Most New Yorkers depend on air-conditioning to survive the summer heat waves, however AC always felt to me, as if a dirty old man from the Arctic was breathing down my neck and that dirty old man wasn't Santa Claus.
Truthfully I liked the heat and any temperature under 92 was survivable with the aid of a strong metal fan and a couple of cold beers. Above 92 Fahrenheit 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 surrendered to the weather.
I needed cold.
Renting a car for a drive north was not an option, since the Eastern Seaboard was smothered by an oppressive mugginess from Cape Hatteras to Eastport. My bank account held enough money for a small 6000 BTU AC and I staggered out of my apartment onto the breathless sidewalk.
The nearest appliance store was on 14th Street, but I was dazed by the brittle sunlight of East 10th Street, until someone called my name.
I blinked several times and saw Crazy John exiting from the Russian Baths. The white-haired junkie walked toward me, as if his feet had no bones.
He was not a friend.
No junkie is.
Crazy John was standing in line to inherit millions from a family trust. He lived on the Lower East Side to stay close to his dealers. My uncle let the remainder man sleep in his basement, since Crazy John had promised to reward Carmine for this favor.
Personally I thought the ne'er-do-well was full of shit.
Most rich people are when it comes time to pay their debts.
Especially rich junkies.
Crazy John stood at the bottom of the Bath's stone steps.
He glowed red.
“You weren’t schvitzhing 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 winter.” Crazy John's blood ran cold as a snake. “You should try it.”
“No way.” I was scared of an internal heat implosion. “But I need to get cool.”
“Why don’t you go swimming in the East River?” His eyes were narcotic pools the color of mercury.
“The East River?”
"You have to be joking."
"Not at all." John was as serious as an OD.
“Only the Dead End kids swam in the East River and that was in the movies.”
“You’re right, but a peninsula of construction rubble sticks out from East 20th Street.”
“I see where you mean." That spit of sand covered an abandoned sewer outlet a block south of the gas station underneath the FDR Drive."
"That's it and I've seen people swimming there. Not me, so I can't vouch for the quality of the water, but billions of gallons of sea water flush the river twice a day. My friends tell me it's okay for swimming."
His only friends were the heroin addicts haunting the blocks between Avenues A and D.
"I'm not sold."
"It's closer than the Rockaways or the Hamptons. Give it a try and let me know. I might join you one day.”
Crazy John sauntered off toward shooting galleries on East 4th Street.
Sweat ran down my face. The sidewalk radiated heat. I reflected on Crazy John’s suggestion.
The East River had served as a sewer for centuries, but the old addict was right. The East River was close enough and 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 with a towel over my shoulder I headed toward the river.
No one was playing basketball on the asphalt frying pan of Tompkins Square Park. Old men in tank tops listlessly played dominos under the wilting trees of East 13th Street, while a pack of children scampered through the feeble spray from a fire hydrant. I resisted 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 derelict inhabitants lay on cardboard boxes, as if they were exhausted from praying for winter. Come January they wouldn’t be so happy about having their dreams coming true. I strolled across the road.
The broad East River separated Manhattan from Brooklyn. A tour boat steamed upstream and two jet skis skated through its foaming wake. Their drivers wore wet suits and laughed like they were having a good time. The air was scented by the evening's incoming tide and I hurried to the sand spit projecting into the green water from 20th Street.
It was just like Crazy John had said.
Several old-timers basked on lawn chairs and sea gulls perched on the waterlogged stumps of a forgotten pier. The lap of waves dampened the rush-hour traffic on the FDR Drive and I climbed over a railing to set foot on the algae-slick sewer outlet. The water emanated a chill and I tested the temperature with my foot. It was cold and I cautiously inched into the river, because anything could be stuck in the sand bottom.
Soon I was knee-deep and thought I was the only one in the river, then a man's head popped from the river and he wiped the wet from his eyes.
The swimmer smiled with a broken grin.
“C’mon in, the water’s great.”
He wasn't a stranger.
“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. OD was another.
“I’m too crazy to die, but I heard you died too.” His beard was a grizzled gray, but he was unmistakably alive. “Somethin’ about a bike crash in Burma.”
“It was more a near-death experience than the real thing.” A bent left wrist was a reminder of that head-on accident 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. "Are you going to swim or what?"
“Is it really okay?” A flotilla of plastic bags bobbed past him.
“It ain’t the Riviera, but it’s better than Coney Island with a million people pissin’ in it and I haven't broken out in a rash."
“It does feel good.” I waded into the river and goose bumps popped on my flesh.
“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 underneath the water and I rose from the shallows refreshed by the cool plunge. The few of the sunbathers ignored us.
“So what you think?” asked Jamie and I replied, “Almost as good as Jones Beach.”
“Hey, why shouldn’t it? The water comes from the same ocean. Just don’t swallow any of it?” Jamie glided on his back and the current tugged him away from the shore. He broke free of the river’s grasp with a frantic flurry of flailing arms and kicking feet. Reaching me, Jamie said, “Damn, it’s dangerous. Excitin’ 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 doin’ the Australian Crawl. Hah. Even the police divers were scared to enter the river, but it’s not too bad once you’re used to it.”
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.
“Where you been lately?”
“The Bellevue doctors diagnosed me as manic-depressive and I wasn’t in any condition to argue with their assessment. They sent me to a hospital near Binghamton, where I discovered that the State was hiding hundreds of madmen and women in these old nut houses. Most of them not really crazy. Only homeless.”
“What do you mean?” I was suspicious of conspiracy theories from such a dubious source.
“You ever 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, 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.”
Up on the promenade an old man shouted from a bike.
Jamie waved and returned to the beach.
“Friend of yours?”
“I met Dynamite upstate. He was once was a fighter, but too many punches left him a little brain-dead.”
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 thinkin’ of runnin’ for president and he can’t piss off those upstate hicks, so you’ll be seein’ lots more of my friends.”
“I’ll keep my eyes out for them.”
"See you when I see you."
Jamie climbed the embankment to the old man.
I saluted him with a raised fist and exited from the river. The sun dried my skin in seconds and I sniffed at my arm. My skin smelled clean, but I reckoned that a quick bath was in order after this adventure.
Back at my flat I scrubbed my flesh raw.
That evening the weather broke and the temperature dropped into the 70s.
The next day I told several friends about my swim. Their faces warped between disgust and disbelief. I fought off a 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.
As the summer rounded the homestretch into September and his prediction bore fruit.
Legions of homeless people begged quarters and harangued passers-by with demented litanies. Most East Villager ignored them in the hopes they would disappear with the change of the season.
After Labor Day NYU opened for the fall semester and one afternoon I stood on 3rd Avenue in awe of the passing parade of young students. The pudgy collegians strolled heads-down to their cellphones. I considered their craving for online contact an addiction yet happiness beamed from their clean faces infecting the East Village with a suburban blandness.
The traffic light turned green and the insensate students disregarded the ‘don’t walk’ signal, which I might have obeyed forever, if Jamie’s gravelly voice hadn’t hijacked me back to the present.
“Nothin’ stays the same.”
“No one said they do.” I turned to face Jamie.
He was wearing a sweat-stained rumpled suit and yellowing bruises discolored his face. His hand deftly covered his mouth and slipped on a cap to fill the gap in his grin.
“Remember the way it used to be.” He pointed up 3rd Avenue.
“This was a fucked up neighborhood back then.”
You got that right. Junkie prostitutes worked out of decrepit vans in the parking lots and Johnny Thunder used to pawn his guitar at the hock shops. Shit, the director of TAXI DRIVER filmed Jodie Foster at that SRO hotel on 13th Street. I even saw William Burroughs shamble down the sidewalk skin in a gray suit on his way to Eldridge Street.”
His fond nostalgia for the 1970s was scary, since the bad from those times was so much more memorable than the good.
"Burroughs is living out in Kansas. Some university town.” I headed to Stuyvesant Street. Jamie followed me, speaking with a belligerence better saved for the start of an argument.
“Yea, he’s gone and we got these kids in return. I hate them. They wear bicycle helmets and condoms for sex. They stare at us like we don’t belong here, but it’s them that don’t belong,” Jamie snarled at two teenage punks.
"They’re kids. You were young once too.
"But never young like this and I'd love to run 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.”
"Only one problem. They don't carry money. Only credit cards."
"And those fuckin’ phones. Useless fucks."
“Little angry this afternoon, Jamie?”
“Damn right, I'm angry.” His eyes twitched without focus. “I just finished a weekend bid in jail.”
“This film crew was tearing branches off a tree blockin’ their fuckin’ shot. I told them to stop and they ignored me. I punched out the producer and the pigs arrested me for tryin’ 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 believin’ the shit they film is truer than life."
"Did you make bail?"
"No, the producer dropped the charges, but then I get out and find out they hospitalize Dynamite for observation, because he was rantin’ about a fight he might have lost twenty years ago and if that’s a crime, they’d throw all the assholes talkin’ on cellphones in the looney bin too. I wish I had a hockey stick to slapshot them off their ears. I mean who are they talkin’ to anyway? Their stupid friends?"
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 on his heels, 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?" I was stumped by his question.
"Because Hakkim's gone."
“You don’t remember Hakkim?”
“How could I forget?”
“And the night they shot him?”
“We were at the Horseshoe Bar on Avenue B.”
“Good, you haven’t forgotten. 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?”
“Same as ever.”
A family of Pakistani might have taken over the newsstand, but they honored the ancient recipe of chocolate syrup and seltzer water.
“I drink one of those and I’ll be good. You have money?”
“Yes, but if you go crazy and you’re on your own.” I walked him to the corner of St. Mark’s.
“Hey, I’m just havin’ an egg cream.” The evaporation of his rage had left him a fragile shell. “But can you 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 runnin’ away.” He almost sounded like an orphan. “Can you do me that solid?”
“Yes, but hurry."
I couldn’t refuse this small boon and waved him inside, while I examined the street to recall what remained of the East Village from twenty years ago.
In truth very little.
Back then East Village resembled ancient Rome a week after the Goths had sacked the city. Apartment buildings had been left to ruin or torched for insurance by indebted landlords.
The Ninth Precinct had unofficially declared the streets east of 1st Avenue a ‘no-go’ zone, but my West Virginia girlfriend had fallen in love with the rundown neighborhood and she wasn't the only one. The East Village 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.
Alice and I made our move on an unbearably hot July 1st, which was terrible day to move, especially since the taxi driver emphatically refused to proceed any farther than 1st Avenue.
“It’s only a little bit down the block,” Alice pleaded with an Appalachian accent. Speaking in tongues was one of young actress' 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 bags onto the sidewalk and I tipped him a dollar.
“You said a good tip, when you got into the cab.”
“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.” Alice smiled her gratitude.
“I didn’t want to start off on the wrong foot.” I looked down the block
Near-naked children played in the spray from a hydrant and their parents lounged on the steps./p>
“Guess we’re home.” She beamed and lifted a box.
“No, home is upstairs.” 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 our new apartment.” I pointed to the third stoop on the southside of the street.
“Can we trust them?” whispered Alice. Her eyes were two different colors; green with tints of red. The latter was the color of fire.
“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 the kids joked about us being Mr. And Mrs. Opie, then fell silent at the door to our new address.
A pockmarked junkie sprawled before the door and the taller kid said, “That’s George."
"Is he dead?" asked Alice.
No, he ain’t dead, just fucked up," said the shorter of the two.
“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 wearing jean too tight for his muscular build approached us with yellowed eyes bellowing with fury.
My girlfriend stepped behind me.
"I ask you before. You kick George?
“I didn’t kick him.”
“You callin’ me a liar, you white piece of shit?” the junkie snarled from the sidewalk.
“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 and put a foot on he steps. “I’m gonna to kick your ass.”
Countless scraps with Southie gangs had taught me the value of not fighting fair and I threw the boxes at his chest. Their weight knocked him off balance and his body slammed onto the sidewalk. The crack of his skull on the pavement echoed off the opposite building. 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 deserved a beating and I kicked him in the head. My girlfriend stopped me and said, “We better leave before the police come.”
”Ain’t no police coming here.” I opened the door and carried the boxes to our third-floor flat.
That night I lay awake on the futon waiting for Hakkim’s revenge.
A little past 3AM Alice said, “Nothing is going to happen tonight.”
"Nothing bad." She slipped across the futon into the arms.
The next morning we awoke to birds singing in the alley and made love on a dusty futon. The two of us shared a bath in the kitchen tub. She washed me and I shampooed her hair with the sun streaming through the willows in the alley.
Later I went to buy groceries and the domino players across the street greeted me with a wave.
On my way back Hakkim appeared sporting a stained head bandage. George had a black eye and a swollen cheek. Their eyes followed me, but neither man tried to attack me that night or any other, however 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. They 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 evening they returned home to discover Hakkim had chopped through the walls to steal their money and defecate on their beds. 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 throwing his trash onto a growing garbage heap 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 in 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.”
A friend gave me a gun. I stashed it in the closet. I felt safe, but I had to tell my girlfriend the news.
Alice shook her head and thrust the Village Voice in my chest. The weekly was opened 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.” I left the apartment and walked to hail a taxi on 1st Avenue.
Loud shouting rang from the corner.
Hakkim and another junkie were arguing about the split of swag from their robberies of apartments.
“You gonna throw down on me? You a punk bitch same as the rest of ‘em. I own you all.”
He was threatening his partner in crime, but I snatched a wooden stick out of the trash. Hakkim saw me coming and scrambled between two tightly parked cars, as I swung at his head. He ducked the blow and stumbled into the avenue to be struck by a Daily News truck.
Its fender sent Hakkim flying fifty feet in the air.
When he landed on the other side of the street, a bone audibly snapped and his body tumbled to rest.
I expected the other junkie 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 fled east shouting, “Hakkim is dead.”
Long-time residents emerged their apartments and stood over the fallen thief.
Everyone was getting in their kicks.
Only the arrival of a cop car prevented a murder and 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 off 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, that they wouldn’t buy as long as Hakkim controlled the streets.
“You still want to leave?” I asked Alice. The sun was setting in an orange sky. Children laughed 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?”
Within a day 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 sat on the stoop with my upstairs neighbor and his face went white.
Hakkim hobbled down the sidewalk on crutches. His admirers toasted his resurrection by ripping the flowers out of a recently planted garden.
“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.
When I broke the news to my girlfriend, she cried.
“It’s not fair.” Alice believed that Hakkim was coming for her and I took out a five-shot snub-nosed revolver from its hiding place in the closet. The gun was hardly the most accurate weapon in the world, but if I could get within ten feet of Hakkim, he was a dead man. I said nothing to Alice and left the apartment.
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, so have a drink and let them do Hakkim for you.”
"No, I have___"
"You don't have to do nothing. Sit down and wait." He pulled me onto a stool.
I drank a few beers, but kept on imagining 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 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 revolver.
“Help me. Please help me.” Hakkim wobbled along the street on his crutches with five young men behind him. “They gonna kill me. Help.”
“No one's callin' the police.” A gang of Puerto Ricans mocked him.
“Help me. Help me.””
Scores of people were on the street and many more watched from the windows.
I started to cross the street to kick him off his feet.
“This doesn’t concern you.” Jamie restrained me from joining the fray.
"Not anymore." Jamie wouldn't release my arm and I watched, while Hakkim swung a crutch at 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 the judge and jury giving the junkie a death sentence. None of us would lost any sleep about our verdict.
I went back to our apartment.
"What happened?" Alice was sitting on the futon. She was wearing a white cotton shift. Everything about her said West Virginia.
"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 sayin’ thanks for not walkin’ 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, because she laughed with a hand covering her mouth. They vanished into the crowd of college students. Jamie 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 with the fat coed.
More likely he had lost his temper and the police had thrown him in jail.
If not, I hoped that he left town and whenever I stopped at the church on East 14th Street, I lit a candle for Jamie.
Maybe he’ll return, once the neighborhood reverted to its old wickedness.
That East Village only exists once and in some ways I do miss junkies.
Not Hakkim, but the others.
They kept a city honest and no city can achieve the future without its past.