ONE EVENING
IN THE
UNDERWATER
CITY

Once I was walking in Inwood Park in northern Manhattan as night fell. As I reached the limit of the park, at Spuyten Duyvil, and began the curve back, I saw an unusual sight. On the bluffs of the North American continent, above the Henry Hudson Bridge, rows of apartment buildings stood filled with tiny lights, and in the still water beneath them other rows of buildings, also lighted, but inverted, could be seen. Heading home, I wondered who lived in this underwater city.

It is night in Riverdale-In-The-River. The streets are empty. The stores are closed. Inside a small window, a mna in a chair clings to the ceiling, reading The Wall Street Journal. His wife adheres to a sofa and watches “Dallas.” In the next room, their teen-age daughter is suspended from a bed, talking to her upside-down boyfriend. She must speak softly; her parents dislike him because he’s flunking upside-down trigonometry.

At the feet of his mother, the nine-year-old son pretends to study spelling but actually watches television.

The apartment is filled with the latest requirements of the upside-down modern life. A microwave oven rests, hollow, in the kitchen. A Commodore 64 computer sits shrouded on the desk. A massage showerhead protrudes from the bathroom floor.

“I can’t believe this General Dynamics,” comes the voice of the husband from behind the paper.

“Do you come here often?” J.R. asks blonde on the screen.

different
difficult
distance

reads the boy from his list.

“Will you hang at the park tomorrow?” Tanya asks from her bed. On her wall is the face of Boy George. Fish swim through his eyes.

The husband abruptly sets down The Journal and walks to the kitchen. He is surrounded by water, yet he desires a drink. He unscrews the cap of the scotch and the liquor falls up into his glass.

On the screen, the blonde is drawn to J.R. against her will.

“Would you like one, honey?” the husband calls from the sink. The wife is silent.

donkey
doormat
doubtful

reads the boy from his list.

“Three o’clock,” says Tanya on the bed.

“Would you like one?” the husband repeats, louder.

“No, thank you,” says Shirley.

The blonde enters J.R.’s black car.

The husband sits and watches the screen.

“This show is trash,” he announces after a moment. He drinks and stares at the gold curtains. Then he walks down the hallway ceiling.

“I better go,” Tanya says, hearing his footsteps. She hangs up the phone.

“Who was that?” her father asks, in the doorway.

“That was Cathy,” Tanya says. Her father looks at her closely.

“How is she?” he asks.

“She’s fine. Worried about her Spanish test,” Tanya replies.

The father nods and continues down the hall. He sits at the desk in his room and stares at the mirror. Sometimes his life seems to him like an illusion, as if it were just a reflection of some higher world.

“But you promised!” the blonde says to J.R. in the living room.

dugout
durable
dustpan

reads the boy from his list.

 

ONE DAY
IN MIAMI

I woke up on the wall-to-wall carpet in Hillary’s living room before dawn. I did my meditation and had the pleasant sensation of helping the sun rise.

Hillary soon appeared in a bathrobe and we talked. She’s tall, twenty-four and Irish-looking. She told me about Max, the cat she’d had for seventeen years, who’d disappeared three weeks before after their First Fight. (He’d peed on the rug and she’d thrown him in the hall.) She hadn’t seen him since. She joked about it but I could tell she was sad.

Steve came in from Hillary’s room looking exhausted. He had to teach calligraphy at Dade Community College in a few minutes. We drove off, stopped at a bagel bakery, and he dropped me in downtown Miami.

Miami is the single most disorienting place I’ve ever been. Not only is it a city without a center, it’s a city without edges, without direction — a city with a shopping mall for a heart. The downtown — five square blocks of newsstands, luncheonettes and department stores — was reassuring, though I had the disturbing sense that it had been created as a theme park for displaced urbanites.

I walked into McGrory’s and looked at the souvenirs: a plastic dolphin that doubled as a harmonica, maps of Florida with pictures of sunbathing alligators, and unaccountably, one of those little dioramas that whirls snow when you shake it, populated by tropical fish. My favorite was a small container of water in which two eyes, a cane and a top hat floated. It was titled “Florida Snowman” and appeared to have been designed by Salvador Dali.

I looked through an abridged dictionary that said under “Quixote,” “See ‘Don Quixote,’” and had no such listing.

At a National Discount Store I looked through a stereoscopic viewer at a baseball player swinging a bat toward me. A security guard followed me from aisle to aisle.

About one-fourth of the people I saw on the street were homeless.

A film crew dominated one thoroughfare: men rushed between trucks, cables and cameras. In the center was a fake newsstand covered with fake graffiti. I went up to a woman in a gray skirt who seemed to be in charge.

“Is this ‘Miami Vice?’” I asked.

“No,” she said and turned away.

In a toy store in a brand new pastel mall, a Honduran woman in a dress from an old photograph demonstrated — with a certain repressed excitement — a mechanical dog that barked when you clapped your hands.

A clerk in a magazine store made what struck me as the Archetypal Miami statement, on the phone. “I don’t speak Spanish,” she said in a Spanish accent.

On a beach outside Dade Community College, Steve was sitting with a group of Haitians. One of them, Roger Louis, had wandered into his calligraphy class and wouldn’t leave. He spoke only French. The others translated for us. All the Haitians were male, dark black and very polite.

Roger Louis, they said, had come from Haiti four years ago and had no home. He had been robbed and beaten the night before on the streets of Miami.

“Should we take him to the police?” Steve asked.

“The police will just send him back to Haiti,” one of the Haitians said.

“Will he starve to death in Haiti?” Steve asked.

“He must have family there.”

One of the Haitians asked Roger Louis if he wanted to go to the police. He nodded yes.

“The police might put him in jail. Or in a mental hospital,” I said. “Isn’t there somewhere else we could take him?”

Roger Louis stared straight ahead with a defeated look as we decided his fate.

Another of the Haitians asked him if he wanted to go to the police. Roger Louis said no.

We stood there deadlocked, until another Haitian walked by, a short, muscular man carrying books on politics. He said he knew Roger Louis, that he had mental problems, and gave us the number of the Reverend Jean Juste, who ran a halfway house for lost Haitians. Steve called him, and we arranged to take Roger Louis there. The Haitians were tremendously grateful, and one of them paid me a great compliment. “Are you American?” he asked.

The three of us drove through a labyrinthine black neighborhood, past a mysterious fire burning on a front lawn, until we found the house, a run-down apartment complex with a big color TV in the waiting room. We deposited Roger Louis, who remained expressionless.

Then we drove to Viscaya House, the former grounds of a self-made millionaire. It was the first time I’d been to one of these places since I was a child and for the first time I saw how false it all was: gold trim everywhere, unused harpsichords and mock Florentine murals as sensitive as paintings of Elvis on velvet. The place was a kind of massive version of one of those souvenirs at McGrory’s.

Then Steve dropped me off at a monster shopping center and drove away to give massages. The place was dominated by a Virginia Slims exhibit, including an area where one could be photographed appearing to wear Victorian clothing, a fellow in a straw hat leading sing-alongs on piano, a short film that purported to narrate the history of women and was actually an advertisement for Virginia Slims, and women in bustles giving out free cigarettes. It was unsettling to note that there were a number of middle-aged couples for whom this was their entire Saturday night entertainment. It reminded me vaguely of Russia.

I bought four ounces of Tofutti for $1.68 — more expensive than New York! It may have been my imagination but it seemed that the teen-ager behind the counter took a certain glee in telling me the price.

Then Steve brought me to Carla and Enrique’s, friends of his with whom he’d arranged for me to stay. I watched the end of “The Music Man” on TV and was impressed with Marian The Librarian’s selfless devotion to Professor Hill. “One can’t expect a travelling salesman to stay put,” she said. “But that’s no reason for me not to be grateful for what you have left behind for me.”

There were bells on the hill
But I never heard them ringing
No I never heard them at all
Till there was you. . . .
she sang.

I did my meditation and went to sleep on the sofa.

 

AT A DENVER
VD CLINIC

The first thing you notice is the air of distraction and tension. A dozen men sit in comfortless plastic chairs staring at the floor. No one speaks. No one moves. Sunlight pours through yellow blinds into a room without time. It is clear that one is among the damned.

I sit across from a young Chicano in jeans and dirty white Nikes. He has a moustache, a tattoo and a shirt that says “22.” He stares off.

To my right is a man in gray pants, silver glasses and a military moustache. He looks like a bank vice president. The nurse calls “sixty-five” and he stands up heavily. He comes back in a moment with his hands in his pockets. He sits again.

Behind me a young man with enormous blonde sideburns chews on his finger.

The nurses are all female and unvaryingly cheerful. One hears their bouncing voices as they conduct their little interviews: “Hi, there!” “When’s your birthday?” Is this someone’s idea of retribution, that we must ask these smiling women if we have VD?

A middle-aged man in a blue suit, blue shirt and blue tie sits next to the young Chicano. Maybe he’s from the Transit Authority, I think. There’s a gold pin on his jacket. He crosses his arms and legs.

To my right a big man who looks like Robert Redford reads The Denver Post. He and the man next to him conduct a mumbled conversation.

“Nothing but deer milk in the zoo,” his friend seems to be saying.

“They’re trying to do that in Alaska, too — send all the grizzlies down here,” he seems to be saying.

“Sixty-six,” says the nurse, and the young man in the “22” shirt leaves. His place is taken by a woman — nearly fifty, blonde, dressed in black, with large plastic glasses.

In the hallway the orderlies laugh and joke together.

Sixty-five, the bank Vice President, sits frozen, bent over, hands clasped together.

I notice there’s a large empty magazine rack against one wall.

A toilet flushes.

The Grizzly man lays down The Post and crosses his arms.

The transit man touches his nose.

The woman’s number is called. “How are you?” the nurse asks her. “Just fine,” she says loudly.

My number is called. A small blonde woman directs me into her office and sits with her back to me. She asks my name, address, phone number, age, social security number. “May we use this information?” she asks.

“Yes,” I say.

When I return there is another woman in a chair, holding a baby in a pink dress. There is something horrible about a baby being in that room.

The orderlies are still laughing in the hallway.

The mother gives the baby a rattle and it falls. The Grizzly man picks it up and hands it back to her.

“Thank you.“

My number is called again and a cheerful nurse takes my blood. I am sent to another hall to wait. This has just one row of chairs and a white floor. I look across into an examinining room at a poster of the Rocky Mountains. The sky in the poster looks brand new.

A woman in a short skirt sits next to me and files her nails. It’s interesting how much less attractive a woman looks if one thinks she has syphilis.

A young black man emerges from the examining room. “I’m saved!” he shouts. “I’d rather have anything than AIDS!”

We all laugh.

“Good luck, fellas,” he says, leaving. I know you all wish you have what I got!”

A young man in a farmer’s cap leans forward. “I’d rather have negatives all the way across,” he says. Then he looks down, and utters the closest thing to a prayer one hears in a VD clinic: “Please tell me I’m OK.”

[The author proved free of venereal disease.]