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Bill Mushnick walked out to the kitchen, grabbed a Rheingold from the ice box, punched a hole in the top with a can opener, stopped and got cigarettes from the box in the living room and returned to the bedroom. Pop would never notice a few of his beers or smokes missing. He pulled up a chair next to the window, opened the turntable and set up a stack of 45s. He had picked out a collection of heartbreak singles for this hooky day.

The Shirelles: “Foolish Little Girl”
The Guess Who: “These Eyes”
Classics IV: “Traces”
Baby Washington: “That’s How Heartaches Are Made”
Gary Puckett And The Union Gap: “Over You”
The Buckinghams: “Kind Of A Drag”
Little Anthony & The Imperials: “Goin’ Out Of My Head”
Little Anthony & The Imperials: “Hurt So Bad”
The Association: “Cherish”
Dionne Warwick: “Walk On By”

Sometimes it felt like all he had was rock ‘n roll. Bill found salvation in the sound, comfort in the message. He would snap on his transistor after lights-out and devour his favorite deejays: Murray the K on WINS and Cousin Brucie on WABC. The jockeys and the bands all became his friends, and he wasn’t so lonely anymore. It meant everything to Bill to hear a song like “Cherish” and to know that he wasn’t the only one aching for a girl, or to hear a song like “Nowhere Man” and to know that he wasn’t the only one who didn’t fit in. He collected 45s and LPs like other kids collected comic books, and he listened to the radio like other kids breathed.

From his sixth-floor window in the endless brick monolith of Peter Cooper Village, Bill could see 1st Ave, Gramercy Park and Kips Bay and, looming above it all, the old Met Life tower and the Empire State Building. And he could see his classmates heading for another day at M475, Stuyvesant High, on 15th.

And there was Annie, the girl who destroyed him, talking and laughing at the corner of 1st and 22nd with Mark Ingram, his greatest tormentor.

Bill was tall and awkward, with greasy hair and bad skin. Mark called him “Geoffrey Giraffe” after the Toys “R” Us mascot, and “Lava Face.” Mark’s favorite tricks included shoving Bill into his locker, slapping his books out of his hands and holding a lighter under Bill’s chair to make him jump in class. It was relentless torment, and after holding it in all day, Bill cried himself to sleep every weeknight.

And there was Mark, right below his window, with the girl that broke his heart.

Bill thought of yesterday, when he finally worked up the nerve to approach Annie and ask if she wanted to go out with him for a Coke and a movie. He thought of how nervous he was, and how he mispronounced “my treat” as “my sheet.” He thought of her expression and saw it change from confusion to hysterics in slow motion all over again. He thought of her laughing, loud enough for traffic to stop in the hall, and yelling, “with YOU?!? And your sheet?!? Shall I bring my pillow?!?”

Bill thought of his face, blazing red with embarrassment. He thought of how he went through the rest of the day with the eyes of all his classmates boring in on him and the whispered “…did you hear about…” following him from class to class like a snake. He thought of the life he dreamed of having with her crumbling and how he would have to start over.

Sixteen and he already had to start all over again.

He got another beer, pulled the needle off the turntable and snapped on the radio to see what was playing. Dion & The Belmonts: “Teenager In Love.” Perfect.

Then Simon & Garfunkle: “I Am A Rock.”

Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.

“Yeah, except for Annie,” Bill thought.

If I never loved I never would have cried…

“Hmmm…”

Then Gerry & The Pacemakers: “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying.”

But don’t forget that love’s a game, and it will always come again…

Then The Byrds: “My Back Pages.”

Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now…

And then The Beatles: “Getting Better.”

Getting so much better all the time…

Bill Mushnick rested his chin on the air conditioner unit in the window and stared at the spot where Mark and Annie had been before they headed south on 1st together. The morning was young, the day was new. He was sixteen and starting over, and he had a stack of 45s and a transistor and his best friends with him on the dial. And with that he wasn’t the only one. And he wasn’t alone.

Getting so much better all the time…

Image Sources
Turntable: Retro Wonders http://www.retrowonders.com/45_record_players.htm
Murray the K: Bruce Morrow (a.k.a. Cousin Brucie!) https://www.facebook.com/pages/Bruce-Morrow/109739985719925
Peter Cooper Village/Stuyvesant Town: Wired New York http://www.wirednewyork.com/forum/showthread.php?t=20403

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Congress
Image Source: Maine Street Photography

She passes by every morning, dragging my heart with her. Always between 8:15 and 8:17, always crossing Congress a block down so that she disappears until she gets to my corner. And when she crosses I always move to the front window so I can see her disappear down the block. Always…always.

Shadows fall and she passes in and out of the sun. In and out, like the 90 seconds she’s in my life every morning, before she’s gone again. I’m the shadow above her, always watching and hoping, maybe this will be the day she looks up and notices and gives me the courage to come down and introduce myself. Maybe today. Maybe…

I want to sleep with her every night for the rest of my life, but I can’t stand the thought of saying hello. Maybe today she’ll look up and give me the courage. Maybe today…maybe…

But she won’t and I won’t.

Unless today is the day that I do. Unless…maybe…

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Image Source: Boston Real Estate Observer

Late afternoon summer sun fights through the gray, the beams landing on the garbage bags that hold my possessions and clothes on the floor. Clouds of nicotine float across the room, desperate to waft out of the open screen and into the courtyard. The landlord is in her basement apartment, and she has no idea that I’m home: if she did, there would be trouble, since I bounced my last $300 rent check for the sublet.

I’m 24 and living in Apartment 3, 39 Rutland Square, Boston. My roommate is a Swede studying in Malmö for the summer, so the place is mine. Mine alone.

It’s a typical Saturday. I’ve called in “sick” at the call center (“food poisoning”: better be careful and stick to that story if I call in on Monday), and am in bed working on a 12-Pack of Rolling Rock and two packs of Marlboro Mediums. Depression is taking a major toll, on finances and general quality of life. But at age 24, I don’t know its depression, and I have no idea what kind of resources might exist, if any. All I can do is sit around and wonder what is wrong with me.

I stare blankly at a Sox game on the tube. The sun pours in and diminishes, and the Sox game gives way to COPS reruns. I fade out, nap for a bit. The twilight slides into dark. I wake up, recover my bearings, crack another beer, light another smoke.

I know that I’m looking at another all-nighter of coffee, cigarettes, writing and trying to get my life in order. This is my life. I’m 24, and I have no idea what is wrong with me or how to fix it.

All I can do is write in my journal and tell myself that it will get better…

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Image Source: Fred Herzog

She never showed. Said she’d meet me at the White Lunch Cafeteria at 5:30, Arlene said, and she never showed. So I spent an hour and a half huddled under the marquee of the Capitol waiting for nothing in the pouring rain. And now I’m back in my room at the Empire working on a fifth of Crown.

Should’ve known…should’ve known. Girl like her would never give a guy like me a break. Don’t know what I was even thinking asking her out. I was so scared, thinking she might say no. I almost wish she had said no. At least that way I wouldn’t have gotten my hopes up.

Like said before, I just don’t understand this world, and I don’t get along so well with so many other people. I try, but I just seem to screw the deal every time. I think it’s easier to keep to myself. Keep the circle small, don’t let anyone in. Much less maintenance that way. Less hurt.

Cold night. Cold and wet. It’s nice to look out at it, now that I don’t have to worry about being stood up anymore. Now that I know it’s just me, in service of the Crown tonight. Now that I know that I’m alone again.

Maybe this is how it’s supposed to be. Maybe I’ll never see anyone else again…

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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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Image Source: Neil Perkin

The line went dead, and the wind and soul exploded out of Bill’s stomach. He stood in the booth, listening to the dial tone, not believing. Not accepting. She couldn’t have just done that.

Couldn’t have.

He dropped another coin in the slot and dialed her number again.

daah-daah-daaaaahh – The number you have dialed, five five five one two one two, has been disconnected. No further information is available about five fiv…

SLAM! GodDAMNitall!

She couldn’t mean it, though. She’ll call back and apologize. In a day or two, after she gets her head back. NO she won’t She’ll feel bad…maybe not bad enough to take me back hah!…but bad enough to apologize for her tone…her words… WRONG Maybe after she calls back we can be friends again…NOT going to happen, and after we’re friends again…

Outside the booth, a man in a hat and overcoat darkened by rain tapped his watch. Bill slowly became aware of the lines of people waiting for phones. The foot traffic of the station ebbed and flowed past, smoothing the staccato beep of a phone off the cradle.

He stared at the receiver in his hand, listening to the sound of the disconnect getting louder and louder.
That beep – the sound of heartbreak – would stay with him through the days and weeks of delusions and mental bargaining to come. He slammed the receiver back on the cradle, flung open the doors of the booth and headed toward the tracks, unrequited, lost and alone.

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Subway

8:29 PM
April 11

Gee, you get so damn lonesome in this town sometimes. New York is no place to be if you’re alone. It’s no picnic if you’ve got somebody either, but if you’re alone, and kind of shy and awkward, and maybe a little homely, being here makes it that much worse. Your loneliness is on full display every day. The streets laugh at you. The guy with the beautiful girl, he looks down on you. And that feeling of being all alone, it follows you everywhere. Late at night on a subway car, early in the morning on a bus crossing Central Park, walking through the tunnels of skyscraper shadows, in a corner booth in a bar…you’re alone everywhere, and New York never lets you forget it. It’s hard. Boy is it hard. Sometimes I walk down these stairs to the station and I feel like I’ll never stop climbing down. I’ll just keep going, by myself, and I’ll never have a friend or anyone that cares about me. And everybody else in the city will pass me by, and they’ll all have somebody and they’ll all look back and laugh at little old lonely me and I’ll just keep climbing down, all alone, never reaching the station, never finding anyone that cares about little old lonely me. No one will ever notice, and no one will ever know how much it hurts sometimes. How hard it is to be alone in this town. Little old lonely me.

Nobody cares.
Nobody notices.
Nobody would notice,
if I weren’t around…

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Image Source: NYPL Digital Gallery

She was meant to be a shadow. Nothing more than looming black across my light. That’s all she was and all she’ll ever be.

I first saw her in winter. Back table against the wall. She was pure, raven-haired seduction. Alone, reading an early afternoon edition of the Herald Tribune. I came in without my hat, and the snow in my hair melted and ran down my neck, onto my collar and down the small of my back, and there she was. Instant sensory association. I wanted to marry her on the spot, but I couldn’t even say hello to her.

The winter went on and on, and I always hoped for snow, so I could feel the drips down my back and thus feel her. She almost always got the same table, and I almost always got the same table, one in the middle where I could sneak glances at her all lunch. I always came alone, hoping she’d see me and catch on and say yes. Hoping she’d come over and make me the happiest lug in the cafeteria and the world. But she never did.

Summer came, and sometimes I would take an ice cube and hold it on my neck, so I could feel the drips down my back and thus feel her. We both kept the same tables and the same routines. And she still never noticed me.

And she never would. Her star could never hang so low. So every day she’d eat alone and bus her tray alone and go back to her office alone. And every day I’d eat alone and watch her alone and go back to my life alone. Just another lonesome guy, madly in love with a shadow.

And then she was gone. Just…gone, off to another job or another city or another life with her man. Like she never existed, and never sent her shadow across my path. Like she never took my heart and made it gasp. Like…nothing there.

Like the shadow she was…


Photo Source: Vivian Maier

I used to hate Thanksgiving. Used to be all alone, nobody to see, nothing to do but get a turkey sandwich at some sleazy diner, no family to go home to… well, I have family, downstate, but they don’t want nothing to do with me, you dig? And that’s ‘cause of the troubles I got in a few years ago. I don’t blame ‘em. I mean, I was in bad shape. But that’s another story.

Anyway, like say I used to hate Thanksgiving, and being all alone. But wait’ll you hear about my Thanksgiving THIS year!

So I got on at the Greek’s place a few months ago. Mostly washing dishes, but some line cooking here and there. That kind of thing. I’m doing good, checking in with my PO, taking my prescriptions, showing up early at the Greek’s and staying late…doing my best, you know? The Greek likes me well enough, and he gives me a little extra here and there, lets me work a little longer when he can…and every so often he spots me a little something from the kitchen. That’s the last thing I’d ever want, and it kills me to be in that position. But the Greek, he insists, and I ain’t too proud to take a little help if I need it.

I got a room in a four-flat at Milwaukee and Halsted, right by the Blue Line. I got a borrowed bed and a borrowed chair, a record player, a hot plate and that’s it. It ain’t much, and the neighborhood is rough. But it’s all mine, and I’m keeping up. It ain’t one of them towers on Lake Shore Drive, but next to where I was, I’m doing good.

So it’s the day before Thanksgiving. I’ve been mopping dishes for the Greek during the breakfast rush, and the lunch rush is on the way. I’m about to do some mopping around my sink when the Greek comes over, and he tells me he’s giving me the rest of the day off, and all of Thanksgiving off, AND the day after Thanksgiving off! With pay! I tell the Greek I can’t do that, but of course I know he ain’t going to take no for an answer, so I say thank you, the both of us smiling like a couple of clowns, and I get ready to grab my bag and go home.

When I reach into my bag, I see the Greek has already loaded it up with a couple of cans of tuna, some bread and some mayo, a couple of jars of milk and fixings enough to make two turkey sandwiches and some stuffing for Thanksgiving. And at the bottom he’s thrown in a ten dollar bill. I’m feeling so good when I see all this I almost start crying. The Greek, he sure has been good to me. I go over, pump his hand like mad and say thank you over and over again. He tells me I deserve so much more, doing such a good job and being such a good kid. By the time I let go of his hand, I got a tear streaming down both cheeks, and I gotta turn around and run out because I’m too embarrassed to stay around.

So I get outside, and it’s terrifically cold. You know how those Chicago winters are. But I’m feeling so good from the Greek I don’t even feel it. I just feel warm all over, even without a coat. I could have gotten on the el, but for whatever reason I felt like walking. I’ve got my bag, and now its way heavier than it was, thanks to the Greek, so I sit down on a stoop for a few minutes to rest.

And I’m sitting there, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, this kitten comes over to me. I’m just sitting there, and the kitten comes from out of nowhere, and looks up at me and starts mewing at me in this squeaky little voice. Like it’s trying to tell me something. I reach out to pet it, and the kitten starts rubbing its head on my finger, then it starts rubbing its head against my leg. You believe that?

I picked the kitten up, put it on my lap and gave it a scritch on the head. And the kitten turned a circle, flopped into a little ball and started purring like crazy. Like it liked me! It was just a little gray thing, so cute and happy. I got up, carefully holding the kitten, and started looking around for someone to ask about the kitten.

“I think she likes you!”

The super of the building I was resting at came down the steps. “I seen that kitten come around here for two days now. I ain’t seen no signs about her around the neighborhood or anything. Looks like she’s a feral. Whyn’t you take her home?”

I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing.

“Really? You really think I should?”

“Sure, why not! She needs a good home. And she’s taken to you! Hold on just a second…”

The super turned around, went back into the building and returned with a leash.

“I got this ‘case I had to take her to the shelter. But this is even better than that.”

The super clipped on the leash, and the kitten was mine.

Once again, I started crying. I thanked the super, we exchanged Happy Thanksgivings and I kept walking home. I got to my flat, opened my bag, took out one of the cans of tuna the Greek gave me, opened it and threw a little down on my lap for the kitten. She was so tiny! I picked her up, held her and decided her name was Mittens. Because of the little bits of white on her paws. I set Mittens down and she started eating tuna like she had never eaten before. So I got a bit more, put it down and she kept going.

I had a little myself, and I poured a little milk out on a plate on the floor. Mittens lapped that up, then I poured some more and she lapped that up. Then she jumped back on my lap, flopped into a ball and started purring like crazy and licking my hand with her little sandpaper tongue. And she was with me for all three days of my Thanksgiving vacation, and I cried the whole time I was so happy; happy to have so much and to have a friend to share it with.

I made two turkey sandwiches and warmed up stuffing on my hot plate and had milk for Thanksgiving. I ate Thanksgiving dinner with Mittens, and for the first time in a few years I wasn’t alone on Thanksgiving…