Hank Greenway left 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, 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 just mellow in contrast to facing I was imprudent 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 just meant to hide here from the vanguard of the proletariat, Srilenko.
It’s the Colonel’s game. But I can also trace that 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. How it occurs to me 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 the dinner table. Seeking my parent’s council was natural since my maternal grandparents, who adopted me, were born in the 19th Century. To me they lived through centuries of change compressed into modern times. Though only a mid-level telephone monopoly supervisor and substitute teacher retirees, I considered them at least equal to the above average humanitarian or politician. My father sat left of 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 were 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 dissolving 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. 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 that’s either instinctual, too slow or late. While everyone is predictably governed by physics, when a bike appears a jaywalker is inclined to utilize both directions as an option. Almost demonically leaping 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 concerning being victimized by the instant is when my hands would flinch toward a clicked open car door before turning 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 more exhilarated. As if relentless routine was bred from the week by pushing for more money. That especially heavy day Dispatch Darrell gave me every delivery he could to “just get it done.” 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 over-stuffed 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 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.
Indoors my routine included rhythmically snapping up packages from receptionists’ desks that angered the usual suspects. While there’s 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 every excess taken all around you, including road divots underneath. Like aware where broken glass is, I should have looked 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 pick-up when the receptionist said, “Have a seat.” I mumbled, “The effort begins” which hastily engaged her confrontation with me from behind my back. The tone of her “What?” 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 don’t know better.
My reply, “Nothing is why” made as much sense as phoning before their pick-up 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?”
I was reduced to shrugged-shoulders shame because the customer is always right. Never the less stretching profit, 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 57th Street negating whatever 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 didn’t bother. 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 the 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 not including my original information. To be done with it I gave him the same clue “Jane,” which at exactly six 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’d been 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 be 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 Times is street level, one step in then five to the left and you’re back across 43rd unlocking from the No Parking sign by the mysterious Crater Hotel’s creepy first floor lounge I’d unlock near, and wonder during which era the dive was okay for employees to spend time in.
But I didn’t get that far flying faster than I should have been that too pleasant Mayday for delay. 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 criss-crossed 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 limo’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 all I felt was pain, my arm was so loose I thought about the body being quite the bag for bones.
Repiecing 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 squinting on a gurney in an extremely bright hospital hallway. Signaled a drug had worn off. Awake was too much effort, so I dreamt of being talked to on the operating table. My shattered collarbone meant my left shoulder would unhinge periodically without a pin to hold it together. So only because, for some reason, I sat upright aware on the operating table, the doctors told me the pin I refused was paid for. And within that dream too, I thought about someone else I knew who woke on an operating table and he 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 sound. I groaned and discovered the vicious assault on my war-weary eyes was the kind face and relief of an inquisitive nurse. She brought me around stating the obvious. “Ah awake.” Which was speculative since easily minutes later she said from the foot of my bed, “Don’t worry you’re taken care of.” She meant everything was all right 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 she strained her expression as much in my interest as she could get it to go. She said, “You remember your accident? Dr. Hammer was in a limo?”
Forgoing compassion I said, “He wasn’t in a Volkswagen,” but that, of course, fell flat to the floor. For my fair lady felt there was no reason for derision on my part. The industrial philanthropist 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 about the good doctor’s activities. Such as his only recently admitting his father named him Armand after the Socialist Party’s arm and hammer symbol. 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. Helping, for instance, 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.”
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 his charity. I said, “Workman’s Compensation.”
She snickered. “Yeah sent home. Worker’s Comp can’t pay close to the attention you’ve received. And to remind you where you’ve been, I heard you woke up in the O-R.”
Honestly not remembering then, I said, “Huh.”
That amused 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 nodded sympathetically, and used her professional scowl. “Just relax,” she said. “The bed has restorative power. Many remember their accidents in their dreams. Relax, have another ride.” Then it was as if there was 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, “Paul Harvey’s radio show. It’s name, The Rest of the Story, emphasizes 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.”
Then 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.”
But she had asked. So I made my proud speech. “Paul Harvey’s The Rest Of The Story highlights the necessity of having more information. And when I mention Paul Harvey, I always credit the mayor of my small hometown who listened every day as being my reason too. I was told he said I’d be someone some day, 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.”
She smirked. Obviously thinking my defiance wasn’t that serious. 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 felt you hit that car hard.”
“From behind tinted windows?”
Her face said that’s enough, but her point had to be left with me. She said, “Dr. Hammer paid attention when he didn’t have to care. He brought you 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 that her eyebrows returned in the doorway answering what. And 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 I was, 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. 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 whole night until, because the shade was up, sunshine made me forget I could be groggy. The source of our light energy psyched me up for the day’s freshest portion. And Mr. Parker’s cartload of books arrived at 7 AM, when I introduced myself with the worst cliché. “All for me?”
“No” wasn’t necessary since the less up to date others on the racks didn’t vibrate like the bright white shiny HAMMER letters that pulsated from his book’s spine. Lucky guy, publishers could afford glossy extravagance. Mr. Parker, as his nametag indicated, handed me the book with a cordial smile. He said, “I heard you want to finish this one.”
I held my tongue and big blue book and perused it right away. I only raised 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 blue of the hardback was darker than the dust cover’s possibly flashier blue. I missed reading after knocking myself out day after long day that left me too exhausted except to read 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 can reassess my skepticism toward the benevolent state? Lost Horizon is on your rack. Can I try to see what it says again?” Of course I was delirious wanting to ponder Allah’s gift of knowledge as love was intended to be. But time is never on my economic situation’s side, and 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 he projects 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 the pursuit of capital. 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. 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. And in a pharmacy’s backroom the druggist prepared a ginger ale cocktail for him and Eureka! In true capitalist fashion, he made a million dollars 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, that were 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 had 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 with himself, to the young Soviet Union. He mentions the trip was to also collect debts his family’s export company was owed. But he implies the pyramid’s top, Lenin, only noticed him in a report about a railway cleared of peasants so Hammer’s goods and services got through to his asbestos mining operation. Armand revealingly admits his bribe was nothing so a stationmaster was shot on his behalf. By a better-fed commissar who enforced the rules on the stationmaster who was just as uselessly resentful as everyone else. One of many cited instances where Hammer scratched his itch to use powerful people all his life.
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, Stalin destroyed. What Hammer wants the reader seeing is his innocent connection between business and politics, I could stand behind, if it 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 venture among the few independent capitalists, called concessionaries, operating 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 also focused on zenith proportions, monopoly for himself. He didn’t make Ford tractors, but insisted 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 many of his people slept.
President Gorbachev is fond for what NEP tried. And with everyone else remembers growing up with pencils stamped Hammer from his factory. What a guy, if life were squeaky-clean his heroic claims could be 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. But that still means Hammer lingered through years of the kulak’s slaughter. Kulaks, also called Nepmen, were the successful capitalist farmers allowed private plots developed under 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 book 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. And 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. Repayment for his businesses’ absorption by the Soviet government. 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 if the writing ambition bit my friends to understand and leave me alone to think about what I had 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 that 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. But who cared? We were left alone privileged with the door closed, while my impatient celebrity visitor bothered to call for an after hours appointment, because us active businessmen 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, that 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 me 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 6th Street, which is where I officially became a bike courier the night my first dispatcher Michael celebrated my first hundred-dollar day.
Both parties were nice except I disagreed with the hospital’s theme. When I said, “There’s no efficacy in suing the richest person involved,” I sounded like an announcement. Painting me Pam’s target since Jim’s girlfriend saw everything about messengering as a negative to fix. Jim, like the rest of us, hung around too long so she had too.
Pam said, “Someone should pay and he can pay more.”
I double-stepped, telling her, “I don’t feel so oppressed. South African diamond miners have it worse.”
That brought Pam’s insight. “So what. This isn’t there. Wherever it’s not good enough isn’t 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 respectfully watching his wife’s triumph turn sad, over an argument she’d won long before her husband’s co-worker 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 nutin. He never lets me live down when we met. He called me wild rookie. I told him to screw himself without me.”
I laughed because it’s uncomfortable when you’re not liked. But I said, “Cop remembered 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. The cop stopped me nine times in a month, and every time took twenty minutes till he was tired 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 to save face, still staring at me, Rodney agreed. “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. And 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 being said about cooperative civility, everyone noticed Rodney’s gaze on me had stayed intense. He said, “Heads filled with your imagination Greenway. The room sounds pumped up by your naïveté. Your obsessions, like there’s no evil. How 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 pushed back from his one against the world position, clinging to the mattress. He said, “It is evil that pedestrians are scariest when there’s no traffic. Ever sprint down 5th 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 is theirs. My nightmare is coming down that hill through the intersection. I’m 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?” And now 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.”
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 it toward 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. It is 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, because the debate was 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 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 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 can 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.”
She said, “Greenway all you ever are is sarcastic.” And she was right.
But 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 fruit 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, 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 and now dawn is apparent for even lowly messengers to know politics are over. Now you have time to 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 just 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 economic relationship. Address wasting your life in this futureless job.”
Though it was my turn 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 I read from Dostoyevsky’s Nineteenth Century vantage, in his book Notes From Underground, his prediction that the future perfect world would include those risking injury just to prove they’re the individual in charge of our own lives. All the risk in this world is evidence this is Utopia.”
Pam said, “You need to believe Greenway. 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, that required bi-annual 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. Without the self-destruction element of our job’s symbolic stature, how could we prove this is, without a doubt, Utopia. If only when humankind looked right through us in the crosswalks, they’d see themselves.”
Rodney spoke for the masses. “You’re delusional Greenway. This ain’t Utopia. The world is messed up.”
I said, “I see.”
But Rodney believed, “You need a beer.”
And Jim and Pam agreed, laughing. “You’re delusional. No one believes this is Utopia.”
So 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 our ancestors’ science fiction barely imagined. Utilities improve, but we’ve arrived. And so, I don’t know about ya’ll, but I’m proud to live in this era when all we have to do is clear up some of the crap.”
Pam wasn’t prone to tethering debate by obligating her whole face and being to unrelinquishable positions. She conceded, “Cuteness will bite you in the ass some day. But jealous of what? One smartass not in office?”
And there my memory of the party fades in awe of Dostoyevsky. Because before realizing what he wrote, I always felt people were against my theories. But sharing one of Fyodor’s, and thought preposterous, I was convinced 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 proud and anxious to give Dr. Armand Hammer a healthy dose of a commoner’s point of view. From one of toughing it out alones’ 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 19th 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. 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 am I catching a fender, they 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. Greeted from the door by his advanced age, my attitude was softened by seeing his large plastic frames that I associated with older generations I grew up respecting. Though both my father and I now wear wire rims, I sympathized with his habitual use skull indentations, that I noticed later was more severe on his right. I thought about my father’s uncommon 90-year-old energy. How he was mowing our lawn at Hammer’s age. Common ground with the fragile worker awarded the privilege of being among a multi-millionaire. I thought about my father and I in the front yard, with our lawnmower, with the electric chord. He advocated to the seven year old that electricity, without the inconvenient chord, polluted less. He led me in the conversation to come up with the idea of batteries myself. I said, “Aren’t they like lightning in a box?” 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. 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. Laughter didn’t crack his reality. A headshake 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 was busier like you, neither of us would be here. My single opportunity is not 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 anxiously from the bed to lean on the window frame. There I said, “Doctor, I’m aware of my situation. Your phone, you pay the tab.”
My impudence was thick. He not only walked into an accident, it was a trap. I’d never thought strong Armand Hammer would have a curious fidget in his seat. But not wanting to move into the open, 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 to beat a cripple with a stare yet. You put words in my mouth when I just asked to use the phone. Yes I paid. But common courtesy dictates your offering its’ use. Your mother didn’t teach you manners?”
Then caring less he consulted a day-planner from his jacket as if I 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.” And sunk another that rattled inside the 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 defended by words.”
Wow lifetimes of stable careers would never accomplish as much as I had egging on Armand Hammer. I called him, “A gravitator among the world’s self-confident financial majesties in their whipped up suit and tie frenzy.”
Our silences were as insulting as was his dramatic grunt while rising from his seat.
I pushed. “You survived an absurd past. I really don’t 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 to ignore him but my shoulder tapped the window frame causing anguish in my voice. As if I was really very mad. How “Ow, yeah choices” sounded I thought I may as well sound 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 to make it so for everyone would.”
His 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 and nodded he was going out. I followed, so he stopped to stiff-arm me, which wasn’t so necessary, but was 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 with his hand on the knob, and gaped me up and down. Evidently considering me ineffectual and lucky to have touched some nerve, he again contrived a little friendliness toward his charity case. He said, “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. It’s late. I’m not young anymore, young man. Good bye.”
I scowled. “Greenwich Village palace by downstairs limo?”
He looked in the corridor and waved his hand for me to be quiet. Then whispered because he wasn’t shutting the door. “Of course there’s a driver. But I let the man, from your accident, go. He was hired for this trip. My usual chauffer is more cautious. I was never comfortable with that man. Now I really have to go call the people who’re waiting.” Then he paused to make sure I wouldn’t follow. I waited with my arms crossed, and guess as some sort of victim he felt obligated to care. He stepped back in 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 less difficulties than if you leave. Please sit. If you stand, I’m under a time limit. I’d prefer no constraints.
He said, “OK” and 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 guy that ran the red light was obviously wrong. What if our culture followed other impulses led by listening to musicians? What if The Police sang, ‘Don’t run the red light’ instead of asking Roxanne not to put hers out?”
From his disgust the middling joke flew right past Dr. Hammer. But instead he said, “Not surprising you accommodate irresponsibility.”
I said, “Yeah,” 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 are a industrial statesman and player who’s ignored overall improvement. You’re a cog fueling the vast conspiracy that has avoided logical space management by using the train at moderate rates. Your era’s mistake was making the train inconvenient. Replacing the train industry’s robber barons, with personal car hoods. Exploiting convenience disabled our nation with traffic. Look at the hub Detroit. Blindly never really in the transportation business. The city’s suburban overlords strategically abandoned their home to fossil fuel. Overdosing the entire country on fumes. Profit potential superceded 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. Translating 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. Life 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. Boom! 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, almost became a doctor.”
“I am a doctor.”
“Barely Dr. Hammer. You admitted in print you never practiced. But don’t belittle the Occidental Petroleum man you are. An entrepreneur, for whom the more consumed the better. And still, I care less. You have nothing to be entirely ashamed of. Your ghosts are as ridiculous as everyone’s. Every success requires degrees of ruthlessness. But”
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. And 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, by purging society’s lackluster, Stalin developed Soviet industry, clearing talent so the mediocre could thrive.”
Hammer cleared his throat, portraying seriousness. He said, “I could say huh, Mr. Greenway. But I know what you mean. Public relations are a necessary devise for a corporation. The real world is tigers and bears. You have to defend yourself from competition. And so, what are you framing me for?”
I said, “Ha. Dr. Hammer, your money’s yours. My problem is the Poor’s portion. And your ilk profiting from inflation’s rise that squeezes less economy to participate in.”
Hammer said, “Your problem is big business.”
I said, “No not at all. That’s your money. The problem is calculating inflation for profit destroys full access. The same little bit of money is just worth less every day.”
“Yes young man. Huh is what one says when someone’s completely off the wall. You criticize, but make some money. That’s how you change your world.”
I said, “Cast off with a cliché Doctor? To 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, he grinned at the floor, aware he couldn’t be prosecuted as responsible. “But,” he said. “Before I go let’s look at you.” 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 won. “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, I am for more the merrier. I just want the results the Hippocratic oath promises. I think medical professionals should be the rich, and Medicine’s management verges on fraud.”
Hammer said, “Sounds like a laborer with time to think about their exploitation.”
I said, “Sure. Why stop automobile roulette, when auto insurance is rewarding. Daylong cyclists are accidents waiting to happen. Cost easily calculated, win-win situation all around, all around. Dot, dot, dot. But is all this 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 the 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?” And Hammer concluded by stretching his legs as if this was fun. And he even considered sitting down.
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 when there’s 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 I said, “Good riddance, Dr. Hammer, but I can’t candy coat things. You meant well meeting me, but your ulterior motives reek.”
He should have been gone twice before. But this time, again his shrewd streak conjured, still 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 your family pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. But ya wanna know what stuck with me?”
He said, “I don’t care.” But he couldn’t open the door because I jumped to the floor promising to yell all the way to the car.
I said, “Nice, Trustee money. By all means protect your reputation. But believe me I’m glad you’re staying. To tell you what caught my attention in your book, 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. His status and pride not allowing my defiant attitude headway. He scowled with a noise that let me know I hadn’t earned his valuable time.
I got back in bed, insisting 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 hide from. You confided in your mother’s early days, she was as devoted to socialism as Rosa Luxembourg herself. And, it was that notion of devotion that conjured an element of meaning in my imagination. I think I saw what happened that one day in her kitchen. When your pride was gushing after 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 touched a vein so I poked. “Remember when you three Hammer kids were sent away? It was in your teens and you lived with separate socialist comrades’ families. Then, you came back home as young adults. Your absence 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. 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 everyone picks at about my family history. Probably that’s where your twisted anger is from. It was a coincidence that 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. Revelations, I suppose you’re too young to know. But decades ago famous former Communists were quoted as saying my father was an ambitious outsider in commercial society because Jews weren’t allowed to be members of the WASP clubs. My father was gregarious and there to socialize as much as anything else. But he saw society should progress, and he was a businessman. And 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, there was particular boasting that afternoon. Just after you were officially rich, in your mother’s kitchen. She was appreciating your family’s advantages through her real memories of people with nothing. That made 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 felt that great wealth was all your own. Your father did more than leave you in charge while he was up the river in Ossining. 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 it’s a lot more. But however things turned out. That day, even if you were accustomed to comforting your self, those distanced years made it hard to comfort her.
“Everyone Dr. gets caught up in their success. And you asserted yours laughing. Making your mother cry. Your claim of benevolence is convenient. You were hard then and why not? You knew business ethics is conquer or be conquered. I think before you decided to exploit a magnanimous gesture linking yourself with history to collect debts for your father in the Soviet Union, your laughter made your mother cry even harder in her kitchen. Laughing that no one person changes anything. But mothers care. She’d personally felt suffering you might have read about. But you with your luxurious American future of ever-blossoming Bronx opportunity, were distanced from humility. So what if you knew that early the communist dream was impossible? You were just businessman. But you haven’t, as claimed, brought nation states together. 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 when you were in your mother’s kitchen. No, you couldn’t save the world but pretended to try. You’re just a backscratcher who made your mother cry.”
He would have certainly wanted to berate me. But he hadn’t heard more than his mother’s provoked memory. His eyes were slits facing me down with every membrane of pride to let me have it for my gall. But couldn’t see me. That kitchen anecdote dredged a piece of conscience that, however true, made his mother loom like cataracts across his pupils. He’d become strapped in his time machine-chair where I left him. He thought he escaped countless times, but I ended up leaving him in that lonely room to get away from his hindsight of streaming tears. Glad Hammer’s money afforded him the privacy to suffer all 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 shaking in her presence 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 unaware of First Avenue’s view. Looking for peace inside, I tried feeling more than my lame bandaged arm across my chest. Then, believe it or not, my eyes opened on looking somewhere out there, for something other than in me. The avenue’s endless stream of glittering red brake lights soothed my mesmerized eyes in a comfortable trance. My fuming subsided into remorse that Hammer might not completely deserve my barrage. He’d profited by feeling his mother. But my explanation wasn’t gladly received, nor crap all his fault. Though easier to be humble when right, I couldn’t apologize. Seeing him wasted in that chair, I didn’t want to go in. But the gown in the cafeteria settled me on the concept of eventually now. And just from his defeated glare at the floor, suddenly an idea sparked like fireflies swarming in my head. Like that night surrounded by them at Uncle Tony and Aunt Maria’s.
Then awakened from my memory I said, “Dr. Hammer. Your mother would appreciate an altruistic gesture.”
Hammer’s head popped up as if he’d been faking. He got up 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 said and even mindlessly swung at my injury because I blocked the door.
He was in my face and 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.”
So I sounded 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’ll 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 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. But my euphoric insult, “We’ll start a business that doesn’t just dig giant holes” alerted his hearing, “The Hammer and Cycle Messenger Service.” Which was a handshake deal over his mother.
The light reaching this little window from between the trees, reminds me, I’d rather be outside watching what’s worse, than imagining how everything looks from this attic. The standoff between the Kremlin and Russian White House can’t be the final result sought by the State Committee for the State of Emergency in the U.S.S.R. But their spectacle started awry. It was a more drunkenly brave than commanding power television appearance, reflecting yesterday losing its’ grip on tomorrow. Desperation compelled their, 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.
Before leaving, our company was here earlier. Whispering in a circle in the dark on the floor, I’ve never been comfortable as their chief before. But I appreciated leadership’s role as a balance held from the helm. Especially in the dark, I could make out sympathy for the coup. Their feeling was palpable, that a nation-state is admirable to hold onto and identity hard to let go. But, there was nothing we could do. So I distracted the Cyclists with my life left behind in the democratically controlled United States of America. Where no matter how close to poor I’ve been, Soviets endured worse. Three quarters of a century, for the most part, searching empty shelves for what couldn’t be used. Their lives were resourcefully built around a barter puzzle. Shrewdly developing opportunities for trade any way they could. And though it was true the majority traded similar circumstances, like anywhere else in the world, 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 coasts on a balance, strengthening those already capable of helping themselves crush the perpetually weak underneath prosperity’s prestige.
Ha! Speaking of prestigious prosperity. I recounted again for the group how Dr. Hammer tried using me to impress or irritate a lawyer he couldn’t sign for himself. So that’s where I gravitated. I re-described how I wanted respect for my wrath 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. And I was provided basement office space in the Mezhdunarodnaya Hotel, 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 can’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. Asking a “bike guy” to wait. But he’d 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. Its one thing when aggressive grunt workers 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 seeing him a stunt. Dr. Hammer 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 the handshake ceremony” and, dropping my hand, hustled ahead to show me my pace was too slow. To keep him there the receptionist had to talk the whole time. 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 to go in first while he grinned at my Individualist of the Year plaque on the hall 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. Going behind my desk, I ignored him with my hand out offering a seat. But, from the middle of my carpet, he took in the floor to ceiling bookcase walls of legalese he probably couldn’t differentiate from telephone 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, before saying, “I don’t want anyone’s money. I want mine.” Then he asked 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 make my own 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. The Doctor threatened to sue the name away from him if he didn’t open in Moscow by September 1, 1990. 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 the accident he paid Manhattan prices alone on his laborer’s salary for writer’s seclusion. That hadn’t turned a corner, so squeaking by made no sense.
Finally, the day before his Moscow flight, 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 after I told him where we’d meet.
Hank said, “Living among presumably poor starving artists in a loft below Canal, huh? Personally uptown’s conservative flash doesn’t have downtown’s discreet crumbling façade charm. 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 that well-sold celebrities usually inspire. He was just near average height with a paunch he never trimmed doing sit-ups. At the office, catching me look him up and down, Hank bragged, “No matter how long I work, I’ve had the tummy since I was a teenager. 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 watched Hank ride up. He locked across Franklin next to Franklin Alley, Then went to White Street, 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 with the gong. From the phone conversation his benefactor was still an adversary, and 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?
His slow lope up my building’s steps, made me guess he conserved energy when not pedaling. Finally he stopped, stunned in tanned disbelief. Looking up at me at the top of my hallway stairs, he saw I inside my third floor apartment, while he was inside at my second floor entrance. He turned to my neighbor’s second-floor door and grinned up at me. Then he came up the stairs in his plain blue Levis jeans and long sleeved, rolled up, t-shirt.
Hank said, “New Yorkers dream of getting rid of the useless entrance hall where we stack our possessions.” Then he sighed from behind the banister, and spoke looking back and forth through the whole apartment. He said, “Luxury’s emptiness. My 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. These couches must form a three-row cinema, while this magnificent entrance is not a hall a tall.” (at all)
Replying wouldn’t have mattered to Hank’s plopping at the top of the stairs. Launched in vane 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.” Then he put his face between two prison bars in the banister 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 appears to be stairs going to an attic, but much, much more. It’s a third-floor Penthouse.” Then he grabbed the bars again for added celebrity to his 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. But there’s an element of truth to this conjecture. Justice is more than revenge. Justice would negate the cause of crime.”
I followed him to the front windows and told him, “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. 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 said, “Generations of struggle dishonored by our suffocating self-righteous 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, “From that sarcastic individualist of the year plaque at your office, I know you’re not in my supposed choir.”
I said, “On the phone when Dr. Hammer begged my secretary to accept your plane ticket. He called you an ‘unrepentant utopian fanatic.’”
Hank said, “I’m convinced.”
So I asked him. “You realize the marketplace for that idea has dwindled?”
Hank said, “I’m not arguing. I prefer thinking I’m difficult for anyone to persuade. Besides, the ideological marketplace isn’t closed until the corrupted logic is 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 to dampen his Leftism. Pouring I said, “Mr. Greenway. You too must be enamored with Gorbachev’s belief, Stalin mismanaged Lenin’s proletarian revolution. Dr. Hammer likes staking his capitalist credentials to that moniker also. But the command economy is where radicals should come down to earth.
Hank emptied his glass and said, “Yes I know. I’m saying good-bye to New York tonight. I want you to ride?”
Either surprised or too confused for an excuse, I just asked, “Where?”
He said, “Everywhere. Have a bicycle?”
I responded, “No” too quickly and, “My neighbor downstairs offered his.”
Hank said, “If not I’ll 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 a bike, so obviously aren’t experienced enough to make a no helmet decision. Like children with softer heads, protected for their own good, you’re wearing one.”
I said, “The humiliation compared to a child.”
Hank 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.”
And Hank grinned when my neighbor’s bike was “better.” He took it on his shoulder to lock 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.
And Hank said, “Thieves are industrious. Not trusted for a second. Did you like that I yelled ‘hurry up’ to bring the ‘upper staired, upper-crust down to earth?’”
I said, “Uh-huh.”
First we rode Broadway south, eight short blocks, “to ride laps in City Hall’s parking lot. Get used to the bike without traffic pressure.” Hank reclined on the front steps, while on my first sprint the wind felt like joy in my face.
Hank said, “City Hall is a great spot. Facing east our eyes go straight up the Brooklyn Bridge. This clear smooth space of rectangular stones, fronting the city’s most powerful steps, is an oasis among giants.”
Because when Hank and I were there, the place was more open and free with less fencing. Not a palace under siege government buildings can appear to be, and City Hall has become today surrounded by barriers and guards. Back then when Hank and I were there, security only required what appeared to be “a person reading something in a sound-proof booth.” Now for the record, today’s extra fencing came about later, but before the terrorists’ weapon of fear changed the city. In the mid-1990s, our next mayor reconfigured the area with more fencing to assist controlling homegrown protest. A control method more flagrantly used when pens were built on the city’s streets for the 2006 Republican National Convention. So comparing back then to today’s washed and floodlit lilywhite bright City Hall at night. The building doesn’t reflect the past’s presence as it had that night for us.
Hank said, “Marble. There’s just something about, built with marble. Get riding fast out of your system Mr. Treynor. We’ll be going slow. And go slower in this triangular park. Idiots ride hard where people expect to walk. I’m against cyclists taking that liberty.”
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 flipped his hand for me to take extra laps. Then I joined him on a bench by the fountain that was at the park’s southern tip back then. Sitting with his head back on the bench, he stared up at the Woolworth Building with his hand holding his bike by the crossbar.
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 devised the boisterous pitches we all fell in behind. While outside here under all the hats, swarmed all the imaginable cons. Drifting but with purpose this country rolled on.”
I was also drawn by, “the majestic Woolworth’s green copper top 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 wiping, so his tears remained felt. He said, “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. It did feel really good 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 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. But 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.”
He 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. But 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. Even stopped here in traffic.”
Hank smiled. “Stopped, you were probably distracted smelling the roses?” Then he thought of “more, 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 a big place. The big city. But traveling neighborhood to neighborhood, I felt the size less profoundly, until I crossed this bridge. The Brooklyn Bridge showed me this wasn’t just a big city. But part of the foundation of humankind’s truly 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 there. Where the metal cables are strung that hold up the roadway. I couldn’t focus, or geez maybe I wouldn’t look. Something about how this gentle giant appeared at night disoriented me. I thought the ramp was that high in the sky, and no way was I going up there. My friend laughed because I insisted I wouldn’t go. I’ve always been afraid of heights. My body goes all soft and squiggly inside feeling drawn to the edge to fly, while knowing I’ll 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 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 make real bike lanes below and use this 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. You’re hurried along in perpetual fear. Also, what about our miraculous telephone that officially placed us in modern times? The courts are freeing rate wars because competition is truly an incentive. But regulations seem to matter more than citizens, as they’re 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, “Competition the decision maker failed us 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 separate the two systems. Trains are portrayed inconveniently in our way. Watch a News Broadcast objectively blame individual drivers for mistaken collisions with trains on their tracks. But bridges were invented a long, long time ago. So, we basically avoided solving a simple problem. A problem because we were busy subsidizing the automotive industry’s supposedly superior convenient system. Trains, a financial burden? Bah humbug! Clearly we’re geniuses at not giving a damn.” He looked at me grinning and said, “Disagree. You’re a lawyer, aren’t you? Attack the bike messenger’s credentials.”
I decided to hold that point for the moment. I said, “Hank, consider yourself depressing. I was happy exercising dormant joints. Your cynicism has worn out my debating expertise. Looking at you, standing there, framed in bright lights. You’re proud of yourself, huh? Picking out what society didn’t get quite right?”
He hopped on his bike and said, “Right. No victory there. More worlds to conquer, let’s sail.”
So we went back down to Manhattan, carefully because daredevils create accidents on bridges and he’d had friends hurt. Hank rode slow on his brakes and spoke when we stopped in the median at Center Street.
Hank said, “Considering my belief in the bike’s importance, it’s still hard to encourage everyone 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 doesn’t move slow enough 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 from the bridge then, instead of taking Center north past Borough Hall and the Foley Square courthouses “that replaced the criminal swamp Five Points,” we hooked south briefly retouching Publishers Row, then east on Dover parallel to the bridge for two blocks toward the East River where we turned north on Water Street, that under the Brooklyn Bridge becomes St. James Place for a couple of 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 the grocery store parking lot, in front of a car coming out the exit.
Hank said, “We’re finding 406 Cherry. 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. Hank said, “A hundred and a half short. The address is obviously approximately, further in the LaGuardia Houses. Past this big tree, protected inside this fence.”
The tree appeared to belong to the school on our left that had the scattered paraphernalia of some unfinished work strewn around. “Planks of wood and buckets.” 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 only a few years later to see the tree was paved over paradise, to put up a parking lot. And not only that, the space is small as if done just for these few prestigious cars.
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 enforced. 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. But 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 is apparently why we were easily surprised while approaching a cement bench at 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 by 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 some day 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. Which is already where we 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 that 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 a question when they know what will be answered. 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 when Hammer was born. That was exposed, or popularized, by photographer Jacob Riis, because everyone knew 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’s auto, slash, biographies are written in several eras to remain current. Might overcompensate for his fear from the curious. Or maybe that happens when you live that long, and get those extra years. What do you know?”
I said, “Speculation.”
Hank answered, “The historians’ route of no incontestable variable.”
“So,” I said. “Hank I’m assuming, third hand of course, Armand Hammer was born here.”
“Upstairs? I don’t really know, or remember.”
“Have pictures? I’d like to see the tenements.”
Hank smiled. “There you go. Marvelous flat images of depth, that revealed their reality’s limited hope. Blank eyes stamped on dirty faces, trapped in a time when opportunity was taken chances.”
“Eloquent charity board banter,” I said. “Ever sat on one?”
Hank looked at the river again. “I wish I was back then when life’s thrill wasn’t just zest for danger, but survival’s desperate reach. I can’t get over how calm their less fair competitive world appears in photographs. Our tensions evolved from their anxious social relationships, but seem less worn on their shoulders than trouble is on ours.”
He paced in front of me fitting his feet between the cracks. He said, “Julius Hammer’s son likes making connections. I don’t. It doesn’t matter that you don’t talk to Hammer. You probably agree with his other lawyers 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 all 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 had money, then got cold feet and be left with something to stake myself to here. But with the hammer and cycle emblem, I lose my sincerity if profit is my personal bottom line. There was a reason I became a bike messenger. Not to make a fortune by accident with a millionaire.”
Again staring between the buildings at the sliver of East River, he said, “Doubt me Mr. Treynor? I get nowhere without skepticism. Tell me I created my own frustrations. Worked too hard for a lot less. The Soviet tradition, wasn’t it?”
I said, “You have your own business now. Work your way up.”
Hank said, “Just do it, yes. I confess I believe that too. That the poor should break free of resentment of wealth they’re saddled with. The grudge they’re accused of, whether defended by the 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. Convie-e-nient toy, liberal-conservative.”
“Try this, Mr. Treynor. During the destituted Depression, our great California ranch President Reagan labored through a privileged young life. 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 have taken the investment money. I can arrange it.”
“No,” Hank said 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.”
But 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 deserving the pursuit of happiness. Money will never inflate enough to solve a crisis. My complaint about circulation, nitpicking? Well, what is welfare reform, your ideology denies slowing down for decades, 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.
“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. He barely renounces his team’s more clearly identified prejudices. Those generations’ Republicans made sure only the absolute poor qualified for welfare. Blaming the losers and crediting themselves with pragmatism. To me its 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 we overshot Utopia. We’re too imperfect. There must be something completely better. I must plead when I pray, and never say thank you. But Mr. Treynor, I can’t ignore this. It 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 be 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, we were stopped in our tracks, listening to someone from around the corner. So relatively long before we saw him, 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, who just claimed to tolerate and pity everyone, toned an argumentative reply. “Does it look like we are?”
The poor addict shuffled his shoulders, and of course, sniffled. “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 avoid 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, you are right. I have to agree. But right now, he’s not coming back until 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 receded 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’ve given up? I’ve felt this anguish before. My friend Richie, killing himself, making your mistake. Everyone perseveres through disappointment. Practically becoming someone else if we have to, to survive. Survival is a privilege. Take care of yourself.” To not stare Hank looked 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, and 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. “You tell people who can listen, and 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 our not really caring about each other. This isn’t a solid business relationship.”
The pusher laughed. Then 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.”
So the calmer man said, “I have to support myself. You’ll go elsewhere when I can’t provide.”
“I have money.”
“I know, let’s walk.” And The Man actually reached out to escort his frailer crippled comrade, while aiming a type of smile at Hank.
Then rolling the other way Hank said, “I knew better than to agitate people processed into desperate criminals. But the 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 spiral on the Lower East Side by taking Pitt Street to 304 Rivington. “Where the Hammer family moved after their initial successes in the young century. Another housing project rising from the sight.”
Then we went up a block and west a couple on Houston (Howston). And instead of going immediately north on Avenue A, we stopped across A at that intersection’s northwest corner. Hank liked to snicker and did it again while leaning his bike on the wall. He said, “Take a breather, our fifth stop.”
I wondered if riding all day, how he was immune? But I said, “At this rate, we’re out all night?”
He said, “Don’t put up with it. We can angle back toward your place now.”
I said, “That’s okay, but you intend to stay out all night?”
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 towards us across Avenue A. She seemed to float in her flowery print dress. So I looked for sneakers she moved so smooth. Her Afro’s softness, and dark brown skin radiated a pleasant texture emphasizing 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.”
Her face contorted stepping on the curb. She said, “Hank.” But not rough. And, “I thought you weren’t coming back?”
And 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 was crossing without looking at traffic that stopped just for him.
He stayed in the street, while Hank on the curb came almost to his shoulders. The man said, “This is the last time I just tell you to stop bothering Terry.”
No one could mistake this 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. 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 called the police on this nuisance and his accomplice.”
I didn’t think much of Hank’s foil, but there was obviously trouble here. The larger man abruptly left, certain his booming “Find another life” was heard from behind his back.
To me Hank said, “He thinks he owns her.”
Despite the discomfort, just seeing her seemed important to him. I even felt we’d accomplished something riding up A to 7th Street and Tompkins Square Park. Hank pointed out the “Congressman Samuel S. Cox statue under the corner tree.” He said, “My excuse to come this way. 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 helped pass 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 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 measures came about before a Laborer’s Union could position itself for 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 to amuse himself. We propped the bikes on the construction fence that was still up from the park riot the summer 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 by walkie-talkie was told by his superiors to pull me in. I explained I can’t go to protests because my shoulder comes out, and he let me go. It was a mess just as a standoff. The park was full of screaming, surrounded by the 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 had after I left.
“Anyway. I thought it was awkwardly out of place when I first came across this statue, camouflaged by this tree. But it turned out there’s a nice coincidence. The congressman faces directly across 7th Street, at exactly where Kerouac and Ginsberg walking by had their simultaneous epiphany of a more cooperative future understanding. I found out in a guidebook. Imagine that. Here at this spot, I often felt philosophical thanks to the congressman. Before I knew about The Beats elevated moment of consciousness. The statue feels placed out of the way. And in fact I read in the library that letter carriers themselves ceremoniously paid for placing this honorable image where the more prominently viewed Astor Place cube now stands. Eventually everyone walks through Astor Place. Cox, the letter carriers’ friend, was cast off here. Maybe as a 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/entrepreneur issue?
I asked, “Moved when?
So before him I said, “Sounds right on the timeline.” Why be ineffectually unable to get the talented comedian to shut up? I said, “But there were communists, Hank. Over reaction was a natural instinct.”
Hank said, “No doubt. But for me the statue symbolizes 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 we so generously allow 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, as they were 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 for six running 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 said, “We all dream of living far beyond the paltry lives wages provide. But Congressman Cox might believe with me. Looking at today’s results, we’re a beautiful mess.”
Someone from nearby gigglers said, “Tell em white boy.”
Hank laughed and became deliberately slow. He said, “This, this is the crux of the American way. Our guaranteed right is the opportunity to pursue personal wealth. Beautiful. But desperation’s clawing has gotten our idolizing 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 because he’d said upperly.
“Upwardly. Drawing attention to make a point.”
I didn’t answer since the crowd hadn’t grown in my favor. Accustomed to listening, I knew Hank would find his own way to argue with himself.
He said, “Today. Not in some distant past era. But today efficient systems organized to take packages from my hand and be sent easily on my proletarian way are not the rule. An hilarious frustration is when I’m passed to the next person, because its not their job if someone neglected to post a receptionist. I’m expected to facilitate their jobs, finding 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 them when all they have is all day and I need out of there. Deep in the day, the 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 recognizing your looked down on 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 it’s not just government employees who treat couriers poorly, and they’re getting better. But really, ignoring us is not the general rule. Lower class deadbeats just aren’t wanted unescorted in the halls. We’re identified as such because only the stupid would hustle so hard. While, at the same time union members are the scapegoat for the image of less work for more pay when there should be nothing wrong with designating a job’s capacity within a framework so the share of profit is less exploited. But. But there was a dark side to the coin of organized. Legitimate union workers were scandalized by rats nibbling extra portions of cheese. Yes corruption. But that’s capitalism too, 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 thugs originally hired to beat them up. The ridiculousness of muscle and power as humanity’s root of organization. So, at the end of the corridors of cheap labor, citizens are left mad at overworked bike couriers for being in such a 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 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 anymore. In general, the people aren’t worth the value of the city. But of course 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 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.” I asked, “Ever read Forbes? That family’s magazine empire was built on that premise. Making capitalism fun for everyone.”
He 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 pre-eminent rock acts of the Sixties. Adoring fans inside the Joshua Light Show, they say could, in and of itself, blow your mind.” He smiled. “Now it’s a drug rehabilitation center 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. They populated the side streets. Just worn out dreams waiting out their time on the avenue. The few flops that are left, do 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. They’re due for a jump. The entrepreneurialism on the margins here won’t be practical for an economy in high gear. Already isn’t now. We’re becoming 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. And where would capitalism be now without the boarding house step. The enterprise transient hotels date from. There’s already less room for this particular Twentieth Century losers’ delirious lonely march to the grave. Who cares if bums feel independent?”
I said, “Nice relentlessness garbled projection.”
So Hank smiled, turning right at Houston, while getting off his bike. But he pointed south. “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. He was visited by countless counter-culture celebrities in honor of his courageous defense of the criminally addicted.”
My patience was shot for Mr. Greenway’s contrary issues. I said, “What advise could Burroughs possibly give? Do you know the statistics, the numbers criminally tortured in this city?”
Hank stayed on the sidewalk and stopped for the red light. He sat on his crossbar. “Mr. Treynor listen. People miss what Burroughs’ target was. The establishment’s straight-jacket control that bursts us 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 advise 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 its exactly like the Sixties. Anchorless experimenting, and thrill of defying authority. The misunderstood rebellious urge. 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 remaining enthused 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 team 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 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 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 all the bikes on Houston’s south side took up all the available street furniture. So to lock we walked to Bleeker. Hank said, “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.”
And Hank talked the whole block, from Bleeker back to Houston. He said, “I met Steve Holman three years ago when he assisted bike messengers’ resistance to Mayor Koch’s mid-day 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 I, wondered out loud first if Koch knew that would bring the diverse bike culture together for the revolution.”
Hank laughed because he thought, “Remove the violence from Leon Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution, its perpetual change. So Steve’s a really nice guy. In the front windows there’s usually signs for causes. Unless he’s in a minimalist stage and they’ll be bare of progressive propaganda. But Steve is big on listening to what you think. He 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 there was a small backyard of people, and inside, at the back right corner, there was a light 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 getting like-minded people 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 put a hand on the bar and said, “Saying goodbye to New York before off to the bitter cold.”
“You’re really going,” Steve said. Smiling with both his eyes and his mouth.
So Hank answered embarrassed. “Aeroflot in the morning.”
Steve grabbed 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 got nearby groups’ attention. Then Steve said, “I toast that tomorrow resembles today, and we are all there, having a good time.”
While I sipped I both put theirs’ on the bar without drinking. And Steve said, “Matter of factually, we don’t drink, generally.” Then he nodded emphasizing no one tended bar.
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 being liberally shaken down by Hank. West we hugged Houston’s north curb. “To avoid the cars using the extra-wide straightaway as a drag strip to not be stopped by blocks of eventual red lights. This extra lane for cross-town traffic draws them here. Really gets them flying. Steve has heard many collisions from his store. That dogleg glitch at Houston and Lafayette promotes accidents.”
Passing Broadway coasting Houston’s decline, Hank told me about 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 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 to the front registers he spun more riddled attacks on “consumer items.” 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, the tribulation is in today’s hunters’ eyes. 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. Hear the silent groan of us working ourselves to the grave?”
“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 and put his purchases on the counter with their price tags up for the cashier. Hank 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 other 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 a major portion all by himself.
Offered again, I said, “No.”
Hank said, “I know I’ll recall the supermarket aroma 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? It 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 helped inspire his moving to New York, had shown an award winning high school film there. And one night he met a Japanese woman there and lost his “virginity the same week The Village Voice announced a new sex disease was discovered.”
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 happen somewhere else. As it was and is, commercial theatre has to wait to see a success before performing one.”
We stopped and looked across Washington Square Park from Fourth Street. Then he turned around to face the theater.
Hank said, “You know there are very literate plays built around unfulfilled dreams that undermine the characters having them. About a void that can’t be filled, yet Willie Loman still got to wear a suit and tie, every day, even as he drove off into oblivion.”
“Your point Hank?”
“Sometimes in their failure, unfulfilled dreams come true. The imagination lives out reality without us. Imagine this crowded tourist trap. This neighborhood was home spawning ground to the folksingers’ meaningful musical messages that circulated out in waves heard all over the world. Their point only partly undermined by commercial success that promoted some big time. Seems a little strategy, apparently built on the naive courage of the frazzled 1930’s era American communists, Woody Guthrie’s friends. Mix in The Beats defiant stop telling everyone 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 scope to our vision. All irritated into pearls inside capitalism’s oyster, just trying to get by. And yes make more than a dime. To do so, and hit a nerve, they had to strike major chords for attention. The climb to stardom always manufactured.”
After the park we went west against traffic again. Crossing Sixth Avenue, we went a short distance up Fourth and Hank stopped us at the southeast corner with Jones.
Hank said, “Across from us, Dr. Hammer’s Carriage House, seven storefronts in from the Avenue Six. Hammer admits throwing parties with the expensive stuff here during Prohibition.” Then he saluted and I waved thinking that was enough.
We went slowly west against traffic again past Seventh Avenue, where the street switches direction and we’re finally with traffic as Fourth Street continues at a northwestward angle to even cross Tenth Street. Hank said, “None of the avenues do that but Broadway.”
But the bright lights now became less lustrous as we neared a darker spot. 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 to also pose at Greenwich and Little West Twelfth. Opposite us on two separate corners of the Meatpacking District, 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, between Thirteen and Fourteenth Streets. Where the tiny seven-storied triangle building sits. 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 to 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 invited me to come by.”
Benjamin said, “Going in? Gratis. I’ll watch the bikes.”
Hank said, “We have a lock. They’re my responsibility. Mr. Treynor? Going inside?”
Hank’s friend laughed, looking at him. “Still messenging I guess?”
“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?”
“Except for 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 nice change if you weren’t foolish. They call you a putz.”
“They’re right. And know too much for they own good.”
Which was enough for me. I said, “They are not here. Stop speaking for them.”
But Hank ignored that. He was focused across the street on what appeared to be a sixteen-year-old Puerto Rican girl, in a mini-skirt, with her baby-sitter.
Hank said, “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 really sweet grin below the limo’s roof, with one hand left on top. Hank kept his eyes on the scene until both women got in the “extra-large comfortable machine.” That immediately took off, “anxious to blend in 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, “I am.”
So they continued their verbal sparring in 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 gratefully lucky 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. The elder business girl was so shaking scared she couldn’t stop uncontrollably yelling for help. Hank grabbed one of her shoulders, temporarily focusing her 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 back. Insisting she could help herself. Upright she flashed the universal hand signal of personal aggravation, and screamed, “Mari cone!” Her friend laughed nervously, then the prostitute animated her face at all three of us. Giving us the treatment she said, “Who’re you guys?”
“Innocent bystanders,” Hank said.
So the sweet sixteen grunted to her friend. “You know them?”
And 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 to make sure he’d pass. He said, “Go right ahead. We have explanations for being here.”
“Look,” she said sizing us up.
Past her Benjamin would have none of it. “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.” And Ben trotted ahead.
She’d heard it before, and judged our 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 has three syllables.”
She lit up. “Ah definitely. You’re some kind of goofy goody two shoes. 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. She’d become a part of 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?”
And “My lawyer” lightened everyone’s moment but mine.
“I know,” she said, still laughing. “You’re comedians looking for material.”
But Hank ignored this farce. He said, “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 tossed across her face to accentuate her seductive talent for offering a closer friendship.
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 misled.”
“Hardly,” she said. “I’m only trying to give you some hope. Unless your lawyer is your type?”
Everyone again laughed but me. It was rude. My mind wandered off from Hank and his hooker. He wasn’t interviewing, or even just talking with. He was 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. My attention returned and events had passed from Hank’s control. 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. It’s part of my job to find talent.”
The girls smiled. The pseudo-child’s eyes encouraged her backup to offer more to their adventure. Obviously the screamer never said no to her friend. Their boss said, “We’ll try.” Then 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. And back during my first year here in ‘81,’ one weekend summer night. From Hudson Street, I saw Christopher completely packed with males exactly like sardines. 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 it as all they know. 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 thought. Hanging by the piers. Strangely, I laughed to myself. Hank went so far in his thinking how to recover all of society’s parts. As uncomfortable as that place was dark, I began to understand his caring for absolutely everyone. Even in that bizarre environment, I felt less 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. But Hank demonstrated choices brought about by twisted circumstances. Consequences shouldn’t have include twisting back. I began seeing 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.
The Out Reach Van parked to hand out food and condoms and Hank held out his hand to point. He said, “The entrepreneurial show. Lemonade from lemons. Money can do anything. Be commercial life, and even charity that’s not. That van gives out food and condoms because benevolence has a profit. To me this place is already nice. Without intending, a long stretch of asphalt playground that should be a park.”
And less than a decade later Manhattan’s long Westside stretch became a more luxuriously landscaped strip of parkland than dreamed possible. The entire stretch today sculpted and pristine, “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 mega-sports empire Chelsea Piers. 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 from somewhere.
Taking out the blade, Hank said, “Moments without people are a luxury in this town. If you’re lucky, you distance yourself from the suffocation living in a larger box. They want to fill in the Westside. Why? The island’s sides, where there’s space, is what I’ll miss most living on my bicycle in New York. An escape valve from the crowd so the city’s not crushed. Hmm. Yeah. But my favorite time is actually when this place feels most crowded. Every fall citizens fill the sidewalks at dusk. Its as if everyone is out 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, but anxieties lift with the earth’s heat, following after the setting sun. The atmosphere’s lessened chill sets 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 the 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 that surround us in the midst of the night’s momentum.” Then he sucked air between his teeth. “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. We 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 of a two story warehouse space, that went from the middle of the block to the corner of Thirtieth and Eleventh. Replaced today by a model mid-sized corner high-rise.
We sat on our crossbars across the street. Hank said, “I worked in that warehouse in my first Manhattan job in 1981. 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 and 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 for both avenues’ half-block access to the Lincoln Tunnel. On Thirtieth’s south side is the block long U.S. Postal Service Processing Center. And 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 seldom left the spot for any reason. Her red dress appeared 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 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?”
To not disclose my name alone, I said, “Thanks Mr. Greenway.” Then I surprised myself finding whole wheat hit the spot.
Hank signaled for the bag and slapped a parked car to make sure there was no alarm before sitting. I imagined he presumed alarmed cars learned not to park there. He 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, sometimes four for lunch, when not preoccupied reading across the street from the warehouse. I remember 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 I always thought of you as this area’s mayor.”
She couldn’t help smirk, and reach for the bread she 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 inadvertently 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 parked car this time, and put the other loaf near her.
He said, “I’m sorry people expect us. 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.” And riding away a block up behind the Main Post Office said, “Sad seeing anyone go.” 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. I don’t know if she eats lunch at the church down the street. But, 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 as if 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. 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. Random sarcasm about what buildings represent, so, now, we’re ready. Stop.”
Hank sat on his crossbar and stared, from across the street, at 110 West Fortieth. He said, “Looks like ivory mosaics frame the windows, up all twenty-nine floors. Today’s more simply efficient buildings don’t have the early century’s ambitious carved style.”
He stayed on the bar, but shuffled. “This is where Ludwig Martens ran the Russian Soviet Government Bureau shortly after the 1917 Revolution. 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 of the J. Edgar Hoover managed 1919 Palmer Raids. Martens testified before Congress, and placed documents in evidence, showing companies’ willingness to trade with the Soviets. Then we deported Ludwig and the smoke and mirrors continued in righteous lockstep grandeur through the decades. Not having to really understand made it easy to not relate. Go through the hostile motions and play 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. And a while back, I talked to all three concierges and the Super separately. They all ignored me till I went away. Junior Hammer’s autobiography glosses over this place, but boasts about his confiscated Soviet Amtorg office downtown. Lower Broadway, across the street from John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Building. Oo la la.
“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 Ludwig Martens’ New York Harbor deportation, departure film 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 he was traveling with any film, at all. Or is it shrewd? If you’re going to be questioned anyway, they may as well be dumb.”
“Now, now,” I said.
Hank grinned as if he let the brown cow out himself. “Hammer was only a symptom, not any 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. On our family trip north, when I was five, 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.
Hank said, “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. “Op. Speculation Bush will raise taxes. I’ll miss the world’s capitol. 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 capitol was depended upon for insight. Broadway spawned its’ own share of silliness, but was home to enlightening plays. The modern world woke to cultural imagination from the stage. Not dramatainment that’s gloss upon glossy gloss of less substance. Watch out. It is 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 at where he slammed into the car on Seventh Avenue. “In front of The Paramount sign. 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 double-wide streets, it was packed full of screaming kids, led by those paid to bring them. I think they polished a promotional event, that had been refined to a science blocks down the street on Music Publishers Row. They sang out their windows to make their careers. Frank, well, he’s 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. The Fab Four had their shrilling America-wide Ed Sullivan Theatre premiere there.”
“Hank,” I said shaking my head. “Sorry. You are 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 be no problem if that speeding car didn’t break the law running the red light. Speaking of things to wish. I thoroughly concur with Albert Einstein’s quote. 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. Such as civilized warfare. 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 after crossing Seventh Avenue too. He tried hiding in the group of working women he was with. But then the Pusher-Man’s face lit up as if he was recognizing we saw him too. He wouldn’t go with the women, who’d apparently planned a family dinner at the currently, also now long gone Howard Johnson’s that had sat in that spot in its’ original form for decades. The women were agitated by his apparent promise to come back. So they waited and watched, planted right there. He crossed 44th looking firmly at us beneath the Paramount sign, that itself has gone on to hover over a series of celebrity themed hamburger joints Howard couldn’t compete with either.
We were glued and the pusher stepped up aggressively. Certain, we knew how much meaner he was than us. He said, “Are you 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 the threatening fist by stepping along side a passing patrolman, the dealer couldn’t have seen 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 and said, “Point him out.”
But Hank 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. He’s the kid in the backseat taunting and pleading with his family.
“Isn’t this Utopia, aren’t we there yet?”
I was immature earlier drawing a quick fire in this notebook when we had to be quiet. The picture, in the center of our circle, caused huge sober Russians to giggle and create spasms that rippled across the wooden floor in waves. My gesture proving nothing replaces reality for ultimate pleasure. Even now, alone, this haunted attic is less creepy and empty with so much other activity going on. The book is an anchor kept company, while ceiling patter represents more than just cover from the rain, or mortal aspiration under Mother Nature’s patient care.
For non-public comment:
Smaller print version.
Rather than advertise something’s coming, chapters 1 & 2’s purpose, this was the book’s e-mail promotion in 2010.
is Chapter One of The Hammer and Cycle Messenger Service
by Charles M. Fraser
- A KALEIDOSCOPIC COLD WAR VIEW -
Answering 25 people I included this letter.
The following was my reply to a query from a Political Science Department Chairman. "Do you have background on this stuff?"
The Hammer and Cycle Messenger Service first chapter link was e-mailed to Political Science Faculties as a form of peer review. June of this year the History Dept. Chairman of the University of Central Florida informed me the university cannot change grades given before 1997. My 1978 senior thesis, Open Soviet Culture by including Leon Trotsky in their history, was a washout that Dr. Evans let me slide with an Incomplete. Dr. Evans agreed to no time limit for changing my Incomplete except for unforeseen circumstances such as 1997. My intent contacting your Political Science Department was to at least show my respect for Dr. Evans' grade.
I never intended for the book to be publicly seen until published. The audience management business changed since the title occurred to me in 1988.
I love the book's background stories, but trying to entertain and explain the paragraph above I've erased a lot realizing this letter should be concise. Thank you very much.
Charles M. Fraser
Speaking for myself alone of course and not the distinguished professor who offered me the opportunity to explain, I’d love one more re-write of that letter but there are last drafts even on the bottom of the literary pile. I guess on my book’s behalf I wish Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer were still around focused against my historical interpretation too. Parlay The Hammer and Cycle Messenger Service a toehold where history lies in popular culture.