Back then sausage, eggs, hash browns, and toast cost
under three dollars for breakfast any time of day
at Lesko’s on Avenue A. Cigarettes cost me about two
dollars a pack. A six pack of bad beer I could get
for about the same and I could drink cheaply at any
of the bars where I knew the bartender and I knew
a lot of bartenders. I could walk out of my apartment
on a Sunday morning still half-drunk after not sleeping
all night and see Sade taking a stroll on First Avenue.
Maybe she was on tour, maybe she had a place in town—
I didn’t know, but she was already a huge star.
When I smiled at her she smiled back at me with a smile
that could destroy every nightmare I’d ever had in my life.
She smiled back even though she had no idea
what I might do with that smile. Sinead O’Connor smiled
back at me, too, one hot sweaty New York afternoon in June—
not quite as readily as Sade, but she smiled at me anyway—
a quick and easy smile that she had no reason to keep.
One night as I walked back toward Avenue B
a woman driving by stopped her car, called out
and said, “Excuse me,” lifted her shirt, smiled, and drove off.
The view of her breasts was a gift, on an evening, during a week
when I had nothing going on and could think of nothing that could
move things up or down, backwards or forwards, for me.
Me, I used to always give the guy panhandling outside
the old EAB bank a quarter or two or three. I had
no idea if he could work, I had no idea if he wasn’t
really disabled, I had no idea if he wasn’t fucked up
or crazy. I gave him the money because whether he was
using it for food or to get high he needed it more than me.
I didn’t need it at all, at least not on that day and
on a lot of other days that all looked the same. I’ve got plenty
of weight about me when I stand, even more when I walk
and I walk when I have the time and we all need to get high.
One day or one way, we all need something that holds
us up or lifts us up because without that we fall.
Without that we’re dead, and all the talk and sweat
we live on tells us just look straight ahead,
or that there’s a better day down the road
or through that door, or in another town, but
whatever you do, just resist the urge to look down.
The man at the bank and all the others I gave money
to could do what they wanted to do. As far as
I was concerned they were geniuses and this was my gift.
The EAB bank is gone now, eaten up by Citigroup,
another in a series of open mouths that gnaw on us
and feed on us and never quite kill us until the time is right.
If you can’t deal with being swindled once in a while
by some guy with a two bit scam that gets him drunk
every night, what kind of asshole are you? Have you
forgotten what’s it’s like? Did you ever fucking know?
So much of the time it’s the scum that rises to the top—
the creeps, the goons, the louts, the boors, and other murderers
of souls. If I ever get there close enough to touch you will I
punch you in the gut, take an elbow to your nose, and
grab the money in your pockets? Or will I have learned
how to smile at you until my nightmares are destroyed,
until you shit in your pants like a baby—just so you’ll know,
just so you’ll remember what it’s like not to get high? Will
I, in the cold light of your day, remember how to be kind?
Photograph by Jose Padua. Originally published in Sensitive Skin.