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By Thomas Berger
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 Thomas Berger
All rights reserved.
My name has always been Russel Wren. My game, off and on, is private investigation. In recent years divorce had fallen off. Amongst the people who have sufficient funds to hire a spouse-spy, the kind of trends that applaud novelties in sexual behavior had done its work: adultery became too shamefully banal to cite in legal procedures, and I drew the line at finding evidence of necrophilia or, for that matter, urolagnia.
Fortunately for me, however (though no doubt deplorable for the commonweal—but one example of how interests can naturally conflict in the traffic of humankind), the incidence of shoplifting and employee pilfering had increased greatly as the years went by, and in retail business it was the rare shop that was not threatened with being wishboned between the unscrupulous public and its own thieving clerks.
Posing as a surly wino, a type that ranges with complete impunity in New York, as a raving madman does amongst the Bedouin, I collapsed in a corner of Ben Rothman's delicatessen and in the course of six hours, peeping through a hole in my battered fedora (under which I pretended to snore), I saw one of his white-aproned employees persistently ring up NO SALE while exchanging foodstuffs for money. "Big fellow?" asked Ben, having heard my report. "Sandy hair? Mustache? My own son! Naw, s'all right. Else I'd have to raise his salary!"
I had also observed considerable shoplifting. Rothman, like most white merchants, disregarded all plunder by any person of swarthy hue (indeed, I suspect that more than one extravagantly suntanned Caucasian seized the chance so offered), but there were white thieves aplenty, both male and female, and not one was ill dressed.
By prearranged signal I indicated these perpetrators to Rothman at his post behind the meat counter. He did nothing at the time, but after hours he identified them to me as, every one, his regular customers and mostly from the professional classes, for example, his own ophthalmologist.
My labors having led to no usable ends, I feared that Ben might reject his obligation to pay my fee, but he did not. What he did was to suggest that I collect its equivalent, retail value, in merchandise from his shelves—furtively.
"You don't mean shoplift?" I asked.
"Do me a favor," said Rothman. "I'll claim it on the insurance."
Simultaneously we ran the gamut of Manhattan sign language—raised eyebrows and weary shrug—and I proceeded stoically to fill my pockets with cans of boned turkey, jars of macadamia nuts, and frozen yoghurt Good Humors—the last a taste I had acquired from my former secretary and brief roommate Peggy Tumulty, who during the week we lived together subsisted exclusively on this confection, preceded by either egg-drop soup from a Chinese takeout assembly line or packages of fried pork rinds, washed down with a cola sans sugar, caffeine, or taste, the cute TV commercials for which temporarily rinsed her palate of a yen for any other fluid.
Our relationship reached a natural end at just about the point at which she was ready to assume another fad in food. I had had other female friends before, and I had some after, but I am naturally, even notoriously, a loner. Nor did I replace Peggy. Not only was economy necessary for me (the Rothmans were few and far between), but it seemed to be generally in good taste, which statement is prefatory to my confession that at the moment of which I write I was living in my new office. Thank me for not saying "orifice," given its size: one room.
My former chambers had been situated in a building that was torn down two years earlier and replaced with an automated garage (which, incidentally, when I had last passed it, was itself already marked for demolition: a sign asked passersby to watch for the new home of some state agency working for the abolition of envy, offering free psychiatric treatment for any citizen not yet a millionaire).
My new place of business and temporary abode was not far from my old one: like all wild animals (and most human whores for that matter), I am bound to my turf by invisible cords. Unless the motive is merely a lack of wonder, this might be called a sense of place. Whatever, I am habituated to the area; its vapors are not alien to my snout (whereas I sneeze at the beach); even its derelicts have their place in my maintenance of a state of well-being, and if a regular is missing I might begin, in terror, to question whether even God's where He belongs.
So on this shank of an evening in June. Before my time (he told me) Rothman stayed open all night. When I first came to the neighborhood in the mid-1970's he did business till midnight. Each year saw the deli close an hour earlier. Persons now in their tender years might grow up to buy breakfast there and nothing else.
I moved along Twenty-third Street in my wino disguise. Consequently I walked in peace. That there is no effective form of defense against a derelict is an irreducible truth of city life.
However, as I passed the post office I was hailed by some of the figures slumped there in the embrasures of the several front doors with which the clairvoyant architects of the Depression Era had anticipated the needs of generations hence. Why I felt an obligation to respond I cannot explain, unless it was to test my disguise against the inspection of professionals.
"Will you buy my birthright for a pint of message?" This question was put by a man whose mouth I could not discern, what with the shadows, the whiskers, and a stocking cap that was apparently pulled down to his clavicles. Then I realized that he was wearing no cap: what had seemed a coarse-textured yarn was actually his face.
He had called my bluff. I saw no decent way to rise above this but by crossing his palm with coin of the realm—more than half that sentence is a direct quote from him. For some reason shopworn phrases take on a new sheen for me when produced by a bum.
I rounded the corner into lower Lex. My office was nearby, one floor up, over a ground-level establishment that had changed its identity every few weeks since I assumed residence, from tobacco shop to souvlaki stand to emporium for obscene books. But all of these establishments had failed soon enough, and next came a pair of twin brothers with unidentifiable accents, who opened a restaurant called, sic, La Table Français, but as I discovered upon the occasion of my first lunch there, the pâté was common liverwurst and the poularde à la reine en croûte was a dead ringer for Swanson's chicken pot pie (and they had insolently left mine in its original plate of foil). This meal was priced at $39.95, and the tines of my fork were webbed with dried egg—which on application the waiter genially chipped away with a sable thumbnail before wiping the implement on his shiny-trousered ham and replacing it in my fingers.
Yet this eatery was manifestly an enormous success, perhaps because of the enthusiastic reviews it evoked from all the local food critics, one of whom gave it five of his little honorific symbols, the spatula-and-pancake, and it was routine to see, as I did now, prosperous-looking clients waiting humbly for a table in the long queue that reached the sidewalk.
The striped canopy, which extended overhead from door to curbside support-pipes, gave some protection from the rain when it came, but none from human menaces, and there was no paucity of these in the neighborhood. Having been spotted as an impostor by the post-office lot and having paid for it, I forgot my disguise as I passed the restaurant, en route to my adjacent door. But the last customer in the queue, a portly soul with fluffy cotton-wool sideburns, in the poltroonish belief that I was about to put the bite on him or else vomit on his shoes (which incidentally were of burgundy-colored patent leather, with a horse brass at the tongue), tendered me a crumpled dollar bill. I confess I accepted it, touched my hatbrim, called him "Cap," ambled the few steps to my own entrance, and darted in.
Between Lumpenproletarian and Conspicuous Consumer (who bracket New York) I had emerged seventy-five cents to the good! I was smiling over this unprecedented profit of the man-in-the-middle as I groped my way through the unlighted vestibule, which smelled of mammal (perhaps even primate) ordure, found my key to the inner door, and opened it. I climbed the splintery staircase in the murky light of a bulb of the lowest wattage. My sense of well-being had pretty well run its course by the time I reached the upper landing—and even so had been unusually long-lived.
But unlike some of my fellow men I never wondered what I was doing in New York. For years, you see, I had been writing a play, and there was but one Broadway in all the world. Call me sentimental, but I still get a lump in my throat when I see stars in my eyes—
Metaphor of masochism! I was savagely assaulted at the top of the stair. It would be humiliating to report that my attackers were small children, none of whom I suppose was older than eight or nine, had there not been two score of them, and for viciousness there is probably little to choose between one shark and fifty piranhas. I suppose I might as well add that they were all girls. I soon discovered that, no doubt owing to my education in the liberal arts, I could not defend myself against female minors. (It might have been a different story had I been attacked by a gang of male Army majors!) I was told repeatedly, in terms of which the clarity was no doubt enhanced by the obscenity, that their restraint would not be eternal, that to ensure my life I should do well not only to surrender my money but also to be so good as to open the door of my office, saving them the trouble of smashing it in.
Once again my derelict's disguise had failed to deceive. I was tempted to debate with these youngsters, but a good many of them brandished edged weapons to reinforce their argument. Therefore I produced my wallet, which was instantly torn away and seemingly eaten. I suppose I had had all of eighteen, twenty dollars therein. With foresight I had some time before discontinued the carrying of identifying documents on my person: no harm could be done by their lack (in New York proving one's existence is futile), whereas they could easily be lost to pickpockets and such assailants as I now faced.
But these small girls were not an unruly mob of amateurs. My money proved contemptible to them. They wanted credit cards, driver's license, and Social Security tickets, and the like, in all of which there was a lucrative resale trade. Finding nothing beyond the few miserable bills but a supply of my business cards (which furthermore they could not read), they now appeared to be on the verge of declaring me useless—an ominous declaration when arrived at with regard to a helpless enemy.
I suspect I should not now be writing this account had not the bulb on the landing burned out at that moment. In the darkness I managed to thrust myself against the wall and feel my way along to the door and by touch locate the several locks, but identifying the proper key for each except by sight was the work of many moments, and in truth I escaped recapture only because these youngsters believed the light had gone out by reason of another general blackout and they were eager to get to the nearest five-and-ten and sack it.
After hearing the rush downstairs and the silence that succeeded it, I counted slowly to fifty to be on the side of prudence, and then to still another fifty in the name of pusillanimity. Then I got my locks open and, as a man will by habit, threw the light switch up, even though I, too, supposed the power failure universal.
But the bulb came on with what could be called at least a modest burst of glory, given my late trial in the darkness. I seized it fondly by the neck (this acrobat hangs, headfirst, from the ceiling), and plugged into its auxiliary socket the cord that heats my hotplate. I put a pint of Jackrabbit spring water, from its gallon jug, into my teakettle and set it on to boil, which it would surely do within the hour.
I poured myself a brimful of Uncle Tito's Family Rosé in an ex-jam glass. My desk was also my dining table. I snapped a folded rectangle of oysterish oilcloth from the lowest drawer and spread it across the board. I set in place a plastic plate from Lamston's, flanked by miniature cutlery that had once flown the friendly skies of United. A paper napkin, from a supply that I replenished whenever I visited a lunch counter, completed the setting.
I emptied my pockets of the fee for the Rothman job and put the cans, jars, bottles, and packages before me. The frozen yoghurt bars had begun to thaw in my pocket, I'm afraid. A bad choice: I had no refrigeration on the premises. An evil thought came to me: I could open the front window and drop this mess on the helpless persons waiting on the sidewalk for entrance to the restaurant. Such revenge-fantasies come easily in New York and usually involve innocent victims who bear no responsibility for one's plight.
I resisted this impulse (which was more than the swine could say who launched a half-filled cole-slaw container at me from a fourth-floor window in the Garment District a fortnight earlier), and I emptied that pocket into my wastecan and changed into a pair of corduroy jeans. With a letter opener and a paperweight I succeeded in breaching the various containers in my collection, and I supped on Danish Camembert, anchovy-caper coils, Diet Biscottes, cocktail meatballs, tinned kippers, and chestnut puree, to mention only a few of the dishes, and eventually the kettle steamed and I was able to brew, from a powdered mix, in my only mug without a hairline crack, a sort of coffee flavored with synthetic pineapple and molasses: once a favorite refreshment, if the label could be believed, at the Hapsburg Court in Old Vienna.
Having fed, I sluiced my palate with the last of the rosé, gathered the containers and crumbs into a plastic bag from a supply I had filched from a roll at some supermarket produce counter, opened my rear window, and airmailed the garbage into the cavity between my building and that which faced on Madison Square, into which areaway I confess I had never actually looked since I moved in. I must say that this mode of rubbish disposal had been suggested—nay, demanded—by the super of this decaying edifice, who came around but once a fortnight except in case of emergency (at which time he could not be found at all) and the day before Xmas (when I hid fromhim, for once, and was not even flushed from concealment by the lighted cigar he furiously, recklessly, hurled through my transom).
I put away my tablecloth and from a neighboring drawer of the desk took out the script of my play. Perhaps this would be the night on which I should lick the problem of the third act, always a ticklish one for the dramatist, especially if like me he had filled the preceding two-thirds with insoluble problems, such as that of the priest who does not discover his horror of women until he leaves the Church to marry a Jewess with whose sociopolitical ideology he is in sympathy: a sort of radical bourgeoisism in which all citizens are compelled by law to marry and produce one child of each sex and to travel a sufficient distance by Winnebago camper each summer, else be placed at hard labor in regional work camps. Obviously I had an axe to grind, but I did not want to be so flagrant as to offend future theater parties.
I thought of making the girl black—or perhaps the priest. Or the priest might rather be made a rabbi, a black rabbi. No, an Episcopalian priest, a female Episcopalian, who is furthermore gay, and her mate is a black woman ... no, I was getting too sentimental now. I must start all over again, my hero an honest, hearty farmer of Swedish extraction; he comes to the big city; he meets a kindly female impressionist; he—
At this point my telephone rang, somewhere beneath the tangle of bedclothes on the studio couch. If the truth be known, I was relieved, though (presumably to impress myself, in the absence of any other human beings) I slammed down my Bic Banana, cursed, and assumed an expression of creativity annoyingly interrupted. But not being sufficiently prosperous to impose this upon the world, I answered genially.
A bass and I should say utterly humorless voice told me: "Joo batter get out from zis house, my fran', or be destroyed."
I confess I was distracted by the accent, which seemed to have elements of many languages not closely related to one another. I decided it was a hoax: such things are commonplace in my profession. Many wags enjoy pulling the leg of a private investigator. Call it thrill-seeking, but there are people who apparently get pleasure from calling a total stranger and, in a ridiculously incredible falsetto, making him an indecent proposal. Usually I drop the handpiece in silence, but on this evening I was piqued.
Excerpted from Nowhere by Thomas Berger. Copyright © 1985 Thomas Berger. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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