Another Night On The Town

I

I wish I could make this shit up.  Then I’d be the writer I set out to be in the second grade—the novelist, the man who tells stories.  Alas, everything I write for this space has some foundation in fact (unless otherwise noted).

I was at large in Harlem last night because I had a long-distance fight with my girlfriend; we had agreed to be alone, in other words, which I don’t do very well regardless of the proximate cause.  I like crowds, bars, streets, strangers.  Why?  The incidental camaraderie, to be sure, but I think it’s mainly the mystery of it.  Other people’s stories unfold, and there you are, somehow more than a witness, somehow a participant in the telling.  It helps if you know how to pick a fight but not get hurt.

My friend Cassandra has a lot of connections to the international world of TV and film—that’s how I ended up dancing with more than one Mandy a month ago at 3:00 in the morning on the Lower East Side—and she invited me along for the ride to the Red Rooster, the new hot spot for the black bourgeoisie and its European attendants on Lenox just off 125th.  Dinner there with a film producer and his wife and daughter, in town for the proverbial college trip, SUNY Purchase, NYU, etc., the offspring wants to be an actress or a director, what a surprise.

II

The Red Rooster is a scene.  Until last night, Cassandra and I always hung at the bar upstairs, where you wait for a seat, meanwhile seducing the bartenders with smiles, tips, and conversation with the strangers on stools you interrupt on your way to that drink.  The mix is half local dignitaries—the black bourgeoisie dressed out, mostly in their 40s and up—and half tourists, and I mean this emphatically, they’re from Nebraska or Germany.  It’s as if heading Uptown has lost any local connotation.  But it’s a lot of fun.  Cassandra tells me that one night I got so irritated by one of the very loud tourists that I explained to him and his wife why I wanted to fuck her.  Silence supposedly ensued.  I doubt this happened.  She insists it’s a true story.

Last night, though, it was dinner downstairs.  I had never been down there, so I was looking forward to a different level of being.  But it was not as cool, not even when they pulled the curtains on the dance floor opposite the DJ who occupied his own little alcove above the crowded tables.  Is it because the Europeans do most of the dancing, and do their best to embarrass everyone with their imitation of people who lack superegos, once again colonizing more space than their capacities warrant?  Is it because the service is inept and the food actually sucks?

But I progress—I’m getting ahead of my story already.

III

Cassandra and I entered the underground space in search of her friends, who made a reservation for 8:00, so we were able to scope the entire scene (too many Europeans).  As we swept around the final corner, having spotted the friends, I hear “Jim!” from behind me, and turn to discover one of my favorite graduate students ever, a guy I recruited into the program at Rutgers way back in the 90s, and two of his cohorts.  It’s his 40th birthday party at the Red Rooster.  I sit down with his guests and try to become the center of attention.

He now runs the Schomburg, the uptown “branch” of the NYPL that specializes in African-American issues and collections.  It is particularly fitting that he is in charge of this place because he is the grandson of Elijah Muhammad, the founding father of the Nation of Islam in these United States.

It is particularly fitting that I see him on this night because he reminds me of how small my world is, and by this I don’t mean that because I’m an academic my emotional address book is paper thin, I mean that he reminds me of how frail these connections are, and how far they reach no matter how frail.  He reminds me that when you connect, it’s for good, which means for better or worse, forever, like it or not.

One of his cohorts is as drunk as I am, and so he tells a story that begins with “I got a PhD at Rutgers because of this guy,” gesturing toward me, and I’m thinking, “Well shoot, I don’t remember him from a graduate class I taught,” but the story goes like this.  He needed five copies of the dissertation at the Graduate School the next day, and couldn’t afford to hire Kinko, so he took the train to New Brunswick where he could use the free photocopy machine in the History department.  By the time he got there, late at night, Van Dyck Hall—the department’s home—was locked up.  When he called friends, they told him try Livingston, he lives a mile away and maybe he’s got the key.

I guess I did.  According to the story—I can’t verify it—I showed up at 1:00 in the morning to unlock Van Dyck and the mail room where the photocopy machine was housed.  The dissertation was delivered on time, the same day, and the degree was duly conferred.  This is a brilliant guy, by the way, who writes about Harold Cruse in a way that nobody else has, and I can say this without prejudice because I had no part in his training.

Being bored by the producer and his wife and daughter, I kept gravitating back to the table full of Rutgers students.  Eventually, inevitably, I asked one of the nine women at the table next door to dance, and she agreed, it turned out nicely except for the goddamn Europeans, who think that dancing means thrashing about and taking up space that would be better filled with the minor key grace of competent waitresses.  I can dance, so sometimes I get to surprise women with my body long before any possibility of sex arises.  Also long before it occurs to them that I am in any way attractive.  Also after.  Never mind.

IV

The evening waned, I bought a round of drinks for the Rutgers crowd—what was I thinking?—and finally Cassandra and I said goodbye to her boring friends, then I walked her home.  She lives on 124th, opposite a huge rehab facility that services every available addict, next to a six-story parking lot that’s all inside, across from an empty lot that can’t last.

Our custom, late at night, is to walk down the middle of the street because the rats are everywhere, hopefully crowding the sidewalks in search of nutritious garbage, like the Freegans of Brooklyn who salvage everything they can.  Cassandra is genuinely afraid of these creatures, so I indulge her, I risk death by vehicle on 124th to keep her calm.  But I must say that the rats on this street are both more numerous and more unruly than those fugitive rodents you will see on rainy days from a subway platform, scampering next to the fabled third rail, impishly defying death (as if they knew it was impending).

On this night, as we embrace to say goodbye, we encounter the Rat Man.  As these cases go, I prefer the Wolf Man, because Freud is less defensive here in explaining his ambiguities, in fact he finally announces that he doesn’t care whether the “primal scene” is an event or a fantasy (or both).  But this was not a case, this was for real, on West 124th Street past midnight.

His name is Greg Foster, and he lives right across from me on 123rd, in an apartment building that functions, mostly, as a halfway house for people on their way to or from Hell.  The awning out front says “Victory Renaissance,” curved like an arch over the entrance.  Greg is the public face of the place, washing things down, choreographing the parking, settling minor disputes out front.  But on this night, his Impala is athwart 124th, the engine is running, the lights are on, and he’s there to challenge the rats that run the street.  He’s setting traps and talking to the rodents, “Gonna get you motherfucker, gonna shut you down, you mines now, look at that shit, look at that, you don’t know what hits you.”

Cassandra adores him because he’s fighting the rodent power.  If he wins, she regains the sidewalk.  Me, I’m dubious until Greg explains that his methods have worked on my own street, 123rd, where rats have disappeared.

V

First I ask why he does this, and then I listen, and then I go home thinking that my life lacks purpose.

I start in analytic mode, of course, because I’m drunk and because I’m watching a man slice Kosher hot dogs as bait for mouse traps and because I’m in Manhattan.  I say, “I mean, is it a thing about rats up your ass, or is there something else going on here?”

“Up my ass is right, look around man, whaddayou see, these fucking vermin, I’m a kill ‘em, I got the equipment, look at this shit.”

He shows me these huge traps, big enough to disable a small dog, and he nods, he’s smiling now, “Yeh,” he says, “I’m a kill ‘em.”

I say, “So you do this for free, the city doesn’t pay you to hunt rats?”

“Naw, I do this because I want to do this, man these fucking rats, they just too much, I’m a kill ‘em.  I’m 90 to 4.”

I say, “90 to 4?”

“Yeh, the traps kill ‘em, they’re dead by the time I find ‘em, but four got away, the traps sprung, but they got out, one of those fucks walked away right in front of me—“

I ask, “The trap didn’t work?”

“Naw, the fucking rat walked away, it fucking kills me, I saw him walk away, I was like frozen or something, I couldn’t believe this fucking rat is walking away from me, I mean he’s walking, taking his time, he’s like strolling or something.”

I say, “Goddamn.”

“Yeh, well, 90 to 4.”

Cassandra says, “I hate rats because I stepped on one’s tail, I was downtown, this was in the 80s, and he leaped up and bit me, or he tried to bite me, I dunno, but I threw those shoes away and bought some flip-flops.”  This is her proposal of marriage to Greg.

Greg doesn’t understand this intimacy, he says, “I hate ‘em ‘cause they filthy, I’m a kill ‘em.  I use poison when  I have to.”

I’m in agreement with everyone by that time, maybe even the obnoxious Europeans, and there are still no rats in sight.  I’m thinking that drunken sleep is the antidote to the anxiety now creeping into the empty atrium that is my brain.  But I call my girlfriend anyway, hoping we can kiss and make up.  No such luck.

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Another Night On The Town

  1. Paul

    You are living in a “steampunk” novel, Jim. I don’t read them (in fact, I just recently ran across the term), but it somehow seems to fit. I liked your tail, regardless of its precise relation to reality because it’s true to the mood. I hope another phone call does the trick when the time is right. As for the rats in NYC, la lucha continua; no terminará fácilmente. And as we say about their cousins, the squirrels; it’s perfectly fine to talk at them. But time to worry when they start talking back. Warmly and fraternally… P.

    • Mike

      Yes indeed. This story reminds me of Howl’s Moving Castle – which might not be Steampunk exactly, but close enough.

      That Greg fellow is either the bravest or most demented man I’ve ever heard of. I can’t imagine using rat traps unless you’re rich enough to throw them away (with a very long handled shovel) after they work.
      And after reading this, I assure you the sun in that neighborhood will never again set on my ass.

      • Paul W

        Maybe Howl’s Moving Castle will be my first foray…! Of course, Seattle has its own complement of rattus norvegicus, not to mention Broadway punks….

  2. Well, guys, you may remember my “New Decameron” from the Edgecombe days, where both of you stayed. There were more rats up there than down here, so let’s not get too worked up.

    The problem on 124th between Lenox and 7th Ave is simple, there are only about five apartment buildings on the whole block, the rest is rehab, industrial delivery to the backside of 125th, a big empty lot, and a parking garage. Almost no foot traffic at night, so the rats come out to forage when and where they;re safe.

    Greg is changing this scene, though. I saw him Sunday morning on my way back from getting the paper at the corner of Lenox and 123rd, he pulls up in the Impala, lowers the window, and says “So how many you think I got Friday night?”

    “Well I didn’t even see one,” I say.

    “Twenty-six,” he says, and laughs like Vincent Price. He’s here to clean up this town.

  3. Paul

    Finally, The Pale Rider has a name, and it is Greg.

    Of course, Jim, things are always stranger than they look.

    I was driving here in Seattle’s Capitol Hill down 14th Avenue East, which in part is on a bluff overlooking Lake Washington and the Cascades Mountains – and, for sports fans, the new UDub Stadium going up – when a big fat rat ran right in front of my car. Now this is a neighborhood where the realtors describe a house going for $3.5, and they mean million. Big fat Norwegian Rat. Plenty of rat condos sequestered on that bluff. Farther down the bluff, there’s a marsh, and the great blue herons eat rats. Yes, wade in the water. Eat rat. Urban ecology.

    By the same token, I read a news squib the other day identifying the car most purchased by the ultra-rich (as measured by toniness of zip code; we’re talking Palm Beach, Pacific Palisades, McLean, Medina, New Canaan, and so on). Not the Bentley, Mercedes, or Maserati. No, the car most commonly purchased in about six of the top ten zip codes: the Prius. I suppose, y’know, for parking at the train station, where there’s no private garage and some mook might “key” the ten layers of paint on the Bent, and for the maid to pick up the dry cleaning.

    Maybe the social import – not to sound too vatic about it – is that the super-rich can afford to keep up appearances in virtually all circumstances? Yeah, they’ve got an APP for that.

  4. Mike

    The listening to this story has become stranger than the story itself — and that was pretty strange story.
    First, I never saw a rat on Edgecombe Av. including in those nasty woods along the bluff In fact in a dozen or more trips to that place the only rat I ever saw was in the subway, and you had to point it out to me.
    Secondly, Heron’s eat meat?
    When did Heron’s start eating meat? Did the Pacific Ocean run out of fish or something? And don’t the rats scratch the shit out of them on their way down? This is really bothering me. It has me thinking we’re in “Them!” territory here.
    Third, I suspect the Prius thing is another bad sign: Like we’ve moved into the Lacanian “God is Dead – nothing is permitted” stage.

    So let’s see: A plague of rats, Europeans and Nebraskans, Fish eaters turning carnivorous, the Pale Rider (I just know that Impala is gray) and hyper- repressed hedonism — sounds like the Apocalypse.

    Of course you eggheads are probably all ” Oh wow look at that! Hmmm!” about this stuff. But not me! My Catholic education is finally going to pay off. These are signs man! SIGNS! Wake up!

  5. Paul

    Mike, Just for the record, and to sear another lovely image into your brain, the heron killed the rat by holding it under water. After checking three times to see whether the rat had stopped moving, the heron swallowed it whole.

    Not for nothing are birds descended from dinosaurs and do herons look a bit like pterodactyls when in flight.

    No need to “deconstruct” this stuff. Isn’t it just nature, red in tooth and claw, and can’t it be analyzed and filed without eggheadedness under “wouldja look at that!”?

    Still, we wouldn’t have all the great spirituals and blues about the Seventh Seal and stuff (I know, they’re not Catholic, but whatever) without people getting het up about the signifyin’.

    Cheers!

    • Mike

      Paul,
      Thanks for the visual. Really appreciate it. No, really.

      Fun Fact: My homing pigeons have two sets of eyelids. One vertical (just like reptiles) and the other horizontal. So, yeah I guess if pigeons are vaguely dinosaur-ish then Heron’s could be as well. Still I heard somewhere that a rat can tread water for 12 hours and hold it’s breath for 5 minutes or something, so that was one determined Great Blue right there! I can’t help but think that scooping up some Mullet, Spot or Croaker would have been a lot easier, so let’s not dismiss the Heron From Hell theory just yet.

      Even Funner Fact: Raising pigeons is like keeping other livestock in that it attracts rats. As you might have guessed by now, I am terrified of rats, so I am positively freaky about keeping the loft clean and rodent free.
      But since my shop is in the industrial part of the city, with an old gold mine running under it, the rats are already here and there’s really nothing I can do about it. Seeds and droppings do make their way outside the loft no matter what I do, so from time to time we have a rat problem.
      Lucky for me though, they make “hunting” pellet guns (who knew?) that fire at 1600 feet per second (about the velocity a .22 long) and they make hollow point pellets. And, since there’s no “fire” a pellet gun isn’t a “firearm” even if it’s just as powerful as one, so you can use it inside the city limits. Needless to say, shooting rats is running a close second to sex as the most funnest thing ever. And at my age — if I don’t have a heart attack from all the excitement — it might soon take over.

      P.S. Sorry I made a Jacques Lacan reference and then called you guys eggheads. That was fucked up. I should have left Lacan out of it.

  6. Wait a minute, now you’re both freaking me out. For god’s sake, Paul watches a heron drown a rat, and Mike shoots rats outside the shop where the dinosaurs are caged? And the sexual connotations don’t get disguised in all this? New life to reception theory because the original story has changed for the better AND the worse!

  7. Paul

    Uh-oh. I see another book by Jim in all this. “What the Heron Said to the Rat: Reception Theory, Polymorphous Perversity, and Death in the Modern Multicultural Urban Landscape.” I didn’t forget the sex part, Jim. Despite my big New York mouth, I think more than I say. In public. ;-))

  8. Mike

    Hold on there Jim! It was you who brought Nebraska into this.
    Who’s trying to freak whom out . . Hmmm?

  9. I’ll grant you maniacs this: the Impala is grey. I just realized that there’s a Jane Jacobs kind of lesson to be derived from Greg’s activities in this Multicultural Urban Landscape. On my block, there are four guys who function as “mayors”: Mel the mechanic who replaced my alternator (the trip to the Bronx for the rebuilt part was, well, a trip), Lonnie the guy who somehow knows where all the parking spaces are within a two block radius, Boomer the ex-jock from ASU who tells stories and plays dominoes, and Greg the Rat Man. They’re all civic-minded men who spend a lot of time looking after their neighborhood–unelected aldermen, you might say. Back in the day, they’d have been on the Tammany Hall payroll. Nowadays, they’re the unpaid repository of virtue in the very old-fashioned sense that MacIntyre tried to recuperate. Memo to Robert Putnam: bowling alone my ass.

    • Paul

      There is community, and you are in it, and to an interesting extent, of it.

      I’m struck, living out here in muliticultitopia, how different geographically and generationally, the term community and the reality underlying it can be.

      For my (our) parents’ generation, no matter how tolerant and egalitarian they might be, the “otherness” was always in the forefront. The otherness was always the first or second thing: “an Italian neighborhood,” “a brilliant Asian musician.” When my mother’s friend Ann (married to a man of Ukranian descent) ran for state assembly, she resurrected her Italian maiden name for the campaign. The Ukranian vote of course being less powerful.

      Nothing “wrong” in that, although my mother frowned at Ann’s playing the “ethnic card.” that’s New York, isn’t it? But “community” was certainly constrained, and a product, where it encompassed more than a single race or ethnicity, of cautious ententes and uneasy alliances.

      Here, certainly for the young city dwellers, ethnicity is far less prominent. there are block parties, and highly multiethnic schools, and third- and fourth-generation immigrants of various ethnicities and races and mixtures, and they all say “I was, like, amazed.” There is far more traffic at cafés than at churches.

      In this common PNW community, everyone is “liberal,” and yet for older folks, the attitudes of previous generations still weigh (if not quite as a nightmare) on the brains of the living. Sublimated but very much present.

      The overcoming of the ethnic and racial barriers, I’m saying, is only a preliminary step, though of course an important one. Beyond that, people of good heart and spirit, people who are introspective, I think (and collectively introspective in cafés and church basements and blogs and other universities of continuing realization of the species being) – they are the ones that make transformations of culture real and deep, and transmit those attitudes and practices and human solidarities most fully to the coming generations.

      Not preaching here, I hope. Affirming that community is where you find it and make it –with rat chasers, rat-racers, among downtown stars or in uptown bars – however strange and surprising, it is at its core familiar and very human. Embiggens us all. Not crazy at all. Okay, I’m preaching, a little. 🙂

      Cheers.

  10. Mike

    I knew that thing was gray.

    I think there must be a person like that in every neighborhood. In my grandfather’s day they were Block Captains, but every city and party machine probably had a name for them. I happened to be married to one myself, but I don’t know what they call her (other than “nosey”).
    And, you should leave that part about a guy named “Boomer” who played for Appalachian State out of the novel. I mean, demon birds, fallen angels, dinosaurs OK, but Boomer? You’re making that up.

  11. Yeah, that’s why Robert Putnam and his crowd–let’s all go to more political meetings!–don’t have a clue. Aristotle wasn’t a modern liberal, just a smart guy who thought only a diligent citizen could be a genuine individual. Fuck him and, god love him, Alastair MacIntyre, too. Community is who you rely on, where you go for help (and look at us, completing each other’s sentences), if you can find them; sometimes you can’t.

    And goddamn it, I’m not making any of this up. Boomer went to Arizona State, by the way, and played both football and basketball.

    On the other hand, what I just posted might compromise my credentials as a truth-telling kind of guy. “The false is no longer false as a moment of the true,” Hegel said. I can live with that, in fact I live by it.

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