The Neighborhood

Caroline was going to a guru group uptown on Broadway once in a while on certain evenings. The famous Indian guru Swami Muktananda was scheduled to visit America in the next year and there was already a coterie of devotees despite only one or two having actually met him over in India. While she would go to the group and meditate and hear about Muktananda, I would go to a chess and pool hall nearby and find somebody for a game of chess. All of that brought me up a notch or two in my ability at the board.

When we first started, Tom would take pieces off the board starting with his queen just to make it more interesting. Little by little he took off fewer or less powerful pieces until we were playing even and finally, an eternity it seemed, I won my first game fair and square. Even Tom was happy about that. He was proud that he had taught me well and glad to have better competition out of me. But then it became hard for him to win against me at all and I started beating most of the guys in our neck of the woods and had to go to Manhattan to get humbled by superior players.

In the beginning of my time on the block it all seemed kind of joyous, a time of youthful optimism; ‘we are the champions”, riding the roller coaster, Pig Pen and Kenny and all the high jinx. But systems degrade so physics says and emotionally this happened here. Jean Silverstein’s marriage was falling apart and he was in therapy- something about being gay which seemed farfetched to me. We used to hear him pumping away at his wife upstairs which seemed quite manly. And those free-lance shrinks around, many of them like Harold, well, how the hell you could trust them? But Jean got depressed and it got worse. One day he came over to Tom’s apartment while we were playing chess and looked around and just started crying. I could see the scene through his eyes, a den full of pot smoke and guys in retreat from the world with a mindless TV constantly blinking images against the dark walls. It wasn’t the end of the world for me. It was for him though; he just cried and left.

I was struggling too, knowing that I had to get something going in my life. The photography thing was providing some money and some action but I was burnt out too. I got beat up by the police at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and the assassinations of all my heroes hurt me bad. The war was raging and the whole society seemed to be falling apart. Caroline, although complicated and strange in some ways, was chipper and positive. Her love of plants, for one thing, was healthy, wholesome. My father was a great flower gardener and although I didn’t want to do anything he did for a lot of reasons, it still was background for me. Caroline got me connected with her friend who ran the greenhouses for Columbia University at the Delafield estate up in the Bronx in Riverdale, a beautiful ten acres or so on the Hudson River, a real oasis of nature. And the guy who ran it, Dan Mikus, was a really nice person who loved planting things and didn’t mind some help. It got me away from the neighborhood and provided a new direction. Caroline and I grew herbs and sold them at street fairs. We read Helen and Scott Nearings’ book, Living the Good Life and we started thinking about getting out of the city and going “back to nature” as the sixties decade came to an end.

Back on the block things were moving too. Albert had quit his job at the cleaners and moved out of his house, leaving his mother and sister to carry on alone. I ran into him and was happy to see him, such a great young guy and now growing up and becoming a man. He was so proud to be out of the cleaners and with some money in his pocket and without that boring regular job to tie him down.

“Come on Rick, I want to show you my new apartment.”

Sure enough, we walked around the corner to the same old hulk of an apartment building where Tom lived. I wondered how many apartments were in there and how many vacant. His place was even on the ground floor like Tom’s. He opened the door and it looked like a Puerto Rican whore house with a mattress on the floor and colored lights strung up above it and a couple of bean bag chairs that were popular at the time.

“Wow, Albert, you must be happy to have your own place now. This is great,” I said as sincerely as possible.

“Yeah Rick. What do you think? Don’t you think the girls will love this, man?”

“Sure Albert, they flock to this like bees to honey!”

“Really Rick?

“Definitely” I said moving toward the door going out.

I didn’t want to ask him how he was paying for it. I was pretty sure he had gotten involved dealing pot and maybe coke too since that was just starting on the scene. We were the first stop for any drugs coming from the boats docked below. There were already more shootings in the bars down at the foot of Atlantic and the neighborhood had more of an edge to it.

I asked Tom about Albert’s situation and he said,” That fucking Moses got his claws into him. Moses is taking him for a ride, making him sell drugs to his friends and taking all the money.” That was bad news; you didn’t want Moses in your life.

Tom was getting laid as I found out. He had taken the route of convenience. Sue, who lived upstairs with her little boy, would come down to Tom’s place after the kid was asleep and Tom would mount her doggie style as she watched the perpetual TV.

“It relaxes her,” Tom said, always considerate. “Hey it’s better than jerking off in a handkerchief.”

“Sure Tom” I said, slightly confused.

But none of it, none of this life, was doing much for Tom anymore and his need for escape increased. When we would come over to his house he would take a couple of barbiturates of some kind, smoke a joint and within a half hour be passed out in a drug stupor. We would leave. Nobody knew what to do about it. A lot of these drugs were new to us and we were not sure how harmful they were. Heroin was not a part of our world; we knew that was seriously bad but the other stuff was not so well known. In Tom’s case it seemed maybe he needed some sleep. He was ok the next day and carried on but more and more he sought the surcease provided by the pills. It became part of his life and people drifted away.

Tom and Harold were close and finally, after a while, I asked Tom about Harold’s trip to India. I had never heard the follow up.

“Aw shit Rick. Didn’t you hear?”

“No. What happened?”

“Harold didn’t even get out of the airport. He took one look around and got back on the plane. He was in shock, Rick. It really scared him. I guess since he had never been anywhere other than Manhattan and Brooklyn it was just too much for him, too dirty or something.”

“Wow” I said. “I wonder what that will do to him. He was so in love with the idea of India and finding a guru. What did he expect; that he would find his guru in the airport?”

“Don’t ask me, Rick and don’t say too much about it to him. He is very ashamed, doesn’t want to talk about it.”

“What a fucking story, “I said, shaking my head.

“We are all sick, Rick.”

I couldn’t disagree with that. The pot and the booze were taking a toll on me and, sometimes now, some coke from Juanita who was selling it in small quantities. It pepped you up from the doldrums the other shit put on you. And I would take pain pills when I could get them, sometimes going through the medicine cabinets of people where we were invited to have a meal and hang out. I wasn’t proud of any of this but I was like an animal just trying to feel good and maintain my energy and, luckily, I had enough natural health to withstand the barrage of substances attacking my system.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *