Authors: Laurie Gwen Shapiro
“Right, send her over.” Stuart leaned over toward him. “I’m going to need your help, man.” Aussies don’t say man, they say mate; that stereotype holds true. This male bonding was obscene.
When Stuart went to the bathroom, I leaned over to Frank. “Do you have to bring yourself down to his level?”
“It worked, right? I know how men think.”
When Stuart returned, the three of us agreed that we would get the Ganelli detox unit rolling in two days. Frank promised Stuart that he would take him down to Clinton Street to secure last-hurrah smack for the evening. My job was to prevail upon Janet to join our Florence Nightingale junkie crusade.
“Hi, bit of banana
in my mouth, sorry,” Janet said.
“Yo, dig the fruit-in-cheek greeting,” I said, and I meant it; answering the phone like that was out of character for her.
“Hey, where’ve you been? I thought you were dead—”
“Sorry about not returning your calls. I’ve been in hiding. I forgot how brutal this city is.”
“The vortex of depression. You okay now?”
“Uh, somewhat. Do you think I could come over for a bit?”
“The place is a pigsty.” Janet’s idea of a pigsty was a sweater arm hanging out of an armoire. (We had lasted three seconds as college roommates. Veemah had fared better with the Queen of Neat; I was the one forced out of the freshmen triple for being a slob.)
“Not likely,” I said.
“I guess I could vacuum. How long are you going to be?”
“Half an hour?”
“Don’t forget those photos of Australia. It’s been two months and I haven’t seen what your roommates looked like.”
How about dinner with the dead one who washed up in a bottle? “There’s maybe one roll. I wasn’t on vacation in Australia. I was—”
“Look, whatever. I have bizarre shit to throw your way, so be prepared.”
“You’re going to leave me hanging on tenterhooks, aren’t you? I hate when you do that. You can’t tell me now?”
“I’d rather not.” This mess needed the exact psychological moment.
• • •
I looked at the
clock. I planned on leaving for Janet’s house in twenty minutes. Her parents had bought her the top floor of an 1880s Eleventh Street brownstone when she graduated. Her folks lived back in Montecito, an old-money suburb of posh-to-begin-with Santa Barbara. Janet’s relatives back East had relayed the suitable block for her to live on in the Big Apple.
When I visited their home sophomore Thanksgiving break, Janet’s father told me that he encouraged his daughter to go to a school back East so she could explore her genteel heritage. The Alexanders had an ancestor from Casanovia, New York, the one proper suburb in the blue-collar city of Syracuse. On this thread of history, Janet accepted a spot at the family Alma Mater Syracuse University, now “known” for a preponderance of spoiled girls from Long Island. Regardless of ethnicity, the prominent faction of girls there were uniformed in big banana hairclips, Champion sweatshirts over leggings, and Timberland boots. They were derided as JAPs, Jewish American Princesses. Girls who studied food science (cooking), or retail management (shopping).
several times during a university break, and my mother was shaken. “You’re half Jewish and worse than an anti-Semite!” I couldn’t believe how flipped out she got. My father joined her: “It’s a degrading word, Rachel. Plenty of Italians and WASPs and Irish kids are spoiled rotten, too. And you’re no innocent. Look where you’re going to school. After Columbia offered you that generous physics scholarship.”
I continued to sit in the kitchen, preparing myself to go tell Janet that the sky had fallen. I had indeed been a brat. My City
College–educated parents wanted me to go Ivy, my college counselor wanted me to go Ivy, but I wanted to go to Syracuse. There was a strong film and television program there, a discipline too garish for the Ivies. I made my point something fierce, even though Columbia offered a free ride if I was willing to live at home. “Syracuse is willing to give me a fifty-percent scholarship if I dual major in physics. They need more women in science journalism,” I said, a blatant attempt to win over my father, who maintained that commercial TV was crass. “I could become a science ambassador, like Carl Sagan.”
I was frozen in a meditative stare at one of Frank’s high school paintings, an abstract canvas that won him his RISD graphics scholarship—three amorphous bodies in reggae-bright oils. Frank had pointed out the figures when he hung it up: my red wailing father cradling my purple dead grandmother’s head, my orange mother staring toward the viewer’s perspective. Frank told my folks that it was called
I’d realized that senior year of high school that after years of private schooling for my brother and me, even half-off expenses would be tough going for my family. We were the last of a dying breed in dichotomous rich-poor Manhattan. An outsider might think that we enjoyed a cushy upper-crust existence. But to a New Yorker in the know, a different story was evident. The civil servants and labor-leader middle class in our building bought their apartments eons ago, before the eighties boom. Give up a New York apartment? Not my neighbors. Any new faces were subletters, and they were almost always a neighbor’s niece or a friend’s son.
Middle-class families like ours sent their kids to private school only after giving up on a P.S., a public school, maelstroms of black versus white tension in the late sixties and early seventies.
In real time, I was crushing Domino Dots with the handle of a steak knife.
Mom had cried when she and Dad pulled Frank and me out of our public grade school; we were the only white children left and racial tension was getting out of hand. “If the Democrats don’t have hope,” she said, “this city is screwed.”
I put my denim jacket back on, getting ready to go to Janet’s. Why did Frank know about Clinton Street? I would think that you could get heroin in Washington Square Park, where men in black caps whisper “sens, sens,” short for sensilmillia, a potent kind of pot. But then Frank always knew the crevices of Manhattan. The Sunday I got back from Australia, the magazine section of
The New York Times
ran a puff piece on The Best Slice in New York. Frank told me about a five-star pizza joint that the author failed to ferret out, one adjacent to a blini store out in Brighton Beach. “In the City,” he said, “there’s always a better slice if you do the legwork.” I looked at the clock. Ten of. Time to go.
The well-heeled brownstone
rentals from University Place across to Seventh Avenue and from Eighth Street up to Thirteenth Street are for the most part leased to ex–Ivy leaguers and Seven Sisterites who brand themselves hip. I’d never pinpointed this until I’d started dating Will. I would go to a party thrown by one of Will’s buddies from Dartmouth, or one his buddies’ Vassar alumna girlfriends, and inevitably the address would fall within
this five block radius—only blocks away from my mammoth brick building teeming with fifty-ish Italian women in big curlers throwing Hefty bags down the incinerator chute. New York is like that. One street can divide whole classes.
In the elevator ride down, I remembered that three years prior—while rinsing out the Epcot mug I’d received from my shared secretary in the Bell Press kitchen sink—I’d fancied myself the anthropologist. I’d spent my whole life trying to be like those people, I thought: upper crust. But their apartments all had the same cloying details. An exotic mask from a primitive tribe like the Asmat of New Guinea, the last Stone Age people discovered, who now fly commuter planes in Adidas shorts with bones in their noses. The women who lived on those social registrar–approved streets installed imposing books as interior decoration—
by Henrik Ibsen, perhaps, propped up against a vase of lavender pruned from Mom and Dad’s weekend estate. The men used nice stationery from Italy, or box sets of Navajo-blanket greeting cards they bought at the Met. Men with nice stationery irritate me.
With another four-and-a-half excruciating hours to the end of the work day, I had lost myself in my “fieldwork”—christening the district the Ivy Ghetto. I doodled a map of the Ivy Ghetto over a report on likely suspects to contribute a chapter for Bell’s particle accelerator journal. Why did I hate them so much? I’d lived twenty-five years of a life of enormous privilege. Not ski trips to the Alps, maybe, but private schools, trips to Yosemite.
While walking the few blocks that separated Janet and me, I decided that in retrospect, none of the highbrow crowd was that terrible. Some members were scholarship kids who had worked
hard as hell to get where they were. I’d been covetous, if I had to name the exact word—despite my early private schooling, my acceptance to Columbia, and my continued ticket to peripheral blue-chip existence via engagement to Will. I was jealous, but at my core I never wanted any of it.
Janet answered the door in a pastel-yellow polo and madras shorts, her straight strawberry blond hair in a ballet-school chignon. “So what’s so urgent? Do you want a nosh?”
Janet didn’t mean nosh like a Borscht Belt comedian ordering a bagel with a smear. She was employing it in its English usage. She’d spent her first summer after college abroad in a centuries-old cottage rented by her parents, and ever since had peppered her sentences with Anglish-isms. Bangers instead of sausage. Porridge instead of oatmeal. And then there was her precise language. Spearmint, never simply mint. Or a hint of camphor or cedar; nothing ever smelled “nice” to Janet. A study in contradictions—that’s why I liked her. A proper girl who in her quiet way was as much a tawdry film nut as me.
“I’ll take a soda if you have it.”
“Sure.” I popped back the tab and poured a few inches into the glass. She swooped up my can like a bird of prey. Yes. This was the confidante Frank and I needed. There wasn’t a speck of mess anywhere. Janet would put my slipshod life in order. “I’m in a bind, Jay. I need you to hang out with one of my roommates visiting from Australia.”
“Did Frieda put you up to this? I told her to stop trying to fix me up. I may be dateless, but I’m not desperate.”
“No, I wish that’s what I’m asking—no, I’m going to need you—”
“I’ve never heard you ask me for anything. This must be big stuff.”
“It’s complicated. I’m trusting you won’t tell anyone anything—especially not Frieda and Veemah.”
“You know me better—what could you need me for anyway?” I waited as Janet nervously retrieved her hamster Harry from his habitat, scratching his ears and under his chin. His little rodent face was in ecstasy.
“Well, the reason I came home was—well my Aunt Lillian wasn’t ill—I left because I witnessed a murder—”
“One of my roommates was killed by the mob.” I had never phrased it this way before, even to Frank; it sounded ludicrous. I meant to cry but I broke into a peculiar half-smile.
“Stop, Rachel, you’re a terrible liar. This is like your shameless story, the one where your boss offers you a stick of gum while a loony is shooting at your office.”
“Listen. I’m not going to argue that one anymore. I was telling you my roommate got shot by the mob.”
“It wasn’t a murder after all. I was duped. So was half of Australia. Two of my roommates made a satanic pact with the third one, who got shot. A complete set-up. He gets dead, and they get the murder on tape during the filming of their video. Instant fame.” My voice cracked by the end of the full histrionic explanation.
After a few still moments, Janet had convinced herself that I
wasn’t shitting her. She was out of tissues and opened a drawer in the coffee table, and handed me a roll of Charmin. “Wow.”
“What do you need my help for then? I’m scared to ask.”
“Look, Frank or I would be with you always. Remember that Otto Preminger flick in Sy Cooper’s class—
The Man with the Golden Arm
? Everyone kind of sat guard—”
“You want me to be
“Uh, yeah,” I said. “Frank’s going to be doing the ugly stuff.” I wished I knew what I meant by that sentence.
“Frank’s in charge?” She widened her eyes in contemplation. Janet had always had a bit of a crush on Frank, but then so did Veemah and Frieda. Frank was flirtatious with everyone, even Mom. Before he moved to Minnesota, where Ingrid had him locked away from his many fans, any combination of my gaggle of friends might run into him in the park while he was shooting some hoops. His adventurous spirit was infectious; he might have treated “his girls” to “out-of-this-world wheat noodles only a ferry ride away” in Staten Island. “I ask you, Ladies, which would you prefer for three bucks—a greasy Big Mac in midtown, or a scenic boat ride and a tasty platter of Malaysian food?”
Janet has that unfortunate Anglo-thin skin that tears like mica. Her cat, trying to get at the hamster, scratched her lightly; blood dripped from Janet’s arm. She hit the cat rather hard on its cheek, which made me wince.
“Whatever you need me to do,” Janet said. Was she angry or scared? “I’m on vacation this week.”
Janet and I were
surrounded by pink, tan, and black dildos of ridiculous lengths and widths. We were waiting near the counter at the Pink Pussycat, an erotic gift shop favored by the weekend bridge-and-tunnel crowd. Stuart had had the noble idea of handcuffing himself to one of Frank’s wooden bedposts. “Then I won’t kill one of you in a no-dope frenzy,” he’d said. Captain Frank thought it would be a good idea to have Stuart help shape his own withdrawal program, like a dieter developing his own 1200-calorie menus.
The middle-age saleswoman with a studded dog collar was serving a biker who was buying Edible Undies.
“Such bathos this afternoon,” Janet whispered.
was one of Janet’s distinctive words; she’d picked it up from her granduncle, who’d been a Princeton authority on Lewis Carroll. Janet always thought that I was a magnet for bathos. (The first time she said it, I thought she was implying that I was pathetic. I took great offense.)