Chapter One: Baghdad on the Hudson
Heaven is hell in reverse — Elvis Costello
SUMMER had not yet passed, but in the shadow of fall, an otherwise unremarkably beautiful morning took on a liminal and melancholic significance, an Irish wake celebrated on that narrow span between Labor Day and the autumnal equinox.
J. sat on a bench at the intersection of Broadway and 116th and watched north- and southbound cars and trucks and cyclists crest and break along the prow of the traffic median. In his right hand, he clutched a deck of cheap plastic-coated Duane Reade playing cards. He kept his eyes on the traffic while practicing a no-look one-handed shuffle. His thumb worried the cards, trying to feel the cut. Slowly, he split the deck in two and gently coaxed each half around his index finger, but when he tried to interleave the halves back together, the deck stolidly refused to merge. J. turned his attention wholly to the deck and increased the pressure. For a moment, he thought he felt the two halves sigh and begin to ease into each other. He pushed harder and the cards hiccupped, bowed out, and exploded in a firework burst.
J. often found himself up here in Morningside Heights, brushing shoulders with beatnik ghosts and cadging wounded soldiers unsteadily abandoned by ivied undergrads at The West End or nursing the nth free refill of coffee at The Hungarian while he fell in and out of love, peering over the top of some spine-broken, fragrant used book — bought or lifted from Labyrinth — propped in front of him, with the waitress with the hoop earrings or the waitress with intricate braids or the waitress with the redshift lips. So it’s perhaps not surprising that, as dawn broke across Manhattan, J. had wandered due north from 72nd, up Broadway, serenaded by the city’s matins of rattling storefront steel gates being deadlifted by shopkeepers and the susurrus of water hoses burnishing the sidewalks into mottled mirrors. Along the way, he devoured a Recession Special and only stopped for the first time in forty-four blocks at this bench to briefly rest the smoldering soles of his jump boots.
J. got down on his hands and knees to pick up the mess of cards before the crosstown winds scattered the cards into the road. He glanced up and almost fell into the azure sheet stretched across the sky. How could he possibly be expected to go to school on a day like this? To be fair, yesterday had also been too nice a day for school. Yesterday, J. kept on walking past P.S. 405 and caught the 2 at Flatbush Ave. into the city. It had all the bearings of a spontaneous gesture save for the nine hundred and forty-two dollars rubber-banded in a tight cylinder that seemed to burn against the inside pocket of his jacket, a white phosphor round drilling into his ribcage. Alea jacta est.
FOR his tenth birthday, J.’s mother sat him down at their Formica laminate kitchen table and cracked the cellophane off a box of Bicycle cards with a flourish of her wrist as she yanked away the plastic pull string and dropped the deck into her hand with the same gesture she used to extract the last Marlboro Red and attendant confetti of tobacco flakes from a pack, back before she quit.
“My pops taught me how to play when I was your age, and buddy, if he was alive, he would have taught you, too,” she said, gesturing vaguely for J. to clear a space amongst the plates and glasses and candles and dry Entenmann’s iced vanilla cake and casually unopened junk mail and willfully unopened bills so that she had enough room to scramble the cards. “There are a few variations. We’ll start with stud. Or maybe draw. I always get them confused. It doesn’t matter.” Having reconstituted the deck, she placed it face down and slowly spread it out evenly from right to left, bifurcating the table. She placed her fingertips underneath the beginning of the line of cards and, with a ginger gesture, rolled them over in a low swelling wave. She laughed once, loudly, rocked back in her chair, and clapped her hands, infallibly delighted as she was by any and all unexpected successes, great or small.
The lesson devolved from there into a hodgepodge of half-remembered rules — Did a full house beat a straight or the other way around? Was four-of-a-kind better than a royal flush? — and mixed-up variations — she swore “Oklahoma” was an offshoot of draw poker and even fabricated an elaborate story about its origins in the Dust Bowl migration that, had past not proved prologue, might have convinced J. of her yarn’s veracity. At least she convinced herself.
J. could have forced a smile, some response to suggest he at least recognized the effort she was exerting to shellac a festive glaze over the annual superfluous reminder that they were alone together. Maybe he wanted to. Maybe he wished he could. But J. had already used up his wish. That was the last year he blew out candles and asked a cake to return his father to them.
AS J. gathered the last of the playing cards, he saw an old, bearded man with long, thin, grey hair wearing a jordy-blue Columbia sweatshirt and ragged jeans rise from the bushes planted in the traffic median to cover a subway ventilation grate. The old man reached out to steady himself against the trunk of a sycamore, and J. saw stumps where fingers should have been. A factory accident or a war injury or a birth defect. The hand shook as the old man loosed his grip on the bark. Delirium tremens. A pungent ammoniac stink wafted ahead of him.
J. stood up and self-consciously shoved his own hands into his jacket pockets.
The old man perched at the edge of the raised median, looming over J. He looked like King Lear and stepped, with a ballerino’s grace, one, two, three, off the median onto the bench’s wooden back plank, seat, and paved granite walkway a few paces from J.
Lear gazed upward with beatific eyes for a long second before turning back earthward to hone in on J. “Spare change for a fellow Lion?” Lear asked.
“I don’t go to college,” J. replied dumbly.
Lear blinked and redacted his request. “Spare change?”
J. kept an emergency sawbuck folded under the insole of his left boot. At that moment, it was all the money he had in the world. The bum’s as holy as the seraphim. He put his shoulder to the karmic wheel.
“You hungry?” J. asked.
THE summer before J’s last year in middle school, J.’s mother got friendly with a three-card Monte shill from Canarsie who had genially hustled her out of a few bucks when she stopped at the dealer’s cardboard box office on the way home from cashiering at the Key Food on 5th and Baltic. “I knew what he was doing,” she told J., “but the whole time, he had the kindest look in his eyes.”
Most nights of that summer found the shill and his friends gathered around J.’s mother’s Formica table, smoking and drinking and playing poker. J. sat on the kitchen counter, one eye on a book and the other on the game, while his mother hosted. She switched out the empties for full cans of Coors or Bud or Pabst, depending on whatever cases the men had picked up at the corner bodega. She cleared the ashtrays. She cheered for the shill when he won and gave a consoling squeeze on the shoulder when he lost. More often than not, by the end of the night, the shill had a well-tenderized shoulder. He was, as far as J. could tell, an inveterate loser, a shill through and through, not just on the streets. But he was also kind to everyone, including J. and J.’s mother. The shill even taught J. how to actually play cards, both to pass the time before the shill’s friends showed up and to give J. something else to stare intently at besides the back of his head. Losers, J. discovered, could also be excellent teachers, and J. was a quick study.
If one of the shill’s friends busted early and walked out in disgust, spewing clouds of cigarette smoke and curses all the way out the door, through the hallway, down the stairs, and out onto the street, stopping only long enough to shake his fist at the neon-illumined night clouds before moping homeward, the shill would let J. fill the seat, which helped retain the rhythm of the game. The shill even staked J. for an eighty-twenty cut, which everyone else thought was funny except for J.’s mother, who fretted sullenly but silently over the spiritual risks of exposing her only son to a bunch of gambling, low-rent con artists. But at least it kept J. at home and under her eye.
The first few hands J. played, he mostly folded. If he had a hand, his bet gave him away, and he’d take down a meager pre-flop pot. But compared to the indifferent view from the countertop, the parallax perspective at the table gave J. a chance to observe at close quarters the tells that effervesced from the shill and his crew: eyebrow twitches or furrows, nostril flares, hands cupping chins or rasping against gunmetal twilight cheek stubble, scratches, burps, sighs, brows lustering with sweat.
Having assessed and cataloged the table’s tells, J. started to win. Not a lot, but enough. The shill didn’t mind — losing was losing, so the age of the hand raking in the chips seemed a petty distinction. But once J. paid back the shill’s stake from his own winnings, with vigorish, just to add insult to injury, the shill cooled, and after a few weeks, the curtain dropped on J.’s short career as poker-home-game seat filler.
From this laminate Sinai, J. descended into eighth grade “with the light of inspiration shining in his countenance” and bearing in his hands two decks of cards — one for the current hand’s dealer and the other for the next hand’s dealer to shuffle when the button (which was an actual honest-to-God spare coat button) moved so more hands could be played during their allotted lunch period. Multi-colored tracer ammunition from plastic disc guns served as chips, which were easier to procure and carry and less likely to draw unwanted attention, but the value represented — anywhere from milk money to petty-bourgeois allowances — was just as real. The chaos of the cafeteria provided cover for the card game. J. kept track of everyone’s profits and losses in a small top-bound spiral notebook with a mustard Ticonderoga stub sheathed within the wound wire, and all who played on a given day met down by the Carroll Street Bridge over the Gowanus after school to square accounts since the bouquet of sewage that rose in comic-strip stink lines from the river discouraged the presence of passersby.
The other kids treated poker itself as a game like Go Fish or War or Slaps. For them, the draw lay in the opportunity to cross a threshold, like smoking or drinking, as if the form was the content. For them, the money was beside the point. For J., the money was the only point. Unlike his classmates, he thought that poker — in the right hands and with the right hands — could be a hard way to earn an easy living.
J.’s lunch table began to draw attention. Soon, similar card klatches arose at other tables in the cafeteria, during homeroom or study hall, on the stairwells, under the bleachers, anywhere with enough flat square footage to lay down the board. Students wandered the halls in a daze, shaking their heads and muttering about their bad beats, the rectangular outlines of card decks branded into pants pockets. The eighth grade at P.S. 84 shook and rattled with a high-grade poker fever.
Then the fever broke, as fevers inevitably do, and the students awoke weeks later in a sweat, threw off the covers, and moved on to the next fad. J. and a few degenerate diehards continued to play, but desultorily, and eventually, even the diehards lost interest. He observed this ebb with a sneer and a shrug.
The following year, in high school, J. finagled his way into a few home games after classes, mostly one-off tournaments, with older classmates. By the end of his sophomore year, armed with a meager straw-house bankroll, he was ready to storm the gates of the city’s underground low-limit poker tables with the white-knuckled, desperate terror born of a gambler’s bastard hope.
INURED or insensate to the voyeuristic tableau of Broadway from the second-floor mezzanine in Pinnacle Pizza, Lear stared straight ahead, but his gaze seemed reversed, as if he were attempting to decipher a message etched by a foreign hand on the windows of his skull. He and J. sat along the balustrade that faced the wall of glass. Both mechanically gnawed on cheese slices that had cured into pizza jerky under the heat lamps.
J. had enough money for a subway ride home. But he couldn’t go home. Not yet. He couldn’t face his mother. Not yet. He looked at his watch. She would just be getting back after ten hours at a third shift job as a line tender for a bottling plant in the Bronx. On Mondays, the end of her dinner shift waitressing at the Schrafft’s on 79th nearly ran up against the start of her late shift at the bottling plant; she had barely enough time to sprint to the subway and catch the Wakefield-bound 2. By Tuesday morning, J’s mother was nearly cross-eyed with sleeplessness. She would drag herself back to their apartment and pass out on the couch with both her shoes and the television still on and not wake up for ten to twelve hours.
She went through phases like this, taking on two or three crap jobs at the same time until she either burned out and dropped everything at once or got herself fired piecemeal for falling asleep on the line or snapping back at her supervisor. Then she’d sit around and burn through the savings she’d socked away in a box of fish sticks stored in the freezer (J.’s mother’s ironclad logic: “Who stops for a snack in the middle of a burglary? And let’s say some burglar does get the munchies, no way he goes for the fish sticks. No one likes fish sticks. I mean, the mini pizza bagels are right there!”) while she painted watercolor miniatures or crocheted scarves or sculpted pottery or cut collages or silkscreened shirts or soldered jewelry and waited for the universe to post portents.
The incontrovertibly terrible schedule born of her most recent workaholic spasm opened a window of opportunity for J. that he gauged with the gimlet calculation of a lifer measuring the walls of his cell, the footfalls of the bulls during bed check, the height of the fence, the distance to the tree line.
Giuliani had already spent a solid year extending his War on Crime to illegal poker rooms, but J. could figure the odds of hitting the case ace on the river, and he dismissed the risk of a raid as a minor threat compared to the far greater likelihood of getting rolled on the way home, which ended up happening on the same sweltering August night he took down a huge pot on the Upper West Side when his queen-jack paired up to crack pocket kings. J. traded over six hundred dollars — all his winnings up to that very moment — for a tune-up by a few Jones Street Boys who caught him taking a shortcut through Petrosino Park in Bensonhurst.
“Oh, my God,” J.’s mother said when he got home. J. ignored her and beelined for the bathroom, closing and locking the door behind him. He ran cold water and rinsed the blood from his abraded knuckles, inhaling a hard sssss.
“Open the door,” J.’s mother said and knocked, one, two, three times. “Open the door.”
J. palpated his split lip, already clotted black, and the blooming violet eclipse across his cheek.
“Open the door.” Her voice different now, nails packed into a pipe bomb. The flat of her palm hit the door. “You open.” Palm. “This door.” Palm. “Right.” Palm. “N — ”
J. yanked the door open and braced himself for the now-familiar corrida that ensued every time he got caught cutting classes or stealing or fighting or etc., each of them alternatingly torero and toro, jabbing lances, banderillas and horns, drawing blood with each plaint and recrimination. Instead, J.’s mother’s face crumpled when she saw his. She pressed her hands together, raised them to her lips as if in prayer, shut her eyes, and cried, cried, cried.
J. would have preferred the fight.
INEVITABLY, J. turned his attention to the Sisyphean task of rebuilding his bankroll.
On the mountain’s side: It had taken J. a year of serious, concentrated effort just to scrape together the previous roll.
On the boulder’s side: Half his roll came from the summer’s winnings.
Mountain: The math was inflexible; even playing $1-$2 no-limit tables, J. wouldn’t feel comfortable sitting down with less than two hundred dollars, not including rebuys, and if he was serious about winning himself back to his previous bankroll quickly, he’d need five hundred just to ride out the variance of the $2-$5 no-limit games.
Boulder: “fish sticks.”
It wasn’t stealing. Not really. Not if J. meant to return the money, which he did. That made it more like a loan. A high-risk, zero-interest loan without the loaner’s knowledge, but what’s a little light embezzlement between son and mother? As for the risk, J. kept track of all his wins and losses in his notebook, and those stats commended him as a sensible grinder. He feared less the potential loss of the cache than falling far short of his fundraising goal. Still, a Rubicon lay before J. Despite his priors, despite their knock-down-drag-outs, J.’s mother never thought to hide the cache from him. Other men stole from them: money, electronics, jewelry, furniture, clothes, pets (just one: a soporific goldfish whose theft went unmourned save for the loss of its jauntily appointed bowl laden with rainbow aquarium pebbles and a little plastic castle), knickknacks, illusions, hope, love. The only thing J.’s father had stolen was himself.
If J.’s mother discovered the theft before J. could return the money, well, he calculated this as a slim likelihood as she only stashed cash in the cache on every other payday, which fell on the same Thursday, bi-weekly, for both the waitressing and bottling jobs.
In ninety-nine out of a hundred simulations, she didn’t open the box before J. returned the money. But that one where she did, it gave J. pause.
THURSDAY. J.’s mother made a deposit in the cache.
Friday. J. nearly broke three tumblers while washing the dishes.
Saturday. J. just caught the T.V. remote before it cracked against the end table and couldn’t get his keys from his pocket to the door lock without them jumping from his hand.
Sunday. While listening to the Yankees-Sox game on his Walkman and trying to walk a quarter across his knuckles, J. noticed a seismic twitch in his fingertips. The quarter slipped from his grip. He tried to snag it in mid-air, but it bounced off his hand, fell to the floor, and rolled under the couch.
“You okay, kiddo?” J.’s mother asked.
“I’m fine,” he snapped.
“You don’t look fine. You don’t seem fine.”
She held the back of her hand to J.’s forehead, tsked, shook her head, and proceeded to brew an acrid herbal tea. Why, J. wondered, were his fingers trembling? Agenbite of inwit: remorse of conscience. Tomorrow was Monday. His stomach churned. Alea jacta est.
ON the sidewalk in front of Pinnacle, a thigh-high girl in an oversized hand-me-down raccoon coat (too warm for the weather, stubbornly beloved) puttered toward the corner of 116th. The rapid, sparkling blur of black patent leather shoes below the furry hem of the coat betrayed the lackadaisical demeanor of her lolling head. The girl was being towed in the grips of her parents, who scudded along on either side at a purposeful and steady — but not unkind — pace, one that demanded merely the sustained peak pistoning of their daughter’s legs. Blinders would have been more effective but less socially acceptable, for despite the breakneck clip, the girl still registered from the edge of her vision a feathered flitter of movement between a newsstand and a vertical traffic light. In a sudden, furious burst of strength belied by her size, the girl twisted her hands free, and before her parents could recapture her, she ran to a pigeon backed against a trashcan by a tabby cat slinking slowly and laterally toward its prey. The pigeon beat its left wing madly, but the right wing, injured somehow, twitched erratically, rendering flight impossible.
The girl skidded to a halt directly between the tabby and the pigeon, spreading her arms wide. She stared down the cat, mirroring each of its feints. “Stay, stay, stay, stay, stay,” the girl chanted to, alternatingly, the cat and the pigeon, as the pigeon was complicating the girl’s attempts to use her own body as a protective barrier by frantically waddling back and forth between the trash can and curb. Shuffling in time with the pigeon, the girl kept the cat at bay, a complicated pas de trois that required her to keep both animals in the periphery of her vision. All the while, she somehow comported herself with the equability of an old, phlegmatic country judge arbitrating a border dispute between truculent neighbors.
“Frances,” the mother said in a tone that straddled the line between stern and plaintive. Frances’ father hummed to himself as he counted out exact change for the Times, having forgotten the price had gone up earlier that year for the first time since ’95. “ ‘Shillelagh law was all the rage, and a row and a ruction soon began,’ ” the father sang as he passed Frances and handed the coins to the Sikh newsstand worker.
“The price has gone up,” the Sikh told the father.
The father shook his head. “Heavens to Betsy,” he said mildly as he frisked himself for the remainder.
“Pizza’s good,” Lear said.
J. raised an eyebrow at his own quarter-finished slice.
“May I?” Lear asked.
J. slid the paper plate over.
A cloudburst of crushed red pepper rained down, loosed from the shaker pinned between Lear’s quivering palms. When J. returned his attention to the street, they were all gone: Frances, father, cat, mother, pigeon. Sublimated into vapor, their story irretrievably lost in medias res. Only the Sikh remained, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and picking tobacco flakes from his beard.
That tableau comprised the totality of what J. chose to recall when reflecting on that day: pigeon and cat, Frances and mother, father and Sikh, Lear and J, repeating on a loop.
Not the moment when he stood, hunchbacked and sleep-deprived in a card room over the off-track betting parlor on 72nd and Amsterdam, hands clutching the lip of the table while the king-high club flush he hit on the flop got cracked by a donkey who panicked and forced J. all in with nothing more than a back-door ace-high flush draw that filled out on the turn and river,
not watching the donkey fumble with the chips as the rest of the table stared, grim-faced, all eyes on J.’s bloodless visage, the expression on his face he himself had seen over and over on others, a look that telegraphed the blow of an apocalyptic loss,
not the five-a.m. false dawn to the east that greeted him as he stumbled through the hallway, down the stairs, and out onto the street,
not sitting on a bench in Verdi Square, the blank in old Needle Park, as the false dawn faded into twilight — Vedi! Le fosche notturne,
not the walk uptown,
not sitting at the traffic median,
not the breaking news that interrupted WNYC’s morning broadcast on the small transistor radio behind the counter at Pinnacle,
not the column of smoke that rose from the south,
not the confusion,
not the fear,
not, once his feet finally felt up for the trip, walking down to Columbus Circle,
not crossing the 59th Street Bridge into Queens in a silent, shadowed swell of pedestrians on the sidewalks and roadway,
not his blistered, bleeding, numb feet,
not the crowds gathering around the Brooklyn-bound buses,
not the smell that came in on the breeze, the smell he would never be able to forget, the smell he would never put into words — not even here,
not finally getting home as dusk settled over the city,
not walking into the apartment to find his mother awash in the fluttering cathode glow of the breaking-news broadcast on mute, staring at the door and clutching the phone in a grip that had relaxed from white-knuckled fear to relief and retightened to white-knuckled rage in the time it took for the lock pins to dance across the teeth of his key,
not the open, hastily packed carpet bag on the couch, overflowing with tee shirts and socks and underwear and toiletries,
not the defrosted pizzas, single-serve microwaveable meals, ice cream pints, French fries, tater tots, half-empty bags of corn — who needed so much corn? — ice cube trays, and cold packs tossed upon the kitchen table, and in the center of the mess, not the box of fish sticks ripped open along every seam, a cardboard sunflower head, on the kitchen table,
not his mother saying “He just walked in the door — no. No. He looks fine. Yeah, I know. I am. I’ll call you later,”
not the sound of the receiver dropping into its cradle,
not the sense of disassociation that overtook — overwhelmed him, as if his life was happening in the third person,
not the fight that night,
not the month and a half of fights that followed,
not the hushed phone consultations to friends and family — it took a village to solve a problem like J. — abruptly cut off whenever he entered the room, somehow worse than the fights,
not her final, abrupt pronouncement: extradition, expulsion, expatriation, exile, excommunication, by hook and by crook, remanded to the care of his uncle in Connecticut, return ticket to be determined.
Just pigeon, cat, Frances, mother, father, Sikh, Lear, and J.
BY the time J. was seventeen, he had lived in every borough of New York City. Mostly Brooklyn and Queens, with a few stints in the Bronx and Manhattan above 125th, and, save for the methane stench of the Fresh Kills landfill, an otherwise unmemorable two-and-a-half week stint on the Staten Island couch of a friend of a friend of a friend of J.’s mother.
J.’s mother had taught herself to embrace this itinerant lifestyle, but she was a recalcitrant convert. This explained a certain look that came over her face — a set of the jaw as she clenched her teeth, a narrowing of the eyes — every time the switch in her head flipped from “stay” to “go.” When J. saw it, he knew enough to collect any of his belongings not already stuffed into his olive drab army surplus duffle bag, the one she had bought from Kaufman’s, by Port Authority when he was still young enough to almost fit inside. Pack it or lose it, buddy, she used to say upon each abscondment, affecting her best jaunty camp-counselor voice. But this tone was contravened by the look, the one that meant she was once more steeling herself against the hope of a fading memory of permanence. J. couldn’t understand, lacking a baseline of stability for comparison. Save for the city, which had, until that day, remained inviolably and irreducibly itself, irrespective of each forced displacement, his whole life.
The roaring October evensong of Brooklyn crashed down upon him, and the next morning, J. was gone.