drug dangers


Monthly Archive for May, 2010

MY CAREER AS A PETTY THIEF/PART NINE/Part Three

 

I BURGLE BOOKS ON PARK AVENUE

I MAKE A BIG HAUL IN A FANCY BROWNSTONE
Part Two

Summer of ’61. There are no cell phones, computers, emails, Facebooks, Twitters. But everybody knows where the party is.

You don’t have to make plans. A fifteen cent subway ride takes you to Washington Square Park where hundreds of young people from everywhere in the city and the world congregate every night. Wander around, you’re sure to find someone you know. A familiar face is good enough to try a tentative “What’s happenin’?”

The Washington Square Arch was designed by Stanford White, a Gay Nineties debauchee, famous for drugging and raping teenage girls. Dope dealers cluster around the arch determined to continue his tradition. Hard-eyed desperadoes in their ’30′s they stand under the inscription “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair” selling “beat” marijuana, which they call “Village Green,” made of a few stalks of the real thing mixed with the crushed leaves and twigs of the indigenous Elm trees. Whispering men flit in and out of the darkness, faces glowing ghastly white. For a buck they’ll squeeze a “taste” of amphetamine from an eye dropper onto your tongue. Junkies mingle around the benches at the entrance to the park, sucking cigarettes. Finally, the “connection” appears and leads them like the Pied Piper out of the park to a “shooting gallery” nearby. LSD is still a CIA secret. Cocaine is for esthetes only.

Only a few months before the folksingers were denied permits to play in the park and were dispersed whenever they gathered. Then, they marched a thousand strong up Fifth Avenue, singing and chanting. The police called it a “beatnik riot,” and waded in with horses and billy clubs, singling out the blacks for arrest and mistreatment. In a time of Freedom Rides and sit-ins, New York City, the bastion of liberalism, called off the cops. Now the park is thronged with folkies, blues singers, orators and drummers. It’s a lukewarm melting pot. Blacks and whites feel each other out. Mixed couples are safe in the park, but if they venture onto the sidestreets of Little Italy they risk a beating from the locals.

My friend Benny plays congas at the fountain with a group of Puerto Rican kids who bring their drums and gourds and cowbells down from the Bronx. They are a tight clique and don’t like people to mess up their beat, but Benny gets me a hearing. “My boy plays pots, man. You gotta hear this.”

I have been playing pots since I was a kid and created a drum set in my mother’s kitchen–soup pot for the deep tones and sauce pans for the trebles–banging away until my grandmother cried, “what is he, a red Indian?” Struck with the fingertips a pot’s metallic ring is crisp and resonant and provides a bongo embellishment to the relentless rhythm of the drums. This is new to the Bronx kids. They nod and slide over, making room for me.

Saturday night I meet Benny outside the liquor store on Sixth Avenue. A wrinkled, brown clerk in a gray smock opens the cooler. “Cold wine for a hot night, boys? May I recommend Italian Swiss Colony?”

A pint of sweet wine and four Romilar cough tablets confer an ineffable feeling of well-being. The drums are pounding as we walk to fountain. In a few minutes we have drawn a crowd. A skinny blonde girl in gym shorts and a sleeveless blouse is whirling like a dervish, hair flying. Her boyfriend, shriveled and balding, although not more than twenty, jumps and lurches, clapping, “go man, go,” and clawing at the patchy blonde scraggle on his face. You can always tell the rich kids. They’re purely decadent. More crazed and reckless than the inhibited lower classes.

The drummers wear sleeveless undershirts, showing off their muscles and tattoos. I wear a golf shirt stolen from my uncle. The blonde dances closer and closer, choosing her mate. We play louder and faster.

The boyfriend comes up with the rest of his crowd. “You guys are cool. You wanna play for our party?” His friends are blotched and loutish in khakis and dress shirts. But the girls have that alluring sheen of wealth. We don’t have to consult. “Yeah, sure, we’ll play,” Benny says.

I’m new to Manhattan and have never been to the Upper East Side. We take the Lexington Ave Express to 86th. Street and walk down Park Avenue. Liveried doormen glare as we pass. We turn down a quiet side street of four story brownstones and stop shyly outside the address the boyfriend gave us.

“Anybody know the cat’s name?” Benny asks.

“What apartment’s he in?”

“There’s only one bell, man…”

“So ring it, man…Shit, what are you scared of?”

The boyfriend opens the door. “Hey guys c’mon in…I’m Bobby…”

A narrow hallway leads to a large living room jammed with more rich kids, pot smoke swirling, liquor bottles on the tables. The blonde jumps off a couch and runs right at Benny.

“Hi…”

“Who lives here?” he asks.

‘I do,” the blonde says. “Well I mean my parents…I’m Celeste, who are you?”

“Benny,” he says and takes her hand. “They must have some cool pots in this kitchen,” he says to me and walks away with Celeste.

I walk through rooms, gleaming with gilt and dark wood, figured carpets, paintings under lamps. Familiar faces in every room. It looks like they’ve swept up every lowlife in the park.

In the kitchen people have raided the huge refrigerator, emptied the pantry and are cooking eggs on the six burner stove. Somebody has broken the lock on a wine cabinet and taken out all the bottles. I get an ominous feeling.

People rush by me on the stairs, going up to the third and fourth floor bedrooms. There’s a library on the second floor. A beautiful room; bookshelves floor to ceiling; leather couches and a large oaken desk. Complete collections–Harvard Classics, Modern Library. I see a series of slim volumes, the Collected Works of Rudyard Kipling. I pick up The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant. My philosophy professor at Brooklyn College said “Kant is a bridge between the experienced world and ultimate reality.”

Boo!”

Celeste dazed and exhilarated, jumps out of a false book shelf in the wall. Benny walks out behind her, cool as usual.

“Like one of them secret doors in the movies,” he says.

“You got some great books here,” I say to Celeste. “Is your dad a professor?”

“Professor?” she laughs. “He owns shitty supermarkets down South, hundreds of ‘em…”

“My boy loves books,” Benny says.

“Take as many as you want,” Celeste says. “He never reads them…”

She runs out.

Henry, one of the drummers, comes upstairs with a frightened look. “Them guys from the park are gonna wreck this house…We’d better fade…”

Celeste comes back with a large leather satchel. “Fill it up,” she says.

“Your old man will be pissed if he finds his books gone,” I say.

“My mom will just order new ones,” she says. “They’re for decoration. They buy them by the pound.”

More people are coming into the house as we leave. Just before dawn, we steal the bakery delivery outside a Gristede’s on 72nd. We go to a hill in Central Park and wash down the warm rolls with pints of Borden’s Chocolate Milk.

I’m home just after sunrise. I fall asleep thumbing through my haul of books. The next day is Sunday. I don’t have to be anywhere or do anything.

A few months later, I see a headline DEBUTANTE DEAD IN TRUNK under a photo of Celeste. She had OD’d on amphetamine and her boyfriend, identified as “Robert A…….g” kept her body in the trunk of his car for four days.

Bobby is declared insane and spared a prison term. A year later he takes a running jump through his stepmom’s picture window and lands 19 floors down on Fifth Avenue.

I still haven’t read Critique of Pure Reason.