Cleopatra’s used to serve couscous with stewed chicken and apricots. Best meal on the Upper West Side. Marlene always said it was the cinnamon that made it so special, but I don’t know anything about cooking. Doesn’t matter now. Cleo’s has been closed for over fifteen years. Marlene left me not too long after that. The space is a pizza restaurant now. Not like a cheap per-slice joint, but a nice place with a wood-burning stove and all.
I don’t know what happened to Marlene. Hope she’s somewhere nice with a fireplace, too.
Three stores down but stay on the west side of Broadway, there’s this political H.Q. Democratic somebody. But it used to be a real estate agent. There was this girl Vicki worked there and rented me and Marlene our apartment between West End and Riverside. That was a sweet deal. Upper West was funny back then. It looked like it should be expensive with the fancy old buildings and the doormen and the trees. But there was a big drug scene, a big crime scene, always there in the background. Drove the property values down, so you could really get a steal on an apartment.
Across Broadway, southeast corner of 90th Street, is that bargain suit seller, Dandy Man’s. I’m not surprised they’re still in business. Crazy prices, but still a guy could look pretty spiffy buying his threads there. Many’s the blazer I got at Dandy Man’s when I worked as a grocery store manager. Okay, assistant manager. The grocery store was where that slick gourmet fairyland is now. Used to be just a lowly C-Town Foods when I was there. I spent a lot of my time scheduling visits from exterminators and paying off the mob. I wasn’t rich, but I made enough for Marlene and me to have a good apartment and eat out at Cleo’s sometimes.
But I couldn’t just keep things decent, could I? I quit that managing job, sure I could go it alone. Be my own man of business. Hooked up with a shipment of novelty items and CD’s from the Dominican Republic. The guy who sold it to me did a great song and dance, so I rented a storefront and spent all my savings on the inventory. I need not tell you that I lost my shirt in that experiment.
Not having a paycheck does things to a man’s inner spark. I got slovenly, sluggish, nasty. That’s when Marlene left me. Then I truly had nothing.
Like most men in that situation, I turned to booze for companionship. That place in the middle of the block, Franky’s, with the high-gloss finished pine trim and the burgundy leather stools. They specialize in martinis, and so did I. For a year, or five years, couldn’t say which, I drank more than I ate. And I hooked up with Linda. It wasn’t much of a love affair. Still, after it imploded, I didn’t feel at home in Franky’s anymore. Couldn’t afford it anyway.
See that bra and girdle shop at 87th, with the half mannequins, next to Aldo’s Shoe Repair? No, I didn’t used to go in the bra shop. I’m no perv. But above it, third floor, was a temp agency. Around the time of the Linda fiasco I was still putting a little effort into making a living, legit. I did messaging gigs for them, from flowers to telegrams to sealed secret documents for Wall Street execs, I carried stuff all over this great city. You name a subway line, I’ve been on it, all the way to the end.
They stopped hiring me at the temp office. Might have had something to do with my not showing up for jobs. No idea what’s up on the third floor today. I’d go read the labels on the buzzers, but the way I look now they’d shoo me away.
That big, glowing space-age pharmacy that looks like the Mother Ship landed on Broadway, that’s where I shoplifted for the first time since high school. Not in that drug store, but in the little family-owned apoteka that used to be there. I stole a three-pack of briefs by sliding them under my coat.
I got good at pilfering little things, and at fencing them. There was a donut shop called Clock-on-the-Wall, two doors down from that grilled chicken place. Lord, that smells good. Anyway, I used to go to Clock-on-the-Wall and shift some merch. Necklaces, perfume, cosmetics, whatever I could palm from a shelf. Even snagged a flute from a pawn shop once. I didn’t know flutes came apart like that. I put a piece in each pocket and left the case behind. My buddy Joe gave me twenty bucks for it, which was like winning the lotto to me.
Eventually I got caught, though, and did a stint at Rikers. First offense, so the judge went easy on me. Still, when I got out I found I’d lost my nerve. That’s when I moved here.
What, you don’t believe I can swing a place in this new condo high-rise at 82nd Street? It’s the stench of my clothes, I guess, or the way my frostbitten toes are showing out the front of one shoe. Well, I’m no liar. This is my address. Just that it’s behind the building, back here, see, in these four cardboard boxes. A lot of residents get that grocery delivery service, so there’s always fresh boxes to use if these get soaked from rain or I puke in them or something.
I know just how lucky I am to live here. This neighborhood has gotten pretty tony in the past decade.
Anne E. Johnson, based in Brooklyn, has published over twenty short stories in Shelter of Daylight, Underneath the Juniper Tree, Spaceports & Spidersilk, and elsewhere. She has three novels contracted for publication in 2012, including two works of speculative fiction. Learn more on her website.