Babylon

15 Apr

(1980)

I left my girlfriend’s Manhattan apartment on a damp Sunday morning to return to Hoboken. I was pretty broke and decided to walk across town to the Jersey tubes instead of taking the subway. I rationalized: since I was saving fifty cents I might as well buy a cup of coffee to drink as I walked.

I bought it to go, from a nondescript shop, but the cup said Dunkin Donuts.

I turned off First Avenue to 14th Street, one of the most derelict and gaudy streets in the city. It’s a long string of pizza parlors, billiard halls, Burger Kings and bargain stores. Uniformed guards with nightsticks stand watch over bins of bath towels, t-shirts, bottle s of shampoo – anything capable of being faulty merchandised rejected by factory inspectors.

On the first block I saw a black man passed out on the sidewalk. He was wearing bright blue running shoes in brand new condition, but his feet didn’t move in a dream. He was out cold. He had a lot of dust on the seat of his pants.

Further on I stopped to read some broadsides pasted on the plywood windows of a failed business. One accused the Chinese movie mogul Run Run Shaw of murdering Bruce Lee for business reasons. The other broadside attacked what they called “the fake dissidents of the railway strike.” Both were wordy posters by an organization called the Assassination Committee.

As I turned to walk on a young derelict couple approached the wall. The man leaned his head against one of the posters and raised his right hand to his eyes. His head may have hurt but I think he was crying. The woman had her arms around him, holding on and holding up. They were both wearing tattered bell-bottoms.

Two blocks further I saw a young white man lying on the ground in front of Union Square Park. He didn’t look like someone who lived on the street. He was wearing the kind of sports clothes that fellows in the suburbs wear. He looked more like a kid who had drunk too much or had done too many drugs the night before. As I was looking, some hustlers and loose joint salesmen picked him up and carried him into the park to place him on a bench. They were being considerate, the ground was damp. But he was also bad for business. Who would buy tuiys, ludes and acid when a casualty was lying at their feet?

I took two steps and saw a young Spanish couple come out of Woolworth’s with an aquarium that they had just bought. Considering all of the human sadness on the street, it seemed truly absurd that people keep fish as pets. But maybe fish inspire philosophical conversations that the TV set is incapable of.

I walked on and found the front page of the New York Times on a bench in front of a newsstand. There were several articles about our botched attempts to save the hostages in Iran, plus a photo of the wreckage of our helicopters and our airplane burning on the Iranian airstrip. It was a blurred photo scored with the horizontal lines of a video image.

I was beginning to feel that I could walk up and down 14th Street all day and it would reveal sight after sight – that there would be no end to it. As that thought went through my mind I saw something fleshy in the gutter. It was pinkish. I looked closer and saw that it was a large fish at least two feet long. The head and tail were intact but the body was ripped apart. I wondered why it was in the gutter. Maybe it fell off a truck, or a fish salesman had decided it was rotten and had thrown it out.

I bought another cup of coffee, then dodged a derelict trying to interview people with an imaginary microphone and caught the subway home.


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One Response to “Babylon”

  1. mypenandme April 15, 2012 at 6:51 am #

    such wonderful writing

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