Illustration by Thom Cuschieri
Eighth avenue midtown mid-day mayhem. Business suits scuffled along, elbows out, the mobile phones snuggled to their ears now of a smaller, sharper model— a welcome departure from the obtuse, portable tanks of a decade prior, yet the decrease in size somehow inversely proportional to the collective level of obnoxiousness. Garish stores of implausible profit margins, shackled side-by-side or sandwiched one atop the other— not a shade of privacy or dignity in the west thirties garment-district favela.
Glass displays showcased fluffy new sneakers (as opposed to the diamond district’s overpriced jewelry a few blocks higher), young men in baggy pants and sideways hats salivating at the footwear for which they could only look but not touch. Electronics retailers offered their gadgets in similar fashion, but with one notable addition: hand-painted signs of elaborate cursive, advertising that seemed an extravagance for such throwaway devices, objects that would quickly become anachronisms in only a few years time. The Walkman had been replaced by the Discman which was now being overthrown by the MiniDisc. The pace of change was faster and faster now; it seemed nothing was “timeless” anymore.
Mark Newstein walked through the hodgepodge, organized chaos. Turkish and Yemenite lunch counters fed hungry cabbies on break; a high-pitched soundtrack of squeaking brakes and staccato horns serenaded outdoor table, standing-room only patrons of two dollar pizza; “zero tolerance” signs (forbidding the usual unwanted, unlawful affairs) angrily affixed themselves outside infamous bars stubbornly maintaining their legendary calling cards of ill-repute. The faux “cork” of strewn cigarette butts littered the grounds of venerable and lamentable institutions alike, at times even forming intriguing patterns, the neighborhood’s indigenous ornamental artistic offerings.
Then there were the stores and signs no one noticed. Small-time electricians, graphic designers, audio engineers. Candy stores and antique shops. Brick and mortar businesses quietly chugging away, hordes of oblivious passers-by none the wiser. Faded stenciled markings lined exhaust-covered walls, instructions for the behemoth Post Office and Port Authority vehicles that just barely avoided flocks of pedestrians scurrying from their path, the insignia only faintly visible beneath generous helpings of strewn rubbish and grime, like a home plate mound covered in dirt, a former prominence obscured by all the roughhousing.
Off-shooting side-streets were even more turbulent than the multi-lane main drag, replete with wholesale storefront cloth makers (upstairs sweatshops lying in plain sight), heavy freight deliveries, oriental massage parlors resting over exterminators, shoe repair alongside hardware alongside uninspired hole-in-the wall “pubs,” a faded coat of green paint the outer-limits of any Gaelic affiliation, tchotchky stores of tourist and discount splendor snuck between hopeless entrances to worn office buildings of a forgotten glamour, their crumbling foundations and sad-looking, indifferent doormen the reliable place where predictably fly-by-night, small-time attorneys and CPAs called home.
Mark proceeded cautiously. There was enough to detract him, willfully or otherwise. Wooden canes were swung menacingly by unwelcoming old-timers, “building water” leaked from above. Hasids shuddered as they nudged him and the undesirable goyim masses out of their way, nebbishly hurrying along towards their economic beacon, B&H Photo, most attempting to shield their eyes from the sin around them, but a few outliers, despite warnings of ruin, noticeably intrigued.
Tank-topped strongmen emerged from double-parked trucks, carrying immense infrastructure of phallic glory— long metal pipes, enormous beams of steel. Between occasional liftings, they were otherwise splendidly dithering— downing strong coffee, smoking another one too many, chit-chatting all types of random nonsense, cat-calling from the sidewalk where they sat— the narrow corridors of most Manhattan construction, in a sort of perverse egalitarianism, affording the working man no more dignity than the bums. Instead, the heavy haulers simply sprawled out on the ground, rear ends hugging the apex between storefront and sidewalk, backs upright, legs comfortably spread forward, often crossed, other times apart, but always in a defiant gesture of imposition for the yuppie-scum to walk over. Bacon-egg-and-cheese in hand, the scrappy blue-collars could not fathom why hawking after working women failed to impress. Along with the generally-accepted brashness of construction worker come-ons, the chewed yolk and swine in their mouths, consumed just a few feet from the filth of city pavement, was hardly endearing.
A dusty air filled these narrow, supermarket-like aisles, small passageways separating stoic art-deco structures of modest, mid-level height. Pigeons flew to and from various perches, the cascading, expanding levels of the buildings, shrinking in width upon their skyward ascension, providing a multitude of safe haven respites, some of the winged creatures willing to descend down into the doldrums, others too disgusted, remaining guarded and elevated from the horrors they viewed below.
Then, of course, there was the porn. Peep World. Playpen. Vidal’s Voyeur. One name atrociously catchier than the next, most were bald euphemisms for transparently seedy goings-on that could never be sanitized to acceptability. Bedazzling flashing lights, a general affront to the public’s dignity and impossible to ignore, were made only worse by additionally bold, unapologetic signs for “Male 25¢ Booths” and woven neon lights, cartoonish conveyances of the salacious contour curvatures of female anatomy. Like graffiti, it was impermeable, inevitable, and to some, even forgivable: to fight it was as futile as the war on drugs. Let Giuliani sweep through as he was doing, public opinion dictated, but the smut would still crawl in and find its way back— in the quiet confines of undesirable rental spaces, and the long stares of frustrated, self-destructive men.
Mark rounded the corner. Nearby, a pigeon pecked at a pink slush on the ground. Was it vomit, he wondered, or the remnants of a meal, a once-appetizing ensemble turned to mush by foot traffic? The drips of blood from the nose of a man nearby, keeled over, either recently beaten up or simply having given up, eventually mixed with the unknown sidewalk substance as he turned and moaned. The pigeon pecked away, unabated, oblivious, or perhaps simply non-discriminatory when it came to a source of sustenance. In the distance was the great heroin needle of the Empire State Building, the god to which all druggie derelicts bowed in honor, while in the foreground a punjabi clerk nervously guarded a wobbly newsstand, having not yet mastered the time-honored defense of a flimsily box of chipped paint. Indifferent to the presence of yet another downed pedestrian— a forgettable patron of a nearby methadone clinic, most likely— the vendor’s only concern was the next sale of New York Lotto scratch-offs, while also warding off the usual aspiring shoplifters.
The phone booths, Mark lamented to himself— always the phone booths. His life always seemed to concern a regrettable lack of access to the coil and wire, rubber and plastic concoctions. When he wasn’t searching in vain for an operational machine on the street, he was stuck on a crowded line at the Court house, arguing over who was next, whether someone had “seniority,” was a “regular,” or “just needed to make a quick call” and therefore, inexplicably, should be permitted to skip ahead.
It wasn’t until the third attempt that Mark accessed a working line.
“Checking in, yea,” he muttered after connecting.
“Hold on,” Gretchen said coldly. Even she has gotten the message to curtail any affections.
“WHERE ARE YOU?” O’Hara demanded once on the line, though he already knew.
“I’m in the deuce— calling up, like you told me.”
“Hold on, giving you over to Barton.”
It was ridiculous, Mark thought— just blocks away, why did he have to call before he returned?
Barton was markedly more pleasant, but clearly wary of any further supportive stance.
“Thanks for doing the sign-up.”
He was almost apologetic. Mark soon found out why.
“We actually have another one— in the field again— so… just come down to the lobby and I’ll have Aracely meet you, grab the file you have, and give you a new intake packet to head back out.”
“Okay,” Mark agreed while trying to act nonplussed. But his eyes were scanning the sidewalk before him, hoping to decipher a patten in Barton’s words, or a secret code that might arise out of the grainy pavement before him.
“The thing is… she’s still out on lunch break. So, wait about twenty minutes or so.”
Mark sighed. Though he always had to call in after every Court appearance or case sign-up (in case Harris “needed” him to go somewhere else), the commands were now dictated by go-betweens, an already inefficient operation made only the more unwieldy. Worse, Mark had the sensation of being deliberately kept from a physical presence upstairs. Presumably it was to sign up yet another new case, but the alternative, of being intentionally sent on fruitless endeavors, was hard to fully dismiss.
Fortunately, Mark was hungry; he could conceivably pass the time by grabbing a quick bite himself. Surrounding him were sidewalk hot dog vendors and middle-eastern kebab stands, none of it enticing. It was the company they kept— smoke plumed not just from these food stalls, but various sewers and steam pipes alike, combining to blanket the area in an artificial grey cloud while the helpless homeless gripped their flimsy, cardboard signs— placards of poorly-written, abbreviated tales of tragedy. Street hawkers offered portraits of skyscraper iconography, “I-heart-NY” t-shirts and amateur celebrity caricatures; zombies and flashers wandered the outer-edges of the Port Authority, notably avoiding the transvestites who lately asserted dominance as the new top dog; bible preachers lambasted everyone and no one, their arguments sporadically fermenting into salient points— bemoaning modernity’s instant gratification as a hallow substitute for solid spiritual bearings— but on other occasions dwindling to verbal gibberish just as easily.
Where to go? There was the Market Diner on audition row, the land of actor-hopefuls where friends like Tim Mallin used to line corners (before he gave up the dream), script in hand, praying for a part that was already filled, the open casting a mere formality. No, such a venue would likely be packed with the smell of despair.
Instead, Mark settled on forty-second between seventh and eighth, the source of a trustworthy, greasy spoon: “Grand” Luncheonette, a narrow counter wryly named for an outsized-reputation despite the awkward, tight-fitting dimensions— protruding, as it was, within the entrance to a Kung-Fu movie theater, splendidly out of place just beneath the falling debris of an anachronistic marquee, tiny white light bulbs arranged in clever patterns, long since burnt out, crushed or fragmented, a once-attractive starlet now wrinkled, frail. The kind of place where owner Fred Hakim would greet you as though a long lost friend, not just another of the thousands of patrons served since 1942, his simmering sauerkraut happily heaped upon customer’s dishes while watching the world change from a Times Square window. Multiple trends— music, film, fashion, social mores most of all— may have come and gone, but a hot dog and a knish were still a dollar ninety five; “No Water, No Ice” remained a defiant, steadfast sign, imploring the need to buy a fountain soda to quench any thirst, along with the similarly instructive “No Loitering, No Spitting.” The deep, extended counter allowed unlikely characters— a cop taking a break from his beat right alongside the petty thief he might later nab— to sit and mingle; and what passed for “customer service” was by turns authoritative (“Git y’hot dogs hee-ah!” screamed out the window if crowds began to thin) and then reliably sweet (“what’ll it be, young lady?” in the voice of a warm, loving father).
But any comfort and familiarity was quickly wiped clean once Mark made his way along. The lovable restaurant’s entire building— inconceivably— was reduced to rubble. It looked like a botched operation, one of President Clinton’s cruise missiles mistakenly pounding the theater district along with pharmaceutical plants in Sudan. Mark looked around in shock. Indeed, everything was in the process of some kind of grand conversion. The appropriately named Harem “Theater”— if a conglomerate of former low-rises with an awning out front, a lackadaisical effort to reinvent retail space for triple-x featurettes, could be allowed such a title— was replaced by huge new edifices with no frontal windows, eagerly awaiting installation of multiple-story billboard signage, some already ordained with their slick promotions of Mickey Mouse and “The Lion King,” the upbeat pleasantness almost causing Mark to lose his balance. Across the street, the blemished but beautiful Empire Theater had been moved— literally picked up and moved— further down the block, and was now being refurbished from performance space to movie-theater “megaplex.” Though Times Square had sadly drifted from former decades of glamour to its present-day horror, this future— of glitzy spectacle— was somehow the most disturbing of all. Mark suddenly felt old, instantly understanding that a story was forming within him, fondness for what a place “used to be”— the nostalgia ingraining itself to his psyche. It would become the type of tale he would return to endlessly, puttering about as bored, not-yet-born relatives rolled their eyes, seeking the best possible way to change the topic.
Of all the new change, however, Grand Luncheonette’s destruction seemed the most violent, unplanned. Divorced from the controlled demolitions more befitting of a transition to the new, pre-packaged, heavily-orchestrated family-friendly arrivals, it was almost as if the building next door had literally collapsed, brining everything down around it by accident.
“The whole thing went unstable!” a man halfway down the street shouted with authority. He began to walk in Mark’s direction. “They started tearing some buildings out and, next thing you know— kablooey. But not to worry— they booted all the tenants first.”
A porn protestor, one of the few remaining, he had a full-length poster-board draped over his body. “GOD’S CHILDREN NEED LOVE, NOT SEDUCTION!” it read. He was now a rebel without a cause, unless the ambiguity of his cautions might allow him to somehow endure, corporate capitalism’s roar of familiar homogeneity replacing the more classically appreciated threats of the oldest profession.
Mark shook his head, taking in the scene before him.
“Giuliani & Co. gave ‘em the ol’ eviction notice, along with all the sex shops. But ya know, that restaurant wasn’t part of the whole peep spectacle— I didn’t have nuthin wrong it. Would even go in theh sometimes, for a dog or two.”
A contorted, smushed face, the stunted man of bible-laced sincerity looked like a former pervert himself. To Mark, his devotion to the cause was unconvincing— less life-long abstainer than recent convert, not so much disgusted by the sin around him than simply tired of the show.
“Guess this is the price we pay to clean it all out?” Mark offered the words more to himself than anyone else, trying to make sense of it all.
“I suppose,” he suggested. “The weird thing is— where do I go?” He looked around, also unsure of himself, not an obscene picture house in sight. “What do I do now?”
There was a lonely sense of desperation to him; Mark felt almost prepared to commiserate, if it wasn’t for the belligerent “Jesus Saves” mantra that he knew hung in the backdrop.
“The weird thing is—“ the man further confessed, “I miss them.”
Despite the street being largely deserted, this admission was understandably delivered in hushed tone. Could the man really be referring to his arch nemesis, what he and others fiercely rallied against, with a sense of longing? They had wanted and waited for these elements to be gone for so long, but perhaps their newfound lack of purpose was enough to grow despondent— scared even— for what the future might hold.
“‘Eyyy theh— Dick Tracy!”
A snide remark followed by predictably mean-spirited chuckling, two raspy voices interrupted only by a need to catch their breath, excessive coughing revealing char-filled lungs that only begrudgingly cooperated with their owners’ desire to continue on.
Mark was being tormented from the street, his fedora hat likely the reason— having wandered his way over to another pay phone, this time forty-third and eighth, two pudgy gentleman of competing levels of revulsion were now vying for his attention. Henchman for “Gotham City,” perhaps the most euphemistic of remaining peep show outfits, they stood contently watching with the occasional epithet, a routine vastly preferable to their assigned duty, of actually using the ladder they had brought out to change the signage on the marquee above.
If Mark could just get up to the office, he thought, he’d be saved— rescued from this droll, the elevator lift an apotheosis from the dilapidated, the ramshackle, the run-down world of undesirables. But in fact, he knew there was little solace up in the clouds. The characters on the thirty-fifth floor, though perhaps of a more respectable aesthetic, harbored an unmatched ruthlessness that lingered within, vicious capabilities far more shocking and flagrant than anything the nuts and bolts street characters could ever know.
Once he was again connected to the office, Mark got the okay— Aracely was ready for him. Off he went.
The two dumb-dumbs continued to ponder the scene anyway. Back at forty-second, installation continued for Madame Tussaud’s, jackhammers busily at work on an enormous structure being erected next to the Harris Theater, which would be annexed into the sure-fire tourist-magnet wax museum. “The Disney Experience” store was already up and running, child-friendly themes staring the men down when their boss came out, cigar-in-mouth, the cylinder of rolled tobacco immediately drooping in displeasure once he realized his employees’ procrastination.
“Ey… boss,” one said, stalling for time. “Would you look at that? They got Mickey Mouse, Dr. Suess— maybe Peter Pan comin’ next. Why don’t we put up a little naked tinker bell in our window, eh?!”
The two men nearly died in laughter once again. But their boss didn’t join the festivities. His eyes shifted— initially narrow in furrowed-brow confusion, then transitioning, over time, to wide-eyed horror, as he appreciated the truly outsized-proportioned structures taking shape around him. For the uninitiated, the change might pose as an entertaining, mockable spectacle, another doomed “redevelopment” plan that wouldn’t move them an inch. But unlike his subordinates, bossman could see the conversion for what it truly was— the real thing, forty-duece’s long-awaited transformation. A year from now they might even be boarded shut; for all they knew, today could very well be the last hey-day hurrah before their annihilation.
Matthew A. Taub is a writer and lawyer living in Brooklyn, NY. His work has appeared in Absinthe Revival, The Weekenders, Red Ochre LiT’s BLACK&WHITE Magazine, The Squawk Back and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. He is currently working on his first novel, DEATH OF THE DYING CITY, a panorama of New York City’s rapid gentrification and multiple ethnic enclaves through rotating character-driven vignettes, all of which are connected by an imperiled lawyer-protagonist. Excerpts appear at www.matthewataub.com
Thom Cuschieri is a mathematician and illustrator, though not necessarily in that order. He left Malta in 2012 following a rubber chicken stunt that went horribly wrong and now lives in Brighton, where he is finishing an MA in Sequential Design. He likes the stories of Jorge Luis Borges and the comics of Jim Woodring and has watched far too many episodes of MasterChef.