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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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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: 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: 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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West 34th

I lost my job at the call center. Not much of a surprise: salesmen sell, and I couldn’t sell. It’s a relief, really. I felt like such a monster calling people in the middle of dinner to sell photo packages. Of course now I have no income and no idea what I’m going to do.

I had a date set up with Ellen. She said yes on Monday for Friday night. On Wednesday we talked on the telephone and she said she was going to have to make it a short dinner on Friday because her mom was in town. On Friday she called and said she had to cancel because her girlfriend was in town for a surprise visit, and it was also her grandmother’s funeral that night. I think she might have lied to me about some of this.

My toilet got fixed, and it worked for a while. Then it broke down again and the super is still dragging his feet getting it fixed. The piles of rotting garbage still block the sidewalks and the subways are still rank cesspools. The smell of this city and this apartment make me nauseous most days.

Here’s the thing that gets me about New York: I try to be a nice guy, but to live here you need to be an asshole. You need to be an asshole to make a living selling portrait packages, and you need to be a cold, calculated asshole with no sense of ethics to be good at it. You need to be an asshole to step over and around the winos on every sidewalk begging for change or a pop. You need to be an asshole to know where to cop dope. You need to be an asshole to get the super out to fix the toilet. And you need to be an asshole to set up a date and think she’ll want to keep it.

I don’t know if I can take it much longer. I’m trying, but it’s killing me. What am I doing in this shithole? I don’t belong here…

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West 34th

I got a little fern for my apartment. I guess I wanted to try to bring a bit of beauty home. Maybe I was thinking of Fern from Charlotte’s Web and innocence and all that happy shit, I don’t know. I kept it for about three weeks, and then it died. It probably died because the water from my tap is brown, but I bet it was also the smell. The stink of my life.

My apartment stinks like a public bathroom because the super won’t come and fix the goddamn toilet like I’ve been calling about for the past week. I walk out to the street and step over walls of rotting garbage that hasn’t been picked up because the city is bankrupt. The subway stinks like piss and shit and sweat and stale sex and spray paint and I have to watch out for rollers and shanks. Most days I walk to work. Better to just smell garbage and backed up sewers than the subway.

I got a job in a call center in the Flatiron Building at 23rd & Broadway. I call up housewives on the Upper East Side and try to sell portrait packages for Olin Mills, and mostly I get yelled at and hung up on. It’s brutal. I hate bothering people, and I feel like a royal asshole for doing it. And then I get yelled at and I take it personally. It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s killing me, and my bank account, since I almost never make commission. But I don’t know what else I can do.

At lunch I eat a peanut butter sandwich that I made in my apartment, and I listen to co-workers discuss where they’re going to go for their lunches. I hear them talk about weekends in the Catskills, where the air is fresh and sweet and the water is clean and there are no visible garbage piles anywhere. At night I try to scrounge up enough money for a cheap bite, cop a few bags around Madison Square, walk home, shoot and listen to sirens. When I can get a signal I listen to the radio, but the Empire State Building gets in the way, and mostly I just get static.

So that’s my life. Mostly I just try to avoid garbage and the stench of shit.

I don’t mean to sound so disillusioned, although I’m really getting there. It’s not all bad, and I’m working like crazy trying to make it. But it’s frustrating.

I think of my parents starting out here twenty, thirty years ago, just after the war, when the city was the economic engine of the world, the manufacturing center of the universe, tuition was free for residents at city college and the subways were clean and safe. Now the streets are filled with garbage, burnt out cars and needles, the crime rate is skyrocketing and President Ford is telling the city to drop dead. And I killed my fern, the one beautiful thing I had, with poison tap water.

I know it will get better. But sometimes I get so sad and frustrated and all alone, I just….just……..I just…………

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West 34th

Christ, it’s hot in here. No air. It don’t circulate at all, not with the wall of the next building five feet away. And some view, right? Anyway, this is home.

I got a folding metal chair, a mattress, a hot plate, a percolator and a radio. Two shelves for pots and pans and dishes, but I don’t really have much cooking stuff. One sink, one closet, toilet. There’s three layers of linoleum on the floor and the paint and plaster flecks and falls off. The walls are paper-thin, so I can hear everyone on my floor fucking and fighting all night. 80 bucks a month, and this is what I got.

Oh, and I’ve got a habit. Not much now, only two spikes a day, most days, more or less. But I’m past the 21 day period Burroughs wrote about, and I can see it getting worse, if I’m not careful. But it’s cool. I’m in control.

Damn, it’s good. Ever done it? Feels like flying through time while floating on the Dead Sea in an electric blanket. It doesn’t feel like sitting on a folding metal chair in a room on West 34th with a hot plate and three layers of linoleum and flecking paint and plaster.

So that’s where I’m at on my first month in the big city. I’m right across from the Garden, and sometimes I’ll take a cup of coffee down to the steps and I’ll see Clyde Frazier and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and the rest of the Knicks drive up to the building for practice. I can only imagine what they’re making, but it’s more than enough to cover 80 bucks a month for rent plus two, more or less, bags a day.

I don’t mean to sound jealous or bitter or anything. Like, with the junk, I did it to myself. And even in this fuckin’ dump I call home, I’m in New York and not cow-town Pennsylvania. So it ain’t all bad.

Still, it ain’t very dignified. I didn’t come to New York to live in a shit-hole and become a junky, y’know? I came to drive a Rolls and wear furs like Clyde. That’ll happen…right? Long as I’m cool and in control…right?

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