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The Perry Como song on the jukebox ended, and one of those strange visitations of quiet fell over the bar. All talk and all laughter abruptly halted, and the universe teetered on the very edge of madness. But then a new song came on, a quieter one this time, a gentle song of love, the universe pulled back from the brink, and human voices nervously resumed their chatter.
“Well, I guess I’ll go now,” I said.
“Take a little nap,” said Elektra, well, Betsy I suppose I should call her.
“Yes,” I said, “I really need a nap.”
“Don’t oversleep though. If you stand me up I won’t forgive you.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be there. What’s the place called again?”
“Kettle of Fish. Just a couple of doors up the street on MacDougal.
“I should be able to find it then.”
“I should think so. Do you live around here?”
“Um -- yes --”
“You‘re not sure?”
“Well, I --”
I almost took the folded-up page from the telephone book out of my jacket pocket, so that I could show it to her and ask directions, but fortunately I thought twice.
“Yes,” I said, “I live nearby, on Bleecker Street.”
“Good. Bring some of your writing for me to look at.”
“Oh come on. What sort of stuff do you write, anyway?”
“Poetry. Bad poetry.”
“Has it been published?”
“He most certainly is about to be published.”
I’d know that voice anywhere. It was Lucky, or Nicky, whatever he called himself nowadays, standing there smiling, looking spiffy, holding a cigarette in his shiny black cigarette holder.
“Won’t you introduce me to your charming friend, Porter?”
“Betsy, this is, uh, Lucky --”
“Nicky,” he said.
“Oh, sorry --”
“That’s okay, Porter, you’ve only met me once after all. Nicky Boskins,” he said to Betsy. “I’m this character’s PR man.”
He switched his cigarette from his right hand to his left so that he could take hers.
I half expected him to kiss her hand, he seemed the type, but he only gave her fingers a little shake.
“Porter has a PR man?”
“Yes, ma’am. Did he tell you about his book?”
“No, he didn’t. He said he was a poet, but a bad one.”
“Oh, far from it. He’s probably the most important American poet of his generation.”
“Is he?” she said.
“Oh yes indeed. He’s written an epic poem of New York, entitled The Brawny Embraces, and it makes Whitman’s Leaves of Grass look like a tired patch of suburban crabgrass.”
“Knocks Sandburg’s Chicago to the canvas with a roundhouse haymaker.”
“Grabs William Carlos Williams’s Paterson by the neck in a full nelson and --”
“Okay, I get it,” said Betsy. “Either Porter’s one hell of a poet or you’re one hell of a PR man.”
“Heh heh, correct on both counts, my dear.”
“Well, okay, I’m taking off,” I said.
“So soon?” said Nicky.
“Yeah. See ya later.”
“Stick around for a drink.”
“No, I really have to go.”
“Oh but why. The sun has not even begun to approach the yardarm.”
“I had too much to drink already and I’m sleepy.”
“Oh, in that case, how about a pep pill?” He put his cigarette into his mouth, reached into his jacket pocket and took out a shiny metal pill case, flicked open the hinged top with his thumb. “Go ahead, take one, make ya feel like a million bucks.”
“No thanks,” I said. “I’d really rather take a nap I think.”
“What a killjoy.” He offered the case to Betsy. “Benny, Betsy?”
“No thanks,” she said. “They set my teeth on edge.”
“Oh well.” He closed the case and put it back in his pocket. “You wouldn’t see Kerouac and those jokers over there turning them down.”
“Okay, well, I’ll see you later,” I said, reluctantly to Nicky as well as Betsy.
“Yes,” said Nicky. “We really have to talk, and soon.”
“Kettle of Fish,” Betsy said to me. "Eight o'clock."
“Oh, a date?” said Nicky.
“Sort of,” she said.
“Well well well. You know, perhaps I could set up a photo shoot with you two.”
“A what?” she said.
“Life magazine let’s say. Rising young poet with his lovely young lady friend. On the quaint old streets and in the bohemian cafés and bistros of Greenwich Village. Digging the sounds of some swinging bop combo.”
“Aren’t we jumping the gun here?” she asked.
“In what sense?”
“In the sense that I only met Porter about five minutes ago.”
“Oh. But I feel a bond between you two. I really do.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’m going”
“We’ll talk very soon, Porter,” said Nicky, and somehow I was shaking his hand, that weirdly strong and warm hand. “In depth,” he said.
I didn’t have the energy to tell him that I had no intention of ever talking to him again, not if I could help it. I freed my hand from his.
“Okay,” I said. “See you later, Betsy.”
“Wait,” she said.
She popped off her seat, put a hand on each of my arms, raised up on her toes and kissed me on the cheek.
I flushed, both outwardly and inwardly.
“See you at eight,” she said.
Her friends at the bar were staring at us. Nicky was staring at us too.
She let go of my arms. I turned and staggered away.
When I got near the table with Josh and the other guys they all yelled and waved at me.
Josh reached over and pulled me by the arm.
“Come on, pal, grab an empty chair and squeeze in.”
“No, Josh, really, I have to go.”
“Sit your narrow ass down, Porter,” said Bill.
“No, really --”
“Yeah, we gotta celebrate your book deal,” said Gregory.
“Some other time,” I said.
“I see a holy energy around your head, Porter,” said Allen.
That was all I needed.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Jack. “Allen says that about half the bums he meets. He’s even said it about me.”
“I see it around Joshua’s head, too,” said Allen.
“Well, see ya, guys,” I said.
“Wait. One beer,” said Josh. “We’re got a brand new pitcher of Rheingold and an empty glass with your name on it.”
“He bought a shot of Old Forester for you, too,” said Bill, pointing to a brimming shot glass of whiskey on the wet table.
“No thanks,” I said.
“No use wasting it then,” said Gregory, and he picked up the glass and downed it.
“All right, then,” I said.
“Okay, I’m going too,” said Josh, shoving his chair back an inch.
“No, you don’t have to, Josh. You’re having a good time.”
“I am actually. Allen’s been telling me all about Buddhism.”
“Okay, you stay, I’ll see you later.”
We shook hands, and this meant I had to shake hands with the other four guys, but finally I disengaged, and got out of there.
Out on the street I wondered if I had done the right thing, leaving like that. Josh after all was probably my ticket out of here. But I was ready to keel over, so I decided to accept my decision, foolish or not.
I took out the folded-up telephone book page from my pocket, unfolded it, looked for the Morgensterns’ address. 3 Bleecker Street. I didn’t know which way the numbers ran. I went left, the first address I saw was 185, the next one was 183, so presumably I was headed in the right direction.
After a few blocks I suddenly remembered that I had forgotten to borrow some money off of Josh. I stopped, and took out my wallet. The only cash it contained was three wrinkled dollar bills. I checked my trousers pockets and came up with thirty-eight cents and a couple of New York City Transit tokens. Not very much for my date with Betsy. I stood there with my wallet in one hand and the change and tokens in the other, and I seriously considered going back to the San Remo. I could take Josh aside, pretend I had forgot to tell him something, and ask him to discreetly slip me a ten or what the hell, a twenty, he could spare it if anyone could.
“Pardon me?” I said.
Four young guys in t-shirts and bluejeans stood all around me. They all had the cuffs of their jeans rolled up and they wore motorcycle boots. They had the sleeves of their t-shirts rolled up also. They looked to be high school age but they didn’t look like they spent much time or any time at all doing homework.
“Lend us some money, daddy-o,” said the kid who had spoken before. He looked a little like James Dean.
“I’ve only got three bucks,” I said. I opened the palm that held the change and the tokens. “And thirty-eight cents and two tokens.”
“We’ll take it,” said a blond-haired guy. This one looked like a younger Vic Morrow.
“I’ll call a cop,” I said.
“’Call a cop’,” said another, taller dark-haired guy. He looked like an actor too, I think Timothy Carey is his name. “’Call a cop,’ he says. You birds see a cop around anywheres?”
“I don’t see no cop,” said a smaller blond-haired guy. I wasn’t sure who he looked like either. Richard Jaeckel?
“Look, you guys,” I said. “This is all the money I have.”
The funny thing was, there were other people walking up and down the sidewalk, but they were all ignoring us. And I noticed that the street we were on looked pretty poor and rundown. I suppose this might have been a normal occurrence on this block.
“You’re on our territory, daddy-o,” said the first guy, the James Dean kid.
“Yeah, this is Windbreaker territory,” said the Vic Morrow guy.
“Yeah, we’re the Windbreakers, and we own this block.”
“Yeah,” said the Timothy Carey guy. “On accounta we wear matching windbreakers.”
“But you’re not wearing windbreakers,” I said.
“It’s eighty fucking degrees out,” said the little Richard Jaeckel guy. “Of course we’re not gonna wear our windbreakers.”
“Okay,” I said. “But look, fellas, give me a break, I live in this neighborhood too, y’know.”
“Yeah, at 3 Bleecker Street.”
“3 Bleecker Street?” said the James Dean guy.
“That’s Cardigan territory.”
“The Cardigan Mob own that block.”
“Oh. I didn’t know that.”
“You don’t know much, do you?” said the little guy.
“Not really,” I said.
“They’re like our mortal enemies,” said the Timothy Carey one. “Them cardigan-wearing sons-o’-bitches. They friends of yours?”
“No, not at all,” I said.
“That’s good,” he said.
“If we roll this guy it means war with the Cardigans,” said the Vic Morrow guy.
The James Dean kid rubbed his chin. Then he took a pack of Camels out from the rolled up cuff of his t-shirt, popped one into his mouth.
The Richard Jaeckel guy was right there, giving the Jimmy Dean kid a light with Zippo.
The Jimmy Dean kid rolled the Camels back into his sleeve while slowly exhaling smoke into my face.
“Okay, pal. We let you go this one time. Only on accounta we’re the only four left from our gang that ain’t up in the reformatory or dead, and the Cardigans outnumber us three to one. But just be careful when you’re walking on this block in the future.”
“I will,” I said.
“All right. You can go. You know Mrs. Morgenstern by any chance?”
“Yes, I do, she lives right down the hall from me.”
“Do me a favor, tell her her nephew Mickey says hi. I’d tell her myself except if I show my face on that block the Cardigans’d beat the livin’ shit out of me.”
“Okay, I’ll do that,” I said.
“Now get the hell outa here.”
“Okay. See ya. Thanks, guys.”
“Don’t mention it.”
So I kept walking, watching the house numbers grow smaller and the neighborhood get even crappier.
Fortunately I didn’t run into the Cardigans.
(Continued here; Arnold has only just begun to scratch the surface.)
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