It's late at night. I park my bike in the bushes and lock it up. The trucks are driving in and out and you can never be sure. The drivers get higher wages and benefits, and there’s something to them you just can’t be sure about. But in the end, the bike is always there. I smoke a cigarette. Bob sits on the loading dock. He rolls his own cigarettes with Tops mentholated tobacco. He smokes them down to the nub. It’s something that he doesn’t singe that ratty beard right off.
“Must save a lot of money like that, rolling your own.”
“Yeah. I save some.”
“Tonight'll be hell.”
“Hell for you maybe.”
“Yeah. Hell for me.”
It's eleven o clock. The bell rings and we walk inside. Bob gets on the main loader and I get into the booth. The usual help didn't show up so I'll have to do their job too. That means I'll have to run to Bob for a cart and then have to thank Bob each time and then take the cart back.
The papers come shuffling from the conveyer belt hanging from the ceiling. They shuffle down into the chute and Bob watches twenty papers drop, then the whole slot jerks a full turn and another twenty papers drop on top of them. Bob splits the pile of papers, sending half of them down the rollers to me, and then loads the other half onto a cart. Every now and then, these guys come and take all our carts off. Nobody knows why.
And every now and then the printing press jams and production stops. We’ll have to stop the whole assembly line of hoppers, the people loading the inserts, because there won't be enough papers. Bob is under strict instructions from Chuck to keep those carts loaded. That means I won't have papers and the hoppers will be forced to shut down and everyone will have to stay and extra hour or two. They all say they aint staying 'nother ten goddamned minutes.
But it doesn't matter. Staying an extra hour or two is nothing when three in the afternoon is beating through your walls. The shades are drawn down but the sunlight is as bright as hell and manages to squeak through every crack. The bed sheets are soaked in sweat from the tossing and turning and you’ll beat your fists on the pillow as everyone else on the outside goes about their world.
Things are running smoothly tonight. Papers are in great supply. It's a cool summer night. It doesn’t get any better.
“Not too bad. Eh, Bob?”
“Nope, not too bad.”
“Got any plans after this?”
“Whatever comes along.”
“Going with some buddies?”
“Just me and me good eye.”
My job is to take a stack of papers, jog them out on the jogger so all the spines are flush and then load the conveyer belt which feeds the papers into the assembly line where they will be filled with the inserts that are being loaded by the hoppers. That’s what I do. I'm the brains of the operation.
Next thing I know, the press is powering down. It's a little before one. The ceiling conveyer belt goes empty. I look at Bob. Bob loads the cart.
I decide to get a soda. Maybe a cola. Maybe a candy bar to go with it.
“I’ll be in the break room.”
“You better be back when it's back on.”
“It won't be back on.”
The break room is sort of nice. It’s nicely lit. It has a bookshelf. Mostly paperback romance novels, a couple religious self-help books, a biography on Johnny Cochran. The walls of the break room are big panes of glass, and outside, the world is dead. The lighting is like an oasis. The break room even has a microwave oven where you can heat up a meat ball sub out of the machine.
I've been gone a few minutes, and haven’t decided anything. If the printing press start were to start again and I missed it, no one would be there and Bob would have to do the sorting and loading himself. No one is capable of that. Not even Bob, not even after twenty years. All the hoppers would be waiting and waiting for the papers to get there and Bob, trying to do it all, would jam up the whole feeder. The maintenance guys would have to come in and fix everything while I’d stand around, chewing a candy bar. It was grounds for termination.
I get back to the loader and the presses are still down. I step into the doorway to smoke a cigarette. There is a no smoking sign on the door and the boss comes down. She asks for a cigarette. Life hadn't been kind to her. I give her one. We light them and each take a drag and then another. The presses start rolling. She tosses hers.
“Can I take this in?”
“I see Chuck smoking in his office all the time.”
“Chuck has been here for forty years.”
Chuck Marcione has been there forty years. He has his own office after forty years of service. It's a decent office. He let me smoke in there once when I was working as a delivery driver. We used to chit chat, Chuck and me.
“Having a good night, Eddie?”
“Fair I guess.”
“I like that. Work is fair.”
Then I lost my license and I was back on the main loader with Bob. For better or worse I suppose; work is fair.
When I finish the soda it's four am. Bob is loading the last carts. The printing has stopped for good. There are eight carts in excess we have to get through before the night is over.
I continue to jog the papers and load the papers and the hoppers continue to jog their inserts and load their inserts and the bell rings.
In the bathroom I use the sandy soap mix to get the ink off my arms, hands and face but you can never get it all. I go outside and sit on the concrete ledge.
“See you tonight, Bob?”
“See you tonight.”
The sky is a dark blue and the birds are chirping. There is a hint of sun on the horizon and I know that three pm is going to be a very ugly thing.
Walking along West 8th Street in the Village on a touristy Friday night, a woman sidled
up to me. I’d only glanced at a poster stapled on a wooden barrier at a construction
site, not absorbing its words. “They’re hiring welfare caseworkers,” she said. “The test
is easy.” She patted my back platonically, walked away and merged with the nighttime
energy of whatever-seekers on 8th Street. I figured to escape the army draft and get a
I took the Lexington Avenue local from Astor Place uptown to 110th Street. I parlayed
my degree, the only requirement other than the civil service test, into a $5,850-a-year job.
Now, as a bona fide salaried man, I felt entitled to carry The New York Times to work
every day. I tried to read the paper on the subway, but the crush of folks gathered at the
stand-up pole by the doors left only one hand free. I hadn’t mastered the double-fold yet
as my father had as a suburban commuter to Chicago..
Further downtown from my Bleecker Street hotel stretched the Bowery. Its human
fetor prodded all Americans to maintain success-dreams, however distant and unat-
tainable, or else be dumped on the Bowery. In January, I’d been essentially ejected from
the Bowery as I stood in a cough-shrouded lobby filled with seated, over-coated and
inert old men. The desk clerk told me to leave, my two American Tourister suitcases
wouldn’t fit in a room upstairs. The Bowery wasn’t an option. If the New York
Welfare Department hadn’t existed and the city had no poverty and the American Dream
had been attained by all citizens, then I would be a critically accepted novelist. Maybe I
could use the caseworker experience and write the Great American Novel.
Though I probably flunked the welfare caseworker test, President Lyndon Johnson’s
War on Poverty program needed all the college graduates possible to oversee the poor.
An open sore in the capitalist system provided me a job. Otherwise, I’d still be busing
trays in New York University’s cafeteria, wiping tables where future attorneys, doctors
and investment bankers ate their meals.
I still lived in the bum hotel on Bleecker Street. I stood on the stoop, watching people
go to the Café Au Go Go, the Village Gate, and seeing them walk drunkenly past my
roost in Greenwich Village. I showered in the morning, washing off any hint of fear I
accumulated over my twenty-four years. Hysteria crawled on my skin, and I had to rid
myself of the pungent odor of failure. I hoped to expunge High Appointment Anxiety.
Today, fortunately, I’d no vomit-bedazzled tenant sprawled on the hallway bathroom to
The first week was an introduction to welfare casework and procedures, pleasing me
since I’d get paid for doing nothing, a condition I had always aspired. The docent, her
well-informed presentation attempted to transform my acolyte standing. While others
took notes, I sat and stared through the window, admiring the slum-skyline. I felt
comfortable knowing a training unit with an experienced supervisor awaited me. Why
bother with hobgoblin abstractions when the actual recipient would be downstairs,
requesting emergency rent payment before the landlord evicted her. I’d handle it, no
I shit-kicked academia when I withdrew from a Midwestern graduate school in
January, traveling to NYC seeking real life. Damn, the leggy woman four seats away
looked great. Every woman wearing a miniskirt was a stewardess. I fantasized
prurience was my only flaw, but my self esteem still plunged into the abyss. It
would be hard to organize my brain, sequencing what I learned in a concise, orderly
fashion to earn a living. Traveling through East Harlem would pull me closer toward
minority status, if only by association, letting me jettison my wasp history.
Lunchtime, the class breaking up in two and threes, others finding companions, but I
struck out alone. I found a Chinese restaurant on Lexington and drank my lunch. I sat in
a large booth, ordering shots of Jack Daniels, listening to loud and sometimes raucous
diners enjoying their pot-stickers and egg rolls. Drinking solitaires like myself were privy
to life’s true values. Those diners over there knew nothing. I read the paper, finally
learning the long-way, vertical-fold, creasing the newsprint with aplomb after three shots.
See. Look at me. Watch how serious I am reading The New York Times and the genius of
playwright Edward Albee.
After five shots, my uncertain gait took me to the cashier, who scrutinized me closely.
Who got drunk in a Chinese restaurant? Coming back ten minutes late, I interrupted the
instructor’s spiel. She cast a threatening look until I flopped into an empty chair. The
chair nearly tipped over backward, my neck rolling around, hearing disconnected
Nothing had been written down in my lined notebook, though I saw others turning
pages as they soaked up applicable skills, enabling them to service their clients’ needs.
My stupor made social interchange impossible. My badge of cowardice: drunkenness.
Just as I started dozing off, thankfully the final class ended early Friday.
I’d a weekend until going to work in the training unit. I drank in my room at the
bottom of an airshaft, pissing in quart Rhinegold bottles, leaking all over the ratty
linoleum floor, stinking the bed sheets. But I made sure my sport coat stayed clean
and I polished my well-worn Thom McAn’s with as little piss as possible.
Monday, I walked up one flight to the unit, coffee in a cardboard cup in one hand, the
Times in the other. I was characteristically early and met the supervisor, Kay, a black
woman. Her southern accent, having moved from New Orleans, where she lived all her
life, put me at ease. Kay seemed winsome and sweet; too bad the rest of the city
hadn’t her charm.
Larry, a NYU graduate, sat to my right. I never told him I worked in the cafeteria. I
wished my co-workers would be dolts, never grasping the fundamentals of welfare
casework. I welcomed incompetence, for then my inferior standing wouldn’t be
highlighted in flashing neon. The other three in the unit were older and we spoke to one
another, though my wall of tension dissuaded them eventually.
Kay explained home visits, periodic appointments to clients’ residences, determining
their continual assistance and when to issue special grants. She showed me a thick file of
Ms. T, mother of three, and her missing “paramour” as Kay referred to him. Roy, a
putative father, was responsible for child payments. One department sought these men,
though halfheartedly. Before I left, Kay defined poor mans’ fat, persons living in poverty,
eating cheap food loaded with sugar and saturated fat.
All caseworkers carried a black spiral notebook, making them conspicuous. Like a
schoolbook, I walked to ten o’clock class. The special occasion-sport jacket from the
once-upon-a-time suburb era became a uniform. I got off the train and speed-walked to
the 115th Street apartment of Ms. T, having never entered an officially designated home
of the poor.
Her railroad apartment, rooms connected to another from the front to the rear, I thought
beautiful. Had Ms. T put that framed portrait of John Kennedy of the wall just for white
boy me, letting me know her politics aligned with mine? Jesus’ picture next to it, had that
been a conscious display of Christian beliefs, allaying my fears? When I looked into her
intense and powerful eyes, I saw a hungry, anxious, proud woman of mental and
emotional substance. Blacks were people, too, suburbanites, and if it weren’t for welfare
programs black militias would turn suburbia into war zones.
The ur-welfare mother walked behind me as I viewed each room. I saw red and yellow
plastic curtains, a single green plant in a cracked pot, photos of her kids scotch taped
to the walls, a can of Crisco, a box of Cheerios on the kitchen counter, a dull bedspread
tucked neatly under the mattress, an ironing board with a pink blouse ready to be ironed,
a yellow, fractured ceiling and fissured walls, a Mickey Mouse windup alarm clock: I
wrote everything down as I sat in her living room.
She wanted a “linoleum rug, so named by the department, for the entire apartment, a
household item I didn’t know existed. Kay told me to ask where her husband Roy was.
Of course, I never considered him any of my business. Instead, I drank a hot cup of
instant coffee Ms.T served me, listening to her talk about wayward and often missing
children. I kept writing, as if doing a New York Herald-Tribune feature, trying to absorb
a stranger’s life, waiting for a word or phrase from Ms. T that would crack open the heart
of the world. I asked whether she needed clothes and, yes, she could use a warm sweater,
new shoes, and coats for her kids.
What was the difference between my mother purchasing clothes for me with a credit
card to a high-end store and Ms. T asking me for them? I’d been taken care of by my
parents’ bank account. Now I wished to benefit Ms. T with public assistance. Some
circuitry wired and connected to all lives, and now I had the power to make real the
I desired to write “WELFARE FOR EVERYONE” on every surface in NYC. The
image of Christ in a business suit, proclaimed by Bruce Barton in The Man Nobody
Knows, had been my dad’s favorite read. If social Darwinism prevailed, Christ’s foot
would crush me, his eternal boot grinding my face in the gutter. I couldn’t contain my
anger as I left her apartment. “Damn white people!” I said walking to the subway station.
I sat in the train, picturing myself as an avenger, twisting barbed wire across my father’s
chest, bleeding him slowly.
I used a Dictaphone as a putative novelist would. I turned home visits into fiction. I
used words such as “indefatigable” describing Ms. T’s face, “accoutrements” referring to
the furniture, “impecunious” noting her lack of cash on hand, “lumpenproletariat”
depicting her economic class, and even some portmanteau words spooled off my
tongue. A real breakthrough, this job, I thought, taking a long piss in the office
bathroom, staring at the tall urinal, certain I’d become the American Zola.
By my second week, I ate lunch with Jenny outside on the grounds of a housing
project. She was in another training unit, the woman with the long legs during orientation
class. After class, she had brushed my hand walking out for lunch, though I ate alone.
When I mentioned the Bleecker Hotel, it stunned her. Jenny suggested I leave that stink-
hole and look in the Village Voice for a place to rent, telling me apartments were cheap
in her neighborhood.
The following week at work, Jenny asked whether I found a place. When I told her no
she said to meet her at the corner sandwich shop at lunch. I sat on a stool, eating a corn
beef and mustard sandwich, drinking Dr. Pepper, when Jenny entered. She ordered a
small container of potato salad and a Coke. A teenager played “Reach Out (I’ll Be
There)” by the Four Tops on the jukebox. Jenny stretched her legs out as we faced the
jukebox at the wall.
“Why don’t you come over tomorrow night for dinner,” she said. A girl did a double-
Dutch on the sidewalk, two friends swinging two jump ropes.
“My friend Harriet and her boyfriend will be there.” Levi Stubbs’s rough-hewn voice
traveled through my bones.
“I’d like that.” I lowered my eyes, looking at the abstract patterns in the tiled floor.
Three blue rhombuses disappeared after a moment.
“Harriet designs furniture and is a part-time painter,” she said, “and Frank’s a potter
They both worked with their hands: they must love touching. I looked at Jenny and
couldn’t decipher her serious face, the concern she appeared to show. Had she my best
interests in mind? She gave me the address, about six blocks from the hotel. Levi
Stubbs’s voice sang in my mind. I never saw anything through, hanging around until the
mission succeeded. A real threat, this adult business about seeing everything to
Wednesday, and I walked to First Avenue, between 7th and 8th streets, knocking on the
second d-floor apartment. Jenny opened the door and invited me in. I looked around,
seeing a claw-legged bathtub in the kitchen. “It’s Frank’s apartment.”
“You take a hot bath and make a tub of instant coffee,” I said. Jenny, Harriet and Frank
laughed, and I let out a big nervous laugh, stopping them cold. I’d amassed so much
isolation that to living-in-the-flesh persons my social graces sounded violent and
unpleasant. My belligerent spit burst through the air. Thankfully, Jenny poured us Chianti
and that camouflaged my panic.
We listened to Eric Burden and the Animals, Yardbirds, Rolling Stones, Beatles,
Them and the Kinks. “Brits have better music,” said Frank.
I agreed. “They understood the American blues better than U.S. bands. We listened to
Jerry Lee Lewis too much.” No one challenged me, so I added, “USA, Union of South
Africa, that’s our country.” A hush filled the apartment.
Jenny and Frank danced, while Harriet told me her parents got married with A.J. Muste
conducting the service. “He was a famous pacifist,” she said.
I asked, “Could he help me evade the draft?”
She said, “Resist.” Flippancy made serious discussion impossible, a state of affairs I
liked to foment.
“He was a Trotskyist, organizing unions in the Depression,” she said. “He organized
the peace march from San Francisco to Moscow.”
“They came through the quad in college. I was tempted to go along with them, throw
my life away.” A slight frown grazed her face.
“Come upstairs sometime. I’ve got one of Muste’s books,” Harriet said. Sure. Why
not? I’m scared to death of you upstairs, that’s why not.
We sat at a table in the living room. We ate pasta, with good sauce, a big salad with
radishes, anchovies and olives, along with French bread. Afterward, Frank played guitar,
singing two Dylan songs from his second album. Finishing the wine, he and Harriett split
upstairs, leaving me alone with Jenny. I’d never been with a woman before, at least not
like this at this hour with nothing to cloak direct one-on-one experience.
We listened to Murray the K on FM radio. I said the last song, Bob Dylan’s “Masters
of War,” was the greatest anti-war song ever. Jenny said her husband volunteered for
Vietnam. That quieted me. I beamed paranoia: She was a government agent spying on
anti-war sympathizers. Fear, its pain like a rheumatoid arthritis attack, shot through me. I
never questioned her or asked about his duties. I wanted to bolt to the hotel. Why did
every radio song have double entendres?
She told me I could sleep here, with her in Frank’s bed.
“We’d go to work together,” she said. Cutting off the angle, the mongoose always
defeated the cobra. I was reluctant. “He can run but he can’t hide,” Joe Louis said of
Max Schmeling before knocking him out. Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number
came to mind. She played a bedridden hypochondriac, who overheard a telephone
conversation about two men plotting to kill an unmarried woman. I clearly saw myself as
her character when a man entered Stanwyck’s celluloid bedroom, about to kill her in the
final scene. The victim, female or male: either one fitted my situation.
And Jacques-Louis David’s painting, “Death of Marat,” commemorating his friend’s
death by Charlotte Corday in his bath. He’d been blindsided no less than Stanwyck’s
character had. Both trapped, incapable of fleeing. Marat had written “The Friend of the
People,” justifying violent revolution. Hadn’t I sided with Castro’s revolution, supporting
the overthrow of a fascist regime? And couldn’t Jenny peer into my mind, trained by her
CIA husband, to read my thoughts? Was her hubby in the Green Berets or Navy SEALs,
known assassination outfits? Paranoia, sort of supreme narcissism, taken it to its ultimate
climax: sex and murder. No slouch when it came to mental disfigurement, my life.
She lay naked and I hadn’t taken off my Jockey shorts beneath the sheet. I avoided
foreplay and its offspring, coitus, by telling her about my faux sex life. Too scared to slip
the hard dangle into her, I explained that my genitals hadn’t lived up to their full
potential. “My Jockey’s kept everything from growing, they’ve been too tight for fifteen
Four A.M. and the boredom of reciting my anhedonistic history fatigued me. Her
breath, Chiati and Dentyne: Lower East Side perfume. She tried to take the Jockey’s off
but I fought her, grabbing and twisting her wrist, saying my penis wasn’t large because
the underwear was a size too small. I never considered that before, how Jockey’s the
world over could stunt male growth. She tried again, but I held her off. I figured I could
hold out until daylight when we’d have to go to work.
But when a boom box below on First Avenue blared Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the
Night,” its convergence, forces conspired against the status quo. I capitulated and took off
the shorts. Synchronicity couldn’t be taken for granted, even though I fashioned myself a
Marxist, having only read the Communist Manifesto. Dooby-Dooby-Doo: I had
no defense against scat. I thought sex was clichéd, it had been done to death. I slipped
inside her after she pulled my hard-on toward the promised land, and soon lost
In the morning, she mentioned Frank was going to Wisconsin tomorrow, that he’d
be away for the summer and needed to sublet his apartment. Did I want to rent it for
$90 a month through September? She massaged my buttocks as she spoke, drawing me
close to her. Of course, I’d rent it, knowing she lived two flights above me. Women on
top from now on. I envisioned the sexual astride architecture, our new arrangement. We
stood hip to hip, holding the pole of the crowded train, striding in unison as we walked to
When I saw Jenny later that morning on the stairs, she looked haggard, telling me she
felt empty. Strange, I had an extra bounce today, invigorated by manhood, hokey as that
sounded. I joined the ranks with conquering males throughout history, from the earliest
progenitors to the present. But stud-hood quickly flagged after seeing the chaos of
files and uncompleted forms, yesterday’s New York Times, stubbed-out Marlboro butts
in my ashtray, and unread letters from clients..
Later, Kay told me one of my clients was downstairs needing emergency money to
keep Consolidated Edison from turning off her electricity. The desperate woman and I
walked with fast-paced sweat to 125th Street, and I paid the bill just before the office
closed. Her nose bled from high blood pressure. She recovered on a bench and I said
I didn’t go back to the office because it was closed so I went to the hotel, packed my
things and lugged the suitcases to Frank’s apartment. I drank Rhinegolds, listened to Jean
Shepherd on WOR-AM as he extemporized on life growing up in Hammond, Indiana and
was a raconteur of humorous anecdotes on the human condition. He brought nostalgic
tears to my eyes, not as in wistfulness for the past. I had none. Shepherd’s tales, for me,
were emboldened with the desire for degradation and depravity. Who was there to contest
that? I lived alone.
I stroked my putz after finding a passage in Frank’s Tropic of Cancer, jaunty drops of
semen wetting the pages. I stayed up late, beer-drunk, and phoned in sick the next
morning, Friday. I needed a long weekend; this love and work regimen wiped me out.
That night, Jenny knocked. She wanted to go to Slug’s, a bar on East 3rd Street. I told
her I called in sick with stomach flu and couldn’t make it to work. I had clients waiting
all day downstairs, she said.
“Why the no show?” she asked.
“Too drunk and wiped out, I guess,” I said, getting closer to the truth.
Slug’s was jammed when we arrived. We found a table in the back, and drank beer,
both of us observing the packed house. How singles entered, drank beers or shots, then
left with a partner. She watched the males, I the females. I talked about Vietnam, who
really killed Kennedy, police brutality at anti-war demos, the comedian Lenny Bruce’s
legal persecution, a new Lower East Side band, the Fugs, but nothing interested her. At
the bar drinkers sang the long track of Dylan’s “Sad Eyes Lady of the Lowlands.”
Lust swept across her face as she stared past me, watching sexy guys hustle females.
I walked to the front, putting nickels in the jukebox, and “Sally Go Round the Roses” by
the Jaynettes played five straight times. That slickness failed to stir her when I got back
and told her to listen to the poetry.
At midnight, as newcomers still jammed Slugs, we walked out, barely squeezing
through tight knots of long- and short-haired people. “It’s a happening place,” she said,
our hips sometimes touching as we walked back. I never heard that phrase before, though
I knew what she meant but changed the subject, telling her Tompkins Square Park
shouldn’t have iron railings along its sidewalks. “They’re repressive,” I said. We kissed
and went to separate apartments.
Work dragged on, and my write-ups of home visits came back marred by the typists’
failure to appreciate my writing talents. They couldn’t spell many “literary” words, and
my neo-Faulknerian stream proved impossible to decipher on Ditaphones. I asked
Larry to help me out since he had organized work habits, buying manila folders for each
client, alphabetizing them in his desk drawer. He had time to explain how the system
operated, though for me it would always remain opaque. “Always keep up to date,” he
said, a bureaucratic 11th Commandment. Faster assumed some basic skill level that I
My dad wrote, saying how brave I was to work in East Harlem, but I shrugged it off,
thinking bravery had nothing to do with welfare protocol. I had copied in tiny letters an
epigram from Martial on the back of his business card: “The wretched may well despise
and laugh at death; but he is braver far who can live wretched.” I pulled it out of my
wallet after reading his letter.
On Friday after work, while walking to the subway, Larry invited me to drink wine
with a friend who had a studio on the Upper East Side. The living room had a double bed
as its sole furniture. We finished off the Riesling quickly and I wanted more, or at least a
couple of shared six packs. Instead, the two gave me an odd look, as if they expected
something. I was surprised, thinking we’d get drunk and ride back to our respective
abodes. Larry complained about his old girlfriend, telling me she wanted too much from
him. His friend agreed, and said women pressured him. Hell, I just laid, so what had I to
bitch about. They stopped talking, struggling to see some gesture on my part.
I lied, explaining that I’d a midnight date. With a woman, I stipulated. Sorry. I left
them in the bare studio, their faces red, shocked that I wouldn’t spend the night together
with them. No pull my daisy. From that point on, Larry and I rarely spoke to each other at
Once, at work, Jenny casually mentioned that she and Harriet had weekend
reservations at a dude ranch. That drove me crazy, thinking she’d be away from me with
male strangers. I bought Playboy, masturbating as many times I could that weekend,
crudding up the pages with neurotic sperm. Between handjobs, I drank Rheingolds,
hearing the Lovin’ Spoonful sing “Summer in the City” on AM radio, waiting for Jenny’s
arrival Sunday evening.
I stood naked in the hot, groggy apartment, pulling back the curtain a bit to see Jenny
get out the car with a guy. A Mercury Comet parallel-parked outside the building: it had
to be them opening the downstairs door. I couldn’t be sure because the poor angle
distorted certainty: I wanted belief, not knowing whether she walked up the stairs with
him. Doubt: Was it really Kim Novak free-falling in Hitchcock’s Vertigo? I’d have to see
the movie again. Jenny starred in my movie, depriving me of virginity at twenty-four. I
expected loyalty but she refused to play that game.
Later that week, Jenny knocked on my door. Her brows furled as she guided me to the
couch, pushing me gently back with one hand, unzipping me with the other. My cock
grew in her mouth and I felt the blood-rush of semen move closer to the Holland tunnel.
The moment before release, my cock lost its stiffness. “There,” she said, patting my
softie, getting up and leaving the apartment. Thirty minutes later, I felt horny. I
realized she plugged my urethra with her tongue to stanch my pleasure. I ripped
out the Playboy centerfold and blew one off. Jenny was quite adroit.
I thought about Leopold Bloom cuckolded by Blazes Boylan but quickly fell from that
lofty perch. How many Blazes around NYC and beyond had un-husbanded Jenny have?
After reading a tiny notice in the Village Voice about a magazine called Entrails
soliciting erotic poetry for its next issue, I sat down at the kitchen table, writing, re-
writing, scraping pages, until I had written the opening sentence. “Lady Cunt Vortex
gobbled Cock Forever off his feet.” A cosmic fuck prose poem written in one sitting. I
mailed it to the editor, Gene Bloom, at a Lower East Side address. Bloom, two blocks
away, would read my untitled work.
His geographic expanse from me was greater than the short emotional distance from
me to Leopold Bloom, cuckolded by Blazes Boylan. Visiting Gene, something I thought
other poets did, entailed familiarity. I wouldn’t do that any more than go again with
Jenny to Slug’s. A pickup launching pad wasn’t what I needed. No. I wanted to stay in
the apartment where I could have Jenny all to myself. Like capitalists, I hated competi-
Larry’s supreme orderliness and a counterintuitive knack for bureaucratic skills
rewarded him, and he moved into a regular unit. The guy who replaced him, Joey, had
little trouble with casework. He informed me his first day that amphetamine never
“The brain cells always grow back no matter how many black beauties I take.” He told
me he needed some backing for a light show, that it would be spectacular, “a blast,” Joey
“Strobes, speakers, amplifiers, monitors, oscilloscopes, slides, swirls, projectors, trips.”
He talked fast about the venture. “Even if you only invest one hundred dollars, you’ll get
double back, at least,” he said.
The following day, I handed him five Jacksons and he invited me to come celebrate at
his apartment on East 9th Street that Saturday afternoon.
“We’ll have a good time at my place,” he said. Daylight suggested a harmless way to
kill a summer afternoon. I could handle it. I’d be there. Dylan sang “Sad Eyed…” as
I knocked on the door. Marijuana smoke poured from the apartment. Joey greeted me,
smiling, others laughing and loud in the small apartment. They glanced at me, grinning,
moving their bodies to Dylan’s poetry. I was so frightened by the claustrophobic Others
that I couldn’t even smell pot smoke. Or was it oregano they smoked? I got the feeling
they wanted to show that Joey had friends, not just caseworkers in the training unit. He
could be trusted.
They talked about how high they were but I felt nothing. Joey beat me out of
Jacksons and was too cheap to share real weed with me. Walking into the kitchen, the six
of them left me standing alone. I saw them pressed together, jumping up and down, the
Temptations spinning around the turntable, loud and strong. The pot-cigars were held
over their heads while I stood alone. I forced myself, against my natural solitude, into the
kitchen but then they chose to leave, and I smoked a Marlboro.
“The show will be tonight,” Joey said, changing the record to Jefferson Airplane. “I
rented a hall off Union Square.” He wrote the address on a napkin.
“I’ll be there,” I said, crumpling the damp napkin into my loose change pocket.
Anti-magneticism overwhelmed me. I stood apart, moved quickly to the door and left. I
thought Joey played as if he were a hippie, all the while a hustler. Their long hair looked
like wigs, the noise emitted from their mouths echoic and indecipherable. I had spoken a
few sentences to Joey, the others were immunized against me like I was the plague. I left
the door ajar, not wanting the partygoers to hear the click. I didn’t bother going to the
light show. I never tripped so, if I went, my isolation would amount to bad vibes.
Back at my place, I ate Dinty Moore beef stew and a can of green beans, drinking
Tropicana orange juice from the carton. After eating, I lay in Frank’s bed reading
Lawrence Durrell’s Justine where I’d creased the page. I loved the novel’s introspection
as Durrell retreated into the past, autobiography merged with fiction, making clearer
personal truth, examining Justine the ex-lover. I sank my hindbrain into the novel.
Frank’s paperbacks lined a small bookshelf at the head of the bed. I wouldn’t have read
the Alexandra Quartet had it not been for Jenny. As I turned the pages, I asked myself,
Had Frank boffed Jenny on these sheets? I held Justine over my head, reading on my
back, the small lamplight needed since I kept the windows facing First Avenue closed.
A hot summer afternoon, I forgot Joey and losing the Jacksons.
I attended a poetry reading by Peter Orlovsky, Allen Ginsberg’s longtime friend and
lover. The reading was held in the basement of St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. Peter
read very fast, itemizing everything from sex to cooking, a verbatim yet musical
inventory of things personal. He never flinched: all was material. I never understood
homosexual lovemaking until Peter’s clinical description, how it was as common as
drinking a cup of coffee.
I stood at the rear of the packed space, scanning the crowd, landing upon Ginsberg
who looked at me. His eyes locked on mine. My eyes panned back to Peter, watching
how emphatically he flipped the loose pages, delivering his lines, barely pausing to catch
his breath. I checked back to Allen, checking his reactions to Peter’s poetry. Still
Ginsberg’s eyes stared at me. Was it my wrinkly collared sport coat that gave me away?
Had my Midwestern taint been obvious to him?
I wanted to rush over to Allen, detailing my loss of virginity, connecting Jenny, Peter,
Allen and myself into one immaculate, explainable skein. I felt his Kaddish-eyes pierce
mine, knowing if I approached him afterwards, he’d respond and my creative juices
would begin to flow, marking a personal genesis. But, after the audience applauded
and drifted towards Peter and Allen, chatting and getting their autographs, I withdrew
into my familiar husk, unwilling to shuck old habits.
When I told Jenny about the reading, she asked why I hadn’t invited her. We stood
outside my door, and she asked if she could come in. I wanted to read Ginsberg’s
“America,” that last line: “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” But I
didn’t and Jenny sprawled on the couch, those bare, gangly legs flaunting me. I threw
myself on top of her, grappling with her skirt and found it wasn’t difficult to raise it past
her navel. Silence except our breaths.
She resisted, then told me, “No, please don’t,” but I forced myself into her. Maybe if
the world wasn’t so personal, if I hadn’t peered into her eyes, I could’ve lasted longer,
giving her an orgasm. She gathered herself afterwards, and walked to the door. “Try
asking me out next time,” she said.
My second real letter I got in the box downstairs was from a friend, Jack, a college
friend. He came from a working-class background and when I excoriated the bourgeoisie
with frantic-talking jeremiads against the middleclass, we struck a similar discordant
chord. He’d been editor of the college newspaper and gave me a column. We shared
interest in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He was
now broke in Mexico and starving, living in a small, jerrybuilt apartment atop a roof in
Mexico City. Could I send him money?
I sent a $100 money order and explained that I was a welfare caseworker doling out
checks to the underclass. I withdrew the money from an East Harlem bank. I mentioned
having a bank account in East Harlem to a caseworker and he thought I was crazy. Why
not bank in near your residence? I countered: Why don’t you bank up here? He turned
and never spoke to me again.
I soon received a heavily wrapped package from Mexico. He told me to swallow the
worm after I drank the slightly psychedelic mescal. “Get out of that death trap and come
down where things are really real,” he wrote. He informed that mescal originated in
Oaxaca, the region where the Zapotecs originated nearly 4,000 years ago. People who
believed they had descended from directly from rocks, trees, and jaguars couldn’t be
more authentic. After slowing draining the bottle, I heard the Lovin’ Spoonful sing
“Summer in the City” for the hundredth time. What commercial trash. Mescal wised me
up. I switched it off and listened to the traffic’s musical drumbeats. It massaged my brain.
I felt rejuvenated. That lasted until I got off the subway and trudged to the office.
Ms. T was downstairs, wanting to move. I told her I’d write a special grant of $960 for
everything. New furniture, everything. I felt proud of myself. I told Kay I was glad to
get deferred from the draft. These special grants I requested always came through and it
satisfied me because it served the interests of the poor rather than the wealthy class. I felt
relieved knowing Ms. T got the money from a caseworker who had stayed out of
Fay looked surprised, telling me casework doesn’t give you a deferment. Fear
raced through my belly like poisonous snake venom. My hands shook and I grabbed a
Marlboro, sucking its nicotine, my quick fix tranquillizer. Eventually, I’d get that draft
notice and have to fight in the Vietnam jungle. I’d been so ignorant, thinking welfare
casework would get me exempted from murder or maimed by land mines. Special grants
were worthwhile, slaughtering peasants wasn’t, but the USA had different opinions.
The very idea of standing bare-assed naked in a jungle clearing, bathing in front of
Americans and the Viet Cong\scared the hell out of me. A newspaper article stated
Simbas, fighting Europeans in the Congo, were warriors so armed with revolutionary zeal
there were convinced bullets couldn ‘t kill them, invisible to colonial powers. That I
could get behind. But, Vietnam, forget it. How could I squirm out of the draft.
Fay pressed me to seek Ms. K’s consort, her putative husband, because the investi-
gative unit pressured her to find him. Glad to get some morning air after the beer-
pollution the previous night holed up alone in darkness.
I entered a small candy store next door to Ms. T’s apartment building. I asked the
Puerto Rican owner behind the counter about the whereabouts of Mr. T. The man looked
sacred and remained silent, gazing at a man seated on a folding chair to my left as I went
into the shop.
“Hey, you looking for me?” the man said. He told me his name.
“Yeah.” He reached out his hand and shook it. I smelled liquor on his breath, but he
hadn’t slurred his words and stood without wobbling.
“Glad to meet you,” he said. “I hear you’re doing right with my old lady.” I looked at
the gregarious face, how many expressions flicked at me in quick succession.
“Want a beer. I can get you anything you want around here,” he said, sweeping his
arm towards the window. Clearly, he hadn’t meant eating free chocolate bars.
“I needed something sweet so I came in here. On a whim,” I said. I figured Roy
extorted the owner, or maybe ran numbers from his store. But what did I know.
“There’s all kinds of sweetness, if you catch my drift,” Roy said, smiling big. “In this
world, if there’s anything you want, I’m your man.”
Both arms spread eagle-wide, taking in all of Harlem. Very tempting, insider Roy. Had
his fingers pointed toward Ms. T’s apartment or had that been my imagination.
“Thanks for offering but I only want a tootsie roll.” I paid the proprietor, whose
trembling hand gave me change.
“Come back anytime, you hear,” Roy said, sitting back down and relaxing.
“I hear you, man,” I said, walking out into the late morning sun.
When I told Fay I met Mr. T and never confronted him about his legal obligations to
support Ms. T’s children, she cried. “How could you do this to me?” she said.
I made her look irresponsible to an in-house legal department. My outright admission
that I willfully disregarded her instructions baffled her. She stood near my desk,
speechless, then registered poise and resumed work at her desk. I assumed she’d
have to report my misconduct to her supervisor, a man who had already chastised me for
my “incapacitated reports” of home visits. My only hope lay with the strong city
employees’ union if it came to my discharge for incompetence.
Jenny taped a handwritten note to my door. Jenny wanted to go out, letting me decide
where. The Café Au Go Go seemed right. I telephoned Jenny and bought a bottle of
Thunderbird wine on the way over, taking sips from the brown paper bag as we walked.
“You can be awkward sometimes,” she said, my right arm clutching at her elbow, “but
other times you’re gentle. I never know which guy shows up.”
I never had a real date until Jenny. I couldn’t account for the spasticity. An
undiagnosed cerebral palsy victim? Rather her elbow, I wrapped my arm around her
waist, chugging T-Bird as we entered the club. She removed it.
Richie Havens and Otis Spann headlined. I sat a few feet away as Havens sang,
“Handsome Johnny” a spine shivering anti-war song. Jenny ordered a bourbon and soda
and I paid for it. The bill got soggier after I spilled a little T-Bird. I handed the cash to the
frowning waitress. Jenny scoffed, trying to make the nighttime sparkle. Otis Spann
played piano, sipping from a paper cup. More Big T, the explosive chemical high made
me talk loud to Jenny, who rubbed my arm. I order two beers, both for myself.
I shout-sang “Drinking Wine Spodi odie,” as Spann sang a blues number. He didn’t
appear bothered by my vulgar nightclub intrusion. My song came from the forties and I
only knew the four-word lyric. “ ‘Drinking Wine Spodie Odie’,” I shouted into Jenny’s
ear. She gave me a blank look. “From On the Road, ya know.” I drank from the bottle,
not exactly club policy. When Spann finished the set, he walked and sang into the
kitchen, all of us clapping and yelling. Jenny got up to leave. I wanted to stay but
she helped me out of my seat, guiding me outside.
She led the way, clearing a path for me since I couldn’t walk straight and kept
bumping into people. She helped me with the key, walking me to bed, telling me to sit
down while she took off my shoes. She tucked me in between Frank’s sheets. When I
woke up to piss, I hadn’t any memory of what happened after Havens’s set. I couldn’t
find my way back to bed, so I slept on the grungy couch, drawing my trench coat
over me. I woke up, shivering, and looked at the radio clock: 10:30. I had to make
another sick day call, dialing Fay’s number. No answer. My absenteeism irked her. She’d
cover for me but I knew her patience would soon end. I re-dialed until I realized it was
Saturday. “What a trouper,” I laughed loudly. Sarcasm and hangovers went well together.
A week or so passed and Jenny hadn’t put in an appearance except during working
hours. Then she never looked me in the eyes, and I felt ashamed. She in no way was the
motherly type. I was the negative space in Henry Moore’s sculpture. Nothingness
incarnate. I took a bath in the kitchen tub, and she knocked. I knew her faint sound. I
could’ve opened the door, wet and naked, inviting her in. More knocks. But wasn’t that a
cliché comparable to the pizza delivery guy knocking on a single woman’s door, only
with a different rate of exchange than money?
I stopped washing myself, knowing she would hear water splash. Instead of soap, now
simple fear sheathed my body. “Victor, are you there?” I took shallow breaths as if she
were an enemy combatant, my life in jeopardy. I triumphed: she gave up. One helluva
way to win a war. An intern once said to me in Roosevelt Hospital’s ER: What are you
I hadn’t seen Harriet except occasionally on the stairs and then only minor league
chitchat ensued. She invited me upstairs to her apartment. I sat down and drank
herbal tea. On the wall hung a painting of a naked man.
“Recognize him?” she asked, sipping Hibiscus tea.
“No, not without his clothes.” I gulped the cup down.
“It’s Frank,” she said. “It’s my first nude and hope it won’t be the last.”
I talked about the difference between nakedness and nudity, heading off the
conversational flow. I had powerful effects, all negative, over females, the opposite of
Franz Liszt. He even liked coitus with wart women who begged him for sex.
“How would you like to pose for me?”
“You do good work for an occasional painter,” I said. I saw how she gave Frank’s
region between navel and upper thighs cubist distortion. No old school, single
perspective for Harriet. He looked like he had a few too many lingams.
“See the Shiva poster on my door.” I nodded my head, but even Shiva had only one
phallus. Harriet admired men with erections to spare. That door again. How could I
compete with Frank and Shiva when Jenny knocked?
“I’m waiting for Jenny to meet me downstairs.”
Harriet smiled, and said, “She’s worth the wait, I assume.”
Lying is easy around Harriet. Without trying, I mastered it. I didn’t worry
about Harriet corroborating it. Frank probably lied to her all the time.
Later that week, I found a large envelope stuffed in my mailbox. Entrails: The
Magazine of Happy Obscenity arrived. I saw my name in the table of contents. I knew
only two other poets: Clarence Major and Aram Saroyan. Mine was the only untitled
poem. I read my name in the contributors’ page in back. BUCHANAN, THAT’S WHO.
When you don’t socialize and were a basic recluse, you’ll always get capital letters
screaming your anonymity.
Suddenly, the end of September: Frank returned from Wisconsin. I had to look for
another place. He went bat-guano when he saw the kitchen floor.
“Why so dirty? Are you that filthy? I bet you don’t wash your hands after shitting.”
“As a matter of fact, you’re right. I used your washcloths.” I couldn’t help myself. He
turned beet red and shook his fist at me.
“Why don’t you act real around people?” I blushed. Animal fear pierced the pit of my
stomach. People incessantly evaluated me.
“I don’t act, I react,” I said. “John Wayne said that about acting.”
“He was a real man. And what about reacting to the filth you’ve accumulated?”
He probably contacted Harriet who knew from Jenny my living conditions. Even
though it would be impossible, my ideal life would to live alone in rooms. Neither
utopian nor hopeless, I was an Impossiblist. Eternal verities were clichés, lies, but
couldn’t I have just one tiny fugitive truth lurking underground, creeping into
reality for me alone. Like the equivalent of a guaranteed national income so that no
citizen fell below basic emotional self-sufficiency. Was that why I claimed I
was a socialist?
We had strong union and had once picketed the department. I walked that line with
them. I voted for Hal, the supervisor next to my unit, for union rep, but for the wrong
reason. He told me he could see air. Apparently, he’d no regard for my opinions about
work-related issues, figuring I tripped out on acid too much. When I told him that was
a feat I’d want to do, his eyes lit up, morphing to goofy, unlike his nine to five work face.
But idiosyncrasy had redeeming qualities. What had Hal known about me other than I
was a natural-born free spirit, off all free association charts. Sacrificing coherence for
anarchical thought, I fancied myself a poet, that I had a future. I read Frank’s book, The
Ginger Man, Sebastian Dangerfield’s subversive sexual exploits, undermining middle-
class life. His aggression appealed to me. I even had affinity for the sociopath Richard
Speck: torturer, rapist, and murderer of eight nurses earlier this summer. Of course,
aggression revealed itself in many ways, like when I received the Letter of Blood, my
I now lived on 7th Street between Avenues B and C. Abandoned and stripped cars were
the main attraction. My apartment was clean, in a good building. I had a folding chair and
a mattress on the floor. I gave Jenny my new address. I listened to Murray the K on FM
radio. Bob Dylan and Beatles songs galore. I left for work as usual.
“Who’s Buchanan? Where’s Buchanan?” the man said. It was just after lunch and I
smoked a Marlboro. A stack of files needed overdue attention. I saw a man wearing a
wrinkled and sweaty white shirt. It made him look he’d work harder than those who
didn’t need deodorant.
“Right here,” I said, raising my arm, taxi-hailing style. He waved a file above my head.
“This is outrageous, this special grant to Ms. T. Do you realize this had to get
administrative approval.” He jerked his thumb upward.
“So? Did it get signed?” I said.
“Yeah, it got signed.” He sounded like Moe Stooge from a Three Stooges film.
“Good. Now her family will have new furniture and clothes.”
“What’s wrong with the old stuff? Do you think we’re Sweden?”
“We should be,” I said. “We wouldn’t be in Vietnam then.” The guy wanted to hang
me, his eyes hateful, but he dashed back to his office upstairs.
“I don’t know about you, Mr. Buchanan,” said Kay, her kind and dismissive eyes
watering up. Affectionate tears? How long had I left here? Could the union hold back the
saber-toothed tigers from the upstairs mob?
On a nasty November day, I reported to the Armed Forces Induction Center on
Whitehall Street downtown. Three nights before, Jenny and her brawny, mustachioed
friend came to my apartment. Jenny’s boyfriend, Adam, passed a joint around. I told
them my plight and he said, “Ask to see a psychiatrist right away.”
“What do I say to him?” I smelled the marijuana but wasn’t high.
“Tell him you’re a drug addict,” Adam said. Jenny nodded in agreement.
They laughed and I laughed too.
“My husband is missing in action,” she said. “You don’t want that.” She could’ve saved
me lots of paranoia by telling me sooner. We each inhaled deeply and I felt a buzz.
Murray the K talked about John Lennon, the volume turned low. We smoked it down
to the nubbin. Adam swallowed it. They headed to California tomorrow. I hugged her.
Those sweet breasts.
I raised my hand when the sergeant asked the crucial question. I went upstairs and sat
down, a man in civilian clothes behind the desk.
He asked, “What wrong with you?”
“I’m a junkie,” I said.
“Have you ever been in a mental hospital?”
“Not yet. Hope to some day.” He didn’t laugh.
“What drugs are you on?” I could have my choice?
“Heroin.” I pronounced it, “Hero-in.”
“How many times do you use it?” About as many as a man pisses, I wanted to say,
holding back my contempt.
“Usually three times. Four if I get sick.” Like right now, puke.
“That’ll be all.” He wrote down his evaluation.
Three weeks later, I received another notice to report to Whitehall Street.
“I want to see a psychiatrist.” Upstairs again with a different doctor.
“You’re here for more questions.” He looked stern.
“I didn’t tell the other psychiatrist I was a homosexual.”
He wrote on a sheet of paper and said to see the major downstairs. He gave me the
room number but I asked for directions.
“How many times?” the major asked. I hadn’t expected that.
“A lot,” I said, conjuring satyrs.
“More than that.”
“Much more,” thinking how great being a real homosexual would be.
Incrementally, the numbers rose and when he reached five hundred, I gave him a break
“About that many.”
He wrote that down.
“And the entire Army is homosexual.”
“That’ll be all.”
I was delighted that the major thought homosexuality vile, perhaps contagious.
I had tacked a Nietzsche quote on my apartment wall: “At times one remains faithful to
a cause only because its opponents do not cease to be insipid.” Ye swarm of insipid
After dark, I celebrated. I got off at Times Square and strode Broadway. Winking
neon bordered a theater marquee held my attention: Days of Sin and Nights of
Nymphomania. Yes, there was a Danish movie called that. “Beyond Booze”
the poster read.
After opening credits, my moping phallus stiffened to full alert. But priapic
voyeurism gave way to flaccid boredom. When would I see nakedness? Penetration,
spumes of manhood? The dubbed voices out of sync, women stripped down
to bra, panties, and black hose. Why the partying without an orgy? I deserved more than
insipid titillation after declaring myself unfit for universal soldering. Toward the end
a fully clothed man stood in a corner, back to the camera, and did a terrible rendition of a
guy masturbating. I refused the Great Patriotic War. Where were the Moments of
Reckoning? Ejaculations. Big Climax. Release.
Drizzle fell on Times Square as I stood beneath the marquee, wondering where to go.
What should’ve happened never did. I’d never return to that job.
Lone men walked into the theater. I wanted to pull them aside, tell them the truth.
Forget about it, it’s a complete waste of time. Every man had to find out for himself.
On 42nd Street, I saw a young Spanish-speaking couple. Yeah, I’ll go down to Mexico
and drink mescal with Jack. What would I lose except disappointment?
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