The Ghost of Charlie Parker
New York City — Lower East Side, 1996
Funny — there’s a phenomenon taking place. It’s nothing new unfortunately, but it’s everywhere you look. On the streets of the Lower East Side the foot soldiers of a new generation are waging war against the self, all in the name of art the ever elusive ‘cool’. Heroin — the new creative blood. The ghost of Charlie Parker blows chunks through his hypodermic horn and they bathe in it, a baptism for a new vision. Wading in sick, seeking immortality, written down in the legends of their own minds.
Aysha is one of them and as she talks to you about her burgeoning modeling career. You sip your beer and listen. You can’t help but notice the sadness in her eyes as she tries to justify having to take to modeling underwear for a department store catalogue. ‘It’s not what I want to do’, she says and lowers her head, rubs her long, delicate fingers over the constellation of scars on her forearm. ‘I want to be a fashion model but it’s not easy getting that kind of work.’
You think she’s pretty in that small town blonde kind of way. She’s long, lean, pale, her shoulders dotted with freckles. You could easily see her strutting up and down a runway, donning some designer’s latest vision, confident, alluring. However she’s having a hard time looking at you as she speaks, keeps looking down and away, stroking her arm. You pretend not to notice what she’s trying to hide. ‘At least you’re getting work,’ you tell her, but that doesn’t seem to matter to her. She merely shrugs it off, rests her arm on the table and reaches for her drink.
‘Some of my friends are already doing runway modeling,’ she says. ‘It’s a tough business, too superficial. They look you over like you’re a prize animal, looking for flaws, and believe me they always find them. I was once told I was too fat. Me,’ she says, leaning back against the bar, spreading her arms out to show off her near emaciated figure. ‘How thin does one have to be?’ You don’t know what to say for her. You don’t know anything about how the industry works but you imagine how superficial it can be.
Aysha is twenty-four years old, six years your junior. She can easily pass for a teenager with her lack of make up, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, the way she dresses. Her shapely lips curl around the lip of her bottle, takes a sip, her long neck tilting back to drain what remains of her beer. ‘When I came to New York, I thought it was going to be easy,’ she says. ‘I thought I’d make a lot of money, have a nice apartment. Instead I’m broke and live with two other girls in a railroad apartment in Brooklyn. My boyfriend says we never have any privacy so he doesn’t like coming over. Sometimes I stay at his place but he has roommates too. No one has any money to go out so there are always people around. Makes it hard to have some alone time. I don’t think I know anyone who lives alone. Do you have roommates?‘ You tell her you don’t. ‘I envy you,’ she says. ‘It must be nice to be able to come home and not always have someone there getting in the way’.
She catches you glancing at her forearm. Her hand immediately begins rubbing the scars. It was her ex-boyfriend who got her hooked, a musician who kicked around the Lower East Side bars, worked full time in a copy shop in the neighborhood. Any money he made went on heroin. She only wanted to try it, she says, and it turned into a year long nightmare. She broke up with him after she discovered he stole one of her necklaces for drug money. After that she tried to kick, got the help she needed. She’s been clean for over a year, trying to get her life back in order. The guy she’s currently seeing is clean, sober, and a vegan, not a musician but a visual artist. ‘I’ve had it with musicians,’ she says.
The ghost of Charlie Parker hovers over everything here. Just across the park, right down the street from this very bar, Parker’s former home looks out over the dozens of others who somehow found themselves on this path. Aysha isn’t the first person you met over the course of the past few years who had a problem with junk. You wonder what the sudden fascination is, why it’s suddenly become the drug of choice. You grew up watching people in your own neighborhood addicted, some of them dying as a result. You’ve even had members of your own family enveloped in its embrace. You don’t understand it’s allure, its sudden emergence as ‘chic’.
Her boyfriend enters the bar. He looks like you’d expect him to look — tall, rail thin, his arms covered in tattoos, patchy beard, glasses. He walks over to her, kisses her hello, doesn’t even acknowledge you. ‘Thanks for listening,’ Aysha says and folds herself into his waiting arms.
You return to your friends who found a booth towards the back of the bar. They just sit there, staring at all the young girls, nursing their beers, dopey expressions on their faces. Russell wants to know who it was you were talking to. ‘Just some kid,’ you tell him. ‘An aspiring model’.
‘Was that her boyfriend?’ he asks.
‘They always have boyfriends!’ he says, exasperated.
You turn to look at Aysha. She’s smiling, still in her boyfriend’s embrace. You smile too, knowing that she’s going to be all right.