I’m on planet 3-inch mattress crashing in an East Village studio apartment with my old high school friend Patrick.
Two months earlier it was Granada, Spain with Elena. She, on a continual cosmic wander, a quest to see what was beyond the flamenco caves a mile past the Alhambra where the gypsies lived. She took me there and I danced, clapped like a gringo, heard the guitar, for fleeting minutes felt Moorish. Restless with the colder weather, my years of autumn instinct gnawed and probed, told me it is over, that her steps were not mine. Some tears, a bus ride to Madrid, a day at the Prado, then I left.
Here now, walking by a phone booth on Avenue A, I want to call, but she doesn’t have a number and I’m broke anyway. The cross-continental breakup is final, no email, no texting, no Skype, no looking back.
New York City is a whirlwind, my life like jazz, a cacophony of busy denizens intently darting fro and to. Frenetic taxicabs, the smell of pizza on every corner, the never-ending screeching of the subway. For six months I do it all, intern at Human Rights Watch, book bands, date an actress, write for a community newspaper, and bartend near NYU. I dabble in poetry and poverty sleeping on the floor in the East Village, then a few months on a futon in an apartment on West 4th Street near 6th Avenue. I never pay rent, make enough money to eat on $12 a day. I work at two bookstores, the first, Barnes & Noble at Astor Place, the second, Rizzoli in Soho.
Five days until Christmas 1995 and I’m holding a tray of hard candies standing at the entrance of Barnes and Noble. I feel like Judge Reinhold’s character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but without the pirate hat. Recent college grad from an elite northeastern school, with a phony smile and wrinkled khakis. The urbane customers wear scarves, leather jackets, sweaters with reindeer, most ignore me. I prefer shelving books, hidden in the poetry section, where I can find Marianne Moore for an NYU coed. But they hired me for the holiday season, so I’m standing here, an exposed, breathing ornament, placed at the front of the store.
A couple days earlier they had me doing bag check. Better than candy, I got to sit. Men and women handed me their Jansport backpacks and Esprit tote bags, I passed them a plastic number. A middle-aged man gave me his backpack, he was maybe fifty, George Costanza bald, with a red Polo jacket and matching Polo glasses. “Give me that back,” he said to me with a sneer. I handed over his bag and he removed his wallet, looked at me directly, “you people are the thieves.”
Three days before Christmas and I’m the candyman again, grinning like a dope, when I see her, the actress, Claire Danes. Her hand reaches out for a piece of the crinkly wrapped candy, she knows I recognize her, knows I’m a writer, an artist, like her. She smiles, I smile. Then she walks away, leaving me alone with my peppermints, listening to the instrumental version of Last Christmas by Wham.