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.
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.
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.
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.
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.