Where you’re supposed to be…
I want to find the prostitute whose face is splashed across the New York Post’s cover: an article about Emily, a hip looking, perky brunette with a private education and crack addiction. Years before her life in Bushwick, Emily lived a life of privilege, her dad sadly confesses. He keeps her fire engine red corvette in his long island garage just in case “she comes home.” A daily reminder of his loss.
Emily, the cool, sassy kid in high school, would crowd her buddies into her corvette and drive to Brooklyn looking for a Saturday night drug thrill, and taunt the hookers on Flushing Avenue. As her friends moved on to Harvard, Yale, top financial institutions and Madison Avenue law firms, Emily drifted further and further into drug oblivion.
A fallen child. A prodigal daughter. A female Prometheus. A terrific character for my next screenplay.
First, I’d better hire a body guard with street smarts. I head over to my gym on 40th and 8th Avenue, a boxing dive across from Penn Station run by a crazy Cuban. Winos sleep in the doorway, dirt smears cover the windows. Inside, I hear the rhythmic whap-whap whap-whap-whap and see a couple of muscular youths preen in front of the wall length mirror, wrapping their hands.
“Whad up?” Nico kicks at me, but I’m not fast enough to slap his foot away so he taps his toe on my shoulder.
Nico’s a big flirt and a kick ass fighter. One of the best in the world he tells me. Ranked 10th. He doesn’t drink or smoke and is in love with a gorgeous model, who’s a nutcase. He’s a really smart-looking dude, tall and lean, “the power machine,” says his t-shirt. Good enough for me.
I hire him for $50. Since Nico grew up in Bushwick he advises that we catch the commuter train, guys heading home to Long Island after work. OK, 4 p.m. tomorrow, Wednesday, and I’ll bring sandwiches for dinner.
As the L train rattles toward Jefferson Street station the following day, Nico tells me he’s lost touch with his older brother, and his mom has since moved away. His surrogate father, his sensei, still runs the local dojo and he wants to drop in and say hi… we’ll have enough time before the hookers come out.
We climb the grubby subway stairs onto Wyckoff Avenue into the heavy afternoon humidity, besieged by the urine stench flourishing in the day’s heat. Rows of shattered windows gape at us from disused garment factories. Once an industrious fashion center, now just old building bones.
“Welcome to Bushwick,” Nico smiles. We turn down Starr Street avoiding a toppled bag of dirty diapers, fast food wrappers, an old tennis shoe, and a squashed porkpie fedora. “Hey, that’d look good on you.” Nico glances down, “Not my color.”
We walk through the Maria Hernandez’s Park, and see a couple of young dudes wearing black porkpies, sweat stained muscle shirts and khaki pants that reveal their skinny butts. They lean against a park bench and belly laugh. When we pass they stop laughing, and stare at us – danger, targets, clients? Nico nods at them – we’re just passing through, no trouble.
“Our local drug vendors,” Nico tells me, as we cross to Suydam Street. “You put your money in and the candy tumbles out.”
Nico walks faster and faster past St. Joseph’s Universal Church, disturbing a flock of crows that craw as they flap into the sky. I nearly run into him when he suddenly stops outside an unremarkable cream colored clapboard façade. A yellow light shines above the front door and welcome mat. Nico buzzes.
Nico buzzes again and again. Suddenly we hear laughter inside. The door swings open, and a handsome, 60-something Japanese man wearing a traditional karategi embraces Nico like a long lost son. “Come, come.” We step into his cool, quiet, ordered world. Room length mirrors, with a stack of neatly piled mats in the corner. A sweet pine scent wafts around the semi lit room.
“This her, this who you with now?” I say no, no, Nico’s way too young for me. The old man says, “But he’s good boy, so don’t matter, right?” I say that Nico’s got a very pretty lady, a model… and the old man laughs. “He don’t change, right?” Nico gazes around and asks, everything good here… no trouble? “Yeah, yeah, always ok. Glad you visit, we miss you here.” The sensei turns to me, “he my star student here, one of the best. You take care of him.” Nico blushes.
After promises of returning soon, we step into the humidity and rotting garbage smells, a truck beep beeps as it backs up, a car alarm squeals in the distance.
Next stop, Nico informs me, is to visit “the man.” Pay respects to the guy who rules the turf where we want to go. Like getting a street Visa – the man has to know who we are and our business.
We find the man near Knickerbocker and Melrose. He’s huge, like a Walrus, thick neck, bald head, whiskers around his mouth, slowly chewing. Walrus wallows across a couple of upturned milk crates surrounded by street thugs wearing black bandannas and the same tattoos. Walrus’s own private army.
Nico reminds me that he’ll do all the talking and I’m not to look “the man” in the eye. A sign of disrespect. This dude just got out of Rikers’ on a manslaughter charge. So be cool.
The Walrus yawns and gazes away as we approach. Nico says, “hey man, how you doin’?” The guy slowly turns to Nico. “Oh, hey man, whad up?” Nico continues, “Oh, you know, just back visiting an’ helping out a friend. She’s, you know, with a TV show an’ wants to do some interviews round here.” The Walrus doesn’t acknowledge me. “Yea, thad right? Whad’s the show aboud?” Nico shrugs, “just wants to talk to some of the girls, you know, around Knickerbocker to Onderdonk.”
The Walrus turns to check me out. I smile sweetly and he smiles back. As we gaze at each other I feel great love for him. The love grows deeper and deeper and becomes an overwhelming love that consumes my whole body, an unbelievable sensation I’ve never experienced before. I can see, feel beyond our physical bodies, beyond where and who we are. My heart expands until there’s no he or me anymore, we’re one heartbeat, engulfed in a warm, beautiful love…
“So we cool?” Nico shakes me out of my revere, and I tumble back into the awareness of where I am. The Walrus, bewildered, quickly looks away, “Yeah, yeah, man, we cool.”
If Nico notices anything, he doesn’t say as we walk away. I drift forward, the ecstatic sensation slowly dissipating. A shrill whistle echoes from a rooftop, then another whistle further down the street. “They’re whistling us through,” Nico says. “Our safe passage on his turf.”
We stand on the corner of Saint Nicholas and Troutman, the run-down, light industrial blocks where the N.Y. Post article says Emily hangs out. I ask a few hookers if they’ve seen her. They shrug. Maybe. Then drift away. A spunky Latina, in high-cut leopard print shorts and a flowery pink halter-top, approaches us. “Hey you, wad’re you looking for?” I tell her. “I know who you talkin’ aboud. But she never come out ‘til much later though. Ask Max, if she come over here tonight.” She yells across to the other corner, “you seen Max?” The hooker on the corner shrugs, maybe later. I thank her – what’s your name? “Nina,” she smiles. I smile back, “do you think Max would go get her for us later?” Nina thinks, “I tell him when I see him… that’ll cost ya.” I hand her a twenty.
Nico and I walk into Martin’s Corner Deli Grocery to grab a couple of sodas. A large, handwritten note hangs over a produce box, “Fresh Produce Daily.” In the box rotting potatoes wrap around each other in a tangle of roots. “As you probably figured,” Nico laughs, “that notice t’ain’t talking about vegetables.”
I buy a couple of Cokes and we head down the road, grabbing two milk crates to sit on. It’s a beautiful view of the Manhattan skyline, and the sun hovers above the distant buildings.
As we munch on chicken and cranberry salad sandwiches on olive, thyme bread, I ask Nico where his mother lives now. Far Rockaway. What about your father? Nico tells me that all his life he wants to meet his dad. He has dreams about his dad being really, really cool. All Nico knows is that his dad’s Irish. So Nico tracks him down and finds out his dad works on the switchboard for the phone company. At first he calls the guy, and the guy says he never had a son and hangs up.
But, if he met Nico in the flesh, see how his boy turns out, listed 10th in the world for middleweights, maybe he’ll want to get to know him. Grab lunch, at least. So he decides to go looking for his dad at the phone company, no warning, he’ll just show up. He dresses up, new duds, looks respectable. He locates his dad in a cubicle amidst a sea of other cubicles. Nico stops when he sees this stranger who’s a really fat guy – could this be his dad? This guy’s so fat that his thighs hang over the sides of his chair. He’s very white and has the florid face of a heavy drinker.
Nico walks over to the guy’s desk. The guy glances up then turns back, ignoring Nico . Nico asks his name. The guy looks up. “So why’d I tell you that?” Because I’m your son. The guy stares at him for a second. “You’re no son of mine, kid. You’re black.” And turns away. “Now, get outta here.”
Rage consumes Nico ’s body, then he breathes, calms down, his years of dojo practice. “I may be black, sir, and there’s nothing I can do about that. But you’re fat and an alcoholic and by the sounds of it, very unhappy, and there’s a lot you can do about that.” They never meet again.
We sit in silence on this balmy Bushwick evening, finishing our sandwiches and watching the dying, red sun sink behind the most magnificent skyline. A golden light momentarily lights up the street and shimmers before it sinks forever. Another day passes.
The street lights blink on and hookers congregate on street corners. We watch Nina climb into a Mercedes, while others get in and out of BMWs, Camrys, VW vans, Ford trucks. Slamming car doors, screeching tires. A guy across on the other street corner waves for us to come over. It’s Max and he says he’ll go find Emily for us. Maybe take him a while, and it’ll cost us a twenty. He takes the cash and disappears. Nico and I look at each other, bye bye twenty?
A whistle shrills. Everyone disappears. The cops cruise by and glare at us; park down the street. I wave. Eventually, they leave. The hookers emerge and hours roll by. A young, blonde teenager in a baby doll outfit tells us that Max will meet us in ten minutes down the block.
I stand on one side of the road as Nico crosses to the other side “I’ll hang over here, keep out of your business.” I pull out my tape recorder, as Max hurries toward me. What’s he got in his hand? A knife? No, a knitting needle he’s holding like a knife. I see Nico dart out from the shadowy doorway on the other side of the road to intercept Max . Max, oblivious, uses the knitting needle to poke drugs into a crack pipe. False alarm. Nico steps back into the doorway. Max waves at me and points back over his shoulder.
Marching behind him is one pissed off prostitute. “Get outta here,” Emily screams, waving her arm around. “I’m never ever gonna talk to you guys again. That fucker promises he won’t use my name. He screws me worse than any john. So get outta here and never come back, causing me trouble.”
Max lights his pipe and hands it to her. She inhales, then slowly exhales. Her old, scruffy denim shirt hangs to her knees, underneath paisley daisy duke shorts reveal a row of red, pussy scabs on her legs.
“You know what my boyfriend does?” She inhales, then exhales, “Can’t go back out for a month.” Coughs, inhales, “Everyone hating me.” Exhales. “Even the cops.” She gazes into the distance.
Suddenly, Emily turns and zig zags back up the street. Max shrugs, “Sorry bout t’at. She’s cool. Funny as hell. Not tonight.” He takes off after her.
Nico emerges from the shadows, “Well, that went well.” I watch Emily walk her strange zig zag pattern away from me. “What the hell am I doing here, Nico? Did I really expect her to embrace me, invite me in for coffee? Where the hell am I, anyway?” Nico bows solemnly, “You’re exactly where you’re ‘sposed to be.”
“Oh, yeah?” I shove him out of my way, he jumps in front of me in a praying mantis defensive pose, and won’t let me pass. I laugh at his crazy postures. Louder and louder, howling with laughter. I can’t breathe. Bent over holding my sides. Nico laughs too. We’re leaning on the building wall rolling around, trying not to fall down.
“Come on,” he says, “Let’s hurry – we’ll probably make the last train outta here.” He grabs my hand and pulls me along as we jog along Troutman toward Jefferson Station, laughing. Shrill whistles echo above our heads from the roof tops, like beautiful exotic birds wishing us a safe passage home.
Author’s Note: This story is loosely based on a true incident that happened many years ago. I dedicate this story to Nina, a person I met in Bushwick who was generous in sharing her life stories. She’s an amazing example of how love transcends the construction of our lives, and I truly pray she found her way home to her daughter.