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eagle
Image Source: The Bowery Boys

First Movement

Arrival

On her first night in town Sunny Holiday set out to find the eagle. On her second night in town, she set up and started working in front of the eagle.

Sunny Holiday was the perfect name for her New Self in New York. It was partly a tongue-in-cheek nod to what her clients had in store, of course, but mostly it was homage to Billie. Oh, Billie! Tough as nails, yet ladylike and fragile enough to sing

My life a wreck you’re making
My heart is yours for just the taking

and make you cry like a baby. Billie Holiday took no shit, but she was always a lady. And she came from nothing and made it. Besides, Sunny Holiday, Queen of Manhattan sounded so much better than Cedric Dupree, Nobody from Daphne, Alabama.

Cedric never felt like he fit in anywhere growing up. Part of it was having big city dreams in small town Alabama, but most of all it was just that feeling of being so damn different from everyone else. He preferred his grandparents’ records – Billie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Shore – to any rock ‘n roll. He preferred reading about the construction of the Empire State Building to Alabama football. And he preferred to look at boys instead of girls.

Cedric graduated high school and enrolled in night school architecture classes, but he dropped out mid-way through the first semester. Eventually he caught on a trawler working the gulf and worked construction.

Sunny Holiday was born on days when Cedric was home and his parents were at work. Eventually she became a prime mover, subsuming and easing the pain.

Eventually she started to work a little bit in Mobile. Longshoremen mostly. A few turns here and there, just enough to make her feel ready for the big city. For Sunny it wasn’t the money so much as it was the thrill of the chase and a lust for reclamation. As Sunny, she held all the power, and she didn’t have to try to fit in anydamnwhere. She could pull a few turns, make some damn money and call all the shots, just like Billie. She wouldn’t have to take being called a faggot and getting tripped on the playground and having the entire class laughing at her. Sunny Holiday wouldn’t take that shit, no sir.

Thirty hours on Greyhound and she arrived at the Port Authority. Sunny had packed light: just a duffel bag with the stuffed eagle Cedric got when he was eight, five pairs of panties and socks, two bras, three white dresses, a slip, two wigs and a white flower for her hair, just like Billie. Tough as nails, but always a lady. She also packed a 007 blade in her boot. Tough as nails, so don’t fuck with me. She headed out the 8th Ave side at 40th Street and headed for 7th Ave.

And suddenly there it was, right where she read it would be: 7th Ave on the 31st St. side, right next to the entrance to Madison Square Garden. Sunny stood in front of the eagle, in awe and lost in nostalgia.

This very eagle once guarded the most beautiful train station…hell, the most beautiful building, that was ever destroyed for nothing. An actual 1910 relic that survived the destruction of Penn Station from 1962 – 1965. Sunny felt eight-year-old Cedric jumping out of her body with excitement, and she felt like she had finally arrived in her own life.

She remembered seeing a photo of the eagles on the façade of the original Penn Station when she was a little boy. When he learned that they tore down the station and threw all the rubble into the swamps of New Jersey, Cedric cried. He became obsessed with architecture and preservation, drawing and coloring eagles and Corinthian columns and Grand Central Station and the Brooklyn Bridge, building skyscrapers and bridges with Legos and reading everything he could about the great buildings of the world. He vowed to move to New York, become an architect and build and save great landmarks. And when he read that a few of the original Penn Station eagles were preserved and that one was in front of the new Penn Station, he vowed to pass by it every day.

And here it was… Now at last Sunny Holiday had found her guardian eagle.

That eagle in that moment was everything: preservation, perseverance, protection. It was symbol and metaphor and dream. Mostly it was rebirth and reinvention. It was Sunny Holiday, and it was beautiful.

It was almost 1:00 AM, and Sunny had nowhere to go. She figured she’d get a copy of the Village Voice, find an all-night coffee shop and scan the listings for a room for rent, then call around first thing in the morning. “Work” would take care of itself once she returned later that night to visit her guardian eagle.

She had finally arrived. Her life was unfolding rapidly, and it was finally hers. Sunny Holiday was about to take Manhattan. Little did she know what was to come…

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Image Source: Lonely Planet

“Oh, here we go!” Ray said. “Friggin’ Black Friday again!”

Ray and Clem were looking through the flyers that were spilling out of the New York Times as they sat at their window table at Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Their band, The Dickweeds, was playing the night after Thanksgiving, and they were killing time after sound check with a few PBRs and some snark.

Clem flipped the Macy’s flyer open and laid it on the table for their mutual perusal.

“I take it you didn’t partake in any Black Friday action?” Clem said.

Ray was distracted scanning the incoming crowd and hoping for adulation, or at least recognition. He turned a sideways glance to the flyer and threw out his best sneer.

“Bah!” Ray said. “No way I’m going in for that shit.”

“It is cheesy,” Clem said. “I guess if you’re in to that kind of thing, you can get some deals, depending on how much the stores mark stuff down after jacking up the regular retails.”

“Yeah, and then I’d be the type of mouth-breather that actually goes to the Garden State Plaza,” Ray said. “I wouldn’t do that at noon on a Saturday, let alone midnight on a Friday.”

With those words Clem connected a pair of dots that had been hovering in his head.

“Woah!” he said. “Didn’t I see that PBR t-shirt you’re wearing on sale for $50 in a Garden State Plaza store window, ya hipster doofus?!?”

“Yeah,” Ray said. “But I didn’t go there myself. I got dragged out with my sister, fachrissakes. “

“Ah, yeah,” Clem said. “That makes a huge difference.”

“Damn straight!” Ray said.

They ordered another round as the beautiful people filled in for the first act on the bill and, eventually, them.

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Image Source: Sugar Pie Express

It was a brilliantly cold, brilliantly clear and sunny morning, and Chris Wightman wanted to experience it all. First Thanksgiving in New York, finally! Chris opened the window in the kitchen to let in the glorious New York morning. The air carried a fragrant lilt: the rush of fresh, brisk New York air; a good bit of Thanksgiving cooking from all over the building; a hint of garbage from the sidewalks; coffee and burnt toast and donuts from the Chock Full ‘o Nuts around the corner…perfect. And all the roommates out of town for the holiday! Could it get any better?

Well, of course, it would be better being with family. But this was the next best thing. A turkey sandwich from the delicatessen two blocks over and an empty apartment was as good as it gets for the first Thanksgiving in the big city. Besides, the family would call on the telephone. For now, it was all about enjoying this amazing holiday in New York.

Chris sat at the open window, inhaling the chill, fragrant breeze like it was life itself and thinking about the steps that led here: summer; driving down from Vermont to walk around the neighborhood and scope out “For Rent” signs; having just enough in the bank to be able to sign the papers; being just young enough to be able to do it… You can’t move to New York when you’re middle-aged, Chris thought. You have to do it when you’re young and ballsy enough to believe you can handle anything.

Just like I did…

The faint strains of the Thanksgiving Day parade wafted in from 8th Ave. Chris had never had any desire to have anything to do with the parade, but now, in the empty apartment, with the most introspective holiday of the year and the rest of the day in glorious New York ahead, it was the most beautiful sound ever. The sound of a marching band became the first of a long list of reasons to be thankful in a small New York kitchen with nobody around.

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Image Source: Vivian Maier

They call him “The Professor”, an’ that makes sense since he’s always talkin’, talkin’, talkin’. Don’t nobody know what his story is or what makes him spend his days standin’ on the corner an’ givin’ his lectures to nobody in particular. Some say he was in the war an’ got too close to artillery fire. Some think he lost his marbles because his wife an’ kids left him. Most all agree he should be locked up in the asylum. But I happen to know that he’s harmless.

I always set up my paper stand on the corner of 44th an’ Lex, so’s I can get the Grand Central traffic, an’ The Professor is often up at 46th an’ Lex. So by the time my customers come to me, they already got an earful. You never know what The Professor will be rantin’ about on any particular day. Some days he’s up there yellin’ about the President, an’ some days he’s going on and on about what’s playing at the pictures and how crummy the leading man is. One day he may got somethin’ to say about automobiles an’ design, an’ two days later he’ll be havin’ a fit about how DiMaggio is losin’ a step. I hear all this second hand as traffic moves south from The Professor’s corner, an’ the talkin’ about his talkin’ is always somethin’.

I said that I happen to know that The Professor is harmless. How do I know this? Well, I seen him enough on the street, an’ I talked to him a few times, see? He’s always out there talkin’, an’ I think he’s just looking for someone to talk with him. ‘Cause every time I’ve stopped an’ talked with him, it’s a genuine conversation an’ it’s very pleasant. He’s a very knowledgeable guy. I think he just likes to get going and hope that someone will stop an’ join in, an’ maybe that’s why he’s always going on about so many different things.

So maybe he ain’t a big social guy in the way that others are social. Maybe he ain’t the type that can sit on a bar stool an’ talk up the guy next to him on his own. Our friend Tiny Tom is like that, but ain’t everybody going to be like that. I can’t imagine getting’ up on a stage an’ givin’ a lecture, so I can understand where The Professor might be comin’ from. We all got our things, an’ who am I to judge?

Alls I know is that if you happen upon The Professor, you should stop an’ talk with the guy for a bit. He may look like he’s lost his marbles, but he’s alright. He’s a together guy, probably just a little lonesome. But he’s an alright guy, an’ he’s got a lot to say.

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Image Source: Elliott Erwitt

Oh yeah, I seen it happen. Poor bastard landed right there onna sidewalk, right in front of Tony’s. Jumped from his own goddamn apartment onna fifth floor. Top left window, right in-line with the C inna Coca Cola sign. BLAM, SPLAT! Ain’t that a bitch?

I heard they was jackin’ up the rent inna buildin’ over there. Guess that may have had somethin’ to do with it? An’ I know he worked at one’a them transistor stores on Cortlandt St., down on Radio Row, an’ there’s all kinds’a rumors about how they’re gonna level that whole neighborhood to build the World Trade Center the Rockefellers keep talkin’ about. Maybe he was scared’a losin’ his job? Who the hell knows?

Y’know, it’s a funny damn thing: I seen the guy onna street every day, an’ I seen him in his window, lookin’ out. Ev’ry mornin’ I see this guy lookin’ out his window. Only this mornin’ I seen him leanin’ out an’ jumpin’, an’ that’s the last I’m gonna see of him. You see a guy like that every day, even if you don’t know him, he kinda becomes part of your life.

Kinda goes to show, you don’t ever really know nobody. I seen the guy every day, likesay, but no way I’d be able to tell you why the poor bastard done it to himself. Seemed like a nice guy, looked like he had it all together, an’ then one day the guy is dead onna sidewalk.

I guess you just don’t ever know, do you?

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Image Source: Andrew Bush

Aunt Ina loved that painting, even if it was a fake. A fake: like her flowers and her books and everything in her house and life.

I spent a lot of time at Aunt Ina’s house, partly because my middle school was across the street and partly because my own mother was such a louse. I never knew my father, because he split before I was born. No wonder my mother was such a loser. I guess I don’t blame her, but I still resent her.

I used to sit next to that book case, across the room from my Aunt, while she watched her soap operas every afternoon. She would serve me stale Danish cookies and warm Shur Fine soda on a rusted gold TV tray with a painting of a fruit bowl. Then she’d sit down on her plastic-covered recliner, pull on her afghan, drink her tall-boys of Schlitz and chain-smoke Kools. The taste of those cookies and soda and the smell of stale beer, body odor, smoke and gas from the stove is frozen in my memory forever as afternoons at Aunt Ina’s house.

Aunt Ina always said proudly that she had two tall-boys of Schlitz every afternoon at 2:00, and not a drop more. Like she was trying to vindicate herself. But the house reeked like Schlitz by the time I got there at 2:20, and every afternoon at 3:00, after she retired for her “nap”, I could hear her crack open more cans. It was all a fake, just like her soap operas.

A lot of days when she was “napping” she’d start muttering to herself in French. I don’t know much French, but I picked up on it. Always everything was c’est très mauvais and je suis vraiment désespéré. I learned later that those meant “it is very bad” and “I’m really hopeless.” When she really got going, she’d scream je vis dans le mensonge! over and over. That meant “I am living a lie!” And then she would start sobbing.

It sure did a number on me hearing all that from the next room. I was supposed to be doing homework, but instead I was watching re-runs on TV and turning up the volume to try and drown out Aunt Ina’s yelling. I tried to go into her bedroom once, to try to make her feel better. I knocked on the door softly, and as soon as I did she stopped sobbing and got real quiet. So I opened the door, and she yelled at me to get out and threw a shoe at me. It scared the hell out of me, and all I could do is go back to the TV and hope it would all be better when she woke up.

Uncle Emil was long dead, and by the time I got to my sophomore year in high school, so was Aunt Ina. My mother was always really vague when I asked what she died from, and her story changed once or twice. I guess she was continuing the lie that Ina started. They sold the house, and I graduated and got the hell away. But any time I pass by a display of Danish cookies or smell cigarette smoke, it all comes back and leaves me feeling just as helpless all over again.

I don’t mean to say Aunt Ina was all crazy. She always told me how much she loved me, and she was always bragging about her painting and her flowers and books and how beautiful they all were. I guess she convinced herself. I guess she had to.

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Image Source: Gary Winogrand

They used to say that my looks could stop traffic. Yeah, I’d stop traffic for any cheap hood waving a $20 in my face. Looks can only take you so far, and then it’s what you do with your looks. And when you’re young and dumb and desperate to make it…

I worked Avenue B a lot. Noon rush, usually. I’d get lots of executive types that would cut out for a little “exercise” on their lunch break, if you know what I mean. Alphabet City was a wasteland back then, so these big-wigs would come down from midtown or up from the financial district, ‘cause they didn’t want to be seen anywhere around their offices. Smart, right? But business was good. Lots of Jaguars and Mercedes and guys that had money to burn on cocaine and hookers. And there I was.

Like I said, I was young and dumb. Fresh from the sticks. I wanted to make it as an actress. Hell, who didn’t? I tried waitressing, but I was horrible at it. Tried working in a grocery store, but I was horrible at that, too. Tried working as a secretary, but I couldn’t pass all those tests. I was out of work, and one of my girl friends suggested I try it. Some friend, right?

I guess I got “lucky” on my first time. I went out with my girl friend, and my first was some middle-management guy in a cab. He was clean, and he was staying at the Sheraton on Seventh at 52nd. I gave him a blow and got a good tip out of it. First time out and I hit the jackpot.

If only the rest were like that. You wouldn’t believe what pigs some of them were. Guy in a Bentley pulls up, I jump in and the car reeks like the last toss he just had. Can you imagine going down on that? Sometimes we’d do business in the car on the sidewalk in broad daylight. And sometimes we’d check into the most disgusting flops you could imagine. Cockroaches, stains on the sheets…just sick. Lot of times after a job like that I had to take my shoes off in the street and shake out the bugs. And you can imagine what it felt like up my skirt.

It’s a hell of a thing to be servicing a guy whose wardrobe is worth more than your monthly rent in a dump like that. It really kind of makes you feel your place in life. But I felt my self-worth in a pile of bills in my hand at the end. And then I went out and felt even more self-worth.

Me and my looks, right? Jesus. Me, the Human Red Light.

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