Carolyn R. Russell ~ Alphabet City

I had just arrived in Manhattan and was still wary of the sub­way, espe­cial­ly ones that scur­ried under­ground beneath myth­ic neigh­bor­hoods that I didn’t know, couldn’t imag­ine; I wasn’t only new in town, but had nev­er lived any­where but rur­al Massachusetts. The par­ty was in Alphabet City and start­ed after mid­night, which in the mid-nine­teen eight­ies was where and when some of the action was if you were look­ing for trou­ble. The area was on my care­ful­ly researched list of places to stay away from, at least until I found my bal­ance on the spiky island I aimed to sur­vive, if not con­quer. Which is what I tried to explain to Rey, one of the few peo­ple I knew who lived in New York. We’d been close since col­lege, and I trust­ed him, but he’d always been light years ahead of me in terms of sophis­ti­ca­tion and street smarts. At school he used to call me Rapunzel, say I’d been locked away from real­i­ty my whole life.

I let myself be per­suad­ed to go with him. He assured me that we’d be fine, and that he’d stay with me, would ride home with me all the way to my ille­gal sub­let on East 45th Street, Midtown, which was an intim­i­dat­ing­ly desert­ed maze of echo­ing con­crete canyons on week­ends, espe­cial­ly at night. Or in the wee, cold hours of the morn­ing, when we’d be on the move.

On the way there, Rey told me not to wor­ry, that we were head­ing to maybe the safest spot in the city because our host, a musi­cian named Crowbar, knew all the neigh­bor­hood deal­ers, and they got along. Rey said those guys were more inter­est­ed than any­body else in keep­ing the peace because they want­ed to keep the cops as far from there as pos­si­ble, and any­one who caused prob­lems would inter­fere with busi­ness, and would suf­fer the con­se­quences. So, we were head­ed to a pro­tec­torate. I nod­ded and shrugged and played my part, the coun­try bump­kin, too sin­cere to be cool but too enter­tain­ing­ly con­ver­sant not to be con­sid­ered interesting.

Truth is, I would have fol­lowed him any­where. I had fol­lowed him here, to this unfor­giv­ing place rather than move to Boston, where I’d been offered an actu­al job, hadn’t I? All my pro­fes­sion­al ambi­tions were sec­ondary to my ridicu­lous obses­sion with the peren­ni­al­ly unat­tain­able, seri­ous­ly charis­mat­ic Rey.

The sub­way ride wasn’t bad, its sea­son­less stink and grime made some­how roman­tic by Rey’s tales of gallery open­ings gone wrong and bands he’d been ear­ly to dis­cov­er before they went main­stream. As to his own efforts to jump­start a writ­ing career, he was charm­ing­ly self-dep­re­cat­ing. He couldn’t get out of his own way, he said.

There was a crowd out­side the crum­bling brick build­ing Rey told me was Crowbar’s. As we got clos­er, we could hear frag­ments of phras­es: doc­tor, just saw him, not breath­ing. A woman was cry­ing. Next to her, a cou­ple clutched each oth­er in the amber light of the open vestibule door. Seconds lat­er, the wail of an ambu­lance get­ting loud­er and loud­er made my heart race.

I’ll be right back, said Rey, leav­ing me alone on the sidewalk.

He hopped up the steps, two at a time, and van­ished inside.

Rey was gone long enough that the ambu­lance beat him to the curb, long enough to do what it was he’d come to do. I watched as he moved like water around the medics while they rushed past him with equip­ment, his right hand fleet­ing­ly shield­ing some­thing in his leather coat pock­et. A tell I remem­bered from school. I had asked him about it then and he’d said try grow­ing up with four old­er broth­ers and changed the subject.

Rey’s face was shiny, his eyes, too, as he came toward me, sway­ing a bit.

Your hair, he said. It’s so pret­ty. Why didn’t you always wear it long?

I told him I had always worn it long and we head­ed back to the sub­way. We were qui­et as we board­ed; this one was filthy enough that we didn’t need to dis­cuss not sit­ting down, and we found a spot side by side at the least greasy pole in sight. I held my breath for as much of the ride as I could because the guy right behind me reeked of weed and alco­hol and too many nights in unwashed cloth­ing turned rancid.

When it was time to change lines, Rey said he wasn’t com­ing with me, said he didn’t feel well, said I’d be fine. I watched him walk away.

I flagged down a taxi that over­charged me because it could, and I didn’t say a word. To com­pen­sate, I ate noth­ing but but­tered English muffins for two days. I added anoth­er lock to the door of my tiny stu­dio and stayed in at night for a while, drink­ing cof­fee and wish­ing I had a tele­vi­sion set. Never again in my life would I be that lonely.


Carolyn R. Russell’s fic­tion, essays, and poet­ry have been fea­tured in numer­ous pub­li­ca­tions. She lives on and writes from Boston’s North Shore.