"On the Lost Boulevard"
From the short story collection NIGHT PEOPLE AND OTHER TALES OF WORKING NEW YORK
By John Pietaro
The sting of light penetrated his eyes, piercing sleep like a razor. A flare in the darkness, it burnt harshly and, shielding his face from the glare, he leapt back, awakening with a gasp.
“Hey, what the hell are you deaf? Get up I said! Move on, ya skel!”, shouted the angry voice behind the blinding beam. As Ronnie huddled against the storage room wall, looking upward, he could just make out the figure of an 8-pointed, brimmed hat and the intolerant eyes beneath it.
“Whadda you gonna make me crack you in the head? Come on, man”, the imposing figure said, poking his nightstick liberally. “You can’t sleep here… This ain’t the Bowery”
As the direct blow of the flashlight beam finally angled away, the officer’s voice too seemed a little less abrasive. Ronnie stumbled to his feet and hurriedly grabbed his shoulder bag by its worn strap, and attempted to pull his coat collar further up around his neck, bracing. Glancing back, he said nothing to the beat cop whom he’d recognized from several earlier encounters, one of the regulars who patrols around First Avenue. Ronnie noticed that the annoyed blue eyes glaring his way belonged to a ruddy, youthful face, maybe fifteen, sixteen years younger than his own. The cop, after staring through him, looked away uncomfortably, almost embarrassed as Ronnie tried to ready himself for the outside, for the cold yet to come.
“Look, ya can’t just walk into a building’s service entrance like this”, he told the disheveled man. “You near scared the shit outta the super who came down here after 2AM to check on something. Listen”, his voice softened, “I seen you around and I know you’re not a troublemaker. But buddy I can arrest you now for breakin’ and enterin’ and I’m sure if I search you now, I will find something ta send you off to Riker’s for a little while. You won’t have to worry about findin’ a warm bed then, you’ll have one-- care of the city”. He sighed, “Why don’t you go over to the shelter on 31st Street?”
Ronnie opened his mouth to speak, but a couple weeks of braving an inordinately cold wave coupled by a bit of dehydration robbed him of his voice for a moment. Clearing his throat he said, “Officer, you haveta understand that it’s freezing out there---and December isn’t even done yet. I been to that shelter—plenty of times. It’s a horrible place and there’s more crime going on there than out in the streets. I’ll take my chances outside”.
Ronnie stood up straight and buttoned his coat tight, put on his hat and gloves and headed out into the early morning air. It was still dark and the blackness hung like a mist over the cityscape. The streetlights seemed to fight the blue-black sky for attention, throwing odd-angled shafts of light this way and that, melting into the shadows. The view from the streets robs the Apple of all its luster. The parade of tall structures join together to shut out the stars, disappear the moon.
Exiting out of the alley, he stayed close to the facades of the silent buildings along First, but was still battered by the intermittent blasts of early winter wind. All-night diners offered no solace for him; maybe a fast food joint----or he might be able to slip into the ATM vestibule of a bank. Maybe. Gazing up into a nearby store window, looking passed twinkling holidays decorations, he noted the time: 3:03 AM; Christ, it’d be more than two hours before dawn. Shutting his eyes to close out the taunting gusts, Ronnie moved along the streets slowly with nowhere in particular to go. He fished around inside his pockets seeking out loose change or a Metro Card, hoping to be able to at least sleep on the subway, but, “Shit---nothing”. Resigned, he then frantically searched his pockets and coat lining for something beyond money; he now sought out something to make the moment less painful. “I know there has to be at least one more stick of xanax in here somewhere, maybe a couple of benzos…”. But his hands re-emerged empty; he found only more nothing.
Moving along now, moving along, Ronnie tried to focus away from his exhaustion and the gnawing pains in his stomach. Pressed almost against the face of an old building, he looked up at 28th Street and saw Bellevue Hospital and its glowing, cavernous lobby. The homeless often tend to congregate in the area, perhaps out of force of habit, reaching toward Bellevue as a healthcare safety net. Oh sure, you thought it was just a psych hospital, didn’t you? It is the city’s best equipped trauma center and many of the street people end up there when subject to assaults, overdoses or the elements. And then of course there’s the psych unit as well---and detox. Hey you never know. But mostly they tend to stay fairly close by.
As the wooshing sound of a wind-swept revolving door faded softly behind him, Ronnie felt the lobby’s warm air embrace him. Not wanting to push his luck, he leaned against a wall not far from the entrance, hoping to tacitly meld into the background. Perhaps he might not be noticed if he just sat still…..
“Hey, you—can I help YOU?”, cried out a Hospital Police Officer posted near the Information booth. Looking over his cup of steaming coffee he asked again, “Can I help you?!”
Ronnie looked back at the tall African-American man in the dark blue uniform, his ‘It’s Our Pleasure to Serve You Cup’ staring back, mockingly. “Uh, yeah, uh…I am sick. Officer, I need to get to the ER. I know the way; I can get there myself, I was just resting”, he stated, emphasizing his limp and demonstrating a pained look on his otherwise smooth face. As he inched up the long hall toward the Emergency Room he felt the eyes of the Hospital cop on his back.
Ronnie’ s limp was long-term and other than moments like this, something he rarely thought much about. He’d originally hurt his leg many years back while playing high school football. Now, nearing forty, it had been a long time since he’d engaged in the athleticism that had been so much a part of his early life (oh, in high school he was a champ, all-state, and he went through cheerleaders like they were going out of style). Now the injury was long healed when, in the blur of a benzo high five years ago, he fell off the loading dock he was sleeping on and broke the leg in three places. That ranked another stay at Bellevue, a long one. After being treated, he’d spent time on the physical therapy unit for mending and reveled in the comfort of a warm bed and three squares. He could almost get used to that. The social worker had referred Ronnie to a decent drug rehab that time but, well you know how those things go. He’d had his share of TCs and ¾ houses and so there really wasn’t going to be any more treatment for now. Many of these places were hard-ass and designed to break you down to build you back up or simply took the Medicaid money and left you to your own devices. The desire to keep clean is rarely lasting in the face of inside dealing.
And as he shuffled down the corridor, his surroundings alarmingly alive with activity during the depth of the night shift, he thought about the anxiety that always came with a trip to any ER, whether it be this one, B.l., Roosevelt or any of the others he’d surrender himself to from time to time. You try to schedule such visits with rotations, of site and shift, in order to avoid the inevitable doubting eyes of the staff. But he knew how to work it and was admired by peers for his calm and ability to engage others. Ronnie somehow maintained his youth and his looks over these years on the street. He wore his blond hair straight back and the blue eyes still sparkled when he smiled; his charm is not simply a learned survival skill, but it helped in such situations. It always came naturally. As a nurse, apparently on a momentary break, quickly walked out of the ER toward the cafeteria, he smiled at her politely, lifting his hat and nodding in a countrified manner. The harried woman slowed down her pace in response and offered a weary smile back at Ronnie as he struggled up the passageway. Sighing, she reluctantly began to ask if he needed any assistance but, true to form, Ronnie shook his head and replied, “No, dear, I see that you are in a rush to get something to eat. Please go ahead”, he motioned, “I am okay and know my way inside. And enjoy your break. Really”. The nurse nodded and, seeing as Ronnie was getting along and she had scant moments to get some food, she proceeded ahead.
Moving along his path, Ronnie began to experience some real pains ---- the pain of withdrawal. Removing his gloves, he looked down at his hands and the fingers danced about involuntarily around his open palms. He began to feel suddenly warm and, pulling open the coat he’d worked so hard to fasten just a few minutes ago, his pace slowed down in direct contrast to the race of his heart-rate. “Just a little further, just a little further”.
Ronnie walked into the large Emergency triage area and was relieved to see that there wasn’t much of a line at this ungodly hour. A tired-looking elderly man stood near his even more elderly wife, a heavy woman who continually blotted her forehead with a rag and muttered in a foreign tongue. All he could make out was the occasional “aye, aye!”. As she sat with eyes shut tight, the husband stood behind her wearing a rather bored expression, patting her shoulder, awaiting the nurse to call for the Mrs. In fact if you watched closely the old man with the forlorn face and crumpled hat looked like he’d been through this too many times already. Ronnie’s eyes scanned the room and saw a strung-out looking young woman dressed in a trench coat, fishnet stockings and killer stilettos. Her attention was torn between a frantic pace of texting on her cell phone and staring back at herself in a hand-held mirror, blotting what looked like a swollen lip. Long, streaky blonde hair rather askew and make-up applied thick enough for the stage, she’d probably been roughed up by her pimp but would never bother to report this to anyone. After checking out her legs one last time, Ronnie’s attention was drawn to the back wall where a tall, thin guy with one hand over his face sat. He was trying desperately to sleep in the hard plastic chair, appearing quite tortured. He was unshaven and looked like he’d been on a binge. Ronnie made him immediately as someone who’d come in for a stay in the detox unit and was now waiting to be seen by the day shift RN, expected about three hours from now, for an evaluation. Ronnie had been through this before too: it’s a an awful wait as you feel the last vestiges of your favorite substance wear off and you become increasingly fearful of not being able to get another hit. One more chance to get clean sure, but one more sickening disappointment you feel you’ll never be able to get through. Which scenario will close off the tale? Ronnie averted his eyes away from the man. Sitting way over to his left was an obese man uncomfortably holding a make-shift ice-pack to his shoulder, rocking in place, looking as if he may cry.
The fluorescent lights buzzed overhead as Ronnie gazed over the counter at the middle-aged unit clerk with the two pencils stuck into the bun of her hair. The name plate sitting in front of her stated that she was Rosa Escalara, and apparently she’d been given an award for excellent attendance recently; a small medal pridefully hung over the brassy nameplate. Must be the highlight of her career, Ronnie thought as he rested his head on his chin, watching. She was speaking in a hushed tone to a young African American woman who’d brought her toddler in after he’d swallowed something or other. The young lady, holding the wiggling child in one arm, desperately tried to find her insurance card in a much too large purse that appeared to contain most everything but. Ronnie could not make out the conversation but could easily hear the young mother’s voice raise anxiously in pitch as Rosa sat glassy-eyed, watching her dig for the wallet.
“Okay, okay, people----we gotta move!”, he overheard one man in scrubs say to another, “Gun shot wound coming in on the bus that just pulled in!”. And so the wait would be a little bit longer. Ronnie shut his eyes, trying to absorb the heat into his every pore, savoring it, as he knew it may not last long. Just as he began to drift off, a youngish Asian man in a lab coat approached him; it was Dr. Nguyen, the resident who saw him not one week ago. “You---back again? What’s going on now?”
“Oh, hey Doc”, Ronnie groaned through his sleep haze, “I didn’t know you were on nights now”. Ronnie smiled that boyish smile at the doctor, hoping to buy some more time.
“Look Mr, uh, uh…
“McCallister”, Ronnie inserted.
“McCallister. You know I saw you here just a few days ago and before that a week prior. And reviewing the charts I see that you had come into the ED one time in between and there’s quite a few other visits in the past weeks and months…”
“Uh, not really Doc. Some of those times I was out of it and brought here by EMS. I can’t help it if the ambulance driver takes me here. You know I…”
“Okay, Mr. McCallister, what seems to be the trouble tonight?”, the doctor inquired, looking at Ronnie over his glasses, the authenticity of his concern in constant question.
“Well, you see Doc, it’s this leg injury again. Must be the cold weather that’s got it acting up, but I am having such a hard time walking. And this cop is hassling me and threatened to arrest me for vagrancy so you know I couldn’t exactly stay off the bad leg. But I am in a lot of pain just trying to walk. It’s throbbing”
“Mr. McCallister, if you are saying that your leg is hurting, I will examine it but history tells us that you are drug-seeking and so I am giving you no medications tonight. You probably need to go into detox again. I can’t lie to you, my patience is growing thin; you know we have to treat very sick people here—you take up valuable time. So now is that leg really in pain, Mr. McCallister?”, the doctor asked through what amounted to a hiss.
“Um, yeah, yeah, Doc. It’s killing me, really. Why would I lie to you?”, Ronnie asked incredulously as the old man, now seated next to his long-suffering wife, watched the interaction closely, glad to have something new to focus on.
The weary doctor nodded reluctantly to Ronnie and then turned to head back to the bays containing the already full beds of patients who stared out from their small curtained cubicles. As the doctor disappeared into the bowels of the Emergency Department, the old man grew disinterested and looked back toward the front triage desk as his wife quietly cried out “aye, aye!”, Ronnie looked over the waiting room one more time. The young mother with the child was now back in the unit and the blonde prostitute had taken her place at Rosa’s counter, still trying to soothe the split lip and God knows what other injuries lay beneath her coat. From the hallway beyond the security guard’s post at the far end he could hear an audacious shouting, that which seemed to emanate from the most acute sort. The guard looked down at his crossword puzzle, nonplussed. Another one headed for CPEP, psych emergency. One for the locked ward in the waiting.
Ronnie looked around for an old magazine or newspaper to bury his face into but the chairs about him all sat empty. He looked down to the floor, hands in his hair. An alert on the overhead, ‘Code Blue, Code Blue’, settled it. As nurses ran with a crash-cart, he got up and walked out post haste, having had enough of this. It was cold outside but already nearly 4. The newsstand up the street would be opening soon enough and he could always do some quick panhandling to earn enough for some coffee and whatever. The cruelty of the season only seemed to bring out the best in others. The walk down the long corridor back to the lobby was somewhat brief this time.
Free of the noise of Bellevue, beyond its corridors and outside its boundless glass front wall, stood Ronnie McCallister. He glanced over the circular driveway normally filled with visitors and taxi cabs and vendors and passersby, now sealed in a vacuum topped by purple sky. His usual crew that hung out on the benches across the avenue, over on 27th street, was nowhere to be found. And so he stood alone. Huddling against the frosty wind which challenged the buttons of his coat with each gust, Ronnie looked toward downtown and faded into his own thoughts. The regrets were too voluminous for each to be considered separately; they’d unified into a tapestry that surrounded him. Thoughts of blown opportunities, lies within lies, and auspicious beginnings invaded his memory with a will of their own. He thought of the drinking he’d been introduced to at age nine by his older brother Mark---it all seemed so funny to the teenagers to watch Little Ronnie stumble around. There was no supervision to speak of and, surely no protection either. From anyone. Their mother worked two jobs to try to keep the family together after their on-again, off-again father disappeared. She was too busy and too blind to see and as the years went on the liquor and then the pills became so much the norm, they began to have something of a familial presence. But through it, Ronnie continued to have plans. High school was all sports and all promise for the future. He almost had that college football scholarship---it was good to go but he missed the academic entry exam both times it was given. Couldn’t make it either time. Couldn’t or wouldn’t, who in hell knows?
Pulling the brim of his cap down over his brow to secure it, Ronnie’s mind slipped back to the construction jobs he’d held over the years, a carpenter, like his old man. But the jobs got hard to come by after foremen saw his hands tremble a time too many. It goes like that. A liability, they called him. So he moved on. Lived out west for a while too, but it was hard to find lasting work in LA (“Why’m I gonna hire you when I can get the Mexicans for half your price?”, he was asked by an especially pompous contractor). Venice Beach sounded great too, but there were lots of homeless there, many living in cars, others in their own little Hoovervilles. In fact, that was where he first found himself penniless, living on handouts and the occasional odd job. His connection did not work out and Mark had to wire him enough money to take an Amtrak back to Penn Station. “You fucking bum, when are you gonna get a job?”, Mark demanded when Ronnie called him in desperation. “You can’t go traipsing around the country like some kinda hobo---this is the real world. Wake up, kiddo!” Knowing he could never pay his debt, Ronnie tended to stay away and after a while, they just lost contact. Ma finally got remarried and he tried to move in with her but that didn’t work out. She even sent him to a technical school to get his electrician’s license, but he had a hard time getting through his apprenticeship. It’s a damned union thing, Ronnie told himself at the time, seeking a more plausible answer for yet another defeat. So the jobs were by happenstance, like everything else.
Heading downtown, Ronnie braved the cutting wind. Block by block, step by step, he dug his hands deeper into his pockets and kept his chin tucked into his chest. But his mind again strayed and he thought of Gina, probably the only genuine thing in his entire life. She had light blue eyes against shining black hair and every head turned when she entered a club. Back then he was still riding on the momentary football hero status, telling his friends that he was awaiting the right scholarship opportunity. His confidence towered over his formidable frame and his rap was devastating. With his collar fashionably turned upward and his hair perfect, he slinked over to Gina’s stool and ordered two of whatever she was having. And it went on from there. He fell hard for her. They seemed to be inseparable, and Ronnie wore her down too and then she was gone. A fucking drunk she called him. I’ve given you chances Ronnie but you always let me down. It’s over. I’m not gonna marry some fucking drunk from Long Island City!.........
As he crossed 23rd Street the first glint of sunlight began to shimmer in the reticent sky, mingling with the sweeping garland strung above the city. Further down, further down he traveled, as if there was a destination beyond the reach of Manhattan’s Lost Boulevard. The golden rays of light began to permeate the night in streaks of red and yellow and amber. The buildings about him glowed and as the wind warmed, he felt the urgency within begin to cease. He forgot about the tremors. He sought out where to be. He remembered the anger of the cop who woke him up to push him out of this haunt of the very rich. “Below 14th Street”, he thought to himself, “Below 14th Street I can rest a little bit more”, and he walked on. As 1st Avenue led him from Gramercy Park through the East Village he walked passed the condos and luxury buildings and condos and luxury buildings. “This ain’t the Bowery”, “This ain’t the Bowery”, the cop had told him. And it wasn’t. So Ronnie continued his descent.
Bypassing the string of silk stocking restaurants and crown jewel cafes that slowly opened their doors, he walked. The city began to stir and the people in their business suits moved in and out of cabs and train stations and this building and that. No one seemed to notice Ronnie as he moved along their sidewalks and crossed their streets; they moved around him as if there were an invisible shield which came between them. But it was he that was transparent. Moving west now, he walked along the shadows that the buildings threw onto the side streets as the sun rotated far above. And as he came upon it, recalled that the Bowery wasn’t the Bowery anymore. The holiday-lit bistros and galleries and designer shops led him away, down, and as the town began to swirl with activity, the buildings again moved in closer and closer and the nightsong turned into a din. And In the dense world about him Ronnie began to fade into the grey pavement over which the busy people ran. And then he was no longer an issue.
And he was no more.
--December 31, 2010, 5:06 PM, Brooklyn NY--