Welcome to the NFL

“You gotta come to Philadelphia, man, you gotta come,” Howie said to me. I think he said it to me. At least he said it in my general direction.

“What’s in Philadelphia?”

“Absolutely nothing . . . nada . . . the Liberty Bowl’s there, ain’t it?”

“Liberty Bowl?” Jay was incredulous. “It’s the Liberty Bell, you fuckin’ moron. The Liberty Bell.”

Yeah, yeah, it’s cracked, right?”

“You’re cracked, man.”

“Damn straight.”

Sometimes lunacy pays off. Freida and I were backstage at the Beacon Theater. It had been arranged for the two of us to receive an award for our rescue efforts prior to the televised portion of the Rock for Animals benefit show, and thus be bestowed with laminated passes that allowed us to mill about and gawk at the mostly New York-based bands that were performing. My mother had a hand in securing these, a peace-offering of sorts, because she had been hard on me lately. We weren’t the only ones to be so honored, and this access—crumbs for the beggars—apparently was the chosen way to pay off debts, settle scores, and give out chits. But it was fine because Evan Dorenberg was headlining and I was a fan. I would swallow my pride to see him. Being backstage was unsatisfying, however, and I acutely felt my lack of occupation. Every outsider there wanted to be a rung higher, a shade cooler, except Dorenberg, who didn’t appear to want any part of this world, but was given it fully nonetheless. He did not hang around back stage, and I only saw him emerge from his green room, deeply drawing on his final cigarette, on way to stage, inwardly focused in that world of his.

But Jay and the rest of Yellowbird were there, so we hung around with them instead. We were more successful here. If you were young and female, no explanation was necessary for your presence, the more the merrier; you were considered part of the rider, you might say. I mentioned to Jay that I’d seen him before, and explained that I was my mother’s daughter. Recognition registered in his eyes; he smiled, looked me over up and down. “Nice clean up,” he said. He said that to me. I was only able to respond with some vague, jerky gesture, hugging my certificate of appreciation tighter.

While I did not end up traveling with Yellowbird to Philly (although Freida took up the invitation), I did start going to more and more of the band’s gigs when I could get to them, hanging out backstage and afterward with their bassist, Howie. Howie—Bobby Howard—was an exceptional bass player, a better musician than man. The open door to the rock scene he provided because he was not exclusive in any sense, and the fact that he was deeply unhappy, was a combination many women could not resist. He was wrecked a lot of the time, but when he smiled, which he did rarely, it was an artless thing, and, even though deep down you knew better, you felt as though you could be the one who healed this creature with the broken wing.

I myself fell into this trap, sitting with him on the hotel couch, both of us silent as he smoked and fingered the strings of an imaginary bass. Everyone called him Howie, except Freida, who called him Bobby. “Bobby!” she would say in that deep, husky voice of hers. “Bobby.” A single-word imperative. That “Bobby” was enough to raise apprehension in the hearts of the stoutest of men. Freida could not be said to be careful.

More and more I wandered through this world of strange strictures and borderlines. The band was working hard, the crew working harder; the only person not working hard was me. The truth was I should have stuck with walking my avenue, but I threw caution to the wind one weekend and flew with Howie and Yellowbird to Indianapolis, my desperation waxing. I didn’t want to end up like Dad, or like Uncle Henry, sitting day in and day out in that tin shack of his, staring at the cornfields, letting time have its way amid the rustling of the drying stalks.

* * *

That night in Indianapolis . . . I should not have been there. I’m not sure how it even happened: I had too much to drink; by the process of elimination we were the only two left. Later in bed, Howie struggled against me as if he were pulling on a rope to climb back out of the hole he had fallen into, and it was a nasty thing, being that rope. It was all over when he pulled me up by my shoulders to a sitting position so our faces were about an inch from each other’s and yelled, “Welcome to the NFL!” Then he let himself slide back down into the twisted sheets and fell asleep. I sat stunned for several moments, then went into the bathroom and got dressed. I tiptoed out of the darkened bedroom and opened the door to the glaringly bright hotel hallway. The harsh light sent waves of nostalgia sweeping over me as I ducked my head and stepped softly over the threshold into the sunshine childhood days of my uncle’s farm—the simplicity of running down the hill, or lying flat on the ground, a blade of grass in my teeth—and I felt as if I would never be that unencumbered again, and I longed to return and now more fully understood its lure.

I was the last of our party to get off the plane when it arrived back at LaGuardia the next day, the last to get to the van waiting to take us back into the city. When I got there, every seat was taken, the entire band jammed in, plus Eric, their manager; the drummer’s sister and two friends; and Freida, who must have met the van at the VIP gate, crushed in next to Howie, his arm around her shoulder. The vehicle was overcapacity and there was no room for me. “Can’t take any more,” the driver said. All eyes were on me.

“It’s okay.” I said. “I can take a cab.”

Jay said, “Just cram in,” but the others were silent.

“Really, it’s okay. I can take a cab.” Howie did not speak up for me. I stared at everyone seated inside as if in a daze. “I’ll take a cab,” I repeated, waiting for the spell to break, holding up everyone. “I’ll . . .”

“Take a cab,” Howie said, looking out the window, not at me.

“Stop being an ass,” Freida told me.

“Jesus Christ,” Jay said, hauling himself up out of his seat. He ducked out of the van, straightened up, grabbed my hand and pulled me down the sidewalk. Later,” he called over his shoulder. The driver pulled the van door shut and drove off. “Bunch of fuckers,” he muttered, not for the first time. We waited in the taxi line for a cab into the city, and though I suppose it should have been a coup of sorts to be standing there with Jay Burton of Yellowbird as a companion, I looked with envy at every traveler, no matter how weary, every terminal employee, all of them seemingly possessed of an agency and grace I at that moment lacked.

We headed to my mother’s office, where I was to be deposited, but first ducked into the little deli on the corner and picked up sandwiches and beer. At the checkout counter, I grabbed a tub of olives as well. Thankfully Mom was not in, and we brought everything to an empty lounge I knew no one ever used, closed the door, and collapsed on the couch, pushing the papers and books off the coffee table onto the floor, taking the food out of the paper bag, spreading it out like a picnic.

Jay could see I was shaken. “If you met him at a different time and place, you’d like him better.”

“He yelled at me,” I told him. Why I would confess something like this to his bandmate, I’m not sure; it broke all rules of propriety, as did my being with Jay now, if one was bent on being particular, but that boat had long sailed. Jay responded by telling me about Howie’s long-time girlfriend, Ivy, a woman almost ten years older. She ran away with another man, leaving a note taped to the dressing room mirror one night an hour before the show. The stunt stung him badly.

“Was he serious about her?”

“I don’t know; he liked her. He liked to get her drunk . . . she’d dance around to old music. He liked to watch her.”

“Because nothing was required of him?”

A pause and a sip. “Right. Just wanted to drink beer and have his . . .”

“Oh, crap. Crap.”

“What?”

“These olives have pits in them.” I said, holding up the container.

“So?” Jay asked, collapsing back against the couch. His hair was in a tangle, some of it caught inside the collar of his black shirt, some of it outside; his eyelashes dark against his pale skin.

“I don’t want a bowl of chewed-over pits; it’s gross.” Tears started in my eyes, my body began to tremble, as the self-imposed embargo on acknowledging the humiliation of last night finally broke, sending an overwhelming sadness flooding though me.

Jay leaned forward and touched my face. He brushed his thumb across my cheek, wiping away the tears. The sudden intimacy was deliverance from a world of letdowns and fiascoes. After the rough and tumble vulgarities of Indy, it felt sweet and warm and kind. And that was all I wanted.

Jay collapsed once again against the back of the sofa.  He was exhausted. He became solemn and turned his head to look at me. “I ain’t gonna yell at you,” he said softly, eyes half-shut. “I ain’t gonna yell . . .”

I rested my head on Jay’s chest; he laid his hand on my hair. We stayed in this position, silent, until one of the interns knocked on the door, sticking her head in and saying they needed the room.

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Heaven Song

heaven song (2)

We’d had no contact with Nazer for over two weeks. Still under cover of UNHCR, we were heading back to an area near Travnik, so we decided to visit the Marićs once more to try to garner information from them. This would most likely be our last visit. We should have started the haggling process to get them out a long time ago, I kept thinking, but we had no chits on our side. I had arranged to have Dorenberg’s new album and a CD player sent to me from the States and was amazed that neither were lost or stolen in transit. Now I could give them to Enesa in person; she just had a bunch of cassettes and listened to the radio when possible. This would be pure gold to her (along with the AA batteries). Just before leaving, we were told the village had come under shelling, and we were stalled for a day and a half.

When supposedly safe, Louis, Richard, and I drove in a Landrover with UN insignia through the frozen countryside and across the river to the edge of the village, Louis doing his strange driving dance that he had mastered (or so he liked to think), driving straight down the middle, zigzagging around any imperfection in the road. But Nazer and Enesa’s village was no longer there. The village had disappeared, like Brigadoon. But instead of a dreamscape expanse of moors and mist, it was all smoke and rubble and an overwhelming sense of things gone horribly wrong. Lou slowed down the car as we passed a body on the side of the road. “Shouldn’t we stop?” I said, picking distractedly at my ballistic vest, well after we had gone by.

“And do what?” Lou asked. “Get blown up?” I had never seen a dead body before and inanities looped through my mind—how a dead person was very different from a living person; how the ignominy of being dumped along the road seemed the worst thing to me, as if there was a more seemly way of being butchered; many other thoughts beyond the pale. When we drove up to the Marić’s house, my mind stopped. Getting out of the sanctuary of the car, I could not speak to Louis or Richard, or explain to myself what had happened here. I could only hear and smell and be aware of things small and near: the buzzing of flies even in this frigid air, our breath swirling out into a red-brown fog of fear, the scuttling and scurrying of vermin more imagined than seen, and the cold and the stench and the smoke of fires left burning unattended.

Louis and Richard went into the house ahead of me. They headed to the back where there used to be a small shed attached to the kitchen. The back of the Marić’s house was charred and crumbled, still smoldering, while the front remained intact. Every room was ransacked. I found Enesa’s mother lying facedown on the living room floor. I felt it my duty to cover her with something, but I was too afraid to look around or focus on anything too closely. I stood in the middle of their house determinedly not seeing anything, wanting to be anywhere but here. Anywhere on earth but here. I made a move toward the kitchen when Richard appeared in front of me. He put his hands on my arms and stopped me from going further.

Don’t go in.” Richard said. “Find Enesa.”

Richard pushed me toward Enesa’s bedroom. Halfway down the hall I stopped and could go no further. The sunset light streaming from her window through her open door into the murky hallway frightened me as I had never been frightened before, even more than when I was grabbed by the man across the street from the Port Authority. Then everything was permeated with a sense of super-reality; here this light was otherworldly. I knew what that man wanted; I didn’t know what I’d find beyond this door. I didn’t know what this would take from me. I stood still, swallowing the saliva flooding into my mouth, throat tightening, struggling to move for several minutes. I could hear Louis and Richard roaming around the burning ruble, hear Louis’s exclamations of disgust. I stood there in the hallway with the strange yellow light shining out through the doorway, and I knew that once I entered that room, I would relinquish something fundamental. I have no memory of walking in.

Enesa’s body was hunched over her desk, but her head was twisted, her eyes locked open looking sideways and up; by the strange position, I knew she was gone. I couldn’t believe it. My poor, poor Enesa. My darling Enesa. I started shaking and whimpering. I went over to her. Her hair was matted and bloody, her clothes torn and bloody as well; she had been beaten. Her diary with a piece of paper stuck in it was under her one hand. I pulled the paper out and unfolded it. ‘Dear Mr. Dorenberg . . .’ Enesa, Enesa, Enesa. This letter would have been sent to me to give to Evan, I was sure. She never did believe I didn’t have some sort of relationship with him, no matter what I said. I crumpled up the note and stuck it in my pocket. I stood staring out the broken window. More revulsion flooded through me and I bent down and looked under her skirt. The nausea came without resistance this time.

I straightened up and ran my hand over my face. I fumbled around for my bag and took out Evan’s CD and the disc player. My hands were shaking so badly I struggled to get the disc out of its jewel case and almost broke it. I could barely snap the disc in the player. I plugged in the earphones, the little foam cover things had already fallen off somewhere. I sat down on her bed and turned the player on; the disc spun round and round. I turned it off. I stood up and went over to Enesa, gently moved her hair away from her ears and put the earphones on her head. I put the CD on her chest as well as I could, close to her heart, and slid the tiny latch, my fingertips now stained a dark crimson, to the highest volume and turned the player on. The disc spun round and round. I stood there and became aware of her leave-taking. Leaving the wretchedness, the barbarism and stupidity, leaving the work of men who knew nothing of what it meant to be a man, what it meant to be human. Even though I could just hear hissing coming from the earphones, I could feel her departure, suffusing into the sunset glow, leaving on those soft notes and sweet voice. I became mesmerized by the revolving disc catching the light, throwing prisms toward the setting sun, and I stared into that light, gripping onto her.

Richard came into the room. The horror of what he had seen here and the guilt he felt for our part in bringing the attention, the visitation of evil upon the house of Marić was making this cautious, taciturn man wild. He turned his fear and anger outward at me, afraid of his own emotion, snatching the earphones off Enesa’s head and flinging them aside, trying to pry my one hand off Enesa’s arm and my other one off the disc player, ordering me out, “Let’s go. Go! Go!” I struggled with him, refusing to let go, and he smacked me hard across the face. The physical shock made me release my hold, and he pull/pushed me out of the room, down the hallway, out of the house and into the backseat of the waiting car. He got in next to me in the back and slammed the door. Louis drove off.

As I realized we were leaving Enesa there, exposed, alone like that, I lost it in the car, sobbing, grabbing at my face. The disc player fell on the floor and Richard, in his fury, stomped on it, smashing it again and again with his foot as if he wanted to wipe out anything beautiful, to wipe out anything that had any meaning. I screamed, “You son of a bitch!” and wrenched myself around in the ill-fitting vest, trying to lunge at him.

Barely able to contain his own emotions, my outburst just made him more abusive, and he caught and grabbed me by my elbow, pulling me toward him, continuing in his bullying, yelling in my face. “You didn’t sign up for this? You didn’t sign up for this? This ain’t no fuckin’ . . .‘

“Richard! Richard! Knock it off. Knock it off.” Lou shouted at Richard without turning his head around or taking his eyes off the road. He took a hard left. “Knock if off!” Again he turned the wheels hard to the left, sliding the two of us to the side of the backseat in a heap of rage and despair, and the Rover rumbled off into the distance, skirting Travnik, away from Enesa and Nazer’s village, heading east away from the setting sun, never to return.

Star Gazer

bosnia scan

My warm and dreamy reflections on my lover are broken by the clicking and clanging of fork and spoon against dish and bowl, as in the other room my family scrape away at the last of the always too little food.

“Very dramatic, Enesa,” I said flipping the diary shut.

“It’s just the way I write,” she shrugged her shoulders. “Someday I’ll write a movie about me, about my life. Evan will star in it.”

“Well, he’s a singer, not an actor, though if you’re famous enough, they’ll let you do anything, I suppose. It’s annoying. Actors singers, singers actors. Do what you’re supposed to do, I say.”

“I’m sure Evan can do whatever he puts his mind to.” Here Enesa flicked her hair out of her eyes with her fingers, a slight look of annoyance passing across her face.

Enesa Marić was a fifteen-year-old girl living in a small village between Jajce and Travnik, Bosnia Herzegovina. Enesa Marić was a lover of language and music, and Enesa had been in love for years, it seemed, with the singer/songwriter, Evan Dorenberg. When she found out I had been at some of the same festivals with him when Jay and I were together, she grilled me for every last tidbit of information. I told her many times I had only spoken to him once or twice, but for her this didn’t matter. I had been photographed with him, so that was that. For all her self-proclaimed sophistication, her idea of America remained one of a bunch of rich, famous people all shopping at the same stores, all friends, all lovers. She didn’t understand the isolation or the bleakness that engulfed so many there as well as here. Only her world was streaked with grey and splotched with mud; America was all candy and smoke machines.

“Tell me again,” she would say.

So the few time I visited her and her family, I needed to repeat like a mantra, “Evan’s cool. He’s cool when he plays; all the women fall in love with him, and he’s funny.” She always tried to extract more from me than I had, but was ecstatic with what she got.

And then I would explain as well that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I’d tell her everything was bartering, money, commodities. I’d tell her the tale (her mother would banish me if she knew) of Howie yelling, ‘Welcome to the NFL!’ right in my face after a most unromantic grappling session in an Indianapolis hotel room.

“To say such a thing at sexual climax,” she would muse. “I don’t understand American football.”

Her love burned on bright and pure, untarnished by me or any brush with reality. Her brother, however, knew what was going on. He had worked at the Lipik stables for two years before becoming Richard’s contact. Nazer had been there during the shelling and bombing, had seen several stallions felled by the smoke, and barely escaped with his life. Back home now, he was working with us as well as he could without raising too much suspicion as we tracked where the Lipizzaners were being taken; we knew they were in Karadordevo, Serbia, moving northward.

I met Enesa when Nazer invited us to his parent’s home for tea with bread and olives. She had that one photo of Jay and me and Dorenberg and his date, lined up couple to couple, from some fan publication and stared at me until she figured it out and I admitted my past. Her excitement was charming. I stopped by to chat with her when I could, but it was becoming too dangerous. I knew these visits would have to stop. Our cover was not holding, and Richard was sure our movements were being monitored. When their village came under fire, the Marić’s front door would be one of the first to be kicked in. We could have gotten them out of there, somehow—possibly—but they were determined to stay.

Partly to assuage my guilt over befriending this girl, then bolting, I told her that once things were “sorted out” and life returned to normal, maybe I could arrange for her to visit me in the States, and maybe even meet Evan before one of his concerts. Whether or not I had the chits to do this was not clear; I felt I was being generous with things not my own, like taking some pretty thing off someone else’s mantelpiece, and announcing, ‘Here’s a gift from me.’ But it didn’t matter because I knew these promises would not be kept, these dreams would never happen. The cessation of violence, Enesa visiting America, Enesa meeting Evan; it was all pie in the sky.

But I pushed this fantasy along as the road looked bleaker and bleaker. Always the contrarian, Enesa seemed surprisingly hesitant about the whole idea, reluctant even. “Well, don’t you want to meet him?” I asked her one day. She gave me her look.

“It’s not that. It’s like staring at the stars and suddenly shooting up into space, flying though the blackness.” Enesa made a wavy motion with her hand. “So far away, and now close. And you would never want to come down. But you do.” She stopped and looked through her smeary window. “How could you go out the next night and look up at the sky? I am not brave. What if it didn’t happen again? What if it never happened again? Just memories . . .”

Sideline Doll

road america

I realized later that it wasn’t so much that Jay and I had fallen in love with each other, but rather that we had fallen in love with the same things: speed, motion, driving on the open road toward the vastness of no predetermined destination. No reason to slow down, no need to protect the motor.

Sometimes I traveled with him as Yellowbird rose in popularity. Often not; it was hard to determine the exact nature of our relationship. I was a girlfriend, yes, but not a permanent fixture, probably not the only one if I chose to think about it, which I didn’t. The first European tour was coming up and it was time to fish or cut bait. This particular weekend, though, I had to admit I was along for the perks as we were in Elkhart Lake at Road America for one of the bigger races. The band was playing two nights in nearby Milwaukee, and Jay, a big fan of NASCAR champion, Justin Mayers, was going to be taken around on the road course by Mayers the day before the race, complete with a publicity shoot.

I, too, would have loved to go in Mayers’ car and be taken up to speed, around up over the hill, but it was never suggested.  No one wanted a photo of me having a good time. I would stand on the sideline and say, “Oh, Jay, oh, Jay. How exciting!” But it was okay, I reasoned to myself; I was happy for him. He deserved this; he got things done. Jay did everything and loved the doing of it. I loved him because I loved those things as well. Because I did not do them, I loved the person who did. I loved his broad shoulders both literally and figuratively. His world was Road America, mine was Roadside America.

So, on Friday, before the traditional evening parade of cars from the town back to the race track, photos were taken of Jay and Justin at the course, Jay outfitted in a white racing suit and helmet. First, both men outside the car. Then both men in the car, giving the thumbs up. Shaking hands with each other. Shaking hands with sponsors. Justin signing one of Jay’s black Telecasters that would be auctioned off for charity. Finally, after an interminable amount of conferring among individuals with clipboards, and fiddling with the car’s innards, Justin smacked his hands together and said, “Let’s go, man.”

The car fishtailed out of a standing start, then straightened and headed down the track and out of view, a Doppler echo the only clue of the engine’s continuing rpm’s. Then nothing, then you could hear it coming back. Mayers appeared again over the hill, on each lap going faster and faster. I stood on the grass in front of the bleachers, rising up on tiptoes, whooping it up each time the car passed by, my eyes following after it with envy, with dissatisfaction with this whole sideline shebang. Show nothing, I told myself; have some pride. A scene from a book I read as a young girl glittered in my mind : a young girl releases her father’s prized mare out of its paddock and lets it escape. When her father—furious, incredulous—demands an explanation, she refuses to speak. But I knew why she did it. I understood why she let her run free. Sideline girl, sideline doll, thumbs up, faster, faster, each time they came up over the hill. Don’t screw up race car driver, don’t screw up. You don’t screw up, doll.

I returned from Road America suspended in a state of irritation, but did not care to explain why. The band was back in New York rehearsing for the upcoming tour, but I decoupled from the departing train and immersed myself in the affairs of my shelter. One of the cats brought in had been horribly abused, and I was the only one who could comfort the poor thing and get him to eat a little bit. I’d smear the tiniest bit of baby food across his mouth and he’d have to lick it off. It was more than I could explain or bear. The violence inflicted upon this creature, whom we called “Sugar,” and the unfathomable reasons for it stabbed at me every time I sat with him after his surgery. Why haven’t these destructive forces wiped us out by now, I would think. The power of them sweeping across the centuries unabated surely should have done us in by now. How could we still be here and not have turned into some gigantic wasteland, happiness and beauty gone extinct like the great dinosaurs, and—I was afraid in our lifetime—the tigers, the rhinos as well. I sat next to Sugar’s open cage as he lay on his old towel, a creature comfort a few days earlier impossible for him to imagine. He looked at me as if to say, ‘I knew there was love somewhere and here you are.’ It broke my heart. On the one day I couldn’t be there, Sugar died, and the cruelty of this seemingly deliberate mistiming haunted me.

I sat in the tiny courtyard with the garbage cans at the back of the shelter. I sat there for the better part of the next two days, unable to move, unable to go forward. There were two overturned large plastic buckets permanently there, where people came to sit and smoke or cry. It was getting warm, and there was an unmistakable stench of things best not thought about. Late in the afternoon of the second day, Jay appeared in the doorway. He gave me a look, then came over and sat down on the unoccupied bucket, silent, but I knew he was here for me. He lit up a cigarette.

At last I said, “It’s sweet of you to come when I’ve been acting like such a jackass lately.”

“You put me through my paces sometimes, baby.” He drew on his cigarette, then exhaled. “This whole thing—everything—it’s messed up. Funny, you tell yourself it’s not going to be how you think, but still it’s not what . . .”

There was a long silence, both of us thinking our own thoughts.

“Sometimes I want to throw the guitars in the back of the van and just go, you know. Hey, you and me. Just drive, stop at some bar and play for our supper. Good, bad; we’d have stories to tell. We’d come back now and then . . . the road will always call us back, though.” He looked down at the ground, flicking his cigarette. “You up for it? Would you do that? Do that with me?” I turned and looked at him. Maybe I wanted to ride around in a van; I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it with him.

He took the cigarette out of his mouth and threw it on the ground. “Let’s go. What the fuck is wrong with you, sitting out here with this shit.”

So Jay and Yellowbird flew off to Europe for three months while I ended up at the dentist’s office with a nasty abscess in my bottom left molar. My punishment, I suppose, for being a fair-to-middling doll. My penance for Sugar. My sentence: working in New York during the hottest summer on record, trudging up 6th Avenue, running the gauntlet of flyer pushers, root canal throbbing, swelling up the side of my face.

Struggling along through the humidity, I passed by the restaurant that employed the most aggressive stringers and met my match in determination. A man stood there holding an armful of take-out menus, immaculate in his white short-sleeved shirt, dress trousers, and ambition. He was determined I would take his flyer, I was determined I would not. Our eyes met for a second as I turned toward him, but I looked back straight ahead and continued on my way. Not to be dismissed in this manner by a mere girl, the man followed me down the street stabbing the paper take-out menu at me behind my back like a sword, shouting, “You take! You take! You take!” I was concerned he would follow me all the way to the corner, but he finally spun around, swearing loudly to cover his retreat. A triumphant grin flickered across my face, lighting the fuse that exploded into a flash of pain shooting up through my damaged tooth that made me see stars.

Focusing on the pavement just a few feet ahead of me, I wrapped my pain around me like a veil, shrouding myself against further abuse, and in this self-pitying state made my way to my mother’s office. I arrived at my corner victoriously flyerless to be met once again by the girls I knew but did not know. They emerged from their mustard-colored building—today three, no, four of them—in the form of some unbreachable sisterhood, used but seemingly untouched by men, men unseen at least. Truly, I was sick of men. Men who raced cars, men who rode sidekick with men who raced cars, men who introduced you to the world of the NFL, men who insisted you take what they were offering. These seamstresses seemed to belong only to each other, while I belonged to no one; I just walked and walked endlessly up and down the avenue, not looking, not seeing, one foot in front of the other, going on and on until I dropped. These girls had elevated themselves to a higher plane through no visible effort of their own, and the pain in my jaw egged on my anger toward them. They were smug; I disliked them. I hated this city. The weight of the world was pressing down upon me. Why was I forced every day to see these stupid girls? What did they know about anything; what did they know about being at a loss in this world.

Cat Rescuers & Seamstresses

sixth avenue (3)

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.