Dead Weight

by

10/14/2022

Neighborhood: East Village, Greenwich Village

When I was a teenager, during the second half of the 1970s, I pretty much lived in Washington Square Park during the summer. I sometimes joke that in some ways I was raised there. In some ways that is not so funny. Yippies, Jesus Freaks, drug addicts, tourists, and street performers were my friends and neighbors. My actual friends were there too.

My family lived on 5th Street between 2nd and 3rd avenues. The quickest way from my apartment to the park was to walk west on 4th Street. But unless I was in a hurry, I rarely went that way. In those day 4th Street was a largely barren landscape with vacant lots lining the north side of the street. NYU had yet to “clean” it up.

Instead, my usual path took me north on 2nd Avenue up to St Marks Place and then west to Astor Place. That was where the action was, the life. Never a dull moment.

And so it was that on one summer day in 1976 I headed off. Perhaps I passed the neighborhood Elizabethan donned in his finery having a stroll. Maybe Lincoln Swados, one of the neighborhood’s distinctive street people, was wailing discordantly on his harmonica between 6th and 7th in front of the Associated Supermarket. I definitely stopped at Gem Spa for a pack of Winstons. I had started smoking the year before when I was 14. Buying cigarettes was no problem for a young teenager. And at 65 cents a pack, no problem even for a lazy unemployed kid on an allowance. Many years later selling cigarettes to a minor would contribute to Gem Spa’s undoing, but in those days enforcement was non-existent.

Lighting up, I turned west on St Marks. There is nothing I can say about that avenue length stretch of New York that hasn’t already been said, other than that I marvel now that I was ever lucky enough to take it for granted.

Onward to Astor Place.

As usual my trip included a stop at The Alamo, which sits at the center of Astor Place. Installed in 1967, the Alamo is a black cube, with various indentations, that is set on one of its corners. Until recently, it could be rotated. Spinning the Cube was a popular attraction for many tourists. It was a highlight of their time in the East Village. For locals, it was more complicated. We spun it despite its popularity with out-of-towners. We did it because we could…any fucking time we wanted to. And because it was fun.

As I walked toward the Cube that day, an older teenager approached me. Instinctively I reached into my pocket to extract a dollar bill. But it wasn’t money he wanted.

He was tall, maybe about 18, with stringy black hair and peach fuzz facial hair, and was dressed in a ratty t-shirt and jeans. He could have passed for Jimmy Carl Black, the self-anointed “Indian” of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention.

He asked me if I would help him carry his girlfriend to Washington Square Park. She had the flu or something, he said, and needed to sleep it off in the grass there.

His girlfriend was lying on the ground with a knapsack as a pillow. She was close enough to the Alamo to get some shade but far enough away not to interfere with the excitement of the people spinning it around. I could see that she was completely strung out. No matter what he told me, that much was clear. Pale, lanky, and dressed in cut off jean shorts and a halter top, she didn’t need to be upright and nodding off for it to be obvious. No one who lived on the Lower East Side in 1976 could fail to recognize that.

My mind raced. Even at 15 I asked myself, does this girl need medical attention? Is this guy really her boyfriend? I concluded, yes, to the first, but I didn’t want to put them in a jam, and looking at his face, his eyes, yes also to the second question because, well, his concern seemed genuine.

Sure, I said, and his sigh gave me some confidence that at least I’d judged correctly on the second question. Thank you, he replied.

“C’mon, babe,” he said, and, as he eased the knapsack from under her head and strapped it on his back, we lifted her upright. With her arms around our shoulders, it was clear this girl was not going to be able to walk to the park even supported as she was. We laid her back down on her back. He grabbed her under the arms while I took hold of her legs, one astride each side of my hips.

At 15, I was still some years from finding myself with a woman’s legs straddling my hips. And I would be lying if I denied that looking down on this girl, even considering her condition, I wasn’t turned on. Fortunately, however, the sheer physical exertion of carrying her on that hot and humid summer day quickly stifled my teen lust.

We set off and crossed the street, passing Astor Wines and Liquors where I often accompanied my mom as she bought cheap cooking wine – The Pride of Cucamonga – for herself to drink at home and pricier Chivas to bring to her family for those occasions when we visited them in Brooklyn. Up the block, we passed the popular Astor Place barbershop where I somehow never managed to get a haircut. We maneuvered our way through the hustle and bustle of commerce.

And the whole time this young man, this fucked up young man who lived God knows where and came from God knows where and would spend the night God knows where with his girlfriend, kept whispering quietly to her, “Babe, we’re almost there, we’ll sleep it off, get something to eat.” She managed a groan in response.

We came to the red light at Broadway and Waverly. It took forever and even the slight heft of this waif of a girl weighed on me. We laid her down on the pavement as we waited for the green. Waiting, waiting, I looked around nervously avoiding eye contact with anyone. I was determined to help get them to the park, I knew I would, but the whole thing felt surreal.

We plodded up the three blocks of Waverly Place, him whispering words of comfort to her and thanking me profusely, me struggling from doubt and strain, she utterly incapacitated, and all three of us sweating.

Crossing over to the park, we hoisted her over the railing lining its east side. I carefully inspected the ground for dog shit, Mayor Koch’s pooper scooper law was still a couple of years away, and we laid her down gently on the grass. She moaned faintly. His relief was palpable.

He thanked me for a last time, and, although he didn’t ask for money, I gave him a couple of bucks. I hoped it would go toward something to eat, although I wasn’t confident that it would. As I left, he put his knapsack back under her head and laid himself down next to her to get some sleep himself.

I went into the park toward the fountain. Perhaps I met up with friends, smoked some cigarettes, and played Frisbee. Maybe I watched Philippe Petit performing his incredible show of tightrope walking, unicycling, and juggling. I did not check back on them and, as far as I know, never saw either one ever again. It’s hard to imagine things turning out well for them, but, hell, you never know.

To this day, I do wonder how it was that two teenage boys could carry the dead weight of an all but unconscious teenage girl for five blocks through the crowded streets of New York City without a single adult taking notice or having sufficient concern so as to question us, intervene, and check that everything was all right.

***

Raphael Lasar inexplicably lives in New Jersey. He dedicates this story to the memory of his friend Michael Perhaes who told him, “If you want to write, you have to be unafraid of getting naked in front of your readers.”

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§ One Response to “Dead Weight”

  • Devorah Malek says:

    I’m so proud to be your cousin, among your mother’s Brooklyn Chivas drinking relatives! Your story makes the reader slip into your shoes from beginning to end. Naturally, I can’t help remembering some outstanding fifteen years old neighborhood times of my own!

§ Leave a Reply

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