Bowery & 1st St., NY, NY 10012

Neighborhood: East Village

I scrolled through last Saturday’s call log on my cell phone to find his number. I hadn’t saved it on purpose, never thought I’d be dialing it. Weird, I couldn’t stop thinking about this guy. It wasn’t a crush or anything (the thought of romance with anyone Y-chromosomed made my stomach turn), but I had to admit, his charisma had left an annoying residue on the back of my mind. I battled a day-old hangover trying to remember if he had left for Pittsburgh.

No answer. I left a message saying who I was and where we met, and to call me back whenever. He called right back.

“When are you leaving again?” I said.

“Well, tomorrow maybe, but I’m not in a big rush or anything,” he said. “Maybe Friday? That way I can break out some new shit at at the Bowery Thursday.”

“Yeah, cool, because I want to get together and talk. The Bowery Poetry Club? Why don’t I take you to dinner before you go?”

He wouldn’t say no to dinner. He was the type that was always hungry. Since his slam was at seven at Bowery and First, we made plans to meet for dinner at five. I looked up a place near the club that I thought would be safe for me and convenient for him.

I got to the restaurant fifteen minutes early to have a drink and collect my thoughts. I told the manager I was waiting for someone, and asked if we could have that booth in the back. At five sharp Moses walked in, and I realized I halfway hadn’t expected him to show up at all. We smiled at each other, and I got the manager to seat us.

“Do you wanna hear a monologue I’m gonna do tonight? I just wrote it today, it’s just three minutes,” he said. He looked around, eyes quickly resting on each body, counting his audience. We were few, but his eyes were sparkling anyway.

“I’d love to,” I said. “Should we order first so they don’t interrupt?”

“Nah, just three minutes, lemme just do it now so I don’t get nervous.”

He was more eager than nervous, but I told him to go for it.

His words were witty and smart, and intimidating. He seemed well read, or at least very in touch with street-level politics and humanity. He has a knack for soaking up the atmosphere of the city.

“That was awesome,” I said. “Good rhythm, nice flow, it builds up momentum; the whole thing is really clever and in your face at the same time. I wish I could go tonight. Maybe next time.”

He smiled, looked down at his shirt, across the room, then began studying the stickers that said “Nobody Gives You Power, You Just Take It,” “Ban Republican Marriage” and “Dreaming” on the little white suitcase that he brought with him everywhere. His ego was adequately fluffed, so we looked at the menu.

His grin faded. “Um, you know what, there’s not too much I can afford,” he said. “Do you think they’d give me like a side of mashed potatoes or something?”

“Listen, I invited you, and I’m buying dinner. I already told you that anyway. Get whatever you want. What about the steak and fries?”

He said, “That sounds really good,” and opened up his suitcase to reorganize his goods: the photocopied, hand stapled booklets of poetry, various stickers, a strange assortment of postcards, and other random items that people had given him or he had found with potential street value. He pulled out one of his self-publications.

“Hey, want me to sign it for you?” His smile was charming, and he held out the signed copy as if it had first-edition-as-new value. “No charge, you know, since you’re buying dinner and all.”

I smiled, thanked him, and put it in my bag. I looked back at the menu realizing that I had just figured something out. His subtle manifestations of unassuming politeness were getting to me, in contrast with his confidence and obvious talent as a political writer and counter-culture activist, a rare combination, especially in a young guy. He was reluctant to take charity, though that’s why he came. The waiter came over, we ordered, and I asked Moses if he wanted a glass of wine to go with his steak. He looked at the waiter, then at the menu, then at me out of the corner of an eye, then back at the menu, saying nothing. I ordered another glass of what I was having.

I got out my steno pad and a pen, and his laugh teased and applauded at the same time. He was a glutton for attention, so we got right into it, and started down the path my notes laid out. We went over the basics, and he went on a few rambling tangents in between. In the end I didn’t follow my list, despite my obsession with crossing things off, but we spoke too easily. I gave in.

After a half a glass of wine his face was flushed. He leaned in and said, “I feel really comfortable talking to you.” I had the feeling that mostly he appreciated someone taking more than a sideways glance at him.

Just as our conversation was taking off, our dinner came and his cell phone rang. He squirmed, trying to find it quickly, looking apologetic, irritated at how abrasive it was though it was a cute little tone. I told him I understood, and to answer. Normally when I’m out with anyone I might be at a dinner table with, I’d be infuriated and offended by anyone answering their cell phone. In this case, though it broke our rhythm, it was obvious that it was important, the one tenuous line between him and anyone else out in the world that wanted to find him. He needs this connection, for people to care about him, to want to talk to him.

“I want more people to care about me than I could possibly ever give enough attention to,” he told me later.

He conversation was with a young woman he’d meet later that night. She asked what he was doing, and he said, “This thirty-five year old woman is buying me a twenty-two dollar steak and an eight dollar glass of wine.”

I heard a mini-shriek come out of his phone, jealousy mixed with flirtation, then silence. His immediate beaming grin told me she must have been whispering descriptions of where he’d be sleeping that night and step-by-step what they’d do after the slam.

When they hook up later she’ll ask him all about me, if he doesn’t tell her first. If he’s the gentleman he’s been he’ll focus on her before telling his story. Maybe he won’t tell any kind of story, or maybe he’ll embellish, you don’t really know with a salesman. Maybe he’s not so much a salesman as adept at survival, though the two states are closely related, depending on luck and resources. Bottom line, she’s interested, he’ll say what he needs to say to fill in the blank.

It’s never one-sided. What you think is interesting and for your benefit always has another side and a value all its own attached. I was talking to a young man of twenty-two who travels on charity, living place to place, showering and washing his pungent clothes when he can (not often enough for me to sit too close). He’s attractive, and defies ethnic categorization. He’s tall, thin, with dark shaggy hair and a thin scraggly goatee. He’s polite, well spoken, mature for his age, and eccentric by choice. He wears layers of clothes, tucked in to each other and arranged artfully. He easily passes as an NYU student.

By the end of dinner, with the presence of someone who seeks out scrutiny, he had laid out a portrait of his history. “Moses” was born September 19, 1982 in an indelibly red state to parents that never married and lived a fluid life. His mother took him to California when he was five, where they lived with friends for a while. Then to Minnesota for another while with other friends. When she felt the need to continue on without him, she left him with his grandparents in North Dakota until he was fifteen. His grandmother died almost immediately, and since his grandfather couldn’t be bothered with him, he decided to move back to Minnesota to find his father. He graduated high school at sixteen.

School was obviously easy for him. He was propelled through, raising the statistics in the school’s favor. His dad gave him money to keep going to school, so he moved into a dorm at the University of Minnesota. He partied through his college money in about a year, and dropped out. He spent the next year with friends, then sold his computer for a hundred bucks, and hit the road.

He hitchhiked and bussed out to Portland, his backpack packed with a couple of changes of clothes and two comp books full of poetry. He also brought what would become his trademark, a small shopworn white suitcase he found on the free table at a garage sale with tapes inside on how to be a traveling salesman. Brilliant student that we was, he found it difficult to sell much in Portland, but he enjoyed meeting the people and seeing what he saw.

But he’s a salesman here in Manhattan, and survives on charm and the cash and other handouts it gets him. “Cash is where it’s at,” he said, and we agree it’s important to be able to make cash in order to spend it, and then make some more to spend some more.

He’s still got a decent relationship with his family. His paternal grandmother (the only one that consistently lets him know she cares for and worries about him) continues to support his cell phone. He can always go back to work for his dad to get cash for his next trip. After Pittsburgh, he says he’ll go to Northern California to stay with friends. He’ll end up somewhere in the hippy-dippiest part of Marin living in a big empty crash pad with nine other “weird artist vagabond types” like himself. They might make a movie, or some recordings, any of which would help his product supply, furthering his potential for income.

Moses isn’t sure how long the “broke artist thing” will hold his attention, but he’s confident he’ll get by. He’s willing to do odd jobs or carpentry when necessary. I have a feeling he’ll be in California for a while, where it’s easier to live outside. Why is it that he seems nobler to me in the streets of New York than he would in San Francisco? Maybe because I moved away from there after seeing too many kids on those streets that were completely apathetic and junked up so stupidly they couldn’t write or speak.

Moses has always written, at least since he realized he could. Around fifteen he started taking his talent seriously after writing poetry to impress a girl. His only trepidation is that his life won’t be interesting enough to write about, an issue he’s bent on getting around. He has no problem putting himself in interesting situations.

“I like to fuck up somebody’s day,” he says with a smile, and I took it to be an agreement with what I had been saying about my own desire to adjust people’s perspectives for them, even momentarily. I connected pretty strongly to his need to break through the numb consciousness some people walk through the world with as if insulated.

He loves music, especially rap, which I cannot stand. I can understand why he likes it though, his being a poet. He likes the lyrics and their clarity, and the way you’re forced to listen.

Back at the dinner table, he began bouncing when some sort of rumba or bossanova came on, took my hand, and put on a cute little show. He touched my arm shyly, then touched my back, and asked, “Is this appropriate?” since earlier I had thanked him for not touching me inappropriately before. I said, “So far.”

I met him last weekend at my favorite all-night diner in the Meatpacking District. My friends and I were eating breakfast at 4 am in an effort to detour a pending hangover. I had a cold that I was blatantly ignoring, since my friends were in town and I felt obliged to entertain. Moses somehow caught my eye. Maybe it was his salesman’s intuition or my roaming drunk eye, always in search of the alternative, the beauty in what’s been judged ugly by those before me. The details are hazy, but early on in the conversation one of us had struck up, he said, “I want to go home with you and smoke your pot.” I figured this is a line he must use on many, because I no recollection of mentioning I had any weed at home. I laughed, my friends and I kept eating, and we eventually left.

He was outside waiting. As we hailed cabs, he shuffled up to me, kicking the sidewalk, glancing around and then up at the sky.

“Can I come home with you?” he asked, and I actually thought about it. My friends read trouble in my expression. Janey grabbed my arm and dragged me down the block trying to convince me I’d be crazy to bring home some stinky street kid. They couldn’t figure out why I’d even consider it. My intention was not to get laid (I hadn’t had sex with a man in three years, and was dating three women at the time). For a second the night air had me doubting my sanity, but I snapped out of it. I looked at my friends and said, “I’ll do what the fuck I want.” They knew better than to do anything else other than say, “Goodnight, sweetie,” and back off.

I turned, and nodded slightly in his direction. Without hesitation he came toward me, toward opportunity, having scrutinized the situation from twenty feet away. We got in a cab and went to my apartment. I told him to be very quiet since my roommate was asleep in her room just on the other side of a very thin wall. I had struggled with clarity again in the taxi, trying to reconcile why I was bringing him home. All I could think of was that I wanted him to feel comfortable, just for a night. I wanted to get him high, and to share my space. Something about him touched me, even in my drunken state. His behavior was hesitant, cautious, deferential, and respectful.

As soon as we walked in the door, I directed him to the shower, and gave him some pajamas. We smoked, talked, and listened to music until 6 am. I pulled the twin bed out of my couch, and told him we’d have to share. I couldn’t sleep; he hadn’t quite washed off all the stink, and how could I possibly attempt sleep anyway next to someone in a twin bed? The absurd logic of drunkenness had tricked me again. He asked if he could cuddle with me, and I said okay. He seemed to want some contact, and never touched me in a suggestive way. It’s hard for me to believe in hindsight, but somehow I trusted him not to.

Three miserable hours later, no sleep and my cold getting worse, I woke him and said, “I just can’t do it. I’m really sorry, but you have to leave.” I felt badly about putting him back outside in an unfamiliar part of the city, but I was too tired and felt like such shit. I was in self-preservation mode.

He hopped right up and said, “It’s no problem, thanks for letting me hang for a little while.” He put back on his stinky clothes, and folded up the pajamas.

I had stashed my purse earlier while he was in the shower to avoid any potential problems, but couldn’t remember where. I asked him to call my cell phone from his so I could find my wallet and give him twenty dollars. So he did, and I did, and he left.

His real name is Leonard, which he doesn’t mind the sound of, or if people call him Leo or Lenny, just as long as they’re still talking. It’s just that Moses attracts a lot more attention when he’s introduced at open mics. He had been in New York for three weeks the night we met. He didn’t say why he ended up staying longer, and I didn’t ask, but my guess is he sensed my interest, and gravitated towards it. Being an explorer and an opportunist, it was natural for him to answer even the slightest rapping of opportunity.

When I look inside the shadow of hindsight the present moment casts, all I can figure is I recognized something, thought I saw myself and needed to figure out why. I read his disconnect from anyone’s definition of society, and felt an uncanny familiarity. I saw him paving a path that my feet struggle to remember themselves, one they swear they’ve kicked at. He was the unlikely brother of another only child.

Before we left each other, he tested a new line, “I want to see you again and smoke your pot and put my fingers inside you.”

He laughs at his own forward wittiness. He’s at ease with me, and has had a glass of wine, and he’s not yet been inappropriate, which may be a hard thing for a young man. I have a feeling this character of his changes rapidly and often depending on what circumstance requires.

“I like ending on that note,” he says, “with my hands inside you.”

Rate Story
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)

§ Leave a Reply

Other Stories You May Like

Nearby East Village Stories

A Dance With Spalding Gray


I wish I'd asked him clever questions instead of just jumping up and down to George Michael.

Walk Like a Woman


Who do you think is prettier as a woman? Jack Lemmon or Tony Curtis?

15 Seconds With Andy Warhol


When I was a kid, Campbell’s Tomato Soup almost tasted home-made, especially if milk was added as suggested by the [...]

The Closing


The real estate broker called the apartment a “handyman’s special.” My wife called it a “common man’s nightmare...

Speed Freaks


The motorcycle gang did not go away...