ONE RPM by Peter Nolan Smith


February’s blizzards buried New York City with two-foot drifts and people conversed about Global Warming as a distant threat in comparison to Iraq. America was gearing up to war and nothing could stop the process, because the President was acting like a pit bull too stubborn to spit out the bone stuck in his throat. After all Saddam had tried to kill his father.

When the Director of Homeland Security announced an unspecific Orange Alert, Manhattanites hermitically sealed their apartments with duct tape and plastic sheets against toxic attack. Two elderly people died of asphyxiation, but even worse the March to War was killing business in the Diamond District and It was hardly worth going to work, except my girlfriend in Thailand was awaiting my winter arrival, so I mummified myself in my warmest clothes to catch the 9:11am 9th Street Bus.

The sun was brilliant in a cloudless sky and the air temperature hovered above 10 without taking into consideration the wind. The time was 9:08 and a blue-and-white bus was traversing 1st Avenue ahead of schedule. The light was against me and I remained on the curb, since HBV or ‘hit by vehicle’ caused the most visits to the Bellevue Hospital emergency ward any season of the year.

On the opposite corner an old woman impatiently pushed her load into the street. The holes in her tennis shoes showed bare toes and I dug for a dollar in my pocket. The city was tough on the elderly, especially since she wasn’t the only one in a hurry.

A mammoth SUV with Jersey plates revved its engine on 10th Street and the truck clumsily accelerated left with the old lady in its path. The collision seemed unavoidable and I could only shout. “Watch out.”

My warning paralyzed the old lady, but a lanky man in a long overcoat snagged her out of the luxurized truck’s path, although its chrome bumper crashed into the shopping cart, cascading scores of bottles into the gutter. After the SUV lumbered to a halt, a middle-aged man in a NY Giants sweatshirt waddled to the woman. “Are you okay?”

“My things.” The old lady stared at her crushed cart.

“All right?”

The man in the overcoat helped the old woman to her feet, daubing the lady’s bloodied knees with a pristine handkerchief.

“You damn near killed her.”

“Hey, she stepped into the street.”? The paunchy driver looked over his shoulder to the pasty blonde poking her head out the side window. A few spectators gathered on the sidewalk and I stopped too, for the upscale clothing couldn’t disguise Jamie Parker.

The driver reached for his wallet and a hundred-dollar bill quickly fluttered in his hand. “I’m glad no one is hurt. Can I pay you for the damages?”

“Damages?” Money was unimportant to Jamie. He was after trouble. “How much you wanna to pay for ruining her day with your big-ass SUV?”

“Hey, it was an accident and no one was hurt.” The driver hadn’t expected a tirade from a Good Samaritan. “Why don’t you calm down?”

“Calm down?” Parker was rat-tough from his years as a guest of the State. “You blew that light and almost killed her.”

Cops cruised the avenue. Their writing up a report meant an increase in the driver’s insurance rates. He held out two hundred dollar bills. “The cart isn’t worth twenty bucks.”

“So you’re bargaining with the old lady’s life.”

“We can call it quits, Sonny. I’ve fallen worse in my bathtub.” The old lady snatched the money with the swiftness of a cobra attacking its careless trainer and skedaddled down the avenue. The driver eyed Jamie. “Happy now?”

“Happy? Happy you drive that pig? Happy, 40,000,000 of those gas-guzzlers suck the oil from the Earth and spew billions of tons of smog into the air to breathe?” Jamie was on a roll. “The terrorists topple the Twin Towers and how does America respond? Build oil junkie cars to fund the Al-Qaeda through the Saudis, so you fatsos can feel thinner in your SUVs.”

“Yeah, that’s right.” His harangue was echoed by assenting shouts, for while the landlords might have renovated the East Village for young professionals, the neighborhood contained enough weirdo radicals to stage a hair-trigger riot.

The driver recognized the building anger and jumped inside his SUV. His vehicle veered into the oncoming traffic, thunking into a speeding Ford Navigator. Both cars stopped and the drivers inspected the damage. It was in the thousands of dollars.

Jamie hooted with triumph and I grabbed his arm.

His eyes widened in anger, then a smile. “Hey, man.”

“I liked his hero act, but the rabble-rouser was a bit much for more than five minutes.

Traffic had snarled into a knot. Other motorists rubbernecked the accident. The SUV driver pointed at Jamie and pulled out his mobile phone. His finger hit three buttons. 911. The police wouldn’t interpret Jamie’s saving a woman’s life as a carte blanche for abusing the public. “Jamie, it’s time to go.”

“I had my heart set on a croissant from SOMETHING SWEET.” He gazed to the corner bakery and pushed his gloved hand through greasy hair. Even lacking two front teeth Jamie was handsome, but nothing good lasted long on him. His cashmere coat had a tiny tear in the arm and his crocodile loafers were stained with salt.

“You can come back later.” I tugged at his sleeve.

Jamie understood my unspoken urgency and we strode along a 10th Street clogged with irate drivers. He spat at a parked Land-Rover. “Their fuel addiction doesn’t piss me off so much as their tough guy acts. I mean the only bump an Expedition runs over is their fat kid’s tricycle in the driveway.”

“A little angry this morning?”

“I haven’t abandoned the revolution.”

“The revolution?” This wasn’t 1776 or 1789 or 1845 or 1917 or even 1968. The Republicans ran the country and most Americans’ vision of change is dictated by a TV remote control.

“How many Communists took over Russia? 10,000. And Castro landed in Cuba with many followers? 17. How many voters in Dade County swung the vote to GW Bush? 217?”

“Che went into Bolivia with forty-five men and was buried a fat old failure.”? The images of the SLA’s flameout, the Ruby Ridge’s shooting, and the Days of Rage in Seattle were dealt as losing hands by my memory’s blackjack dealer.

“I heard a rumor he hung up his AK047 to become a farmer.”

“The CIA says different. Che exists only on t-shirts and posters.” I wished otherwise for JFK, Malcolm X, and Marc Bolan. “Besides you’re looking a little prosperous better off than when we were swimming in the East River three years ago.”

“I was never too down on my luck that I sold out.” He tossed his head with a laugh at a forgotten punchline. “After leaving you, I met this punk girl. Mousy blonde hair, skinny, almost cute. You know the type. Their parents won’t let them use their stash or fuck the football team or they’re catching a beating in school, so they runaway to the East Village and live in filthy squats.”

“Not many burnt-out buildings left in the Lower East Side now.”

“Yeah, they live on the street off the kindness of suckers.” These ragged sons and daughters of the suburbs cadged cigarettes and quarters on St. Mark’s Place. Their sneering rejection of materialism earned the ridicule of veteran East Villagers, who labeled them ‘children of the dust’.

I didn’t give them a penny, but admitted, “I prefer them to the junior exec bar-crawlers shouting on their cell phones.”

“And the old junkies, right?”

“Let’s not get carried away.” The neighborhood was better off without Hakim, for thieving junkies had overrun the East Village in the 1970s. His murder had never hit the papers, but his death had cleared the way for the gentrification of lawless blocks beyond Avenue A.

“Anyway this punk called herself Bakunin. Always carried his anarchist essays around. She was eighteen and disenfranchised from her mother, an uptown heiress. Bakunin called me the street messiah, since I taught her friends where to find free food, how to stuff newspapers under their clothes to stay warm or to sleep with their shoes under their heads to prevent anyone stealing them. I didn’t tell them all the tricks, after all I have to protect the real bums from the amateurs.”

“Sounds you were sticking around, because you were soft on this Bakunin?” The clock on St. Mark’s Church bonged out the half-hour and I walked faster across 2nd Avenue. My boss hated my chronic tardiness and my excuses even more.

“Naw, she didn’t wash and smelled like she had been dug from the grave.” His nose scrunching in distaste was amusing, considering Jamie had historically been not too particular about his own personal hygiene. “But you’re right. You do get tired of being alone and I liked these kids. They didn’t watch TV or eat potato chips or listen to boy band music.”

“Or fake punk bands?” I looked both ways, crossing 4th Avenue.

“Plus they believe in something. A revolution.” Jamie followed me into the subway station. “Can you keep a secret?”

“Not if I’ve had three beers in me.”

Jamie must have thought I was kidding.

“The main problem with a revolution is that they usually come about when everyone is real angry, which means bloodshed, however non-violence worked for Gandhi in India or Martin Luther King in the Sixties. Perhaps not as fast as violence, but it is the other path.”

THE JETSONS had promised a world of automation. I had dreamed of eternal youth and driving beautiful blondes along the beaches in streamlined cars. It was hard living the lie. “A revolution in this country is impossible.”?

“We had one in 1776 and one in the Sixties.”

“One win, one loss. The Mets aren’t playing .500 ball this year. Where you going?”

“47th Street.” I swiped my multi-pass at the turnstile.

“You working in the Diamond District?”

“No one else would have me.” My job on 47th Street consisted of extolling the beauty of diamonds to glowing brides-to-be and inanely explaining financial shortcuts to men unwilling to blow two month’s wages on an artificially inflated commodity.

“I’ll come with you.” Jamie leapt the barrier and darted into the car a second before the doors shut. “Old habits die hard.”

The other passengers’ disapproval disappeared as soon as the train left the station and Jamie respected their apathy, but whispering, “The President has us in the purgatory of an Endless War. The environment is a mess. Our food has produced two generations of fat people and TV has sedated the masses more completely than any religion or drug. 9/11 should have disturbed their complacent slumber, except the ‘people’ are toasty in their cocoons of consumerism.”

The train’s steel wheels shrieked on the curve into the Union Square Station. Not one passenger covered their ears and I asked, “You have a better offer?”

“This present is beyond help. Tomorrow is another story. Where we want to be ten years from now? Twenty? People’s aspirations are simplified to purchases of the same items in different colors and sizes. A change has to happen. A change for the better.”

The train slowed to a stop. The people exiting ignored us. We had become invisible, even when Jamie”s fist thumped his chest. “I remember your old movement.”

“I had hoped everyone had forgotten the National Resurgence Party.” The last meeting in the cellar of a Polish church had been in 1979. A month later I had broken up with my hillbilly girlfriend and became persona non persona in the East Village.

“Who can forget Nuke the Whales. or proposing a war against France to stop their theft of Jerry Lewis?” Jamie had been the treasurer and my hillbilly girlfriend the minister of disinformation. Another twenty people comprised the NRP. We wore brown shirts and black ties. Our critics declared us closet fascists. Our salute came from a gladiator movie. “They were punk jokes.”

“Most people have no sense of humor.”

“We’ve strayed far from the pursuit of happiness.” No one from the nation’s two killjoy camps dared laugh about fat-inducing corn, Osama Bin Laden, terrorism, or freedom.

“What better moment than now to take advantage of the chaos.”

My political activity consisted of voting at each election, writing insane letters to the President, and attending non-violent demonstrations.”I’m too old for revolution.”

“Stop saying you’re old.” Jamie’s eyes sifted through the straphangers for any eavesdroppers and he dismissed our fellow travelers as mere wage-slaves. “Those squatters constantly blather about overthrowing the government, especially Bakunin’s boyfriend, Clash. I counseled against anything rash.”

In the 70s Jamie had aided the Underground, committed acts of felony, and robbed dealers without ever backing down from anyone in or out of authority. “The voice of reason doesn’t suit you.”

“I know, but one of them might have gotten hurt and Bakunin actually admired my pacifism. We spent a lot of time walking around Lower Manhattan. It was almost like being a teenager again. She discussed going back home and I said she could return to her mother’s duplex as easily as Dorothy returned to Kansas. I was shocked to hear she had never seen THE WIZARD OF OZ.”

“Probably hasn’t heard Judy Garland sing SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW.”

Today’s teenagers didn’t know what they were missing from those old black-and-white movies and no one was telling them either, because Time/Warner didn’t want kids seeing SULLIVANS TRAVELS, THE WAGES OF SIN, or SOME LIKE IT HOT. “Funny, how the parents don’t tell them about it.”

“They’re too busy trying to attain an impossible lifestyle. Bakunin’s not knowing about the Tin Man or Wicked Witch was wrong and right then I saw a billboard for a Cadillac SUV. A big fat-ass car for stupid fucking people. That’s all these kids see. Something to consume. I had to destroy it. Hit the corporations in their pocket, only it was too far away for a Molotov cocktail.”

“So the rage passed?” It was twenty to 10 and we were only at 28th Street. Like Jamie the train seemed not to obey any schedule.

“No, Bakunin told me how Clash practiced for an FBI shoot-out with a paintball gun. While he was drinking beer at Sophie’s I liberated it and headed back to the Caddy SUV billboard. Bakunin tagged along as a lookout. I splattered the ad with three hits. Red for revolution and I wasn’t done either. I took out a Tommy Hilfiger billboard and another for Pringle Potato Chips.”

“Cars, fashion, and fast food.” Each was an enemy of the people.

“Bakunin nailed a model selling perfume in the breasts. She hugged me and I kissed her. Bakunin told me her real name was Billie and she wanted a bath. We went for a schvitz at the Russian Steam Bath. She cleaned up good and we took a room in the St. Mark’s Hotel, where we made love and talked about saving the world from consumerism.”

“By paintbombing SUV ads?” It seemed a little lightweight.

“No, I had small ideas to take advantage of her clan. We made fake parking tickets and pasted a warning to SUV drivers that they were violating the Earth under their windshield wipers.”

“What the drivers do?”

“Just stuffed them in their pockets or threw them on the street without reading a single word. They didn’t care about the planet.”


“We needed a more radical course of action and I bought a couple of cans of paint.”?

“For another attack on the billboards?”

“I had Bakunin’s squatter friends paint all the parking meters in the Lower East Side. The meter maids were blocked from seeing, if they were in violation. We obliterated the parking signs in Wall Street and Chinatown. Several squatters covered the City Courts with FREE NEW YORK without ever saying from what.”

“The Staten Island Ferry is the only thing free in New York.”

“Nothing wrong with dreams.”

The train pulled into Grand Central and I exited from the train with Jamie in tow.

The paint squad planned on tagging every meter and sign in the city. Way too ambitious and bound to get someone on Rikers Island. I called off the painting campaign and organized them into gangs gathering the circulars stuck on the doorsteps. We returned them to the super markets and chain stores and then blockaded a luxury condo with those phony newspaper dispensers of the corners.”

“Sounds Mickey Mouse to me.” None of these incidents had hit the newspapers, then again the newspapers didn’t report on events, which might upset the status quo.

“You’re right. I had to devise a feat which the media couldn’t ignore or blame on teenage vandals.” Jamie was a menace to society and himself, but no terrorist, yet I had to say, “Sounds like the end to non-violence to me.”

The two policemen armed with shotguns guarded Grand Central. Despite 9/11 people weren’t avoiding populated or famous locations. As we mounted the escalator for the old Pan-Am Building, Jamie glanced at the starry ceiling. “Bakunin’s boyfriend suggested robbing banks with a toy gun like that actor from ZABRISKI POINT.”

“Michael something.” The handsome actor had attempted to rob a bank high on acid and the police had shot his friend dead. His defense was insanity. The State of Massachusetts had ignored his plea of insanity and given him 25 to Life. “He died in Walpole Prison. Weights fell on him.”

“Clash was jealous of my telling the squatters there’s no such dog as a little violence and he suspected Bakunin and I were having an affair.”

“He wasn’t wrong.”

“He was when he chained her to a wall. I wanted to kill him, but Bakunin told me to chill. Things would work out. Fucking kids.”

“Shouldn’t we be hanging out with people our own age?”

“Most of my old friends are dead plus you’re only as old as you feel.”

Two businessmen passed us and he whispered, “Riding the Staten Island Ferry I got an idea.”

“Kidnap the Statue of Liberty?”

“Close. I decided to invade Governor’s Island.”

“Invade?” I asked loudly enough for two Hassidim to flinch.

“The Coast Guard abandoned the island ten years ago and the Federal government has been trying to give it to the city ever since. Clinton offered the island to Giuliani for a measly dollar. The mayor considered its upkeep was too expensive and there was talk about his cutting a deal with the real estate developers. 400 acres of free land for the taking and I proposed to the squatters we liberate the island and declare it Babylon.”

“Babylon?” Pattaya in Thailand satisfied my vision of Babylon.

“Not everyone wants to be a saint and an anything-goes-land would be the perfect outlet to do drugs, sex, murder, total anarchy. No laws, no police and, if I ran a bordello, I’d earn more money than God. Babylon Island five minutes from New York. They’d be traffic jams south to the Delaware Bridge and north to New Haven.”

“How about liberating Governors’ Island to establish a sex paradise sit with your squatters?” Cities in the Sixties had experimented with Combat Zones only to discover their citizens’ demand for Sin outpaced their expectations.

“Hey, they dig free love.” We exited the terminal into the city’s icy claws and Jamie pulled up his collar. “The girls weren’t above hustling Hassidic men on Delancey Street. One even stripped at the BabyDoll Lounge. They thought it sounded like fun and we assembled at the Hudson River Boathouse to appropriate some kayaks. The squatters had the banners to declare the island’s liberation. Before I cut the chain locking the boathouse, something made me turn around and I saw these young kids’ faces. They would obey my every command and I flashed on Hitler at the Munich Beer Hall Putsch.”

We turned onto 46th Street and I bought a large tea from a street vendor’s cart. The cup was warm in my gloved hands. I had felt the same way with the National Resurgence Party. “People are willing to do anything anyone tells them, if they think it’s a good idea.”

“Or have nothing to live for and I know all about true meaninglessness, except these kids were too young to throw away their futures.” After Jamie ordered a large coffee, we proceeded across 5th Avenue with the ‘walk’ light. He ripped off a sliver of plastic and sipped the coffee. “Clash resented my backing out and tried to force Bakunin into a kayak, but I wasn’t letting him ruin her life and pushed him into the river. He couldn’t swim and I had to rescue him. He started crying and I told the rest of them to find another messiah and took Bakunin home.”

“So you betrayed the revolution?” The corner shops on 47th Street were already open and their jewelry glittered in the morning light.

“I told Bakunin that the revolution was a one-man show.”

“Something tells me that’s not the end of the story.”

“Her mother was so grateful that she hired me as chauffeur/go-fer.”

“You’re Tony Danza in WHO’S THE BOSS?” I joked, nearing Manny’s store.

“Much more classy.” Jamie frowned with the disapproval. “MY MAN GODFREY, the forgotten man becoming the servant to the rich.”

“Your patroness as beautiful as Carole Lombard?” I tried to recall if she had starred opposite William Powell.

“More a dissolute Veronica Lake.” Jamie threw his coffee cup into the trash.

Manny was in the window tapping at his Rolex. Another minute or two wouldn’t cost me my job. “So all’s well that ends well?”

“I guess so.” Jamie wasn’t free to tell me about his life as a man-of-all-trades on the Upper East Side.

“You see any of the other squatters?”

“No, autumn drove them to the suburbs or college.” Jamie studied the diamonds in the window, a thief pondering his old trade. “A few die-hards are lingering in Tompkins Square Park like bears who had forgotten the location of their hibernating caves. Clash, he’s hanging out with a fat girl. They seem happy, although he walks the other way, if he sees me.”

“What about Bakunin?” I signaled to Manny a few more minutes.

“She went off to college.” Jamie raised his collar. “We have the weekends.”

“And the mother?”

“It’s a job,” he said with little conviction and I asked, “What car you drive?

“A Bentley. Nice ride and it isn’t a SUV.” The sun flashed against a skyscraper in the Rockefeller Complex and he put on imported sunglasses. Manny regarded him as a potential buyer and pointed at a ring. “Your boss seems a little eager to make a sale.”

“So am I.” I could use the money and we shook hands. “You take care.”

“Hey, what other choice I have?” He released his grip and strode toward the Plaza Arcade.

I worried about him finding some meaning to his life, but I should have been more worried about myself, for a voice called his name. He turned to greet the old lady. They embraced and the old lady’s wig fell off. The thin girl was young and blonde. I recognized Bakunin from Jamie’s brief description. They turned to me and waved good-bye. I pulled up my coat collar and looked to the sky. The clouds to the west promised more snow, though not enough for snow tomorrow.

Manny rapped on the window. No one else had showed up yet. Not his son. Not my co-workers. I was almost early. Entering the exchange Manny shook his head. “When are you ever going to come on time?”

“Manny, I’m never going to change.” It wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear, but nothing in the world was changing soon, because nothing happens overnight except to those who weren’t expecting the change in the first place, then again one day I might be surprised and Jamie Parker and I were counting on that day. Hopefully others were too and until that moment living right is my only course of action, for even at one revolution per minute positive actions add up. You only have to do the math, even if it means taking off your shoes to count your toes.

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