Photo by Vincent Dermody
FROM THE NOVEL LUSH LIFE, TO BE PUBLISHED IN MARCH 2008.
This novel is set on the Lower East Side. I’ve been obsessed with the neighborhood my whole life, and this latest incarnation of it as a sort of La Bohème playground is extremely ironic to me. The kids who are down there now—my kids—know it like the back of their hand on one level, but they’re not fully aware of the fact that, perhaps, their great-grandparents were down there clawing for survival. You can buy a four-dollar gelato about a hundred yards from where your family started out, and four bucks would have taken them through about eight days of living. Not to be corny—I hate to put things in generational terms—but there is a full-circle irony to it.
It’s not just generational. You still have a massive Chinese population that is basically living like the Jews lived down there a hundred years ago, overcrowded, slaving for pennies. You have the housing projects and some of the unrehabilitated areas that are black and Hispanic, and that population has been down there since at least the 30s. They have weathered the worst of it, the drug days.
So the whole idea of the novel is that you have about five worlds down there that are occupying the same space but are completely oblivious to each other. It’s the notion that you have a black kid from the projects and a white kid from the Midwest passing each other on the street, and it’s not that they’re ignoring each other, they just aren’t aware of each other.
I spent a couple of years on the Lower East Side to write this book. I can walk there from where I live, of course, but it’s different when you’re just going down there to have dinner. When you’re going down there to learn something, you’re going down there with a lot of baggage. It’s not like learning in a library; there’s no goal, nothing to accomplish except just being around and absorbing things. I’d go out with the cops, hang out with the people who work in the restaurants, with anyone who would have me, basically, which is what I usually do for a book.
I grew up in the projects in the Bronx a half-century ago, but they were very different from the projects that exist now. It was a world that was much more racially integrated and economically viable, and the families were more intact. There weren’t any drugs around. Even divorce was seen as a scandalous thing. That said, the projects on the Lower East Side aren’t great, but they’re not like those in some parts of the Bronx or Brooklyn where, as far as the eye can see, it’s people like you. Kids who live in the projects on the Lower East Side walk a hundred yards and they’re intersecting with so many different worlds. But that’s a one-way street, because I don’t think many people give a shit about going into the projects and seeing what that’s about.
I started out writing about the projects in 1974. When you think about the Lower East Side today, you don’t think so much about the projects, you think about the crime-fighting effects of Giuliani and about real estate. But, lo and behold, there I am again in the projects. I think my sympathies and instincts naturally gravitate toward it. It’s like someone from New York going to Paris and finding a deli.
Tristan took the offered joint and dug his feet into the gravel on the roof of their building in the Lemlichs, the both of them gazing at mile-high One Police Plaza only a few blocks away. Not only was he blowing off curfew tonight, but he never picked up the hamsters, his ex-stepfather’s kids, from their various schools this afternoon; a first. There’d be hell to pay, but there was always some kind of hell to pay in that house and he couldn’t believe Little Dap was still hanging with him, so fuck it.
“We going to the Heights?” he murmured.
“First things first.”
“What do you mean, what…” Little Dap cocking his head, “Gotta get that cheese, podner.”
“Oh.” Tristan said, then, “Shit.”
In his preoccupation with the big journey to Washington Heights, he had forgotten that part of it.
“What.” Little Dap sipped deep. “You never…”
“Yeah, no, not like...”
Little Dap shrugged, “Ain’t nothing to it,” passing him the joint.
Tristan in his embarrassment was unable to stop grinning.
“But I can’t do it without my dolgier.” Little Dap slow-poking him in the chest, “You know what I’m saying?”
A blood-red moon slipped out from behind 1PP.
“Why don’t you just go to a couple corner boys,” Tristan said, coughing out a cloud, “say you collecting for Big Dap, we run uptown get the shit”—coughing again—“come back down here and turn it into something before he finds out, then just give him his money like normal.”
It was the most words he had said all at one time in a year.
“Nah, unh-uh.” Little Dap stretched his neck. “I tried that once, ran into some problems? That ain’t a good idea. You don’t ever get between Dap and his money. I mean, shit, you can send me to jail, I can handle that gladiator-school shit, in fact if truth be known I could be like one of the instructors, but with Dap, he gets his hands on you when he goes off? Naw, unh-uh.”
“And that’s like the other, we got to be like deep cover on this, ’cause all them porkies from the 8th? They always looking for a excuse to beat my brother’s ass for that cop got shot, so they collar me it’s like, ‘Oh, Little Dap, where’s Big Dap?’ Like he’s my automatic mastermind on a caper, and so now they got another excuse to light him up from here to the river. But whatever they do to him? Comes back on me double.”
Tristan dredged up a memory of Big Dap hauling off and slapping Little Dap in front of everybody on the street last year, the sound of it like a gunshot.
Then he thought of his ex-stepfather’s eyes, the way they bulged when he was good and liquored, getting ready to knock one out of the park.
Tristan didn’t want to go through with this anymore.
“Maybe you shouldn’t do it then,” trying to come off as if he were saying it out of concern.
“Nah, it’s good, I’m good with it.”
They smoked in silence for a while, Tristan deciding the Manhattan Bridge was God’s forearm, barring the way to Brooklyn.
“I tell you,” Little Dap choked, “The one thing when we get out there? Stay off the Chinese, they get juxed so much, most times they never have nothing on them no more, and even when they do? You come up on them they’re like, ‘Here,’ hold out the money before you can even say something.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“How do they know what I got in mind before I even get up on them.”
“But them white kids?” Little Dap laughed, snorting smoke. “Ho shit, it’s like, they’re like…” Doubling over, hand over his mouth. “I come up on this one guy last year, put the whistle in his mug? Motherfucker din’t have no money on him so he asked if I wanted him to write a check, like, whom should I make it out to?”
“What?” Tristan laughing too now, like everybody up here was a fully blooded vet.
“Here.” Little Dap went to his back pocket and pulled out a wrinkled pale-blue check.
It was from a bank in Traverse City, Michigan, dated six months ago and made out to cash for a hundred dollars.
“You gonna cash it?” Tristan was suddenly dizzy with friendship.
“Naw, man, if I cash this, then they can trace it. I just keep it for a joke.”
“But if they find it on you it’s like evidence, right?” Tristan murmured, “Call this bank on here, ask who’s this guy, was he robbed in New York…”
Another silence came down, Tristan worried that he had just disrespected Little Dap, made him out to be a fool.
But Little Dap was too wasted to catch it, his eyes like two cherries floating in buttermilk.
“So what do you say,” passing Tristan the roach. “You gonna be my dolgier out there or what… I need to hear you say it.”
Tristan took a last hit. “Yeah, OK.” The words coming out like smoke signals.
“Alright then,” Little Dap offering his fist for a pound, Tristan fighting off another out-of-control smile, it felt so good, something did at any rate.
“Man, you are one grinny motherfucker.” Little Dap said, popping the nub of the joint in his mouth, taking the gun out of his sweatshirt muff and attempting to hand it over.
Tristan reared back and laughed, if you could call it that.
“What.” Little Dap blinked.
“Nah? What, you think you go out there and what, yell at a motherfucker?”
He took Tristan by the wrist. “It ain’t like you use it, man,” slapping it into his palm. “You just flash it.”
At first Tristan tried to pass it back to him, but then got caught up with the feel of it in his hand, the giddy heft.
“Naw, man, this’ll be good for you,” Little Dap said, “Get you blooded, you know what I’m saying? First time’s like first time sex, you just do it to get it done with, then you can start concentratin’ on getting better at it, havin’ fun with it.”
“Alright.” Tristan staring and staring at the thing in his hand. “Can I ask you something?”
Little Dap waited. And waited.
“What the fuck is a dolgier?”
“A dolgier? A do-anything soldier.”
“OK.” Grinning, grinning.
“You’re in the game now, son.” Little Dap studied him studying the gun. “Time to show and prove.”
The deal was this: Opposite sides of the street; if they saw a likely bunch of heads, the one across the street from them goes up a block, then crosses over, then comes back down so they got them in a pincers, but because Tristan had the whistle, Little Dap was always supposed to play it like he was getting juxed too, but stand slightly behind the real vics in case they tried to run or fight. That was the plan, and they spent hours walking down opposite sides of every street from the Bowery to Pitt, from Houston to Henry, both of them limping in order not to draw attention to the slow hunter’s pace they had to maintain, then after a while getting bored and forgetting to limp, then remembering, then taking a break for pizza, whatever, for hours.
At first there were too many people, then no people, then that police taxi showed up and keyed in on Little Dap, motor-stalking him for blocks until he went into the Arab twenty-four hour just to get them off his back.
Then at two, two-thirty, when the bars and clubs all began to empty, at first there was too many people again, then nobody again, until at three-thirty Little Dap had said fuckit, calling it a night; and the two of them started walking together back to the Lemlichs. Tristan, already worried about toe-sliding through the apartment past his ex-stepfather’s door, was imagining what it would feel like to take the whistle home with him, when suddenly they saw the three white guys on Eldridge coming toward them, the one in the middle drunk, half-carried by the other two, and before they could even get it together it was happening—Tristan, his heart slamming in his chest, putting the gun on them, the drunk hitting the deck as the two others separated to organize their individual responses to Little Dap’s demand. The guy on the left did it right, passing over the wallet and backing away eyes to the ground, but then the other guy made it all go to shit, almost smiling as he stepped to him, to the gun, like he was in his favorite movie or something, saying, “Not tonight, my man.”
When the white guy said whatever the fuck dumb thing he said, Little Dap saw Tristan go way too stiff and bughouse, Little Dap wishing he had the gun instead right then, in order to pistol-whip this hero into a different attitude. In fact, he was about to reach for the gun, take it from Tristan’s knotty grip, but then—pop—too late, the guy chest shot, looking up on impact as if someone had called his name from a window, then crumpling without ever looking back down, Tristan quick-stooping over him, like to take a bite out of his face, hissing, “Oh!” Little Dap hissing, “Go!” yanking him out of there, and then the two of them just flew straight south on Eldridge, booking so fast to the Lemlichs that Little Dap’s side-eye vision was just a blur of riot gates. They swooped around one drunk couple like whitewater past a rock, then came up on an old Chinese dude, the guy wide-eyed, automatically going for his wallet. But as soon as they hit the far side of Madison, Dap grabbed the back of Tristan’s hoodie, pulling him to a stop, “Walk,” the word a wheeze, then gasped, “Roof,” before walking away from him a half block down Madison to the corner of Catherine so they’d cross over to the Lemlichs unrelated, the both of them breathing through their mouths, staring straight ahead as if blind to each other’s existence, entering the grounds, then heading to 32 St. James, entering the lobby at the same time, fucked that up, then taking the separate stairwells on either side of the elevator bank, lunge-climbing the thirty half flights up to the fifteenth floor, then together silently taking the sole stairway to the roof door, pushing through to the gravel and almost walking into the two housing cops who had their backs to them, hunched over the riverside railing, taking five after a vertical patrol, tapping cigarette ash while discussing the view: Wall Street, the East River bridges, the Brooklyn Promenade, the Heights. “A kick-ass Trump view,” one cop said, then speculating how much it would go for on the open market. “All you have to do is lose the fifteen stories’ worth of shitskins living under it.”
Little Dap and Tristan hid behind the now wide-open roof door breathless, Tristan’s hand like a claw on the outside doorknob. The two of them remained in a frozen crouch until the cigarette butts were air-dropped over the edge and the cops turned, walking back, Little Dap praying they wouldn’t notice that the roof door was wide-open now, the two of them hunkered behind it; then at the last moment Little Dap had to yank Tristan’s hand off the outside doorknob so the cops could pull the fucking thing shut behind them.
Still in that crouch, they listened to the shuffling echo of footsteps heading down, then finally bolted for the west edge of the roof to look back at where they had come from. They couldn’t see through the snaggle of walk-ups, new green-glass high-rises, and towers of add-ons, nor could they hear sirens or any other sounds of alarm, but the body was out there, it was out there.
Tristan stood rooted in the pea gravel of the roof, his tongue dry as leather in his mouth, pictures and sensations jumping around in him; the small kick in his grip when he squeezed one off, the guy looking up on impact, the whites of his eyes all visible beneath, then again and again, that unexpected jolt in his hand like the snap of a dog as the .22 bucked. Did he mean to shoot? He didn’t know. He was OK though.
He surprised himself by going off into remembering when he was little and living in that other projects in Brooklyn with his grandmother, the time that him and those kids were messing around inside the elevator shafts, jumping from the top of the one car that was going up, to the top of the other car that was going down, when that boy Neville had slipped, got trapped between the cars going in opposite directions, how the feathers just exploded out of the back of his puffy coat when the edge of the up car slashed it open, slashed him open, then more feathers coming out later as the medics scissored it up the back trying to get at whatever was left inside.
“Are you deaf?” Little Dap hissed without turning his head from the view. “I said, give me the motherfuckin’ gun!”
Tristan reached into the pocket of his hoodie, panicking a second because there was nothing in there, then discovered that the .22 was still clutched in his right hand, had been in his right hand since he’d squeezed one off.
“OK.” Little Dap took it, still looking straight ahead in the direction of the body. “OK. You say anything?” Shaking his head wheezing, “You say to, like, _any_body?” Taking a breath. “I got this now,” holding up the .22, “Got your prints all over it.”
Tristan had the thought, “Got your prints too with you holding it,” but figured it had to be more complicated than that. Didn’t it?
Then suddenly Little Dap had him from behind in a bear hug, was thrusting his crotch into the seat of his jeans and hissing in his ear, “You like this? It’s all day all night in there like this, you hear me? But you ain’t even gonna make it that far.” Tristan wanted to laugh at that, big gladiator-school man, but then Little Dap squatted behind Tristan’s legs, brought his hands in another bear hug around his thighs, and lifted him off the gravel, tilting him almost upside down over the too-low railing, Tristan mute with terror, the blood bubbling in his temples as he clawed for purchase on the outside metal grille that separated him from a fifteen-story drop.
“Nobody knows nothing. You don’t say nothing, it’s gonna stay that way.” Little Dap hissed, his grip slipping a little. Tristan jerked a few inches closer to the earth, his mind a screech. “Now. You know they gonna come in here knocking on doors looking, so don’t you give them a reason to knock on your door, look at you, you hear me? Because I am not going back to that place.” Even in his white shock, Tristan could hear the blubbery catch in Little Dap’s throat.
Little Dap hauled him back up, Tristan silently dropping to one knee just to feel the gravel beneath him.
“I’m goin’ downstairs,” Little Dap said, his voice still shaky. “You wait twenty minutes, then you come down.” He started to walk to the roof door, then turned again. “And now on? You don’t even look at me.”
Half an hour later Tristan ninja-walked past his ex-stepfather’s bedroom to the one he shared with the three hamsters, all four mattresses packed so close it was like one wall-to-wall bed. Tristan’s bed was the third or the second in, depending if you were counting from the window side or the closet. The boy, Nelson, to his left was six; the girl Sonia, to his right, five; the baby, Paloma, three.
There was a note on his pillow: DON’T THINK YOU WON’T PAY FOR THIS, written in the same painstakingly fancy print as the House Rules pushpinned to the bedroom wall.
Tristan went into the bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. After a long moment, he turned on the hot water, running it as quietly as possible, reached inside the medicine chest for his stepfather’s disposable, and started to shave for the first time since he was old enough to grow the goatee. When he was done, the fat white lightning bolt still ran in a jagged S-curve from his left cheek to the corner of his mouth then out the opposite corner and down to the right side of his jawline. The tight beard had covered enough so that at least it wasn’t the first thing he saw whenever he happened to catch his own reflection in a store window, but the sight of it now completely exposed after all this time was a raw shock, kicking up some more unasked-for memories.
Heading back to the bedroom he pulled his spiral beat book out from beneath the mattress and tried to put down some lines.
Touch me once ill touch you twice.
But nothing else came to mind so he put the notebook back in its hiding place.
A few minutes later when he finally lay flat on his back, he heard the first bird out there, the first bird in the world, sunrise in a half hour, school business a half hour after that.
Closing his eyes he once again felt the buck of the .22, saw the guy’s eyes going up, up, then listened to that bird again, its insane tweety song. Turning his head to the window, he saw its trembling, magnified silhouette against the lightly flapping manila shade; monster bird.
He stared at the ceiling for a bit, then closed his eyes again.
He was OK.