On 55th West between 8th and 9th Street I just miss getting mugged. I hear them coming up behind me, two street kids and I speed up. They hit the next guy, take his phone and break his arm. I back off, slipping between parked cars as they run away. He’s just sat there on the pavement in his neatly pressed suit, cradling his broken arm. This is a quiet street, neatly trimmed hedges, expensive apartments. I say something like “Can I help?”, but he doesn’t speak English. The cops arrive and I give them a vague, racist sounding description of ‘the perps’. Two days ago I would have helped.
Two days ago I owned a can of pepper spray, picked up for fifteen bucks on Venice Beach because Inglewood felt dangerous. But they scan you and pat you now, before they let you board the ferry to Ellis Island, so I trashed it. I sit on a rock in Central Park and call friends in Ireland and Russia on the last of my credit. These calls last a surprisingly long time. I am completely alone.
So I get a ticket for the Tonight Show. If Letterman looks a little orange on camera, then he’s ruddy as a horse under the lights. Tonight’s guests: Sean Lennon, Billy Bob Thornton and a girl who hypnotises lizards and poses them in hand sown outfits. I feel sorry for Lennon, this nerdy, yupster kid, born overshadowed. Billy Bob’s here promoting a movie. He’s brought along a picture of himself as a fat toddler. We laugh as instructed. ‘The CBS orchestra’ make a good house band, tight session musicians in loud ties and late 30’s paunch. I watch Dave’s hands shake during the ad break, as pages coo and pamper him. Is he still nervous after all this time? Is it Parkinsons, rattling through the L-dopa? Is it the DTs?
Up and down the Upper East Side stalk little old ladies with pointed faces. Their midget pooches, humiliated in booties, snap against their leads like bobbinhead Johny Rottens in the CBGB’s gift shop. I pick up a naggin in 7-Eleven, mixing it with the too sweet remains of a Big Gulp. Tiny grocery stores are selling mountains of outsize pumpkins. Jews for Jesus thrust leaflets at passing Hasidim, angry under their beards. Columbia is a squall of grey bricked buildings splashed onto a sandstone thoroughfare. I don’t know if it’s a good school, but I’ve read about the naked campus parties. I am titillated and terrified in equal measure. The campus is quiet, and I potter about the swollen crypt of St Paul’s chapel, come to rest on the steps of the library and wish I went here.
Laura and I are mid-conversation. One of those drunken transitions you can’t remember happening. I’m talking up the Aran Islands, staring at this fake pearl necklace on her tan wrist. She’s a senior, majoring in Neuropsych, and we talk about functional imaging and the new Girl Talk record. She hop skips and jumps before me down the steps, right out of the college and across to a red brick hall of residence and it’s happening finally, that manic pixie dream romance.
At the party she tells me to wait. I stand in a dark room containing an actual keg that no one actually drinks from. Minutes go by and I think of leaving to buy condoms. I wonder how I’ll get back in. I worry about us finding a room, I wonder if I can sneak her back to my hostel, if I’ll have to bribe whoever’s on the desk. I wonder how long it’s been since I jerked off, and whether I’ll be able to last with a stranger. I lick my palm to check if my breath stinks.
Laura is kissing a tall Indian kid in t-shirt that reads ‘Cover me in Chocolate and feed me to the Lesbians’. I am crammed on a couch, beside a heavy freshman with a dyed blonde goatee. He reads aloud from his first novel. No one is listening.
Charles, Charlie, Chuck, had been dead for a very long time. Music had become little more than sound. He gathered and collected films that he did not watch. He purchased books that he never found the time to read. He feared the theft of these collections, though they gave him little pleasure. He carried paperbacks like stowaways in his leather satchel, wearing away the covers on unbroken spines. He had walked through pairs of shoes in the time between reading one book and the next. Periodically he would attempt to consume something; some item of narrative literature, some important work of cinema, some critically acclaimed contemporary composition. Books were too long. Songs were too kitsch or too sincere. Films simply frightened him. It was as though, long ago he had run out of a burning building and into the snow, and he could not remember how to return or find a place to escape the cold.
In my mind the East Village is an all night street party, tuned in dropped out business men sleazing on boho bimbos in dyed pashminas and lambswool ponchos. I am disappointed. At 14th St, yuppies are replaced by respectable gay couples and hipsters. The air gets smoky, moleskins appear, even the homeless wear designer cast offs. Disneyland Manhattan. I watch a twenty something couple eat day old burgers from the twirling, spoiling windows of an Instamat. I puke in front of them on purpose.
They show midget porn in the Double Down Saloon. We drink Coronas and the house cocktail, Ass Juice. The money shot in midget porn comes after the action, when the burley stud zips up his little person partner and fucks the suitcase out the window. I am flirting with a roller derby queen. We have consumed great quantities of some cheap imitation of falafel, which demands drink in its roiling savoury language, and on its own bowel wrenching terms. On the street her Disney princess miniskirt and whiffle bat get catcalls. I line up shots at the wing mirrors of parked cars and strike out.
Rain falls my last morning in Manhattan. It drops in fat wet polyps that hit and burst as I drag my sodden case across Midtown, heart of a heartless empire. I spend my last damp dollars on American candy for my Irish girlfriend. I take the Long Island Railroad from Penn Station, watching the neighbourhoods get shorter and poorer. These carts were once crewed by gangster taggers in matching costumes. They’d rob you and stick you and keep on walking. Eyes like scissors, riding high over the low down world. They’re gone now, civilised. I am fifteen hundred feet up in the air. Outside, the wingtips blink clouds purple, and the ice wind wracks this comfortable shell.
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Feature Image: view of the stage with David Letterman’s desk and guest seats.