Wednesday, June 13, 2012

An excerpt from Down & Out in Manhattan

I walked downtown along the riverside, past the handball courts and old freight yard tracks. There were people picking through the debris along the tracks, some exiting and entering the yawning mouth of the tunnel. I veered away from them, to where there were these old, dilapidated piers sticking out into the water like old gnarled fingers. I walked out on these, picking my careful, tipsy way over the holes and stepping gingerly where the rickety, fire scarred boards creaked underfoot.
I sat on the very top of that pier, oblivious to the cold and damp, my Botticelli shod feet dangling just above the surface of the river. It was almost dark by the time I finished my bottle. It was almost dark and I was so drunk I felt like I was floating at sea within my own body. Somehow I made it back across the pier without falling in. I left the park and walked for a long way and at some point I entered a subway. A train roared into the station and I was grateful to sit down. I must have passed out because I woke as the doors were closing on an unfamiliar station. I looked across at the old Puerto Rican man sitting across from me.
“Excuse me,” I said through a mouthful of marbles, “where is this train going?”
He laughed, his face appeared to be reeling, and there was a vile taste in my mouth.
“Brooklyn,” he said.
I was going in the wrong direction. When the train arrived in the next station, I stumbled to my feet and got off. The station was green, dirty and dimly lit. The platform was empty. The train pulled out and I realized my hands were empty, I’d lost my briefcase, and I didn’t care.
The sign at the end of the platform read; transfer to Uptown and Manhattan. I walked towards it, swaying as I went, there a staircase led into darkness and I was afraid to go, but I couldn’t stay and down I went. Gripping the hand rail, I descended, the tunnel at the bottom was just as dark, but at the far end was a light and I moved towards it. Something crashed against my skull, I fell and the whole world slipped away.
When I woke it was freezing cold and I could feel my bare skin against the cold, dirty stones. The back of my head was sticky and wet, but for my underpants and sox, I was naked. I was on the floor of the tunnel and somewhere water was running. I rose shakily to my feet, weak and dizzy and sat back down. I was scared, I was still drunk, and all I wanted was to go home. To get home I had to make it to the light at the end of the tunnel, but I couldn’t find my feet and I started to crawl. It was a long way along a cold, clammy, grimy floor, but when I reached the other side I was able to stand, just barely. I dragged myself up the stairs, my socks soaking wet, I reached the top and held on to the rail till a dizzy spell passed. The platform on the north bound side was empty save for an elderly black man sitting on a bench in a dirty coat. He had a shopping cart parked next to him filled with rags and he stared at me, shivering and naked before him.
A train plowed into the station, I couldn’t bring myself to get on, and it came and went without departures. The old man was still there. He came wordlessly to me and helped me to the bench.
“Why didn’t you get on the train,” I asked.
The man rummaged around in his cart and, by way of answer, handed me some old, dirty clothes. I put them on, and as he handed me two left shoes he said, “Got no place to go. Leastways, no place that train is gonna take me to.”
I nodded, understanding.
“I don’t have but one coat,” he said, “but you can have this,” he handed me a thin blanket. “You shouldn’t go down those tunnels. Not when they’re dark. You’re lucky those boys didn’t kill you.”
He didn’t have anything else to say and I sat quietly with him till the next train rocketed in. When it did, I thanked him and boarded.
There were a few people on the train, and they moved to the other end when I arrived. I heard one woman say to the man she was with; “That white bum stinks!”
I must have been pretty deep in Brooklyn, because the train seemed to roar on forever. After a while I passed out again. It must have been the crack I took on the head, because I wasn’t feeling all that drunk anymore, no matter how I smelled.
I came to when I felt something being poked into my chest, I opened my eyes, and there was a young, blonde cop jabbing at me with a night stick. The train was just leaving the Fifty-Ninth Street Station, I was almost home.
“Get up you fucking stink ass bum!” the cop shouted.
I was still unsteady, and not thinking clearly, I tried to push the stick away. The cop didn’t like this and he grabbed me by the collar and hauled me out of my seat, slamming me against the car doors.
“Hey!” I said, as the train pulled into the Sixty-Eight Street Station.
“Shut the fuck up!” He screamed.
The doors opened and he shoved me out of the train, leaving me sprawled on the platform.
It was a long walk home, light headed as I was, from the alcohol and rough treatment. I moved slowly, keeping to the shadows, embarrassed, terrified, lest I saw someone I knew, wondering what the doorman would think. I desperately wanted a shower, clean clothes, and a warm bed.
Without a watch, and with all I’d been through, I had no sense of time. It must have been pretty late when I arrived at the Water Tower, though, because the vestibule was locked and I had to ring the bell for the night doorman. When, he, being Harry, appeared, he gave me a hard stare through the thick glass of the front door, and made no move to grant entry, instead he made shooing motions at me.
I stood my ground though, gesturing for Harry to open up and a neat little standoff ensued, until I began to pound on the glass, at which point Harry grabbed a black jack from behind the counter and opened the door quickly.
“What the fuck do you want?” he roared, brandishing his stick.
“Harry,” I said crisply, “don’t you recognize me? It’s Jack Cole, I live here.”
He let the hand with the stick fall to his side. “What happened to you?”
I sighed, letting some of the tension pass from my body, “I was mugged, beaten, they stole my clothes.”
“Jesus,” Harry said, but still he made no move to let me inside.
“Can you let me in, please? I need a shower and rest. It’s been a tough day.”
He stiffened, “It’s about to get tougher. I’m sorry, Mr. Cole. The Marshal was here this afternoon. You’ve been evicted.”
My stomach fell into the ground, “You mean I can’t come in?”
“Instructions from management are I can’t let you in.”
“Harry, I just need to get some clothes, take a shower. I’ll leave after that, no one will know.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Cole, I’d like to help, but I can’t afford to lose my job,” he looked down at his shoes.
I turned away, began walking slowly up the block.
“Hold on,” Harry called out, “wait right there.” He locked the door and disappeared while I stood shivering. After a moment he came back out with a heavy, doorman’s coat slung over one arm. He unlocked the door and handed me the coat.
“Take this,” he said, “it’s better than that blanket.” He also handed me a ten dollar bill, “that’s all I got on me, and here,” he produced a business card and handed that over as well. “They told me to give you this, call the number on this card tomorrow and they’ll tell you how you can reclaim your stuff.” He studied me for a minute, “Do you have any place to go?”
He looked concerned, but I knew there was nothing he could do for me and I didn’t want the guy to feel bad, so I said yes, thanked him, and walked off into the darkness of the New York night.

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