The first time I saw Jay, I was wearing sweatpants and smelled of burnt chestnuts and urine. The smell of New York. I was sitting in the reception area of my mother’s office, just delivered from the police precinct station where I had been brought in for questioning on an attempted mugging—not my mugging of someone, of course, but of someone trying to grab me. Freida, my partner in lunacy, and I had been out and about in the early morning hours, wandering through the garment district and up across the street from the Port Authority, have-a-heart traps banging against our legs, looking for strays among the debris, the abandoned reclining armchairs that served as people’s beds; avoiding the chiffoniers and city gypsies, keeping an eye out for the mentally troubled and criminally inclined. We thought both our industriousness and the lazy habits of this population would protect us from harm, but we were the victims of our own prejudices.
Our plan was simple and free of any practicality: saved from wanton cruelty or the research labs, the captured felines would be carted off to our veterinary student friends who would neuter and vaccinate them, then take them to the shelter to find homes. Their “forever homes.” This phrase, though admirable, meant nothing to me. Forever stretched off into the distance for me. How long is forever when you’re young? How wide is the ocean when you’ve never been abroad? I was eager to move time and set sail. My mother could not stand this humane sideline of mine; she said it was a nasty streak of self-righteousness that ran through the family reaching its pinnacle with her sister, Jean. Mom was ready to push off my boat and wave from the shore.
Mom and Dad divorced while I was in college. Mom moved to New York and Dad stayed in the sticks. She always hated the country, and I was brought to wonder sometimes why they got married in the first place. After graduating, I moved in with Mom to make my way in the big city. Mom went into PR and ended up a management consultant in the entertainment and sports industry. She was right at home among the high achievers and go-getters. They possessed something Dad and I lacked.
So that’s how I found myself seated in her reception area that day when she walked by with Jay Burton, frontman for the rising roots group, Yellowbird. Why he was awake and here at such an hour, why Mom had not gone instead to see him, following at heel like a bird dog, I later found out had something to do with morning radio. Mom saw me sitting there, but ignored me; Jay turned to look at me a second as I’m sure I stuck out sartorially, but instead of looking through me as expected, a puzzled expression flashed across his face, replaced with the slightest of amused stretching of his lips, then he was gone. This glance lasted all of ten seconds, but it was enough for me, even in my agitated state, to post two thoughts in his favor: one, he was not half bad-looking; and two, he had not yet lost his mind.
On Mom’s return, I was called in to tell my story: Freida and I were in the lot across the street from the Port Authority. I had gone around the corner of a nearby building and was lifting up old, wet, half-deteriorated boxes when a sense of dread flooded over me so strongly I straightened up, senses on full alert. I turned around to see a large man—much larger, so much larger than me—about six foot three, drunk or stoned or both, blocking my way. I often wondered what I would do in a situation like this. Well, I froze. I couldn’t move or scream. This is it, I thought. Right here in this ally.
Seconds of inaction passed, then the spell broke, and I casually tried to go by him, saying calmly, ‘I’m just going to go out here,’ but he grabbed me and put me in a choke hold, ripped open the Velcro of my fanny pack and took my wallet. I was pressed hard against him, struggling, rubbing against his filthy, stinking body. Freida, seeing this, dropped her cages and took off in the opposite direction. He jammed his hand down my jeans, trying to pull them down, but I had both my hands clutched over my belt buckle, holding on for dear life. What would have happened if an off-duty detective on his morning run hadn’t seen this struggle and chased the man away, I could well imagine.
I went with the detective to the local station to report the crime. Detective Cunningham said there wasn’t much chance of anything being done, and if I ever decided on doing something so stupid again, he would run right past. He let me call my mother from the phone on his desk and gave me cab fare to my mom’s office even though it was just a few blocks away. All I wanted to do was go home, take the world’s hottest shower, and curl up in a blanket, but Mom was hysterical at first and needed to see her girl alive and in one piece. Her relief at my survival had turned to anger by the time I went into her office. As with Detective Cunningham, she felt the responsibility for this upheaval of everyone’s day rested solely with me. Why wouldn’t that man want to attack me? That’s what muggers do. No more rescue work for me. From now on I could work in her office, filing photos as they came off the wire, and satisfying any higher calling by volunteering at the shelter.
Weeks passed, the seasons turned, but I never did regain my sense of normalcy. I just tried to stay out of everyone’s way. Every day I’d get off the train at Penn Station and walk to my mom’s office, up out of the fur district, dodging the men with their rolling racks of furs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, past Macy’s, up Sixth Avenue ignoring the public altercations that always seemed to be taking place between some man in a suit and someone who probably didn’t own a suit. This was also the era of the flyer, every shop or restaurant employing some poor soul to thrust its advertising at passersby. I took it as a point of pride that no one could make me take one.
Just before I turned the corner to my office, I would pass a mustard-colored building; there were always young women going in or coming out. The women were Asian, but I could not place them more specifically. Sometimes one of them would emerge by herself, but mostly they traveled in groups, and on the rare occasion I could overhear their conversations, it was in a language I couldn’t identify. Maybe because I was lonely and unsettled, I was drawn to these women. I wanted to know who they were. I fell into stereotypical thinking, seeing them emerging onto the street like a flock of graceful birds; I romanticized them, thinking they carried a sadness in their faces, a sorrow in their posture, though I realized reality was likely much harsher and grittier. Over time and repeated crossing of paths, I was able to recognize a few of them as individuals, and they seemed to recognize me. Though we never smiled at each other or looked each other straight in the eye, eventually there came to be some understanding, some acknowledgement as we passed that, Yes, there you are; we’re both on schedule, then. I came to the conclusion that they worked either in a brothel or a sweatshop. Given these two hard choices, given my recent fleeting brush with unwanted intimacy, I hoped to God it was the latter.