Times Square and Other Delusions
Pink cocaine changed everything. For $20, Cuthbert gave me an aluminum packet, making the small transaction in front of the bookstore's fiction section. I worked there, the best job I ever had.
Cuthbert often boasted that his parents took his name from William the Conqueror's Domesday Book. He probably got the name reading Bede's history of England. I loathed him for that. My name meant farmer in Old English. So what.
I opened the foil, finding a gelatinous pink substance. I complained, telling Cuthy to give back the $20.
"That's what they sell in Europe," he said.
After work, Dave, the store manager, and I walked from Times Square to my room on 21st Street. I wanted him to share the pink stuff. Dave couldn't believe I lived there.
"Only Norman Bates could stand this," he said. The linoleum on the floor mostly gone, walls covered with grime, a bulb swinging from the ceiling. I never considered the room so miserable.
"You've been cheated, ripped off. I can't stand this place," he said, and left.
I stuck all of it up my nose. Not bad, I thought. Until then, I smoked a little grass, getting paranoid every time. The pink had been only my second drug, so I never knew what a hard drug high was.
I lay on the thin mattress, thinking the force of destiny transformed futures. Taking Methodist communion hadn't inoculated me with strong enough medicine. I lapsed into disbelief, stunned that people actually believed in anything. Nihilism hadn't yet entered my consciousness, and I never used the term.
Sitting on the bed, I started a novel. It began with "The" in a notebook. Impossible to write without a subject, I stopped. I actually deluded myself into thinking I was a writer. One clerk, Carl, grew up twenty miles from me, talked about books in general. He said his mother got published in literary magazines.
"She writes about our family," he said. "I never knew we were that bad."
"I write about mine."
"Do you get published?"
I told him I tried that, but it was so scrambled and complex, I never got past "The." We grew up in Minneapolis and both our parents graduated from the University of Minnesota. Our parents showed us around the campus. Carl's parents went to the Tyrone Guthrie Theater, while we saw Minnesota Gophers football games. He gave me a Eureka, California address. Carl left the next week.
The bookstore had a spy-hole upstairs through a rickety wooden wall. Times Square, where anything could happen. Ted watched more than others, but all took turns. Shoppers roamed the store, seeking the perfect book. Without searching, life would be impossible. Ted phoned the counter, telling Dave he spotted a man with a hardback beneath his coat. Dave called the police, and two came in ten minutes. One clerk held the guy, another kept the book.
Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book must've been stacked in front of the store in 1971. Buying his book, as well as the liberating act of shoplifting, seemed revolutionary then. Self-willed, hippie dropouts, bookstore clerk-types, isolated from the rest of America, thought revolution only a year or two away. Waiting for Lefty became waiting for Godot. Deliverance hadn't occurred. Waiting perpetuated itself.
Never violent, I suddenly became David Sumner in Straw Dogs. I grabbed the small baseball bat that hung behind the counter and went after Ted. I never instilled fear in someone. That scared me, Ted's fear reflecting back at me. Ted walked fast to the back room. I followed, waving the bat in the air until restrained by others. "Street Fighting Man" played on the store's radio; I heard it beat between my temples. Later, Dave said I spoke gibberish to Ted. I hadn't any memory of what I said. They held me until I sobered up, coming down from the pink high maybe. Dave bought me two beef barbeque sandwiches at Nathan's.
"I'll have to call downtown if something like that happens again," he said. I hadn't intended to lose the job, so I calmed down.
But rather another assault, discontent (psychosis?) took shape with the help of a Magic Marker. I printed on the floor, in large green letters, TEAR DOWN THE WALLS. Then I staged a work stoppage, standing behind the counter, doing nothing. After two hours, Dave told me I'd better do something. I refused.
"You're making us work harder," he said. "I'll have to make that call unless you get busy, doing something."
That afternoon I was downtown, speaking with one of the owners and the store's former manager, Vic, whom I knew. The owner asked Vic if I really was a Communist. He said I was. Vic said I was smarter than any communist-types he knew second-hand in NYC. I hadn't ever thought I was smart. I finessed the question, thinking it wouldn't be obvious.
"I'd never join CP, though." They laughed.
"You could work here, buying books," Vic said.
"No." Vic opened Andy Warhol's Interview, a magazine placed next to Rolling Stone in the store. I hadn't ever opened it.
"Andy Warhol was counter-revolutionary," I said. Some inducement, I assumed.
"You're a Communist, all right," the owner said.
"I read Screw," I said. The couple who owned the newsstand outside the store sold it too. She talked to Dave about stealing her customers, and her husband wrote the owner.
The owner said I'd be eligible for unemployment. I left, glad all over, not thinking about the future. I walked underground beneath Times Square. So many trains, but I'd no particular destination. A person handed me a Christian leaflet.
"I'm already saved. Thanks."
I ate out for a week, walking through Manhattan's streets. I went to the Chrysler Building, admiring its fantastic art deco. With $12 in my wallet, I slow-walked to 21st Street. I saw my first mail, opening a letter from home. A tax refund from 1973 came.
The gray house, the "Anvil Chorus" playing at dinner, putting up storm windows, eating Christmas dinner with relatives: its world had become supernatural. The silence had gone on long enough. I phoned, and told my parents I quit work. My dad said I still whined. He had gainful employment (his words) since he was nine years old.
"You better find something. We won't support you any longer," he said.
A special delivery came in two days with a $150 money order. That marked the last of their handouts.
I looked through The Village Voice, finding an ad for a driver willing to share expenses. Along with four others, I rode the cramped car to San Francisco. People placed quarters into pay televisions bolted down. After eight minutes, another quarter. I put one in and watched an episode of The Price Is Right.
I had only one place to go. I took a bus to Eureka, getting off at 11 pm. The taxi driver passed the street twice, one impossible to miss. I gave him a tip anyway. The man who answered wasn't Carl. He had no idea who he was. I slept off Highway 101. The fog woke me up. Stranded, I had no where else to go but farther. I hitched a ride to anywhere.
Times Square, its pink cocaine, had been a necessary lie. How else would I and six billion others rise each day without ordinary delusions?
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