, kind of like how you look right through any other American you might see coming your way when you’re in Paris. They remind you too much of you.

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Anyway, here’s a picture of the Sherwanis we ended up buying. Mine is the royal purple. With my Irish pallor, it’s Jagger ’67 meets Bowie ’69 (no pun intended). Julius has the powder blue (“Butterfield 8, Hi…It’s Gloria…”). This time, if the two grooms don’t outdo the bride and groom, there’s gonna be some serious silk piles littering the white-sand beaches of Barbados.

Sherwanis in the bag, we took the F home to Brooklyn…

Before I say any more, I want to qualify that I’m agnostic on the issue of panhandling. I’ve worked for homeless organizations and used to volunteer in soup kitchens and my heart goes out to anyone in that situation, so I still give to panhandlers unless I see an obvious con or I’m somewhere where it’s too dangerous for me to take out my wallet. I’ve heard both the pro-homeless and the anti-homeless speak out against panhandling. The anti-homeless are clearly assholes who’d eat their words if they ever wound up destitute and, as far as I’m concerned, any talk that comes out of their mouths amounts to a talisman they’re waving in front of their cravenly faces to ward off their own gnawing fears of personal vulnerability. However, I do respect advocates for the homeless who make the case that giving to social-service organizations is a far better way to go, and Julius and I do give to such organizations. Because Julius only gives to established charities, he won’t dole out cash to panhandlers but I at least try to think it over. While I don’t think anyone should feel bad about being more fortunate, I think we’d all do well to practice gratitude and generosity in some way, every day, when we are more fortunate. Also, and maybe it’s only a superstition born of being raised Catholic, I do think the universe—maybe even one of those angels—is watching whether or not I follow through on any intuition that it might give me to offer the person money or a silent prayer or even just a kind word, so I’m vigilant about following through.

That said, from Roosevelt Avenue all the way down to Brooklyn, the subway car was overrun with beggars. One had lost an ear and had third degree burns on both sides on his face. Maybe he’d been in Iraq or Afghanistan and sustained the wounds in combat. I don’t know. He didn’t have a pitch. He just stumbled through the standing-room-only car with a ragged paper cup, a walking billboard of need. I wanted to fish out a couple dollars but he disappeared into a gallery of standers. Another was a gypsy-looking woman with a baby in a front pack, hitting up everybody one-by-one, her spiel spelled out repletely in marker on a cardboard sign that hung just-so over the infant. She didn’t strike me as sincere. She marched too straight-backed and had her lines down too pat. By then, I had the feeling I should hold off on giving money. It’d lead to a big debate with Julius about where and when and how to give, and we’d just go around in circles, so I kept my money in my pocket. It didn’t help my side of the argument that there were at least three announcements coming over the speakers saying, “It is illegal to solicit money on the MTA. Please do not give to panhandlers.” And it really didn’t help that the next guy who walked through, only paces away from the baby mascot, announced, “I haven’t eaten since yesterday morning, people. I’m hungry,” but Julius whispered to me, “Look at his coat pocket,” and I saw he had a fat roll of bills.

The train back from Jackson Heights kept getting more and more crowded when this 20-something busker got on at W4th. Now, for me, musicians are another matter. I’m fine with them playing for change on the platforms and on the street, but I consider it rude when they step on to a subway car and make everyone listen to them. Nobody asked them to play. A lot of times you’ve had a hard day, and then one of these interlopers trudges in, stands their ground and starts letting their guitar or accordion or tambourine or violin rip. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re not, but the point is: they were never asked; they just decide, you’re there to listen to them and that’s all there is to it.

That was this kid’s disposition. He had chin-length, dirty blond hair, a fuck-with-their-minds edge to his chestnut-brown eyes and an amp strapped to his back. He adjusted his microphone, harmonica and acoustic guitar and proceeded squeal on the harmonica for half a stop, strumming waywardly on his guitar, before crooning Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” Dylan-style, which a better busker might’ve been able to pull off but he just didn’t. He was out of key, missing critical lyrics and then covering his tracks by chicken-heading the harmonica.

He stopped playing come 2nd Avenue, missing most of the last verse, when overcrowding made it impossible for him to keep going. With that, he pulled a cap out of his army jacket, which he probably picked up at Uncle Dan’s, turned it upside-down and wedged through the jammed-up, body-to-body subway car for change. Whether on account of being apathetic or cleaned-out by other bindles or just plain unimpressed, nobody put anything in his hat. He swanked back down to our side of the car, where he thought he might’ve landed a sale in a swarthy old man with dyed-black hair who wore a three-piece, blue pinstriped suit and a chunky ruby ring. The man had dug deep into his pocket. The kid waited but the man merely withdrew nail-clippers and clipped off a hangnail. The kid stood and fumed. He turned his amp up to top volume and said, “Thank you so fucking much, everybody. No shortage of assholes in the world,” before slouching off at Delancey Street.

A week or so later, as I took the F train back home after my stint in the Library of Souls, I thought about us first-worlders with our Sherwanis and the subway mendicants and the busker with the bad attitude, and it seemed to me these elements add up to impressions, disjointed anecdotes, a pastiche maybe, but not to something epic. They’re fragments I see or experience on a daily experience but they don’t always crystallize into masterworks.

As I sat musing on this with ever-growing diffidence, on a train that had mostly cleared out by Jay Street-Borough Hall, a vagrant with a head of patchy, clumped hair stood with his pants hanging off his no-undies ass. He leaned forward, spit on the empty floor in front of him and stood back up. Again, he lean forward, spit on the floor and stood up. He repeated this act over and over again. The F train moved out of the tunnel at Carroll Street and I just kept looking out the window at the Williamsburg Bank building and at all the new developments going up from Gowanus to Boerum Hill to Fort Greene. By 4th Avenue, I recalled that there had been a case of Bubonic Plague reported in New York last year, and it occurred to me that the spitting vagrant might be giving it to me now. I’d be getting off at the next stop anyway, though. I was sure he wouldn’t be offended if I got up a little early and walked over to the other door till we reached my stop.

Another down-and-out stood next to me by those doors, though, stinking of too much whiskey and too few showers. 7th Avenue arrived. He got off first and turned around and looked dead at me, spaced-out and wild-eyed. I looked back at him, deadpan, and without moving my lips, sent him a telepathic message, “It’s been a hell of a day. Could you just not piss on me, please?”

When I reached the 8th Avenue staircase, I looked back over my shoulder and saw that the man had respected my wishes. He was only now taking out his penis and pissing on the white tiles on the side of the 7th Avenue staircase.

Kyle Thomas Smith is author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010). He lives in Brooklyn with his husband Julius and his cats, Marquez and Giuseppe.

A Life to Write About

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on April 18, 2014

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“If you do too much, I can pull you back,

but if you don’t do enough, I can’t pull it out of you.”

–       An Acting Teacher

By Kyle Thomas Smith

So Michael Alig is due for release from prison on May 5 after serving 17 years for the murder of his friend and fellow club kid, Andre “Angel” Melendez, the subject of the 2003 movie “Party Monster.” I didn’t know them. It happened years before I moved to New York, and I was never a club kid. I knew some club kids, but not well, just from around, you know. To hear them talk about their lives, though, always left you wondering if they’d be dead by tomorrow—the 24-hour clubbing, the designer drugs gatewaying into much harder stuff, the pasquinade drag crossing over into daytime ensembles that made you wonder how they kept their day jobs dressed like that, unless of course they got by as dealers and hustlers.

Before he’s even made his grand reentrance into society, Alig already has a book deal and is already passing drafts on to his Madison Avenue editor from behind bars. No doubt the memoir will fly off the shelves. Readers will return to the office red-eyed from all the adrenaline coursing vicariously through their veins as they make every phantasmagoric local from the front to back cover. All the while, the reader’s life will seem drab contrast to Alig and his unalloyed debauches. His wildly tossed salad days might be painful to write about but I doubt he’s at any loss for material—loss of memory, maybe, but as far as material goes, he’s a Velvet Goldmine.

Like I said, I was not a club kid. I was a reader. I was a cogitator. Even in college, in the 90s, I stayed in a lot and read classics and watched fine-arts and foreign films so I could be a writer when I got out of school. I strove to be an intellectual. This was no mean feat. By the time I graduated high school, I think I’d managed to squeak by with a cumulative D average. No-one knew better than I that I had a lot of catch-up ball to play if I was ever going to make it as a man of letters, so I got cracking while everyone else was out clubbing.

I’d done the club thing in early high school. Even back then, it was the same old story. You had to know how to dress. It was clear to anyone with eyes who the beautiful people were but it was never clear what secret DNA you had to have to walk among them—at least it was never clear to me, so after some failed attempts at fitting in, I just went along cultivating an outsider kind of cool and never looked back. And I gave up on those places early. The music was always the same—even when I’d drop back in from time to time, ten or so years later, even in the hottest places, they were still just spinning out the same ragbag.

It wasn’t going to clubs that got me bad grades in high school. As mentioned above, the club thing for me was short-lived. The reason I got bad grades was I went to an elite school I had no business going to: I only got in as a legacy (a legacy many times over); I had dyslexia, severe ADD (which they didn’t test for back then) and was enduring a lot of physical and emotional abuse at home and in my neighborhood. I got my IQ tested and the score came back average. But I wanted to be smart, so I took the fake-it-’til-you-make-it approach to intellectualism: I used ten-dollar words (cf., Sarah Palin), dressed in great coats, hung out in cafes, smoked European cigarettes and bored into dusty tomes.

Bored being the operative word. It was only in recent years that I even started letting myself watch TV. Last night, my husband Julius and I watched an episode of The Sopranos, a show I never saw while it was on the air but which I just started watching after reading that The Guardian ranked it Number One of the 100 Best-Written Shows of All Time, and I respect The Guardian and like well-written scripts, so I bought the box set on sale. It’s a good thing I never did drugs, considering how hooked I’ve gotten on The Sopranos since then. Seriously, even as I write this post from the azure coast and lucullan gardens of Mevagissey, England, Julius has had to swipe the Season 2 and 3 DVDs out of my laptop to get me to enjoy any of our actual vacation. But I can’t help it! I can’t get enough of Tony Soprano’s no-bullshit. On the one we watched last night, his psychiatrist (such a nice lady, I feel so bad for her, her mousiness is heartrending) recommended a book to him. In seven words, Tony summed up my guiltiest secret: “No. I read, I go right out.” I confess that’s true of me too. But I’ve forced myself all these years to chug coffee and read constantly just so I don’t end up a total dumb-ass (you can draw your own conclusions about to what extent I’ve succeeded in not becoming one, but I think I can safely say I’ve managed to stay out of “total” territory) since everyone who knows me would agree that, for whatever my failures have been in conventional life, I don’t have it in me to set up a career in organized crime.

Which brings me back to Michael Alig. I am probably the blogger least qualified to write about him. I know nothing about his life—though I am looking forward to reading his memoir—but having heard the hearsay and seen a couple Youtube clips, he strikes me as the sort who, for all his theatrics, had a secret stash of savvy that kept him afloat where others would have gone down long before the underground pulled him under. One knows this kind of person where I live in New York City. I’ve known people who were total junkies who managed to pull 4.0’s in Ivy League schools and become bestselling authors, full professors or senior partners in top law firms (some are probably all three in one).

Me? I had to keep my head down all these years and, now that I’m within striking distance of 40, I’m wondering if that was the best policy for me as a writer. Since I underperformed so spectacularly in high school, I had to do a year at a little college I hated before I transferred to University of Illinois at Chicago, which wasn’t considered the crème de la crème and it was just down the street from where I’d gone to high school but I liked it there and the people were by and large hard-working and intellectually curious. Most of us lived off campus and worked while we went to school. I worked as the assistant to the assistant in a Claims Management office, which paid my rent and bills and I liked my coworkers and could leave work at work when I’d go home after five o’clock to do my homework and all the many hours of extracurricular reading and studying I felt I had to do to become the writer I was so bent on becoming. I sported a bohemian look but I didn’t drink much or stay out too late on weekends.

When college was over, I did more of the same, just worked on becoming a better writer. I never went for an MFA since I was never one for groupthink, so I just wrote on my own, filling up notebooks Natalie Goldberg-style and like her, I’d also combine my creative aspirations with a regular Buddhist meditation practice. I travelled far and wide to exotic lands and always kept a notebook with me and later moved to New York, where rent was high and the jobs were so much more demanding, so you had to be alert and sober every hour on the clock, unless you have an exceedingly high IQ, which I don’t. And one day, I looked up and the rules changed. To be a writer, you had to stand on the brink of death, joining street gangs or being in and out of rehab or catching VD and spreading it to as many people as possible before you could make a mint off a tell-all about how that-was-my-past-but-boy-do-I-have-stories-now. And if you have to put some made-up shit in your books, big deal, you’ve done enough in life to make your spiel convincing.

I look back now and sometimes I despair over how I spent so much time thinking and reading books rather than, oh, drinking absinthe (oh, God, even that’s a dorky thing to do by now!). It kept me out of trouble but did it also keep me from living? Maybe not. I mean, I’ve done things. I published a novel and it won many awards. I’m married—in fact, gay-married, how cool is that? I know what it is to love and be loved. I’ve seen both my parents die. I’ve experienced the death of close friends. I’ve been to Bhutan, Botswana, Argentina, Cracow, South Africa, Nepal, Thailand and many, many other places. Still and all, Julius and I are in bed before midnight on weeknights and not long into the twilight on weekends. I wake up early to write and I also meditate twice a day, which some might consider cool, but I also pray and believe in God, which many would consider uncool and I don’t like to talk about it, not because it’s too Melvin or whatever but just because it’s a matter so intricate and ineffable, I prefer to keep it private. And, you know what, I’m fine with my life being this way—until I get to worrying that my writing will become too prosaic.

I could always write fiction, and I do write fiction, it’s just that fiction for me has to have some grounding in real life, and my real life is one that I prefer to keep out of danger.

Yet I keep coming back to something I once heard someone say about an acting teacher they once had. The teacher told his students, “If you do too much, I can pull you back, but if you don’t do enough, I can’t pull it out of you.” Michael Alig did too much. He even killed someone. Now the world awaits his memoir. Would you await the story of, say, the person standing next to you on the subway—if they’re not an addict or a recovering addict or a prostitute or a recovering prostitute, if they’ve never killed somebody? No matter how well they might tell their timeworn tale, would you long to hear it if they’re good and upstanding and just trying to get on with things same as you are?

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(Julius in sunglasses, Kyle in hoody, by the Godrevy Lighthouse, inspiration for Woolf’s To The Lighthouse) 

These are my koans for the day as I turn off The Sopranos and venture out to take in the beauty of Cornwall. This is after all, the place that inspired so many of Virginia Woolf’s stories—stories in which not a hell of a lot happens.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A. He lives in Brooklyn with his husband Julius and his illustrious felines Marquez and Giuseppe.

A Sorcerer on Montmartre – (Chapter Four and Five)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on March 5, 2014

A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

© 2013

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I know I’ve only been posting these chapters sporadically. It’s been a stressful time: my father died a couple weeks ago, less than a year after my mom – also, I sometimes forget I have a blog. Here are a couple more chapters of A Sorcerer on Montmartre. – Kyle

(Click the following for Chapters 1234, 5678910 (p. i)10 (p.2)10 (p.3)111213)

Chapter Four:

A Rogue and Peasant Hamlet

Do they even have hardware stores in France?, Simon wonders as he turns away from the window overlooking Montparnasse Cemetery and fixes on an iron hook that is screwed into Pascal’s ceiling. He can’t remember ever passing one on his desultory walks through Paris’s arrondissements, but he suspects the French must have hardware stores or else how could whoever-built-this-place have found things like Pascal’s cabinet hinges or the whitewashed screws on his doorknobs? And where else could the real-estate developer, even it was eons ago, have obtained that hook he’s staring at, in addition to all the other nuts and bolts and sticks and bricks that make up an apartment building? They must have purchased them locally. Simon can’t imagine everyone in France has these things imported to their doorsteps from England or Connecticut or wherever. Yet Simon has rifled through Pascal’s drawers and closets like Sherman rifled through Georgia and hasn’t found a single tool, not even a hammer or a Phillip’s-head screwdriver, much less the stepladder and rope he’s been angling for. It looks like Simon will just have to Google “Montparnasse hardware stores” and hope someplace nearby pops up.

Simon supposes he could always stand on a chair and use his shoelaces or any one of Pascal’s designer belts, but the ceiling hook is for hanging plants, not a man, and what if Simon’s dramatics go awry and he winds up bringing down the whole fourth floor? Apart from the obvious embarrassment, Pascal’s landlord would slap him with a big French lawsuit that Simon couldn’t even begin paying off on his zero-Euro a year salary. Lest he forget, Simon is an illegal in these parts, as undocumented as so much of the kitchen staff at Desiree’s was, and a jobless one at that. Does he want to get shipped back to New York if he doesn’t succeed in dying? There’s no job for him if he returns and his roommates aren’t about to take him back, rent-free, especially now that they’ve gotten someone new to take his place. So, then, without a roof over his head at Pascal’s, if someone from the French Ministry of the Interior were to find him alive and without papers, they might catapult him right back to his place of origin, Wizard’s Stone—which begs the question, does Simon want to hang himself here and now in Paris or there and then in Georgia?

Simon marvels at how there is no plant on Pascal’s ceiling hook, and there never has been, not even a nice fern. Why hasn’t Pascal ever hung a damn plant? The hook is there, it’s available. Simon guesses Pascal just never had much interest. And would he bat an eye if he found Simon dangling from the hook when he gets home from work? Or would he just…sigh…throw his keys on the bureau…sit on the couch…polish off the International section of Le Monde and a glass of that Bordeaux he likes so much before getting off his derrière, cutting Simon’s body down and calling the police in rivulets of crocodile tears? Pascal might not have tools but, in the vegetable basket, he has plenty of onions for opening his lachrymal ducts if he needs to.

Simon considers that Pascal does have strong-enough knives for cutting a man down from a ceiling, though. The knives give Simon some other ideas for how to shuffle off the mortal coil, options that do not entail a trip to the hardware store. But Simon would have to stab himself too many times, it wouldn’t be as fast or as efficient as a hanging, and the thought of slashing his wrists seems an even grislier, more drawn-out business. He had thought of throwing himself out the window, but Pascal’s place is only on the third floor and Simon remembers all too well the story of an alcoholic in East Harlem who did the same thing over a breakup, and from only about as many floors up, and that guy ended up surviving—with eight fractures and a world of pain. To make matters worse, all the drunk could do afterwards was take Vicodin with scotch while soiling his couch and watching schlock TV, which is how TV Guide became his bible, which is where the drunk found an ad telling him to call toll-free for a free copy of The Book of Mormon, which being broke and bored he did, only to find the book hand-delivered to him by Mormon missionaries, who said they wanted to talk to him about salvation and since the drunk had no one else to talk to anymore, much like Simon in Paris, he let them stay and chat. Now that the Latter-Day Saints have taken over payment of his hospital bills, the now-teetotaling drunk has found himself back on his feet and in a thrall to the Mormons. He is currently putting body and soul back together by hectoring other callers of their toll-free number, oftentimes finding them far less receptive to Joseph Smith’s message than the drunk himself had been. So, no, Simon will not be throwing himself out Pascal’s window into Montparnasse, not as long as there are Mormons on the other side of the river in the 16e arrondissement. He had done too much door-knocking for Calvary, when he was younger, to want to be on the other side of that transaction now. And, yes, he has thought of falling from higher up, but he has already tried for roof-access on the huitième étage, only to find it dead-bolted and backed up by an alarm system.

Of all the options on the table, hanging still seems the best, but now Simon is thinking that’s too much of a Judas way out and if anyone has betrayed anyone, it’s Pascal. He was the one who had kept the billets doux coming via Facebook and email and he was the one who had sent for Simon when his chips were down, only to end up showing about the same level of interest in being with Simon as he has for putting ferns on ceiling hooks.

And, as of last night, Simon has discovered Pascal’s communiqués with at least two other guys, one a 23-year-old Albanian trick from FastCupid.com, who emails Pascal in what looks to Simon like good French and whom (according to Google Translate) Pascal has been seeing in his office for nooners every Tuesday for the past several weeks. Others are from his ex, Raphaël, in absentia for seven years, who now keeps writing réunissons-nous et parler.

Simon does not feel the least bit bad about hacking into Pascal’s emails. Pascal had been dumb enough to leave the smoking gun on Full Screen while they were eating the tuna niçoise that Simon had prepared for him last night. Halfway through dinner, Pascal had gotten up to take what he had said was a business call on his mobile and, while he was out of the room, Simon crept over to the computer screen and read: “Je me suis amusé. Tu es un homme sexy. Je ne peux pas attendre pour la semaine prochaine…” Pascal came back and caught Simon snooping. “C’est privé!,” he shouted as he logged out. They did not speak another word to each other for the rest of the night. Simon simply washed the dishes, Pascal simply dried the dishes and they both went to bed in a dummied-up muddle. Simon lay awake all night and only fell asleep about half an hour before Pascal had woken up for work, leaving behind a note that read: “Buy milk.” Pascal was long gone by the time Simon woke up wishing the Albanian’s email had been a bad dream. So, was Pascal indeed dumb or, on some level, did he want to get caught? Either way, Simon had been clever enough to guess his email password, “Mignon,” which yielded a tree of knowledge he now wishes he had not picked from. The truth shall set you free or make you wish you were dead. If things between them were going to end in tears anyway, why couldn’t this have been one of the great romances like Heathcliff and Catherine’s in Wuthering Heights? Why did it have to turn into some trashy talk-show episode about a hackneyed email hacking? None of this was the stuff of great lives.

And what are the chances of Pascal seeing the error of his ways when it’s all over? Could Simon ever count on Pascal to arrange a plot for him in Montparnasse, preferably one within shouting distance of Sartre or, better yet, Beauvoir? Or is Montparnasse all booked up? Do you have to buy generations in advance? In the end, would Pascal just haul Simon out under cover of the night, dump his corpse in the Seine and go have a rapprochement with his ex or, better yet, a booty-call with his Tuesday Albanian? Simon determines that, far worse than being melodramatic and complicated, his suicide could prove downright anticlimactic. Yet his packed suitcase in the bedroom, which Pascal’s black cat Mignon is sprawled out on now as he licks his paws, could prove even more fatal.

Simon walks into the bedroom and begins petting Mignon. The cat, the password’s namesake, so sleek, so self-assured, so up for a petting at any moment is the best part of living chez Pascal. More than a few times, they have spent all day together while Pascal was ostensibly out-of-the-country on assignment (“Nozing happens in Ystad,” “You’d be bored if you came,” “I would not be able to passer du temp avec toi”) or pulling all-nighters in the editing room (“I could be un nuit, I could be zree. It’s okay, I have a bed et toiletries là-bas.”). As Simon strokes him, Mignon purrs and his front paws start strutting up a storm even while he lies on his belly with his nose upturned. Every night that Pascal is in town, Mignon sleeps between him and Simon. Many were the times Simon would reach over to touch Pascal and Pascal would rustle, as though Simon had stirred him from the soundest sleep, even if Pascal had been wide awake with his eyes open the whole night, worried about his film projects or what he had gotten himself into with all the emails he used to exchange with this American boy whom he now found living in his apartment and with whom he now had a joint bank account. Simon would end up pulling his arm away from Pascal and down to Mignon, who no sooner would wake up with a start than he would start rustling up a purr louder than a ringing alarm clock, to Pascal’s even greater dismay.

Pascal has 3,000 Euros in savings. Simon runs the numbers and decides he will take 600 as severance. He also tells himself he will keep the debit/ATM card but not use it unless it’s an absolute emergency. Besides, he also expects Pascal to rescind the account once he finds him gone, so 600 Euros seems fair. It’s about as much as Simon showed up with when his plane landed at Charles de Gaulle and Pascal greeted Simon in a swarm of people, while holding up a cardboard sign with Simon’s name on it, as though there were any danger of Simon not remembering what Pascal looked like after that week they had spent together, months before, in Manhattan. In dollars, 600 Euros is about the amount of his severance check from the August Strindberg Theatre. He would only be taking what he came with, Simon told himself, he’d be playing aboveboard.

Simon has learned that it’s always best to keep a weather eye on karma, especially in a pinch, something he had become well aware of after he had taken leave of his scruples so many years before on the road to New York with Belinda. He had come to find that, if you walk a narrow path, your chances of having it easier later dramatically appreciate. He had also come to see the opposite as true.

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Chapter Five

SAW-TOOTHED MONSTROSITY

Again, Simon and Belinda had to make their five grand last, so they dined-and-dashed in restaurants and diners all the way up the east coast. Belinda already knew how to beat a check. She had been doing it ever since she had first left Whimbrel Creek. She even did it when she wasn’t hurting for cash, just for a prank, a dare, shits and giggles—pretend to go to the restroom, wait until the waitresses’ and managers’ backs are turned and scuttle out the door. It wasn’t rocket science.

The first time they did this together, though, in an A&W Family Restaurant in South Carolina, Simon felt the presence of Jesus and the flaming sword he said he’d come back with in Revelations. Not even Sartre could have defended what Simon had done when he squinted and told the waitress he had to go get his glasses (lie #1: he had never worn any) from the car so he could read the check; from there, he’d gone out and sat waiting for Belinda in the passenger seat until she could abscond on the pretext that she’d had no idea what was keeping her young husband (three lies, plus theft, plus conspiracy). Sartre’s ethical paradigm dictates that, even in a godless universe, it is nonetheless incumbent upon each and every one of us to behave in such a way that we would wish for our actions to be those of all humanity. Did Simon want all the world behaving like a den of thieves, even in A&W Family Restaurants? When the flaming sword lanced him for this first violation, he had felt his soul becoming a towering inferno. He couldn’t speak a single word for the next couple hundred miles of their trip to New York and he couldn’t bear to look at himself in any of Belinda’s car mirrors either.

It got easier the more they did these things, though. The sword and the burning became bearable. Simon had even begun to swagger into roadside restaurants (swaggering being yet another thing he had never done before and that Menard never would have allowed, though from his first touchdown, his football-star brother Key had made a science of it and Menard had lauded Key’s every strut). Simon had even begun developing new moves for the duo’s post-dining experiences. Once at an Applebee’s outside of Roanoke, after the waitress had brought the bill, Simon had instructed Belinda to go out and start up the Mustang while he sat and enjoyed an after-dinner refill of Coke. Once he had jangled out and chomped down the last ice cube from the bottom of his gold-tinted soda glass, Simon approached an old-timer who was sitting alone, reading The Virginia Gazette in the booth behind him. “Excuse me, sir,” said Simon, “I have a friend who’ll be joining me and I want the waitress to know we’ll be needing another setup. When you see me go up and talk to her, would you mind waving and pointing at the table, just so she’ll know which table I’m talking about?” The old man said he’d be glad to and so, when he saw Simon walk up to the front and talk to the waitress, he waved and pointed to Simon’s table, not knowing that Simon was telling the waitress, “See that gentleman over there? The one waving? He says he’ll pay our check.”

Simon knew all along these were the kinds of things people like Barabbas do, but some little devil or other on his shoulder had reminded him that, on that fateful day in Jerusalem, Jesus was the one who got crucified, Barabbas was the one the crowd spared, and besides it’s common knowledge that you have to learn to cut a few throats if you’re going to make it in New York, which Menard used to refer to as “American Gomorrah” and which Aunt Gloria had called “Babylon at its best and worst,” based on things her daughter Connie had told her.

Connie had been to New York twice for trade shows when she was working for Dazzle Razzle Fashions in Savannah and she never, but never, stopped talking about it. She had made both trips in the eighties. She was even wearing a stonewashed denim jacket with detachable white-wool lining (the one that had made her the envy of her swinging-singles apartment complex), a passel of pinchbeck trinkets and a mane of fluffy blonde hair, all immortalized in the pictures her coworkers had taken of her on their night on the town in Times Square and a little ways up the street, outside a theater called Winter Garden on Broadway. The pictures had held a time-honored place on Aunt Gloria’s picture stand throughout Simon’s childhood. He remembered a show called Cats was advertised on Winter Garden’s marquee. Connie and her coworkers had bought tickets to it and Connie said she had never seen anything so spectacular. All the actors were dressed up like alley cats and had clarion voices with which they sang songs that were based on a book of poems about cats in a faraway fairy-tale city called London, where everyone speaks like Malcolm Muggeridge. The very idea was enough to send Simon’s green mind into imaginative transports in which he envisioned cities abroad and stories that included singing cats and things other than deeds done by those who incurred the Lord’s wrath or those who pleased Him by smiting those the Lord didn’t like.

But…speaking of fairies and faraway cities…how was it that Menard could have called New York “American Gomorrah” while Cousin Connie had said it was the toughest town she had ever seen? In fact, Connie had said she was scared to death walking through it. Weren’t fairies the kind that, again, back in the eighties, on into the nineties, Menard’s deer-hunting buddies would take special Saturday night trips out to Atlanta to go beat up in Ansley Square? His friends had always made them out to be namby-pamby cream puffs, who ran from them like loping hinds, which always had made Simon confused as to why Menard’s buddies had felt the need to load up their pickup trucks with baseball bats and feral teenagers if fairies were so easy to take down. Still, there was Menard on one side, saying fairies were all over New York, and Cousin Connie on the other, saying it was the toughest town in creation, a lot tougher than Wizard’s Stone, she insisted, which did even more to scare Simon, who wouldn’t have walked through his hometown at night on a bet. If the toughest town on earth was lousy with fairies, then even its fairies must be pretty tough. But he couldn’t square this logic with how everyone he knew in Wizard’s Stone had made it clear that anything fairy is the opposite of tough.

So how would it be for Simon to walk a square block of New York at any hour of the day? Would people stop whatever they were doing and target him like they do anyone who seems like easy pickings in Wizard’s Stone? How many times did he have to haul ass out of the way of bottles hurled by knots of dirt-head hicks, declaring Main Street their street, when he was, say, just on his way home from picking up a peach cobbler pie for Sunday dinner from the General Store? Did it get even worse than that on the streets of New York?

Connie was married now with a brood of five quick-succession rug rats in Macon. Yet every time Simon would see her, she would retell the tale of “The V8 Incident,” something that had happened to her, all those many years back, on one of the couple jaunts that she and the Dazzle Razzle girls took to downtown Manhattan. In recounting the story, Connie always mentioned a place on Seventh Avenue called the Chelsea Night & Day Diner, which she used to say had all these scrappy Jewish waitresses. Connie was on a big health-and-diet kick back then, “her salad days,” she called that period when she was young and thin and eating lettuce for a snack and was wearing baby-blue legwarmers more for Richard Simmons’s workout tapes than for show. At lunchtime, which they call brunch on weekends in New York, while all the other girls were too busy shopping to go eat, she had dropped into Chelsea Night & Day Diner with her boss and ordered a V8 with an all-green vegetable salad from a waitress whose entire demeanor had made it known she did not have all day, a temperament utterly foreign to Connie and the folks back home. The waitress scribbled down their orders and rushed off from their table without so much as a smile or a thank-you. When she came back with the beverage, Connie couldn’t help but notice how pulpy her V8 looked. She took a sip and told her boss it just didn’t taste right. She signaled the waitress, who was meeting herself coming and going on her way from line cooks to customers. “I’d hate to bother you, miss,” she said, “But I asked for a V8 and you brought me tomato juice.” Of all things, the waitress started arguing with her, “Waddya tawkin’ ’bout? You said V8, I give ya V8.” Connie had already known she was no match for New York City but this was still her country and a southern lady must take a stand for hospitality in it, so she laid it on the line with the waitress, “I know from V8, miss.” At which point, the waitress called out to another waitress, who was carrying a four-top tray full of omelets and toasted bagels, “Hey, Lisa! Waddya say? Is this V8 or ta-may-ta juice?” Without even breaking pace or looking down, the other waitress scooped the glass off the table, took a sip, put it right back down in front of Connie and hustled on over to her four-top across the room, saying over her shoulder, “It’s ta-may-ta juice.” Connie did not know whether to be scandalized or honored to have stepped into the starring role of such a bona fide New York moment. One thing was certain, though: “The V8 Incident” was the kind of thing Connie was talking about when she said that, to get through a day of life in New York, you have to be one tough hombre.

Simon liked the thought of finally becoming a tough hombre after all these years of his head being in the sand. So, before they had even crossed into North Carolina, Simon had said the Chelsea Night & Day Diner should be the first place he and Belinda should go when they get to New York, betting it would be just the kind of total-immersion experience they would need to inure themselves to their lives-to-come. First, though, they had to brace themselves for entering the city itself.

Simon had been suppressing anxiety attacks the whole way east and north. He knew in his bones that nothing less than a complete change of both scenery and being would do from here on out. Yet even Baltimore’s high-rises looked to be well on other the other side of manageable as they drove past them and even America’s Comeback City looked like nowhere he’d ever come back to if it were left up to his small-town self—but that was the same self he had to shed now, and how did he expect to take on New York if he couldn’t even belly up to Baltimore? Downtown Philadelphia was an even more daunting vision, yet as they crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey, Simon also had a feeling that Philly was a mere shadow of what was coming next. He had read about all these places in Civil War lessons in school but he could not imagine any Confederate cadet feeling one iota more trepidation than he did upon entering them, but still he sat in silence with a rigid exterior as Belinda intermittently looked over and laughed at Simon’s pygmy attempts to bear up inside.

From I-78, above and beyond Newark’s smokestacks, Simon could see the saw-toothed monstrosity looming in a pollution aura above the Hudson. The closer they crept up to it, the more the cars and trucks bottlenecked. At the tolls, Simon and Belinda had to pay the better part of what they would have had to pay at Applebee’s, had they paid at all. When they came through the Holland Tunnel and drove up to Canal Street, the first thing Simon heard was the crushing barrage of a garbage truck bouncing down a gravel parkway over a multitude of car horns and Al Green’s “You Ought to Be with Me” on full blast in the cream-colored Cadillac in the next lane. For the next long time, no matter where Simon happened to be, no matter if a garbage truck was in sight or Al Green was even playing within a mile radius, this cantankerous symphony was anchored in his mind as the sound of New York. A stench he would come to know too well, the fetid blend of trash, gridlock exhaust and herbs and spices from hundreds of thousands of different cultures and their restaurants, seeped into his open passenger-side window. Smoke billowed out of two manhole covers over on Hudson Street. People of any and all colors and creeds bustled past each other, not casting disparagement on each other’s differences, but, it seemed to Simon, respecting each other’s right to the sidewalk. Simon had fully expected himself to shut down inside when envisaging this cacophony. Instead, it felt something more akin to a slough peeling off a tender but altogether new layer of flesh. Whether he would survive it all seemed beside the point. He had come this far and he was here.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010). He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband Julius and illustrious cats, Marquez and Giuseppe.