A NEW YORK HALLOWEEN
(Translated from the Spanish by the author, Vienna, Halloween night 2010)
back from the future
into that Halloween night of 1985
My feet were killing me. I should have changed my shoes, the thought actually crossed my mind but I left my heels on, a Thursday, sheer insanity, knowing how it usually goes on Thursdays, and today, especially today: pick up, class, parade. Maybe now I could begin to unwind and get myself in the right mood to face the night --I could feel those escape valves already opening up one by one. My limbs, more and more distended, were slowly infused with a pleasurable warmth. If it weren’t for these damned feet, which didn’t want to take one more step, stubbornly rebelling against the general trend of my body, as if they were someone else’s, as if they had suddenly bottled up in them all the exhaustion from these past few years. But that was not all. Something else was bothering me. I was getting really impatient to start winding down; after all, I had kept all my dates: meeting the kid, showing up at class and now, the parade. Thank goodness we had taken a taxi. Otherwise we wouldn’t have made it –rather, I wouldn’t have made it. I had to find him a table at the coffee shop, tell him to stay put, remind him over and over again of the agreed time and place. That crazy parade, I thought then despite my fondness of such happenings, was nonetheless another chore, the last one of the day. For sure I wouldn’t be able to relax until much later. After looking for him amidst the university crowd rushing in and out of class, we had to cross the park in obstacle-race mode, going around in circles, evading impenetrable hubs, compensating –with faster or bolder moves– the advantage that the scattered groupings had on us, as they gradually closed in on the outer paths of the labyrinth, if we were to reach the mainstream of the parading folk. Somehow I managed to slip between a bunch of gesticulating arms and police barriers and secure for us a first-row vantage point on a side street. Pinned to the floor –I, ever on guard against anyone trying to invade our hard won foot-and-a-half of sidewalk or block our no better than partial view as I wobbled at the edge of the curb, hopelessly off balance– we watched the carnival-clad mob as it flocked down the street happily concealing the day’s anxieties under for once unmistakable identities –devil, astronaut, drag queen– and weaving a torn, opulent canvas which was pushed and shoved from all ends, fraying off at the edges, regenerating itself in the center, forming and reabsorbing gaps, incessantly changing the arbitrary pattern of its warp. After being there long enough to safely say we had come out unscathed from the parade –a gelid wind was blowing, heralding greater inclemencies– we gave each other the enough-is-enough look. Now we’d go sit somewhere, drink something hot, possibly have a bite. But I felt I just could not go on. And there was this other thing, besides the business with my feet. As to the latter, though, I suddenly had a bright idea. Quick, what time is it? With some luck we’ll make it, I think they close at nine. Hurry up, it’s right around the corner. For years I had wanted to buy myself a pair of black sneakers like his. This was the perfect pretext, I said to myself, savoring an imminent double gratification, only slightly offset by the possibility of looking more than a bit awkward in those black Reeboks and my pseudo-Upper-East-Side executive suit. This fear was short-lived, however, and gave way to a voluptuous feeling of abandon in which I clearly recognized my deep desire to join in the masquerade. A while back, as we were crossing the park, already a street vendor had provided us with a pair of iridescent necklaces which sent green and violet sparks into the black sky, and the trendy sneakers would certainly help in tuning my mood to the style of the neighborhood and the night’s peculiar pitch. Ignoring for a brief interlude my impertinent feet, with a supreme effort I was actually able to run –such was the energy instilled in me by the delusion of finding the shoe store open– and even to forget momentarily the other urgent matter. The uselessness of that endeavor turned the need of finding a toilet into a potential cataclysm and so we had to take yet another detour. Luckily, the university buildings were a stone’s throw away and only after the inevitable stop in one of them was I finally disposed, this time for real, to begin to enjoy the second act of the night. The last echoes of the parade were increasingly muffled by the honking horns and screeching brakes of the taxicabs that once again invaded the main Village thoroughfares, albeit risking collision with some lagging leg of the parade or with the retreat en masse of the police force, especially convoked to patrol the park, which on regular nights, as everyone knows, is a den for drug dealers, drunkards and thugs.
I was thirteen and a half. I was supposed to meet my mother at her office; at the last minute my aunt had called to say that she couldn’t take me to dinner. I was running late because as usual I walked down leisurely on Third Avenue all the way from 53rd stopping to look at the store windows, watching the people and, above all, thinking. Thinking. What would she have in mind? She was unpredictable, always had me guessing, taking me unexpectedly from one place to another. When I arrived she was visibly impatient. In the taxi she wouldn’t stop complaining –her dilemma was what to do with me while she went to class. If she took me with her I would get bored, plus it would get too late for me to have dinner. Especially since after that we were going to the Halloween parade, which I wanted to see big time. But she also didn’t like the idea of leaving me alone for two hours. She knew I could sneak over to St. Mark’s, where I would run into the usual local punks or friends of friends. Actually, she was right, but first I did what she told me. Always mindful of practical details, she bought me a newspaper so I would have some reading material (the Village Voice) and gave me money to get a table and eat something at Pane e ciocolatte, a kind of student cafe, while she went to her class. I ordered a hamburger deluxe, looked at the record releases and concert ads and left shortly thereafter. On St. Mark’s there was nothing doing, so I stopped to see my friend Micky, who worked at Traffico, a New Wave boutique. I looked pretty cool in my distressed jeans, my Dr. Marten’s boots, the ones with heavy metal tip, my long coat and a kerchief on my head tied skinhead-style. She and I talked briefly and I headed again for the park, asking for the time every now and then. Once with my mother, we took a million turns, I running after her or at times ahead of her, when I could, looking for a half-way decent place to watch the parade. On Waverly and Fifth, forget it. We cut through the park diagonally towards Macdougal and there we were not too happy at first but eventually got closer and closer to the street thanks to my mother’s subtle but insistent thrust forward until she had a foothold in the first row of onlookers. Since I was a lot taller, I could see everything from behind her. Striding along to the beat of several bands, there were people disguised as ghosts, beer bottles, knights in armor, clowns, and a whole bunch of even more original costumes, like this guy dressed all in white, with a top hat also in white and two huge red circles painted around his eyes. This one was my favorite. After a while, though, we felt like leaving. It was cold. My mother was tired, she wanted to sit down somewhere, but this meant having to walk some more because, for her, somewhere was not just any place. I could understand it. That’s why she first had wanted to stop urgently at a ladies’ room and buy herself more comfortable shoes. We started walking west on 8th Street thinking of going to the Caffè degli artisti on Greenwich Avenue. Just then I saw, sitting on some nearby steps, my friend David from my school in Queens, who practically lived on 8th Street, and I showed him to my mother, who never believed me when I said that he almost never stayed in Queens and practically lived on 8th Street. Maybe now I’d finally convinced her. Around Christopher Street we saw the most stylish drag queens, who were also the gayest and boldest of all. They would dance or pace about flaunting themselves and we could see their makeup and their loud or glossy outfits at close range. All of a sudden it struck me that in New York everyone was fake, including me. But I don’t know why, quite abruptly, we decided to change direction and walk east, to Romna. Romna was an Indian restaurant (Bangladesh, to be exact) we had been going to for as long as I could remember, where they knew us and where we were always happy. Earlier on we used to go there with Richard. Actually, we had discovered it with Richard, when I was about eight. Romna was like being at home, except it was a lot better than being at home.
We had roamed around a bit aimlessly, but the thought of going to Romna was a consoling one, even if it meant crossing the entire Village again. Romna was a familiar place. Longing for a bit of silence to sink into our own inner world while sharing a certain sense of solidarity in our wandering through the New York night, which was perhaps the only thing that united us then, we plunged into seedy streets only cluttered at that late hour by rickety furniture and garbage bags piled up on the sidewalk or, curled up on one of those metal grids for ventilating the subways, some drunkard descended from the Bowery in search of quieter turf. Suddenly, out of the blue, we were approached by an Indian who was going in the opposite direction, towards the park. Politely, but with a curious intensity, he asked how to get to Washington Square and then went on his way. He wasn’t Indian, he was Puerto Rican. No, he was Indian: any Puerto Rican in this neighborhood knows where Washington Square is because they have been here longer, the Indians came later. Quite probably for that reason he could not have known that the parade was over and he was headed, to his imminent disappointment, for the ever-less-marginal center of Greenwich Village. He would have to wait another year to watch the Halloween parade and by then the whirlwind of the city will have swallowed him into its vortex and he will be swimming in his element along with the Koreans and Ethiopians (and other more seasoned species like us) aspiring to get a piece of the action among the big fish. Only that we, more blasé or secure, for the longest time now only went in the other direction, in search precisely of what he sought to abandon, as far away as possible from the stodgy preserves of the Establishment. Incredible! we saw Jimmy Connors go by. The famous tennis player, incognito! I recognized him instantly. My mother, of course, was skeptical, but she didn’t see him like I did, only sideways. On the way back, as we again dragged ourselves along the entire length of 8th Street from east to west to get to the F train on Sixth Avenue, there were still some people in disguise marauding about, like a couple of guys dressed as pancakes. The costume consisted in two huge round plates of shiny yellow cardboard, like cymbals, which covered their whole body from the neck to the ankles and the Aunt Jemima emblem painted on their belly. Some girls were staring at them in awe, saying they were pitas, those flat Greek breads; another lady asked me whether they were bagels –the kind of buns with a hole in the middle they have in Jewish delis. All typical New York stuff.
It was close to one when we boarded the F, direction home. The station was then more crowded than usual with those who still had a thirty-five minute trip to Jackson Heights or slightly longer to Forest Hills –Latinos from Queens returning from the parade, though not only. As the subway doors started to close, a group came in yelling and pushing each other, catching everyone’s attention. But we couldn’t actually get the full picture until the usual rigmarole of people getting on and off at each stop was over and the doors finally closed. They were hardly in disguise, except for one jet black-haired woman with blue eyes who gave the impression of being almost naked. She was wearing high boots and her legs were sheathed in black mesh stockings with big holes at the knees and near the groin. She moved incessantly and at each one of her attempts to get up her friends would push her right back down onto her seat. That is, until she managed to break free, landing head on in the arms of a gentleman nearby who was discreetly snoring. Constantly jolting –she was obviously drunk– she finally held on to a pole. “Foo-foo, foo-foo” she sang, winking provocatively her false eyelashes as her fellow travelers smiled warily and somewhat embarrassed. It was just at that moment, as she leaned on the pole, her sex snugly bound by a minuscule electric-blue bikini which left the buttocks nude under the mesh tights, that we realized she was a male. “Lázaro, cut it out, man!”, his friends would say with what seemed like a Caribbean –perhaps Cuban– accent. Lázaro was now doing leg splits, boasting, as he looked up amidst a dozen pairs of unbelieving eyes, his strikingly feminine features and the supple firmness of his body. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Lázaro did not stop for a second. “Lázaro, come here, man, sit down!”, cried out the others in fits of laughter they could no longer suppress. Propelled by the speed of the train, he traveled the width and length of the car swaying dangerously from side to side, taking a grip here and there onto some arm or shoulder, falling face down on a group of passengers, but never without excusing himself with a pout or blowing a kiss to one of his unexpected benefactors, who simply did not have enough time to react one way or another. He came over to me and asked me for a light, swinging himself above my head as he held on to one of the handles on the ceiling. This guy was a real number. I told him I didn’t smoke, trying to be nice because I kind of liked him, but the truth is you can’t smoke in the subway. My mother --he didn’t even look at her. Lázaro sang “Foo-foo” (could he have known the French “Frou-frou”, which I had heard for the first time in the sixties sung by Patachou? –impossible, he’s too young), he flew about in grands jetés and landed with a bow at the feet of an elderly lady who gave him a stern look. My mother was staring at him as in a trance, I think she found him cute. I was amazed by his boundless energy, because despite being totally drunk he never lost his balance –well, almost never. He never loses his gracefulness. Yeah, he’s really funny. That’s not what I mean, though he’s also funny. You always have to say the last word. The train finally stopped after its endless cruise below the East River and there walk in a nun and a man in black who looked every bit like a priest. Lázaro did not wish to snub the newcomers to the party –because this was his own personal feast– and two or three pirouettes later he was again dangling from the handle, this time in front of the sister, cigarette in hand, asking for a light. “Lázaro!”, they roared. “Oh, my God!”. Lázaro’s groin projected itself forcefully back and forth more or less at the level of the nun’s chin, but she didn’t move a muscle and kept a dignified attitude at all times. She did get out at the next stop, though, together with her priest. But I saw how they went right back into another car. Look, Ma, they didn’t really get off, see? I thought that this night’s adventure was the kind of vibrant and heady experience my son relished, something he would hardly forget. Lázaro had now switched to flamenco and sang cante hondo: “Oh that ai…, oh that ai…” and –in a whisper– “damn”. At the nun’s station a handsome policeman in full uniform had also boarded the subway car and had remained standing by the door. “That damned ai…”, we soon gathered, was AIDS. “I hate ai…,” he moaned as he approached the policeman wiggling his hips and smiling flirtingly. “Lázaro! Come back here, man”, urged him his by now terrified friends, who watched the scene out of the corner of their eyes. “Leave me alone, man, it’s Halloween…, why ai… I’m Cuban, man… just talkin’… what a curse, ai....” Two blondes, whom the newly found complicity among voyeurs had prompted to break the rule of not talking to strangers, asked themselves in what language Lázaro was ranting and raving. One tentatively suggested it might be Spanish, but the other one countered with authority that she knew Spanish and it could only be some kind of dialect. In a sudden turn, Lázaro tried to grasp the policeman’s arm and was firmly rejected… with a gesture. There was a general sigh of relief . Did you notice, Mom? A man who stood up to go to the door broke off the tension when he blurted out in passing that Lázaro had a better figure than his wife. Everyone laughed. And it was true: he had a ballerina’s legs, shapely and smooth. I looked at the bulge between his thighs and thought, what a cheeky guy, because with the skimpy slip, the mesh tights and, caught in between, one of the white cone-like pieces of padding from his bra, which had ended up there, he was beyond sexy, he was… He was obscene. But there was something lovable and beautiful and full of charm about him. With Lázaro’s last turn, the strands of hair from his jet black wig lined his face with zebra stripes just before the train stopped at the Jackson Heights station and several of his friends, now ready to get off, started to pull him away from the pole and push him out toward the exit. Lázaro did not want to get off that night. “Go to your mother’s”, shouted one who stayed on the train, it was not clear whether seriously or kidding. What seemed all too certain was that although at times his face had taken on a ravaged air –and then it fleetingly betrayed an unspeakable sadness– Lázaro had experienced in the course of that journey the exhilarating and still fresh joy of exposing his androgynous self unabashedly before a captive audience.
In all probability the next day Lázaro would get up with a headache, take a shower and walk out again toward the subway, in a suit and tie, for his daily ride to the Lexington Avenue bank where, since 1980, he worked as a teller.
© María Elena Blanco