Most New Yorkers depended on air-conditioning to survive the heat waves of summer, however AC always felt to me, as if a dirty old man from the Arctic who isn’t Santa Claus was breathing down my neck. I actually liked the heat and any temperature under 92 was survivable with the aid of a fan and a couple of cold beers. Past 92 required multiple baths in my kitchen tub and the drinking countless liters of water, however as July 1999 stretched into its second week of body-sapping heat I had to admit defeat. I needed cold.
Renting a car for a drive north to a cooler climate was not an option, since the oppressive mugginess occupied the Eastern Seaboard from Eastport to Cape Hatteras and the meteorologists were forecasting no relief till the end of the month. My bank account held enough money for a small 6000 BTU AC and I staggered out of my apartment with one purchase on my mind.
The nearest appliance store was on 14th Street. It seemed out of range in the pitiless swelter and I stood dazed by the brittle sunlight of East 10th Street, until someone called my name.
Sweat stung my eyes and I blinked several times.
Crazy John was exiting from the Russian Baths. His long white hair was wet and his papery skin was flushed red from the long sit-down in the baths. The old junkie walked, as if his feet had no bones.
“You weren’t schvitzing today?” I loved the baths, but not in the summer.
“Why not? It’s so hot inside the steam room that outside on the street is almost chilly.” Crazy John's blood ran cold as a snake. “You should try it.”
“No way.” I was scared of heat implosion. “I need to get cool.”
“Why don’t you go swimming in the East River?” His narcotic eyes were pools the color of mercury.
“The East River?”
Every day New Yorkers drive by, over, and under the broad stream of the East River. Lovers wandered along its banks, tourist ships cruised its waters, fishermen cast lines for blues from FDR Park and kayakers shot the outbound tide off Roosevelt Island, yet since moving to Manhattan in 1975 I couldn’t recollect anyone swimming in that river.
“Only the Dead End kids swam in the East River and that was in the movies.”
“You’re right, but there’s a peninsula of construction rubble on East 20th Street.” Crazy John was in line to inherit millions from a family trust, but preferred to live on the Lower East Side in order to practice his craft as an addict. My uncle was letting the junkie stay for free in his basement and Crazy John had promised to reward Carmine with a fortune for this favor. My uncle's wife and I thought that the junkie ne'er-do-well was full of shit.
“I see where you mean.” The riverbanks were collecting debris and the debris gathered sand.
”So billions of gallons of sea water flush the river every day. My friends tell me it's okay for swimming." His only friends were the dying breed of junkies haunting the avenues east of Avenue A.
"It's closer than the Rockaways or the Hamptons."
"Give it a try and let me know.”
Crazy John sauntered off to 1st Avenue without breaking a sweat.
Bathing in the East River was a mad idea. It had served as a sewer for centuries. The river couldn’t be clean, but I returned to my apartment and changed into shorts and reef-walkers. The purchase of an AC could wait until I checked out Crazy John’s information.
Hitting the street again, I threw a towel over my shoulder and headed toward the river.
No one was playing basketball on the frying pan of Tompkins Square Park. Old men in tank tops listlessly played dominos on East 13th Street, while a pack of children scampered through the feeble spray from a fire hydrant. I resisted succumbing to its temptation and slogged past the Con Ed power station. The river wasn’t far now.
An elevated section of the FDR Drive shaded a cluster of improvised shelters. The inhabitants lay on cardboard boxes, as if they were exhausted from praying for winter. Come January they wouldn’t be so happy about their dreams coming true. Mine was across the access road and I ran to the chain-link fence guarding the river from the city.
The turgid water was a cold green plain separating Manhattan from Brooklyn. A tour boat steamed upstream and two jet skis skated across its foaming wake. Their drivers wore wet suits and laughed like they were having a good time. The air was scented by the evening tide and I hurried to 20th Street.
It was just like Crazy John had said.
Several old-timers basked on a narrow spit of beach extending thirty feet from the stone embankment. Sea gulls perched on the waterlogged stumps of a forgotten pier. The lap of waves dampened the hush of traffic on the FDR and I climbed over a railing to a rock quay slick with algae. The water emanated a chill and I tested the temperature with my foot. It was cold and I inched into the river. My feet cautiously explored the bottom.
Anything could be stuck in the sand.
I was soon waist-deep and my body was dropping down from the heat. A head popped from the river. It was a man and he wiped the wet from his eyes. The swimmer smiled and sensed my hesitation. “C’mon in, the water’s great.”
“Jamie?” I recognized the voice and the face.
“Way you say that makes me think you thought I was dead.” Jamie stood up like he was tottering on an unsteady perch.
“I heard a few things.” Prison was one of them.
“I’m too crazy to die, but I heard you died too.” HIs smile was missing a few teeth and his beard was a grizzled gray, but he was unmistakably alive instead of dead from a series of ODs, fights, and freak outs. “Something about a bike crash in Burma.”
“It was more a near-death experience than the real thing.” My bent left wrist was a reminder of that crash and I hung my shirt along with my towel on a stump.
“Hey, those are the worst kind.” Jamie was as wiry as a meth addict’s pit bull.
“Is it really okay?” A flotilla of plastic bags floated past him.
“It ain’t the Riviera, but it’s better than Coney Island with a million people pissing in it.” His skin was clear of any rashes.
“Maybe.” Goose bumps popped on my flesh. “It does feel good.”
“If the water looks clean and smells clean, then there’s a good chance it won’t kill you.” Jamie swam on his back. “Don’t be a chicken.”
Those words spurred my diving under the water. The cool wet spoke of Labrador and Greenland. Nothing disgusting touched my flesh and I rose from the shallows refreshed by the plunge.
“So what you think?” Jamie raised his arms above his head. The tracks within his arms were on the mend. He almost looked healthy and I said, “Almost as good as Jones Beach.”
“Hey, why shouldn’t it? It’s the ocean. Only don’t swallow any of it?” Jamie glided on his back and the current tugged him away from the shore. He broke free with a frantic flurry of flailing arms and kicking feet. Reaching me, Jamie said, “Damn, it’s dangerous. Exciting too.”
“I have to admit it’s nice swimming in the city.”
“‘They forbid us from doing it.” His tone made no bones about who ‘they’ were. “A friend of mine dove off the helicopter port. The authorities decided he was a suicide. The fire department and police tried to rescue him. He kept on doing the Australian Crawl. Hah. Even the divers were scared to enter the river. It’s not too bad once you’re used to it.”
“Where you been lately?”
Pedestrians stood by the embankment and gaped at us. It might be another ten years before normal people chanced swimming in the river. They walked away shaking their heads.
“The Bellevue doctors diagnosed me as manic-depressive and I wasn’t in any condition to argue with their assessment. Upstate I discovered that the State was hiding hundreds of madmen and women in these abandoned nut houses. Most of them not really crazy. Only homeless.”
“What do you mean?” I was suspicious of conspiracy theories from avowed maniacs.
“You wonder where those Squeegee men went? No, cause you were too happy with them off the streets."
Very few New Yorkers missed the hordes of beggars and mumbling madmen, although their near-extinction posed a very sinister mystery. “I figured the Mayor had hired a death squad from Columbia to kill them.”
“He’s too cheap to pay more than the price of a bus ticket.”
An old man shouted from a bike. Jamie waved to him and threaded his way through the debris-strewn bottom to the beach.
“Friend of yours?” I waded to shore, careful not to step on a broken bottle hidden by the murky water.
“I met Dynamite upstate. He was once was a fighter, then took a few of punches too many.” Jamie picked up a torn tee-shirt.
“You want me to meet him?”
“Dynamite’s a little touchy around strangers.” Jamie motioned for me to stay in the water. “He should be getting help, but they emptied the hospitals, cause the mayor’s running for Senate and can’t piss off those upstate hicks, so you’ll be seeing lots more of my friends.”
“I’ll keep my eyes out for them.”
Jamie waved good-bye and climbed the embankment to the old man.
Poseidon had a claim on my soul and I backstroked with the current into the river. I was exhilarated by this simple pleasure, until the wake from a tourist boat filled my mouth with water. I spat it out.The passengers pointed at me in shock.
“The squares don’t know how good it is,” Jamie yelled from the road.
I saluted him with a raised fist and returned to the decrepit spit of debris. The sun dried my skin in seconds and I sniffed my arm. My skin smelled clean, but a bath was more than likely not a bad idea.
Back at my flat I scrubbed my flesh raw.
That evening the weather broke and I didn’t buy an AC.
The next day I told several friends about my adventure. Their faces warped between disgust and disbelief. I fought off an exhilarated grin, since I hadn’t witnessed such boldfaced distaste since the grammar school nuns had condemned my wearing a leather jacket to Mass.
I swam a few of more times in the East River without running into Jamie.
Summer rounded the homestretch into September and his prediction bore fruit. Legions of homeless people begged quarters and they harangued passers-by with demented litanies. Most East Villager ignored them in the hopes they would disappear with the change of the season.
School was back in session and one afternoon I stood on 3rd Avenue in awe of the passing parade of NYU students. The boys wore their hair to honor boy bands and the girls groomed themselves, as if they were seeking employment as a shopping mall mannequin. The pudgy collegians watched too much MTV and drank too much Coke, yet happiness beamed from their clean faces and their joy infected the East Village with a blandness of the suburbs.
Tears broached the dikes at the corners of my eyes.
I missed the gap-toothed smiles of the needle-tracked 12th St. whores, the gravity-defying acrobatics of Union Square’s Valium addicts, the ravaged face of William Burroughs shambling through Grand Central, Johnny Thunders falling off his stool, and the constant patter of drug dealers on my corner. My nostalgia was scary, since the bad from those times was so much more memorable than the good.
The traffic light switched to green. Students rushed past the ‘don’t walk’ signal, which I might have obeyed forever, if Jamie’s gravelly voice hadn’t hijacked me back to the present.
“Nothing stays the same.”
“No one said they do.” I turned to face him. He was wearing a rumpled suit.
“Remember the way it used to be.” He pointed up 3rd Avenue. “In the parking lots prostitutes worked out of decrepit vans.”
“Now they’re college dorms.”
“Farther along the street were pawnshops, a gay peepshow theater, and a couple of porno parlors.” Jamie looked worse than the last time and smelled unwashed from a distance.
“Now sushi shops and beer halls for the students.” I breathed through my mouth.
“Shit, the director of TAXI DRIVER filmed a couple of scenes with Jodie Foster at that SRO hotel on 13th Street.” Yellowing bruises discolored his face. He had been in a fight. His hand deftly covered his mouth and slipped on a cap to fill the gap in his grin. “Man, this neighborhood was fucked up. Junkies, sluts, people down on their luck.”
“Not anymore.” His sidewalk preaching was attracting too much of the wrong attention and I crossed the street.
Jamie followed, speaking with a belligerence better saved for the start of an argument.
“I hate these kids. They wear helmets bicycling and condoms for sex. They stare at us like we don’t belong in the East Village. It’s them that don’t belong.”
“Perhaps we’re too old.” I led him onto Stuyvesant Street. There were less people on the tiny square.
“The little stick-pussies pretend they’re us.” Jamie snarled at two teenage punks. “They’d survive about one second where I sleep at night.”
They’re kids.” I had been young once.
“If I ran a gang of thieves, pickpockets, conmen, and grifters, I rip these spoiled brats off for every last penny and send them back crying to their fat-ass parents.”
The idea of a Fagin gang raping the rich was a psycho-flame not needing any gasoline, but I asked, “Little angry this afternoon, Jamie?”
“Damn right.” His eyes twitched without focus. “I finished a weekend bid in jail.”
“For what?” Knowing him it could have been anything.
“This film crew was tearing branches off a tree blocking their fucking shot. I told them to stop and they ignored me. I punched out the producer and was arrested for trying to save a tree.”
“That’s very green of you.” I liked saving the planet, though not enough to go to jail.
“I didn’t give a rat’s ass about the tree, but I hate film people making believe like the shit they film is the truth.”
Jamie was waving his hands in the air to catch imaginary flyballs.
“Then I get out and find out they jailed Dynamite. Shit, he ain’t killing people with tobacco or brainwashing people’s minds with advertisements. Only ranting about a fight he might have lost twenty years ago and if that’s a crime, they’d throw all the assholes talking on cellphones in jail too. I wish I had a hockey stick to slapshot them off their ears. I mean who are they talking to anyway? Dynamite’s crazy talk made it safe for straights to speak on phones like they were talking with Martin Scorsese. Why they have to bust Dynamite? He’s only a drunk. The cops, they don’t care, cause they have orders to protect these fucks’ pretty little world.”
Jamie seized my arm. His fingers bit into my bicep and I pried them loose. It wasn’t easy.
“You gotta calm down.”
“Don’t tell me to calm down.” Jamie spun around, as if a sudden spurt of vertigo might shift the time twenty years into the past.
“Then don’t calm down.”
“Calm, not calm.” Jamie staggered to the fence around a weedy garden. “You gotta remember why this ain’t how it was. Why nothing is the same that it was after the night they took Hakkim away.”
“You remember Hakkim?”
“How could I forget?” His sanity depended on my answer.
“And the night they took him away?”
“We were at the Horseshoe Bar on Avenue B.”
“Good, you haven’t forgotten.” He stood up straight. “Sorry, I lost it, but I get a little crazy, if my blood sugar gets low. They still have egg creams at the Gem Spa?”
A family of Pakistani might have taken over the newsstand, but the recipe was as old as the neighborhood.
“Same as ever.”
“I drink one of those and I’ll be good. You have money?”
A warning accompanied my two dollars.
“You go crazy and you’re on your own.”
“Hey, I’m just having an egg cream.” The evaporation of his rage left him a fragile shell. “You mind coming with me?”
“What are friends for?” I walked him to the corner of St. Mark’s.
“Good to see something’s still the same.” He turned and said, “Do me a favor.”
“What?” I hoped that he wasn’t contemplating robbing the Gem Spa.
“For once it’d be nice for someone to wait around, instead of running away.” He almost sounded like an orphan. “Can you do me that solid?”
While I didn’t owe him any favors, I couldn’t refuse this small boon. I waved him inside and examined the street to recall what remained of the East Village from twenty years ago.
In truth very little.
The St. Mark’s Cinema was a Gap, the Orchida serving pizza and liter beers had been replaced by an Italian restaurant, the Baths were now Kim’s Video.
The people were missing too.
Steven Pines OD, Carol Smith OD, Johnny Thunders OD, Clover Nolan disappeared into East Berlin, Klaus Nomi and Steve Brown of AIDS.
Thousands returned to regular lives in the suburbs and hundreds left for LA dazed by the promise of stardom.
I had gone nowhere.
My apartment on East 10th Street had been my home since 1976.
Back then East Village had resembled ancient Rome a week after the Huns had sacked the city. Apartment buildings had been abandoned by indebted landlords. Other tenements had been torched for insurance and the rest were rattraps overrun by cockroaches with buckling walls and no heat.
The Ninth Precinct had unofficially declared east of 1st Avenue a ‘no-go’ zone populated by thieves, whores, chicken-hawks, hustlers, rapists, scammers, junkies and deviants.
The East Village was dangerous, but my hillbilly girlfriend from West Virginia loved the album cover pose of the New York Dolls in front of the Gem Spa and we weren’t the only ones. The rundown neighborhood was the center of the universe for punks, musicians, artists, runaways, B-grade models, painters, dancers, actors, and sculptors recolonizing the burnt-out blocks between 1st and D Avenues.
Nowadays the politicians, the cops, the shop owners, and the nouveau-riche are quick to claim responsibility for the East Village’s rebirth, however the improvement was determined by one criminal’s absence and if anyone tells you different, it’s because they never met Hakkim, for a scumbag like him came around once in a generation.
July 1, 1976 was not a day for moving. The weather was unbearably hot.
“Why don’t we do this tomorrow?” I was happy in my SRO room on West 11th Street. I had drunk seven beers at CBGBs. My hang-over was second-degree.
“Because I’m not spending another night in this dump.” My hillbilly girlfriend hated the warped linoleum floors and sweating wallpaper. The twenty-one year-old had just graduated from an art college in Ohio. This was the actress’ first summer in New York. It was my second.
“It’s not that bad.” A slight breeze was crawling through the single window.
“Only because you’re near-sighted.” Yanne threw a bag on my chest. Her eyes were two different colors; green with tints of red. The latter was the color of fire. “Start packing.”
“Okay, okay.” I crawled off the soggy mattress and we loaded my books, clothing, stereo, and a black-and-white TV into five boxes. The clerk at the desk gave back my security.
“I get us a taxi.”
The driver of the Checker was reluctant to head into the East Village.
“I’ll give you a good tip.” I loaded the boxes into the trunk.
“I’m not going into Alphabet City.”
“No one said that you needed to go there.” I signaled for Yanne to get in the Checker before the driver changed his mind. He looped around the block to 12th Street to turn down 5th before heading east on 10th Street.
“Easy.” I kissed her.
“Happy to be out of there.”
“Happy to be with you.”
Happiness doesn’t last long in New York.
The driver emphatically refused to go any farther than 1st Avenue.
“It’s only a little bit down the block,” Yanne pleaded with an Appalachian accent. Speaking in tongues was one of her many gifts.
“I don’t care if it was five feet. I’m not going another inch.” The driver pulled over to the curb.
“Thanks a lot.” We unloaded our stuff onto the sidewalk and I tipped him a dollar.
“You said a good tip.”
“It is a good tip for not taking us where we wanted to go.” I slammed the door and the taxi driver cursed me in Greek before racing uptown.
“Thanks for not losing your temper.”
“I didn’t want to start off on the wrong foot.” I looked down the block
A flurry of near-naked children played in the spray from a hydrant, their parents lounged on the steps, and old men played dominoes on milk crates. This rendition of a Jacob Riis photo was why my girlfriend and I wanted to move here. It wasn’t suburbia.
“Guess we’re home.”
“No, home is upstairs.” She beamed and lifted a box. I tried to manage with the other four. One toppled onto the sidewalk.
“Mister, you need help?” Two scrawny kids ran up to us.
“$1 each to carry a box to that door over there.” I pointed to the three stoop on the southside of the street.
“Can we trust them?” whispered Yanne.
“We let them help and no one will think we’re stuck-up white people trying to evict them from their neighborhood?”
I handed them each a dollar and she frowned in disapproval of my bride. The kids joked about us being Mr. And Mrs. Opie, then fell silent at the door to our new address.
A pockmarked junkie lay slumped before the door and the taller kid said, “That’s George. He ain’t dead, just fucked up.”
“Let me see, if I can wake him.”
I called his name several times and then climbed the stairs to lightly nudge the comatose junkie with my foot. As he slumped from the doorway, an enraged voice shouted, “Who the fuck are you to kick George?”
The two kids dropped the boxes and ran toward 1st Avenue. The kids in the spray of the fire hydrant scurried to their parents. A bare-chested black man was crossing the street. He was wearing jean shorts too tight for his muscular build and his eyes bellowed with yellow fury. This was not a joke.
My girlfriend stood behind me.
“I didn’t kick him.”
“You callin’ me a liar, you white piece of shit?” he snarled from the bottom of the steps.
“I’m sorry.” I couldn’t look him the eyes.
“Too late for sorrys. You’re fucked.” The veins on his neck pulsed with thick throbs of blood, as he clomped up the steps in his army boots. “I’m gonna to kick your ass.”
Countless scraps with Southie boys had taught me the value of not fighting fair and I threw the boxes at his chest. Their weight knocked our neighborhood greeter off balance and his body slammed onto the sidewalk. The crack of his head on the pavement echoed off the opposite building. He didn’t move and a trickle of blood seeped from under his head.
The street grew very quiet.
George rose from his slumber and stared at his friend and then me.
“Hakkim, what you done to Hakkim? You fucked yourself good. Hakkim gonna come for you and your little girlfriend. Take your clothes, TV, jewelry and fuck her.”
Anyone stupid enough to threaten you without throwing the first blow deserved a beating and I kicked him in the head. My girlfriend stopped me before I hospitalized him.
“We better leave before the police come.”
I opened the door and carried our boxes to our third-floor flat.
That night I lay awake on the futon waiting for Hakkim’s revenge.
A little past 3AM my girlfriend lulled me to sleep.
“Nothing is going to happen tonight.”
Birds singing in the alley woke us and we made love on a dusty futon. We took a bath in the kitchen tub. She washed me and I dried her. We made love again with the sun streaming into the apartment.
When I went to buy groceries, the domino players across the street greeted me with a wave.
Hakkim appeared that afternoon sporting a stained head bandage and George possessing a black eye and a swollen cheek. Their eyes followed me, but neither man tried to attack me that night or any other.
Their unexpected leniency didn’t curtail their reign of terror against the neighborhood. Two models, Valda and Mary Beth, moved into an apartment across the street. The two models heeded my warnings about Hakkim and installed theft-proof grills on the windows.
For several weeks they were spared the unwelcome wagon treatment, but only because Hakkim had been busy elsewhere.
One night they returned home to discover Hakkim had chopped through the walls, stolen their money, defecated on their beds, and threw their clothes into the street. They moved out the next morning.
A musician friend devised the unusual strategy of leaving his door unlocked.
“I have nothing worth stealing.” Kurt upped this security measure by refusing to clean the apartment. He threw pizza rinds onto the growing pyramid of trash in the corner.
“That’s all I have and, if anyone wants it, they can have it.”
A lack of cleanliness was meaningless to a criminal so far removed from godliness as Hakkim and one day I spotted him wearing a jacket which Kurt had buried under a pile of Chinese take-out boxes. Observing my horror, Hakkim warned ominously, “I been waitin’ for you. Waitin’ real patient for a piece of your girlfriend too.”
After hearing of Hakkim’s threat, my hillbilly girlfriend thrust the Village Voice in my chest. The weekly was folded to the APARTMENT FOR RENT section and she didn’t mince words.
“Find us an apartment quick. I don’t care where as long as it’s not East 10th Street.”
I called the landlord of a one-bedroom in Gramercy Park.
It was available and my girlfriend said, “Go over and sign the lease.”
“Right away.” Our experiment with urban pioneering was nearly at an end.
No one being on 10th Street was strange, yet I’d witnessed enough weird shit in one month and I walked to hail a taxi on 1st Avenue expecting the worst.
Loud shouting rang from the corner.
Hakkim and another junkie were arguing about the split of swag from their robberies of apartments. Hakkim saw me. My eyes narrowed and he laughed, “You gonna throw down on me? You a punk bitch same as the rest of ‘em. I own you all.”
Two-on-one was not fair odds and I snatched a two-by-four out of the trash. I charged after Hakkim. He scrambled between two tightly parked cars and I swung at his head. He ducked under the whistling wood and stumbled into the avenue.
His escape was cut off by a Daily News truck. Its fender sent Hakkim flying fifty feet in the air. He landed on the other side of the street, a bone audibly snapping, and his body tumbled to rest. The other junkie stared at him sprawled on the pavement.
I expected him to blame me for causing this terrible accident.
Instead he rifled through Hakkim’s pockets and cried out with joy upon discovering several glassine packets of dope, then ran east spreading the news that Hakkim was dead.
Long-time residents emerged their apartments and stood over the fallen thief.
Only the untimely arrival of a cop car from the Ninth Precinct stopped their revenge. The crowd begged the police to leave the scene. The officers apologized, “Sorry, we have a job. For him as much as you.”
People swore at the cops, as an ambulance carted him to Bellevue, but no one was afraid to pray aloud for their tormentor’s death and that evening people walked on the block with newly purchased TVs, radios, and the stereos. Stuff they wouldn’t buy as long as Hakkim controlled the streets.
“You still want to leave?” I asked my girlfriend. The sun was setting in an orange sky. Children were laughing beside an ice cream truck. She tucked her arm around my waist.
“If he’s gone, then we’re still home. You want vanilla or chocolate?”
Flowers sprouted in the beaten ground underneath the trees. Supers swept the sidewalks and music filled the street. This miracle’s lasting forever was too much to ask from a place so beyond the pale of civilization as East Village.
Two weeks later I was sitting on the stoop with my upstairs neighbor and his face went white.
“Look.” He had seen a ghost.
Hakkim was hobbling down the sidewalk on crutches. His admiring coterie toasted his resurrection by ripping the flowers out of a recently planted garden.God might have been above saving his only son, but I couldn’t make any sense of his sparing Hakkim.
“Hey, you motherfuckers.” Hakkim waved a clump of roots over his head. ”Get ready for a Christmas in the springtime, cuz I been hearin’ you bought a lot of shit for me.”
Everyone shirked his gaze and I shook my head.
“I have to move.”
When I broke the news to my girlfriend, she started crying.
“It’s not fair.” Yanne believed that Hakkim was coming for her. I did too and took out a five-shot revolver from the closet. It was hardly the most accurate weapon in the world, but if I could get within ten feet of Hakkim, he was a dead man.
Night fell slowly during the first hours of my hunt.
Hakkim wasn’t at Brownie’s or the East Village Artist’s Club on 9th or at any of the shooting galleries on 4th.
I ran into Jamie Parker at the Horseshoe Bar on Avenue B.
“Have you seen Hakkim.”
He pointed to a group of passing Puerto Ricans.
“They’re gonna to find Hakkim way before you. He ripped off their bruja. This fucked with their juju or some shit, so have a drink and let them commit murder for you.”
Hunting someone in hot blood gives a man a thirst. I drank a few beers. My mind imaged Hakkim on the ground before me. The gun was in my hand. My finger was on the trigger. Jamie sensed the rising tide of vengeance and ordered me a shot of whiskey. I pushed away the shot glass.
“I need air.”
“Don’t go far.”
”I’m not going anywhere.”
The night air was still and the streetlights were black. Someone had knocked them out. Running feet slapped against the pavement. It was George. No one was catching the little junkie.
“Who was that?” Jamie exited from the bar.
“Fucking George. Hakkim can’t be far behind.” My hand slipped inside my jacket to the handle of the revolver.
“Help me. Please help me.” Hakkim wobbled along the street on his crutches. “They gonna kill me. Help.”
“Someone call the police.” A gang of Puerto Ricans mocked him.
Plenty of people were on the street and lots more watching from the windows.
No one answered Hakkim and I tried to cross the street to kick him off his feet.
“This doesn’t concern you.” Jamie restrained me from joining the fray.
He was right and I watched, while the terror of East 10th Street swung a crutch at four young barrio toughs. Six more kids ran up carrying pipes. There was no escape for the terror of the East Village.
“Help me for God’s sake.” Hakkim screamed with his head to heaven.
“Anyone want to save Hakkim’s ass?” a teenager in a black satin shirt mercilessly asked the onlookers.
The people in the windows shut them. Those on the streets walked away. The courts might accuse us of being accessories to murder, but that night we were a jury giving no other sentence than thumbs down and none of us lost a night’s sleep about our verdict.
"What happened" Yanne was sitting on the futon at the apartment. She was wearing a white shift like Patricia Neal in HUD. Everything about her said hillbilly.
"Hakkim's gone." I stashed the revolver in the closet.
"Gone?" The question bristled with hope.
"For good." I lay down next to her and pretended that I was Lil Abner. "I had nothing to do with it."
"I know." Her reward was sweet.
That night was a long time ago and I turned my head in time to catch Jamie coming out of the Gem Spa.
He finished the egg cream with one long suck.
“Damn, that was as good as it ever was.”
“Glad to hear it?” I stepped aside for a quartet of retro punks dressed in new leather. They bumped into me as if to demonstrate their toughness.
“Watch who you bump into.” Jamie’s eyes locked on them and they ran off like rats with their tails on fire. He tossed the empty egg cream into the overflowing trash bin. “Wannabes.”
“Jamie, I didn't need your help.”
“Didn’t say you did, just my way of saying thanks for not walking away while I was in the store.”
“Jamie, you be careful.” I had someplace to go.
“That might be asking too much?” Reacting to my facial expression, he added, “Don’t worry, you ain’t seen the last of me yet.”
To prove his statement, Jamie strolled across the avenue, daring the traffic to hit him. A cement truck lurched to a screeching halt and he yelled, “See, I’m invulnerable?”
Reaching the other side of the avenue, Jamie stopped to speak with a fat coed on the sidewalk. He must have told her a funny line, for she laughed with a hand covering her mouth. They vanished into the crowd of college students. He was lucky with girls, although it was the kind of luck that few people wanted anymore.
In the following weeks I expected to see Jamie again, except he had slipped into the cracks of the East Village.
He might be living in a squat with the fat coed. More likely he had lost his temper and the police had thrown him in jail. If not, I hoped he left town and whenever I went to the church on East 14th Street, I lit a candle for Jamie.
Maybe he’ll return, once the neighborhood reverted to its old wickedness, because all the angels in heaven can’t keep a devil like Hakkim in Hell until Judgment Day. He was made for walking the Earth, especially on the streets of the East Village.
In some ways I do miss junkies.
Not Hakkim, but the others.
They keep a city honest to its past.