The Real World
“Fuck you, kid.”
I had just gotten off the train at Grand Central station and asked a nice enough looking lady in a newsboy cap and purple scarf where the taxi stand was. I apologized for bothering her, and she walked off glaring at the big board, probably pretending she cared when some imaginary train was coming in just to avoid me.
By that time, my parents had to be in hysterics. Well, at least my mom. Jerry was probably yelling a lot about how I was just trying to get attention and how I could never make it in the real world alone and how he’d beat the snot out of me if he ever got his hands on me again. He liked to threaten to beat the snot out of me. He never did, though. I guess I should be grateful. My cousin Sam got the snot beat out of him by his dad so much DCF took him away, made him a ward of the state, and paid his college tuition. Poetic.
I started wandering about looking for a sign that said where I could find a taxi. There were so many people rushing here or there, all with some huge purpose, some intense pull in one direction or the other. There were business men, dressed in the suits and ties to make sure we all knew they were business men, tourists flipping through brochures and taking pictures, and even a token homeless guy with an overgrown beard and a faded, red shirt. Perhaps times were tough even for Santa Claus.
The thing that really caught my eye in the colorless abyss of the Great Hall was this little boy with a bright blue balloon. His parents were tugging him along, but all he cared about was looking up at the ceiling. The mile-high green sky above, scattered with celestial bodies, always impressed me no matter how often I visited. What I saw on the ground, however, was about the last thing I wanted to see—cops. They were everywhere I looked. Well, at least that’s how it seemed. I was afraid of police enough when I hadn’t done anything wrong, and now… Well, let’s just say I was plenty afraid. I looked back for the boy and his balloon, but I lost him in the crowd.
Then I started thinking about my kid sister Hester. That’s right, I said Hester. My parents were very literary in college, especially my mom Priscilla. She was big on The Scarlet Letter at the time, I guess. She taught American literature for a few years before my dad got his big break at the firm, and then she didn’t have to work any more. She was happy, I guess, but never had much to do. She just sort of invented things to do, like playing tennis and watering plants and all that. They named me Truman. Yup, after Capote. Truman Armstrong, that’s me. I told you they were literary. Anyway, Hester would have been panicking about that boy and if he was going to let the balloon go all the way to the ceiling out of reach. She worried about things like that, always putting other people first.
I shuffled through the traffic and got on line to buy a MetroCard just in case, but it didn’t take long to find the taxi stand outside the station all on my own. The line was fairly long, and it was hot and humid. I think my sweat was starting to sweat. Then this pregnant lady jumped in line behind me kind of waddling along each time the line moved. She must have been fairly far along because she was pretty huge.
“Excuse me,” I said.
“Yes,” she answered, a bit frazzled by a seventeen year-old punk addressing her. The night before, I had gotten my lip pierced and hair done. I had a thing for punk at the time, so I had the beautician chop it, spike it, and bleach haphazard patches of it. In the movies, whenever perps were on the lamb, they altered their appearances.
“You can go ahead of me if you want,” I said.
“Waiting for someone?”
“No. I just thought…I just wanted to be nice.” She was pregnant after all.
“That’s okay. You have a heavy load.”
I had my portable amp in one hand, a massive bag full of whatever I could fit in the other, and my gig bag with my guitar strapped over my shoulder. So she was right, I was carrying a heavy load, but her cargo seemed a bit more important.
“You sure?” I asked. “I’d feel bad making you wait.”
“Where are you heading?” she asked as the line moved up again. A few businessy looking guys had jumped in line behind us, all trying to look oh-so important. They reminded me of my dad. I hoped they were running late.
“China Town,” I said. I wanted to hit street vendors to get some cheap swag, update my look a bit. If I was going to find my way as a rock star, I was going to have to look the part. Westport was so suburban, and my high school so uppity, cruddy Metallica t-shirts were enough to look hardcore. I imagined it would take more in the Big Apple.
“Me too!” she said like it was the biggest act of God since the parting of the Red Sea. “We’ll share a cab, and then I won’t have to wait longer.”
“Cool,” I said, but I really didn’t want to. I didn’t much feel like striking up a conversation with her. I couldn’t handle it that particular morning.
The cab came, and I loaded my crap in the trunk. We made our way through stiff traffic toward China Town. We didn’t talk much, just an awkward smile here or there.
“So what brings you to New York?” she asked as I gathered my stuff out of the trunk.
“Starting a music career,” I said confidently.
“Hope so,” I concluded.
“I bet a lot of people have done just that same thing.” She smiled and rested her hands on her belly.
“I know. I just feel like I’ll be different.”
“Oh, no,” she said. “I didn’t mean to imply you wouldn’t make it. Obviously many do.”
“Oh, okay. Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. You know what I used to want to be?”
“An opera singer?”
“Really? What happened?”
“Life, I guess. Just wasn’t meant to be.”
“I’m sorry.” For some reason that was the saddest thing I’d heard all day.
“Don’t be. I wouldn’t trade my life for anything in the world.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m heading to work now,” she said. “I guess you’d call me a companion nurse. I spend time with and help take care of an elderly woman with Down’s Syndrome.”
“That sounds tough.”
“It’s challenging,” she admitted, “but she’s the love of my life. I couldn’t imagine going very long without seeing her. She sees things differently than you or me. It’s refreshing.”
“Well, I’m glad for you,” I said. But honestly, I really wasn’t. I felt bad for it, though.
“It’s coming up on the right,” she said to the taxi driver, and he pointed to a spot in front of a brick building. We were just south of Canal Street. She turned to me. “I’m sure you’ll make it just fine, really, but if ever need anything, give me a call.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a business card. “I’m Anne.” She held out her hand, and I shook it.
I paused to find a suitable name to give her. “I’m Trent,” I lied, conjuring the name of the first rock start that came to mind, Trent Reznor.
“Nice to meet you Trent,” she said. What a fraud I was.
When we pulled over to the curb, I jumped out and made my way around the cab to help her dismount from her seat. She gave me an awkward smile, probably thinking the gesture was over the top, and it was. I just felt bad for her, that’s all.
She said goodbye and headed up the steps into the building. I was on my own again. Time to lace up the big-boy shoes and be a man. I had my guitar, my saved up allowance—three hundred and thirty-seven dollars and fifty-eight cents—and a plan. Of course, I had just come up with the plan on the train, and I forgot my pick, and three hundred and thirty-seven dollars and fifty-eight cents wouldn’t get me one night in some Manhattan hotels, but the moment I stepped out into the streets of the big city and looked up at the sun-glazed sky-scrapers and clear blue skies, I knew I’d found exactly what I’d been looking for.
I awoke from my trance, however, as a loud honk startled me from behind.
“Move, ya little shit!”
A UPS truck was trying to pull into the spot vacated by our cab, but I was just standing there clueless, apparently looking like a ‘little shit,’ ruining the currier’s day. He honked twice more for good measure. Welcome to the big city. I dragged my stuff and myself up onto the sidewalk and went looking for deals with the street vendors.
I found a long row of salesman peddling cool swag, all for under ten bucks, and within twenty minutes I had too much junk to carry — a new wallet, some dark, pre-ripped jeans, a leather jacket with some crazy silver rings across the side and back, and a pack of picks, too. It was amazing. I found myself able to just start up a conversation with anyone – any guy that is. There were a few cute girls selling bracelets and paintings that were too intimidating and made me feel guilty for gawking at them, but with guys I just started shooting the breeze and whatnot. Like this one old dude selling tchotchkes. He was eyeing me while I checked out this over-priced crystal unicorn that was obviously fashioned out of glass.
I was about to move on to the next table in a long succession of worthless wares when he hollered at me, “Hey, kid, want a cool pocket knife?”
“Let me see.”
“It’s a one of kind, has a unicorn engraved in the handle. Got it off a dead guy in Central Park.”
“For you, eight bucks.”
“Sold. Dead guy, huh?”
“Yeah. Poor guy spent the whole night out in the cold. Winter ain’t no time to be homeless. Made me eight bucks, though.”
“How ‘bout summer?”
“Kid, there ain’t no such thing as homeless in the summer. You can sleep wherever you want, and hell, it’s not like you have to have a place to crash at night. City that never sleeps and all that.”
He looked like he was speaking from experience, so who was I to question him? His graying stubble put him at about fifty, and his frazzled, matching, half-bald scalp agreed. It was encouraging news seeing as how I had already burned a third of my resources.
“Well, thanks a lot, sir.”
“Sir. I like that. Thank you, kid. Here, that knife comes with a complimentary lighter.”
“No thanks, I don’t smoke.” I'd never even tried, actually.
“You ain’t gotta smoke to have a lighter, kid. Take it. It used to be Henry Winkler’s. Ya know, the Fonz?”
I knew the Fonz.
“Sure, I’ll take it. Thanks again.”
He tossed it to me underhand, and I made a basket catch as he answered, “No problem.”
His smile told me I'd just bought him dinner in exchange for a couple of second hand nothings, but I was happy just the same. This stuff had character, a story. I tried to flip the knife open, but it was stuck. I pushed harder and harder, but nothing. It was rusted shut or something.
“Hey!” I called to the vendor. “Sir, this thing is busted.”
“Caveat emptor,” he said with a crooked smile.
“But I want my money back.”
“I want to be the King of England,” he said. “Always test the merchandise first, kid. Remember that.”
“But that’s not fair,” I protested.
“Hey asshole.” The vendor next to him, an extremely large African-American with no neck selling “silk” neckties was calling out to me.
“Me?” I asked, pointing to my chest.
“Yeah, what other asshole would I be talking to?” He looked to the man with the gray stubble and said, “Look, he knows his name.” The old man laughed. What a crock of shit this was. “Just move on,” the neckless man commanded, like he was performing a Jedi mind trick. I wanted to tell him it only worked on the weak-minded, but the guns on this guy were huge, and I thought it was better to just let it go.
I suppose he taught me a lesson. And on the bright side, he confirmed for me that I really didn’t need a place to stay, so spending my cash didn’t worry me. I could make enough each day from playing to buy me a couple of items off the value menu somewhere and sleep on a bus or subway ride now and again. Who needs a bed when you've got Henry Winkler’s lighter?
When all was said and done, there was a whopping ninety-eight bucks left in my new, cow-scented wallet. Way to conserve. But I worried not. And as the sun gave in to brighter, man-made illumination, a newfound spirit of hope overcame me. I had done all I could to screw up my life, to make Truman Armstrong a failure, but New York had given me a second chance. I would never look back.
I spent the rest of the afternoon sightseeing. From Greenwich Village to Central Park, I was everywhere. I loved it all. The people, the food, the sights, the sounds, the yellow cab swarms buzzing along as far as the eye could see, the smell of garbage and ladies’ perfumes dancing together between drops of summer sweat, the playbills, the Garment Distric princesses, the greasy feel to the hot sidewalks, and even the drone of pure, unbridled noise, it all made me feel at home.
I ended up in Times Square. I spent an eternity just staring up into the sleepless night sky as the glittering lights of Broadway intermingled with the heaven’s stars. For a brief moment I forgot all the bullshit. I forgot high school, parents, and unforgivable mistakes. I could see myself on stage at the Roseland or Hammerstein, maybe even the Garden. I could see myself being a star.
Then I started feeling a bit hungry. I went up to a cart selling dirty-water dogs and gyros and ordered two dogs. I reached for my wallet to pay and nearly swallowed my own throat. It was gone. At first I assumed I put it in the wrong pocket, so I stood up and felt the other. Then, in a panic, I felt all my pockets, and each one was empty. I must have looked like an idiot there, groping myself in the middle of Times Square. I checked my bag and even my gig bag. Nothing. It was gone.
You hear about things like pick pockets, but you assume that’s something that happens to other people. Maybe they’re urban legends. But no. They’re real. And I was broke.
“Lost your wallet, kid?” asked the man who ran the cart. He was holding a hot dog in each hand.
“I think so,” I said in defeat.
“There’s a couple officers right over there. I’d tell them if I were you.”
“Thanks,” I said, but I knew I couldn’t do that.
I walked away hungry. Luckily, I still had some money left on my MetroCard, so I got on the subway and just rode around, dozing off now and then to get at least a little sleep. The subway ran all night, but trains were infrequent, so I had to struggle to stay awake during waits. There’s no way I wanted to sleep in the station. An MTA cop would probably want to know why someone so young was so alone so late at night, and who knows what kind of whack job or crack head might mess with me while I was sleeping there. I didn’t want to just walk the streets that late either and draw attention to myself.
Eventually the sun rose above the skyline, and the morning hustle and bustle around me in Columbus Circle told me that I had survived my first night on the island of Manhattan. Sure, I’d lost nearly one hundred bucks and my new wallet, but I had to give myself some credit. Maybe I could make it the real world. I would have to make some money, though, quickly, if I was going to make this happen. Going home wasn’t an option. It was time to put my plan into action. It was time to become a star.