Zig-Zag in New York

So in the summer of 1962 I am persona non grata at Goucher and my parents’ least favorite person,  once again marooned in the Bronx, stuck in my old room on the Grand Concourse. I can’t really say I am miserable, just poised in time.   I decide to go to  summer school  at Hunter College in Manhattan.  I take a class analyzing Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and there I meet Geoffrey.  Geoffrey lives down in the Village and is sad, very sad, about breaking up with his girlfriend Isolde.   I wish I had a great name like Isolde.

I move in with Geoffrey in mid-June, just leaving my parents a note goodbye.  He is okay.  The best thing about him is his apartment.  We smoke marijuana and do a lot of speed, stay up all night in manic redecorating frenzies, stay up drawing fantastical designs on the walls, and although I haven’t done amphetamines for decades, ever since the day I looked in the mirror after staying awake for 36 hours straight and realized that this extra time is coming off the far end, being high is certainly an entertaining way of life.

Once it is clear to me  that I am living on my own and independent, I know I must find a job.  Believe it or not, I  have never worked a day in my life.  I never washed a dish.  I never  changed a baby.  I never even did my laundry.  I do not know how to cook.

Even without skills I am hired right away as an invoice clerk by an import-export company way downtown on Canal Street, an industrial area back then. All together, the company has 50 employees, female except for the warehouse stevedores and the bosses. The bosses strut around in suits and are brothers and uncles and cousins. Most of the women work in one big room wearing lipstick and eye shadow and pretty dresses, typing with flying fingers all manicured and polished, you can just see them taking hours each morning to groom themselves perfect, to ride the subway, to sit in this office.

My job doesn’t involve typing.  Marie from Queens is leaving to get married but will stay two more weeks to train me. We sit in a cubicle and organize invoices.  They come in packs of six, each page a different color separated by carbon paper, and we tear the pages off neatly, discard the carbons, sort by color, stab the copies onto spindles, and enter the numbers from the invoices into a big ledger.

For two weeks I get trained, and on my first day alone while Marie is at home trying on her wedding dress, I look around at my cubicle.  I am sorry but this is not the place I want to be, I say in my head.  I cannot work here, I say.

When the day ends, so does my employment.  I never go back.  Eventually the company sends me a check for my two weeks.

One day in late July I walk into the apartment I share with Geoffrey and find him and Isolde sitting on the couch holding hands.  Geoffrey says, “Isolde and I are back together and she’s moving in, would you please find another place to stay tonight”.

So I take to the streets. I haven’t yet turned 18, I remember because my father called Geoffrey at one point and threatened to have him arrested for statutory rape.  I go to the Cafe Wha around the corner on MacDougal Street, and sit down at a table and eye the possibilities, I need a place to sleep and I am not in a position to be choosy.   When a man starts a conversation with me I say yes, I’ll come, and he takes me to the bleakest room you can imagine,  long and narrow with a very high ceiling.  It looks like an asylum corridor that has been walled off on either end.  The man has decorated his room floor to ceiling with naked pinups torn all ragged out of magazines and lit by dangling light bulbs.  I lay stiffly on the bed while he does his thing and the next day I go home and move back into my room as if I never went away.

The funniest thing about Geoffrey is that years later I receive a letter from him, sent to my old address in the Bronx, my mother saves it for me. He says he is so sorry for mistreating me. It is the first time I realize I’d been mistreated, I thought it was just one of those things. Geoffrey says he is in AA and up to the seventh step which makes you contact everyone from the past you’ve victimized and apologize. I am his step victim.

Parents are handy when you have no other place to go and I certainly have few options other than being subdued and apologetic.   I start seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Gurchin, who is very kind and to cheer me up, tells me that I am the second smartest patient he has.  Since the first is an elderly lady I am not too jealous,  I figure I’ll be number one when I am older.  He also tells me  that most men live lives of quiet desperation, quoting Thoreau.  I think he is really talking to himself and it just makes me determined to live a life of noisy joy.


About Karen To and Fro

Everything you didn't want to know about me!
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