Hank Greenway wanted his notebook to explain why he was alone past midnight, outside Moscow, August 20, 1991, starting the second day of the three-day Soviet Coup.
This attic is too dark to write in so, because I’m using large print, if I run out of paper, I’ll finish on the yellow plastic lining of my black professional messenger bag. Confined inside here isn’t like a regular home’s comfort from the elements. Pressed against the storm thrashed birch and pine forest surrounding this estate, the intensity of the lightning and thunder permeating through me is merely mellow in contrast to facing how imprudent it was to come here. But I had to try. If what I came to do worked out as great and glorious as the Russian Revolution once purported itself, our company would have replanted the egalitarian hammer and sickle symbol through the misplaced ideal of capitalism from the bottom up. Our messenger service would have rethread the vision on economic principle, so to speak. If trickle down wasn’t dammed up and I wasn’t just meant to hide here from the vanguard of the proletariat, Srilenko.
It’s the Colonel’s game. But I can also trace how my life’s chain of events are at fault. Emanating from a happy childhood, I learned exactly what I wanted from my university education. Long before this Soviet forest crossroads entrapment, I was all muddled and tied together grown up American. Where privilege is lovingly provided by parents who usually just wish they implied what degree of success their children satisfied them. Why it occurs to me now that I was similarly led into this predicament by the same ideals taken seriously by the vociferously attacked generation just before mine. So it was in 1964, at age seven, I looked up communism in the encyclopedia and raised the subject at our dinner table. Seeking my parent’s council was natural since my maternal grandparents, who adopted me, were born in the Nineteenth Century. To me they lived through centuries of change compressed into modern times. Though my parents were only a midlevel telephone monopoly supervisor and substitute teacher retirees, I considered them at least equal to the above average humanitarian or politician. My father sat left from me at the head of our dining room table, while I wanted to wait for my mother to sit across from me because she’d just brought in mashed
potatoes. But he said no. I’d told her I had something to ask him. And though shaken by losing control of the stage, I didn’t timidly ask. I spoke out that I couldn’t see much wrong with the communist ideal of, from each according to their ability and to each according to their need. Then ever since my mother said, “Malcolm you’d better tell him” her darkened eyes’ fear symbolize for me the painful scattered logic of our country’s Red Scare.
Funny the man I respect more than any other, stamped me with these sloganeering gems. “Would you want a government telling you what to do? Decide what you learn. Choose where you live, and who you become?” My father made sense and I followed the logic. By the late 1970s, when I studied, the class war riddle was essentially solved. The Cold War’s adversarial slogans fairly naked with Dr. Strangelove on local American television. My concern made me a joke even to myself. Except right everyone’s upset about bombs, but that’s other people’s business, spies and what not. For decades it didn’t matter how strategic détente was described. Daily life disregarded politics as something to remain innocent from, and the rub is I tried. I was just here on business when nineteen hours ago nostalgic Bolsheviks decided to preserve the dissolved Soviet Union. A serious preservation situation I should have had no business being near. Sincerely. I never wanted to involve myself in other peoples’ business. Having a problem tagging along, I always found alliances awkward. After one year I quit Cub Scouts. And as far as politics went, scapegoating the bourgeoisie (capitalism) or led by the whims of a nation-state (communism) was ridiculous. But, near the end of my student career, economic responsibility’s tug was from my identification with the exploited backbone, the workers. I decided to read books, between moving boxes, so I unambitiously worked a series of warehouse failures. Jobs that demonstrated I wasn’t content following or led, which is, more or less, when I discovered the bicycle alternative. A dead end job if there ever was one. You could still be ambitious, but not generally believed possible bike messengering. Family and friends surprisingly already knew there were no benefits plus accidents. But I loved being outside on my own exercising and identifying with hating drudgery’s repetition. Hauling this that and everything, here there and everywhere, again and again and back again. That was my laborer’s life in Manhattan where the efficient street grid packs motor vehicles to capacity with bikes flowing fluidly through. People ask what it’s like “gliding through,” anticipating traffic where you’re either instinctual, too slow or late. All predictably governed by reactions limited to
physics. When a bike appears a jaywalker is inclined to calculate, plus utilize, both directions as an option to jump in all at once. Almost leaping demonically back where their expressed intent elsewhere, simultaneously committed you to their previous spot. Drawn like magnets it defies logic, except it doesn’t. In the surprised frayed moment between fast and parked cars a flying bicycle isn’t logical either. Another example of being victimized by the instant is when my hands would flinch toward a clicked open car door then turn away. We’re all reflexively drawn to movement and sound and nervously jump. So if after years of daily training, I can’t help flinching, it’s unreasonable to expect the less practiced to do the right thing. It can be a real mess out there on the road, use those brakes and keep your fingers on them.
One day I fell out of bed, exhilarated. As if relentless routine was bred from my week by pushing for more money. That especially heavy day Dispatch Darrell gave me every delivery he could to “just get it done” and I let loose to “get empty” and coincidentally give the clients the good service they liked to expect. That morning I covered the island strong down and back uptown before lunch in my confused belief my overstuffed messenger bag was feather light. I spanned umpteen blocks of green after green light and slipped through the occasional scattered red. I was one of the natural world’s swifter forces of hopefully more careful unassisted lightning. Because, when the runs were there, I was fast and fluid locking to street furniture, slipping the U lock apart back together bungee chorded to the rear rack. I worked at a smooth even clip, cautiously reminded that when unlocking gravity can mainline that solid lock’s metal motion dead center into your kneecap making the job one not kept long if that happens often. At least twice in my street career.
Inside indoors my routine included rhythmically snapping up packages from receptionists’ desks that angered the usual suspects. While there is no excuse for the behavior, the job is in a hurry and task as much about being in, out, up and down the same elevator as keeping your trail as smooth a straight line as possible. Remaining tuned to excesses being taken all around you and road divots beneath. As with keeping a keen awareness of where broken glass is, I should have been looking further ahead. Not been convinced I was on top of my game going from 1040 Sixth Avenue at Thirty-ninth Street to The New York Times, 229 West 43rd. Just three blocks up and one-and-a-half over from Bryant Park to Times Square. Just a hop and skip midst cabbies demanding right-of-ways that don’t exist, and
limousines commanding respect you can’t own. Everyone’s complete attention is impossible among the masters of the asphalt’s petty competition for space best simply waited for if waiting weren’t New York’s most inconvenient experience of all.
But in a hurry is a trap. So at the Sixth Avenue pickup when the receptionist said, “Have a seat,” I mumbled, “the effort begins,” which hastily engaged her confrontation with me from behind my back. Her particular tone of “What?” that was specifically meant to humble, turned me around next to the purposely not sat upon couch - in her sights as one of the dumb ones that doesn’t know better.
My reply, “Nothing is why” made as much sense as phoning before their pickup was ready. But I was screwed by my attitude. She could ignore and refuse to have anything more to do with me. An uncomfortable threat when in a hurry unhinged people.
She pounced. “Nothing is why, what kind of answer is that?”
Reducing me to shrugged-shoulders shame because the customer is always right. Nevertheless, stretching profit, by having me wait till they’re ready, ran my business less efficiently. While early might appear good for the client, I already held a, due in ten minutes, guaranteed rush to West Fifty-seventh Street negating whatever different anyone wanted done in between. Except I was required to solve this in four minutes with the new receptionist who didn’t like me. If I excused myself and came back it would be my fault she wouldn’t bother to have the package ready. Then exactly when I meant to apologize with more gibberish, a serious spic-n-span man came through that the temporary receptionist knew would take charge. Hardly listening he insisted I wait because “your package will be ready soon” and walked off unaware I’m only delivering, not taking possession of their package. His systematic flair for the idea of my waiting, reminded me of my favorite perpetrator PR Consulting’s Laura. She always phoned early so if you were coincidentally close you’d have to wait fifteen or more minutes when at least four more stops could be made. And since you usually can’t observe delays, the person dumb enough to be a messenger is exempt from knowing the extent of the abuse. I was frequently unable to switch travel lines around her anticipated delays, and challenged Dispatch with a never taken dollar bet the package wouldn’t be ready. Laura was that consistent but always smiled really nice when she gave me the package. Bless her.
I was surprised this man stayed involved and eventually returned admitting he didn’t know. He asked, “Who’s sending your package? Do you have a name?” So my big mouth was responsible for the receptionist’s presentation missing my original information. To be done with it I gave him the same clue “Jane,” which at exactly seven minutes till 57th Street produced Jane, with little to say on the phone, who finally arrived with the information, “Bob told me to call.” Consequently, “Bob’s joke, he was fired this morning” just required my ritual “have fun” as I exited glad I was polite enough to stay for the festivities. I couldn’t stand another second, even to use their most important of all utensils - a free phone. Because though customer confirmation is required to get paid for domestic wild goose chases, I preferred seeing if people denied my word when the bill came. What did I care over a few dollars more? I wasn’t carefully tallying extra charges. Producing on volume I couldn’t stop, gone in West 57th’s direction after the conveniently efficient New York Times mailroom placed strategically just inside their 43rd Street entrance between Seventh and Eighth avenues. In a minute I’d be straight up Eighth to West 57. The street level Times mailroom is one step in, then five left and you’re back across 43rd unlocking from the No Parking sign by the mysterious Crater Hotel’s creepy first floor lounge that I’d unlock near wondering during which era the dive was okay for employees to spend time in.
Except I didn’t get that far flying faster than I should have been that too pleasant Mayday for delay because Times Square’s wide avenues’ invitation to freeway speed provided someone’s overconfidence an arrogant boost. Generally I’m prepared for egos. But this time sprinting west on 43rd, beside the old triangular Times Building, between crisscrossed Broadway and Seventh, right in front of me, a lone racing car ran Seventh Avenue’s red light in yellow’s memory. My immediate swerve to stretch stopping distance caught my back wheel on an, anticipating the light, aggressive limousine’s front fender sending me over the handlebars at the offender’s car. It happened so fast my instinctively out stretched hands caught nothing and felt ripped away just before my left shoulder dislocated smacking against the car that kept going. In the brief moment before everything was pain, my arm felt so loose, I thought of how my body was quite the bag for bones.
Re-piecing the event by supposition, I’m sure everything halted in the immediate vicinity so those who remained wouldn’t be seen as callous or irresponsible. Certainly screamers lost relevance and gave up long before the
deafening honking was curtailed by the arrival of the police. The law is expected to start traffic flowing again. What a treat, no one’s worker hero needs an ambulance. I was the specimen cyclists are often trivialized as. Pests so drivers can commonly walk out on responsibility, or drive because, since “only a messenger” was hurt, no one was too upset the NASCAR wannabe left the scene of a crime.
I was told a courier talked to me in the ambulance when she took my packages. But any real awareness I have of the aftermath began with my dull-wittedly realizing my eyesight was off, from how much I was squinting on a gurney in an extremely bright hospital hallway being signaled some drug had worn off. Awake was too much effort, so I dreamt I was talked to by the surgeon on the operating table and told that my shattered collarbone meant my left shoulder would unhinge periodically without a pin to hold the arm and shoulder together. That they were about to put in. So only because, for some reason, I sat upright aware on the operating table, the doctor told me about the pin, that was paid for, and that I refused. Within that dream too, I also thought about someone I knew who woke on an operating table and was asked if he’d really pay since they knew he didn’t have insurance. I can imagine imagining a lot before my surgeon eased my forehead back with two fingers. Coming out of it enlivened the surgical theater, or probably Thank God they see it all the time.
Then my consciousness woke in a room fleeing from why wasn’t I moaning? To dreading I was incapable of any sound at all. But groaning I discovered the vicious assault on my war-weary eyes was the kind face and relief from an inquisitive nurse. She brought me around stating the obvious. “Ah awake.” Which was speculative since, easily minutes later, she woke me from the foot of my bed with, “Don’t worry, you’re taken care of,” meaning everything was alright I should sleep. But this is where my karma twists as a paid bill as opposed to cheaper rates hospitals have less room for. I woke to much too expensive and a name that rang a bell loud enough to hurt a lot. I sounded bitter because I was.
I said, “You’re kidding, Armand Hammer’s limousine?”
Despite me her expression strained in my interest as much as she could get it to go and said, “You remember your accident? Dr. Hammer was in a limo?”
Forgoing compassion I said, “He wasn’t in a Volkswagen,” which, virtually opposite my intent, was a joke that fell flat to the floor. For my fair lady felt there was no reason for derision on my part. The industrial philanthropist had generously paid, plus she hadn’t come of age with me in the nineteen-seventies studying
Russia’s evolution into the Soviet menace. It’s natural she had less clues than I had about the good doctor’s activities. Such as his having only recently admitted his father named him Armand Hammer after the arm and hammer symbol of the Socialist Party. I knew he used détente to self-promote his American capitalist patriot role of Soviet friend, who, whenever he could, made the right phone calls in their language. For instance helping to get U.S. News and World Report’s Nicholas Daniloff out of Soviet jail in 1986.
I told the nurse resolutely, “I’m not a byline. There’s nothing to gain meeting me.”
So she came back from the curtains in floor surveillance mode, maintaining, “However he’s concerned. You should be grateful he’s done what you can’t for yourself.”
I wasn’t a patsy for Hammer’s charity. I said, “Workman’s Compensation.”
She snickered. “Yeah sent home. Workers’ Comp can’t pay close to the attention you’ve received. But to remind you where you’ve been, I heard you woke in the O-R?”
Honestly not remembering right then, I said, “Huh?”
Amusing her to chuckle in rhythm with her explanation of the facts of hospital life to me. She said, “A miracle you didn’t crack your skull. You’d be out in less time if you had a helmet.”
So clearly visible in a disagreeable light, my “gratitude” became “boundless.” I boasted, “I’m so lucky to have aspired to this tragedy.”
She had me. “Cynical. He didn’t hit you. Remember what you did?” Then she sympathetically nodded toward my pillow with a professional scowl and said, “Just relax. The bed has restorative power. Many figure out their accidents during their dreams here. Relax, have another ride.” Then as if there’d been static between our eyes, she clarified where she was coming from to rectify my bad behavior. She said, “But let me tell you before you remember. Every day in here we see the results of messengers taking chances with everyone’s life.”
I knew better than to feel offended and defended myself with a circuitous logic of sorts. I said, “The name of Paul Harvey’s radio show, The Rest of the Story, emphasizes how the full truth requires more information. I don’t think it’s messengers’ fault every day.”
She huffed, “Who’s Paul Harvey?”
So I answered with my personal qualifying question. “Short explanation or what his radio show means to me?”
She wanted “Short.”
So I told her, “Mr. Harvey is a cultural essayist of the traditionally conservative persuasion.”
She seemed to try to think for an easier way out, but went with requiring me to be on the ball. She said, “Relate to the messengers’ fault we’re talking about. Connect logic, maybe you won’t have to ride a bike for a living.”
So since she’d asked, I got to make my proud speech and said, “As I said. The name of Paul Harvey’s radio broadcast, The Rest Of The Story, highlights how necessary more information is. And when I mention Paul Harvey, I always credit the mayor of my small hometown, who listened every day, for being my reason for listening to Paul Harvey too. I was told he said I’d be someone someday, and I even personally heard him once say he didn’t care what anyone said about me behind my back. Which, pardon me, includes your doubting me to my face now.”
That got a smirk from her too as she was now content challenging a no account worthy of being told, “I’ll tell your doctor. He needs to know your brain is a circus amuck with ideas.” She giggled, “Probably” by mistake but meant to say, “Truth is you’re lucky. Your surgeon said Dr. Hammer was so close he could feel you hit that car hard.”
“From behind tinted windows?”
Her face said that’s enough, but she wanted her point left with me. She said, “Dr. Hammer paid attention when he didn’t have to care. He brought you here to NYU where he almost served a residency seventy years ago.” Then touchingly thinking better of me than I’d earned, she advised me to, “Call him Dr. Hammer, you’ll get along. Believe it or not, he wants to visit and neither of you have use for quibbling now. If you don’t need anything I have rounds.”
A good enough sentiment, but I had to catch up by yelling “Nurse” soft enough so her eyebrows would return in the doorway at least answering what? Then she had them go further becoming cute with it.
I asked, “Please, if not much trouble? Do I have access to library books?”
She said, “You have permission for one.”
So I repeated, “Please” genuinely wanting “Armand Hammer’s most recent autobiography. He’s practiced on a few before, but I want his last. The blue book.”
Squinting like me, she left with, “Perhaps.”
Then I dreamt about the accident, looking backwards at my wheel snag that fender over and over until fright woke me about to hit that car. Waking I thought too bad that didn’t happen earlier. Any other night a dream like that would have kept me up, but somewhat satisfied, by that explanation, pitch dark took over. I slept deep through the rest of the night until, because the shade was raised, sunshine made me forget I could be groggy. Energy from our light source psyched me up for the day’s freshest portion and Mr. Parker’s cartload of books that arrived at 7:00 AM when I introduced myself with the worst cliché. “All for me?”
“No” wasn’t necessary since the racks’ less up to date others didn’t vibrate bright white like the shiny brand new HAMMER letters pulsating from his book’s spine. Lucky guy that his publishers could afford such glossy extravagance. Mr. Parker, as his name tag indicated, handed me the book with a cordial smile and said, “I heard you want to finish this one.”
I held my tongue and the big blue book I perused right away. Only raising my eyes once to questions feeling me out as a threat to Dr. Hammer. I mumbled yes, no, huh, and maybe, after starting with the title page. Published in 1987 by G.P. Putnam and Sons, 200 Madison, NY, NY. There’s a glossary in back for Hammer’s favorite art, name-dropping. Co-authored by Neil Lyndon, the book had some heft but it’s shorter and trimmer than huge, making it lighter and easier to hold. The print was easy to read, and bind a quality stitch that would take digging into to destroy. No typos and the hardback’s darker shade contrasted with the dust cover’s flashier blue. I missed reading after knocking myself out day after long day that left me too exhausted to read except in elevators. The all day super sport drained my will to explore that I’d rectify with the free time I now had, no matter how I got it. Released by my hospital bed from human chores, I ignored my prescribed literary shackles and made requests.
I asked for 1984 and Brave New World so I could “reassess my skepticism toward the benevolent state?” I said, “Lost Horizon is on your rack. Can I try to figure out what it’s supposed to be saying again?” Of course I was delirious wanting to ponder Allah’s gift of knowledge as love was intended to be. But time is seldom on my economic situation’s side, while Mr. Parker left pretending not to hear.
But I had time for that book’s duration to get Dr. Hammer’s story down. How the enlightened capitalist distinguished himself from the shadow of communism’s myth. His autobiography sings his American opportunities’ praises,
while projecting that he had a mature understanding of his parent’s Nineteenth Century socialist beliefs that were seduced and tainted by 1917’s Bolshevik Revolution. Dr. Hammer depicts his father Julius as a caring physician hounded by his era’s American distrust of alien politics. He illustrates that while his father did co-found and finance the American Communist Party, Julius also industriously established the visionary reality of capital’s pursuit. The stone and mortar enabling his son to become rich from treasure grown from the father’s generic drug business that led to the Armand Hammer fortune, museums and what not.
Wanting to appear guileless Dr. Hammer explains that when Alcohol Prohibition began, he discovered leaps in sales in the American South because customers were squeezing alcohol from his ‘medicinal tincture of ginger product.’ He says he went in 1919 to Virginia himself to find out why that item spiked, where in a pharmacy’s back room the druggist prepared a ginger ale cocktail for him and Eureka! In true capitalist fashion, he made a million dollars by cornering the world’s ginger market before the government stopped his exploitation of the process a year later. Not bad for a twenty-two year old in 1920 when a million was worth a million. Of course Hammer doesn’t mention blindness or other maladies, like death, caused by alternative abuse during America’s great ignoring of Prohibition. A man of his times he actually brags his Greenwich Village Carriage House parties had the good stuff.
Rather than observing Hammer’s back-patting depiction with a grain of salt, some suggest he swam in a skeleton sea that goes something like this for me. Armand’s father Julius met Lenin at a political convention in 1905 and never publicly doubted the Bolshevik Revolution through his death in 1948. But the father started from the ground up on an assembly line in Connecticut. Giving Armand a leg up so Dr. Hammer could paint his grand adventure as wonderfully profound. While not betraying his parents’ socialist vision, he was realistic to what the future of capitalism would bring. Truth is American citizenship gave him the world.
Dr. Hammer wrote that in 1921, after Columbia Medical School, he skipped his NYU internship and altruistically bought an ambulance full of medical supplies to ship, along with himself, to the young Soviet Union. He mentions the trip was to also collect debts the Soviets owed his family’s export company, but implies that the pyramid’s top, Lenin, only noticed him in a report about a railway cleared of peasants so Hammer’s goods and services could get through to his asbestos mining
operation. Armand revealingly admits he refused to pay a bribe, so the stationmaster who’d held up the train was shot on his behalf. Ordered killed by a better-fed commissar enforcing the rules on the stationmaster who was just as uselessly resentful as everyone else. One of many cited instances where all his life Hammer scratched his itch to use powerful people.
So Dr. Hammer receives an audience with The Man his father already knew. But the debt isn’t brought up as beneath the integrity of the communist vision. That’s Hammer’s story. His strategic meeting that began his voyage of the acolyte to redeem his patron Lenin’s revolutionary New Economic Policy that Stalin destroyed. What Hammer wants the reader seeing is his innocent connection between business and politics, I could stand behind, if political life wasn’t all subterfuge. In the middle as he was, is still the middle.
Hammer and historians credit his conversations and correspondence with Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov that spurred the doctor’s further venture among the few independent capitalists, called concessionaires, allowed to operate inside the young Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. There was an American Harriman and Germans did business, but Soviet citizens were reduced to shared servitude. Historians even assume Stalin knew pervasive commerce had advantages but the stupidly simple dictatorship of the proletariat was easier for the paranoid to control.
But under Lenin’s umbrella in the bullish twenties, Hammer was also focused on zenith proportions and monopoly for himself. He didn’t assemble Ford tractors, but insisted that only he should broker them to the Soviet Union. He admits these things of a very cozy, politically, economic connection. You think communism was corrupted? Essentially the revolution was always connected guys running a capitalism for some with Stalin’s low salary a front for living like a king. Stalin’s spacious attic was even luxurious compared to where most of his citizens slept.
President Gorbachev is fond of what Lenin’s NEP plan was supposed to have tried adapting capitalist realities to socialist principle. With everyone else in the country Mikhail Gorbachev remembers growing up with pencils stamped Hammer from Armand’s factory. What a guy, if life were squeaky-clean his heroic claims could be acceptably polished. Because I read a flaw for his time spent here. Hammer says he stayed away from Stalin until 1930 when he lost his mansion and businesses toward the end when he had to leave town. Still meaning Hammer lingered through three years of the kulak’s slaughter. Kulaks were also called
Nepmen, the successful capitalist farmers allowed private plots as part of Lenin’s New Economic Policy. They then lost their lives and property to Soviet reprogramming. Dates are fuzzy about when they got around to liquidating everyone, but most were gone before Hammer left the country.
Basically it’s corroborated, death and Stalin kept Lenin’s pragmatic use of capitalism from reaching much further than anecdotal history. But no matter how sourly Hammer admits he was treated, he stayed until 1930. Then his biography smoothes over his decades as an American capitalist, when he had to have been a stooge as demonstrated by the evidence he got out of Moscow alive. I don’t care. Whatever Dr. Hammer was, as his father’s son he was in the middle. A miracle, along with his family allowed to leave with profit from Russian artwork sold during the 1930s in department stores across America as compensation for his businesses’ absorption by the Soviet government, Dr. hammer writes. The cover story backs up the intrigue, intriguingly, of communism’s Mickey Mouse off to his next capitalist escapade.
Lost in words I was oblivious to my lame condition. The day was literally, virtually great for me and I wished the writing ambition bit all my friends to understand and leave me alone to think about what I’d just read. I was anxious to finish when the working day’s end brought, of all people, Rodney first at 7:00 PM. He brought both, but was easily convinced to go for cigarettes and beer he still thinks he wants and needs. Forget it’s a hospital. Rodney’s a chronic who’d try to get away with smoking in the window. At 7:20 I asked Chain and Squid to look for Rodney. Messengers shrewd enough to sneak back past moderate nurse station security. Who cared? We were left alone privileged with the door closed, while my impatient celebrity visitor had bothered to call ahead for an after hours appointment. Since us active businesspeople are never satisfied waiting for anyone.
By 8:00 PM I accepted fate and watched the rest double take from smiling stretched on the bed Rodney, to me behind the opened door in my cold hospital gown. My meant for undercover wear, was a comfort to them, I would have changed and endured scolding for, if an asphalt scrape scab wasn’t forming all the way up my right calf and thigh, with an ever so short stretch of actual skin, where the knee indents the side of the leg. The atrocity formed by the car’s pivoting me into the shredding asphalt. Not being from among the metal protected community with an opportunity to be saved by a safety belt, I keep impossibly wishing an
airbag inflated around me when I left the bike and bounced off the car down the street. What a defeating experience otherwise.
To cheer me up, Pam and Jim supplied the invigorating tangy spice taste that expanded Europe’s “known world.” Indian food from Sixth Street where I officially became a bike courier that night my first dispatcher Michael celebrated my first hundred-dollar day.
Both parties were equally nice except I disagreed with the hospital’s theme. When I said, “There’s no efficacy in suing the richest person involved,” it sounded like an announcement. I knew I’d painted myself as Pam’s target since Jim’s girlfriend saw everything about messengering as negatives to fix. Jim, like the rest of us, had hung around too long and that meant she had too.
Pam said, “Someone should pay and Hammer can pay more.”
I double-stepped, telling her, “I don’t feel so oppressed. South African diamond miners have it worse.”
Which brought Pam’s insight. “So what. This isn’t there. Wherever it’s not good enough is not good enough.” Pam should have been the great dictator. “You’re all so tough. One accident levels you to paupers till cases are settled years later. Then you pay your debts to still have and be Nothing!”
Jim’s wasn’t an ordinary beer pause to respectfully watch his wife’s triumph turn sad. Over an argument she’d won long before her husband’s coworker Rodney piled his perspective on. Thrusting his media cultivated index finger up, in an everyman’s imitation of great politicians, illustrating their significance, we told Rodney to keep his voice down.
But Rodney said, “We’re not the bad guys. Who aims for people? Victims worthy of Olivier think we almost hit them. Traffic-darters portray themselves three places at once. Convinced the simpleton is the nuisance that can’t be figured out.”
Per usual smiling at the wrong spot, I asked, “Rodney?”
He interrupted. “Greenway don’t say nuttin. He never lets me live down when we met and he called me wild rookie. I told him to screw himself without me.”
I laughed because it’s uncomfortable when you’re not liked. Though I said, “Cop remember you scared those women?”
Rodney said, “See never lets go. Do you Greenway? I told Squid I didn’t want to come and he shrugs at me. You bring it up again, I’m hitting you in your
bad shoulder. The cop stopped me nine times in a month, and every time took twenty minutes till he was tired of writing tickets. He wrote slow and winked for me to run to kick my ass.”
Jim pontificated like a veteran. “Parting crowds is rookie bullshit kicks.”
Pam imparted, “Asshole.”
So Rodney, still staring at me, agreed to save face. “An insult to my profession. Imprinting fear on pedestrian minds.”
Jim added, “Hot dogs don’t know what time is. Hank suffered the consequences of that car barreling through. Huh bud? Manhattan should have signs. Aggression Is Not Tolerated. Acceleration Is A Privilege, Not A Right.”
Already soapboxed, Tall Jeremy said, “Good Jim. Line up for the tidy life. People won’t listen, especially to your signs.”
Jim laughed. “Coming here we saw someone reading one. Looking up for when they’re allowed to park.”
Jeremy agreed, “Enforced laws are followed closely.”
Then instead of anything said about cooperative civility, everyone noticed Rodney’s gazing at me was still intense. He said, “Heads filled with your imagination Greenway. The room sounds pumped up by your naïveté. Your obsessions, like there’s no evil. What about road aggression and abuse of right of way?”
I explained. “Uncovered, evil’s root is usually just stupid.” Instead of hitting me Rodney said, “Making people think about what you say doesn’t mean you’re smart.”
Pam said, “Funny guy,” and tried to push Rodney off the bed. “Little believe nothing anarchist creep.”
But Rodney, clinging to the mattress pushed back from his one against the world position. He said, “It is evil that pedestrians are scariest when there’s no traffic. Ever sprint down Fifth Avenue through Thirty-fourth Street without automobile escort? No, because you can’t. When it’s clear at the Empire State Building people swarm out of nowhere making you either the idiot or angry fool. Like there more than anywhere else in the city is theirs. My nightmare is coming down that three-block hill through the intersection running a gauntlet of avenging fists that turn into briefcases smacking my head like playing cards whacking my spokes. I wake up screaming knocked off under a moving truck.” Rodney practically spit. “Attitudes! I hate them. We all have stories. Heard Tim’s? He has
his own one-man company, Just In Time. His family turned their backs on him, like mine. Complaining about the obvious, drop out of college get back on the horse. They ride him like mine rode me out of the will. It’s easier staying out of their lives.”
I said, “Rodney” and he raised his head. “If you were closer to home, you’re across the country.”
Straightening his posture, Rodney said, “New York is the big league and I’m a professional athlete. Not errand boy.”
Hearing that claim, I looked for the twinkle in Cyrus’ eyes. This audience had to hear what he’d rehearsed once for me. “Ha,” Cyrus said. “The professional athlete argument is silly. Athletes? No dude. You don’t prepare by stretching for the event and most likely nurse hangovers past noon. And no one pays to watch.”
But Rodney could say, “So what? Besides cricket what sport lasts close to 12 hours, five days a week?”
“Precisely,” Pam decided. “A job you Morons! Children play all day long.”
Jeremy wanted to know, “Who’s goofing off?” As his hovering brought Jim in between settling whose argument it wasn’t.
Grumpy, Rodney said, “I don’t care what people think. It’s not for everyone to understand. Forget, forgive them, they don’t know what we do. I work a lot harder than my father ever did. Why is what we do not real enough for them? I’m not a bum.”
So in no position to be wrong, Pam said, “For less money Rodney. Remember the return on your effort to stay alive?” Pam was doing fine, trying not to personalize this with Jim. She said, “Becoming realistic won’t kill you guys. You can’t expect families to understand. This non-career dishonors their sacrifices.” Her voice rose a register. “Cutting to the crux Mr. Rodney. Your family made your carefree high school hero life possible. Remember fun parties? To them you’ve made running from responsibility an occupation. So yes, you’re an errand boy.”
Rodney said, “Bullcrap. I’m living an adventure their roots never allowed them to go for.”
Jim tried deciding, “Pam takes it back. She knows the world’s true toilers are its’ backbone.”
“But Jim,” she said. “You’re just.”
“You’re not just, but any little anything isn’t someone.”
“Of course everyone’s someone.”
And though her mate was right, Pam had to reiterate the obvious. “Jim. I’m sorry. Its just a poorly paid simple task for the effort. That’s all, nothing more. A bottom rung, common laborer’s skill easily executed by hundreds replacing the quitters every half year or so. You guys and symbolism, you’re not Greek myths. You’re street scum.”
Jim definitely loved her but had to say, “You are right Pam, but don’t have to be so demeaning or mean.”
“Or jealous,” I said as the debate seemed unfairly their disagreement.
Pam repeated, “Jealous?”
“Yes,” I said despite her glaring at me. “Sometimes you can catch people enviously watch our risky little enterprise. Asphalt surfing. Catching the curl between waves of combustion is taking chances most people can’t. It’s natural to be jealous of what we do.”
Pam retaliated to not allow her point lessened. “What are you talking about? Jealous of chances? It’s not a career. It’s lame. You’ve done it. Move on. Everyone who wants something for themselves does. This is drifting, get a real job!”
“Nowhere Jim! You should at least get it. We came here to land a better life. How are you up from nothing now?”
Jim looked worn and shattered, meaning Pam couldn’t be replaced. Though there could always be someone else, there’s only one of each of us so I tried to help.
I said, “Pam is right. It is unreasonable to expect families to be satisfied their babies’ careers took a downward turn off a cliff.”
She said, “Greenway, all you ever are is sarcastic” and she was right.
But then I said, “No I’m not. Just from other directions, like this. I found out bike messenger sacrifice had a champion. Over a century ago a great man explained our vocation’s meaning as part of a great coming age. Heard of Dostoyevsky? His name has a lyricism all its’ own, doesn’t it? Dostoyevsky.”
“Uh oh,” Jim lobbed. “We need Rob to make fun of you for caring about Russians again.”
Pam said, “Soviets dear.”
And Rodney would criticize. “Rob is enjoying the fruits of our labor.”
So I said, “He’s responsible for the company 24/7, we’re not. This morning, from that far pillar, he watched me read and left without bothering with a bigger appearance.”
Then, tight as a chorus, in unison, the group chimed our chief executive’s nickname, “Mr. Appearance!” Rob’s father was a liberal professor whose son Rob was in the punk rock band Democratic Identity. Rob was booed off stage for giving a pro-socialist speech while pre-banding The American Premier of The Clash. Our company founder’s next statement was to not let couriers make more money because he can’t cover five days of work unless messengers need five days worth of money. The injury prone job is handled better working a four-day week, yet how do you afford doubled-up job reliability at this revenue level?
Pam stuck me too. “Right Greenway, responsibility. Of all people Rob wasn’t a dope long before you idiots. Workers work. If you were meant to have power you’d already have it. The Berlin Wall fell yesterday so dawn is now apparent for even you lowly messengers to realize the politics of wealth distribution is over. Now you can concentrate on real compensation and benefits. I know. It’s obvious I just want to shame Jim into a real job. But I’m not a politician suggesting we’re talking about an issue by only mentioning it. I’m ripping this issue’s insides out. So each of you look at your situations. What are you doing? Anything? Hank has the best chance of any of you, but won’t sue. Greenway, the guy is rich. Emphasize your relationship with economics. Address wasting your life in this futureless job.”
Though my turn to speak, I raised my hand and said, “It’s not entirely true the job is a waste. Without us, this might not feel like the future. Because from Dostoyevsky’s Nineteenth Century vantage, in his book, Notes From Underground, I read Fyodor’s prediction the future perfect world would include those who risked personal injury just to prove they’re the individual in charge of our own lives. All this risk the modern world takes, is evidence this is already the future utopia Dostoyevsky predicts.”
Pam said, “You need to believe Greenway. But stop kidding these kids. Even you’re not satisfied. With a choice, none of you deadbeats would choose this job. You’d have rich uncles passing on vice-presidencies requiring biannual trust fund signatures. No one comes home more exhausted than Jim every night. And in addition, instead of weekends on Long Island or the Jersey Shore, he naps so his eyes are alert on Monday when he tells me he’s making what we need. But he’d
make more doing what he went to school for. He argues, but has to agree he can’t win. Ask yourselves why a loser would win?”
The assessment involved Rodney at the “Wo” level.
So I interrupted. “Wait! Hurt is the actual word Dostoyevsky uses. We’re not just thrill seekers. Isn’t our job a point of symbolic pride proving this is, without a doubt, utopia? Then grinning bigger I said, “If only humankind saw themselves when they look right through us in the crosswalks.”
Rodney spoke for the masses. “You’re delusional Greenway. This is definitely not utopia. The world is messed up.”
I feigned incredulousness saying, “This ain’t utopia? I see.”
But Rodney believed, “You need a beer.”
So Jim and Pam agreed, laughing. “You’re delusional,” she said, and him, “No one believes this is utopia.”
I said, “I hardly question it. Look around. This is it. All the machines and merchandise for our convenience. Social advancements. We’re surrounded by miracles barely imagined by our ancestors’ science fiction. Utilities improve, but we’ve arrived. And so, I don’t know about ya’ll but, I am proud to live in this era that doesn’t yet realize all there’s left to do is clean up the crap.”
Pam however wasn’t easily amused or prone to tethering debate by obligating her whole face and being to unrelinquishable positions. Her concession was, “Cuteness will bite you in the ass someday. But jealous of what? One smart-ass Greenway out of office?”
While there my memory of the party fades in awe of Dostoyevsky. Because before realizing what he meant by what he wrote, I always felt people were against any theory I might have. But sharing this one of Fyodor’s, and thought preposterous, convinced me utopia’s yardstick is hardship undertaken in the cradle of luxury. Seems I was a fool though, revering cyclist sacrifice as gospel. Setting myself up as overly anxious and proud to give Dr. Armand Hammer a healthy dose of a commoner’s point of view. From one of toughing it out alone’s other breeds. Because when it comes to thriving for publicity, there’s an American tradition that, even unprovoked, we the people can be very derisive of celebrity. I wasn’t a fellow partisan needing waved through by the bourgeoisie. And thanks to the cleared dregs’ contact high, I felt giddy and full of myself like a cat waking to the night wanting my nose in everything.
But I’m from warmer winters, paradise, Florida. Whereas Dr. Hammer was born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1898. When the tenements were the tenements, and capitalism was from the very bottom. The Hammers were an American triumph migrating north with the city, eventually landing with everyone else successful in the Bronx. Launching Armand here, there, and everywhere. If I assaulted his financial titan’s ruthlessness, his heritage as an offspring of Nineteenth Century believers in socialist change exempted him as his book claims. Sounds about right. The reverse carpetbagger struggling off crumbs from the street, checkmated before I’ve moved. Except by coming to visit, Hammer was sacrificing his comfortably remote back seat where lawyers usually preclude facing the moral price of regret. I welcomed this visit, feeling the bicycle’s entitlement to the same space every mobile-throne feels entitled to charge through. Road encroachment is just stealing in the aristocratic tradition. Finance hedges out less finance. Why wouldn’t Hammer’s vehicle intimidate someone smaller? Forget car lengths. His bumper was at my wheel and for what other reason than arrogance was Hammer’s limousine so close? How the hell else was I catching a fender, manufacturers stopped making, and flying into any freaking car!
But I’d been aggravated already, and over is over so I didn’t care how sorry he was he paid the bill. I was old enough to be tired of substituting rage for the effort to understand. Greeting from the door, his advanced age softened my attitude seeing his large plastic frames I associated with an older generation I grew up respecting. Though both my father and I now wear wire rims, I sympathized with his face’s habitual use skull indentations I later noticed was more severe on the right side of his face. I thought about my father’s uncommon 90-year-old energy and how he mowed our lawn at Hammer’s age. Common ground with the fragile worker awarded the privilege of being among a multimillionaire. I thought about my father and I in the front yard with our lawnmower with the electric chord. How he’d advocated to the seven year old that electricity, without the inconvenient chord, could have polluted less. He led me in the conversation to think up the idea of batteries myself. I said, “Aren’t they like lightning in a box?” And my father actually mentioned the Stanley Steamer, and how in the beginning cars could have gone either way. I remember his look of wonder, how much a child could understand, having only a year or so earlier earned my first penny?
Finally my euphoric stupor engaged with Dr. Hammer’s small talk and I heard the end of his asking, if I’d “been a messenger long?”
My sighed concession, “Too long, it’s not a good career” reeked of weakness.
So with really little said between us, I sensed he’d taken my status into account. Looking successfully down his lifted nose, labeling me foolishness to be gotten out of the way. Seriously, he sniffed at his watch and said, “At least you know” and asked if I minded if he used the phone.
My temperament answered, “Sure. Call the car.” But that wasn’t enough for me. I added, “You’re comfortable attached to the phone, aren’t you?” And, “I haven’t spent a dime of your money on it all day” popped out.
Believe it. My humor didn’t crack his reality. His shaken head gave notice there’d be no more thinking than necessary about career-less schmucks. He was where I wanted him. Finally, my first opportunity to confront a financial titan, it made sense to limber him up. I said to his dissatisfied face, “I follow Dr. Hammer. As long as you’re here, set a busy example. Maybe if I were busier like you, neither of us would be here. My single opportunity doesn’t fulfill your definition of a career.”
Smug, satisfied my jargon finished me off, Hammer said, “Right young man” and lost track of what his watch just said. “I understand you’re bitter.”
Light on my feet I went from the bed to anxiously lean on the window frame, where I said, “Doctor. I’m aware of my situation. Your phone, you pay the tab.”
My impudence was thick. He not only rode into an accident, but walked into a trap. Who’d have ever thought powerful Dr. Armand Hammer ever fidgeted in his seat? I took some steps to stop him from getting up and stepping in the open to leave. But Hammer’s shell could withstand this. Still I think he honestly came expecting a decent conversation, when I wasn’t anything like gatherings where art is applauded. His conspicuous blink shielded feelings the way poker players keep their hands close. Meaning it’s dangerous to assume competitors are friendly. I sensed an inkling of nice was needed because Hammer ate people like me for lunch.
I said, “At least,” and looked him in the eye but he stopped me.
Dr. Hammer said, “You’re aggressive young man but I’m not ready yet to just beat a cripple with a stare. You put words in my mouth, when I just asked to use the phone. Yes I’m paying. But common courtesy dictates your offering its’ use. Your mother didn’t teach you manners?”
Then caring less Dr. Hammer consulted a day-planner from his jacket as if I’d never mattered. So I was upset when a target loomed and I shot a piece of pencil Rodney broke earlier. Wrongly thinking everything with beer in it was cleared away, the toss beat the clock from across the room swishing in a plastic cup that was knocked off the television into the wall. Bang smash, brilliant, I over-enjoyed it. I said, “Notice the swish carried the cup from the bottom to get it all the way to the wall? Otherwise it could have just tipped and poured all over the floor.”
He was so angry I out-angered him. I said, “My actions are deplorable.” Then sunk another that rattled the inside of the plastic trashcan. “I should be kicked out. I can’t defend actions, but words are all the time. People hide behind them. Words are our shields. What could I say that would mean anything when you’re already well defended by mere words?”
Wow, lifetimes of stable careers would never accomplish as much as I had egging on Dr. Armand Hammer. I called him “a gravitater among the world’s self-confident financial majesties in their whipped up suit and tie frenzy.”
Then our silences were as insulting as his dramatic grunt as he rose from his chair.
I pushed. “You survived an absurd past. I don’t really care. But I have beefs.”
He shook his head.
I said, “No, I’m serious Dr. Hammer. I don’t care. You followed opportunity, and life is ruthless and capitalism’s merit is wonderful. There is no other choice. Economics is reality but politics are a disaster. The unlucky aren’t fast enough to get far enough away from their devalued expendability. You and I are lucky to have not been a part of that much poverty. Our families left legacies. You a business, me an education through the sale of my family’s home that put me through college, with a little help from our Veterans Administration and Social Security friends.”
Hammer smirked. Smug. Dole boy, he may have thought, however his head wrapped around that. I turned back to the corner to ignore him, but my shoulder tapped the window frame causing my voice to sound even more anguished. As if I was very mad, was how “Ow, yeah choices” sounded so I thought I may as well be harder. I said, “The under and overworked and ill educated hear all about maturity before, during and after it’s too late. Economic acquisition is a tough sport, where if you’re not established as a teenager your major league career is over. But never out of the economic minor leagues shouldn’t destroy people.”
Hammer said, “Yes young man, competition is hard. But you know it’s never too late.”
I must have known because I said, “We’ve all met exceptions. But how many really remind us of ghetto born truants? Our exceptions don’t make us great. The opportunity for everyone would.”
That’s when Hammer’s face twisted, meaning he’d dealt with my kind abusing his time before. In fact, I’m sure having his ethics questioned was second skin to him. The way his hand reached out for my patience to allow him to speak. Then how he stepped to the door nodding he was going out. I followed, so he tried to stiff-arm me. Which wasn’t so necessary, but my cue to shut the door and lure him back.
I said, “Best closed. I might be angry Dr. Hammer.”
He said, “I just tried to help. Now you involve me in your derangement?”
I said, “Ah, the business ploy of confusing confidence with intelligence.”
He kept the door’s guardianship by keeping his hand on the knob, gaping me up and down. Evidently considering me ineffectual but lucky to have touched some nerve, he again contrived a little friendliness toward his charity case saying, “I understand confined to a hospital is no picnic.”
He enjoyed hearing, “Dr. Hammer” so I repeated it. “Leaving for an elite club Dr. Hammer?”
“No,” he said. “I was meeting friends. But now home to sleep seems better. It’s late. I’m not young anymore, young man. Good bye.”
I scowled. “Greenwich Village palace by downstairs limo?”
He opened the door and peaked in the corridor, and waved his hand for me to be quiet. Then whispered because he wasn’t shutting it. “There’s a driver. But I let go of that man from your accident. He was hired for this trip. My usual chauffeur is always more cautious. I was never comfortable with him. Now I really should go call the people who’re waiting.” Then he paused as if to make sure I wouldn’t follow while, I waited with my arms crossed. And I guess as some sort of victim, he felt obligated to care. He took two steps forward to back to behind the chair and, with another wave, said, “Last chance.”
I hopped on the bed pretending to be curious about the TV remote. I don’t like being shifty and felt bad thinking I was. I said, “Hearing me out will cause you less difficulties than if you leave. Please sit. If you stand, I’m under a time limit. I know you’re being nice to me, but I’d still like no constraints.”
He said, “OK.” But, kept standing on his own time.
I said, “How at fault was your guy? Was he to blame?”
He said, “I see.”
I said, “You see?”
He said, “Of course, it’s obvious.”
I said, “Yes it is. The aggressive traffic system allows accidents to happen. I never hate the individual. Though that person who ran the red light was obviously wrong. Our culture was naturally seduced by the car. Hey. But what if musicians had culturally led us listening to other impulses? What if The Police sang, ‘Don’t run the red light’ instead of asking Roxanne not to put hers out?”
From Dr. Hammer’s look of disgust, the middling joke flew right past him. But instead he said, “Not surprising you accommodate irresponsibility.”
“Yeah,” I said, realizing my mallet was heavy and used it anyway. “I use a scale where what happens matters, Dr. Hammer. Our mistake wasn’t an accident. It was a Statistically Acceptable Tragedy. Our college entrance exam is not America’s most important SAT test. Our most important is the fudged result that any amount of tragedy is satisfactory. Societal Russian Roulette. Spin the cartridge. Hit the gas. Figures show not enough die to dispense with this collision nonsense. Don’t bother wondering how many of your celebrity friends have been victims of the machine.”
Handling me conventionally, Hammer said, “What has this to do with me?”
I said, “You’re an industrial statesman and player who’s afforded to ignore overall improvement. A cog fueling the vast conspiracy that avoided logical space management by utilizing the train at moderate rates. Your era’s mistake was making the train inconvenient. Replacing the train industry robber barons with personal car hoods. Exploiting convenience disabled our nation with traffic. Look at how the hub Detroit was blindly never in the transportation business. Their city’s suburban overlords strategically abandoned their home to fossil fuel. Overdosing the entire country on fumes. Profit potential superseded potential profit. Scavenging the earth’s resources gives us the business. Watch Doctor. The bicycling Chinese have begun duplicating our prosperity. It’ll be Shakespeare’s omen that we can’t see the forest for the trees. Translated as where’s the parking lot for all the cars?”
Hammer said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Mocking me, or the past. History is not a cardboard cutout.”
I let my answer be a question. “Conglomerates don’t contest the earth’s spoils?”
So Hammer said, “I see poor bike messenger. You resent my company Occidental’s substantial size. But there are bigger. I think you chose to be a victim. I’m sure no one told you to bike message. You’ve fought yourself young man. Exactly as you said earlier. Sell something. Diversify. The marketplace is not a battlefield.”
“Yet,” I said, “applicable verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, and nouns are identical. Ha! I read your autobiography. How Occidental Petroleum fell in your lap by accident and marriage. You’re not joshing me. Luck is made. But really. I have no gripe with you. Worked your whole life, weren’t lazy, was almost a doctor.”
“I am a doctor.”
“Barely Dr. Hammer. You admit in print you never practiced. But don’t belittle the Occidental Petroleum man you are. The more consumed, the better entrepreneur. And still, I care less. You have nothing to be entirely ashamed of. Your ghosts are as ridiculous as everyone else’s. Every success requires degrees of ruthlessness that”
Hammer slammed his foot. “Ashamed! Finish your self-righteousness. Life owes nothing. I made my way. You wasted opportunity. Have you tried?”
I said, “Yes sir. Wasted what I didn’t want. Maybe my pursuit of less is misplaced? But less better was never in your way. Why do you resent I’m just a bike messenger?”
“Oh,” he said “I understand. You are swayed by outdated philosophy.”
I snapped back. “I adhere to none. Ah, but if anyone knows what passed for truth and wasn’t, you might. So tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
“Some advertised myth, wrapped in convenient truth, from the great propaganda war. You know. Something like cigarettes satisfy but don’t kill you right away. Or, to purge society of its’ lackluster, Stalin developed Soviet industry by clearing out the talent so the mediocre could thrive.”
Hammer cleared his throat, portraying himself with seriousness. He said, “I could say huh, Mr. Greenway. But I know what you mean. Public relations are a necessary device for a corporation. The real world is lions and tigers and bears.
You have to defend yourself from competition. Now, so, what are you framing me for?”
I said, “Ha, Doctor. Your money’s yours. My problem is your ilk profits from inflation’s rise that squeezes less economy for the truly poor portion to participate.”
Hammer said, “Your problem is big business.”
I said, “No, not at all. That’s your money. The problem is calculating for inflation contributes to profit destroying full access. That same little bit of money becoming worth less every day affects the poor more than it ever has you.”
“Yes young man. Huh is what one says to someone completely off the wall. You criticize, but make some money. That’s how your world changes.”
“Cast off with a cliché Doctor? I repeat. There’s enough money. But even financial reasons are excuses when solutions are ignored for other satisfactions. For instance keeping up with or ahead and not bothering to solve inflation.”
Dr. Hammer said, “I’m tired young man.” And grinned at the floor aware he couldn’t be prosecuted as responsible. “But,” he said, “before I go, let’s look at you.” Then he delivered the kill. “Your insurance even passed on paying for last night.”
So I asked, “You wouldn’t come to my place?”
He smiled as if he’d won and said, “I’d wait on the other coast.” Then amused and satisfied, which wasn’t how I wanted him, he said, “Young man economics works.”
I said, “No, economics can also not work. It can in fact fall all over itself. Why doesn’t the medical debate include the ratio of medical professionals to those at the trough? I’m not saying the problem is all the hands in the till, Dr. Hammer. Because I am trying to put across that I’m for more the merrier. I just want the results the Hippocratic oath promises. I think medical professionals should be the rich, while Medicine’s management verges on fraud.”
Hammer smirked and said, “Sounds like a laborer with time to think about their exploitation.”
I said, “Sure. Why stop automobile roulette when auto insurance is so rewarding. Daylong cyclists are accidents waiting to happen. Cost easily calculated. A win-win situation all around, all around, dot dot dot. But is all this calculating paperwork really medicine?”
“Dr. The medical industrial complex is too complex if we can’t calculate affordable cost. Machines are used based on profit, and not the number of patients they could serve. Accountants know cost, but only in relation to what cost needs to read. So hospitals retail Band-Aids for a fortune. Bending reality to the figures, instead of figures to reality. Have you stood outside downstairs watching the patients’ faces exit those front glass doors? The horror is the figures running through everyone’s head that have no relation to quality their minds should be around. Your largesse relieves me of financial pressure? Outside, I’m meat, lame for victimizing all over again Dr. Hammer.”
Hammer sighed. “Finally Mr. Greenway. But compensation is where we call lawyers. Now you can afford one, so I pay because you don’t have a better job, eh? Attack my career to set up your payday. Good. Let me hear your story, if you have one?” Then Hammer concluded by stretching his legs as if this was fun, and even considered sitting down.
But I said, “You’re not here to listen. You’re here to see if your charity was worthwhile and you know it wasn’t. What’s irritating is everyone needing this kind of help can’t get it. Too expensive to care doesn’t make sense.”
“Sir. Why with so many doctors doesn’t everyone have at least one? The bitterness of the less deserving didn’t fool your family once, and shouldn’t now. The myth of distribution is bullshit.”
Hammer said, “There you are young man. The old dying issue solved by private enterprise’s legitimate pursuit of profit. I’m afraid I have to go.”
I said, “I’m afraid too. Wouldn’t want an oral agreement in the lawyers’ way.” Egging him on still, I said, “Good riddance, Dr. Hammer. Because I can’t candy coat certain things. You meant well meeting me, but your ulterior motives reek.”
He should have been gone twice before. But his shrewd streak, yet again, conjured another conciliatory gesture phrased to not appear to be running out on legitimate debate. Looking at his autobiography lying on the night table, he said, “I understand. My family believed in Socialism and I lived the American Dream.”
I said, “I read how your family pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. But ya wanna know what stuck with me?”
He said, “I don’t care.”
And because I jumped to the floor, he couldn’t open the door since I promised to yell all the way to his car.
Sitting back on the side of the bed, I said, “Nice. Trustee money. By all means protect your reputation. But believe me. I’m glad you’re staying to hear what caught my attention in your book. This is worth any amount of money you might have wanted to lay on me. Seriously. I wouldn’t touch your money. I’d rather make my own.”
Taunted, his shackles were up as his status and pride could never allow my defiant attitude headway. He scowled with a noise to tell me I hadn’t earned his valuable time.
I insisted with my hand he should sit. But he kept his head start at the door.
I said, “I read a you between the lines you’re hiding from. Though she grew a tough skin like you too, you confided in your mother’s early days she was as devoted to socialism as Rosa Luxembourg herself. So noting her devotion, my imagination conjured elements of meaning together and I think I saw something that happened one day in her kitchen when your pride was gushing after making your first million.”
Dr. Hammer said, “Fine, enough. Many things have been made up about me. Why I set the record straight in the book. Your two cents however, prove valueless.” Then he resorted to hospital tradition by asking me to, “Please stay in bed. I was mistaken getting so involved. For some reason you’re under tremendous strain. Maybe you need more tests? Lay down, please?”
His mother had touched a vein so I poked. “Remember when you three teenage Hammer kids were sent away in your teens? When you lived with separate families of socialist comrades. Then you came back home as young adults and your absences must have relieved a lot of distraction around the house for your parents? But from those years lived elsewhere, I felt an ambivalence towards her I embraced and that’s when I saw this moment in her kitchen you must regret.”
Hammer said, “Don’t get personal. You have no right. But I will clarify what is picked at in my family history. Probably that’s where your twisted anger is from. It was a coincidence I was home when my father funded the American Communist Party. His left-Socialist faction voted to become Communists and my father just tried doing the right thing. There were public revelations I suppose you’re too young to know. But decades ago famous former Communists were quoted saying my father was an ambitious outsider in commercial society when Jews weren’t
allowed to be members of the WASP clubs. My father was gregarious and went to meetings to socialize as much as anything else. He saw society should progress, while being a businessman. We saw eye-to-eye in ways my mother and I never could. But don’t mock her.”
I said, “Yes sir. But however close you weren’t, that particular boasting, that afternoon, right after you were officially rich, in your mother’s kitchen, she appreciated your family’s advantages through her real memories of people with nothing. Making it easier for her to relate to being sad for the poor. But with that million in your pocket, you were feeding off your jazz age pride. Young Armand’s chest must have been puffed out of this world feeling all that great wealth was all your own. Your father did more than leave you in charge while he was up the river in Ossining State Prison. He made you king of the Hammer fortune. So you arrogantly laughed at what your mother thought you could share. Even then you had to be a dynasty. I know she learned callousness. But that disillusioning day, after trying to slap you, she cried over her kitchen sink. Yes it was only money, and now a lot more. But you were accustomed to only comforting yourself, and those distanced years made it hard to comfort her. You must have just stood there.
“Everyone, Doctor, gets caught up in their success, and you asserted yours laughing at your mother and making her cry. Your claim of benevolence is convenient. You were hard, and why not? You knew business ethics is conquer or be conquered. I think before you decided to exploit a magnanimous gesture with that ambulance to the Soviet Union, linking yourself with history, collecting debts for your father, your laughter made your mother’s crying extremely hard on her in your kitchen. While you couldn’t help laughing because no one person can change anything. But mothers care. She’d personally felt suffering you might have read about. While you with your paved American future of ever-blossoming Bronx opportunity were distanced from humility. So what if you knew early that the communist dream was impossible? You were just a businessman. But you haven’t, as claimed, brought nation states closer except to negotiate a better rate for your international phone calls. I may as well say it. It was after Stalin’s Bolsheviks killed Nepmen, for having wealth again, that you traveled out of town first class. On top, same as in your mother’s kitchen. No, you couldn’t save the world but pretended to try. Just a backscratcher who made your mother cry.”
He wanted to berate me but hadn’t heard much more than his provoked mother’s memory. His eyes were slits facing me down with every membrane of
pride to let me have it for my gall. But he couldn’t see me. The kitchen anecdote dredged up a piece of conscience that, however true, made his mother loom like cataracts across his pupils in a distant stare. Strapped in his time machine-chair where I left him and he’d thought he’d escaped countless times. Left in that lonely room with his hindsight of streaming tears. I was glad Hammer’s money afforded him the privacy to suffer alone that pain we all endure when we can’t speak with who we want to hear from most. Not a day goes by I don’t miss my mother. I thought his shaking in his mother’s presence had placed him in a living hell.
It’s uncomfortable facing myself too, but it must be done. I turned off the television’s volume in the empty lounge and stared out the window myself unaware of First Avenue’s potential view. Looking for peace inside, I tried feeling for more than my lame arm bandaged across my chest. Then, believe it or not, my eyes reopened on somewhere distant, out there, on something other than inside me, and the avenue’s endless stream of glittering red brake lights seemed to sooth my mesmerized eyes in a comfortable trance. My fuming subsided into remorse that Hammer might not have completely deserved my barrage, though he’d profited by feeling his mother. So though my explanation wasn’t gladly received, nor crap all his fault, it’s easier to be humble when right. But I couldn’t apologize seeing him wasted in that chair. I didn’t want to go in. However the gown in public settled me on eventually becoming now. Then just from his defeated glare at the floor, suddenly an idea sparked like I’d seen fireflies swarming inside my head. Reminding me of that night, from my early childhood, surrounded by fireflies in Uncle Tony and Aunt Maria’s backyard.
Definitely awakened by my memory, I stepped in the room and said, “Dr. Hammer. Your mother would appreciate an altruistic gesture.”
Hammer’s head popped up as if he’d been faking. He rose, saying, “I waited to tell you you’re repulsive. Keep your ideas. I’m going.” Then he angrily pushed past me. “Don’t manipulate me,” he snapped, and even mindlessly swung at my injury because I blocked the door.
He was in my face so I said, “You’re too rich to even fake being sad.”
He said, “I’m leaving. I’ll call the nurses.”
I said, “Mothers aren’t gotten over.”
He said, “Young man.”
I tried sounding more fed up. I told him to, “Stop laying that old man crap on me. I’ll grant your distinguished years afford your indifference to walk right
out-a-here. But till you’ve heard me out, I will chase you to the street in this nightgown.”
He expected staring through me to clear me out of the way.
But I said, “Make like you don’t understand no one can really guess what’s in your head.”
He reached for the door.
I said, “Our mothers would appreciate this.”
He said, “You can’t aggravate me anymore.”
I was dismissed. Except my euphoric insult, “We’ll start a business that doesn’t just dig giant holes” alerted his hearing and, “The Hammer and Cycle Messenger Service” enabled our handshake deal over his mother.
Light from the rising Sun has reached the little window from between the trees. Reminding me I’d rather be outside than in this attic imagining how everything is from inside. The standoff between the Kremlin and Russian White House can’t be the result sought by the State Committee for the State of Emergency in the U.S.S.R. However, their spectacle started awry by being a more drunkenly brave than commanding power television appearance. Reflecting yesterday losing its’ grip on tomorrow. Desperation compelled this, better late than never, conspiracy of individuals to replace the vacationing President Gorbachev. The country had changed but former General Secretary couldn’t get out from under the political labyrinth positioned to grab power back. Swallowing his last compromise Union Treaty that would have made the Soviet Republics a commonwealth of independent sovereign nations. Indeed.
Our company was here earlier, whispering in a circle, in the dark, on the floor. I’ve never really been comfortable as chief before. But have since learned to appreciate leadership’s role as a balance held from the helm. Especially in the dark I made out their sympathy for the coup. Their feeling was palpable. That a nation-state is admirable to hold onto and identity hard to let go. And there was nothing to do so I distracted the Hammer Cyclists with tales from my life left behind in the democratically controlled United States of America. Where no matter how close to poor I’d been, Soviets endured worse. Three quarters of a century, for the most part, searching empty shelves for what they couldn’t use. Their lives were resourcefully built around a barter puzzle. Shrewdly developing opportunities for trade any way they could. And though it was true that, like anywhere in the world, the majority traded similar circumstances, having more influence made purchasing anything possible in this land of better equals. Notice Mercedes aren’t built in Africa either, yet they’re there. Economic culture has coasted on an imbalance, strengthening those already capable of helping themselves crush the perpetually weak underneath prosperity’s prestige.
Ha! Speaking of prestigious prosperity. I recounted for the group again how Dr. Hammer tried using me to impress or irritate a lawyer he wasn’t able sign for himself. So I gravitated to that lawyer. I re-described for them how what I wanted was respect without Dr. Hammer’s influence. How as a millionaire’s appendage, I’m a dilettante, when I wanted to battle the economic war not play with it. But beggars can’t be choosers, so the lawyer arranged for my ticket to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport that was built for the 1980 Olympics boycotted by the United States. Plus I was provided basement office space in the Mezhdunarodnaya Hotel that Dr. Hammer also had Occidental build for the Olympics President Carter dedicated to Afghanistan.
Hello, I’m the lawyer.
Clients who count their own hours couldn’t be put on hold just for Dr. Hammer’s project. So his thirty-something bike messenger friend waited in the foyer. Our receptionist hated groveling by asking a “bike guy” to wait. But this Greenway character would drop by without an appointment when I had no time, so the personal visits had to stop. The gall behind treating my time as spur of the
moment. It’s one thing for aggressive grunt workers to sift like ants through mailrooms, and a complete other when they contact you whenever they want. The situation was out of our hands even if we wanted to be nice. But Mr. Greenway’s impertinence was calculated for kicks, as was my seeing him a stunt. Dr. Hammer had tried at least twice to entice me to his legal team. Once buying in to resolve a zoning problem in my neighborhood so I moved, and this time there was a face to turn down.
In the foyer Mr. Greenway discarded normal introductions. He said, “Real slick for handshake ceremonies” and hustled ahead to show me my pace was too slow. The receptionist had to talk to keep him there, and since he wouldn’t sit he saw where my door was at the end of the hall where he stopped to clear his throat, as if for something important. Instead I passed him to go in first while he grinned at my Individualist of the Year plaque on the hall’s opposite wall, given earlier that day by our firm’s liberal majority of comedians.
I conference professionally and tossed off our last chance for initial cordiality. Ignoring him as I went behind my desk with my hand out offering a seat. But, from the middle of my carpet, he was taking in the floor to ceiling bookcase walls of legalese he probably couldn’t differentiate from phone books. Who’s to know what some street vagabond thinks, and what are rational circumstances for a person with grease on their pants to undertake serious business?
Looking at me, Hank waited for my train of thought to finish, then said, “I don’t want anyone’s money. I want mine.” Then he asked for permission to stand behind my desk and look askance through my windows at the New York Stock Exchange. He squinted in the late afternoon sun that just reaches the upper floors. He said, “Packaged by Hammer won’t illustrate capitalism from the bottom up. The ninety-year old doesn’t need me to make money. I want to at least try to make a negligible dent from inside the wet paper political bag.”
Then, thinking we’d never see each other again, he left with that quick attitude. “I want nothing from him and thanks for the view.”
But Hank needed help, so my office accepted his plane ticket after the doctor threatened to sue the name away from him if he didn’t open by September 1, 1990 in Moscow. I thought it was a joke. But Hank sent letters to “every Corporate Sponsor of Public Television, and not one wanted to even be abstractly involved with a business plan proposed by someone who barely paid rent.” In the year since
their traffic accident Mr. Greenway paid Manhattan prices alone on his laborer’s salary just to have writer’s seclusion. That hadn’t turned a corner, so squeaking by made no sense.
Finally, the day before his flight to Moscow was due, Hank answered my message left for weeks with his courier service. On the phone, needing a favor from me, he still made fun of my being from Park Avenue when I told him where we’d meet.
Hank said, “Living among the presumably poor starving artists in a loft below Canal, huh? Personally uptown’s conservative flash just doesn’t have downtown’s discreet crumbling façade charm of today’s glamorous furnishings hidden where trees were entirely forgotten by the zoning board.”
Sweeping assessments aside, Hank didn’t have that larger than life, worldly appeal, well-sold celebrities usually inspire. Just near average height with a paunch never trimmed doing sit-ups. He caught me looking him up and down at the office and bragged, “I’ve had the tummy since a teenager, no matter how long I work. Swim teammates called me Pillsbury Doughboy. Exercise that’s not a chore bores me, so I was lucky to become a bike courier.”
From my third floor apartment I saw Hank ride up and lock across Franklin next to Franklin Alley, then walk the alley to White. So I lost him until he buzzed at precisely 9PM as if we were both listening to the same radio news station I turned off at the gong. From our phone conversation his benefactor Hammer was still an adversary, while I was sure I wanted nothing more to do with either of them. Hammer trying to be everyone’s friend, and Greenway’s lineage from and repackaging of the same old long-standing utopian quest. Isn’t everyone a simple missionary for pervasive affluence?
I watched his slow lope up my building’s steps, that had me guess he conserved energy when not pedaling. Then at my third floor apartment’s second floor entrance, Hank stopped stunned in tanned disbelief looking up at me at the top of the stairs inside my third floor apartment entered from where he was on the second. He looked at my second-floor neighbors’ door then came the rest of the way up, but with a little more pep in plain blue Levis jeans and rolled up, long sleeved, white T-shirt.
Hank said, “Wow. New Yorkers dream of getting rid of the useless entrance hall where we stack our possessions.” Then he sighed from behind the banister looking back and forth through the whole apartment. He said, “Luxury’s
emptiness. My hall and whole home is stuffed with junk my landlord says I should remove to get my deposit, he wasn’t offering until he saw all the crap I’m leaving behind. Your home is a vast expanse. This rectangular configuration of couches could form a four-row cinema. And this magnificent entrance is not a hall a tall.” (at all)
A reply from me wouldn’t have mattered to Hank’s plopping at the top of the stairs, launched in vain admiration of my acquired wealth I thought I hid reasonably well.
I said, “My own mother isn’t as happy for me as you.”
Hank said, “Life is a design,” and grabbed the banister and put his face between two prison bars mimicking Jimmy Cagney’s famous mug with roaming eyes. He said, “The view here is an eye-opener Mr. Treynor.”
I said, “This apartment isn’t original.”
Hank made the noise, “Psh. Salvador Dali prepared for the unusual. The rest of us remember. I’d remember this. It looks like stairs to an attic, but much, much more. A third-floor Penthouse.” Then he grabbed the bars again for added celebrity appeal. “Despite our impressive accumulation of knowledge, there’s not been enough mental stimulation to end our need for prison bars. Not that that’s likely, but we should reach beyond the boosterism that identifies enforcement as the goal. Be skeptical Mr. Treynor. Because there’s an element of truth to this conjecture. Justice is more than revenge. Justice would negate the cause of crime.”
I followed Hank to the front windows and said, “Just Franklin, and you’ve seen the alley.”
He answered looking down. “Just Franklin sounds simple like Heaven. But look closer at the alley connecting to White Street. At one time, that middle of the block short cut was a major thoroughfare for thousands of hustlers slipping from sight, pounding out today’s economic framework.”
I smiled. “A foregone conclusion. The modern world is built on the plight of previous generations.”
Hank nodded. “Generations of struggle dishonored by our self-righteously suffocating good citizenship. Standing by letting inflation’s comfortable increase deflate the wealth of the Poor. We sit too heavy on our laurels to stand up for universal prosperity. Yeah I know Mr. Treynor. With the free market battle cry, finally ringing so clearly in our ears. It is time for the next step.”
We both laughed.
Hank said, “I remember that sarcastic individualist of the year plaque in the hall outside your office. I know you’re not in my theoretical choir.”
I said, “After Dr. Hammer begged through my secretary to get me to accept your plane ticket, he called you an ‘unrepentant utopian fanatic.’”
Hank said, “I’m convinced.”
So I asked Hank. “You realize the marketplace for that idea dwindled?”
He dropped his eyes and said, “I’m not arguing. I prefer to think I’m difficult for anyone to persuade. Besides, the ideological marketplace isn’t closed until the corrupted logic is left behind us. Are we really accomplishing major steps, Mr. Treynor? Or carelessly declaring the Cold War over to start another party. A symbolic reshuffling away from the bottom and less deserving underprivileged all over again?”
Hank was convinced people were shorted. So I ignored him to get water from the refrigerator for dampening his Leftism. Pouring I contradicted. “Mr. Greenway. You’re one of the enamored with Gorbachev’s belief that Stalin mismanaged Lenin’s proletarian revolution. Dr. Hammer staked his capitalist credentials to that moniker too. But the command economy is where radicals should come down to earth.
Hank emptied his glass and said, “I know. I’m saying good-bye to New York tonight. I would like for you to ride with me, if you can?”
I was either too surprised or confused to have an excuse. So I just asked, “Where?”
He said, “Everywhere. Have a bicycle?”
Then I responded, “No” too quick, and “My neighbor downstairs offered his.”
So Hank could decide, “If not we can dig one up. And you’ll need a helmet.”
“Helmet?” I laughed. “They said you weren’t wearing one in the accident.”
“Meaning you shouldn’t? We’re touring a dangerously driven city, and you don’t even have your own bike. Obviously you’re not experienced enough to make a no helmet decision. Like protecting children’s softer heads for their own good, you’ll wear one.”
I said, “The humiliation compared to a child.”
He said, “Get over it. Even one of Tom Wolfe’s invincible masters of the universe has to understand overly aggressive driving rules the day. Bike and helmet.”
Hank grinned because my neighbor’s bike was “better.” He took it on his shoulder and locked it to his on the street, while I changed wondering what that controversial Armand Hammer got me into. Hank locked both bikes so his unencumbered mind could wander without watching them.
When I came down I asked. “Why bother?”
Hank said, “Thieves are industrious. Not trusted for a second. Did you appreciate how I yelled ‘hurry up’ to bring the ‘upper stair-ed, upper-crust down to earth?’”
I said, “Uh-huh.”
First we rode eight short Broadway blocks south. “To ride laps in City Hall’s parking lot to get used to the bike without traffic pressure.” While Hank reclined on the front steps during my first sprint around the small lot when the wind felt like joy in my face.
Hank spoke when I passed on the step side. “City Hall is a great spot. East our eyes are drawn straight up the Brooklyn Bridge. While this clear smooth area of rectangular stones is an oasis among giants fronting the city’s debatably most powerful steps.”
It was an extremely nice place there when Hank and I were alone. A less fenced, more openly free environment. Not a palace under siege government buildings can appear to be, and City Hall has become surrounded by barriers today. Back then, when we were there, security just required what looked to be “a person reading in a soundproof booth on Broadway.” Now, for the record, today’s extra fencing still came about in the early nineteen-nineties before the terrorists’ weapon of fear changed the city. It was our next mayor who reconfigured the area with more fencing to assist controlling, by corralling, homegrown protest. A method of control that was even more flagrant when pens were used on the city’s streets for the 2004 Republican National Convention. Contrasted with what’s come to pass since we were there, makes even today’s floodlit and lily-white bright, washed City Hall at night, not quite a reflection of the past’s presence as history was for us that night.
Hank said, “Marvelous marble facade. There’s just something about built with marble.”
He encouraged me to “ride the asphalt fast,” to get it out of my system, because “we’ll be riding slow. But especially slower in the little triangular park.
Idiots ride hard where people expect to walk. I’m against cyclists taking unwarranted liberties.”
Then Hank tested me on the machine by riding along beside me to slow me down. So to save myself from falling, I had to fling my feet to the ground to pass the bicycle crash course in confident balance.
Hank said, “Be prepared to react and not surprised by anything. Except for problems people cause, the bike is humankind’s greatest invention.”
I concurred. “Beyond debate, if you promise not to stop me like that again.”
He just flipped his hand for me to take extra laps, and I did, then joined him on a bench by the fountain at the southern tip of the park. He was sitting, with his head back and right hand holding his crossbar, staring up at the Woolworth Building.
When I sat Hank said, “This is where our country really got going and picked up the steam that sped us over the hump. To our south, there at Ann Street, is the Broadway crossroads where P.T. Barnum’s American Museum was where he devised the boisterous pitches we all fell in behind. While outside here under all the hats, swarmed all the cons imaginable. Drifting but with purpose this country rolled on.”
I was also drawn “by the majestic green copper topped Woolworth to visualize our century’s ambitious beginning.”
I resisted but couldn’t help asking, “That’s why the Woolworth Building makes you cry?”
And Hank answered without touching his tears. “When I was a child my mother used this building’s being built with Woolworth’s nickels and dimes as her generation’s shining example of respecting the value of money. They didn’t call Woolworth’s The Five And Dime for nothing. I think I unnecessarily put the fear in my mother that I might not understand capitalism’s point.”
I wanted less propaganda. I felt great after riding. I decided to aim our discussion and said, “Let’s go to the end of Broadway and see the Statue of Liberty. Freedom’s beacon doesn’t cost anything.”
Hank looked in her direction, but couldn’t of course see her in the harbor through the blocks of buildings. But he said, “I know her majesty by heart. If we were French we’d go see her to honor the gift and ideal for which she was given. Except we’re not skimming America’s glory trail tonight. I’m after what’s under
the surface holding the big top up.” Then he slapped his hands on the bench and said, “Let’s go.”
Hank remembered Park Row’s heyday as Publisher’s Row. “When the competition of free speech took flight as the newspaper industry.” Hank pronounced the Brooklyn Bridge’s elevated ramp above traffic, “The best bike and walkway path I’ve been on in the entire world. I’m afraid of heights, but don’t feel the anxiety so much up there. Above traffic, the possible fall doesn’t feel so far. People say it’s one of the world’s greatest bridges, but I say better. A century old and still modern.”
After pumping up the bridge’s long incline, Hank coasted to the middle to stop. He insisted I should rest because I wouldn’t know I was worn out, till I was worn out. He couldn’t help his nervous energy, and carefully fit his bike snug to the rail before stepping on the pedal to spread his arms spanning, “The humongous island’s immense length of intense light. Incredible what we’ve wrought. So brightly lit may be a waste, but quite a sight. To be able to stand here and feel everything rush underneath, this spot has to be one of life’s miracles.”
I said, “I’ve never thought that stopped in traffic.”
Hank smiled. “Traffic is a bigger distraction than smelling the roses?” But he wasn’t asking and expressed “more of” his “not ordinarily bothered with insight. Of course the consensus is art is in museums. But our crafts are outside. When I came here to live, I knew this was the big city. But right away though, traveling neighborhood to neighborhood, I felt the size less profoundly, until crossing this bridge. The Brooklyn Bridge showed me this city wasn’t just big, but a huge part of the foundation of humankind’s great ambitions. Before that night, I’d only come in and out by the tunnels. So my first time up here was at night, dark with no moon. As pitch black as the lit city gets. A messenger was taking me to his mother’s in Brooklyn for tickets to see Stefan Edberg play in the U.S. Tennis Open. But from Park Row looking up, even wearing my glasses, it was like the bridge went all the way to the top of the pylons. Up at the top where the metal cables are strung through to hold up the road. I couldn’t focus. Then wouldn’t look. Something about how huge this gentle giant appeared at night, disoriented me. I thought the ramp went that high into the sky, and no way was I going up there. My friend laughed because I insisted I wouldn’t go as I’ve always been afraid of heights. My body goes all soft and squiggly inside feeling drawn to the edge to fly, knowing I’d just fall. Eventually my friend’s assurances focused my eyes to see the people
portion of the bridge wasn’t as far up as I’d thought. Still a long way to the river, but this raised middle walkway above traffic doesn’t feel so great a fall. A wonderful design, except I might like real bike lanes below and this level just for pedestrianing.”
Carried by his soundtrack, Hank kept wondering aloud. “Where are our miracles our ancestors discovered? The last expansive bridge built by Robert Moses, the Verrazano, was only built for cars with no walkway whatsoever. And his extra-long masterpiece, the Triborough, has walkways right beside traffic with a waste-high thin barrier separating you from the mobile thrones speeding by while you’re hurried along in perpetual fear. Also, what about our miraculous telephone that officially placed us in modern times? The courts freed rate wars because competition is truly an incentive. But regulations seem to matter more than citizens, and are a nuisance for those they’re meant to guide. The marketplace is so shrewdly structured, it’s less about all of us than companies finding niches to overprice, period.”
We shrugged shoulders.
Hank said, “The decision maker competition failed us by branding the logical train unreasonable. The planet’s saturated roads soaked of harmony. We know accidents between cars and trains are due to neglecting to build bridges or train trestles that should separate the two systems of travel. So rationalizing, trains are portrayed as inconveniently in our way. Watch a News Broadcast, Mr. Treynor. Commentators will objectively blame individual drivers for mistaken collisions with trains on their tracks. But bridges were invented a long, long time ago. We basically avoided solving a simple problem, that’s a problem because we supposedly preferred subsidizing the automotive industry’s superior convenience. Trains a financial burden? Bah humbug! No doubt pervasive rail was a calculation nightmare, but we’re clearly geniuses at not giving a damn.” Hank grinned and said, “Disagree. You’re a lawyer aren’t you? Attack the bike messenger’s credentials.”
I decided non-certification was an unnecessary point for the moment, and said, “Hank, consider yourself depressing. I was happy exercising dormant joints, while your cynicism has worn out my debating expertise. Look at you, standing there, framed in the bright city lights. Proud of yourself, huh? Picking out what society didn’t get quite right?”
“Right,” he said, hopping on his bike. No victory there. More worlds to conquer, let’s sail.”
So we went carefully back down the bridge to Manhattan because daredevils create accidents on bridges and Hank “had friends hurt.” He rode slow on his brakes and spoke when we stopped in the median at Center Street next to Manhattan Borough Hall.
Hank said, “Considering my belief in the bike’s importance, it’s still hard to encourage anyone to ride. The problem is it’s impossible, without experience, to prepare for everything that can happen. It’s incredible what surviving a fall prepares you for. And not something I’m comfortable advocating. The problem is modern life is too fast for all of us to be ready for anything. Why? Why do so many collide every day, and people are always sorry after their careless excess creates an accident? Can you really not mean to be irresponsible? Unfortunately cycling comrades prove as aggressively reckless as everyone else.”
So then from the bridge’s exit, instead of taking Center north from Borough Hall through the Foley Square courthouses “that replaced the psuedo-criminal swamp Five Points,” we hooked south briefly retouching Publishers Row. Then east on Dover for two blocks, parallel to the bridge, toward the East River, where we took the next turn north on Water Street, that under the Brooklyn Bridge becomes St. James Place for a couple long blocks to where the Bowery starts at Chatham Square where we turned east again on Oliver to find Cherry Street a block from the East River. Where Hank finally spoke while “crescently passing” in front of a car exiting the grocery store’s parking lot.
Hank said, “We’re finding 406 Cherry Street. And I always go around cars no matter what. A lot of people yell watch out for me, but I prefer preparation. My instinct is to make sure I’m ready even if that car jumps forward at me. I can’t tell you how many car doors just grazed my leg since I ran into a couple. I feel safer ready for what people might do, rather than depend on what yelling can produce.”
I said, “Okay Hank.”
Cherry Street dead-ended and Hank said, “A hundred and a half short. The address is obviously approximate further in the LaGuardia Houses. Past this big tree, protected inside this fence. I think someone’s kidding, although the tree does deserve respect.”
The tree appeared to belong to the school on our left that had the scattered paraphernalia of unfinished work strewn around. “Planks of wood and buckets not
even under a tarp.” Nonetheless we contributed to the disorder by slipping the bikes through a hole in the fence so Hank could “stand and deliberate over the big tree.” Impressed with the site’s potential, he admired “the thick tree’s years of dedicated growth. Nice tree. Great location for winter bound classes to talk under in the vibrancy of spring.”
Regretfully, I returned just a few years later to see the tree was paved over to put up a parking lot. And not only that, the space is small as if done just for a very few prestigious cars. When what happened dawned on me, it was as if feeling Hank was punched in the gut.
Anyway after the tree we followed the sidewalk through the LaGuardia Houses. Hank “visualizing Cherry Street’s era of snugly attached buildings. Home to assorted tall tales from this vast city’s depths. When Hammer grew up here, urchins and landlords were really at odds over what the economy could afford to enforce. In contrast our era’s identically tall structures are at calculated angles with these common areas in between similar to small parks with tall walls. Plus more light than the century before could afford. Yet still dim compared to the illumination we saw from the Brooklyn Bridge. A light must be out somewhere.”
And less light could have been why we were easily surprised while approaching a cement bench that was approximately 406 Cherry Street. From an interior corner shadow, a nod greeted us, with the words, “Want something?” Carrying an undertone of suspicion.
Hank even smiled. “No thanks we’re fine.”
But the young man’s front was already up, as if just passing on his way.
The bikes were laid, and Hank spoke only after his frown stared off far enough. He said, “I don’t want to blindly promote the idea illegal drug use is victimless. But because I love this country, and know everyone in it appreciates this nation to some extent, the victimless cliché requires more insight than rules are just made to be broken. We’re not deep enough in the debate preferring that evil empires are doomed. Illegal conspiracies sprout one after another until supposedly someday the public will mature, and we’ll all pay attention to the government’s movie. Then everything will be okay, if we just not feed the ruthlessness. In the meantime, the most desperate unredeemable criminals fill the drug vacuum replacing the easily defeated, lifestyle political prisoners from earlier rounds. So since life is lived out in stages, what level of combatant do you think finally wins this tragic war? Steroidially deranged enforcers, or whacked out of their riddled
minds deviants, driven by kicks and vulgar thrills? Where we already are. Crime should be over. This adversarial mess is twisted. The fine society based on revenge. The bitter versus righteous. We need to pick apart how money is the heart of every issue. What do you think of this adjustment Mr. Treynor? I think its disgusting criminal justice finances itself. Instead of tickets when people speed or illegally park, take their cars. Let the inconvenience of getting them back cause them to follow the law. Fines are an excuse to break the law. Taxes should pay for criminal justice, that’s it.”
I said, “Outlandish.”
Hank said, “Yes I agree. Expanding the towing service system pushes the feasible.” He snickered. “So now I’ll use the politicians’ tactic of skirting the issue, using their lawyers’ rule of only asking questions when they know the answer. Where are we?”
I said, “406 Cherry.”
He snickered again. “Yeah, Dr. Hammer was born right here in the family’s apartment, May 21st, 1898. According to the doctor’s book, this development replaced what replaced the decrepit tenement situation Hammer was born in. Exposed, or rather popularized, by photographer Jacob Riis, because everyone knew what poverty was, but it was less easy to lie about with pictures going around.”
“According to Dr. Hammer?”
Hank gleamed. “My source for his birth is his last autobiography. I’m not the one who sprinkled grains of salt on everything he said. Looking into his life these last months, there’s one theory I’ve grown fond of. Hammer had auto-slash-biographies written about himself in several eras to remain current. Might have been overcompensation for his fear from the curious. Or maybe at least four books happen when you live that long, and get those extra years. What do you know?”
I said, “Speculation.”
Hank answered, “That’s the historians’ route. No incontestable variable.”
“So,” I said. “Hank I’m assuming, third hand of course, that Dr. Hammer was born here.”
“I don’t know which floor?”
“Have pictures? I’d like to see the tenements.”
Hank smiled and said, “There you go. Remember those flat marvelous images of depth revealing reality’s limited hope. Blank eyes stamped on dirty faces, trapped in a time when opportunity was taking chances.”
“Eloquent charity board banter,” I said. “Ever sat on one?”
Hank looked at the sliver of river through the buildings again and said, “Wish we were back then when life’s thrill wasn’t just zest for danger. It was survival’s desperate reach. I can’t get over how calm their less fair competitive world appears in photographs. Still, their intensity is what our tensions evolved from. Anxious social relationships, worn on their shoulders, seem less troubled than our happy smiles.”
He paced in front of me fitting his feet between the cracks and said, “Julius Hammer’s son likes making connections. I don’t. It doesn’t matter that you disagree with Hammer. Because you’d probably agree with his other lawyers that I refused to deal with. I’m sloppy. Humph. Hammer knew I’d be difficult, so he started with a team led by a nice woman. Then subsequent attorneys offered my last chance. By the looks on all their faces, building capitalism from the bottom up is like digging for dirt on Mars. Yep. I could have taken the money, then got cold feet and be left with something to stake myself to here. But the hammer and cycle is a real emblem. He wanted to sell shirts to be more famous. I want the symbol to always mean more than just fabric. I lose my sincerity if profit is my personal bottom line. There was a reason I became a bike messenger and it wasn’t to make a fortune by accident with a millionaire.”
He still kept his stare on the sliver of East River and said, “Doubt me Mr. Treynor? We get nowhere without skepticism. Tell me I create my own frustrations. Worked too hard for a lot less was part of the Soviet tradition, wasn’t it?”
I said, “You have your own business now.”
Hank said, “Just do it, yes. I confess I believe that too. That the poor should break free of the resentment of wealth they’re saddled with. The grudge they’re accused of, whether defended by clichéd do-gooding Democrats or self-serving Republican criticism. This pair of political platforms we’re expected to buy into, that’s not thought further through. Convenient toy, liberal-conservative.”
“Try this, Mr. Treynor? Our great California ranch President Reagan labored through a privileged young life during the destituted Depression. The financial
lapse that ruined the old and raised the young to worship their bootstraps, even he admits as a sports announcer wasn’t his struggle of the less fortunate. I don’t disagree with the individualist ideal. There’s just limits to this whole idea that if people are pushed hard enough by circumstances they’ll be better people.” He grinned. “I’m trying to see how mad I can make you.”
I said, “Hank, you like to dig. But idealism can cast shadows over realistic expectations. The system is the system. But before arguing further, and I forget, you should take the investment money. I can arrange it.”
And he said, “No” immediately. “Profit should be a really good deal for everyone. Top down fortune management is accurate, but gibberish that our economy suffers when the dominant stumble. That’s not a complete economy. But everything is in place. We’re solving gaps, moving forward. Charity feeds the masses. Let’s go Mr. Treynor. My company’s name means I’m in this for the weakest, and I faintly hear the baby Hammer’s cry in my ears. He already has his share.”
Now this was an opening. I said, “Hank, it’s logical to change welfare’s flaws. Your explanation won’t float with the American public. Everyone knows welfare failed, and especially you agree incentive is the simple answer.”
Hank pounced. “Right. Since the ideology harped on it for years, how couldn’t it be true that when given things the poor lose sight of incentive? But capitalism shouldn’t just be about deserving the pursuit of happiness. Money will never inflate enough to solve a crisis. So I complain about circulation. Nitpicking? While welfare reform and progress your ideology denies slowing for decades, is now your idea. The whitewashing of American History. Isn’t that what those dreaded communists did? Blame an economic class. Disgusting how the Poor’s selfish welfare enterprise mimicked the abuses of the rich. How dare they?”
Hammering away there was no room except for him.
Hank said, “But generations are like snake’s skin. Layers peel away, replaced by fresher slogans denying responsibility for the past. Contradictory evidence is erased from different historical points of view. Society forgets. Hey I love William F. Buckley Jr.’s conservative stand that evolved our rocking horse political process forward. But I’m disappointed he loves his popularity so much that he barely renounces his team’s more clearly identified prejudices. Those generations that Republicans made sure only the absolute poor qualified for welfare. Part-time, piecemeal labor made citizens ineligible. The working poor.
Blaming the losers and crediting themselves with pragmatism, to me, is just excuses for the free market not being entirely free. But then no one’s asking me.”
I said, “Until you can explain. Till then I suggest you build a business. Forget about the bottom rising.”
Hank laughed throwing up his arms. “I must be wrong that we overshot utopia. We’re not just too imperfect. There must be something completely better. I must plead when I pray and never say thank you. Mr. Treynor, I can’t ignore this is paradise if inflation’s whip weren’t so lacerating. Dispute this? The key is welfare wasn’t wasted as long as money circulates. The welfare dime couldn’t have been wasted as long as money moves. Money has a much broader life than as an individual sum. Except basically welfare money flows up, streaming back from consumer purchases and damnable addictions to eventually sit satisfyingly engorged by the corporate economy. Sitting, compounding as enormous cash reserves claiming to trail inflation to survive. I can’t argue inflation isn’t an incentive for growth. But come on, huh Mr. Treynor? Recirculation trickling horizontally doesn’t complete the economic cycle. Standing back from where I am, everyone is bitter when it comes to economics. Charity, what is it good for, absolutely everything.”
Oh well, I thought as we grabbed the bikes. How would he round out the bottom line? But then we were stopped in our tracks, listening to someone for so relatively long before we actually saw him turn the corner. A too skinny man-child appeared barely able to balance his bouncing head on his withered youth. Sniffling in beat to each and every nervous step he took.
He didn’t care we were there and asked if we were, “Waiting for the man?”
But Hank’s tone was instantly argumentative. “Does it look like we are?” Apparently he only claimed to tolerate and pity everyone.
The poor addict shuffled his shoulders and, of course, sniffed be fore saying, “No. But habits begin somewhere.”
“Everything ends,” the victim of self-destruction said.
So Hank told him, “Your damned pusher-man left calmly in no hurry to find you.”
“Why pick on me?”
“Because you’re avoiding picking on yourself. Why let what you enjoyed once, destroy you now? There’s nothing left to see, find or feel in that experience. You’re proving the government right trying to protect you from yourself.”
The addict said, “Ah yeah right. I have to agree. But right now, he’s not coming back till you leave. Aren’t you going?”
The poor soul had no way of knowing that was like asking a rabbi, mullah, priest, minister, or guru for a moment of their time. I felt sorry for the kid. His bugged eyes receding shinelessly from within twin dark caverns. Shooting out for resolution to his body’s troubled state of chemical despair.
Hank poked at the boy’s mind. “Explain why you give up? I’ve felt this anguish before. My friend Ritchie killing himself, made your mistake, accepting the pain. But think how everyone perseveres through disappointment. Practically becoming someone else if we have to, to survive. Survival is a privilege. Take care of yourself.” Then to not stare Hank spoke, looking at his bike. “But the creative escape must come from you. Your deadened dependency is your poor substitute for feeling. You gave up on who you didn’t become. And now this escape no longer brings happiness. It’s the means by which you’re miserable most of the time. Except for that momentary rush of comfort when the drug first enters your veins. You’re not bothering enjoying feeling anything anymore. Just maintaining an awkward nothingness.”
Then the man, Hank previously advocated lenience toward, returned and jumped in himself, near enough to Hank for concern. He yelled in a whisper. “Hey! What are you telling him?”
“Telling?” Hank asked and drooped his head like the addict’s yielding deference to an adversary. “You tell people who can listen. He only hears the call of malignant comfort. You’re probably not just greedy, because there are better and easier ways to make money. But your adequately funded, stabilized habit means you don’t take this ride together. Life is dragged down by not really caring about each other. This isn’t a solid business relationship.”
The pusher laughed but answered seriously. “I told him to get methadone treatment last week.”
The addict’s eyes were glued to the pusher as if they were by themselves. He said, “Because I begged and begged I had no money.”
Calm, the man said, “I have to support myself. You’ll go elsewhere when I can’t provide.”
“I have money.”
“I know, let’s walk.” Then The Man actually reached out to escort his frailer crippled comrade, while aiming a portion of his grin at Hank.
We rolled the other way then Hank began. “I knew better than to agitate people processed into desperate criminals. But frustration with the whole mess just hit me. I’ve smelled questionable buildings burning, and latrines in the fiercest summer heat. But nothing overwhelms and punishes like the rancid aroma of decay from within. When chemicals that can’t function nutritionally depart destructively foul from the pores.”
We at least got away from that downward Lower East Side spiral by taking Pitt Street to 304 Rivington. “Where the Hammer family moved after their initial success in the young century.” Where another housing project rises from the site.
Then we went up a block and west a couple on Houston (Howston) and instead of immediately north on Avenue A, we stopped across A at that intersection’s northwest corner. Evidently liking to snicker, Hank did it again while leaning his bike on the wall. He said, “Take a breather, our fifth stop.”
I wondered if riding all day made him immune? I said, “At this rate, we’re out all night.”
He said, “Don’t put up with it. We can angle toward your place now.”
I said, “That’s okay. But you intend to stay out all night?”
So to keep up I gave him something to chew on. “I’m fine. What are we saying bye to here?”
She wasn’t a what. She was a she every eye on the street focused on jaywalking from the Mekka Restaurant, diagonally straight toward us across Avenue A. She seemed to float, in her flowery print dress, so I looked for sneakers she was moving so smoothly. Her Afro’s softness, and dark brown skin radiated a pleasant texture that emphasized her near flawlessness. We would have been floored by her missing smile. So pleasing was the sight of this beautiful woman, I thought the first words had to be hers since we were in speechless awe.
But when she was in range Hank said, “Oops.”
And she contorted her face stepping on the curb. She said, “Hank.” Tough, not rough, and, “I thought you weren’t coming back?”
Hank shrugged at me as if I brought him. Then, “Oops” again when she retreated back to the restaurant past a bigger than both of us African-American
male who crossed without looking at traffic that stopped just for him. Then the man stayed in the street while Hank on the curb was almost to his shoulders.
The man said, “This is the last time I will just tell you to stop bothering Terry.”
No one could mistake the moment for peaceful, but Hank tried looking him in the eye. The man didn’t buy it and put his clenched fist in Hank’s face and Greenway gulped motionless while I was afraid.
But Hank said, “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you out of respect for her. But you walk over people. And”
“You heard me. No discussion, go.” Then he faced me. “You two should get. That’s my business, and I already called the police on this nuisance and his accomplice.”
I didn’t think much of Hank’s foil, but there was obviously trouble here. But the larger man abruptly left certain his booming, “Find another life” was heard even from behind his back.
To me Hank said, “He thinks he owns her.”
But despite the discomfort, just seeing her seemed important to him. I even felt we’d accomplished something riding up A to Seventh Street and Tompkins Square Park where Hank pointed out the “Congressman Samuel S. Cox statue under the corner tree.” He said, “My excuse for coming this way was to honor this pedestaled figure. Blew me away when I first read the inscription. This gallantly portrayed statue represents a political moment for the common man. Congressman Cox was instrumental in passing early labor laws that benefited the federal government’s nineteenth century letter carriers. Eventually that progress filtered through the rest of society. The eight-hour Post Office day led civilization further away from a form of indentured slavery. The congressman was instrumental in the five-day workweek, and two-week vacations. Not mentioned on the statue, of course, is the initial measures came about before a Laborer’s Union could position itself to share credit. There are always reasons behind congressional votes. Yes Mr. Treynor, I know unions became an extra business. But that aside, the statue means to me we’re all responsible for the circles Congress runs us in. Because when only simple explanations suffice, the whole truth is merely an advertising slogan.”
I thought why bother, this is his night for amusing himself. We propped the bikes on the construction fence, still up, from the park riot two summers before. Hank had “rode by on the B side and got the hell away from it just before it
exploded.” Animated with his hands he said, “A cop flagged me down and was told by walkie-talkie by superiors to pull me in. I explained I can’t go to protests, my shoulder separates, and he let me go. Right. Now both shoulders easily separate. Just as a standoff that riot was a mess. The park was full of screaming, surrounded by cops. The world was shaking on this tiny piece of it. Controlling the public is a necessary evil, but officers have to not use deranged force as they did after I left. Both sides apparently let everything escalate.
“Anyway. I thought this statue was awkwardly out of place when I first came across it, camouflaged here by this tree. But it turns out there’s revealing coincidences. The congressman faces directly across Seventh Street, at exactly where Kerouac and Ginsberg walking by had their simultaneous epiphany of a more cooperative future understanding. Imagine that. Before I found out about The Beats elevated moment of consciousness, in a guidebook, I often felt philosophical here, at this spot, thanks to the congressman. The statue feels placed out of the way. And in fact I found in the library that letter carriers themselves ceremoniously paid for placing this honorable image for decades where the more prominently seen Astor Place cube presently stands. Eventually everyone walks through Astor Place. But Cox, the letter carriers’ friend, was cast off here long before The Cube arrived. A possible visible result of America’s ideological fit over the labor struggle? Can you feel the tragedy of removing the congressman from near Broadway’s pizzazz over the wrong side of the workingman versus entrepreneur issue?
I asked, “Moved when?
So before Hank could, I said, “Sounds right on the timeline.” Why remain ineffectual at getting the political comedian to shut up? I said, “But there were communists, Hank. Overreaction was a natural instinct.”
Hank said, “No doubt. But the statue does symbolize for me how easy it’s been to discard the laboring class. All that noise and we reached a pinnacle where so many receive a taste now, yet there’s no rest from the burden of self-support. All over this great land our children are threatened with less rewarding lives if they don’t achieve the status that separates them from the dime a dozen that are easily replaced and so generously allowed to function among us.”
He had no idea my eyes rolled.
Looking at the congressman Hank said, “Presumably labor unions have a cause to fight. Originally founded to represent worker dignity. But absorbed by the system, labor’s leaders primarily function as expensive wholesalers who hire lawyers to arbitrate with other lawyers hindering the workers’ financial climb up the ladder. It’s obvious the economic steps are broken or too expensive to fix. Yesteryear’s fight for four figures became last year’s struggle for five, that’s this year’s need for six that runs concurrently with the pervasive desire everyone has for seven figures. Everyone wants the labor leader’s opportunity to not have to actually labor themselves, with their feet on a desk if they have to, to get the job done.”
Then Hank looked at me and continued. “We all dream of living far beyond the paltry lives wages provide. But alive Congressman Cox’s statue might believe with me. Looking at today’s results, a beautiful mess.”
Someone from nearby gigglers said, “Tell em white boy.”
Hank laughed and spoke deliberately slow. “This, this is the crux of the American way. Our guaranteed right is the opportunity to pursue personal wealth. Beautiful. Plus desperation’s clawing got us to idolize working your ass off. Fine. But worked off on our parents’ backs in a more subtly packaged aristocratic tradition. Tied beautifully in a bow of less ostentatious upperly mobile ribbon.”
I grinned at upperly.
And he repeated, “Upwardly. I was drawing attention to make a point.”
I had no more answers since the crowd hadn’t grown in my favor. Accustomed to listening though, I knew Hank would find his own way to argue with himself.
So he said, “Today. Not in some distant past era, but even now, today, the rule is not that there are efficient systems everywhere taking packages from my hand and sending me easily on my proletarian way. An hilarious frustration is being passed to the next person because its not their job if someone neglected to post a receptionist. I’m expected to facilitate their jobs and find someone else to take their company’s dag-gum package. And forbid you show up interrupting when they’re processing previously accepted packages. Don’t hurry desk personnel when all they have is all day and I need out of there. Deep in the day, buildings become a Kafkaesque maze of hallways leading to someone else that doesn’t want to be involved. And not only is it not their designated job, but they’ll resent someone of lesser status bothering them. Tch tch. No other way to understand, except I may
have a phobia. But its easy to recognize being looked down upon as stuck in a job requiring hard work. Desk jockeys figure my task wouldn’t be so taxing, if my union represented me better. Meanwhile the country really refuses to be fully employed because it’s easier trusting fewer people.”
Why argue, I heckled. “Worker, you’re too close to be objective.”
Hank said, “I am. At least government employees aren’t the only ones treating couriers poorly, and they’re getting better. Really though, ignoring us isn’t the general rule. Lower class deadbeats just aren’t wanted unescorted in the halls. We’re identified as such because only the duped would hustle as hard as we do. While, at the same time, union members are scapegoated with the image of less work for more pay when there should be nothing wrong with designating a job’s capacity within a framework so sharing profit is less exploited. But. But there was a dark side of organized’s coin. Legitimate union workers were scandalized by rats nibbling extra portions of the cheese. Yes corruption. But that’s capitalism too, and so tell me a time that’s not happened? Just because way back when for leverage to fight management, unions were forced to align with the thugs who were originally hired to beat them up. Muscle and power as humanity’s root of organization is ridiculously unfortunate. So, at the end of the corridors of cheap labor, citizens are left mad at simply overworked bike couriers for being in such a paid-per-delivery hurry. And once people see I’m in a hurry, hostility is poured on in thick competition with slow molasses.”
Listening was exhausting so, after the applause died, we left slowly west on St. Marks. Against traffic, we passed a basement named Physical Graffiti. To show I knew more about culture besides what I’m shown from behind a desk, I said, “A Led Zeppelin album.”
Hank said, “Clothing store, get it?”
I didn’t think so, but said, “Cute. A lot of people out tonight.”
Hank said, “Quite populated. This minitropolis mingles at a pace New York can’t afford. In general people aren’t worth the value of the city anymore. But of course that’s how the Dutch set things in motion back in the beginning and native’s end. New Amsterdam was never meant to be a pauper’s paradise.”
I said, “Glad you recognize that.”
He said, “Caught a whiff. The fact that this is a rich man’s world though, doesn’t mean it’s not for the Poor. We’ll all live better when economics are completely open.”
I said, “As the Wall Street Journal hopes.” Then asked, “Ever read Forbes? That family magazine empire was built on that premise of making capitalism fun for everyone. Remember the balloons?”
Hank said, “I’ve seen the magazine, and my father’s name is Malcolm too.”
Then Hank stopped us halfway between Second and Third avenues, to stare at a long, plain white four-story building on St. Mark’s north side. A fitting Alamo for his childish libertarianism, because Hank said, “This was where the Electric Circus showcased the preeminent rock acts of the Sixties. Adoring fans inside the Joshua Light Show, that they say could, in and of itself, blow your mind.” He smiled. “Now there’s some drug rehabilitation among countless other social programs. See, hippies take responsibility for their generation’s excess.”
I said, “Time erases memories Hank. You aren’t old enough to have really been around back then. So I’m telling you. No burnt out hippies are running a rehab center.”
Hank wasn’t flustered. He said, “If you see it that way, I can too. I thought our arguments have been too much to my side.”
Indeed. Today that location has overcome its past and been rebuilt as more expensive, gentrified housing, without old hippies we can assume by now.
At Third Avenue we turned left south down, “The Bowery. Where,” Hank said, “all along this street, generations of alcoholics drifted among their own in flophouses. There were never many bars. Those populated the side-streets. Just worn out dreams waiting out their time on the avenue in the few flops left doing the little alcohol addicts require. Unfortunately places where the less fortunate barely survive on their own is becoming less important. Real Estate is always in gear and due to jump. Entrepreneurialism on the margins won’t be practical for an economy in high gear. We’ve become financially dominated by the lure of astronomical profit. As glamorous as we are, why bother with the provision for those of limited means? Better to complain our weaker margins require socialism and can’t provide for themselves. But the joke on us is it’s all capitalism. Where would capitalism be without the boarding house step in enterprise that these transient hotels date from? There’s already less room for this particular Twentieth Century losers’ lonely delirious march to the grave. Who cares if bums feel independent?”
I said, “Nice garbled but relentlessness projection.”
So Hank smiled getting off his bike, as we turned right at Houston, while he kept his finger pointed south on Bowery. “In the 1970s, a half-block down Bowery, across from the Salvation Army, the Beat godfather William S. Burroughs lived in a windowless basement bunker where he was visited by countless counterculture celebrities in honor of his courageous defense of the criminally addicted.”
My patience was shot for Mr. Greenway’s contrary issues. I said, “What advice could Burroughs possibly give them? Do you know the statistics, the numbers criminally tortured in this city?”
Hank stayed on the sidewalk and stopped for the first red light and sat on his crossbar. “Mr. Treynor listen. People miss what Burroughs’ target was. The establishment’s straightjacket control that’s bursting at the seams. Despite his lifestyle, Bill Burroughs was clear. That drug was his metabolism’s best high, but the most harmful. He gave the best advice ever given about heroin.”
I didn’t want to hear it. “Hank,” I said, “Mrs. Reagan was right. Just say no. I know you can call anything jargon. But kids shouldn’t be exposed. Chemicals deteriorate.” I was mad.
Hank remained calm. “Then it is exactly like the Sixties. Anchorless experimenting and the thrill of defying authority. The misunderstood rebellious urge mixed with Society recklessly allowing kids to find out we lie about our real drug habit. The money chain viciously wrapped around our choking necks. We can finance the moon without really going there. But maintaining this cultural enthusiasm for recycling an evil drug war. Don’t you see? Let the violence go, just let it go.”
I had to tell him. “You’ll see. Your side will never be in charge.”
Hank said, “Thank goodness. In charge is the last thing anyone should want, especially megalomaniacal. Someone is in control. But despite logical propaganda, kids still suck tobacco sticks on the road to continuous illness, congested chests and lowered tolerance for this, and that, bacteria. Coughing as an easy poor substitute for thrills and kicks becomes their every day normal way of life. Burroughs predicted deceit undermines community. He admitted his fascination with the criminal enterprise system’s moral certitude. But Burroughs wrote the best advice decades before Nancy Reagan’s starring role in the Just Say No To Drugs campaign. He said for that drug to not be a problem, don’t ever try heroin never ever. He advised people to never try it.”
Hank knew he’d lost me. He announced we were parking again, but bikes took up all the available “street furniture” on Houston’s south side. So to lock we walked to Bleeker where Hank explained, “Maybe you’ll appreciate how this place slows time for inspection. The proprietor was a teenager among the freewheelers hitchhiking the country before On The Road was published. Then a decade later he told Londoners they should have A Happening that was Pink Floyd’s first public appearance under their official name. Heard of them?
I said, “Long-haired hippies.”
Hank said, “If that’s what you want to see.”
I said, “Unless my eyes deceived me.”
He said, “They’re not.” And Hank talked the whole block from Bleeker back to 49 East Houston. “I met Steve Holman three years ago when he assisted bike messengers’ resistance to Mayor Koch’s midday bicycle ban on three midtown avenues, Fifth, Park and Madison. You remember, right? Front-page coverage in August of ‘87.’ What a goof. An absolute independent friend of Steve’s and mine wondered out loud, before I said it, that Koch might have known he’d bring the diverse bike culture together for the revolution.”
I stopped walking.
Hank laughed because this was how he thought, “Revolution is just perpetual change, removing violence from Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution. So. So Steve’s a really nice guy. In the front windows there’s usually signs for causes, unless he’s in a minimalist mood. Then they’ll be bare of progressive propaganda. But Steve is big on listening to what you think and won’t try to tell you how. I thought he’d be home with his wife and I just wanted to stand out front, but.”
It was a full packed party in what appeared to be a high-ceilinged one-room saloon. I could see a small backyard of people, and inside, at the back right corner, light came from the floor, indicating steps led to more in the basement. It appeared to be a typical wine and cheese art gallery opening but I never figured out that night’s excuse for like-minded people getting together. Then after making our way through clusters of conversation, Steve greeted us dressed casually in a blue jean collared shirt.
Steve said, “Hello. Why bring a lawyer now?”
So Hank slapped the bar, grinning and said, “He’s with me to say goodbye to New York before I’m off to the bitter cold.”
“You’re really going,” Steve said smiling with both eyes and his mouth.
So Hank answered embarrassed. “Aeroflot in the morning.”
Steve poured three plastic cups of red wine, and handed us two from the long bar that ran the length of the western wall. Raising his, he waited on attention from several nearby groups. Then Steve said, “I toast tomorrow resembling today in that we’re all having a good time.”
While I sipped, they both put their glasses on the bar without drinking, so Steve told me. “Matter of factually, we don’t generally drink,” then he nodded down the bar emphasizing it wasn’t tended.
We didn’t stay. Hank detoured us to the street for “warm fresh air.” Then he wanted to leave, reasoning his “life is too serious to party.”
Steve said, “Yeah right, enjoy the work.”
I wanted to stay. Delighted by a happy event, whatever the ecological occasion. A definite pleasant contrast to Hank’s liberal shake down. West with traffic we hugged Houston’s north curb, “Avoiding these cars using the extra-wide straightaway as a drag strip to not be stopped by blocks of eventual red lights. The extra cross-town traffic lanes draw them here for the race. Really gets them flying. Steve has heard many collisions from his store, from that dogleg glitch at Houston and Lafayette that promotes hasty accidents.”
Past Broadway, coasting Houston’s decline, Hank told me Steve’s ironic career choice. “That long bar along his western wall is from his inventory of refurbished bars he sells. But once upon a time he argued with the owners of London’s Marquee Club where Pink Floyd played London’s first Happening. The proprietors wanted to join the selling alcohol club when Steve said their venue should be really alive. New, not a bar, nor lethargic coffeehouse because wild times had come after centuries under some master’s thumbs. The new kids could create without alcohol’s hostility. But, as we know, alcohol remains the monopoly.”
I kept my mouth shut turning right and north on LaGuardia Place, which south of Houston is West Broadway. We passed the block-long fenced in garden, and locked the bikes behind the foliage on the Bleeker Street side of the big single-story, “Supermarket.”
Hank asked if I was, “In the mood for groceries?” He was. “Thirsty and in search of an affordable price. Notice they’re all as bright as a hospital to spot thieves among other things. But what counts most is customers definitely seeing those products.” Hank went straight for and down the aisle to grab a “sugar water
container, large enough for five people to get the bargain I want,” plus two loaves of whole wheat that made some sense.
Heading back to the front registers he spun more riddled attacks on “consumer goods.” Such as “not a bargain” and “spiraling pricelessly out of reach. Imagine, competition once actually competed to offer bargains. But now, I think, corporations take turns offering sales to a populace that doesn’t really know what anything should actually cost. See, see the digits in the customer’s eyes at checkout. The indifferent and satisfied shop at more regular hours than these people can late tonight. These strugglers’ anxieties resemble the true individualists who hunted for days in a row to feed their families. And seasonally tilled the soil in the hope environmental tragedy might hold off till next season. And still there’s tribulation in the eyes of today’s hunters. Everyone watching their rewards disappear. As if this was all desert, and we’re drinking as fast as we can before everything evaporates. Gone, desperate, sadness. Lost paychecks are written across everyone’s face here. Hear the silent groan of us working ourselves to the grave and bone?”
“Come on Hank,” I said. “Even America’s poor are rich by third world standards. Your point has little meaning, merit or value. I think, ‘where’s the beef’ applies.”
Of course he smiled first and put his purchases on the counter with their price tags up for the cashier. Then said, “I know what you mean. The lesser fortunate have a great life. The least among us have all they need, was communism’s fallacy. To each according to what’s determined they deserve.”
Then in case Hank was beginning his proletarian revolution right inside the supermarket, I silently agreed by hustling myself out the exit, where I responded, when he came out. I said, “You know Hank. In America people aren’t just given what they need. We have the right to earn what we want.”
Apologetic, he said, “Sorry I was emotional. I can’t carry this bitterness around long and feel good about myself. But hear this. In America, we even ‘have to fight for the right to party.’” Another smile. “I love debate.” Then he shared with me first from the large bottle before reducing the major portion himself.
Offered again, I said, “No.”
Hank said, “I know I’ll recall the aroma of supermarket over there. That specific surrounded by food products smell. I wonder if when Yeltsin cried seeing
the full shelves in Houston, was he overcome by the thick fragrance? The experience would have meant less without the smell.”
Ready to ride, Hank gave what was left of the bottle to a homeless man who didn’t seem to appreciate the gift, until we were almost out of sight. I turned and saw him gobble it down as if he were, the three other people it was meant to supply. Against traffic we passed the now long gone Bleeker Street Cinema where Hank “abused their discount tickets in the early eighties absorbing film classics before cable television pulled the rug from under that business.” His friend, who partly inspired his moving to New York, had shown an award winning high school film there. And one night there he met a Japanese woman and lost his “virginity the same week The Village Voice announced the discovery of a new sex disease on their back page.”
Past the Bitter End, we turned up MacDougal by Figaro’s, passing the Cafe Wha? “Near where the Folklore Center was.” We passed “Provincetown Theater’s still up sign” between Third and Fourth Streets. “Without which Eugene O’Neill’s playful insight would have had to have happened somewhere else. As it was and is, commercial theatre has to wait to see a success before performing one.”
We stopped and looked from Fourth Street and Washington Square Park and turned back to face the theater again.
Hank said, “There are very literate plays built around unfulfilled dreams that undermined the characters with those dreams. Describing living as acquiring voids that can’t be filled. Yet Willie Loman still wore a suit and tie, every day, even while driving off into oblivion.”
“Your point Hank?”
“Sometimes in their failure, unfulfilled dreams come true. Imagination is its’ own reality for us sometimes. No? Imagine this crowded tourist trap. This neighborhood was home spawning ground to the folksingers’ meaningful musical messages that circulated in waves heard throughout the world. Their point only partly undermined by commercial success that promoted some entertainers big time. Seems a little strategy, apparently built on the naive courage of the frazzled 1930s era American communists, Woody Guthrie’s friends. Mix in The Beats defiance against everyone told what to do. A little of their a lot of drinking was done here. Attacking conformity through their jazzed up subculture. And add Bill Cosby and all the groundbreaking comedians, who stepped up the charge on the public mind for us to see ourselves with a sense of humor and added scope. All
irritated into pearls inside capitalism’s oyster. Just trying to get by. And yes make more than a dime. And to do so, they had to hit a nerve and strike major chords for attention on their commercially manufactured climbs to stardom.”
After the park we rode west against traffic again crossing Sixth Avenue, and a short distance up Fourth is where Hank stopped us at the Southeast corner with Jones Street.
Hank said, “Across from us, seven storefronts in from the Avenue Six, Dr. Hammer’s Carriage House where Hammer admits throwing parties with the expensive stuff during Prohibition.”
Then he saluted and I waved thinking that was enough as we went slowly west against traffic, again, crossing Seventh Avenue, where the one-way street switches direction making us finally with traffic as Fourth Street continues at a northwestern angle to even cross Tenth Street. Hank said, “Positively Fourth Street with angles like the Broadways.”
But the bright lights became less lustrous nearing a darker spot of town. Where that was, is not what it is today where glamorous nightlife and prestigious clothing stores make a fashionable claim to being where the real dregs used to play. I couldn’t imagine why Hank wanted us also posed at Greenwich and Little West Twelfth. Opposite us on two separate Meatpacking District corners, two elegantly gowned six feet something black men in high heels with suitcases by their feet treated cars cruising by as their tourist trap.
I was about to pedal off when Hank pardoned them. “Life lived for now. Crawling out of dirty holes is their prerogative.”
Then of all places for Mr. Greenway to have gone, he rolled up the Ninth Avenue cobblestones to the tiny seven-storied triangle building between Thirteen and Fourteenth Streets. He put his bike against the wall in the middle of the block by an upright cellar door, and shook hands with the man standing guard over the basement.
I was stunned when I realized where he’d gone. This couldn’t be Hank, despite our differences. But this was one of the city’s most well known dens of sin. Its’ defiant sign said so. Hellfire.
But, as nonchalantly as you please, Hank waved me over. He insisted it was okay, and I went because I wasn’t going in.
Hank said, “Just Benjamin to be afraid of. My once in a while messenger friend who invited me by.”
Benjamin said, “Going in? Gratis. I’ll watch the bikes.”
Hank said, “We have a lock. They’re our responsibility. Mr. Treynor? Going inside?”
Hank’s friend laughed at my reaction while looking at him. “Still messenging I guess?”
Hank said, “Yeah you? Haven’t figured out how to stop since I started.”
Ben said, “Not me. I know more pleasant ways to beat myself up.”
Hank said, “You don’t say. Almost fascinating. Life good otherwise?”
“Other than a doctor telling me to slow down. Too much pressure on my heart. But who wants to stop living, know what I mean?”
“Exactly,” Hank said. “A whole team of health care professionals tried convincing me to find a safer lifestyle.”
Ben said, “Yeah I heard. They say you could collect serious change if you weren’t foolish. They call you a putz.”
“They’re right. And know too much for their own good.”
Which was enough for me. I said, “They’re not here. Stop speaking for them.”
But Hank ignored that, focused instead across the street on what appeared to be a sixteen-year-old Puerto Rican girl, in a miniskirt, with her baby-sitter.
Hank said, “What do you know?”
Benjamin smiled. “This. They’ve both been out here all night. Mostly the little one in and out of cars. A half hour ago her friend counted out a wad of bills behind that Buick. It’s in her sock underneath her jeans.”
Both men smiled, but Hank’s differed in detectable sadness. Then a slow black limousine was overtaken by a white stretch wanting to be first in line. The young girl showed respect for the car that demonstrated more desire, so the black one pulled away.
Benjamin said, “Another one bites the dust.”
She lowered her “real sweet grin” below the limo’s roof, leaving her right hand on top. Hank kept his eyes on the scene until both women got in the “extra-large comfortable machine” that immediately “anxiously left to blend into the scene elsewhere.” And Hank said, “Indifference cloaked in opportunity.”
Ben replied, “Greenway. Why you got to be so goofy?”
Hank’s answer, “I am who I am, aren’t you?”
Drew Ben’s laugh and, “I am.”
So they continued verbal sparring into the cooler, late hours of a soft soothing, warm summer night. Benjamin endearingly greeting polite couples, arriving to entertain deviant tastes. Writing now, as far as I know, I still feel guiltily grateful no one I knew happened by.
Hank described his accident, and Benjamin summed it up. “Blowing a bundle. Could get that condo, or whole Florida beach, if you want.”
“Could if you were of a right mind.”
“To not believe in myself anymore?”
Benjamin said, “Eggs are broken for omelets.”
Hank and I said, “What?” But exactly then a woman screamed from south of us on Greenwich. “Help! Help us! Help me! Help! Help! ...”
We flew on the bikes past Benjamin who stayed right behind us and the elder business girl was so shaking scared her uncontrollable yelling for help couldn’t stop. Hank grabbed both her shoulders and got her temporarily focused by planting “What?” in her head. Then she hopped dramatically down the street motioning for us to follow.
“Please! Come please! I was thrown out of that limousine. My friend is locked in with that fiend! He has these things!”
Past her, up the street, the car was rocking. Then just before we reached it, the other girl flew out the back and the mobile throne squealed its wheels out of there. And Hank was first, but the scraped girl drew away insisting she could help herself. Upright she flashed the universal hand signal of personal aggravation, screaming, “Mari cone!” Her friend laughed nervously, then the prostitute animated her face at the three “wise men” Hank softly described us as so she wouldn’t hear.
Giving us the treatment she loudly said, “Who’re you guys?”
“Innocent bystanders,” Hank said.
So the sweet sixteen grunted to her friend. “You know them?”
Now the alarm ringer rang, “No” as if this just concerned them. Caring less, they turned their backs on us and walked close together in the middle of the street back toward Hellfire.
Expecting at least that, Benjamin grinned and stated the obvious. “Back to work.”
But halfway back the harlot princess turned on us screaming. “Don’t follow us! I’ll call the police!”
Benjamin stepped on the sidewalk making sure he’d pass. He said, “Go right ahead. We have explanations for being here.”
“Look,” she said sizing us up.
Already past her Benjamin would have none of it and raised his voice to be heard. “Look yourself. Your partner notified the entire neighborhood your safety was at risk. You’ve made enough tonight. Why don’t you bum around somewhere else? Stop imposing your highnesses on me.” Then Ben trotted ahead.
She’d heard it before, and judged the two faces she was left with. Pondering which attitude offered less resistance, she nominated Hank.
Confronted one on one, Hank said, “You are a lovely young woman. No doubt your decision to be here is a solution of some sort. We’ll walk you back. We didn’t mean harm. My friend was just frustrated, running from his job to help.”
In step she said, “I understand. I’m sorry.”
And Hank continued what most would think of as normal conversation, except with a prostitute. He said, “What year school are you in?”
Her response was ironically sweet? “Don’t patronize me.”
So of course Hank replied, “I apologize. I like that your reprimand, patronize, has three syllables.”
She lit up. “Ah definitely. You’re a goody two shoes of some kind. Aren’t you? What do you do for a living?”
Hank puffed his chest, pausing his delivery. “I, am a bike messenger.”
The young woman’s jaw dropped. Her brain kicked into gear wondering how she’d become a part of such an implausibility. She said, “Who’re you to talk so superior to me? You’re beneath everyone.” Then she grinned pointing at me. “Who’s he?”
So, “My lawyer” lightened everyone’s moment but mine.
“I know,” she said, still laughing. “You’re comedians looking for material.”
But Hank ignored the farce saying, “You only look sixteen. You’re an adult capable of more than this hobby.”
She said, “True. But I have no hang ups like I’m sure you two do.”
In step with Hank, some silken hair was tossed across her face accentuating her seductive talent for offering closer friendship.
Then, on cue from Hellfire’s entrance, Benjamin called out. “Yo! Looks like you two made up.”
She grinned and had a cute answer. “We’re not making out yet, but your friend made an impression.”
Ben said, “He gets under everyone’s skin. But don’t get your hopes up. I’ve never seen a bigger prude.”
Hank laughed. “Thanks for the reference. I was afraid I’d misled.”
“Hardly,” she said. “I’m only trying to give you hope. Unless your lawyer is your type?”
Again everyone laughs but me. It was rude. My mind wandered off from Hank and his hooker but I was noticing how he wasn’t interviewing or just talking with her. They were actually sharing part of an evening. An event Dr. Hammer could wink at, since his personal life notwithstanding, the fact is his Mezhdunarodnaya Hotel in Moscow was a beacon for the higher-end trade. No, I had to see Hank handle this. Then when my attention returned, events had passed from his control and Benjamin made them an offer they could look into.
I heard Ben say, “Maybe you two could get jobs downstairs, that might be safer?”
“For less money,” she shrewdly asked?
But Benjamin was quick. “Both of you can work. Especially tonight when people downstairs got a look at both of you lurking across the street. Finding talent is part of my job.”
The girls smiled with the pseudo-child’s eyes encouraging her backup to offer more to their adventure. Obviously the screamer never said no to her friend, so their boss answered, “We’ll try.” And they insisted on kissing Hank’s cheek and shaking my hand before descending with Benjamin into the basement club.
Hank said, “I guess we’re done,” then we crossed “Eleventh Avenue to prowl the West Side Highway’s crumbling docks and pseudo parking lot lining the Hudson River. Before AIDS, the West Side Highway down past Christopher Street was a strip of dives. Back during my first year here in ‘81,’ walking one weekend summer night, from Hudson Street I saw Christopher completely packed with males exactly like sardines in a sea of people. Still a subculture in the dark
hounding each other for kicks here. It’s not about money, yet so many scrounge for everything they have. Mr. Treynor, the world’s feelings are burnt out.”
Hank scuffed his foot off the ground, and I noticed things when my eyes got used to the dark. There were more people scattered around us than I’d thought. Hanging around by the piers. Strangely, I laughed to myself about how far Hank went in his thinking how to recover all of society’s parts. As uncomfortable as that place was, there in the dark, I began to understand his caring for absolutely everyone. Even in that bizarre environment, I felt no interest in objecting for conversation’s sake. Because before that night with Hank, I’d always believed people chose their marginal lives and got what they deserved. Hank demonstrated choices are brought about by twisted circumstances. Consequences shouldn’t have to include twisting back. I learned to appreciate his refusal to judge. Maybe social welfare advocates are right. It is more important to just care no matter who any of us are. “Winners and losers aspirations have so much in common” we had little left to bicker about.
Hank pointed at the Out Reach Van parking to hand out food and condoms. “Look,” he said, “an entrepreneurial show getting lemonade from lemons. Money can do anything. Be commercial life and charity. That van’s benevolence has a profit. To me this place is already nice. Without intending this long stretch of asphalt playground is a park.”
While less than a decade later Manhattan’s long Westside stretch became a more luxuriously landscaped strip of parkland than dreamed possible. The entire Westside today is sculpted and pristine, still “carved amazingly from where still more buildings replace every inevitably vacant piece of real estate possible.”
We took our time, up the river, passing the fledgling Chelsea Piers mega-sports empire. On the North side of the complex he found a clear spot by the river. “Because if seen by security, you can’t be here sounds better than what are you doing there?” And Hank bragged that he picked up the second package ever sent from the Production Center there for the new television show, Law and Order. He said, “It was an honor. I hope the show does well. So far their concern is the rest of the story.”
The river rippled. We looked for boats. He hypothesized with grass in his teeth, found somewhere, and, taking out the blade, said, “Moments without people are a luxury in this town. If you’re lucky, you distance yourself from the suffocation by living in a larger box. Real Estate wants to fill in the Westside.
Why? The island’s sides, where there’s space, is what I’ll miss most about living on my bicycle in New York. This less developed portion of the island is an escape valve from the crowd so the city isn’t crushed. Hmm. Yeah. But my favorite time is really when this place feels the most crowded. Fall especially, I remember, as being when citizens fill the sidewalks at dusk. As if everyone is outside walking that last bit before home then. Traveling at dusk according to a formula whereby buildings and social space patiently wait our return. Everyone to a degree tired from their finished working day, but anxieties lift with the earth’s rising heat following after the setting sun. The atmosphere’s lessened chill setting the casual mood for alternative rest and adventure. Students may still have their grindstone, and capitalists their bottom line. But we are all captured in the framework of that monumental portion of the working day done at dusk. Not night, nor day, dusk, poor us. Without a schedule’s parameters, we’re prey to the witching of go by dare driven compulsions surrounding us in the midst of the night’s momentum.” Then he took a breath. “There’s just too much excitement here for anyone’s good. But this town has been places the world dreams of going. You understand, don’t you Mr. Treynor? Humanity already has a fortune.”
I said, “Yes, your utopian vow.”
I said, “Between her majesty downtown and these midtown docks, I’ve figured out a little of what you want. But just to be clear, I can’t swallow liberalism.”
Hank said, “Forget about it. Not much for group thought myself.”
I said, “Hank.”
But he just nodded we’re leaving, and we crossed Twelfth Avenue and rode the sidewalk north “avoiding a certain aspect of The West Side Highway Memorial Speedway.”
We turned right, east on Thirtieth Street, and stopped a good half block from Tenth Avenue. Near where that last length of the elevated Hi-Line railroad remains. Hank pointed at the second floor of a two-story warehouse space that spanned from the middle of the block to the corner of Thirtieth and Eleventh where it’s been replaced today by a model mid-sized corner residential high-rise.
We sat on our crossbars across the street from the two-story and Hank said, “My first Manhattan job in 1981 was working in this warehouse. I gave a capable interview with a gay man because friends had already challenged my rural biases
as something not taken well in liberated New York City. My interviewer Paul, I think, even thought I ran to Manhattan to get away from prejudice myself. I still feel guilty about that, and he obviously learned I wasn’t gay. But we didn’t talk about it, so whatever. I was flat broke and needed a job immediately. My supervisor Leroy opened my eyes to the bike messenger possibility after a walking courier delivered to this dark warehouse. I got excited imagining the walker job would give me more time to read on the train. But my boss pointed out the close to real money was made on the bicycle. He had a dispatcher friend who promised him a hundred dollars a day if he’d just show up. One hundred dollars meant more then. The mantra had juice. A mantra we’ll inflate into dust.
“Leroy also told me about our company’s founder, Morris, who escaped before entering a death camp. For the rest of the war he sold prophylactics in Portugal. Morris would catch me staring at the tattoo, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask. Leroy told me to but I wouldn’t, or at least didn’t. Almost a year later I contrived to come back a day late from a week’s Florida vacation, without calling ahead. So Morris fired me because he was the boss. Said he laid me off for Leroy so I could collect unemployment. Leroy used to laugh at my take on the world. Kindness begets kindness, doesn’t it? I received a swift kick to develop a new life.”
I said, “Incentive makes the world go round.”
Hank said, “Also spawns a share of madness.”
We crossed Tenth Avenue and angled toward Thirtieth Street’s middle median that splits the road so both avenues have a half-block entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. On Thirtieth’s south side is the block-sized U.S. Postal Service Processing Center. While where the median met Ninth Avenue, at the base of a light pole a homeless woman sat on all her belongings. Grumbling at no one her smell indicated she’d seldom left the spot for any reason. Her red dress looked grey and sunburned face was probably shattered from the effects of frostbite as well. But instead of passing, Hank hopped off his bike and pointed behind her where he laid his bike on the median. I sat on my crossbar and first thing she did was grunt, and leer at us for violating her space. Apparently not recalling civility.
Hank took one of the loaves bungeed to his rack, and two slices before handing me the bag. He said, “I’m hungry, how about you Mr. Treynor?”
So to not have my name disclosed alone, I said, “Thanks Mr. Greenway.” Then surprised myself finding whole wheat hit the spot.
Hank signaled for the bread bag and before sitting, slapped a parked car to make sure there was no alarm. I imagined he presumed alarmed cars learned not to park there. Then put the bread bag on the ground near her and she grunted again.
Hank said, “We’re just resting. I used to work that way on Thirtieth Street. Passed twice a day, and sometimes four for lunch, when not preoccupied reading on the single step stoop across the street from the warehouse. One day a paddy wagon and squad cars pulled right up in front of me and blew my mind. Then they transferred prostitutes and I felt guilty for feeling relieved. It’s America right? Cops don’t just pull up and cart you away. But for that brief moment I was spooked. Over here though I always thought of you as this spot’s mayor.”
She couldn’t help smirk, and reach for the bread devoured after an initial small bite.
Hank said, “Pleasant night. I love summer. I’d rather burn than freeze to death.”
She looked at Hank, and me, with measured disbelief. Aware there’s no difference. But that was Hank including everyone in his appreciation of life’s nuances. We ate three quarters of the loaf and she thought we were crazy. Hank tapped the car again, and put the other loaf near her.
He said, “I’m sorry, we have travel plans. Take care of yourself and our street.”
She shook her head about the bread.
Hank simply said, “Please?”
Then boarding our bikes she spoke, “Molly.”
Hank responded, “Thanks, I wondered.”
Riding away a block up behind the Main Post Office, Hank said, “Sad seeing anyone go.” And Hank asked a favor. “Could you see some money is made available for her comfort? Maybe someone’s routine to drop a dollar on their way somewhere. She must eat lunch at the church down the street. But I don’t know, and don’t invade her privacy figuring out if she ever moves. She’s under enough passive stress as it is.”
I said, “I’ll try. But it looks like she should be somewhere.”
Hank said, “Pity is both overwhelming to give and receive.”
Hank called the “Thirty-fourth and Ninth Y where poets dwelled among their fellow traveling less well off.” The building has since changed into an electronics capitol.
At Eighth Avenue we turned left, north to Fortieth Street. Between “the Garment District’s earlier century representations of manufacturing prestige.” East on “Fortieth the section gradually spruces up, reflecting the city’s will to proceed beyond bargain basement prices. Now enough random sarcasm about what buildings represent, we’re here.”
Hank sat on his crossbar and stared, from across the street, at 110 West Fortieth Street. He said, “Its like ivory mosaics frame the windows up all twenty-nine floors. Today’s more simply efficient buildings don’t have the ambitious carved style of earlier centuries.”
He stayed on the bar, but shuffling. “This is where shortly after the 1917 Revolution, Ludwig Martens ran the Russian Soviet Government Bureau. Their task was to build economic links with American companies. A large enterprise of over 40 employees, and undoubtedly numerous outright spies, at the time J. Edgar Hoover managed the 1919 rounding up of communists Palmer Raids. Martens testified before Congress, and placed documents in evidence, that demonstrated American companies’ willingness to trade with the Soviets. Then we deported Ludwig and the smoke and mirrors continued in righteous lockstep grandeur through the decades. With tyranny as a backdrop, not having to really understand made it easy to not relate and go through the hostile motions of playing politics.”
“How am I wrong?”
“It’s not that simple and you know it.”
“Yeah anyway. Armand limited his traceability here where his father’s footprints were large. His lawyer had an office on the same floor as the Russian Soviet Government Bureau. And would you believe the building keeps the floors a secret? Last week the management office hung up the phone. Plus I talked to all three concierges and Super separately. After I got to the point, they all grinned and ignored me till I went away. Junior Hammer’s autobiography glosses over this place, but boasts about his confiscated Soviet Amtorg office downtown on Lower Broadway, across the street from John D. Rockefeller’s oo-la-la Standard Oil Building.
“Hammer’s book describes his questionable years with nostalgic tidbits. Like the British confiscating that home movie on his first trip to the Soviet Union traveling under that cover of an emergency medical ambulance. That confiscated film of Ludwig Martens’ New York Harbor deportation, provided spies with
something immaterial to look at. His defense, he was only, almost a child, will outlast any evidence. See what I don’t get is, that he was traveling with any film at all. He writes as if living under suspicion is beneath him. But portraying naïve innocence was shrewd. If you’re going to be questioned anyway, there may as well be dumb things to investigate.”
“Now, now,” I said.
Hank grinned as if he let the brown cow out himself. “Hammer was only a symptom, not the actual problem.”
I said, “You’ll allow him that.”
We laughed then rode the couple of blocks to Madison.
Hank wanted to, “Look up and down commercial advertising’s once great corridor. When I was five, on our family trip north, my mother woke me in the car right here. I think they drove through just to show me, and I slept through most of it. From the Staten Island Ferry to here, then back to sleep again. I feel my parents memory here before Madison drops to Forty-second Street.”
We went back to Broadway on 42nd Street to what’s now remembered as the once tawdry Times Square. Where Hank wanted, “To behold the glamour from the site of my near tragic accident that set my adventurous life apart from the rest of the world serving time.” Scanning the overhead signs, he spoke between thinking about something else such as, “I’ll miss this world’s capital of so many industries. I came to this planet’s crossroads to watch. Yeah, we’ll lock the bikes. I hear redeemers plan to reinvigorate this place, based on old money’s legacy of control. They’re going to bring back normalcy and polish it. Make it nice for people to visit again. Sweet huh?”
I said, “I only wear a tie five days a week to be dealt a hand in the game. Be careful advocating what appears to be nonsense, it just might be. This place needs cleaning up.”
Hank said, “Nice, you don’t hide. I’ll bet you’re a show in the courtroom.”
“Location of last resort.”
“Speaking of resorts. Once upon a time, this entertainment capital was depended upon for insight. Broadway spawned its’ own share of silliness, but was home to enlightening plays and the modern world woke to cultural imagination from the stage. Not just dramatainment that’s gloss upon glossy gloss of less substance. Watch out. Its a given this cultural Mecca will have more palpable follies, once the dregs’ play-land is cleared from sight. At least the grime is as if
people still live here. What if they polish everything? Humanity becomes wrinkle free? Whose version will be democratically decided? Where is the individual in this grand new design for New York? The ticket line.”
Hank pointed where he slammed into the car on Seventh Avenue. “In front of The Paramount sign is where other achievers of success at any cost, bought Frank Sinatra’s fame. Relatively innocently compared to their other businesses. Simpler times when corruption was meant to last, oh man. Outside here in these huge doublewide streets, it was packed full of screaming kids led by those paid to bring them. I think they polished the promotional event that had been refined to a science blocks down Broadway, in the twenties, on Music Publishers Row. They sang out their windows to make their careers. And Frank, well, Mr. Sinatra predated, and survived The Beatles’ seemingly more innocent, yet similar, rise to American prominence. If your eyes could follow Broadway’s dogleg up to 53rd, you’d see where The Fab Four had their shrilling America-wide Ed Sullivan Theatre premiere.”
“Hank,” I said shaking my head. “Sorry. You’re stretching events.”
He said, “Naw, I’m pushing.”
We locked the bikes to a No Parking sign, in the median between Broadway and Seven, next to the military recruiting station, that probably hindered Hank’s sightline in his accident.
Hank said, “There’d have been no problem if that speeding car didn’t break the law running the red light. Speaking of things to wish for. I thoroughly concur with a quote of Albert Einstein’s that militaries represent governments’ concern for their own survival more than ours. He of course, I think, bases that in part on language’s absurd uses. Like civilized warfare for instance. What the hell is that? Oxymoronic. We are dishonored inflicting death, period. So not for a second do I believe the modern world won’t rationalize more loopholes, around facts, favoring war. If we’re lucky, parking here will irritate someone.”
And we did. But not anyone Hank hoped to see again. The Man from the LaGuardia Houses had watched us from Forty-fourth while crossing Seventh Avenue too. He tried hiding within the group of working women he was with, but then the Pusher-Man’s face lit up as if he was finally recognizing we saw him too. He wouldn’t go with the women, who’d apparently planned a family dinner at the also now long gone Howard Johnson’s that had sat on that spot in its’ original form for near five decades. The women were agitated by his apparent promise to come
back. So they waited and watched, planted right there. He crossed 44th with a firm bead on us under the Paramount sign, that itself remains and has gone on to hover over a series of celebrity themed hamburger joints Howard couldn’t compete with.
We were glued as the pusher stepped up aggressively. Certain we knew how much meaner he was than us. He said, “You are following me.”
Hank didn’t so I spoke. “No not following. This is a very public place. We had no idea you’re here.”
The pusher said, “No? You don’t live here. Do you know what time it is? Your hanging around makes people uncomfortable.” The Pusher-Man told Hank to “Get lost.”
Hank said, “Like the chemically dependent you feed on?”
But Hank missed seeing the threatening fist by stepping alongside a passing patrolman, the dealer couldn’t have seen come up from behind his back. I caught up with them and heard Hank fail to ask directions. But stutter his admission. “You were refuge from a hostile Times Squarian.”
The officer stopped, turned and said, “Point him out.”
But Hank didn’t budge and said, “Sorry, I don’t consider justice revenge.”
“No sir. Complete justice is the absence of crime.”
“Okay,” the Peace Officer said. “You’ll have to make your way in the real world as best you can without the authorities. I have other duties besides listening to nut jobs.”
And Hank said, “Thank you officer.”
While I thought, as I have ever since of Hank as the kid in the backseat taunting and pleading with his family.