Books and Authors Mentioned or Discussed in This Episode:
Ben Nadler: The Sea Beach Line
Primo Levi: Moments of Reprieve / Survival in Auschwitz / The Periodic Table
Dino’s back was sore from sleeping on the hard subway seat, and even though he’d just started his day, he felt exhausted. The couple times he’d gotten into a really deep sleep during the night, a cop came through the car and jabbed him with his club until he sat up. Then, before he knew it, rush hour was starting and he had to get off the train. It was still mainly union guys, retail workers, and nurses when Dino exited the Union Square station, but if he had waited another forty-five minutes the trains would be packed full of white collar commuters.
Dino wasn’t sure if he had vomited the night before—he had blacked out—but he felt the burn of bile on the inside of his throat and figured he probably had. Either way, his stomach was empty now, and he needed to get some food in it. Not to mention a drink or two to get rid of the usual morning hangover. The dollar-store shades he put on when he came above ground did nothing to block the sun’s early morning rays.
There was an ATM at the supermarket on University Place where Dino could get his cash benefits. His case worker had gotten him a temporary $170-a-month emergency cash assistance grant, but this was the last month. He had forty dollars left on the account, and he needed to make it last as long as he could. He would take out a twenty, because he needed beer money and subway fare, and save the other half.
Dino also had a little bit of food stamp credit left on the Electronic Benefit Transfer card, and his plan was to buy a loaf of bread, some sliced American cheese, and some bologna while he was at the grocery store, and make some sandwiches to last the next couple days. He’d pack the sandwiches right back into the bread bag. They’d be a little sweaty by the end of the second day, but there were enough preservatives in the food that it didn’t really matter. He only had about ten dollars left in food stamps, but that would work. The store-brand sliced meat packages were pretty cheap.
But then again, it was Tuesday, so there would be a hot lunch serving at the Jewish Center in the afternoon. And there was a deli on Sixth Ave. which was willing to ring up four tall cans of Steel Reserve malt liquor as ten dollars of food stamp-approved groceries.
Dino swiped his EBT card at the ATM. He felt like a regular citizen. No one knew he wasn’t using a regular debit card. No one knew he didn’t have money in the bank. He typed in his pin code. It was his birthday, 71670, because he had wanted to make sure it was something he could remember. Forty-four years old. He was pretty sure he still had the whole forty dollars, but he had a vague feeling that he’d gotten another ten dollars from a cashier for booze when he was already drunk. He hit “View Balance,” and waited for the number to pop up on the screen.
“Your Available Balance: $200.”
Dino couldn’t believe his eyes. It must have been some kind of mistake. Well, of course it was a mistake. The state had issued a second $170 payment for the month. There was only one thing to do: withdraw the full $200 before they could take it back. There might be repercussions later, but this wasn’t later. And what could they do, dock his nonexistent future payments? Send the revenuers to an address he didn’t have to collect two bills? Dino was astounded at his good fortune. He giggled like a schoolboy at a peep show when the machine coughed up his ten twenties.
He wanted to buy himself a whole case of beer, and drink them one by one. He wanted to buy a bottle of Johnny Walker Black. He wanted to buy a three-foot meatball sub. He wanted to buy a sirloin steak with a double-order of mashed potatoes on the side.
First, Dino knew he had to go find Rita. She wouldn’t forgive him if he went off celebrating without her. But he knew better than to come empty handed. He went to the deli and got two egg and cheese sandwiches and two large coffees with cream and sugar. Then he went around to the liquor store, which was just opening up for the day, and bought a pint of Mr. Boston Blackberry Brandy. He could think about that case of beer later; right now he just needed the little something to take the edge off.
Rita was right where Dino guessed she’d be, in the little nest of benches in the southwest corner of Washington Square Park. Sometimes they spent an hour or two circling their regular haunts, trying to find each other, but today everything was falling into place. Rita was drinking from a paper coffee cup, and scowling at the college kids. Dino knew that the cup was filled with Steel Reserve, and that she had a twenty-four-ounce can of the stuff in a paper bag under the bench.
“Morning, honey,” Dino said.
“What the hell do you want, Dino? I mean, is there something I can do for you?” He came and sat down next to her. The bench looked in on another three, making a private square within the public square, and this time of year there was a full canopy of trees to give them shade.
“Nothing, Rita. I don’t want nothing from you. I just wanted, you know, to see how you’re doing?”
“I’m fricking tired. That’s how I’m doing. I thought we were going to sleep on the subway together last night, look out for each other. But your drunk ass disappeared at Herald Square. I didn’t get to sleep at all. I had to sit up all night, to make sure I didn’t get rolled or raped.” She looked over at him for the first time. “What happened to your eye? You mouth off to some kids and get your ass beat again? Whatever, serves you right.” He put his hand to his eyelid. It was sore to the touch and puffy, but he didn’t know why. Rita refilled her cup of Steel Reserve.
“I’m sorry, Rita. I know I act stupid sometimes. But you know I wouldn’t want something to happen to you.”
“Yap yap yap.” She fluttered her thumb against her fingers like an opening and closing mouth. “I’m tired of your crap. Go eat a bag of dicks.”
“I brought you some breakfast, Rita.”
He took the sandwiches out of the bag and handed her the one with a “P” written on the foil in black permanent marker.
“Egg and cheese. I got sweet peppers on yours, ‘cause I know that’s how you like it.”
“Peppers is fifty cents extra.”
“It’s okay. I got this money today.” He couldn’t help but grin as he showed her the bills. “Let’s spend it.”
“Did you steal that?”
“Nah. It just sort of, you know, fell into my lap.”
“Okay, Dino.” She smiled. “So let’s spend it. But do me a favor? Don’t use it to get drunk too fast. It won’t be fun. I don’t want you to ruin things like you always do.”
“Okay?” She’d been expecting an argument.
“Yeah, okay, I won’t get drunk today.”
“You really going to stay sober?” She still didn’t sound convinced.
“Yeah. Just for today. Today’s going to be a good day.” Rita stood up and tossed the rest of her Steel Reserve in a trash can, and took one of the coffees from Dino.
“What do you want to do first?” he asked.
“Honestly, I want to go to the Laundromat. I showered at the Y yesterday, but then I had to put on the same dirty clothes.” She patted the athletic bag next to her on the bench. “All my clothes are dirty. My socks, panties, everything.”
“Okay,” Dino said, “The Laundromat it is.”
Dino had stashed his own backpack at the used DVD store on Third Avenue where his buddy Kevin worked. Kevin was annoyed that Dino had left his bag for three days, instead of the agreed-upon one day, but Dino gave Kevin ten bucks for the hassle, and they were friends again.
Dino and Rita changed into their most ragged clothes in the Laundromat’s bathroom, and washed everything else. Dino free-balled it, and put his sneakers back on with no socks, so he could wash all his socks and underwear. They stayed in the Laundromat for the whole two hours. They couldn’t risk leaving their entire wardrobes unattended. Besides, it was easier and safer to hang out in the Laundromat than on the street. Out there, there was always someone to hassle them: a cop, or an NYU security guard, or someone Dino owed something to, or another street person who wanted something from them, whatever small thing they had. In here, you just had to pay your quarters, and then they left you alone. The Laundromat had big speakers mounted up on the wall, and the woman who ran the place was playing the classic rock station, songs from when Dino was a kid.
From time to time he went into the bathroom to take a few sips of the Mr. Boston, so he wouldn’t shake, but he didn’t drink so much that he got messed up. He got a pack of gum from the newsstand outside to cover his breath.
Dino and Rita changed into clean, still warm clothes, then folded the rest of their laundry, wrapped it in plastic trash liners, and packed it in their bags. The afternoon was hot and sticky. It wasn’t much fun to be out in, and they didn’t want to get their clean clothes all sweaty. They decided to go up to the movie theatre off Union Square, and catch a matinee.
When the man in the jacket and tie approached them in the lobby, Dino was sure he was going to throw them out into the street. But no, he just wanted to take their tickets. He ripped the tickets Dino had paid for, and smiled at them.
“Enjoy the show, folks,” he said, like he would to any other customers. The movie was something silly, an adventure about a regular schmo with an office job and a mortgage who finds out he has super powers. Dino wondered what it was like to be a regular schmo. There were some good jokes, zippy one liners between the superhero and the supervillain. Dino and Rita both laughed.
After the film, they went into a teenybopper store on St. Mark’s Place. Dino remembered when the street had been full of punk rockers, but now it seemed to be mostly rich Japanese kids with poser punk haircuts. Dino bought Rita some chunky plastic bracelets, and a necklace with fake emeralds. Rita knew the cheap jewelry was silly, but it made her feel pretty. She was pretty, when she smiled. Maybe not pretty like she’d been when they’d first met, nine years ago, but still damn pretty. Dino didn’t know what had happened over that time, if they had dragged each other down, or kept each other from falling down further. He hadn’t seen her smile for a long while, but she sure was smiling today. She insisted on buying a pewter skull ring for him. They walked by the bars on First Avenue, and Dino thought about throwing in the towel and drinking a couple pitchers, but instead he got them two chocolate egg creams from Gem Spa. They sat and drank them in the old brick cemetery yard of St. Mark’s Church.
It was starting to get dark. There was no way they were going to sleep on the train when they still had some money. Between those hard plastic seats, the cops giving you a smack and a ticket for stretching out and putting your legs up, and the hood rats trying to empty your pockets, or worse, sleeping on the train was hell. Sleeping outside was just as bad, now that the police enforced the midnight curfew on all the city parks. But Dino’s cash wasn’t really enough to get them a room in Manhattan, these days. There was cheap hotel in Staten Island where they crashed sometimes, and Dino had heard about some rooms you could rent by the night in the South Bronx, but neither of them had the energy to take the ferry or wander through the ghetto. There was a twenty-four-hour internet café on the third floor of a building in Chinatown where you could rent an easy chair by the hour and take a nap. Why not spend the night there?
Dino bought a twenty dollar metro card—which was worth it because you got the dollar bonus—and swiped them both in. The train ride on the local only took a few minutes. They could’ve walked it, but why walk when you can ride? The whole time, Dino thought about how happy he was to not be sleeping on the train that night.
They went to a dim sum place on Mott Street for dinner, because Dino wanted to get a whole bunch of plates on the table, and make it feel like real feast. He was especially happy to order the money bags. When the food came, Rita wanted to ask for a fork, but Dino insisted on showing her how to use the chopsticks.
“Where’d you learn how to do this?” She asked.
“Navy.” He rolled up his sleeve and tapped the anchor tattoo on his bicep.
“Oh, yeah. I forget you were in the Navy.”
“Me too, sometimes.” His discharge had been other than honorable, and he didn’t receive any benefits. “I was real young.”
“Did you sail to China?”
“I imagine that would’ve started a war if we had.”
“Oh, right.” They were both pretty up on current events. They spent rainy afternoons in the public library, reading newspapers. “Japan, then, maybe?”
“Just Hawaii,” he admitted. “But they got plenty of Japanese and Chinese food down there.”
They ate more than their fill, but there was still some food left on the table. They hated to leave it, but there was no way for them to refrigerate it, and lugging little pieces of meat and fish around on a warm June evening wasn’t a great idea. They were both tired, and decided to head over to the internet café.
It was five dollars an hour to rent a chair. That didn’t sound like much, but the man at the counter wanted six hours in advance, since he knew they were going to spend the night. Double that for two chairs, and the bill was sixty dollars. After he paid the man, Dino had less than twenty bucks left.
He went in the men’s room. He took the last slug of Mr. Boston, and threw the empty pint bottle in the trash. He’d made it last all day. He’d need more tomorrow, but he didn’t need anything tonight. He took the last few bills from his pocket, and tucked them in his sock He pissed in the urinal, then washed his hands and face with soap from the dispenser. When he came back out, Rita was already laying back in her chair with her eyes closed.
Dino sat down in his own chair next to her. The plastic upholstery could be sticky on your skin, but man, it sure was softer than those bucket seats on the subway. Dino reached over to hold Rita’s hand. After a moment’s hesitation, she let him take it. Their hands rested together on the chair’s big arm.
“Rita?” He said.
“Yeah?” She answered sleepily.
“Don’t you know, honey, that you’re my best girl?”
Ben Nadler is the author of the novel The Sea Beach Line, published this past fall by Fig Tree Books. His previous works include Punk In NYC’s Lower East Side 1981-1991, which was the inaugural volume in Microcosm’s Scene History zine series, and Line & Hook, a collaborative chapbook with the visual artist Alyssa Berg. More about Ben and his work can be found at bennadler.com
Image: Flickr / Bob Mical