Mastodon Pilgrims, by City of Strangers

An excerpt from a novel

I met Dupont at the Bar X, a totally anonymous-looking place with tinted windows wedged in-between a McDonald’s and a pizzeria. I might never have noticed it had it not been for the neon Bud sign in the window and the sandwich board on the sidewalk advertising a happy hour: two beers for a dollar. I went in without any expectations. From the street, the bar had a kind of transience, like the façade in the corner of a train station or an airport, the sort of place where, for a few moments, at least, you can feel poised between one part of your life and another. I wanted to have a couple of beers, contemplate my very near future over a cigarette or two, then go somewhere in the East Village and see if I couldn’t meet some people and make something happen. I never imagined that the Bar X would become my hangout. Or that I’d be hanging out with someone like Dupont.

I had a lot to think about: I’d been in New York for a month and my money was running low. If I didn’t figure out something quick, I’d have to leave. I’d been off booze and drugs more or less since I arrived and, up until that afternoon, I’d been happy. I had a little room in the Hotel 17, off Stuyvesant Square. A friend from back home had stayed there ten years before in the early ’80s. He’d told me that the other guests, an odd collection of old men, drag queens, punk rock musicians, and out of town thrill-seekers like my friend, did blow in the rooms and held wild, all-night parties on the roof, while junkies fixed openly in Stuyvesant Square, and half the storefronts along 3rd Ave were abandoned. I checked it out because, whatever its history, it was listed as good value in the Lonely Planet I scanned in a bookstore, and because I had nowhere else to go. Almost despite myself, I was relieved to find 3rd Ave fully re-occupied, the hotel lobby clean and quiet. Clearly, the party had moved on.

The room was just wide enough for a bed, a dresser and a table, but whatever I experienced walking around in the city was enough to charge the graying bed sheets, the stains and burns on the carpet, the loaf of bread and package of cured ham stored on the window-ledge, with dignity. Poverty can be tolerable, even desirable, if one finds meaning in it.

photo by City of Strangers

photo by City of Strangers

Part of my happiness came from the feeling that I’d escaped. I’d picked up a mild habit over the winter; as I became healthier, clearer in my mind, I became aware of just how awful it had been, and how much more awful it would have become had I not quit. At first, dope had been fun, something to kill the day. Montreal, where I’d spent the fall and winter, wasn’t a bad place to have a habit. The dealers would deliver right to your door. One guy even brought along purloined groceries, which you could buy at discount prices. The rents were cheap. I lived off unemployment, and the remains of a rapidly diminishing stash I’d accumulated working out West the year before. If things got tight, I could always pick up a day or two of crappy work on the side.

Of course, it got out of control. All I did was get high. Even if I was pretty far from a full-blown oil-burner habit, I’d wake up sick and get sicker if I didn’t go and score. I knew if I stayed, it would only get worse. Much worse. When I got to New York, away from the influence, I decided to straighten up. Withdrawal wasn’t so bad. A couple of days not sleeping, a couple more of panic attacks. Even when I’d tried to kick in Montreal, the withdrawal itself hadn’t been so bad. The hard part had been how it dragged on. Mornings waking up with shaky limbs, then a cold through the day that never left. Depression like a man-sized stone on your chest. Fleeting, yet acutely painful memories twisting in and out of my consciousness with diamond sharp clarity. Missing old girlfriends, old hangouts, missing what had been . . . unbearable. When these longings kicked in; I’d be dialing the dealer’s beeper number within an hour.

In New York, I walked. Walking kept the depression off, kept me distracted. I had nothing else to do, no one to see. I couldn’t focus enough to go to a movie or a museum, and I hated TV. Usually, my day followed the same path, walking through the West Village into Soho and Chinatown, back up through the Lower East Side. Sometimes I’d go right to midtown and on to Central Park. Exhausted, I’d return to my room and pass out for twenty or thirty minutes. When I came to, half-dazed, I’d lie on the bed letting the sensations of the day wash over me before getting up and trying to describe people I’d seen and the places I’d experienced that day in my notebook.

Within days, I’d turned inward, ceased desiring anyone’s company but my own. The first weeks alone in a great city, where no sight or sound is familiar, is a taste of real solitude, the kind Christian hermits must have known in the desert. New York’s late winter gloom suited my mood. The first Gulf War was just wrapping up, yet despite the profusion of flags, the yellow ribbons tied around every lamp-post and fire hydrant, the city felt curiously somber, even a little depressed. Every second day, great fogs washed in, obscuring the graceful skyscrapers, the iron bridges leading off the island, making them seem like extravagant props on a movie set. Yet the city popped out of the fog like a tableau, and you never knew what you’d see walking around.

Despite the skyscrapers, the sense of being at the centre of Empire, the city felt like it was not quite of the West. Even in midtown, trash overflowed in the bins and blew about the pavement. Like London, where I’d lived for a couple of years before I went back to Montreal, New York seemed a very working-class city, full of working man bars, where conversations on the street were shouted rather than spoken. But unlike London, it seemed an overwhelmingly black city: all the jobs that kept the city running, from driving the busses to manning the post office to digging up the roads, seemed to be done by black people. Homeless people, nearly all black, were camped out in every second doorway and, in the East Village, a homeless camp had taken over a whole section of Tompkins Square Park. In the Lower East Side, Spanish was the dominant language, spoken at a rapid clip by tough-looking Puerto Ricans, a people about whom I knew almost nothing. Standing on Canal Street in Chinatown, the street stalls and crush of people, the insane traffic barreling off the bridge at one end of the street, made me feel like I was back in Asia. Everywhere I went, the city unfolded like a flower coming into slow bloom; changing neighborhoods was like changing worlds.

I came down with no other plan other than to get out of Montreal. Vaguely, I thought about going back to London, but I didn’t have the money and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back. London had been fun, my first experience of a true metropolis, the city I’d wanted to live in since my teens when I started hanging around the punk rock scene in Vancouver, long before I moved east to Montreal. I’d claimed my British passport, my birthright, through my British parents, even picked up an English inflected accent. I’d gone over with my girlfriend Molly, a dual national like me, and she had introduced me to a whole squatting scene which allowed us to live all over the city, supported by a ready-made network of out-of-city and expat refugees, punks, anarchists, and artists. We hung out in what was left of the hardcore scene and travelled: Europe, North Africa, Asia. A couple of months a year I went back to Western Canada and made enough money working in the bush to travel when I got back to London.

It was a good life until it wasn’t. By the end of the ’80s, it was becoming harder and harder to find work; harder still to make money. All our friends were using dope, and eventually I started using and so did Molly. I knew that if I went back, I’d get right back into all that, just like I would if I went back to Montreal.

I didn’t want to give up what I had, tenuous as it was. Even after a week, I could see that New York offered the same kind of freedom that London had those first couple of years, if I could figure out how to get below its fabric. But America was an unknown. I’d never crossed the border before, not even for a day. The people I hung out with, whether in Canada or Britain, had often despised the US and everything it stood for, especially under Ronald Reagan, and for the most part I’d gone along with their opinion. But after the Yanks pounded Iraq, wiping out Saddam Hussein’s million-man army, I got curious. America reigned supreme, even more than Britain had at the height of her Empire, and I had to check it out for myself.

I was surprised to find out I liked it, even felt at home in it. I didn’t think I would at first. I caught the night train, traveling fourteen hours down the eastern seaboard. At the border, I was grilled by huge men with names like Bud and Tex, who kept their hands on their guns while they interrogated me, and just when I thought they were going to throw me off the train, they disappeared and I was free to go to the bar car and calm my nerves. A can of Bud cost a buck, a mini-bottle of Jack Daniels a buck-fifty. After the first stop in Vermont, the bar was packed and stayed packed right down the coast. Working people mostly, all knocking back the beer and the Jack. The staff put out Styrofoam bowls of cheesy fish, and a big black dude with an Afro came out and played Jimi Hendrix melodies on a Farfisa organ. I met a girl, a willowy college student with long brown hair, kind eyes that offset her slightly stern Midwestern face. She told me I reminded her of Holden Caulfield, and we spent most of the night necking in an alcove in the very back of the train, American cities passing by like cities lit up in the night, until she had to get off somewhere in Massachusetts. I woke up with two hours sleep just as we were pulling into New York, that miraculous Manhattan skyline spilling across the rose purple dawn, as startlingly familiar as the features of my own face in the mirror. It was perfect.

Even with the withdrawal, New York seemed a minor miracle. The people were considerably more outgoing than people in London, or anywhere in the West, so you never knew when you’d start talking to someone. This openness, as fleeting as it often was, made it easy to be alone and just stepping out on the street allowed me to forget whatever had been bothering me that day. And while it was new, it was also familiar. Like every other kid in the West, I’d been raised on a diet of images from New York, and everything from the skyline to the graffiti, to the way black kids talked on the street felt like it had been pulled from a movie or a TV show.

Still, I needed money if I was going to stay. Even at 150 a week for a room, and fifteen dollars a day for expenses, I didn’t have long left. I’d need a job. I had no idea how to find work off the books. I could hardly go through the want ads, or go to a job centre. I’d have to meet some people, preferably expats of some kind, who could advise me, and the only place I knew where to meet people was in bars.

Bars meant booze and I was scared booze would lead back to drugs. I wanted to hold off as long as I could, hope that by some miracle a job would appear, at the hotel, at the diner where I had breakfast every morning. I wrote my ex, leaving the hotel as a return address, hoping against hope that she’d write back saying she’d got away from our old friends, got away from drugs, that we should try again. I needed a sign that would tell me whether I was meant to stay or go. I lived by signs in those days, as if my future could be dictated to me from the outside, if only I could read it all properly. New York, more than any other city I’d been in, seemed a city where one was meant to live by hunches, and it baffled me a little when no clear sign emerged.

Uncertainty began to eat at me, disturbing my equilibrium and finally my resolve fell apart when I was in Times Square. It was early evening, the time when the light goes into full retreat, the time when I most felt like a drink. I’d been up since four am, my limbs stiff with exhaustion, yet I was so keyed up I knew that I would be unable to sleep if I went back to the hotel. A drizzle had set in, making walking impossible, yet I didn’t want to go anywhere near Times Square. For the first time since I’d crossed the border, New York’s tremendous energy felt inaccessible, something I witnessed but did not feel. Traffic filled the street bumper to bumper, horns honking pointlessly. Hordes of people rushed the subway exits, faces distorted by drizzle. Marquee theaters down 42nd advertised porn and more porn. Beneath this dizzying motion, the square felt not just anonymous, but empty, like the lights, the city’s energy, hid a void that was truly frightening if you looked into it. As I stood under a construction awning, the cold crept in, turning my thoughts, bringing on a longing for something I couldn’t place. I lit a cigarette, but smoking only made me anxious. I looked over the ragged men and women camped out in sections of cardboard over the subway grates. I’d expected to find scores of homeless in Reagan’s America, though I hadn’t expected to find them camped out in every second doorway at night, a shadow army living in a parallel existence to the city’s relentless motion. I’d give them change, even stop to talk to them if they weren’t aggressive or angry, but I’d always felt protected from their fate by my nationality, my inherent optimism about the future that buoyed me those first few weeks. Now, I wasn’t so sure. I was 25, I had no skills, no one to turn to when things got tight. It wouldn’t take much for me to be forgotten and suddenly it seemed that all my forward motion was an attempt to keep this possibility at a distance. If I did run out of money, I’d have to leave the hotel room, and New York would become a much less benevolent city. When I did make it back to Montreal, the most I could hope for was to wait out the rest of the winter in a rooming house room, most certainly using heroin again, living off my UI claim until the cheques stopped coming, as they would in a couple of months. Even if I’d never have to brave the New York streets, I knew that if I entered this parallel existence, I’d find it hard to come back.

One of the dealers who’d appeared around the square with the evening eyed me, then moved in, hissing something I couldn’t make out. I tried to ignore him, but he was on to me. I saw drug dealers all over the city, hissing from doorways and street corners, sometimes coming right up to you on the pavement. Scoring on the street was an unknown, a possibly dangerous unknown, and I’d never felt tempted, not even on the shakiest of days. The drug world in New York was in itself an unknown, driven not just by heroin, a crack I’d never tried and never wanted to try. I had become adept at keeping the dealers out of my personal space, either by ignoring them or waving them off, but I couldn’t keep this guy away. He was a short black guy, not physically threatening, but he’d sensed enough of my need and my vulnerability to become bold. “What you lookin’ for, man?” he said, almost turning it into a joke as he pressed closer and I knew I’d never get rid of him if I stood there. I started walking, ignoring the drizzle against my face and in my hair.

Walking made me feel better again, but the wetness only made me more tired. More than anything, I was weary of being alone. That momentary loss of faith under the awning had drained me, left me scared of what would happen if it happened again. I wanted to be surrounded by people, to feel connected again like I did when I was traveling. I wanted to feel like I had some control of my situation.

Inside, the Bar X was a curious mix of styles. It felt curiously dated, though in the moment I couldn’t figure out why. Though not even six, it was already crowded. A basketball game careened across six big-screen TVs mapped out around what looked like a typical sports bar with silver stools and a big American flag over the bottles behind the bar. Above the twin pool tables in the back, a disco ball glittered, its light obscured by a miasma of cigarette smoke. The wall opposite the bar had been painted a flat black, with jagged red lines cutting at odd angles across the surface, and even more jagged iron stools lined up along the counter, so that part of the bar could have been out of a mid-’80s new wave disco. The Doobie Brothers ‘What a Fool Believes’ blared from somewhere in the back.

I took a seat near the end of the bar and ordered a Rolling Rock, the only brand they had besides Bud and Corona. The beer was watery, but not as bland as the Budweiser I’d had on the train on the way down, and I downed half the first bottle in one go, and by the time I’d finished the first beer, the cold had gone away and I could focus on the people in the bar.

It was mostly an after-work crowd. Office workers, ties undone, or in casual suits. A couple of Spanish-looking couples, a trio of Filipino-looking nurses still in their uniforms. A couple dozen construction guys occupying the space around the bar, dressed in construction boots, jeans and wool shirts. Whatever their background, their faces looked pretty much like the ones I’d been seeing on the street for the last month, though considerably less guarded now that they were in a bar. I smoked one cigarette, downed two beers in less than twenty minutes, then ordered a couple more. With the beer, the cigarette smoothed my nerves, and I felt comfortable in the bar, a drink in easy reach, the cold safely outside. A part of me didn’t want to go out at all. I loved the Village in the daytime. The trash blowing across the pavement seemed exotic, one of those iconic New York images that made it seem like you were walking through a movie. The iron fire escapes running up the fronts of the buildings, the old synagogues and cathedrals, the graveyard off 2nd Avenue, all made you feel like you’d gone to another country, some corner of Europe maybe. Some streets, dotted with little stores and narrow diners, where people hung out on their steps when it was sunny, felt like a small town. A network of small towns in the heart of a very big city. Even the homeless camp at the bottom of Tompkins Square Park was strange, beyond understanding. A couple hundred people, camped out under blue tarps or in rickety shacks made of scrap wood, the smoke from their fires trailing through the tree branches into the street. I’d walked around the camp once or twice, surprised to find signs of community in the way people brought each other food from the mobile soup kitchen in the corner, or gathered around a fire in an empty barrel, like the further edges of the squatter communities I’d been a part of in London.

The night was another matter. I’d been living in, hanging out in, neighborhoods like the Village since I’d been 16. Bohemian neighborhoods, where internal refugees like myself came to find themselves. After awhile, these neighborhoods had a sameness, no matter what city or even continent. Walking through the East Village, I felt the same weariness below the surface that I had, too many times, in other cities. Junkie punk rockers, long past their expiration date, lurched past with that windblown look, like they’d just stepped out of a wind tunnel. Late ’80s hardcore, blaring out of the same dark, graffiti-scarred bars it had blared out of in Montreal or London, Vancouver or Berlin. Now that I’d been away from my tribe for a few weeks, I wasn’t sure I wanted to find them again. I liked being in this bizarre little sports bar; looking at people who had regular jobs and went home to parts of the city I knew nothing about.

I gazed at the American flag hanging over the bar. I’d been looking at that flag my whole life without really seeing it. Before I’d crossed the border, I’d mostly resented it, but in the context of New York, I found it oddly comforting, the way I’d once found Union Jack comforting, and for similar reasons: it was a symbol of something I wanted to be. I wasn’t sure what that was exactly, but somehow in crossing the border I felt I’d become someone different and I didn’t want to go back to whoever I’d been before I left. Stepping out of the train station into the brilliant sunlight along the Avenue of the Americas, I’d been taken by the emblems of all the American nations on the lampposts, Venezuela right down to Argentina, with Canada just before Costa Rica and Columbia. I’d walked the whole length of the street, carrying my one bag, fascinated by the thought that I was an American. That had never occurred to me, not in Europe, nor even in Canada, where, for most of my life, I’d largely assumed I was basically British, if born on the wrong side of the Atlantic. Now I knew that I’d miss that flag if I had to leave, regret not following whatever promise it held out.

The bartender was pouring out a round of shots, spreading the glasses along the counter. Big glasses, with at least three ounces of what looked like cough syrup. To my surprise, he slapped one of the glasses in front of me.

“Don’t worry. The guy next to you is paying for it.”

He pointed at a guy standing a couple of places down the bar with a pool cue in one hand and a Corona in the other. The guy put down his Corona and picked up the shot, pointing it in my direction.

“Jagermeister,” he drawled in an accent that sounded not quite New York, “German or somethin’. Gets you fucked up, whatever it is.”

He and what seemed like half the construction-boot-wearing men along the bar knocked their shots back in one go. I followed suit. Jagermeister had just started being promoted in North America, and I’d never tried it before. It not only looked like cough syrup but tasted like it as well. My new friend caught my grimace and laughed.

“Don’t worry. Gets easier after awhile. Maybe too easy.”

A black guy sitting behind him grinned, like this was an old joke between them. I wondered why this guy had bought me a drink. He definitely didn’t look gay. He wore his feathered light brown hair parted in the middle, and a silver rope was just visible beneath the open V of his white sports shirt. Unlike the men around him, he was wearing white runners, but he seemed affiliated with them in some way. In his sallow eyes, there was just a hint of East European melancholy, but his casual way of holding himself, one foot on the railing below the bar, leaning forward with one elbow on the counter while his other hand fiddled restlessly with the pool cue, made him wholly American. He even seemed a little out of place in the city, as if his natural setting was at the wheel of a pick-up, six-pack open on the seat beside him, shotgun rack mounted in the back window. A good old boy in a plaid shirt taking pulls of chewing tobacco while jawing with the neighbors about last year’s crop.

Before I’d even had the chance to thank him, he ordered another round. “You don’t look like you’re doing anything important,” he said to me. Then: “My name’s Dupont. This here is James.”

He pointed to the black guy sitting behind him. James had close-cropped hair and wide-framed tinted eyeglasses. Though he wore the same outfit as Dupont, his shirt and jeans fit him better, as if he’d taken more care in their selection. He kept one toothpick between his teeth and another threaded in his hair. He had a kind face, yet seemed a little guarded as well, separate from the other men along the bar. He nodded and said something, but in some kind of patois so I couldn’t understand him.

Dupont ordered another round of beers, including me again. I was becoming a little embarrassed by his generosity, but curious about him as well. He seemed popular: every second person that came in the door stopped to shake his hand, yet he didn’t seem like he owned the place. What he reminded me of most acutely, was a guy I’d known in high school who’d been a very successful weed dealer. He greeted everyone he met with the same mix of familiarity and casual appraisal. Yet no money, no substance ever changed hands. He just seemed like a guy everyone wanted to know.

“You livin’ here in the city?” He said in a pause between greeting people. He said it while watching the basketball game on TV, not even looking at me, as if it was a question he asked a dozen times a night. As best I could, I shoehorned my situation into a single sentence. He glanced over, and for the first time since he’d included me in his rounds, he seemed to actually see me.

“Montreal? Buddy of mine went up a few years back, said it was a real good time. Lots of bars, lots of nice women.” Here, he puffed himself up a bit. “Might have to visit myself sometime. Go up with the shirt on my back and twenty bucks and see what happens. Hell, I can make a party anywhere.”

For a moment I thought I’d placed him. I’d met a lot of Americans like Dupont in Europe, hanging around the tourist bars. Outgoing, almost aggressively generous, basically uninterested in any world outside their own. But here he was on his own turf, a big man of sorts and, despite an initial skepticism, I liked him. I’d have liked him even if he hadn’t bought me three drinks: he had an openness, a naïveté even, that offset the qualities I’d seen in him from a distance. Up close, he looked less like someone in charge than a guy who’d won the lottery and couldn’t believe his luck.

“You from New York?” I asked him. I didn’t think so. It wasn’t just his accent: the faces I’d seen on the street for the last three weeks had many appealing qualities but naïveté wasn’t one of them.

“Hell no! Lived in Columbus before I lived here, but from Cleveland originally. Not much in Cleveland now, but Columbus is all right. Lots of partying, lots of young girls. Nothing like New York, though—don’t know why I didn’t move here years ago.” Then: “You visiting friends or something?”

“No. Just came down to see how it was.”

“Oh yeah?” He told me later he’d been impressed that someone from a different country would come alone to the city for the hell of it. “How long you planning on staying, anyway?”

“Long as I can.”

He peered at me again, pupils expanding ever so slightly.

“Ever work construction?”

“Oh yeah.”

He laughed again. He seemed to laugh at everything and yet I had the sense that, despite his joviality, he’d been assessing me as I’d been assessing him.

“We’re working a big job around the corner. Need someone to take care of odd stuff around the place. A little carpentry, a little painting. Almost done now, but it’ll keep you going for a couple weeks at least.”

Even if this was exactly the opportunity I’d been looking for, doubts crowded my mind. Maybe this guy was just some big talker. Maybe he’d rip me off. He hadn’t asked about that and I wondered if he thought Canadians could work in the US. And even if he was legit, now that I had the chance I wasn’t so sure I wanted to get up early and go to some job site. I’d had enough of job site routines in Montreal, long days in warehouses or dusty building sites, listening to small-change rednecks call each other ‘fag’ and ‘cocksucker’ for hours. Compared to that, collecting that bi-weekly cheque was a dream.

Dupont laughed again, catching my hesitation. “Don’t worry about tools or experience. I’m the GC and James here is the foreman and a year ago neither one of us had set foot on a job site.” Guffawing. “Hell, we can show you whatever you need to know. And the owner pays cash, every Friday.”

When James grinned as well, I decided to take the chance. Even if I still had doubts about Dupont, something about James made me trust him. I liked how James seemed bemused by whatever Dupont said, grinning at me while Dupont was talking as if to let me in on the joke, and I figured if the foreman was a West Indian who hung around with the GC doing shots after work, this wouldn’t be like any job site in Montreal. When I said sure, Dupont beamed, like I’d paid him a compliment. Now that I’d decided, I felt confident again, like the city was protecting me. I was drunk, but I didn’t feel out of control like I’d feared; I felt like I was looking down at myself from a distance, the same feeling I used to get when I first started doing dope, a feeling of disembodied confidence.

People swayed in and out of the bar. The music had gone up a notch: Boston’s ‘More Than a Feeling’ blared down from the ceiling. Dupont signaled to the bartender for another round. He seemed to have a thing about it, like he was proving something to himself. Eventually, I don’t know what time, I stumbled, quite hammered, back into the midtown blur, clutching a bar coaster with a nearby address scrawled across the front, and instructions to appear at 8:30 the next morning.


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