1991. Last chance living. Where the forgotten slum it. When you’ve got nowhere left to go.
That’s the gist of my article for the Daily News – “New York’s Picture Paper.”
Bet you’ve seen them hanging around soup kitchens and blood banks and derelict missions. Dead beats socializing on discarded sofas on street corners. Has-beens hunched over burning barrels beneath flyovers.
Hard to get yourself into a situation like that, huh?
“Can it,” the man wheezed. “Can’t you just can it, just for one gud-damned minute? Can’t sleep with that racket.”
Near midday. Same complaint each day since I’ve been here. His television flickered on the nicotine-stained ceiling above the row of cubicles. Canned laughter from a rerun of Sergeant Bilko. Reek of Mentholatum and turpentine. The man banged the partition that separated our cubicles, fell on his cot, wheezed. Metal odor of stale sweat. Each rented cubicle contained a cot, four windowless walls, a door with a lock, and no ceiling.
I sat my Olivetti Lettera on the oily cement floor of my cubicle. It hurt to type. I gulped some scotch and glanced at the newspapers tangled upon each other on the floor, reading them, and as I did the papers moved and danced and stormed, memories I’d care to forget. Drink it all away.
The door latch rattled, opened. The man entered. He wore a XXL Giants jersey. I stayed on my cot. The empty scotch bottle near the pillow, I could use it.
“You been here two weeks, got your arm all busted to shit, and already a week behind with the rent,” he said. “I ain’t running no charity,” he said.
He picked up his foot and scraped the newspaper off it like it was gum.
“I read the papers for entertainment,” he said. “Entertain me, I might not break your face,” he said. “Like your lips to look like squashed plums?”
“Then we’d both have a matching set,” I said.
He choked. I think it was strangled laughter.
“How did you get here?”
“You don’t strike me as the typical irate proletariat.”
“Oh, well, I guess I had a run of bad luck, too.”
“Figured it as such.”
“Figured would suggest you can count,” I said.
The big man moved like a boxer, meaty hand gripped my neck, pinned me to the thin partitioning wall. He smelled of boiled bratwurst. Man next door yapped like a teacup dog.
“I know you.” He glanced at my newspaper rug. “You’re some big shot reporter. What are you doing here? Think you’re gonna make changes with some big shot exposé?
“An exposé won’t change much. Better with gasoline and a match.”
“You’re cute,” he said. “Don’t assume my pleasant demeanor as me giving a shit. What … are … you … doing … here?”
“Two months of strike action. I got bored.”
“Newspaper strike’s still on, but I hear you been typing all-hours. Tell it so as I don’t have to pitch you out a window.”
“I spent a week on the picket line at the Daily News building. Nothing’s going to change. I got bored. Had too much time on my hands.”
“Lay it on thick, kid. You owe me a week’s money. Charm me, Bukowski. Sing.”
“Give me a quarter, I’ll sing.”
“Look at you, kid. Still in your twenties and a broke loser,” he said. “I’m starting to like you,” he said.
“I don’t swing that way.”
He choked. I think he was gargling gravel.
“I’m gonna do you a favor. You’re gonna work for me, Charlie. Earn a little money. Pay your rent. But mainly, I’m gonna keep you round just to see you blow up.”
“You get off on that?”
He leaned closer. Oily sauerkraut sweat and hair tonic.
“Down to the front desk at nine p.m.,” he said, “You’re the new night porter.”
“What’s the pay?”
“I’m gonna need more than that.”
“You a Jew or something?”
“I need cash.”
“Fifty bucks. End of the week.”
He dragged me to the floor, clamped my mouth shut and pinned my left arm. I could have swung my right, caught him with the plaster cast, but it would’ve ended worse. He stomped a shoe heel into my left hand.
“You’re late with the rent,” he said. “Don’t let it happen again,” he said.
The front desk was protected by a pockmarked screen and a door made of quarter-inch steel. Dried blood splatters peeled off the bulletproof glass screen like a scab.
“You’ll get used to it,” he said. “The graveyard shift is simple. Don’t buzz in nobody hasn’t paid. Two dollars a night. No exceptions.”
I sat on the only chair. A notebook dropped from my pocket. He scooped it up and opened it. I ripped it from him and stuffed the notebook in my pocket.
“You got secrets,” he said. “Everybody’s the right to their secrets,” he said. “Keep showing the teeth you’ve just shown me, you’ll make it through the night A‑Okay. Might even make a permanent replacement.”
“You pay me at the end of shift on Friday,” I said. “Fifty dollars for four nights’ work.”
“Sounds like you already spent the money.”
He left the building. I latched the door. Nine o’clock in the evening. The wall clock clacked like a woodpecker boring into my skull. Fifty bucks. Nowhere near enough money to pry me out of Bowery. But it’ll keep me alive. I can get out of here, if I make a little wiggle room. The cast on my right forearm pinched, fingers on my left hand were swollen like fat earthworms.
Noise never ceased. Couples screamed. Babies shrieked. Dogs scrapped. Bottles smashed. Sirens wailed. I read the Racing Form and circled the winning horse in tomorrow’s two-thirty. I re-read the paper. I read it again.
I had two nickels, all the money I had left. I deposited a nickel in the lobby payphone and dialed a number. The call connected. I hung up.
I went to my cubicle on the seventh floor, fetched my typewriter and returned to the front desk. I opened my notebook and proceeded to transcribe the shorthand notation:
‘Two hundred residents squeezed into single-occupancy cubicles that lined dank submarine-like hallways. Waltham House is anorexic: ten stories high and twenty-two feet wide. Night was when this place came to life. The residents were like cockroaches, only active when the lights went off. A raft of voices in the cubicles crying and half-crazy talking to themselves the moment the sun dipped behind the skyline…’
The door to Waltham House buzzed. The man confirmed his name and cubicle number. I allowed him inside. He approached the front desk. His ragged face, marked like a well-worn cowhide, appeared familiar, like the face of someone I knew, but so aged it made it difficult to recognize.
“You like the view?” he asked. “See the Empire State building from the doorstop.”
“I don’t look up any more,” I said.
“That’s skid rows for you,” he said. “Right next to the rich places. I guess we’re the equivalent of a rich lady shitting her lace panties.”
Gray hair hung limply across his forehead and the fringe was tinged yellow from cigarette smoke.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I’m holding out.”
“Holding out’s the hardest, son.”
“I’ve got patience,” I said. “Luck always changes. It’s like the direction of the wind. Can’t always stay the same.”
“Some things do,” he said. “Year after year, I’ve saw seasoned bug men flee from Waltham House with handkerchiefs clamped to their mouths,” he said. “Why you really here?”
“A whole mess of near misses,” I said.
The old man sipped from a beaker of gin. “That’s what I live for,” he said. “Not the winning – it’s the losing, losing by a miniscule amount, a near miss. And I got to keep going ’cause I was so close, so close to winning, and if I had one more chance I know I’d make it, and I’d keep going, trying to make it and every near miss made me want to win more.” He sipped from his beaker, spilled gin down his beard like dewy spider web. “What’d I win?” He glanced around the lobby. “This,” he said and allowed his eyes to linger on my face, and he studied me like he was recalling me from some distant memory.
I smelt it then. He had soiled himself. He limped toward the stairs.
Caterwauls and drunken brawls punctuated the second night. From midnight until three I had barred the entry of eight men, two of whom were penniless, looking for a free room.
I typed at the front desk, reading from my notebook:
‘Waltham House, a 97-year-old cubicle hotel, is a few blocks from Greenwich Village, SoHo and Chinatown. Urban renewal in Bowery is not just stagnating but festering. Capitalism’s great big loser. Bulletproof windows on Chinese take-outs and corner delis. Fly-by-night stores. New York’s premier skid row, 1991. The men living here had money, not much but enough to pay for accommodation. The single thing they seemed to desire above all else was anonymity. Waltham House, and by extension Bowery, provided rooms with no questions asked. Increasing numbers of people flood the area. An unending churn. All on hard times. Cheap accommodation and decreasing levels of available unskilled work mix a bad cocktail. Factories have become mechanized, and industry has changed, modernized…’
The plaster cast on my right arm constricted like a tourniquet. Made it difficult to type. Left hand still contained the stigmata of my boss’s heel. I picked up the notebook and thumbed through the pages until I came to the photo of Christine. Grand piano smile. Eyes the color of waterfalls. Christine. My Christine. I traced my finger around the digits of the telephone number printed on the notebook page.
I deposited a nickel in the lobby payphone and dialed. The call connected. I hung up.
“You working for wooden nickels?” he asked.
It was the old man from last night. He had come down from his cubicle. His yellow skin appeared as translucent as rice paper. Had tried to sleep off a hard drunk.
“They used to take wooden nickels when there was no money,” he said. “Used them as Depression script. A body could exchange one for a drink. Printed them with expiration dates. You missed turning them back in before that date you got stuck.”
“We all got expiration dates, you, me, everything.”
“Do you always talk about death?” I asked.
“When I expire,” he said, “I pray it’s with my boots on. I have walked this whole country, and when I’m dead I plan to continue.”
I went behind the front desk and locked the steel door.
“What brought you here?” he asked.
“Money,” I said.
“Same as us all.”
“Yeah, but I don’t plan to stay long.”
“Yup,” he said. “Same as us all. When I come here, would’ve been your age,” he said. “Don’t you got some friends you can stay with?”
“Outstayed my welcome,” I said.
“What’d you do to burn that bridge?”
“I burnt more than just one bridge.”
“What’d you do?”
“Twenty dollars lying in Jay’s apartment. I put it on, and lost, but I was close, so very close.”
“Same as us all,” he said.
The old man went outside to socialize. It was five o’clock in the morning.
I opened the Racing Form. I’d come out a winner on yesterday’s race. Only problem was I hadn’t the money to lay a bet. I studied today’s race statistics. I circled four horses. I had picked four winners. I glanced at the payphone and felt the weight in my pocket of the last two nickels I owned.
The third night was slow. People had gotten to know me. I had gotten to know them. I recognized the faces of the residents and their voices and I no longer needed to check their credentials. Half the people were regular users, while the others were blow-ins or rummies who had gotten lucky begging and made enough to afford a bed.
He left late again, the old man. Didn’t enter the lobby until after one o’clock. He appeared at the front desk screen like a vapor, a translucent apparition. Eyes ringed like coffee stains.
“Gambling’s for mugs,” he said.
“Unless you got a system.”
“A system,” he repeated and glanced at the Racing Form, which I had haloed with red ink in almost half the available races. I’d won in all four races I had chosen from yesterday.
“Well, if you got a system, then you can’t go wrong,” he said.
He dropped his head, turned toward the exit and shuffled off.
“Is murder rare here?” I asked.
“You’d think with the air of lawlessness that it would be common, well, it’s common as shit,” he said. “Never walk around here alone, son. They’d turn on an educated boy like you, but that’ll just be for sport,” he said. “You ever do something bad, they’ll make you hurt. The other day, this child molester came to Bowery. Thought he could hide from the authorities. Dead eight hours later. Naked, strapped to a fire hydrant, stuff done to him would make your toes curl. Men come to the Bowery to hide from themselves – and that’s ok – but you can’t never hide from the Bowery.”
I studied his face. “Do I know you from somewhere?”
He didn’t answer.
I opened the metal door, brought him behind the front desk, deposited him on the chair. He glanced at the typewriter, the article I had been working on, and my notebook.
“Why have you quit working?” he asked.
“I didn’t quit work: it quit me. When it comes to gambling, I’m irresponsible. But writing – I’ve always got my writing. It’s the only time I can be honest.”
“You clackety-clack on that typewriter everything you done wrong with your life?”
“Everything is self-inflicted. I make no bones about that. But this newspaper strike, left me with no income. If I could just make a little, I could dig my way out of this pit.”
“Maybe it’s the best thing happened to you.”
“Rot set in long before you noticed it.”
“You don’t know me.”
“What’s to know? You’ll never change. You’re where you belong, now.”
“Get out of here.”
He picked up the notebook. It fell open to Christine’s photo. He ran his tongue on the inside of his lips.
“What’s this number here?” he asked.
“It’s her number.”
“Why don’t you call it?”
“She doesn’t know me anymore. Probably wouldn’t even recognize me.”
“Can’t you make yourself recognizable?”
I ripped the notebook from his hand. I pushed him out of reception. I shut the door. He slouched off, dragging his right leg like it were dead wood.
I gripped the notebook tight. My shattered right forearm burned. The healing process was slow as glacial movement. The bone knitted together in painfully perceptible increments. I opened the notebook to the photograph of Christine. I traced a finger around the digits of her telephone number. I glanced at the payphone. I put the notebook in my pocket.
On my fourth night at the desk I studied the Racing Form. Every horse I had picked came in a winner. I grew tired of the game. I stuffed the Racing Form in the garbage receptacle. I watched for the old man. Time trickled away. I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t write. I opened my notebook and studied the photo of Christine. The photo, notebook and typewriter: the sole remnants of my previous life. At the end of this shift, come nine o’clock, I’d have fifty bucks. I’d be ahead for the first time in weeks. I traced the digits of Christine’s telephone number with my finger. I went to the payphone and deposited a nickel. The call connected. No one spoke. The line hummed.
“Who is this?” the man asked.
“What do you want?”
“Fifty bucks on Maverick in the two-thirty.”
“You got the money?”
“Ok, see you at two-thirty.”
The man on the other end of the line took a sharp inhale to speak. The call disconnected and the phone went dead.
I returned to the front desk. I waited. I counted time. I watched for the old man.
Outside it brightened in increments. Nighttime howls became daytime hustle. Nine o’clock arrived. My final shift ended. At half-two, when my horse came in, I’d have five hundred dollars.
Mr Carter, wispy gray hair and thin as a spoke, rapped the screen. “Got ourselves another decomp.”
“That’s what he smelt like.”
“You’re sure he’s dead?”
“Check for yourself.”
“Same thing happens us all,” he said. “I believe natural causes got the better of this one.” He laughed like he heard some great joke.
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Rake him out,” he said. “Room next to mine. Number six-oh-five.”
I bent forward with my head between my knees and heaved and bile like salt-melted slugs escaped me and I went onto my knees and I stayed there for I don’t know how long. I went to 605 and opened the door with a skeleton key. He was on the floor, naked. The old man had died in agony, face twisted like wrought iron. Yet in that gruesome rictus of a face I felt like I was staring at my own reflection. Mr Carter had climbed onto his cot and now peered over the dividing wall. I took the old man’s boots and placed them on his cold, stiff feet, and laced them up, and went outside of the room and locked the door.
I deposited my last nickel in the payphone and called the police.
“We’ll send an officer around shortly.”
“When one’s available. We’re busy, might not be till late afternoon.”
“I have to be somewhere before then.”
“Buddy, the only place you better be is in Waltham House for when the officer arrives, y’hear?”
The nickel dropped. The phone cut out. I scanned the street outside for my boss’s car. The street contained blood banks, liquor stores, flophouses, derelict missions, soup kitchens and shelters, and above it all the Empire State Building a shining beacon. Men drank openly and in plain sight, huddled around burning oil drums. A cop car stopped across the street from one group of men. A cop got out of the passenger side, the engine still idling. He approached the group from the blindside. The cop came up behind the men and sent a hard right boot at the biggest of the asses, dropping the man on his ruddy face like a punch-drunk boxer. The cop jumped back in the cruiser and they laughed and drove off.
I waited at the front desk. Hours passed. Noon arrived. No one came or left. It was daylight and the residents slept. I opened my notebook and transcribed some notes. Each keystroke of the typewriter ricocheted like a gunshot:
‘Two men shared a bottle of Listerine. They stood around an oil drum that smoldered and puffed like a dragon. One man pulled out his pecker, peed and said, “Start digging. I hear there’s gold at the end of dem dar rainbows.” A cop approached, noted the men’s alcohol containers. The other man said, “Can’t get arrested for drinking nothing,” and downed the booze in one…’
A hand yanked the sheet of paper out of my typewriter. My boss was stood before me. He studied the page and said, “The men traded insults and downed short dogs.’” He looked me in the eyes, stared. “Why, you’re a regular Ernie Hemingway!” He chuckled like a draining bath tub.
He crumpled the page into a ball, tossed it away. “How’d you get here?”
“You think you’re a journalist?” He swiped the typewriter off the desk. It impacted the floor with the dull thunk of a stove skull. “You and me gonna be real good friends,” he said. “Fresh fish, just what I like to see.” He closed the distance between us. “What really happened your right arm?”
“Domestic issue,” I said. “Should see what my fiancée does when I leave the toilet seat up.”
A kernel of pain exploded in my stomach. His strike was so fast I didn’t see him hit me, just the fist drawing back after the incident. Pain flared in my side and his fist drew back for the second time. I slumped to the floor. I think I was muttering something. He slapped my face hard enough to peel my eyes back so far I thought they’d pop right out of my head like a couple of marbles.
“You’re so good at the nightshift, I’m gonna offer you a permanent position, Ernie.” He took my broken arm and struck the plaster cast against the floor until it cracked and splintered. “You’re mine now, Ernie,” he said. “Ernie, you’re mine until the day I don’t need you no more,” he said. “You’re my Ernie, now,” he said.
He took my notebook off the desk and opened it to Christine’s photo. I came at him. He beat me down. “Good, you got some fight in you still. Some hustle. Good,” he said. “I like to see some spirit. You’ll be a decent earner if you can last the distance, Ernie.”
He put the notebook in his pocket and beat me until I blacked out. When I awoke, he had gone. I had nothing left. Broken. Well, ok, then, I’m a sap, I’ll just lay here and die. Feet shuffled past, old men, boots worn ragged. No one stopped to help, too busy chasing their losses. The clock said it was almost two-thirty. My horse would be running soon. I already knew I had lost. I was always chasing my losses.
Light blinked off a nickel beneath the reception desk. A single nickel, shiny and new. It winked.
I deposited the nickel in the lobby payphone and dialed the number from memory.
I thought about Christine and what I’d say if I had one last chance, I’d say I need your help and I know I messed up last time but I need your help and she’ll say I can’t trust you, not after last time, but I’ll say, I’ll say…
The call connected.
Neither of us spoke.