Junkies are ghost-slinking around the block, looking for their man, banging on window gates and ringing doorbells. I scan their eyes for some glimpse of what their lives are like, staring at their rumpled, smack-hunting clothes, matted hair and mottled skin. They only care about taking care of business, up their nose or in their arms, legs, eyes anywhere there’s a good vein.
The dealers and the junkies–they haunt my life like the ice cream man haunts my childhood’s suburban summers.
Just off Rivington I see a kid with superman blue hair face down on the pavement, one cop kneeling on his back, the other taking notes, leaning up against the front window gates of the matzo factory.
Smoky smell of piss drifts out of the corners of the school building, wrapping around my shoulders and giving me a good shove over the sidewalks prickled with glass over towards the old Norfolk St. synagogue. The edifice bursts fire red against the gray tenements that surround it, a barely visible tar of David etched onto the rose window that weeps tears of yellow puss–foam insulation, I think.
All of America is here, a microcosm of its pain concentrated into a single, perpetually shifting block, taking people in, pushing them out, the sidewalk a shattered landscape of broken beds and dead refrigerators, overflowing with open garbage bags, abandoned cars, stench of rancid cooking oil and steaming dog shit. These streets are Lady Liberty’s open, gangrenous arms, scored with needle marks, bruised with amnesia, shot through with the muffled cries of hungry babies.
From his station atop the Red Square apartment building, a huge bronze statue of Lenin, hand striking out ahead of him as if to lead Red Square’s clock tower to the barricades, dominates the airspace above Houston and Avenue A, visible for blocks in every direction. Revolution as kitsch, politics coopted to sell co-ops.
I cross Houston under that blank gaze to Margaret’s, my regular breakfast joint. Margaret’s an old Polish woman with painted black eyebrows and bleached blond hair fading to a sour, mousy hue towards the center of her head. Surly is her middle name and she doesn’t get too many big tips, not from this bunch of vagrants and bohos, except on those days when she’s particularly generous with the coffee. Once she offered to pour me another cup of coffee, but when I asked for a glass of water she refused. Too much trouble, she said, she had the coffee pot in her hand and she’d be damned if she was going to walk all the way across the restaurant to fetch wasser.
I keep it simple, whisky down, wheat toast. Coffee and home fries are automatic. I don’t bother asking for water and bring out my morning’s work, pitch letters to magazines. This is how I thought I could make my real money.
I’ve tried to convince myself that all of the jobs I’m juggling are investments in my future, but I know, finally, that I’ve deluded myself into believing what I need to believe to keep my apartment and cope with the rejection letters and bills. The last couple of years had been a continuous string of leaps into progressively more extreme states of moral compromise: I can do that for a while, that doesn’t bother me, I can live with that, that might be interesting, that could make for a good story.
I crack my knuckles, my neck, my back. I need to stroll and Chinatown sounds good. I take my favorite path down Orchard Street to Canal. The apparel stores are open for business, but this is early on a week day and only a few Jewish ladies decked out in navy blue or black suits and morbid brunette wigs, plied their usual routes from shop to shop under the ancient gaze of tenement fenestrations and terracotta brick-a-brack. Trucks line street, their back doors open, waiting for the goods to slide down the pulleys from the sweatshops above. The Lower East Side’s three constituent ethic groups gel right here, the mostly Jewish-owned shops next to the Chinese welding studios and whole sale vegetable warehouses around the corner from the bodegas and mattress stores. Chinatown seeps in from the south and the west, while the Loisada retreats north and the east. But on lower Orchard Street at least, things are as they have been for four generations: Jewish men in pais and black yarmulkes hawking women’s underwear and shoes, men’s ties and suits.
I turn west on Hester Street, across the Bowery, past the Chinese groceries with the open buckets of fish flopping for oxygen, crabs scrabbling over each other going nowhere, and vegetables, some of which I could name instantly, others for which I had no words to describe except as Asian cousins of cucumber, melon, and pears.
Gingerly fondling a porcupine pineapple, I stand beneath a makeshift blue plastic awning as the rain slaps down and look over my shoulder at passers-by rushing for shelter.