Poets’ Walk appeared in the initial (and only) edition of Chase the Moon: The Magazine for Misfit Stories, edited by Matt Cresswell (Matt Bright) published by Glitterwolf in 2014. It was subsequently featured on the website LGBT-Sr (sadly, the site has passed away.) So here it is in full, following this 1873 painting by Jef Rosman, Rimbaud in his bed, wounded.
The telephone rings. You glance at the Escher clock above the mantle. Midnight. Black birds against white sky transform into white fish against black water, in perfect balance as one day turns into another. Who calls this late? You consider not answering. You cross the room, look at the caller ID. You pick up the phone.
“Cherry Lane Theater. Can you hold a moment, please?” Steven pushed the button with an exaggerated flourish, set the receiver in the cradle, and turned back to me with a mischievous grin. “If you make them wait, they’ll think you’re busy and be more likely to book a reservation. And believe you me, this show needs all the help it can get in that department. Now where were we before being so rudely interrupted?”
I had stopped by the theater to meet the guy who’d taken my job, with every intention of hating him. I was box-office treasurer when the Mamet one-acts closed and assumed I’d stay on for the next show. Steven worked for the new producers before, so they hired him instead. I settled for the house manager position. Fewer hours, less money, but at least I’d still be working.
I had to admit, though, it was difficult not to like Steven. Forget about the mop of dark brown curls that framed his impish features, his bright blue eyes and impossibly long lashes. Forget about his deep baritone voice and infectious laughter. It was his exuberant energy I found impossible to resist. He was Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket rolled into one compact Italian-American package, with enough charm to sell snow to an Eskimo. He and I were pretty much polar opposites, except for the fact we were both from upstate New York, born one week apart.
“We’re practically twins,” he said as he leapt off his stool, eyes wild in mock amazement. “The Boys from Syracuse. My brother, Antipholus!” He threw his arms around me with histrionic glee, kissing each of my blushing cheeks. I wasn’t used to such outward displays of affection, real or imagined.
Of course, I knew the Broadway musical. I was a drama major at Syracuse. Steven grew up there. But while I was busy studying theatre, Steven was living it. At seventeen, his parents kicked him out when they caught him in bed with the Catholic high school’s star quarterback. He hitchhiked cross-country to San Francisco, where a place to sleep depended on “the kindness of strangers,” as he put it. He didn’t say he was hustling, but I got that impression. What he said he did for money was an improvised street act, a bit of juggling and spoken verse, a song-and-dance routine, whatever struck a chord with the crowd. Until somehow he met the Boyfriend, who wooed him, wined and dined him, and whisked him back to New York City.
I missed the somehow because I realized that although we’d never met, I had run into Steven before, performing in Washington Square Park. He looked different, scruffier in an oversized threadbare jacket, younger with his curls tucked under a herringbone Harris Tweed cap. The overall impression was of an “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” newsboy. He recited Shakespeare sonnets and poetry by Walt Whitman, weaving a seamless stream-of-consciousness monologue in grand oratorical style. He drew quite a crowd by the time he took a low bow, shaking his cap off onto the sidewalk for donations. But he had one more trick up his sleeve. He launched into a rousing rendition of Tom Lehrer’s “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” tossing handfuls of breadcrumbs into the air, attracting a huge flock of birds. They perched on his arms, his shoulders, in his hair, until he resembled some madcap urban St. Francis. The audience cheered and money flew into his cap.
“Just like in the movies.” Steven was still talking about meeting the Boyfriend. “Do you like movies? You must like movies. He doesn’t like movies, and I’m dying to see the new Woody Allen. Take me to the movies, my long-lost brother Antipholus! Are we not born of the same hopelessly romantic upstate neurotic persuasion?”
On our first day off we sat together in a darkened movie theatre and watched Annie Hall. We laughed at the same jokes. We identified with Alvy one moment and with Annie the next. At the end, we both wiped away tears as we turned to each other and said, in unison, “La-dee-dah.”
We sit side by side on the porch, waiting together. Swee’Pea, nose alert and ears perked, awaits the return of his master, unaware he’s not due for another five days. I wait with increasing anxiety for Steven, two hours late and counting. The dog and I are still on edge after a frightening morning encounter.
The house on the edge of the Catskill Mountains is more secluded than I remembered but that suits me fine. A perfect literary retreat, no television or other distractions – except for the one sitting next to me. He’s the reason I agreed to housesit. Or, to be precise, dog-sit. Swee’Pea – four-year-old rescue, every-hound mixed with a dash of Doberman. Truer to name than bloodline, the lovable mutt is good-natured and eager to please. I’ve missed canine companionship.
I look at my watch for the umpteenth time. Steven has health issues, was in the hospital only last week. He lives just two hours away, but driving here might’ve been a bad idea. I should have packed Swee’Pea into the Dodge Dakota and driven to his place. Too late now. Steven also has a track record for getting lost, but he’s lived in the Hudson Valley for thirty years. He’s used to navigating backcountry roads. Unlike myself.
This morning, eager to take a picture of a spectacular log McMansion at the end of the wooded lane, I slipped my camera-phone into my pocket and grabbed the leash. No need for it, really. This was one of Swee’Pea’s regular walks, and he led the way with confidence, tail held high.
After passing several houses, we descended a steep hill and the road curved around a natural gully thick with shrubs and trees. I was imagining the photograph I’d take, the clever caption I’d post, when I saw Swee’Pea motionless in the middle of the road ahead, body taut, ears alert, nose and tail pointed. I followed his gaze and saw a huge black bear, standing erect and staring at us from a stand of ferns along the lane.
“Baxter, come,” I rasped. The dog didn’t move. The bear sniffed the air.
“Baxter,” I repeated. “Come.” Nothing. I realized why. This was Swee’Pea, not Baxter. My Baxter passed five years ago. A sudden surge of adrenaline had fried my brain.
“Swee’Pea, come.” No further instruction necessary. We turned as one and fled up the hill, the photo-op forgotten.
Steven will laugh his ass off, I think, as the Boyfriend’s black sports car pulls into the driveway and Swee’Pea jumps to attention in a frenzy of warning barks.
“It’s okay. It’s my friend,” I assure him, holding the dog’s collar securely.
As Steven pulls himself out of the low-slung front seat, slowly, awkwardly, I get my second shock of the day. A distorted déjà vu, not the usual flash of recognition, but a sensation that expands time, a past presentiment, an all too present phantom of the future. In the two years since I’ve seen him, Steven appears to have aged two decades. In two weeks we’ll both turn sixty, but my friend looks and moves like he’s eighty. Only his voice remains the same.
“Lightnin’ made it, Mavis. No goddamn GPS necessary. How the hell are ya?”
…Two hours don’t allow nearly enough time to catch up, barely enough time to catch our breath. But Steven must leave. He forgot to bring his medicine. I recognize this for the tactic it is, meds deliberately left behind to ensure a limit on our visit, and I know Steven knows I know. We won’t speak of this. We never have. Swee’Pea and I walk him to the car. We hug each other fiercely, an Ursa Major hug, holding too hard, too long, as if we’ll never hold each other again.
The top floor studio apartment of the Beekman Place brownstone was much smaller than I’d imagined, perhaps because Steven so often joked that he lived next door to Auntie Mame. Tall windows provided a panoramic vista of the glittering skyline and bridges across the East River, but it wasn’t the view that captivated me. I stared at the tiny ragged square of rough paper in Steven’s palm. Dressed in a red robe and blue sorcerer’s hat, Mickey Mouse smiled up at me, juggling stardust between his white-gloved hands.
“It’s really Mickey.”
“One of the last. They don’t make ‘em anymore.”
“You’re sure you want to share it?”
“You wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”
“Maybe you should save it.”
“I did. For you. For us.”
Steven grinned, winked, and skillfully ripped Mickey into two perfect halves. I felt a sudden flush of excitement. I’d dropped acid once before, only once, in college. A half tab of now legendary Orange Sunshine took me on an intense trip that lasted twelve hours, not all of it a joyride. Steven assured me Mickey provided a much gentler experience, more physical than psychological, a Disney attraction. With the Boyfriend gone for the weekend, we could stay in and relax. I wondered if that meant staying the night. I hoped so.
“Open wide and stick out your tongue. Doctor’s orders.”
I laughed and did as told. The paper touched my tongue, began to dissolve, and I felt a slight tingle. My imagination was working overtime. It wouldn’t have an immediate effect, would it? I was tempted to ask, but didn’t want to appear foolish. Besides, Steven was already pulling a couple of beers from the compact fridge under the kitchen counter. As he leaned down to set them on the coffee table, he head-butted me onto the brown leather Chesterfield sofa.
“Take a load off, Mavis. Lightnin’ gots a special treat for you.”
Mavis & Lightnin’ was a double-act we developed in the box-office. I don’t remember how it began. Mavis & Lightnin’ were dumbass rednecks who didn’t know shit about shit. The routines were all pretty lowbrow, and the sophomoric shenanigans always ended with the same catchphrase: Sometimes things jus’ be’s that way. That never ceased to crack us up. Mavis & Lightnin’ made a dull job bearable. Mavis & Lightnin’ didn’t have a care in the world. Until Mavis fell in love with Lightnin’.
“Vous êtes ici, mon cherie, mon petite poulet.”
Steven plucked a thin well-worn paperback from the bookcase and waved it in the air as he hunkered into the leather club chair. I recognized it as the Rimbaud book he’d carried around for weeks. He was obsessed, regaling me incessantly with biographical details about the young French poet’s addictions to absinthe, hashish and opium, about his disastrous relationship with the older writer, about his abrupt abandonment of poetry and his escape from Paris to explore exotic corners of the globe. He talked about the poet as if they were lovers, but Steven wasn’t so much in love with Rimbaud as wanting to be him or channel him, to see life through his 19th century eyes.
“Get comfortable. Put your feet up. I’m going to read you a bedtime story. Une Saison en Enfer, pardon my French. A Season in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud – perverse child of my pagan loins, savior of my sacrilegious soul.”
I giggled and nestled cross-legged in the corner of the sofa. Steven always insisted he had no inclination toward an acting career, but he was a born performer. He launched into Rimbaud’s poem with boundless enthusiasm.
“Once, if I remember right, my life was a celebration where all hearts were open and all wines flowed… ”
Words washed over me like a warm summer shower, or assaulted me like a deluge of acid rain. I had no idea what most of it meant. I didn’t care. My best friend revealed himself through the poet with an intimacy I had never experienced. I’d never felt closer to Steven, to any man. I was mesmerized by his mellifluous voice, his rhythmic incantations. I wanted to close my eyes but feared I might fall into a deep slumber from which I would never awake. I kept my gaze fixed firmly on Steven, dared not even blink.
“I’m dying of boredom. This is the grave and I’m turning into worms, horror of horrors! Satan, you clown, you want to dissolve me with your charms. Well, I want it. I want it! Stab me with a pitchfork, cover me with fire…”
A candle sputtered, the darkness shimmered. Lines in Steven’s face deepened into wrinkles, his curly brown hair thinned and turned grey, his hands withered and shook. I watched as he morphed into a decrepit old man, an ancient shaman, a primordial pagan priest. A hallucination or trick of the moonlight? The whimsy of Mickey, the poet’s wail, or my own twisted psyche? I was powerless to make it stop.
When the seemingly endless story ended and the chemical tide began to ebb, a moment of silence fell. Steven took my face into his hands, kissed me, and led me to his bed. He hugged me, held me, caressed me, undressed me, and whispered into my ear.
…He lay beside me under the black silk sheets, gently snoring. I was where I had hoped to be, in bed with the man I loved. But something had changed, something more than turning thirty. Staring at the ceiling as night slipped into dawn, my passionate physical desire for him had faded. I thought this should make me feel sad, but truth be told, what I felt most was relief. At last, I would no longer look at every man I met wondering, Will this be the first person I have sex with?
Within minutes dark clouds sweep over the city, turning the sky black before hard rain begins to pound the pavement. I duck into a downtown doorway to wait out the worst of the sudden storm. It hadn’t occurred to me to pick up an umbrella on my way out. It never did. Not that it would’ve done any good, not with gale force winds. I’ve chosen the wrong day, the wrong time, to walk down Church Street to the site where the Twin Towers once stood.
The rain lets up as quickly as it arrived and though the sky promises more to come, I continue my excursion. Tomorrow will be the eleventh anniversary, not the media-blitzed occasion of the previous year, when downtown teemed with dignitaries, families of victims, and countless gawking tourists. But crowds will come just the same, and I’m no fan of crowds.
Why the urge to see the site at all? I knew no one who perished that September morning, although I couldn’t have been sure as I watched the nightmare unfold on television an ocean away. It didn’t make the event, or the remembrance of it, any less compelling.
As I approach Leonard Street, two little girls are pulled along the sidewalk by a gorgeous pair of white golden retrievers. Twin Baxters, I think briefly and shake the thought away. The dogs are clearly in charge of their young charges, leading the way to a nearby dog park. The girls’ father walks behind the quartet, unconcerned, discussing important business on his cell phone. I notice more dogs in the City since I moved away, perhaps because of fifteen years with Baxter. But he is gone and I feel his absence as keenly as the City misses her Towers.
From dusk until dawn, she shall commemorate them anew with the Tribute of Light, two bright beams of illumination that mimic the shape and place of the lost buildings. Part of the reason for this walk is to scout out a location for a photo.
A century ago some newspaper editor said, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” I disagree. A writer can tell a complex story in a thousand words. Can a single photograph tell such a story? A picture is a gateway into a story, not the story itself. A shot of the girls with their dogs would elicit the usual, Aaawwwhhh. It will never capture the element of sadness and loss I felt at that moment, the invisible story contained within the photograph, unknowable to the viewer. Or I’m not a talented enough photographer to take that picture.
I abandon the walk downtown to the empty space, the empty space cut off from view by tall barriers, the empty space requiring a ticket to enter, the empty space never to be captured by a camera, no more than a photograph of two dogs can capture the empty space in my heart.
I walk to the river, find a bench with a picture-perfect vista of the New Jersey shoreline and pull out my phone. Instead of taking a picture I call Steven. It’s been three months since I saw him in the Catskills. We’ll get together again before I leave the country, we said. It isn’t going to happen. My flight is tomorrow. I’ve tried to reach him on several occasions, by landline and cell, never with any luck. Sometimes Steven doesn’t pick up the phone, just as he never answers emails, letters, or postcards. But he does answer. I barely recognize his voice. Steven was ill before we met in June, and clearly he’s had some sort of relapse. We talk for a few minutes but I understand little of what he says. I try to stay cheerful, which only seems to widen the gulf between us. I promise to call from Amsterdam.
Fat raindrops begin to fall again as I head back to the loft. I don’t need an umbrella. I’ve walked worse storms with Baxter. He loved to walk in the rain, tail wagging, mouth open to catch the drops as they fell. I stop in the middle of the sidewalk and lift my face toward the sky. I close my eyes, open my mouth, and savor the rain on my tongue. It tastes of loneliness and loss, emptiness and light. I stand like that forever, motionless. The moment I open my eyes a tourist snaps a picture.
“Steven. Why did you chain-lock the door? I can’t get in. Steven. Open up, it’s just me. If you fell asleep, I’ll fucking kill you. Steven?”
It was almost 2am. I’d gone out for the early edition of the Sunday Times so we could work on the crossword puzzle together. I ran to the all-night bodega and back to my apartment, knowing it was a bad idea to leave Steven alone too long with the amount of cocaine he’d scored. We were both wasted, and I hoped the crossword would distract us for a while.
I heard movement inside. Steven’s haggard face appeared in the narrow opening allowed by the chain. The door slammed shut, the chain rattled. I heard his footsteps walk away. When I entered, Steven was already lying back on the futon, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling. Dagmar, my blue-fronted Amazon parrot, cocked her head from atop her cage.
“Hello, Dagmar. Been keeping an eye on Steven for me?”
“Everybody’s been keeping an eye on Steven. Give it a rest.”
His voice was rough, his tone threatening. It was going to be a long night.
“Check the window. Someone’s watching from the street. Could be the cops. Make sure they’re gone.”
I moved toward the window, aware I was enabling his paranoia. The alternative was risky. As I pulled the curtain aside, I heard a choking sound and turned to see Steven gasping, seizing in spasms that looked like an epileptic fit. I dropped the newspaper, raced across the room. Steven’s body was rigid, his face red and pinched, as if holding his breath. On the low side table lay the broken mirror, the razor blade, an empty cocaine packet, one that hadn’t been there when I left the apartment. Had it been full? I pounded on Steven’s chest with both hands, forcing him to breathe. My heartbeat raced like a greyhound.
“Don’t you dare die, you motherfucker! Not now. Not here. Not in my fucking apartment! Not in my fucking bed!”
Steven coughed, sputtered, unwillingly took huge gulps of air into his lungs. Again he held his breath, and again I pressed on his chest. Steven turned his head, vomited over the edge of the futon, too quickly to do anything but watch. The gagging subsided and he appeared to pass out. His breathing, though shallow, was steady.
Any rational person would call an ambulance but I didn’t dare, for too many reasons to count. I cleaned up the mess, went through his pockets, and appropriated several more packets of coke. Most I flushed down the toilet. I saved one. I had no intention of sleeping until the asshole came out of his stupor, however long it took.
Twelve hours, as it turned out. He opened his eyes, sat up, and said he had to go. He was gone without another word.
…Three weeks later the Boyfriend found Steven on the roof of their Beekman Place brownstone, dancing naked during a raging thunderstorm, chanting lines from Rimbaud as lightning electrified the night sky. He threatened to jump. The Boyfriend gave him a choice: Bellevue’s psychiatric ward or his family upstate. Steven opted for family.
After a year of psychiatrists and antipsychotics, the Boyfriend allowed him to move back to their Hudson Valley home. By that time I had undergone my own minor breakdown and engineered the requisite escape from the city, trading New Amsterdam for Old Amsterdam.
I paid Steven a brief visit upstate, to leave Dagmar with him until I returned.
“How long will you be away?”
“Two months. Two years. I’ll play it by ear.”
“Like Van Gogh, Mavis?”
“Not fucking likely. You’re the crazy one, Lightnin’.”
“Too true, Mavis. Sometimes things jus’ be’s that way.”
Neither of us laughed at our old punch line, as Steven pulled something from his jacket pocket.
“I hear it rains a lot over there. You’ll need this.”
He gently handed me his favorite herringbone Harris Tweed cap, the one I’d seen him wearing in Washington Square Park. There was nothing else to say.
It would be months before I found the folded scrap of paper tucked carefully inside the cap, hidden beneath the leather sweatband. In miniscule handwritten scrawl, five almost unreadable lines from Sonnet 30.
“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought…
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.”
Steven was stoned. Of course, he was. Stoned out of his Hudson Valley gourd. The Boyfriend would kill me. The Boyfriend gave Steven this trip for his 40th birthday, but didn’t come along. He merely sent a recovering addict to the drug capital of Europe to visit his best friend with whom he used to do drugs until they each went nuts and had to flee the city. The Boyfriend knew all that. Was it a test? If so, we’d both failed miserably.
None of this occurred to me before Steven arrived. I was excited he was coming, eager to show him Amsterdam. Even though I had to work his first few days, there was so much I wanted him to see, to experience. Drugs never crossed my mind. If so I would have given him a different route to the museums. I would have remembered the coffeeshop on the corner near the entrance to the park.
He never made it to the museums, never made it to the Anne Frank House. He saw the flower market because there was a coffeeshop along the canal that he wanted to check out. He didn’t see my version of the city at all. He saw the inside of the Bulldog, Grasshopper, Downtown, and Betty Boop. He saw every fucking coffeeshop in the city, tried every variety of hash and weed they had on the menu. He ate space-cake and space-bonbons and space-everything on offer.
And he never stopped talking, talking, talking, to anyone who would listen – bored bartenders and busy waitresses, coffeehouse regulars and bemused shopkeepers, natives and tourists alike. Late at night it didn’t matter if I fell asleep on the couch, unable to keep my eyes open for another second. When I jerked awake, he’d be talking to Baxter, who regarded him with concerned canine puzzlement.
The Brazilian, who had recently moved in with me, displayed less patience. After the three of us had dinner together the first evening, the Brazilian told me that he would spend the night with a friend – and every other night until Steven departed. He had no interest in the disconnected ramblings of a pothead. Steven didn’t even notice the Brazilan was gone for several days. When he did, he asked what I was doing with such a self-absorbed little prick. Didn’t I see how he was taking advantage of me? And on and on and on until I told him to fuck off. What did he know? They’d barely spoken to each other.
Steven knew enough. He recognized something I couldn’t – or wouldn’t – not until it was too late. He recognized himself in my Brazilian, his relationship to the Boyfriend who paid his way. The Boyfriend who paid for the trip, the Boyfriend who awaited his return. He recognized the Boyfriend in me.
We would never speak of his visit to Amsterdam, or the consequences he faced when he returned home. He would never ask about my Brazilian (my ex-Brazilian). Our infrequent conversations would stick to the good old days in the theatre, before everything went so wrong. Nostalgia would become the touchstone of our friendship, which we would reinvent as years passed, by degrees or in a New York minute.
“Autumn already! But why long for perpetual sunshine if we’re trying to discover divine brightness-“ Quoting his poet, stopping, looking, pointing. “There. Between those trees. Do you see?” Spotting a deer up the hill from us. Flashing a wide grin. High spirits soaring. Rambling, in every sense of the word. Dusty gravel paths leading through green meadows and shaded woods, up gentle slopes, down steep vales. Low stone walls or colorful fall foliage carving the landscape into open-air rooms.
Resting in The Summerhouse, overlooking the river. A round wooden hut, rough benches under a peaked roof. Breathing hard from too many years of cigarettes, alcohol, and more. Watching as sailboats glide in the soft breeze. And Steven talking, talking, talking as in times past. Grinning, poking me in the ribs. Dagmar, sitting on his shoulder, ruffling feathers in annoyance, looking at me with her usual suspicion. Do I know you?
“Poets’ Walk Park. A park that doesn’t look like a park. Au natural. Imagine Washington Irving sitting here, gazing at the Catskills, and dreaming up Rip Van Winkle on this very bench. Hey. Wake up, Van Gogh. I’m trying to teach ya something here.”
Poking me again, missing the irony. He’s the one who’s been sleeping. But I’m happy seeing him so lively, so alert, so awake. Maybe he’s taking new medication. Over lunch in the diner next to the train station, intimating he’d been sick in the last year. Something else we never talk about. Poetry is a safer subject.
“And Kerouac used to come here, too – when he wasn’t on the road.”
Laughing at his own joke, both of us laughing, Mavis and Lightnin’ laughing, laughing, laughing, and Dagmar joining in, squawking to high heaven. Best. Day. Ever.
You pick up the phone. A long distance voice, barely recognizable, at times unintelligible, attempts to explain the inexplicable. Home from hospital…nothing left to do…two weeks or two days… What last reserves of strength taken to pick up the phone, dial the number, wait for an answer? You cannot imagine, cannot process the words you hear. You cannot speak. Dagmar fills the silence with her scolding. You ask about her, not about him. Something to talk about, anything to talk about. Arrangements made… a local vet …unless you have other thoughts. You have none, no other thoughts. No other thoughts at all. You know what’s best for Dagmar.
Is that all you can say? Tell him. Say the words he needs to hear, the words you need to say. Before you can speak, he whispers his last request. Put me in one of your stories. Floodgates open, love spills out, a tumbling torrent of farewell chimeras, tripping over themselves in the rush to surface, to turn silence and night into words, words, words, there are not enough words to express what you need to express, cannot express, must express.
In the end when there are no words left, you listen to him breathing, barely breathing yourself. You cannot put the phone down. You sit motionless until the line disconnects and an electronic buzz burns in your ear. You look at the duration time. Eternity in fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes in a heartbeat.
…Three weeks later. The anniversary of Rimbaud’s death. I find the worn, dog-eared copy of A Season in Hell on the shelf it shares with Rumi and Whitman, Cavafy and Ginsberg. I devour it in one sitting. Pieces of the poet’s puzzle fall into place like drunken dominoes as I read the final words: “…the truth in a single body and a single soul.”
I turn on the laptop, type his name into the search box, and hit enter. The obituary appears on the site of a Hudson Valley newspaper. Damn the Boyfriend. Not even a fucking note? Steven passed within hours of our last conversation, on the same day Rimbaud was born.
During September 2012, I set a challenge for myself: Write a new 1000 word story each day for the entire month. Most will never see the light of day, but some might surface in some form or another. One I posted for Friends on Facebook who were curious about how the project went. It was inspired by something I saw on a walk the day before I wrote it. Here’s the photo I took and the (unedited) story I wrote.
16 September 2012
James had never used a typewriter before but he was getting the hang of it. He had to hit the keys with his fingers harder than he expected or the letters came out too faint on the paper, or didn’t print at all. He had to get used to the manual carriage return necessary at the end of each line and the clumsiness of the shift key to capitalize letters. The project manager told him not to worry about mistakes – she called them typos – just to keep writing his story. It might have been a little easier if they had electric typewriters, but that wasn’t a possibility here on the edge of Foley Park. Besides, the old fashioned typewriters were part of the statement being made. Occupy was all about making statements.
James had seen posters for the first anniversary of Occupy. Technically speaking, that would be tomorrow. The police had already closed and barricaded Zuccotti Park, where the Occupy Wall Street protests had begun, in anticipation of any trouble. James didn’t believe that would materialize, since the whole movement had pretty much faded into obscurity. But he couldn’t afford to get arrested again, just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So instead, he decided to check out today’s harmless festivities, which included speeches from key figures like that crazy guy who spearheaded The Rent’s Too High party, performances by activist musicians such as Michelle Shocked, information stands handing out leaflets or selling buttons, and assorted street projects like this one with the typewriters.
Six beat-up typewriters, each a different brand, were placed atop a row of six identical plastic blue step stools along a concrete walkway. People were invited to sit on the ground and type their personal experiences or thoughts about Occupy on bright yellow sheets of paper. The stories were then slipped into clear plastic covers and hung on the backs of nearby benches for passersby to read. James wasn’t sure if anyone would be interested in his story. He wasn’t a typical Occupy protester. In fact, his clean-cut good looks where almost the antithesis of the stereotypical wild-eyed, matted hair, grunge-style denizen of Zuccotti Park that the media liked to portray.
He hadn’t even been in New York when it all started. He was attending college in Boston. Over the summer his rent had gone up, his work-study job had fallen through and he had spent what meager savings he had managed to scrape together during the spring semester. He had no idea how he was going to be able to continue to pay his tuition, pay for books, pay his rent, or pay for food. He had scoured the city looking for any kind of work without success. He would’ve washed dished in the sleaziest diner but men with college degrees had those jobs to feed their families. So he had started hustling.
It had happened almost by accident. He was standing outside a bar, where he had just asked about work and gotten another sad shake of the head, wondering which way to go next. A middle-aged man in a three-piece business suit approached him, said he’d heard him asking about a job inside and, if he was interested, he had a job for him. James naively asked what kind of job. The man stroked his bulging crotch, said he was parked just around the corner and he’d pay fifty bucks for a quickie. And so began James’s new career path.
It was demeaning and disgusting but it paid the rent. Barely. He didn’t make enough to cover the cost of tuition, so he had to drop out of college. A month later when protestors set up camp in Dewey Square, opposite the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, James found a community of like-minded individuals and regular hot meals. He didn’t want to lose his apartment so he never stopped hustling, but he spent his days in the square, learning the jargon and chanting the slogans. And on that cold December afternoon when the police moved in to end the occupation, James was one of the unlucky ones to be arrested.
A couple of months later he got arrested again, this time for soliciting and lewd behavior. How was he supposed to know the guy was a cop? It didn’t matter. James didn’t have enough cash to pay the fine and was left with no choice but to opt for a short spell in jail. While he was inside, he got evicted. He would’ve thought that was funny if it hadn’t been so serious. The first trick he found after he got out paid him enough to buy a bus ticket to New York City. Another hustler told him there was a lot more opportunity there, gave him a few leads. Yo, Boston, he thought, as the bus pulled out of South Street Station. Occupy this.
James looked up from the typewriter and noticed a lot of people were taking his picture. Maybe he’d show up on the front page of some newspaper tomorrow and get discovered. For what or by whom, he had no idea. More likely he’d just end up on somebody’s Facebook page. He pulled the yellow paper from the typewriter, slipped it into the plastic cover, got up and handed it to the girl who was in charge. She thanked him for his time and without even glancing at his story, took it over to hang it with the growing number of other stories tacked on the back of a park bench. Who was going to read all those pathetic stories anyway, James wondered. Not that it mattered. Nobody cared. Nothing was ever going to change. The whole Occupy movement was just another load of crap. They were all a bunch of loud-mouthed losers and dreamers. James didn’t really have anything in common with any of them. He left the park and headed uptown. He had a date with one of the one-percent.