Two hours past midnight the Olds 88 crossed a bridge spanning a black tidal river. Co-Op City’s stark highrises loomed on the left and abandoned wrecks lined the Interstate to remind motorists that crime didn’t sleep in the Big Apple. Thee minutes later Sean lifted his foot off the gas and veered onto the Bruckner Expressway.
Off the elevated highway flames leapt from a vacant building unattended by fire trucks. Smoke smoldered from neighboring tenements without any spectators. This part of the Bronx had been deserted for most of the decade.
The sleeping runaway on the passenger seat came from small town up north. She probably had never been to a city bigger than Boston and New York was no city for a young girl on her own.
The Olds shuddered over the rough pavement and Sean steered hard right to avoid a deep pothole. Breakdowns in these derelict neighborhoods were a nightmare for motorists passing through the city. Roaming road gangs could strip the tires and engine off a vehicle in less than five minutes, while the owner tried to find a tow truck.
The heavy Oldsmobile rumbled off the highway and Sean headed toward the Willis Avenue Bridge. The car dove into a treacherous dip in the badly-maintained road and the chassis bottomed out with a screech of metal. The young girl stirred from her slumber and rubbed her eyes for several seconds. before asking, “Where are we?”
“Almost in Manhattan.” Sean jerked the wheel left to avoid an axle-snapping chasm.
“Really?” Kittery was a small village. Portsmouth was barely a city. Boston was big, but not big like this. Her eyes widened in awe of the panorama of tall apartment buildings across the East River. “I never thought I’d make it.”
“I’m not a bad driver.” The Olds bisected a lane of cars. Horns blared and fists were shaken at the car exiting onto the ramp for Harlem.
“I believe you.” Tammi giggled, sounding twelve. “But the other cars are avoiding yours like it was a shark in a swimming pool.”
“The gash on the side is thanks to your friend.” The car chase in Connecticut had added an unwanted detour to the trip from Boston,
“And normally after a driver has an accident, they check out the damage.” She lit a cigarette and the smoke bit into her lungs.
“Meaning?” Sean fussed through the radio to find The Doors’ RIDERS ON THE STORM.
“That this isn’t your car.” Tammi smirked with the cigarette dangling from her lip. She had spent hours practicing the look in the mirror. “Don’t look so innocent. It’s obvious that this is a stolen car, but I won’t report you to Santa Claus or the police.”
“It’s not stolen. It was given to me.”
“For a Thanksgiving Day present?”
“No, the owner paid me to make it disappear?”
“You do magic tricks like a magician.” The teenager mocked him with fake amazement.
“No, the car is a gas guzzler too much gas. Nobody wants to buy it, so the owner contacts me and I tell to leave it on the street with an extra set of keys under the seat. I drive to New York, park the car in a bad neighborhood, and leave the keys in the ignition, then it’s stolen by real thieves and the the next day the owner reports the theft to the police. A month later he gets a check from the insurance company. Happy ending.” Sean hadn’t told any of his friends about his sideline. He shouldn’t have told Tammi, but once she got out of the car, he would never see her again.
“You make it sound like you’re doing a good deed.” She was a little young to be so sarcastic.
“Only the insurance company gets hurt.” Baptized a Catholic Sean had given up of worrying about his immortal soul long ago. “And this is the last car I disappear.”
“I don’t give a fuck whether this is the first, last or the hundredth car you ‘disappeared’. To me it’s a ride.” Tammi twisted the dial to banish RIDERS ON THE STORM from the radio. “I hate that oldie music.”
“Oldies? I saw the Doors in 1968. They played for three hours at the Uptown Bus in Boston. I started a band, hoping to be a rock god. All I ever played were pool parties.”
“Sorry, hippie boy, but this is 1976 not 1968.” Tammi spun the knob to a droning voice accompanied by a 3-chord band and she sang along with the chorus. “Road, road, roadrunner, goin’ fifty mile an hour.”
“Me?” Tammi wasn’t used to anyone say something good about her.
“You sound like Dusty Springfield without training.
“So you’re not only a car thief, but a musical expert.” Her father had listening to Dusty Springfield, so she didn’t take comment as an insult.
“I know music. Who’s playing now?” Sean slowed down to get off the bridge.
“I have no idea.” The local station out of Portsmouth was dominated by Top Ten Hits.
“That’s Jonathan Richman in the Modern Lovers and the song’s called ROADRUNNER.”
“I never heard it before, but I like it.” She turned up the volume, but when the song segued to BETH, she ruthlessly shut off Kiss’ hit and hummed Dolly Parton’s JOLEEN.
“You hate the Doors and like country?” The driver grappled with the shuddering wheel, as the Olds sped down Lexington Avenue.
“At least you can sing country around a campfire.” Tammi gawked at the forlorn projects and the black men on the sidewalks well past midnight. “Is this Harlem?”
“Yes,” Sean answered, pacing his speed to avoid stopping at a red light.
“I always pictured Harlem this way.” The young girl was astonished by the number of black people on the sidewalks. “Bright lights. Lots of black people. There are no blacks back home.”
“You know anyone in New York?” He was sure that the answer was no.
“No one from my town ever leaves it, but I have enough money to stay at a hotel.” Tammi examined the driver’s thick-boned face. He reminded her of an extra from a 1960s caveman movie, and she asked, “How about you and me splitting a hotel? Money goes longer with two than one.”
Tammi laughed at his stammering.
“Let me guess. You have a jealous girlfriend?”
“Sorry.” Sean was two hours late for meeting Cheri.
“Sorry for having someplace to go?” She had done fine in Kittery owing no one nothing. “You in love?”
“Yes.” Love was the only word to describe the feeling of Cheri’s embrace.
“Then all’s forgiven.” Tammi stopped speaking and the Olds rolled down avenues and streets surrounded by the gauntlet of increasingly taller buildings. After fifteen minutes she pulled out a cigarette without lighting it and pressed her face to the window.
“I know where I am. This is where they drop the ball on New Year’s Eve.”
“It’s Times Square.” The glow of the marquees and flashing neon billboards camouflaged the area’s legendary sordidness. On the sidewalk two young boys were rummaging through a fallen man’s pockets. No one on the sidewalk interfered with the robbery.
“Tammi, no matter how terrible it was at home, you’re too young for this. In 1969 I watched hundreds of girls flocking to the hippie corner in Boston Commons. They drifted away to free-love communes on Mission Hill or go-go bars in the Combat Zone. Each of those places were a thousand times safer than Times Square.”
“I’m willing to listen to an alternative.”
“I give you the money for a bus ticket home.”
Tammi visualized the return ride to Kittery, her stepmother cooking turkey, her stepsister’s smug smile, the boys at school begging for a quick trip to the Fort, and the girls at school calling her the town pump.
“Because this place was made for girls like me. Stop.” Tammi twisted her head.
“Where?” Sean cut off a yellow taxi and pulled over to the curb.
“Right there.” Tammi pointed to a poster GIRLS WANTED underneath a blinking neon marquee.
“You can’t be serious.”
“Dead serious.” She pulled up on the door handle.
“This is wrong.” The slender brunette was the same age as his youngest sister.
“If it was so wrong, you’d be crying, hippie boy, besides I’ve heard that song, “If I can make it here, then I can make it anywhere.’ It had to be true for somone, so why not me?”" Tammi leaned across the seat to kiss Sean with a tenderness better suited to the end of a junior prom date.
“What if they don’t give you a job?” Sean doubted that she had valid ID.
“Oh, they’ll give me a job.” Tammi smiled with the wanton pleasure of being who she wanted to be.
The teenager popped out of the car and clomped to the DOLLHOUSE in her one high heel. The brutish bouncer stopped Tammi, then she reached into her jacket and produce what seemed to be an ID, then danced a seductive Watusi as an audition. Ten seconds later the bouncer waved the teenager inside the Playpen. Her disappearance was too fast for his tastes and Sean opened the door to rescue her from the naked truth of Times Square.
A uniformed cop rapped his billyclub on the hood.
“Shut the door and move it. This is a no parking zone.”
“My friend went into the Dollhouse.”
“Then she ain’t comin’ out any time soon.” The scruffy cop shut the door with a shove. “You want to wait. Stick this shitbox into a parking lot.”
“Yes, officer.” Sean was angered at his inability to be two places at once, but he didn’t need the cop running the plate.
His right foot stomped on the gas and the Olds weaved out of Times Square with the big V8 begging for speed. The car might not have been owned by Sean, street maintenance was a low priority on the impoverished city administration’s agenda and 7th Avenue’ rutted surface challenged the Olds’ suspension to the limit.
At 34th Street the chrome bumper narrowly missed a bum’s shopping cart. At 23rd the under chassis once more blistered steel on a bump topped by a manhole and a meteor shower of sparks sprayed against the ragged asphalt. Sean turned west on 14th Street. By 8th Avenue the sidewalks were devoid of foot traffic. The lights were with him, as the tires rattled over unpaved cobblestones of the Meat Market.
The Olds turned south under the West Side Highway following the train track for a few blocks before crossing West Street. Sean braked hard to halt the Olds before the lip of the Hudson River embankment.
The headlights lit the first hundred yards of the black trough of water separating New York from the rest of America. Sean shoved the column shift into Park and turned off the engine without taking the keys. Stepping out of the car he zipped up his jacket and pulled a screwdriver from his pocket. Sean scanned the street.
The smell of Old’s burnt rubber mixed with the rank tidal water and a block north shadowy men wandered into a twisted metal pier. Cheri had explained that homosexual trespassers used the fire-scorched warehouse for shadowy orgies. Sexual outlaws were no threat to him.
He crouched behind the Olds and unscrew to the license plates, then repeated the process with the one on the front bumper, then tossing both into the river. A Checker taxi passed him.
The driver didn’t even bother to look at him.
This time of night there were no good reason to stop on this side of West Street and Sean grabbed his canvas bag from the rear of the Olds. He glanced across the street to the third-floor of the Terminal Hotel.
The corner room’s lights were out. Cheri had to be home by now. The waitress finished work at 2. Sean hefted the bag over his shoulder and smiled to himself, thinking about her naked in bed.
A new life awaited him and Sean eagerly climbed the Terminal Hotel’s crumbling steps, nearly knocking over a bottle of NightTrain shared by two winos. Their garbled curses barely grazed his ears, as he entered the musty lobby. No one alive had seen this establishment’s heyday and Sean vowed to move someplace better tomorrow.
“I’m here for Cheri.” He rapped on the counter to wake the sleeping desk clerk’ attention and looked at keys on the wall. #301 was there.
“Cheri?” The wiry clerk scratched his unshaven jaw.
“She’s in room 301.” Sean dropped his bag on the floor. It had gotten heavy on the walk from the Olds.
“You mean she was in 301.” The clerk grinned without showing his teeth. Life had a funny way of not working out according to plans at the Terminal Hotel.
“What you mean ‘was’?” He shook his head in disbelief.
“Like past tense ‘was and now is not’.”
“I was supposed to meet her.” The old man had to be lying about her checking out.
“Hey, women change their minds.” The clerk pretended to examine the ledger. “You musta missed her by three hours. Tough break.”
“Where’d she go?” Sean glanced over to a young blonde man in a leather jacket. He was paying too much attention to this conversation and Sean resisted telling him to mind his own business. This was not his city.
“She said Paris.” The clerk glanced overhead. “Plane’s probably halfway across the Atlantic by now.”
“She leave a message?”
“Yer name is Sean?” The clerk grabbed a letter pinned to the wall.
“That’s me.” At this moment he wish that he was someone else.
“Then this is for you.” The clerk suppressed a grin. “I read it earlier. You want me to tell you what it says.”
“No.” Sean dropped his bag and devoured the four sentences hoping to read a comforting explanation, instead Cheri had written that she was going to Paris to study art at the Sorbonne. There was no mention of ‘them’ or when she might returned. The last sunbeam in his solar system was sucked into a black hole with no promise of a dawn on the horizon.
“Bad news, kid?” asked the clerk fighting back a grin.
Sean shook his head and left the lobby with his bag over his shoulder.
On the steps he released the letter and the night wind seized the page before it hit the sidewalk. Across West Street was a black river and he stumbled forward into the night.
Two seconds later Johnny Darling bent over to pick up the discarded letter from the sidewalk. He read the four lines in less than two seconds. Cheri’s words were as deadly as a script of a snuff film and the guitarist stuffed the sheet of paper into his pocket before trailing the hippie down the sidewalk.
Plenty of men left the Terminal Hotel blanketed by a similar despair. More than a few ended up in the river.
When Cheri’s rejected lover reached the other side of the West Side Highway and punched the hood of a dented Chevy Vega with New Jersey plates. The metal buckled under his fists and Johnny shouted, “Go easy on that car. It’s already been knocked out.”
“Get the fuck away from me.” The hippie lashed out a quick right.
“Slow down, Sean, I’m not trying to fuck with you.” Johnny sidestepped the roundhouse swing and lifted his hands to demonstrate his harmlessness.
“Who the hell are you?” Sean snarled at the intruder to his fury with red murder in his eyes.
“I’m Johnny. I live at the Terminal.” Johnny didn’t need a broken nose and wisely kept his distance from the hippie.
“And?” Sean pushed his hair out of his face.
“Cheri was my friend and I’m sorry to tell you that you’re not the first guy whose heart she broken. She had this hillbilly boyfriend from West Virginia named Bix. I think he was studying math at the New School. Anyway they went out for a year, but Cheri never kissed Bix. Not once. After she deserted him, Bix moved in a cave in Central Park, mumbling numbers like a bingo announcer. His parents finally committed him to a mental hospital”
“I’m not Bix,” Sean had heard a different version from Cheri.
“I’m not saying that you are, but Cheri had a little problem of letting men confused lust for love and men had an even bigger problem with her small problem.” Johnny intuitively recognized how the hippie brutal features might have appealed to Cheri, who balanced deep-seeded sexual masochism with a dangerous streak of mental sadism. “You know she talked about you?”
“What she say?” Sean demanded with the desperation of a drowning man swimming to a sinking raft.
“She said you were from Boston, wrote poetry, and stole cars. That you?”
“Yeah.” Sean nodded with a heavy head. “She say why she left New York?”
“The hotel clerk said she was spooked.”
“Love scares people.”
“Damnit.” Sean had believed his own lies and punched the car again and again.
“Stop it, breaking your hands won’t bring her back.” Johnny hauled the hippie way from the Chevy. The owner was probably in the pier fucking a complete stranger.
“Oh, yeah, watch this.” Sean shrugged off Johnny and smashed a window with a left hook.
“Suit yourself, but it’s not easy eating pizza with a busted hand.”
“You think I want pizza.” The hippie lifted his bleeding knuckles.
“Not tonight, but maybe tomorrow.” No city had better pizza than New York.
“Fuck pizza today and tomorrow.”
“ou”re only saying that because you can’t see tomorrow.” Cheri’s lover was primed for the taking and Johnny unreeled his pitch with the glib ease of a carnival barker shilling a Kewpie doll to a ten year-old girl’s father. “You have two choices.”
“Two?” Sean hadn’t thought that he had any.
>“One, go back to Boston.”
“Impossible. I burnt all my bridges back there.” Sean understood Tammi’s decision better now.
“Tough walking across a burnt bridge, so choice number two is stay here.”
Sean surveyed the grimy belly of the West Side Highway. Water dripped from the steel girders and rats scurried along the struts supporting the roadway. He gasped for breath. The air smelled of rotten meat. This city was rotten to the core and he said, “I came here to be with Cheri and now she’s gone.”
“So if you go, where will you go.”
“I don’t know.”
Johnny sensed the wavering of of his indecision and said, “You can always leave tomorrow.”
“Leave today, leave tomorrow. No one is stopping you. Do what you want. It’s your life.”
Sean took a deep breath. Driving a stolen car was a bad idea. He needed sleep and picked up his bag. “I’ll stay the night. Tomorrow I’ll figure out tomorrow.”
“Now you’re thinking. Let’s get you a room.” Johnny accompanied Sean across West Street at a slow pace. “Once you’re settled, we can eat. How’s that sound?”
“I’m not hungry.” This evening was unfolding as a scene cut from MIDNIGHT COWBOY with him as Cowboy and Johnny cast in the role of Ratso. This deja vu worsened inside the Terminal Hotel, where the wizened clerk smiled, as if he had expected to see Sean again.
“So Sean, yer wanna a room? 301 is available. It even had a view.”
“I know it.” Sean slapped a twenty and signed the register.
“That’s right.” Ernie wasn’t worried the hippie might try something stupid, then again stupidity was how most people ended up at the Terminal Hotel and he slid the key across the desk. “Enjoy yer stay, Mr. Coll.”
“C’mon, I’ll be your bellhop.” Johnny lifted the canvas bag and climbed the stairs to the third floor maintaining a constant banter to prevent Sean from rethinking a hasty decision. “Most tourists visit New York for the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. I’ve lived here most of my life and I haven’t been to any tourist places, because I’m into music and not concert rock, but clubs and bars. You know what you need. Some music to soothe your soul.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Too bad, because Max’s and CBGB’s offer four bands a night.” Johnny stopped before Cheri’s old room.”
“I said I’m not interested.” Sean stared at the door.
“Okay, okay, I get the message, but if you need anything, knock on 301. Anything at all.”
“Thanks.” Sean stepped into the room and shut the door. He ignored the cracked walls, the dangling flypaper, and the nude painting on the wall, because a faint fragrance belonging to Cheri lingered in her absence.
She should be in this room with him.
Only last weekend they had lay in bed naked. She had said that she would be waiting. He wasn’t supposed to be alone now.
Sean went to the window and tried to open it. The management had nailed it shut and he took a step back to a running start only to hear Johnny ask, “Did Cheri’s leaving hurt that much.”
Sean saying nothing said everything.
Johnny wasn’t letting Cheri’s jilted lover jump through the window to give EMS drivers a chance at his money and stepped into the small room.
“Listen, you’ll fall in love again and sooner than you fear.”
“Love is never love without the risk. I have a good idea. We should go get a drink.”
“I’m not into gay bars.”
“I know that, but I’m talking about CBGB’s. It’s not straight and it’s not gay. Boston has nothing like it.”
“I don’t know.
“What there not to know?” Cheri’s lover was smart to mistrust him, although anyone’s misgivings melted after a taste Johnny’s ‘special’ drink. “CBGB’s is rock and rock, cheap drinks, loose girls, and much more.”
“Much more sounds too good to be true.”
“Perhaps it is, considering CBGBs’ is an abbreviation for country-bluegrass-blues.” Johnny had forgotten the meaning of the OMFUG on the awning.
“Country?” Sean remembered Tammi singing along with Dolly Parton. She was dancing naked in Times Square. He should have taken up her offer of sharing a room. “I don’t care for country.”
“No one plays country at CBGBs.” Not since punk took over the stage.
“Is it far?” He wiped his bloodied hands with a soiled towel.
“Less than ten minutes away.” Tonight was working out with his first meeting Charles and now Sean. He had given the first a miss, but there was no way the hippie wasn’t paying for his introduction to New York. “You’ll love CBGBs. Trust me.”
Two minutes later the two young men left the hotel. A taxi stopped for them on Jane Street. Johnny gave the driver an address on Bowery. It was a little after 3am and he had one more job to do before he could sleep for the night, until then there was no rest for the wicked.