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SMOKE MY FUTURE A surreal red light shone on the painted head of a doll. The doll’s head sat on a windowsill, its features were facing outward, as if on display. There was violin music playing from inside the room, sounding muffled and maudlin.  Beneath the window, the woman lumbered stiffly up the staircase, nursing one leg and leaning heavily on the rail, which creaked under her wieght.

"Your future’s in my pipe," she said, "I’m smoking your future," and she smiled while drawing deeply on her pipe.

"That’s how it is," she continued, "I smoke everybody’s future. Everybody that walks by. If I see them or not.  It don’t matter."

She stopped to inspect me for a moment. Her expression became roguish. I half expected her to wink.  I tried to watch the trail of my future plume from her pipe, but it was a breezy night and the wind blew away any evidence of my future’s remains.

"See," she said, "You have no more future. I smoked it."


C TRAIN INCIDENT Although the woman was ranting, there was something dignified about her. Maybe that’s what seemed so chilling about the experience. She looked like someone’s grandmother or aunt. Not like someone gone mad.

“How could you let her go like this?” the woman yelled. “How could you pay no attention to her needs? You are selfish! Selfish!”

Everyone on the subway was quiet. The old woman was addressing an apparition. There was a pause, as if the recipient of her question was being allowed to respond.

“I know all that!” she yelled disgustedly, “I know all that! You’ve said it a thousand times!”

Then she spoke excitedly in Spanish, which I couldn’t understand. Her small body trembled with rage, yet she tried to remain composed.

“You coward!” she screamed, “To only come to me like this! Coward!”

Then the train stopped and the doors opened and several people quickly deboarded.


THE OLDTIMER “God bless you,” the old man said, “God bless you,” and he wiped the tears from his eyes.  The tears weren’t motivated by emotion, however.  They were caused by the level of his intoxication.

He had immigrated to America from Croatia in 1959, but his accent was still heavy and evident in his every word.  He raised his glass to click against mine.  He was very happy with me.  I was the guy who didn’t think he looked his age, which was seventy-one.  And he didn’t look his age.  He had more hair than I do, and most of it was still black.  For almost forty years, he had worked as a longshoreman, loading crates on the docks of Manhattan and Brooklyn every day.  Seven years ago, he retired.  “My mind does not want to retire,” he admitted, “but my body can tolerate work no more.”

“How old are you?” he asked me.


“God bless you,” he said, raising his glass. “My age is very different,” he continued,” I cross myself every morning,” and he indicated the gesture.  “Everyday is lucky. Every day is not what to be expected.  For you, they are expected.  But not so with me.  You understand?” He smiled easily. There was something very familiar about him.  He was one of those people whose face immediately compels you to like them.  I had never really understood what people meant when they described someone’s face as “honest”.  Now, I did.  As he tried for the third time to light his cigarette, I finally realized why he seemed familiar: He looked like Robert Mitchum.

“What was it like in New York in 1959?” I asked.

“Aah!” he smiled, slapping the table, “Very different!  In 1959, a subway token was only fifteen cents. A pack of cigarettes was twenty-five cents.”

We were at Rudy’s on 44th street.   I’d been waiting for a friend when I fell into conversation with the Croatian immigrant. When my friend finally arrived, I went to shake the old man’s hand and noticed for the first time that it had been badly crushed. There was nothing left but his middle finger.


FIVE HOMELESS MEN There were four of them sitting outside the door of the Chase Manhattan bank.  It was one of those absurdly humid nights, and Jack speculated that they were trying to get the cool air coming through the building door.  The fifth one was sprawled out in the middle of the sidewalk, blocking the subway entrance.

“Jeez,” I said, “he looks dead.”

Jack snorted a wordless comment.

“Maybe he is dead.”

“What else are you gonna do on a night like this?” Jack asked rhetorically, but I wasn’t sure what he meant.

“Do you mean, what else are you gonna do on a night like this other than die?” I asked, “or other than look dead.”

All five of the group seemed far away, as if in a different dimension.  It felt like we were viewing them through a sheet of glass at the Smithsonian.  None of the five moved at all. They were imprisoned under the lamplight like dead flies.

The one man lay in a very vulnerable position. The four others slumbered in what looked like a great deal of pain.  Their faces slid downward, their broken features twisted, as if gravity had played a bitter trick on them.  The scene reminded me of the image in Goya’s Los Caprichos, in which these miserable people are sleeping in a similar fashion.

“Sleep is the only happiness for the wretched,” I said, quoting Goya.

Jack snorted a wordless comment.


NEW YORK AVENUE The night before, someone had been shot on New York Avenue.  John stood by the iron fence, leaning heavily on the railing, nursing the weak leg that had grown decrepit. Once, he ran a traffic light and was taken from his car and beaten by two cops who left him on the curb.  That was in 1982.  He woke up feeling the pain in his legs and back, and the pain had never left, so now, when John walks, he walks with a cane.  And walks very slowly.

The police ribbon stretched between fixtures down the street. We could see strips of it flapping in the wind.

“Do you know if the guy lived?” I asked John.

“Don’t know,” he said slowly, situating his cap by its brim, “Don’t know nothing about it ‘cept it woke me up.”

I imagined a body lying face down on the ground, bleeding al l over the place under the street light.  I wondered if it hurt to get shot.

“I don’t understand why we can’t love one another instead of all this,” John said, gesturing toward the police ribbons, “Don’t they know that God is watching us?”

John was a very religious man.

I remembered a movie, where the effect of a bullet wound to the stomach was illustrated in graphic, visual detail.  The movie described how the intestines immediately filled up with mucus.

“Probably died,” I speculated.

“You never know.  Some people get shot in the head and live.  I heard of one guy got a pole stuck through his head and lived.  Came out his jaw, man.”

“It’s such a pity,” John continued. He had a thick Caribbean accent; “I wonder what God would say.  I don’t think that this is what He had in mind when He made us.”


OLIVER REVISITED He was a Stanford dropout who claimed to have been a serious gymnast at one time. Now, he waited tables at a restaurant, the name of which he never mentioned.

Doug and I had fallen into a light-hearted conversation with a couple of girls at the bar. We were talking about movies when Oliver suddenly appeared, chiming in with his opinions on cinema. Nothing about his appearance seemed unnatural. My first impression of him was that he was a lonely guy, anxious to engage in conversation with strangers. Nothing was wrong with that.

We were debating whether it would be better to be Han Solo or Luke Skywalker when Oliver said, “I think R2-D2 was really the Jedi Master,” That’s how he introduced himself. The idea was so foreign, it seemed nearly plausible.

“That just might work,” I said, welcoming him into our conversation.

Kat, the friendly twenty-five year old who lived on Staten Island, changed the subject somewhat, describing her attraction to comedians, such as Adam Sandler. Doug sat back on his barstool, his arms folded across his chest reflectively: He was seriously considering the Solo vs. Skywalker question. Not even Wendy, the other girl, showing off the pierced skin between her respect-worthy breasts could pry his mind from this debate. His brain worked on the issue long after it had left the attention of the rest of us.

Kat leaned against the bar counter, then animatedly broke into a wild and complicated flurry of gesticulations. They were meant to somehow emphasize the importance of her words, all of which I have since forgotten. She was a very exaggerated girl – something of a hip-hop styled gadfly. But also, unfortunately, one of those whose words easily dissipate into the wind shortly after having been uttered.

She leaned heavily against Oliver. He had met his friend.


THREE BABOONS The three of them leaned against the bar, posturing as fine examples of erudition and taste.

“There,” the one said definitively, and nodded.

Three years ago, he had established an advertising agency, which proved to be profitable at a time when others were folding in droves.  He was a shrewd man, many believed.  He knew people, understood their character.  Call it a knack.  His word meant a good deal to the other two, although neither would admit it.

“Yes. That one.  She’d do it,” he continued.

The others looked toward the end of the bar, trying to determine whom their friend had indicated while remaining disinterested, in a tasteful way.

“That one? The one with that fake shit in her hair?” the third asked disgustedly, exercising his expert facility for descriptive articulation, “Like hell she would.”

The third one had been born wealthy.  Therefore, the others respected his opinion intuitively, although neither would admit it, without really knowing why.

“She’ll do it,” the first reiterated, “Guaranteed.  She’ll do it.” There was something funny about the way he said ‘guaranteed’, like he was chewing on ice, and it hurt.

“I dunno, man,” the second said, “Maybe one.  But not all three of us.”

“Shut the fuck up,” the first said, eloquently,  “I know my business.”

The second, a millionaire by the time he was thirty, believed he deserved more respect than that.

“You shut up, fucker,” the millionaire retorted contemptuously, “There’s a little hussy who works for me who’s just like that one.  All show, but prude as shit. Trust me, she won’t do it.”

“Shut up,” the first repeated, then ambitiously began writing his proposal on a paper coaster.  He would send her a drink with the coaster note under it, a trick he had learned in a James Bond movie.  He would show them how well he knew character.


LOADED QUESTION Excuse me, but do I have a spare cigarette?  No, I don’t.  Well, then, do I have a match so she can light the cigarette she already has in her mouth?  No, I don’t have that, either.  She walks down the stairs anyway, a little uneasily, and strolls along beside me. Do I want some company then?  What kind of company does she mean?  The friendly kind, she says, and I feel her hand touch my wrist.  The question she asked and the answer she gave float through my head.  Doesn’t everyone want company? I think to myself, especially the friendly kind?  But I don’t think that that’s what she wants to hear.  I’m not a wise guy, and I don’t want to be rude. Instead, I smile dumbly.  Finally, she explained her interested more clearly. I was thinking of a photograph by Brassai, and Parisian women with thick calves who stood under lamplights smoking cigarettes in the 1930’s when she asks me if I want to have sex? And I don’t know how to answer.  It’s really a very loaded question.


JUST TALKING Ray and I met at McSorley’s for a couple beers.  Ray’s a poet and an editor and a bookstore junky who loves Henry James, Joseph Conrad and those ice cream swirlies you can get at McDonald’s.  He’s one of my favorite people in New York: An animated conversationalist with a good voice who would make a fantastic late night radio talk show host.

We stood at the bar, leaning heavily against it, waiting for another round of stouts.

“Look, I’m just talking, and I’m an ass, but this country was founded by convicts in Georgia and religious nuts in New England,” Ray was saying, “Some wanting religious freedom; other people wanting to practice their own religion. This country was basically founded by madmen, adventurers and what-not.”

“Yeah, but…”

“The country is lucky that some of the so-called founders were actually really intelligent people who had ideas. But even back then, the other side – which should be called the slave holding side – was chafing at the bit.  Chomping away at it as much as it could.”

“But, don’t you think…”

“I think America is a story of a Republic becoming an Empire.  And in the same time, freedom is declining.  Individual freedom is declining commensurately with the rise of the Empire. It’s just a thought.”

“Well, in Europe, there’s…”

“In Europe, you’ve got homogeneous populations with cultures that stretch way back. You have a context. You have a context within which to work and live that makes sense. In the United States, there’s no context.

“There’s also no memory. What happened yesterday is even forgotten. It’s only what happened today.  There’s hardly any sense of history.  Radical history for one thing; literary history for another thing.

“Look, it’s just a thought. And I’m just talking.”


CRUMPLED BILL “In the end, wars come and go,” Ray said, “This isn’t the first time someone’s killed a couple thousand people.”

We were standing in the middle of a crowded bar. Two minutes earlier, Ray was telling me about what life was like on the Lower East Side in 1970; suddenly, we were talking about the World Trade Center falling and the impending war in Iraq.

“I don’t mean to be cold about it,” he continued, “but, we’re all gonna slip the mortal coil somewhere along the line. It could well be that this whole thing we’re going through is an illusion.”

Ray snorted philosophically.

“An illusion?” I asked, thinking about an old comic book that I had once seen when I was very young. It was a super hero comic. In it, one of the characters realized that he was an illusion. Or maybe he was disappearing into the fourth dimension. The cover drawing depicted him staring at his hand in astonishment. He couldn’t believe that it was vanishing. Whenever I think of an illusion, that’s the picture I see in my head.

“That’s what the Buddhists would say.”

“How do you mean, though,” I asked, “You think we’re making a big deal out of something that was inevitable?”

“No. I meant that, in fact, all of this is an illusion. That this isn’t even real. You. Me. This City. None of it.”

“Oh, right. Okay.”

“I don’t know if I believe that, but…”

Suddenly, Ray’s attention fixed on a different subject.

“Look, somebody dropped a dollar bill over there,” he said.

Under a crowd of people, there lay a crumpled bill. The whole city might be an illusion, but that dollar bill was apparently very real.

“Maybe you could slide over there and pick it up,” Ray suggested.


INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS That was the day Ray had bought his new hat. I’m not sure where we were. Presently, there could be heard a maudlin Russian dirge, accompanied by an accordion, playing on a jukebox.

“Listen,” Ray began, “I’m a slouch and I don’t know shit, but it seems to me that we’re entering a very frightening time in American history. Very frightening. It’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. People you once thought you knew are suddenly backing the President and telling you that, in fact, yes, they agree that we should attack Iraq.  And they’re doing it all with this eerie complacency. You can see it in their eyes – the very absence of their souls. Something has taken it away and now it is gone. These aren’t people; they’re aliens in the bodies of former friends.

“And then you read in the newspaper that President Bush is an extremely popular man. Something like 50 percent of the country thinks he’s doing a bang-up job.

“Listen, we’re talking about a man who slid into the Presidency in the most unscrupulous way. All of that crap that happened in Florida in the 2000 election, well, as it turns out, if the votes from every county in Florida had been properly counted, Gore would have won. That’s been determined. Gore should have, and in fact, did win Florida. I can just imagine it like a movie. The camera does short little sequences of small town streets in Ohio and Idaho. All of these people, their bodies have been snatched. You can see it in their eyes.

“So now, We have a serious serious problem, and this madman is throwing us into a war. A war that is going to cost us a fortune at a time when our economy is bad. And against the will of the United Nations, no less: A proposition that is probably going to irreparably fracture our relationship with the whole world.

“Did you ever see that movie? Invasion of the Body Snatchers?”


“Like I say, I don’t know shit,” Ray said, “But start looking around for cocoons.”


SUBWAY SLEEPER The three train pulled out of the 42nd street station a little after half past two.  It was Sunday morning, and the platform was filled with Saturday night revelers making their way back to Brooklyn.  There was a man sprawled out on the train, sleeping with his mouth open.  It always arrests me to see a person asleep with his mouth open.  Few things seem quite as vulnerable. And this man looked quite dead.  I asked another man who had been in the car when I entered, now leaning against the closed door, if he thought the sleeping man was all right.

“He’s fine,” the man said, “he was snoring a little while ago.”

In Brooklyn, at Nevins Street, several people emptied out of the car and a group of kids entered.  They were of the variety of teenagers who disrupt everything in their presence with the offensive blare of their attitudes.  The attraction of the sleeping man was too compelling for them to ignore.  They drew closer to him, like hyenas to the dead.  One of the teenagers threw a pencil at the man, aiming for his mouth. After receiving enthusiastic approval from his goons, he threw another. He was about to throw a third pencil when a conductor came out.

“What the hell is wrong with you?!” he yelled, “Can’t you see this guy’s sleeping?”

He was a small Hispanic man, and he stood trembling with anger.

“What if he was your father?  Or your friend’s father?  What is wrong with you? You watch so that someday maybe you are lying asleep in a train when somebody throws a pencil at you!  Or a book!  Or a rock!  Somebody might beat you over the head with a bat!  How would you like that?!”

At the next stop, the teenagers quickly got off the train.


FORTUNATE SON It’s a strange thing when a person reveals the depth of their depravity through the course of a short conversation. When he leaned against the bar, he sparked up conversation in the way any amiable person would. He was hefty and clean cut and looked to be about thirty. I wouldn’t have guessed that he’d spent two weeks of a twenty-year prison sentence in Nevada before being released only a week before. He had, in his estimation, one of the best lawyers in the state. Best that money could by and it was nice that money was easy. His father had connections, he said, and, if I knew who his father was, I’d understand.

“Who’s your father?”

“Let’s just say he’s someone very important.”

Okay. Fair enough. This guy owned a strip club in Reno and had a very important father. But it didn’t matter anymore because now law forbade him to cross the Nevada State line. I asked him what he had done, but he wouldn’t say. He came back to New York to ‘cool down’.

Meanwhile, the bartender was a cute brunette. She asked our shrouded noble what he would like to drink.

“What would you like, honey?” she asked.

“I want you to pay attention,” he said, “Because when I came in here, you blew me off and I think you’re too fucking stupid for this job. And if you’re going to call me honey, you better be prepared to sit on my lap.”

He ordered a round of drinks for a group of girls having a bachelorette party.

“You understand that,” he asked the bartender, “Or was I going too fast?”

Then he held up a handful of bills and said: “If you want this, you’re gonna have to work for it, honey.”

“I didn’t mean to blow you off.”

“You never know who you’re dealing with,” he said, “Remember that.”

He smiled at me triumphantly; a hero in his own time.


GREAT FRIENDS, THOSE TWO “It’s alright. My dog does the same thing,” the old man said, smiling hospitably as his dog approached the other dog.  The woman who owned the other dog smiled graciously as the two dogs cautiously inspected each other.  The woman’s dog was smaller than the other, and he remained crouched down on his belly, pricking his ears up.

“My dog does the same thing. He’s being submissive.  It means he wants to be friends when he lays down like that.”  The woman nodded approvingly, but there was tension in her expression, hidden behind her timid smile.  She watched as the big dog canvassed her small dog.  The small dog lay low to the ground, anxiously situating his hind legs.  Now, the big dog’s ears pricked up.

“It’s alright,” the old man repeated reassuringly, “They’ll be great friends,” and, just as the man finished saying “friends”, the little dog burst forward, spit out a succession of rapid, snapping barks and struggled to bust loose from his leash. The woman gasped, lost her footing and toppled forward while another man grabbed for the loose leash as the woman lost her grip and hit the pavement.

It seemed like a natural and common behavior: To attack that which gets too close.  The awkward introductory process of friendship was off to a sporting start.


BRUCE That day I’d spent packing everything I owned into an eight by eleven-foot storage room and now I was pretty drunk. I left Doug at Union Square. Between us we’d polished off a good Indian dinner and the bottle we’d brought with us.

Walking through the subway station at 14th street, I saw a guy playing his guitar who looked exactly like Bruce Springsteen. He looked so much like Springsteen that I couldn’t help staring at him with that peculiar, inquisitive expression on my face that only a half-blind drunken man could manifest. I approached him, having no idea what I would say; knowing only that I had to say something.

“You look enough like Bruce Springsteen to actually be Bruce Springsteen,” I said. The man playing the guitar laughed, then continued playing.

I liked him. I liked the dismissive way he didn’t pay any attention to me.

“I thought I was seeing things,” I said as I sat on the bench next to him.

“I hear that a lot,” the man said, “but I’m not him.” He spoke quietly and politely. His accent was Australian. It turned out that the man had traveled from the East Bay all the way to New York in a variety of broken down cars. He was a mechanic who’d saved up some money to spend three months crossing the United States. Now he was just passing time playing his guitar in the 14th street subway station.

I have never met an Australian I didn’t like, so I took the opportunity to tell the stranger all of the wobegone things my life had recently revealed to me.

“Trust the questions, then live,” he told me, “and you will live your way to the answers.” I don’t remember why he told me this. It seemed appropriate enough at the time, though.

After awhile, I got up to leave, telling the stranger that I had to get home to the home I no longer had.

“What is your name, anyway?” I asked,

“Bruce,” he answered.


PUPPETEER PROVES DISAPPIONTING I was browsing the ads stapled on the outside wall of a Williamsburg coffee shop when he interrupted me. He was a slight, ragged fellow. Yet, despite his raggedness, there was something deceptively manicured about his appearance. His hair was fashioned in early Bob Dylan style and the beard on his chin was exquisitely groomed to look ungroomed.

“Excuse me,” he said politely. But, evidently, it was not he who spoke. From his gesture, he would have me believe that it was the puppet he wore on his hand – a sock, really; crudely detailed to look like some kind of anthropomorphic creature. The ragged man attempted to throw his voice like a ventriloquist, working the mouth of the puppet with his fingers.

“I don’t wish to bother you,” the puppet said, “but my friend here hasn’t eaten. Would you be willing to spare some change?”

There was something of the Elizabethan bard to the puppeteer; a clever street performer who came from a venerable line of clever street performers.

“What’s your friend’s name?” I asked the puppet.

“Hungry,” he said, “Very Hungry.”

I dug into my pockets and handed the man what I found.

“Does your friend do anything?” I asked the puppet.

“Like what?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “Juggle or sing poems or something.”

“Not really,” he said, “except he eats as often as he gets the chance.”

Then, after bowing grandly, he went on his way, leaving me with the feeling that I’d been cheated out of my money.