Leaves of Grass

by

12/01/2007

Alphabet City, 10009

Neighborhood: East Village

I slouched on my unmade bed in the murky mid-afternoon twilight, back against the wall, staring forlornly out the window. The sooty red bricks across the air shaft, crusty with flecks of ancient pigeon shit, provided little comfort. I tried casting my eyes around my room every now and then, for variety, but that was even more depressing. Nothing had changed much since I’d moved in. There was my bed, just a box spring and mattress with mismatched sheets, and a suitcase on the floor spilling over with dirty clothes. Next to the bed was a clock radio, plastic with a wood grain pattern. It was perched on an upturned orange crate that was trying to pass itself off as a night table. In the corner stood my guitar, the instrument I’d planned to conquer the world with. A fine layer of dust had settled on it, dulling the finish and giving it a slightly out of focus quality.

Despite the cheery surroundings, I was feeling a little grim.

I’d arrived in New York in the spring of 1979, brimming over with youthful enthusiasm, ready to pursue my dream of becoming a rock star. I threw myself whole hog into the project, scouring the Village Voice every week for “guitarist wanted” ads, chatting up confused and indifferent strangers in clubs and record stores, and going to audition after audition. No stone had been left unturned, no blind alley not run up headlong in my effort to rid the world of my obscurity. It was nearly fall by then, and despite all my efforts, I was still band-less.

I’d met plenty of other guitarists, though. We, the un-attached hopefuls, were a regular community unto ourselves, drifting from audition to audition, convening in crowded hallways to share cigarettes and war stories of near-misses and blown solos.

The same faces, their cocky expressions belied by nervous, hopeful eyes, would pop up again and again, until I came to think of us as the musical equivalent of the last kids picked for kickball.

The most depressing ones were the guys in their late thirties who were still trying to make it. It pained me to imagine myself being them in fifteen years or so, desperately clutching a dream while battling to stave off the imminent realization that my parents were right about my lousy chances all along.

I’d woken up on a recent morning, having suffered a particularly soul-crushing audition the night before (broken string in the first–and therefore last–song), to find my conquer-the-world enthusiasm gone. Poof. Maybe it had caught the train back home, like I often considered doing in my weaker moments.

Since then, I could barely get out of bed, much less bring myself to pick up the paper to scour the musician ads. The idea filled me with a sort of exhaustion I’d never known before. With no other choice at the moment, I’d put the rock star dream on the back burner for a while. Instead, I concentrated on making up for the years I’d spent lost growing up in Nowheresville, Florida by going out as often as possible, drinking my money away, and watching bands I wasn’t in.

I wasn’t giving up, I told myself, just regrouping…waiting for motivation. Motivation was in shorter supply than ever, though, along with something just as important.

“The darling buds have left us…” I muttered to myself, dejectedly.

“What?” Ric, my roommate, hollered from the kitchen.

I sat up a little, and forced myself to project just a bit.

“Nature’s verdant bounty, kissed by flame, now naught but smoke and ash.”

The refrigerator slammed shut. An exasperated Ric appeared in my doorway. “You’ve been reading that stupid poetry book again. Remind me to throw that goddamn thing away next time you’re going out.”

It was true about the book. My friend Jill had lent me one called “Selected American Poems”. She said all I was lacking was inspiration, and I could find it in the words of the poets. Maybe she was right. Who knows? I definitely needed something to get me out of my funk.

I’d been giving the book a try lately, getting lost in the strange world of flowery language. It was strange and funny at first, but somehow I’d gotten hooked on the thing. Now it was rubbing off on me, much to Ric’s chagrin.

Ric was absolutely allergic to the printed page, poetry especially. The only things he ever read were the club ads in the Village Voice. Anytime he walked into the room to find me reading a book a pained, slightly shocked expression would cross his face, as though he’d caught me jerking off to a picture of his mother.

Spouting poetry around him had the same effect. I didn’t mean to do it, but that book had crept into my brain, and lately sometimes I spoke in stanzas instead of sentences.

From the look on his face, I’d managed to set him off again. He leaned against the doorjamb, arms folded, staring down at me. The simple collection of horizontal lines that made up his features all sank in toward the middle.

“Now, what the hell are you trying to say? What’s all this about darling buds and smoke and ash?”

I held up an empty baggie, shook it at him.

“I’m out of weed.”

Ric’s eyebrows pushed further down, almost meeting in the middle, the ‘V’ they made darkening his face. “Already? You had so much.”

It had been a lot. I’d brought a zip-lock stuffed with badass Columbian buds with me on the train north. The bag was beautiful: packed tight with piles of delicious green goodness, it held the promise of many a good time to come. Somehow, I thought it might see me through at least six months, maybe a year. I wasn’t a wake-and-bake, party all day kind of smoker. I just liked to have a little before going out at night, maybe bring a joint out with me for a little pick-me-up for socializing. Or I might have a little hit when I got home from work, the same way my old man would pop a beer less than a minute after walking in the front door at night. Then there were the weekend afternoons when a little taste and some hardcore dub Reggae, maybe Lee Perry or Mikey Dread, would make the world seem perfect.

Somehow, in the course of this maybe-not-so-occasional indulging, I’d set fire to every stinkin’ leaf I’d had. The thing was, I was going out every night, and Ric was always there to help me blaze away a bud or two. Come to think of it, it seemed like every time anyone came over the first thing I did was roll one up, too. Ric’s friends, for a bunch of sophisticated big city punk rockers, sure liked a taste of the hippie harvest.

As glum and uninspired as I’d been lately, anything that might make me feel worse was to be avoided. This was no time for seeing the world without my green-colored glasses. I needed some real help to get me out of the dumps, and the poetry just wasn’t getting the job done. Maybe if Emily Dickinson appeared in my room wearing a negligee, with a pitcher of Bass Ale in one hand and two empty glasses in the other, things might’ve been different. But this was the real world; which was exactly the problem: reality. I needed a little distance from it to get my spirit back.

I wasn’t looking to get high and lay around like some deadbeat stoner. I needed that weed to help me get back on my game. I wanted to pick up that dusty guitar, to play something, write something. Every time I reached for it, though, my arms felt heavy and my mind went numb. The next thing I knew, I’d be staring out the window, thinking about those auditions, how long it had been since I’d been laid, and all those steaks I couldn’t afford to buy. I needed that weed to form a smokescreen between me and those depressing thoughts, so I could just get in that “nothing exists but music” zone.

It had always worked that way for me. Nothing made me climb so completely into my music as a few hits of the rasta root. One run at the bong, and I was good for hours of jamming, practicing, or just listening to music with a concentration that left the rest of the world somewhere far, far away. No nuance was too subtle; no amount of repetitious noodling up and down the scales would ever be less than fascinating to me, once I’d caught a buzz.

I looked down sadly at the empty baggy, then back at Ric, whose twiggy face didn’t bear a hint of the despair I was consumed by. I thought there might’ve been a little sympathy, maybe a hint of guilt even, but his usual, easygoing demeanor never cracked.

“Don’t look so suicidal,” he said, sounding totally nonchalant. “This is New York, for God’s sake. We have resources, remedies for this sort of situation.”

I perked up an iota or two. “You know someone who sells a little?” I asked, a tiny note of hope creeping into my tragic voice.

“Know someone?” He laughed a hicuppy laugh. “I don’t exactly know somebody, but I know where to get it. Fuck, it’s as easy as a trip to the market!”

“I don’t wanna buy it in one of those parks.”

There were parks, at least three that I knew of, where you could score. Washington Square, in the heart of Greenwich Village, was one. We’d walk around there sometimes on a weekend afternoon. There were always tons of people hanging out. Skateboarders, magicians, comedians, and jugglers entertained the crowds who’d gather around, enjoying the show in the openness and sunshine the park provided. The Puerto Ricans had an area of their own, where they would blast Salsa music and dance away the day while drinking beers wrapped in wrinkled paper bags.

Tons of hippies hung out there, sitting cross-legged in little circle-y bunches near the fountain. In the middle of each group would be an unkempt, underfed hair farmer with a face like Neil Young but not the talent to match. He’d be holding a slightly out of tune guitar with a peace sticker on it, playing “California Dreaming.” That song must be, like, the hippie national anthem or something, because it’s the only one they ever seemed to play. The whole circle would sway back and forth together, eyes closed, as they all sang along, communing in blissful, off-key harmony.

Ric, always on the lookout for opportunities to spread laughter and joy to those around him, would usually point to the most wasted, disheveled, tie-dye wearing girl with the longest, dirtiest hair and say: “Look! It’s one of your old girlfriends from Florida. Aren’t you gonna go say hi?”

There was no real beginning or end to his comedic genius, just a never-ending middle.

In the West side of the park, tough-looking black guys hung out selling weed. They’d sit around on benches, bullshitting, laughing, and slapping five with each other all day. You’d walk through there and they’d all talk out the side of their mouths as you passed, saying:

“want somethin’?”

“got the good thang”

“smoke, man, got the Sense.”

Further North, on Fourteenth Street and Broadway, was Union Square Park. That urban oasis of concrete and conifers lacked the charm that Washington Square’s diverse circus of humanity provided. It was just plain ominous. The trees cast a shadowy gloom over it even on a sunny day. The only people in there were black dudes selling weed and coke and yelling to one another over their boom boxes. Unlike their counterparts in Washington Square, who wore jeans and casual, funky clothes, the Union Square dealers wore polyester bell-bottoms and Members Only jackets. Their pitches were different, too, way less subtle. You wouldn’t even have to go into the park to hear them. They’d call to you as you walked by on the sidewalk, like carnival barkers.

“Yo, brother, c’mere.”

“Right here, right here, man. I got the good shit.”

“Smoke it up, smoke it up!”

Then there was Tompkins Square Park, between Avenue A and B on the West and East, and Ninth Street and Seventh on the north and south. In that park, which I wouldn’t even walk into for fear of being mugged or worse, there was a section where drugs were sold. Puerto Rican guys would always be there in clumps, drinking beer, jabbering in rapid-fire Spanish, and laughing their menacing laughs under cold brown eyes. The air was always alive with a steady stream of sales pitches as they called out to the brave souls who’d walk in there to do business.

“Valium, valium” (which came out “volume, volume”)

“Goo’ smoke, goo’ smoke…”

“Wa’ choo wan’?”

They hung out on the north side, in the shadow of the public restrooms. The funny thing was; for men who spent their days in spitting distance of a toilet, they didn’t ever seem to use one. I never once walked by without seeing some guy facing the wall of the old building, beer in one hand and dick in the other, pissing on the outside of the old red brick shithouse.

I would see all this as I strolled along the sidewalk of Avenue A, observing from a comfortable distance.

Avenue A was the cutoff point, the eastern end of the East Village, the edge of the safety zone; the borderline where gentrification ended. It was all hardcore Puerto Rican ghetto on the other side, where Avenues A through D ran like a pack of wild dogs to the East River. They called the neighborhood “Alphabet City”.

I’d been through part of it once, in a cab, and had been shocked by the squalor. The East Village, where I lived, was no Mayberry. The pitted sidewalks and potholed streets were filled with drunks, junkies, hookers, maniacs, enfeebled Ukrainian senior citizens, poor white punk rockers and poorer Puerto Ricans, but that’s not to say it didn’t have a certain down-on-its-heels charm. Alphabet City, on the other hand, was desolate and wretched, like some post-apocalyptic movie set that had been left to rot when the movie finished shooting. Hollow, dilapidated brick buildings with boarded-up windows stood next to empty lots strewn with rubble, garbage, and leftover hulks of stripped cars. Old men stood among the refuse, barbecuing on blackened, dented, homemade grills. Kids ran through weedy piles of trash, screaming with a joy that defied the harshness of their surroundings.

Every sign on every store was cracked, peeling, hanging half-off, and written in Spanish. People filled the stoops and sidewalks, shouting in staccato bursts to one another. Occasionally, one or two would notice me gawking out the cab window, their eyes hardening as they caught mine. One guy, pissed at my expression of horrified curiosity, hollered “What the fuck you lookin’ at? Go back home to your mama.”

The only white faces you’d see heading in there were edgy-looking junkies on their way to score. Ric and I hung out sometimes at a little pizza place on the corner of St. Marks and Avenue A. We’d have a slice and watch the sad parade of junkies passing by in the late afternoon. Their faces would look hungry and haunted on the way in, relieved and eager on the way out. You could see players from half the bands in town walk into Alphabet City on any given day.

I definitely hadn’t been in New York long enough to do my pot shopping in one of these open-air black markets. As far as I was concerned, I would be a lamb among wolves in a situation like that. I was sure that if I tried it, I’d somehow walk out dazed, beaten, and broke; just another chump picked clean by the street-smart city folks. Either that or arrested.

Still, I had to smoke didn’t I? Ric’s pitch had me interested.

“Really?” I said. “It’s like a trip to the market? Tell me more, please. I hang on every word like a marooned sailor, adrift on a gale tossed ocean, with naught but a scrap of his vessel to keep him safe from the briny peril.”

“There you go with that poetry shit again.”

“I’m seeking inspiration in the words of the masters.”

“Whatever…I just think talking like you’ve got an ass full of cock is a bad idea, socially speaking.”

“Anyway,” I said. “Back to the topic: where’s the shit for sale and when do we go get it?”

“The answer is ‘right around the corner,’ and YOU can get it anytime. I have to wait here for a call about some band meeting we’re supposed to be having.”

Ric, the lucky bastard, was in a band, albeit it one that had more internal drama than gigs.

“But if it’s just around the corner, can’t you duck out for a minute?”

Ric shook his head firmly. “No way, not now. I’ll tell you what, though. I’ll buy if you fly.” He reached in his pocket and pulled out a ten dollar bill. “Here,” he said, handing it to me “It’s probably my turn to roll a few. This one’s on me.”

What a guy. Smokes a hundred bucks worth of mine, kicks in ten.

I stared dumbly at the money in my hand. “You can buy ten dollars worth?” I said.

“Oh, yeah!” Ric said. “Just ask for a dime bag. Hell, you can get a nickel bag even, if all you’ve got is a five. It’s convenience store shopping at its finest.”

I looked up at him suspiciously, searching his face for a hint of humor. It seemed too bizarre. Back in Florida, pot was always sold by the ounce, or maybe a half an ounce. Who would go to the trouble of scoring for ten dollars worth?

“No shit?” I asked finally.

Ric laughed. “No cow shit, country boy.”

I looked down at the bill again, suddenly impressed with its power. It felt different somehow, this weed-buying wonderbill. It was pulsating now with promise, daring me to dream big. I heard Alexander Hamilton whispering: “Go ahead, son, you can do it.”

“But where is this?” I asked. “Do I have to call someone and meet ‘em somewhere or something?”

Ric shook his head. “Hell, no. There’s little candy stores all over the neighborhood where you just walk in and get what you need. Easy as pie.”

“Candy stores?”

“Yeah… that’s what they call them, anyway. They’re storefronts with a counter and a few stupid little things for sale to make it look legit, but they’re really just pot stores. Some have coke, too, but I wouldn’t buy any, unless you’re feeling constipated. The shit’s cut down to nothing but baby laxatives. Thankfully, for us, you can’t cut weed.”

“Are you serious?” I said. “Stores for pot?”

Ric smiled sardonically. “Don’t you just love this town? Now come on.”

He gave me directions as I dragged myself out of bed and laced up my shoes and threw on my jacket. Then he led me to the door and gently nudged me out.

“Are you sure this is cool?” I squeaked out the words as he was closing the door on me, and my last chance to change my mind.

“This is New York,” he said.” Don’t worry about it. Now go get that weed!”

I walked out of our building buzzing with that combination of nervousness and excitement that strange new illegal activities can give a person. I tried to relax as I walked along, to convince myself that this strange mission was no big deal.

New York really did seem like an easy-going place about pot. You’d see people smoking it everywhere: sitting on stoops, walking down the street, hanging out at the Laundromat. In clubs it was always around. Folks would puff happily away upstairs at the Mudd Club or Danceteria, just like they were in their own living rooms.

I’d come a long way from the surprised, slightly uptight feeling I had the first time I’d seen this. Nowadays, the sight of a high school kid with a backpack smoking a fat joint while sitting next to an old lady at a bus bench seemed like perfectly normal, everyday behavior.

I headed downtown on Second Avenue. The place I was looking for was on Tenth Street, between Second and Third. It was one store Ric had said he’d actually been in. The only directions I had besides that were: “It’s on the left side of the street. And the front is kind of blue, I think.”

I felt butterflies in my stomach as I stood at the light at Second and Tenth, waiting to cross over to the Block of Weed. The light turned quickly to green, right as I was about to begin talking myself out of this whole bizarre misadventure. Who ever heard of pot stores? It was so strange. I didn’t remember passing through a looking glass on the train from Florida.

I crossed over and had taken just a few tentative steps up the block when I noticed a cop car parked at the curb, halfway up the block. Shit. There they are, I thought, busting the place right now!

I froze. What to do? Keep casually walking forward, just saunter along with what I was sure was a guilty look? There had to be a complete confession written across my face. The tense features would provide the cops with a glimpse into the criminal plans I had up my leather jacketed sleeve. I might as well have stepped right up to them, stuck my wrists out and said: “Okay officers, slap the cuffs on. You got me dead to rights. I’m the public enemy who came here today to destroy the greatest city in the world. I’m the one, I admit it!”

Instead, I sat down on the nearest stoop and lit a cigarette. I took my time about it, lingering over every step in the process. Someone walking by might have thought that I had never so much as seen a cigarette before, that I was trying my damnedest to figure this newfangled thing out. I finally stopped fucking around and got it lit. I took a long drag, exhaled it slowly, then allowed myself a look down the street to see what was up.

The cop car was just sitting there; double-parked and idling One cop was in it. He sat on the passenger side, staring out the window. What was he doing? Resting after roughing up a few suspects? Maybe he was the “bad cop” and was giving the “good cop” a turn. I’d seen the movies. I’d watched ‘Barney Miller’. I knew how the shit worked. What if I had left the apartment ten minutes earlier? I might be lying on the floor in the little Pot Shop right now, face down with a fat knee in the middle of my back, as they slapped on the cold metal cuffs, making sure to tighten them to a hand-numbing turn. Next, it would be off to Riker’s Island in the back of a paddy wagon, with Paco the Pot Guy and his evil henchmen.

Then there would be the phone call I’d have to make, the one I was sure my parents had been dreading and expecting since the day I climbed on the train and waved goodbye. Those tears in their eyes as they stood on the platform hadn’t been from sadness; they’d been from fear! For the downfall they were certain would come as soon their little angel got caught in the web of sin and moral decay that waited for him in New York, New York; so full of vice they had to name it twice.

Two young, pretty Puerto Rican girls walked by, their soft brown shoulders naked save for spaghetti straps. The slightest, downy hairs caught the sunlight on their shiny skin. They chattered musically as they walked up the sidewalk, indifferent or ignorant to the gritty urban crime drama unfolding in their path, not to mention the pervy lech salivating behind them.

I followed them with my eyes, using my leering as a cover for a quick surveillance of the rest of the block. It looked like any another day on any other street in the neighborhood. Puerto Rican men and women sat or stood on stoops, chatting with each other and the people walking by. A woman across the way hung laundry on a fire escape. At the far end of the block, some kids were screaming and kicking a soccer ball, bouncing it off car after car. Distorted Salsa music, the ever-present soundtrack to life in the East Village, blared from a high window somewhere down the way.

I snuck another absurd, covert glance through a cigaretted hand held up to shield my eyes.

Another cop appeared. He walked out of a deli on the North side of the street holding two cups of coffee and a brown paper bag. He strolled over to the driver’s side of the cruiser, handed the stuff through the window, then opened the door and climbed in. After that, nothing, all was quiet. The cops just sat there, drinking coffee and talking. Maybe they’d called for backup and were snacking while they waited for the SWAT team?

I forced myself to look away. I began mentally cataloguing the debris in the gutter before me. There were flattened beer and soda cans, soggy cigarette butts, one of Barbie’s arms, some mushy-looking paper bags, and a dead rat—-about eight inches long—not including the tail. A real whopper. The rat’s yellow front teeth were sticking out through pulled-back jowls, making a hideous splash of color against his dirty fur. Were rats grayish-brown or brownish-gray? No matter how often I saw one scooting around the trashcans on the sidewalks, or foraging along the tracks down in the subway, I could never quite make up my mind. It was harder than deciding if the Gulf of Mexico back home was greenish-blue or more bluish-green.

I was staring at my fallen fellow New Yorker, ruminating on the mysteries of the color chart, when the cop car came rolling up. They stopped right in front of me. I stared at that rat with everything I had; praying that today was not the day for me to feel a nightstick against my head.

Instead of jumping out and beating a confession from me, they just kept sipping and yacking as they waited for the red light. I distinctly heard the word: “Mets” through the open window, but nothing about a “drug den” or a “bust” about to “go down”. After a few seconds, they turned the corner and were gone.

I took another few drags on my smoke, making sure the coast was clear, then stood up and flicked the butt in the gutter. It landed at the end of the dead rat’s tail, made him look like a rat bomb about to be lit. I sauntered up the street, as cautious and alert as a Green Beret on covert mission.

No sooner had I begun walking, then I saw what I figured to be the place. It was a third of the way up the block, across the street on the left side. It was a little storefront, painted bluish green (or was it greenish-blue?). I shook my head, tried not to get caught up in the color game. Across the top was a sign with a black background and yellow letters that spelled “Candy Store.” There were little lumpy things painted around the letters. As I got closer, I could see they were different types of candy. Peppermints were dancing with chocolate kisses while jealous gumballs sat by, ignored and sulky.

I walked as slowly as possible, taking my time to check the place out on my way up the block. It seemed quiet, no one going in or out. The closer I got to it, the harder I tried to talk myself into crossing the street and going in.

I was just about ready to make the move, when I came to a group of old men playing dominoes. They sat at a worn-out card table on the sidewalk next to a stoop. The table only left a couple feet of sidewalk for pedestrians. The smell of cigar smoke and stale beer hit me as I prepared to veer around them, feeling suddenly self-conscious.

They were talking in Spanish and seemed oblivious to me, except for one gaunt old grayhead with an unshaved face the color and texture of a baseball glove, wearing a tan guayaberra shirt with a frayed collar. He leaned back in his folding chair as I came up, let his gaze slip away from the dominoes. He tilted his head back, took a sip of beer from a paper cup, and gave me the once over. His sunken eyes were dark as raisins, and I didn’t exactly feel the warmth of his tropical homeland from them. I passed as quick as I could, trying to avoid his suspicious, hostile gaze.

The one guilty glance I’d stolen at him told me he knew all about me and my reasons for being here. I’d come up this block, his block, to stare hungrily at his virginal senoritas and buy drugs from his sons. He looked at my torn jeans, my leather jacket, and my dirty-blonde hair and saw a marauding stranger, uninvited and unwanted. I was just another gringo with no good on my mind, passing through to defile his beloved little barrio.

Once past the domino table, I came abreast of the alleged candy store. I’d tried hard to pump myself up for the trip to the unfamiliar store, but the old guy’s mojo-hex staredown had freaked me out. My hard, steely resolve had gone as soft and mushy as a bowl of flan. I walked right on by the place without so much as slowing down, much less crossing the street to it.

“What the hell was I thinking?” I said aloud, as I hurried toward the open air ahead at the end of the street. I was just gonna head down some strange block and walk into a store I’d never been to, an actual retail business, and buy drugs? Just stroll right in and say, “Howdy Stranger! How ‘bout some a that loco weed y’all are sellin’; can I get me some a that?” And to do this in a strange new world where I was in the minority, not even able to speak the language? I had to be nuts.

I walked all the way to the corner, then stopped. Third Avenue opened up before me, wide and buzzing with traffic and people. A man in a velvet suit walking a wiry little dog nodded at me as he waited to cross the street. Arriving at the intersection was like a welcome return to a different New York, the one where I was just another citizen, as welcome as anyone else, not some debauched Conquistador stumbling along in a concrete jungle.

I took a deep breath and stared up the Avenue. Maybe I should just forget the whole thing, go on up Third and head back home. It was a beautiful day; maybe I could go for a stroll. Any direction, except the one behind me, would make for some pleasant walking. To the left, two blocks down was St. Mark’s Place. There were cool vintage clothes stores and a record shop I liked there. I could spend some time browsing, maybe grab a slice of pizza. Why not just say “fuck the weed” and go have fun?

I needed an excuse, though, something to tell Ric. I couldn’t just hand his money back to him, after all. I’d been sent on a mission. But what would I say? Should I just fall on the floor in a fetal position, wipe my eyes with the back of my hand and whine: “I’m sorry, Ric, but I was so scared! First the cops got me all nervous by buying coffee, then a raisin-eyed man looked at me funny.”

That option wasn’t particularly appealing to me. I decided on option number two: I’d tell him the store was closed.

That decided, I headed towards St. Marks.

I’d only gone about half a block, when a teen-aged Puerto Rican guy walked past me wearing a t-shirt that said “Calvin Klein” in big letters. This was a bizarre phenomenon I’d been noticing lately. The big designers had decided that people who were too poor to buy their fashions might just make themselves useful another way. They’d begun printing their brand names with no design, nothing to distract from the message, on poverty-priced t-shirts and selling them by the gazillions. With this simple, cynical move, an army of walking billboards was set forth on the planet. Somehow they’d fooled these poor suckers into thinking that, by wearing a t-shirt printed with the name of a designer, they were wearing designer clothes. Couldn’t they see what ridiculous pawns they were in the corporate big money game? This was just the sort of thing someone needed to write a scathing punk rock anthem about.

I stopped dead in my tracks. There it was: that old, familiar feeling. It wasn’t as intense as before, more like the first little tug you feel on your fishing line, but it was definitely there: inspiration. Finally! I liked the way it felt, too, that sense of purpose it gave me, that sense that my life was about bigger things than pizza and beer.

I didn’t want to lose that little spark by fucking around window shopping. I decided to skip St. Marks. The gods of creativity had tossed me a bone, and I wasn’t about to let go of it. I had to go right home and write a song about those bullshit t-shirts.

There was just one problem: I needed to seize the moment, but not scare it away. I didn’t want to pressure myself back into uselessness. I needed to get deep into the music, without being uptight about it. The answer to my dilemma was obvious: I’d need that weed. I headed back to Tenth Street.

I stopped at the corner, looked back down toward the candy store. It really didn’t look any different than the block Ric and I lived on. The same four or five story buildings were stacked next to each other, all in various shades of crumbly gray concrete; same skinny sidewalks; same little stoops with people coming, going, and sitting together; same cacophony of radios, people shouting to one another, and squealing kids. What was the big fucking deal here?

I had felt the same way on my own street, the first few weeks in town, but now I was perfectly at ease walking there. The people, at first so strange and indifferent, now felt like neighbors to me. I would nod and smile at them, and they occasionally even returned the greeting. At least they didn’t look at me funny anymore. They say familiarity breeds contempt, but it also breeds comfort. On my street, I was comfortable, so why not be the same on this block, a mirror image of mine?

“Fuck it,” I said aloud. I began walking, pep talking myself as I marched forward: “If they built a store to sell weed, they’ll probably be happy to see me—a customer—stop in. They’ll probably smile and say ‘Bienvenidos, Amigo!’ just like the old guy in the bodega on our corner did when I stopped in for a six-pack. Hell, maybe it’s my lucky day and I’ll get a prize for being their one hundredth customer this week. Nothing bad will happen!”

Now, if it was only the right place…

I got within spitting distance of the store and felt my legs began to hesitate in their pace, my knees weakening again. “Come on,” I growled. “We’ve got a song to write!” I forced myself up the steps and through the shabby little doorway.

The dimly lit room was about the size of a one-car garage. The walls had, at some point in the past, been a shade of white. Now they were a patchwork of smudges, stains, finger marks, cobwebs, and splatters like the ones you make when you shake up a can of coke before opening it. Musty shelves ran along the right wall. A smattering of products was laid out on them in a comically haphazard attempt at retail presentation: a can of beans here, a small bottle of bleach there, a box of Bic pens laying flat on its back. A flyswatter with the Puerto Rican flag printed on it rated a shelf all to itself. Laying thick over everything was a patina of gray dust; even and undisturbed, as though nothing had been touched since first taking its place there long, long ago.

To the left was a glass counter. Behind it stood a skinny, middle-aged Puerto Rican guy in a Perry Ellis t-shirt. Once again, my mandate was spelled out before me. It was time to start the revolution, and as soon as I was done here, I was gonna roll a fat one and get to it.

Unfortunately, I had no idea how to get this retail dope deal going. Did I just saunter over to the counter and say “Good day, sir! I’ll have a dime bag of your finest Sensemilla.”

That seemed a little indiscreet. Maybe there was a secret handshake, like the Masons had. Or maybe there was a code of some kind: you ask for a certain amount of a certain candy, and it really means you want x amount of y pot. For all my ignorant ass knew, there could’ve been a menu of the products available written on the wall in Spanish.

I stopped pretending to be fascinated by the fancy flyswatter and glanced over at the guy behind the counter. He met my eyes and gave me a drowsy smile. He was missing a tooth right up front, where it really counted. Not such great advertising for the candy. I smiled back, but my own uptight grin probably looked more wooden than George Washington’s.

The ice successfully broken, I decided to approach the counter. I sidled the few steps over and stood, hands in pockets, looking down at the pitiful display of sweets. It wasn’t the packed-in-tight, sugary bounty of tooth rotting delights that the Seven-Eleven’s shelves had tempted me with throughout my childhood. This was a new approach: kind of a ‘less is more’ thing. A single shelf held a sparse assortment of candy. A few said Hershey’s, but most of the meager offerings had Spanish names. It was kind of sad, really. There was barely enough sugar there to send a small family crying to the dentist.

Still, I felt a twinge in my sweet tooth, and briefly wondered how you say ‘nougat’ in Spanish.

I looked the man in the eye as best as I could, but ended up mostly staring at a mole near the inside of his right eyebrow. Gathering my composure into a ball of nervousness, I began my pitch:

“I…umm…uh…”

The guy cocked his head toward the back of the store. His eyes made a quick dart in the same direction.

In the back left corner was a raggedy curtain covered in ducks, like something a hunter would have in his trophy-studded den. The ducks were flying; their wings spread wide to catch the wind and birdshot. The rod it hung on was bent at a ninety-degree angle, which formed a little telephone-booth-sized area behind it. It looked like it might be a changing room, but I didn’t see any clothes for sale, not a single designer t-shirt.

So what was the curtain for?

Somehow, thankfully, the fog of idiocy eventually lifted. The man was trying to tell me that the answer I sought was waiting inside, beyond the quackers. I grunted something like a thank you, and headed over to see if The Great Oz was hiding behind the curtain. I was more than willing to settle for the Wicked Witch, as long as she had some weed to sell.

I shuffled to the corner and gingerly pulled at the curtain. I opened it just a little and peered into the mysterious space. There was no kindly old man pulling at levers. There was…nothing, just the floor and some air above it.

I looked back at the counter guy. He made a gesture as though stabbing at someone, probably me, with an imaginary knife. Fully freaked out, I turned back to the emptiness before me to see if his disconcerting clue would somehow solve The Riddle of the Empty Curtain.

I looked all around at what little there was to see, then spotted it: In the wall, about knife-stabbing height, was a slit in the plaster about an inch high and a couple of inches wide. Suddenly it all fell into place. The purity, the simplicity of this genius retail plan came as clear as the glass candy counter. Having completed the puzzle, I stepped into the little changing room and closed the curtain behind me. I pulled Ric’s ten out of my pocket and gingerly poked it through the opening. I gave a little start as I felt it yanked from my hand.

A furtive voice came through the slit. “Weed or coke?” it said, in accented English.

“Weed.”

A tiny ziplock with a fat bud packed in it appeared in the hole. I took it and stuck it immediately in the pocket of my jeans. The deal done, I pushed aside the curtain and headed for the door.

As I stepped outside, it took all my concentration to avoid the disapproving stare I was sure old Raisin Eyes was firing my way from across the street.

There was lightness to my step as I hurried home. I was high already from the adrenaline rush of a new experience and the sweet taste of success from a mission accomplished. All that and inspiration, too.

I stepped in the door of the apartment to hear Ric saying “Yeah, okay, man… it all sounds like bullshit to me … right… whatever…” He slammed the phone down in its cradle. The lines all collapsed into the middle of his face again. He slumped forward on the couch, elbows on his knees.

“What took so long?” His voice had an annoyed edge. “Did you get it?”

“Yeah.”

My voice was relaxed, breezy. “No problem.”

I plopped down on the couch and pulled out the little baggie, held it out to him. “Here we are.”

His face lines lifted a bit. “Well, roll one up, man, roll one up!”

I searched through the debris on the coffee table for papers. I finally found them under the poetry book. I put an album jacket on my lap and began twisting up a joint.

“So you got your call, huh?” I tore the bud apart and dropped bits of it into one of the folded papers. “What’s up with the band?”

Ric rubbed his temples and sighed. “I don’t know what the hell’s up, exactly, but apparently we’re still on ‘hiatus’ while Steve, our singer, ‘gets his shit together.’ He rubbed his temples some more. “It all sounds like bullshit to me, but who knows…” His voice drifted off.

I finished the joint and handed it to him. He put it to his lips and lit up. After taking a couple deep pulls, he passed it to me. I took a long drag, held it in a few seconds. I leaned back on the couch, felt it already working its magic as I exhaled.

“Ah…” I said, closing my eyes as I settled back and put my feet up. “Nature’s leafy blessings. Surely no garden bears a sweeter fruit.”

I heard a weird flapping sound, which reminded me for a second of the ducks on the curtain. I opened my eyes just in time to see Jill’s book flying out the window, the pages plumed out and fluttering as they caught the air.

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