They cheered when they saw me coming down Second Avenue and it was if I were outracing death on their behalf.
I talked that night about my trip the next day to see my favorite cousin who had just been released from a battered women’s shelter, which I said seemed to fit so well with everything I was finding. I called it a trip to a place where I would be in the belly of the beast – a Norman Mailer line. And I got all the sympathy I wanted here from these new people who knew more about me than I had known myself until this year.
In the Belly of the Beast was the title of a book of letters to Mailer by a prisoner named Jack Abbot for whom Mailer had won a parole. Just after the book came out Abbott murdered a young actor in an altercation outside a restaurant. The actor’s widow was a Filipina, like my then wife, who was hit hard. She spoke of how fragile the killing made everything seem.
To me the murder had also felt close because the site of the killing was the
corner of East 5th Street and Second Avenue in the East Village, just a few blocks down from the tenement where I had been when I was first living in New York, and just one block from my startlingly lovely artist girlfriend’s place. More immediately, the site of the killing was practically where my new friends had stood cheering last night as the Aqua Mustang came into view.
As I started out for New Hampshire I was thinking for a few moments about Norman Mailer trapped in his own words and getting everything wrong to the point where he was an accessory to a horrible crime. Though in my mind now Norman Mailer and the murder are covered by a picture in my mind of those big houses in the dark.
Then again Norman Mailer. Jack Abbott. A pretty Filipina left as a young widow. My empathetic wife. But mostly my mind is filled with scenes of the present, alternating with scenes of the deep past in the White Mountains, as I prepare to leave for that place. And as in my mind I continue to move back and forth between past and present it feels like I am indeed outracing death that the past ordained – though at the same time I am about to make a trip straight into that past.
I do not start early the next day. In past years I would pack in a flash when I was about to travel, but today I linger. I go outside. The air is late autumn air. The man who repairs bicycles is at work on the sidewalk. The Korean grocery across the way looks inviting. I see the buildings where Rita and Freddy live, and also Howard. It is as if I have known this place for many years, not just in this very recent time.
I decide to go to 23rd Street for falafel. Am I killing time? I walk down Eighth Avenue. To my left are stoop steps leading up to a Chinese restaurant, where a cardboard sign in the window says:
"BROWN RICE is here!
“And the people cheered."
To my right are the fifties style stores, and the big brick union houses, where I sat in my car on a curving street drawing buildings in 3rd grade perspective with comical hanging traffic lights and fine old wooden water towers. Before I reach 23rd Street I am walking past homeless people lying on the sidewalk. I have to be careful not to step on them. I am reminded that this is still the America of Ronald Reagan. One man lying out in the cold has a big festering sore on his arm. Another man has his hand in the pants of a man beside him. This is chaotic homelessness, and not at all like the organized and picturesque homelessness around the band shell in Tompkins Square Park.
As the day goes on I pack slowly, an item or two at a time, making sure I have a pad to draw on, and also that I put in that Woolrich sweater I had worn in Vermont. I bring the Mustang around to my block, put my old suitcase in the trunk. I throw in those new boots that look like work boots. I forget the soft leather boots lined with ersatz fur.
It is afternoon by now. I drive up a now familiar route, starting first where the elevated West Side Highway used to be before it was so deteriorated it was torn down. Then I am on the elevated part that is still in operation. I pass the docks from which ocean liners used to sail. From the George Washington Bridge I see that every detail of the river, even a lonely sailboat, is clear in the dry, cool autumn air. I cut over to route 17 through Paramus and its rows of chain stores and bargain stores, and turn onto the feeder road for the New York State thruway.
I have Judy Collins and then Roger Whittaker, then James Taylor, then Robert Flack, then Willie Nelson on the tape deck. It is great background music for this wave of good feeling that, I note, sweeps over me as soon as the car is pointed north on an open road.