Small Town

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BY THE TIMEJerry Pankow was ready for breakfast, he’d already been to three bars and a whorehouse.

It was, he’d discovered, a great opening line. “By the time I had my eggs and hash browns this morning . . .” Wherever he delivered it, in backroom bars or church basements, it got attention.

Made him sound interesting, and wasn’t that one of the reasons he’d come to New York? To lead an interesting life, certainly, and to make himself interesting to others.

And, one had to admit, to plumb the depths of depravity, which resonated well enough with the notion of three bars and a whorehouse before breakfast.

Today he was having his breakfast in Joe Jr.’s, a Greek coffee shop at the corner of Sixth Avenue and West Twelfth Street. He wasn’t exactly a regular here. The whorehouse was on Twenty-eighth, two doors east of Lexington, right around the corner from the Indian delis and restaurants that had people calling the area Curry Hill. Samosa and aloo gobi wasn’t his idea of breakfast, and anyway those places wouldn’t open until lunchtime, but he liked the Sunflower coffee shop on Third Avenue, and stopped there more often than not after he finished up at the whorehouse.

This morning, though, he was several degrees short of raven-ous, and his next scheduled stop was in the Village, at Charles and Waverly. So he’d walked across Twenty-third and down Sixth. That stretch of Sixth Avenue had once afforded a good view of the twin towers, and now it showed you where they’d been, showed you the gap in the downtown skyline. A view of omission, he’d thought more than once.

And now here he was in a booth at Joe’s with orange juice and a western omelet and a cup of coffee, light, no sugar, and how depraved was that? It was ten o’clock, and he’d get to Marilyn’s by eleven and be out of there by one, with the rest of the day free and clear. Maybe he’d catch the two-thirty meeting at Perry Street. He could stop by after he left Marilyn’s and put his keys on a chair so he’d have a seat when he came back at meeting time. You had to do that there, it was always standing-room-only by the time the meeting started.

Recovery, he thought. The hottest ticket in town.

He let the waiter refill his coffee cup, smiled his thanks, then automatically checked the fellow out as he walked away, only to roll his eyes at his own behavior. Cute butt, he thought, but so what?

If he were to show up at a meeting of Sex Addicts Anonymous, he thought, nobody would tell him to get the hell out. But did it make his life unmanageable? Not really. And, more to the point, could he handle another program? He was in AA, sober a little over three years, and, because drugs played a part in his story, he managed to fit a couple of NA meetings into his weekly schedule.

And, because his parents were both drunks—his father died of it, his mother lived with it—he was an Adult Child of Alcoholics, and went to their meetings now and then. (But not too often, because all the whining and bitching and getting-in-touch-with-my-completely-appropriate-anger made his teeth ache.) And, because John-Michael was an alcoholic (and also sober, and anyway they weren’t lovers anymore), he went to Al-Anon a couple of times a month. He hated the meetings, and he wanted to slap most of the people he saw there—the Al-Anon-Entities, his sponsor called them. But that just showed how much he needed the program, didn’t it? Or maybe it didn’t. It was hard to tell.

Three years sober, and he started each day by visiting three bars and a whorehouse, inhaling the reek of stale beer and rancid semen. The bars were in Chelsea, all within a few blocks of his top-floor walkup on Seventeenth west of Ninth, and of course they were closed when he arrived for the morning cleanup. He had keys, and he would let himself in, trying not to dwell on the way the place stank, the odor of booze and bodies and various kinds of smoke, the dirty-socks smell of amyl nitrite, and something else, some indefinable morning-after stench that was somehow more than the sum of its parts. He’d note that and dismiss it, and he’d sweep and mop the floor and clean the lavatories—God, human beings were disgusting—and finally he’d take down the chairs from the tables and the stools from the bar top and set them up where they belonged. Then he’d lock up, and off to the next.

He hit the bars in what he thought of as working his way up from the depths, starting with Death Row, a leather bar west of Tenth Avenue with a back room where safe sex required not just condoms but full body armor. Then one called Cheek, on Eighth and Twentieth, with a neighborhood crowd that ran to preppy types and the aging queens who loved them. And, finally, a straight bar on Twenty-third Street—well, a mixed crowd, really, typical for the neighborhood, straight and gay, male and female, young and old, the common denominator being an abiding thirst. The place was called Harrigan’s—Harridan’s, some called it—and it didn’t reek of pot and poppers and nocturnal emissions, but that didn’t mean a blind man might mistake it for the Brooklyn Botan-ical Gardens.

In his drinking days, Jerry might have started the evening at Harrigan’s. He could tell himself he was just stopping for a quick social drink before he settled in for the night. He wasn’t cruising, certainly, because nobody went to a place like that trolling for a sexual partner. He supposed people who got drunk there sometimes went home with each other, but that was essentially beside the point.

But after a few drinks there, and maybe a line or two in the men’s room, a gay bar would seem like a good idea, and he’d be on his way to a place like Cheek. And there he might meet someone he’d take home or go home with, but he might not, and before the night was over he could well wind up at Death Row or some equivalent thereof, barely knowing what he was doing or with whom he was doing it, and, when he woke up hours later, sickened by what he remembered or terrified of what he didn’t remember, depending on just when the blackout curtain had dropped.

Now he frequented the bars only in the morning, to sweep and mop and straighten up, and on his way out he’d pick up the twenty dollars left for him. The management of Death Row, perhaps over-compensating for the relentless squalor of the premises, tucked his payment into an envelope with his name on it; at Harrigan’s and Cheek, they just left a $20 bill on the back bar, next to the register.

Then the whorehouse, which took longer, but he was still in and out of the place in not much more than an hour, and his envelope, with Jerry in purple Pentel in a precise feminine hand, held a hundred dollars. Always a single bill, and always a crisp new one, and, when you thought about it, an outrageous payment for the time it took.

Then again, he sometimes thought, look what they got for a simple blow job.

M A R I LY N F A I R C H I L D ’ S A P A R T M E N T W A S on the third floor of a four-story brownstone on Charles Street off Waverly Place, not a five-minute walk from Joe Jr.’s. The sky, overcast at daybreak, was clear now. It was the second week in June, and the weather had been glorious for the past several days, and on the way to Marilyn’s he realized he’d had a melody running through his head, just at the outer edge of consciousness, and sometimes that was how he sent himself a message, found out what he was really feeling. Now he registered the song, and it was the one about loving potato chips and motor trips, and especially New York in June.

Well, he thought, who wouldn’t? He’d lived briefly in San Francisco, where every day was spring, and in L.A., where every day was summer, and had decided the trouble with Paradise was you got tired of it. If the weather wasn’t lousy a fair proportion of the time, how much of a charge could you get from a beautiful day?

Here the weather could be genuinely shitty in a rich variety of ways—rainy, drizzly, bleak, freezing, raw, windy, hot, muggy, sti-fling. Every season had its own characteristic unpleasantness, and every season sported the occasional perfect days, and how you treasured each when it came along! How your heart sang!

I love New York

More than ever . . .

The new slogan, the post-9/11 slogan, with the Milton Glaser logo adapted to show the heart scarred, like a human heart after a heart attack. First time he saw the new version, on a T-shirt in a shop window, the damn thing moved him to tears. But then for a while there almost everything did. The capsule biographies of the dead that ran every day in the Times, for instance. He couldn’t read them, and he couldn’t keep from reading them.

It wore off, though. You were scarred, like the heart, you took a licking and kept on ticking, and you healed.

More or less.

The entrance to Marilyn’s brownstone was a half flight up from the street. He mounted the steps and rang her bell, gave her plenty of time to respond, then used his key. He took the steps two at a time—three years ago, bottoming out on drugs and alcohol, it was all he could do to drag himself up a flight of stairs, and baby, look at me now—and poked the buzzer alongside her door. He got the key ready—he carried more keys than a super these days, and rather liked the butch effect of it all—and when there was no response to his buzz he let himself in.

Place was a pigsty.

Well, that was an exaggeration. It wasn’t filthy. He cleaned for her once a week, and the apartment was never seriously dirty, but sometimes it was a mess, and it was certainly a godawful disaster area this morning.

Ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts, some of them lipsticked, some of them not. A pair of rocks glasses, one holding a half inch of pale amber liquid, the other dry. The dry one showed lipstick, the other didn’t.

Yesterday’s Times, in all its many sections, was scattered all over the living room. An oblong pocket mirror, and he’d bet anything there was cocaine residue on it, lay on the mahogany coffee table, next to an uncapped bottle half full of Wild Turkey and a plastic ice bucket half full of water. A bra was on the other side of the ice bucket, half on and half off the coffee table, and yes, there was her blouse, lime green raw silk, he’d seen her wearing it once, and now it was tossed on the Queen Anne wing chair. Could her skirt be far off? No skirt, he determined, but there was a pair of black slacks on the floor next to the club chair, and were those black panties wedged into the corner of the club chair?

Egad, Holmes, I do believe they are.

One of the cushions from the sofa was halfway across the room, and he wondered how that had happened. A pair of mahogany tables flanked the couch—like the coffee table, they were from The Bombay Company, cheaply made but attractively styled. One held three hardcover novels between a pair of bronze bookends—Susan Isaacs, Nelson DeMille, and Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mister Goodbar, which he’d always assumed had some sort of totemic value for Marilyn. The other table, to the right of the sofa, held three little figurines of animals, Zuni fetishes from the Southwest.

There was a bison carved from Picasso marble, a rose quartz bear with a bundle of arrows on his back, and a turquoise rabbit, all of them grouped around the white saucer from a child’s tea set. The saucer held cornmeal—except it didn’t, its contents had been spilled onto the table and floor, and the bison and bear were lying on their sides, and where was the little rabbit?

With the cornmeal spilled, he thought, maybe the bear had gotten hungry enough to eat the rabbit. Failing that, he supposed he’d find it somewhere in the chaos of the apartment.