Pete Hamil died last week. He was the last of a dying breed. The last dinosaur. They are all extinct now; Ink-stained wretches that were as much a part of the story as the people they wrote about. There was him, Breslin, McAlary, and a few others. Even Hemingway started off as a journalist. They were a big part of the reason I wanted to write. They didn’t sit in a studio and wait for someone to hand them copy to read, they went out into the naked city and found a story. It was with this in mind that I left the safety of my home and headed into the city for the first time since March, searching…
I headed out to the subway today, half-expecting it to be filled with homeless people and vagrants; at least that’s what the NY Post would have you believe. Instead, I entered what was probably the cleanest subway car I’ve ever been on. The uniform of the day was a Brooklyn tee-shirt and my Batman Covid mask, because that’s who I am, and that’s how I want the world to see me. Stay out of my way! I’m a man on a mission.
I got off on Canal Street and headed west, mindful to keep to the shady side of the street. It was more crowded than I expected; table after table of Chinese and Jamaican merchants selling genuine Rolex watches and Guici purses. I’m sure they are legit, right?
On the next corner, a very irate man was screaming racial epithets about how an African man had stolen one of his customers. He swore that he was going to do bodily harm as he flexed his tattooed arms. As I passed him, I saw a female police officer standing in a doorway looking at her phone; a pretty black girl, I rolled my eyes at the scene and she smiled back before returning her attention to her phone.
New York is still very much alive.
So 2020 has been a pretty interesting year so far, right?
A deadly virus, a global shutdown, tens of millions of people out of work — “Black Lives Matter”, “Defund the Police”, civil unrest, scenes of looting, scenes of police brutality; it’s all too much, it’s enough to make a person question their own existence (which is something I do on a daily basis anyway.)
“To Be, or not to Be. That is the question.”
— — Wm. Sheakepeare
“Or do I deserve to be, is that the question?”
— — E. Vedder
I head up West Broadway; a few cafes are open, but most of the shops and galleries are closed. The streets and sidewalk cafes are mostly empty except for a dignified older white gentleman with coiffed white hair, wearing a long-sleeved dress shirt, sitting with what I assume is his much younger wife, and an 8 or 9 year old child. All I can think is “how is he not sweating?” I’ve only been walking for five minutes and already my tee-shirt is dark with sweat.
It dawns on me that I haven’t eaten in a while. I stop at Ben’s Pizzeria on Spring Street for a quick slice. Ben’s used to be really good back in the 90’s, but today’s offering is just a run of the mill slice that the tourists and transplants think is authentic. The dough is too soft and the cheese slides off too easily, but I eat it in 4 bites anyway.
I continue north until I hit Bleeker Street, as I turn the corner, my stomach drops at the sight of the closed-down Bitter End. In January, Malbone Street played their first (and only?) gig at Arlene’s Grocery. We were slated to play there on March 23rd. The world shut down on March 12th.
The list of legends who have played there is endless: Dylan played there. So did Jim Croce, and Kristofferson, and Miles Davis. Joe Walsh played there. Carlin and Pryor both did sets there. Lady Gaga played there, both before and after stardom. We were two weeks away from adding our names to the list. That seems like a lifetime ago. It might not ever happen now.
I feel like Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront:
That was my night Charlie. I was never no good after that night —
“I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it”
I’ve aged five years since then. My hair is grayer; my Chipwich infused paunch protrudes just a little further. It might be time to let that dream go. I’ll be 55 next month. Not a lot of 55-year-old rockstars on the cover of Rolling Stone.
I’ll stick to writing. In January, I wrote a script about an alcoholic ex-cop who joins the priesthood, and his hard-boiled ex-partner whose personal life grows more chaotic with each new case. It was the best thing I’ve ever written.
In July, I started working on a story about a work-obsessed 47-year-old who finds out that he has terminal Pancreatic Cancer. I wrote about 45 pages of notes, and then my stomach started to hurt. I’ve had indigestion and reflux for two weeks now. I’m pretty sure I have a mass on my liver now. But don’t fret, I’ve done this before. I give myself tumors and diseases all the time. I’m a trained professional.
I entered the west-end of Washington Square park. It was about 100 degrees by now. A young man of Indian descent asked me if I wanted to play chess. When I shook my head, he asked if I wanted him to teach me. I played chess a few times when I was younger. I know the basics. It would seem that someone with my level of OCD would love to play chess, but I never took to it. Or poker. Poker seems like the perfect game for someone who obsesses over the minutia of numbers, but I never did.
The park is mostly empty: A few old hippies sit shirtless in the grass, mediating with their eyes closed. Two instagram models take pictures of each other. The dark skin girl wears a peach pantsuit with a head scarf and Rose colored glasses perched atop her black covid mask, while the white girl moves about taking dozens of pictures. I imagine that the pics will come out pretty good. As I move past, I catch the faint scent of weed, but I can’t locate the source. There is hardly anyone around. The sprinklers are on, but no one is in them. One young girl roller blades around the fountain. A jazz trio bangs out a free-form tune at the other end of the park. There are no roving bands of protesters or looters or counter protesters. I’m slightly disappointed.
Maybe they all stay home on 95 degree days.
I head north up 5th Avenue. I look up at the high-end apartments on each side of the street and wonder what it would be like to grow up there. Would I be a snobbish, pampered asshole, instead of the self-centered, know-it-all asshole that I am?
The streets are sun baked. Hardly anyone is out at all. The “real-feel” is about 150 degrees. It’s Cuba hot. This is what Hell feels like. I could cross into the shady side, but I don’t. I like the way this feels.
This is my penance for my transgressions.
Bless me Mother, for I am a sinner,
And forgive them, for they know not what they do.
I realize that I’m starting to get delirious. I must be dehydrated. I grab a red gatorade from the Hot Dog vendor. I down it in two gulps. I arrive at Union Square Park, and it’s deserted.
No Hari Krishnas. No Chess Players. No one selling art. A ghost town. There is no story here to be found.
I head south down 6th Avenue. It’s Africa hot now. I can barely handle it. I move down 8th street, the Heart of the Village. Some of the cafes have built outdoor seating with umbrellas and plants to make it look presentable. I think about taking a break and stopping for a bite to eat. That thought ends when a city bus comes rumbling down 8th street belching black smoke tainted with delicious carbon monoxide.
I decide to keep moving.
A lone homeless guy is panhandling by the old Barnes and Noble. I stop to chat for a minute. He says he’s not on drugs; he just lost his job. I don’t know if he’s lying or not. I give him a buck and keep moving.
I stop at the basketball courts on West 3rd. There is a lot of yelling going on. 14 guys want to play on a court that’s too small for 10. Shouts and threats are exchanged. A middle-eastern dude with a really long beard kicks the ball straight up in the air in frustration when he’s left out of the game. He storms off as the rest of the players chuckle. Someone calls him a soccer player. The game starts. More yelling. Some pushing. Someone calls a foul. Someone calls traveling. More yelling. I smile from ear to ear.
New York is still alive.
It’s just hiding; from the heat, from Covid, from whatever other disaster awaits us. It’s not over yet.
Before I head down into the subway for the trek home, I grab a bottle of water. I down it in seconds before making my way downstairs into the hottest train station in the city. It’s time to get home. I’ve got some writing to do.
The search continues…