What the World Can Do

by

12/02/2018

Neighborhood: Coney Island, East Village

In the summer of 1973, my younger brother and I shared a basement apartment on East 12th Street in Brooklyn off Avenue J, a nice middle-class sort of area. We had lost our parents to cancer and a stroke, ten months apart, a few years before this, when he was fourteen and I was sixteen. They’d left us a little money, but not enough that we didn’t need to work summers, me installing air conditioners in a Manhattan hospital and him working as a runner in a midtown restaurant. In late August, my brother went off to freshman year at college, which is when I met Lisa.

I had just turned 20 that June, and was hanging out that night with some old friends in the East Village. My friends were scruffy types I knew from high school, smart guys but not high achievers. Unlike me, all of them, had put off going to college, and were either working full-time dead-end jobs or dealing drugs for a living. I was a little high myself on some pretty strong weed, walking through a light drizzle, making my way to the subway back to Brooklyn, when Lisa came up to me near the Astor Place station.

“Have you got a cigarette?” she asked. I had a pack of Newports in my breast pocket—I could always spare one for a pretty girl, and Lisa was that and more. She was younger than I was, on the skinny side with long straight brown hair, sandals and jeans, your typical East Village waif.

I handed her a Newport, and lit one for myself. She told me her name, I told her mine, and in answer to my question told me she was from Staten Island.

“That’s a tough place to get back to on the subway,” I said.

“I’m not going home,” she said. “I’m just trying to get in the subway.”

“Where are you heading?”

“No place,” she said. “Just trying to get out of the rain. I slept on the F train last night, woke up in Coney Island.”

“End of the line,” I said. “That’s where I’m from.”

“Coney Island?”

“Two stops from the Coney terminal,” I said. “Pretty scary place to wake up.”

“I’m looking for a place to crash,” she said. “Until I find one, the subway will have to do.”

I always had a few extra subway tokens jingling in my pocket, and I handed one to her.

We got on a downtown IRT together, and when I got off at Broadway-Lafayette to change for the D train she got off with me. “Just heading for Coney Island,” she said. We spoke all the way to Brooklyn, mostly her answering my questions about why she ran away from home (the usual intolerable home life, plus the allure of Manhattan) and I told her, a few stops from Avenue J, about my brother’s empty bedroom that I offered to her for the night.

“You don’t want to sleep on the train again,” I said, and she smiled her thanks, expressing her gratitude more directly than any number of words could ever have conveyed. I felt almost like I should thank her, for bathing me in that smile.

As pretty as she was, I didn’t want to hit on her, at least not that night. She needed a hot shower, a clean bed, and a good meal, which I could supply, as long as she didn’t want them too hot or too clean or too good. My basement pad was a disaster site, but it definitely ranked a few steps above the F train, so she got to sleep in my brother’s bed that night with a door closed between her bedroom and mine.

The next morning, I fried her some eggs, and told her I’d help her look for her own place. “What can you afford?” I asked.

She looked at me.

“Stupid question,” I answered myself. “Let’s do a wash.”

She had slept in her threadbare plaid flannel shirt. It smelled a little funky—not foul, but definitely in need of laundering. In a chest of drawers, I found a t-shirt my brother had left behind, with baseball numbers on its back, and handed it to her. I figured it was long enough that she could wear it as a dress, while the washer and dryer were going, so I suggested that we put everything she was wearing into the wash. She looked at me a little bit funny.

“Change in the bedroom,” I said.

She kept looking at me with that same sweet smile. “You’re so nice to me,” she said, and unbuttoned her flannel shirt. Of course, she wore no bra.

“You don’t have to—” I started to say.

“But I can if I want to,” she interrupted. “And I want to.” She slipped off the shirt and dropped her jeans. “Let’s take a shower first, okay? Come on. Please?”

We left our jeans and shirts and underwear tangled in a pile on the living room carpet, and showered together.

The most thrilling part about sex with Lisa in the shower was how much she enjoyed it. Not to say that I was any great gift, sexually speaking. I had done the deed only a few times at that point in my life, three to be exact, with three girls who all took it very seriously and were extremely nervous. But Lisa was completely different. Instead of having to manipulate things, I found her hurrying me inside her, laughing, and making moaning noises, and crying out when she got excited. 

Afterwards, as we did the wash, we talked more about our pasts. I told her a little about my parents dying, and she told me about her parents separating two years earlier. Her mother had moved to Idaho to live with some guy Lisa had never met, and then moved to Montana. Her step-father and mother had offered to take her to live with them and his small kids from a previous marriage, which turned Lisa off. “They wanted me to be, like, their live-in baby-sitter.” So she had stayed in Staten Island with her dad, but when she started staying out past midnight with a high-school boyfriend, her dad began introducing her to people as “the whore” or “my little whore,” which was when she ran away.

“So you dropped out of what grade?” I was curious to know how old she was, and she picked up on that.

“I’m seventeen,” she said. “School was total bullshit. You go to school?”

“Sometimes,” I said. In a few more weeks, I’d be a college junior. “Now I’m working as an air-conditioner installer at a hospital. TVs too.” I showed her my closet with four identical short-sleeved blue-collar shirts emblazoned with the company name above the pocket.

“These are groovy,” she said, with another sweet smile. “Can I wear one?”

“Anything you want,” I said, and meant it. None of my previous girlfriends had ever needed anything from me, and this felt a little weird, me having the money, the maturity, and the power in the relationship. Did that feel good as well as weird?

It was hard to imagine myself as any sort of sugar daddy. I had just turned 20, and was earning about $135 a week, take home. I knew the little cash my parents had left me would have to last me through college, and periods of unemployment, so I was very careful with it.  I was certainly in no position to support Lisa for very long or in any type of luxury. But just sharing what I already owned—the groceries on my shelf, the clothing my brother left behind, the roof I rented for the summer—were all tremendous improvements over her living on the street, and we both knew it. Wearing my work-shirt and my brother’s t-shirt had expanded her wardrobe by 200 percent, just for starters, and she was delighted with that.

She was delighted, actually, with everything. When she spotted my acoustic guitar leaning on the ratty couch, she asked me to play for her. I wasn’t much of a guitarist, but I knew a couple of tunes, and she was a much better singer than I was, so we made a little music. I’d spent that whole summer playing the same few LPs over and over—“Who’s Next” and “John Barleycorn” mostly—and she told me that they were her favorite two albums in the world. I rolled a couple of joints, and we spent most of that weekend getting high, listening to Traffic, The Who, and Frank Zappa, and going out to Avenue J for pizza or knishes whenever we felt hungry, which was pretty damned often. I was happier that weekend than I’d ever been, maybe happier than I ever would be in my entire life. To this day, I hear any of that music, and I flash right back to that summer.

I usually got pretty paranoid when I got high, but with Lisa I was loose and alert, not uptight in the least. She was so laid back, clearly enjoying herself, that in a weekend we went through all the weed I had. It normally would have lasted me for weeks. She asked me if I ever tried acid or mushrooms or peyote. “I really dig mushrooms,” she confessed, “but I haven’t tripped on anything for a long time.” One of my friends, the guy I’d been visiting the day before in the East Village, was a dealer, mostly in hallucinogens, but he dealt a lot of pot too, and was just starting to get into all sorts of needle drugs and cocaine in quantities that scared me. He’d been teasing me ever since high school, where we’d started smoking pot, about my paranoiac tendencies and reluctance to drop acid.

When I called my friend up on the phone, he just laughed, and said, “Hey, man, drop by this afternoon,” so Lisa and I went to Avenue B to have a few tabs laid on us. We hung out with him and his girlfriend in their walkup, and then, tripping, the four of us wandered around the East Village until nightfall. 

My friend, Daryl, and his girlfriend, Mary Ann, got along instantly with Lisa. She and Mary Ann talked non-stop all afternoon and evening, while Daryl and I, who’d known each other for years, were very quiet, though whenever we caught each other’s eye we’d laugh because we each knew what the other was thinking. Maybe we didn’t, now that I think about it—how would we ever know? But it seemed like we could read each other’s mind. As much as we walked, for blocks and blocks on end, none of us got the slightest bit tired.

On the subway home, I was starting to come down, and Lisa got strangely serious. 

“You and Daryl are tight,” she finally said.

“Used to be,” I told her. “We were best friends in high school. We don’t hang out that much these days.”

“But you’re close,” she said. “You trust him.”

I shrugged. I had trusted Daryl, but as he got more and more into dealing, I sensed that he was boasting, sometimes lying, to me more than I enjoyed. He was always telling me about the musicians who were his customers, as if I should be impressed by his celebrity clients, or confiding in me their preferences in drugs or their displays of wealth. “I’m very fond of him,” I said finally. “We go back a long ways,” which I now think of as funny, since I’d only known Daryl for six or seven years. 

Now Lisa was silent for a few subway stops. 

“I lied to you before,” she said. 

“When?”

“I’m only sixteen.”

It took me a minute to process this information. I had decided earlier that I was cool with Lisa’s being 17. In the days since I’d made that decision, however, she and I had shared a few more joints, a few more meals, we’d been naked, tripped together, and hung out with my friends for hours on end.

“That’s okay, Lisa,” I said. “It’s no big deal.”

“I was afraid you wouldn’t let me stay if I told you I was sixteen.”

“What, you thought I’d send you back to daddy?”

“I didn’t know what you’d do. Now I know,” she said, “you’d never do anything like that.”

Even though she was much younger than I was, she was much more adventurous. I’m a cautious sort by my nature, and she was spontaneous, which I discovered could be fun. It wasn’t only drugs. Lisa would get ideas and act on them before I could voice my objections. The next morning, for example, she said out of the clear blue sky, “Let’s go to Coney Island,” and we took off for the D train that minute, no packing bathing suits or suntan lotion or anything, and we went on rides I’d never been on in my life, despite growing up on Stillwell Avenue just a mile from the boardwalk. She and I went on the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone, rides that had never appealed to me because I didn’t care for heights, or speed, or dizziness, or getting scared on purpose. But she had so much fun, I couldn’t help but dig it. Every time the Cyclone dropped, she let out a scream as loud and as high-pitched as possible, like she was coming and being stabbed to death at the same time, and I joined in. It was surprisingly exhilarating. 

Afterwards she ran into the ocean in her t-shirt (my brother’s baseball shirt was hers by now) and didn’t care at all that people on the beach could see her dark nipples through the wet shirt when she emerged from the water. We walked on the boardwalk while her t-shirt dried, eating cotton candy on a stick, something else I’d never tried, and shared a banana soft-serve ice cream cone. When it got dark, we looked at all the colored lights illuminating Surf Avenue, and she said, “We gotta try this high next time.”

Being cautious, I was always the skeptic among my friends about drugs and drinking and spontaneity in general. Lisa really dug Daryl and Mary Ann, not only because they were my friends, but also because Daryl was always handing out whatever drug he was pushing that week, and asking for her response. Daryl loved getting people high, and was always pissed at me when I turned down his samples. Lisa never turned down anything, and he told me she was the best thing that ever happened to me. “She yanked the stick straight out your ass, mi amigo,” he told me approvingly.

From the outside, I looked exactly like a hippie kid in those days: hair halfway down my back, a lot of denim, tie-dye, and paisley in my clothes, and I was right there philosophically as well. I was sure the U.S. was on the verge of a political revolution, and  had no problem with the law-breaking my friends did every day–the guys who smuggled drugs from Mexico, the ones who studied pipe-bomb-manufacture, and the girls like Mary Ann active in radical groups who brought weapons and rocks to demonstrations to agitate the cops. It was all cool. But unlike many of my friends, I kept a low profile. Aside from getting detained in a holding pen for a few hours during one march on Washington, I didn’t have an arrest record, or even many opportunities to earn one.

Jay, an old pal of mine, had gotten busted holding drugs half a dozen times by this point, and Daryl eventually did serious time a few years later when a heroin deal went very wrong. Another friend did three years in Coxsackie when someone narced him out for having an apartment full of hand grenades, nunchuckas, and handguns. One girl, Jackie something, eventually became a strung-out prostitute and later a madam, and her friend, Artie Wurknes (about whom, more later), was even scummier. The worst, though, was Mary Ann’s sad tale, that took place only a few years after the summer I’m describing. In the fall of 1977, Daryl got into a hassle over a large quantity of stolen pharmaceuticals, mostly Quaaludes, he was selling to the Hell’s Angels, whose clubhouse was on East 3rd Street. I don’t know exactly what the dispute was over, Daryl never said, but it ended up with Mary Ann getting thrown off the roof of the walkup, landing on her head and on page one of the Daily News.

But that summer, everything was fine. Mary Ann gave Lisa a few more items of clothing. She was almost a foot taller, but Lisa looked really good in clothing that was way too big for her. She wore one of my paisley shirts as a full-length dress, cinched at the waist with a Garrison belt, when we went out one night to a free rock concert in Central Park, and looked as chic as anyone dancing alongside us. 

With the stick removed from my ass thanks to Lisa, I was enjoying the drugs, the sex, the music, and the almost-daily adventures of the hippie life. When she made friends with any of my old pals, Lisa usually made friends with their friends too. People were bustling in and out of our apartment (it had become “our” apartment in very short order), some I’d known for years, but most I’d never seen before and would never see again.

Suddenly, I had a lot of free time too. The air-conditioning installation job had a natural end. Much more than a full-time job in July and August, it slowed down as the weather cooled off two weeks before my college semester started. It was a pretty stupid job, one that could have existed at all only for a few years. Until the late 1950s, maybe the early 1960s, hospital rooms simply didn’t have TV or AC; by the mid-70s, every hospital room in the U.S. had its own TV set and air-conditioner. But for the decade in between, they needed guys like me to put them in and pull them out all day, depending on the patient’s individual preference. 

By early September, work slowed down. Since my school semester didn’t start until the middle of the month, and since I didn’t really need to attend the first class or two anyway, I took a long vacation.

My brother and I had a legal guardian, an uncle who cared for us about as little as we cared for him, who doled out our expenses. He’d paid the rent on our apartment through September 30th because my dorm wouldn’t open its doors until the middle of the month and I needed someplace to live until then. So I had a little money saved up, a lot of free time, and some real opportunities to get in trouble, if I wanted to.

Mainly I wanted to have fun with Lisa, which wasn’t hard to do. She kept having ideas to go to places I could have gone to any time, but somehow never had, either for free (riding the ferry to and from Staten Island) or nearly so (the Prospect Park zoo, or the top of the brand-new World Trade Center). Even the concerts we’d go to were either free or so absurdly cheap, three or four dollars, that I could easily afford two tickets to some of the best music I would ever hear: the Band, the Allman Brothers, the Mothers of Invention.  When Lisa dragged me that September into a ratty new club called CBGB’s, I heard all kinds of new music, including one band I remember being introduced as “Lurid,” which seemed a perfect description of their songs, but which I realized later was the singer’s name, “Lou Reed,” who played with an amazing intensity that I never would have known if not for her. 

And she was easy to get along with.  The closest she and I came to getting into an argument was the night we’d gone to a crowded club on Bleecker Street where we’d had to stand the whole time, it was so jammed. The bands were so good that we stayed until almost 2 a.m. I was beat, and when we finally got home, I couldn’t wait to shut my eyes, but Lisa was feeling frisky.

“Hey, baby,” I growled, taking her hand off my crotch, “I’ve got to get some sleep.”

Another girlfriend might have been insulted, or hurt, or tearful, or pissed-off, but not Lisa.

“Hey, baby,” she said in an even deeper growl, “I got to get fucked.”

Tired as I was, this cracked me up. And being 20, it wasn’t that difficult for me to give her what she wanted. We slept until the afternoon, and when we woke up, we were each calling each other “Baby” all day long. I’m not sure we ever called each other by our proper names again.

“Ever” turned out not to be that long. Since I had to vacate the basement by the end of September, and leave for college sooner than that, I thought I’d have Lisa live there until October came, and in the meantime, try to find her some place to live. She certainly couldn’t live in my dorm room, where student IDs were checked on every entrance. I couldn’t maintain an apartment for her indefinitely. I was wondering what kind of job she might find to pay her rent. As it happened, Lisa took care of the problem herself.

“I found a place to live,” she said one day.

“Really?”

“You know Buzzy’s friend, Jackie?”

I did. Buzzy was another high school buddy, who’d lately been hanging out with a different crowd from our hippie friends. Rather than dealing cocaine, these were guys who used it heavily. Instead of denim and sandals, this crowd wore skintight pants with shirts four-buttons open to reveal coke spoons hung around their necks, and on their feet they wore platform shoes, often at dizzying heights, three or four or even five inches tall. This wasn’t quite the start of the disco era, or maybe it was the very beginning, but these guys followed a completely different fashion ethos from the dress-down hippie style.

They were also scarier to me than any hippie. As Daryl’s fatal relationship with Mary Ann illustrates, it wasn’t all peace and love and understanding, but that was the general vibe. With Buzzy’s crowd, though, violence and power was the rule. It was the difference, in a nutshell, between marijuana and cocaine. I didn’t like this generally, and especially didn’t care for Buzzy’s friend Jackie. She was loud and flashy and vulgar and flirtatious, and, I felt, not a good influence on Lisa.

“What about Jackie?”

“She has this friend,” Lisa explained, “he has a room in their apartment I can rent out.”

“Who’s the friend, baby?”

Lisa hesitated. “This guy Artie. He has an apartment with a lot of room. I can rent it out,” she repeated.

“Artie,” I said. “Is this Arthur Wurknes?”

“I think that’s his last name,” she said. “I’m not really sure.”

Wurknes was, as we used to say, bad news. He’d already done jail time and, over the next few years, would do much more. I don’t think he was ever charged with pimping, but I know for sure that he was arrested several times for endangering the welfare of a child, as well as supplying his young whores with controlled substances and drug paraphernalia. His street name, in fact, was “Works.” I’d known him a long time. We’d been in P.S. 97 together, but from sixth grade on he hung out with the toughest kids, who we labelled “hitters,” because of their method of resolving issues large and small.  I kept far away from him. “I don’t like Wurknes,” I told Lisa. “Not even a little.”

“He’s pretty cool,” she said. “And he said he’s got a job for me.”

I took a breath. “What kind of job?”

“Easy work,” she said. “A few hours a week.”

”Doing what exactly?” 

“A sales job,” she said.

“Pushing.”

“It’s not like that, baby,” she explained. “He likes the way I deal with people, make them comfortable. He likes the way I smile at strangers.”

“He wants you to do more than just smile.”

“You don’t know what he wants,” she pointed out. To her, my not knowing what Artie wanted was proof of his innocence. “I get to travel, too.” 

“Muling.”

“What?”

“He wants you to be his mule,” I said. “Carrying dope across state lines.”

“He never said anything about that.”

“Listen to me, baby,” I said. “You can find a place to live, and you can find a job, but, please, not for this scumbag. Wurknes will have you doing things for him that’ll land your ass so deep in shit you’ll never be able to climb out—”

“He said that’s what you’d say.”

“I’m not saying half of what I want to say.” That was true. Being his front and his mule was the least of my concerns. I was thinking that he may have already fucked her and definitely gotten her high. It was only a matter of days or weeks, or maybe only hours, before he’d con her into turning a trick for him. But, I realized, if I so much as mentioned my fears along these lines, all she would hear coming out of my mouth would be her father’s accusations of misusing her potential and whoring, so I didn’t go that way at all.

It didn’t matter which way I went, I suddenly realized.  She’d already made up her mind to leave. The angrier I got, the better her reasons would be to cut me off entirely. So I just asked her, softly as I could, “What can I do for you, baby?”

“Can I take some shirts?” She had five, two of them mine, one my brother’s, two that she’d gotten from Mary Ann, and she looked good in all of them.

“You don’t have to ask. You know how to get in touch if you need anything,” I reminded her. “Anything. Any time.” Any cash that I might give her, I knew, would end up in Wurknes’s veins, but I wrote an undated check made out to her and signed it. “If you get in trouble, fill this out. I always keep a few hundred dollars in this account. If you need money. For anything.”

“What would I need money for?” she asked, but she took the check. “I’m going to make money, lots of money. Don’t worry so much. Take care of yourself.”

“You,” I told her, “take care of yourself.” 

I wanted her to call me first, because if I got in touch with her it would feel like I was checking up on her, which she surely would resent, but she never phoned. I got caught up in my new semester, and also had a falling-out with Buzzy that autumn, so I lost all my contact with his crowd for a while. By the time Buzzy and I made up, no one knew where Artie Wurknes was and no one had even heard of Lisa.

The day I moved out of the basement apartment at the end of September, I did a final wash and found, in one of my work-shirts, a dollar bill in the pocket wrapped around her application for working papers. When the papers dried, and I unfolded them, they told me two facts about her I’d never known: her last name was “Pietrafesa” and her sixteenth birthday was still over a month away. She’d been only 15 the whole time. 

I didn’t know how to feel about that, but it wasn’t good. She got younger and younger the longer I’d known her, and now it was inescapable: she was a child I hadn’t cared for properly. She never did cash my check, and when I graduated college two years later, I closed out that account.

***

Steven Goldleaf, a professor of English at Pace University, is writing a memoir entitled ONLY MOSTLY TRUE, of which this is a chapter.

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§ One Response to “What the World Can Do”

  • Sheila Gross says:

    Interesting story. Thanks for sharing.
    Would love to hear more about your relationship with your uncle.
    Didn’t your brother live with their family after your parents death?
    Remember your family so well.
    Sheila

§ Leave a Reply

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