Down on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, there’s a little bar called Cooney’s. It’s an old bar, with a tin ceiling and carved-up tables and a floor you don’t want to look at too hard and no air-conditioning to break up the historic atmosphere of stale beer and dusty upholstery and unwashed hair. No windows and an incredibly unreadable sign make it hard to find if you don’t already know it’s there. Ask the bartender and he’ll tell you it was a speakeasy back in the days when you could go to jail for buying or selling a drink. There are rumors about hidden storerooms and secret doors for quick getaways in case of a raid but nobody knows where they are anymore. It’s 1968, you know? Letting it all hang out is what it’s all about, man.
Whatever Cooney’s was, it’s a folk club now, a cut-rate Village Gate, with a sound system almost as old as the slipper-shaped glass light fixtures on the walls. There are a couple of house acts, and an open mic three nights a week. Artists and NYU students go for the music and the 50 cent beers and the 75 cent shots of the whisky that roughens the throat of anyone dumb enough to drink it before stepping up on the corner stage that’s been there (the bartender says) since before the Civil War.
It’s May, right before finals. I’m sitting with Grace and Michael at our favorite table in the extreme back corner, listening to them argue about music.
Michael’s a folk singer. Not aspiring: a folk singer, period. As he always says, “A singer is any guy who sings like Bob Dylan,” after which Grace says that Bob Dylan sounds like an old man with throat cancer, which makes Michael mad, because Dylan is his god. Right at the moment, they’re arguing about folk music and jazz.
“You’re an activist,” Michael is saying. “Why don’t you appreciate protest songs?”
“I appreciate good protest songs,” Grace says. “Even you can’t call that good!” She jerks her chin at the stage, where a guy with a big peace symbol around his neck and a bigger one painted on the back of his jacket is singing a song about the horrors of war.
Michael bristles. “What’s wrong with it?”
“First of all, it’s phony as shit. I bet he doesn’t even know which end of a gun the bullet comes out.”
“So your point is that only soldiers get to sing about war?”
“My point is that putting in a bunch of gross things about napalm and bones sticking out isn’t songwriting. There’s no art to it. And the tune is crap.”
And so it goes. Four years ago, when we all met in Freshman English, I thought Grace and Michael hated each other, until I figured out they just like arguing. It’s like ants wriggling their feelers—a social ritual to show they belong to the same tribe. As far as I know, I don’t have a tribe, or at least not one I’m down with, but I dig being on the edge of other people’s tribes. It helps me feel less like Nowhere Girl.
The phony war song limps to its close. A few people clap, not very enthusiastically. Even when she hates something, Grace always claps. She’s kind-hearted like that. It’s one of the reasons I love her.
It’s a hopeless love, I know. Grace is self-assured, cool, and incredibly smart. She’s Black and I’m not, which doesn’t matter so much to us being friends, but would make dating hard, even if I were a guy and political and all the other things I’d have to be for her to love me. She’s beautiful, with her warm dark skin, her long fingers, her exuberant Afro, her eyes that glisten when she starts talking about something she’s passionate about. She’s passionate about a lot of things: civil rights, women’s rights, the Fair Housing Act, The Jackson Five, Billie Holiday, really good beer, and American Lit, especially the Harlem Renaissance. Not guys, as far as I know, although that could be because classes and protests take up all her time. We’ve been friends since Freshman year, and I still don’t know whether she doesn’t have a love life because she’s too busy or because she’s not interested in guys.
I might ask if I weren’t afraid she’d guess why I’m asking and hate me—or worse, feel sorry for me.
A weedy blond guy steps up onto the stage, repositions the mic, hits a buzzy D-chord on a banged-up nylon string guitar, and launches into “We Shall Overcome” in a hootenanny-hopeful bray.
“Earth to Ali,” I hear Grace saying.
She shakes her head, grinning. “It’s cool, man. I was just telling Michael that his man Dylan didn’t invent poetic protest songs.”
Michael sighs. “Come on, Grace, everybody knows—”
“Shut up, Michael, I’m not talking to you. You’ve read my thesis, Ali. What do you think?”
I think I don’t like this conversation. Yes, I’ve read Grace’s thesis. It’s on Afro-American Folklore and Song in the Harlem Renaissance, with a focus on Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and a handful of songwriters, including Billie Holliday and Duke Ellington. It’s really cool—edgy, original, real. It made me go read Mules and Men and listen to a lot of jazz, which I ended up liking a lot more than I thought I would, given my taste for what Michael calls “that irrelevant old folky shit.” I don’t know what’s irrelevant about love and violence and poverty, but I do know that arguing with Michael is an exercise in frustration.
“Billie Holliday wrote ‘God Bless the Child’,” I say.
“Chicken,” Michael says, accurately, and turns back to Grace. “That’s one example. One! Dylan’s written dozens.”
“Well, if good equals quantity, then how about Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and Eubie Blake?”
“So now ‘hi-di-hi’ is protest?”
“Sure it is,” I hear myself saying. “Just because it’s hidden doesn’t mean it’s not there. And one thing Dylan and those jazz guys have in common—”
“Besides writing songs everybody loves,” Grace interjects.
“—is that their songs have roots in traditional folk music. And,” I glare at Michael, in case he’s going to interrupt, “traditional folk music is all about resisting injustice and the man.”
I hear my voice rising and stop short, embarrassed. Michael snorts and Grace says “Right on!” smiling at me in a way that makes my ears tingle and my heart do a paradiddle.
The peacenik hits one last slightly off-key chord and mooches off the stage. Next up are two girls, looking shy and excited and really young. The small, catlike, preppy one has a big, shiny, acoustic guitar. The willowy Joan Baez wannabe in the brand-new granny dress is looking at the mic as if it might bite her. As they start to sing “The Water is Wide,” the catlike one’s harmony overwhelms the willowy one’s melody until she pulls herself together and sings out in a sweet, slightly breathless soprano.
The water is wide, and I cannot get o’er
And neither do I have wings to fly.
Build me a boat that will carry two,
And both shall row, my love and I.
By the last verse, they’re really into it, their voices blending strong and sure, the catlike one finger-picking like mad, the willowy one swaying as she sings. They sound really good together. My eyes prickle and I look away.
When the song is over, Grace claps enthusiastically.
Michael says, “You think they’re lezzies?”
I stop clapping and take a gulp of my beer to hide my face, in case it’s showing anything. Grace says, “Shut up, Michael.”
“The guitar-player’s kind of dykey-looking, you know? And they’re holding hands.”
“They’re, like, fifteen, Michael,” says Grace. “And you’re a dickhead.”
I wish I’d said it. But I can’t, because Mommy’s daughter has a hard time using words like that. More to the point, I’m probably a lezzie myself and I don’t want Michael telling me (as he definitely would) that I just need to get laid by the right guy, because the right guy doesn’t exist. My parents don’t believe in lesbians outside of Ancient Greek poetry, and I don’t know any personally, but I’ve looked up Sexual Perversion in the Encyclopedia Britannica and read The Fox and seen The Killing of Sister George, and what I’ve learned is that they—we—are either sick or tragic or eager to get straightened out. What we’re not is happy. I mean, Radclyffe Hall, who was a lesbian, called her book Well of Loneliness. And those girls? Well, girls hold hands sometimes. Maybe it’s just a phase.
A bearded guy in a bandana steps up to the mic and launches into “Universal Soldier.” Michael gets up. “I’m bored out of my gourd. What say we blow this joint, catch whoever’s on late at the Café à Go-Go?”
Grace stands, the long fringes of her buckskin jacket brushing my shoulder. “Sure. You coming with, Ali?”
I love you, I think. Kiss me, and I’ll follow you anywhere. “Not tonight,” I say. “I have a heavy date with George Eliot and my thesis.”
“Bummer, man,” Grace says. “Good luck!” She salutes me with a peaceful “V” and follows Michael out of the club.
I cover my face and watch the blood-red play of the candle on the spaces between my fingers. Chicken, I think. Uptight, chickenshit wimp. I should just get it together, get over Grace, kiss Grace, tell Michael I think his songs are even dumber than his opinions, burn my bra, go to a demonstration—do something, anything.
What I do, sadly, is cry. I fight it, but the tears keep coming. Probably nobody notices, but just in case, I mutter “Gotta pee,” to the world in general, and wiggle between chairs and tables and guys with hair as long as they can grow it, my own hair hanging over my face.
Besides the ordinary bathrooms, Cooney’s has an extra one out in the back alley—a real historical facility, like an updated outhouse, with one of those johns you flush by pulling a chain. Mostly, it gets used in summer, when they put out a few tables and ferns in the alley and call it a beer garden. It smells kind of funky, but at least nobody’s likely to come bother me. There aren’t a lot of places in New York you can be completely alone in, and right now, that’s all I want.
As long as I’m here, I pee, because beer is beer, even when you’re having existential angst. Then I cry a little, but not for very long. I should go home, work on my thesis, just accept that there’s no world where I can have what I want. No matter how much I hate Mommy’s rules for how a young lady should act, I’m always following them.
There’s graffiti all around me: GANDALF FOR PRESIDENT! FLOWER POWER (surrounded by flowers). ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE (surrounded by hearts). WHAT IT IS! QUESTION AUTHORITY!
I root around in my shoulder bag and find a ballpoint, pick a relatively clean spot and write two lines from the ballad the two high school maybe-lesbians were singing.
Build me a boat that will carry two,
And both shall row, my love and I.
While I’m writing, I feel like it’s the most revolutionary, most significant couplet in the world, blazing across the grotty wall as if my Bic were a wand of fire. When I’m done, I feel kind of sick, maybe from the smell, so I wash my face, open the door, and step out into the dark and rain. Just my luck, I think, and make a dash for where I think the door is, crashing into a bunch of trash cans I don’t remember seeing and wondering how long I’d been in the bathroom and feeling panicky about not having paid for the beer in case Cooney’s is closed for the night, which they must be because the back door, when I finally find it, is locked. Shit. I feel my way down the wall to the street, start to turn right, and retreat again, my heart pounding. Because everything about the street is wrong—the light, the signs, the shops, the parked cars, the clothes on the passers-by. It’s messed up. I’m messed up. Or hallucinating, which would be weird, because I never smoke since I found out weed makes me talk too much. Maybe I fell asleep in the john and hit my head?
I take another look. Boxy cars with big front grilles, iron lamp posts with round white, moon-like globes, girls in cloche hats and guys in fedoras like Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain, only with less rain and no music. Only the smell is familiar—wet pavement, car exhaust, garbage, Italian food. I go to get a smoke out of my shoulder bag and discover that I’ve left it in the outhouse.
That’s when I really freak out.
Sometimes I go all rabbit-in-the-headlights when I lose it, and sometimes, like now, I run around like a headless chicken. When I finally make it to the outhouse, I jerk open the door. Except for one dim light, the pull-chain john, and a massive stink that wasn’t there before, it’s empty. My bag is gone, along with my wallet, my keys, my notebook, my copy of A Fish Dinner in Memison, and, worst of all right now, my cigarettes.
Shaking, I retreat to the trash cans and start to go through my pockets. One Bic lighter, Kleenex, a mangled pack holding—oh, boy!—a slightly bent Virginia Slim. I light up and take a fierce drag. It’s time to think.
I read fantasy. I know weird shit happens. It doesn’t happen to me, though, and that kind of stuff is just in books, anyway. However, I often have vivid, unpleasant dreams, usually involving men chasing me up steps that get narrower and narrower or into dark alleys full of stuff I keep bumping into. This, I reason as the cigarette gets shorter and I get damper and colder, is just a jazzy variation on a familiar dream-theme. Soon this night’s bad guy will show up, and then it’ll be horrible for a while and then I’ll wake up. The alley and the weird old-school vibe feel real, but then my dreams always do.
Right on schedule, a big, black van pulls into the alley. The motor cuts off, the headlights switch off. I hear doors open and see two bulky silhouettes appear against the street light.
Here we go.
I turn and run, full tilt into the brick wall at the end of the alley. It hurts. This surprises me, but not enough to keep me from scuttling to the back door and banging on it. A narrow panel opens and I’m looking into narrow, suspicious eyes. “Vinnie?” a hoarse voice asks.
“You gotta let me in,” I gasp, and then, because apparently I listen to my mother, even in dreams, add, “Sorry to bother you.”
The panel slides shut; I hold my breath. The door opens and a man looks down at me—solid, muscular, his hair pomaded, his shirt and bartender’s apron snowy against his pale brown skin. His dark eyes take in my bandana, Indian cotton shirt, embroidered jacket, striped bell-bottoms.
“This some kind of gag?” he growls. “You with the circus or something?”
“Student,” I say. “NYU.” I glance over my shoulder; the van’s still there. I hear banging and shuffling. “Please, man, can I come in?”
He frowns thoughtfully. “You sober?”
“Good. Keep your yap shut, follow orders, and maybe there’ll be a nickel in it for you.”
The man gives me a half-smile. The shuffling gets closer and a sharp voice barks, “Who’s the kid?”
I turn and see a scrawny little man with a big cigar, jumpy, jazzed, one hand tucked threateningly in his jacket front. Behind him, two beefy guys in boxy suits and fedoras are lowering a wooden crate to the wet pavement. It looks heavy.
This isn’t happening, I tell myself firmly. This isn’t real.
“Just some clown needs a nickel,” the bartender says.
“You know I don’t like strangers, right?” There’s menace in the little guy’s voice. “Strangers make me nervous. And you don’t want me nervous, do you, Sal?”
The bartender rolls his eyes. “The kid’s okay, Vinnie. C’mon. You gonna talk or you gonna deliver the goods?”
I shiver as Vinnie chews the cigar, checks his watch, shrugs. “Relax, boys. The clown and Sal will take it from here.”
The next few minutes shimmer, disorienting and convincingly dreamlike: the long hall, stark in the glare of the clear, unshielded light bulbs, the thick tough-guy accents of Vinnie’s men, the way their jackets drag at the pocket or bulge under the arm are like every gangster movie I’ve watched with Grace when I ought to be working on my thesis. I feel like an extra, shuffling awkwardly down the hall, my shoulders and neck pulled taut by the weight of the gently-clinking crate, trying to match my steps to Sal’s. We dump it in a dingy room lined with shelves, then go out and pick up the next crate and the one after that, ten or maybe a hundred times, until finally, Sal is handing Vinnie a roll of bills, the goons are gone, the door is shut, somehow I’m still on the inside of it, flexing my cramped fingers and thinking I’ve never actually hurt this much in a dream before.
Sal studies me thoughtfully.
“You’re a Jane.” It’s a statement, not a question.
I slide a glance at him. “My name’s Ali.”
Sal smiles. “I know—none of my beeswax. Well, Ali, whaddya say to a sandwich and a beer?”
“I don’t have any money,” I say. “I can’t pay for it.”
Sal sighs. “Of course you can’t. C’mon.”
So I follow him. I think about asking whether I still get a nickel, but I don’t. I should be panicked about being broke, but this is a dream, right? How much does a nickel buy in a dream? An apple? A beer? A ticket home?
The hall is familiar—I even recognize the official bathrooms from 1968, the ladies’ stenciled with a flower, the men’s with a rooster. The bar is completely different, but that’s no surprise. The dominant theme is red and gold, with a polished mahogany bar and red plush drapes everywhere. The crowd’s all got up in tuxes and slinky silks, with bright red lipstick. The only things that haven’t changed are the pressed glass lights and the corner stage, where a slender Black dude is crooning “Someone To Watch Over Me” while dancers dip and glide in steps I haven’t seen since I quit dancing school.
“I gotta be off my nut, bringing you in here,” Sal mutters. “Keep your head down and your yap shut, and maybe nobody’ll notice you’re crashing.”
I hunch my shoulders, feeling like a sore thumb as he herds me through the tables, pushes me onto a stool next to the wall, and disappears behind the bar. Before long, a beer and a sandwich appear at my elbow.
“Eat up,” Sal says. “You can sleep in the storeroom if you want. Just for tonight, though. Cooney’s ain’t the Bowery Mission and Miss Stevie ain’t got time for no stray dogs.”
I try to thank him, but my throat’s suddenly tight with gratitude and shyness. But Sal is looking over my shoulder at whoever is smelling of vanilla and the woodsy, earthy reek of an expensive cigar. “I like stray dogs,” a smooth voice says. “This seat taken?”
It could be a come-on, it could be a dig: in either case, I don’t react. I pick up the sandwich and take a deliberate bite. It’s corned beef, salty and rich and fatty and possibly the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten.
The creep with the cigar slides onto the stool beside me as the band launches into “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
“Evening, Ronnie.” Sal’s tone is resigned.
Ronnie. An old-fashioned name. It goes with the black wool sleeve and starched white cuff, the long hand and heavy gold signet resting on the mahogany bar. I take another bite and chew.
“Evening, Sal,” the smooth voice says. “A Ward Eight, as per usual. What’s the puppy drinking?”
Sal is pulling out oranges, whisky, grenadine. “Nothing.”
“Looks like beer to me, and it looks like the puppy isn’t drinking it. Smart puppy. Mix it a Manhattan. I’m buying.”
“Ain’t Misbehavin’” recedes behind the rattle of the cocktail shaker. I look up at Sal, a rabbit in the headlights. He pours a pinky-orange stream into a martini glass. “I didn’t think a poor sap down on his luck was your type,” he says.
“Maybe tonight, it is,” Ronnie purrs, and then, dead serious: “Don’t be a wet blanket, Sal.”
There’s something in Ronnie’s voice that makes me feel slightly high. I think of Grace, sturdy, compact, intense, mercurial, overwhelming and remote as the Pan Am building, and lean away from the black wool sleeve, which has somehow inched closer.
“Hey, puppy,” Ronnie says. “What’s your name?”
I draw a deep, cigar-scented breath. The voice pushes and pulls at me. I want to answer, but I won’t. Not talking to creeps is a New York survival basic.
“Shy?” Ronnie pursues, “Or do you object to the company? Aren’t you one of the short-haired girls and the long-haired boys?”
A feathery touch strokes the length of my hair. I jerk my head away. “Get lost!”
“There!” Ronnie exclaims, delighted. “You can talk. Come on, puppy: look at me. I want to see your eyes. I want to know what color they are. Five’ll get you ten they’re brown, like pansies.”
I hesitate. Screw it, I think. This isn’t real anyway. What do I have to lose? And I turn around and look right at him.
Ronnie’s face is lean and high-boned. Light from the little candles on the bar glistens in his short, slicked-back hair, gleams in the heart of the gold-mounted ruby decorating one long forefinger. His eyes, squinting through the smoke of a thin brown cigar, are hazel.
“Pretty,” Ronnie says approvingly. “Grey or pale blue—it’s hard to tell in this light. Good bones, nice neck.” A pause, a slow, thin-lipped smile. “May I have this dance?”
I take a gulp of the drink that has suddenly appeared in front of me, and choke a little, because it’s strong, man. “I’m not a guy,” I say when I recover.
“I know.” Ronnie leans close. “What are you so scared of, puppy? Me, or yourself? Or don’t you like to dance?”
As it happens, I do like dancing. It’s just, I’m used to the kind of dancing that’s doesn’t go anywhere, you know, like pigeons displaying in the spring. I’ve even danced with Grace, though I’ve never touched her.
“Sal said I should keep my head down,” I mutter.
“Is that’s what eating you!” Ronnie waves an airy hand. “Sal doesn’t run this joint. Come on, puppy, and I’ll introduce you to the queen of Cooney’s.”
With a helpless glance at Sal, who is mixing cocktails at the other end of the bar, I let Ronnie pull me out of my corner. As we edge around the dance floor, I keep my eyes on my boots, ostrich-fashion, thinking This isn’t happening, this isn’t real while “I Want To Be Loved By You” swirls around me to the rhythmic shuffle of dancing feet, the rattle of cocktail shakers, the susurrus of tipsy conversation.
We come to a stop in front of a pair of gold-sequined T-strap shoes, size gunboat. “Miss Stevie,” Ronnie purrs. “I’d like to present a friend of mine.”
The T-straps shift. Clove-scented smoke tickles my nose. “Your friend got a name?”
Ronnie squeezes my hand. “Say hello to the lady, kid.”
I look up and catch my breath. Miss Stevie is breathtaking. Poised and glorious, she sits at the center of her own personal scene, armored from throat to ankle in a sweep of gold and scarlet sequins like a glittering snake. Everything about her is artificial, from her red hair to her red mouth to the long, red talons tipping her blunt fingers, but somehow she’s the realest thing in the room.
I bob an instinctive curtsey my mother would be proud of. “How do you do, Miss Stevie? I’m Ali Levine.”
Miss Stevie laughs. It’s an impressive laugh, deep and tectonic, rolling through the sequins like a wave. “Miss Ali. Or is it Mister?” Her smile is shrewd, considering. “Take a word of advice from a girl who’s been playing this gig for a year or two, bunny. If you want to be a fella, be a fella. People like to know what they’re looking at.” She draws at a cigarette in a slim holder, lets the sweet smoke plume from her scarlet pout. “You sure know how to pick ‘em, tiger.”
Ronnie bows. “I live to amuse, my queen.”
Miss Stevie waves her hand. “Geddouttatown.” The audience is over.
As the vocalist croons “It Had To Be You,” Ronnie pulls me onto the dance floor, slips one arm around me, takes my hand, and starts to fox-trot.
Suddenly, I’m fifteen again, my feet moving slow, slow, quick-quick in time to the dancing teacher’s clapping. “Not bad,” Ronnie says approvingly, and changes direction, like he’s trying to make me stumble, but this is not that kind of dream anymore. My feet pick up the rhythm and my body relaxes into the music, moving around the floor in obedience to the gentle pressure of Ronnie’s hand on my back. I’d liked dancing school, though I’d hated the boys—sweaty-handed, resentful, scowling at my flat chest while I gazed over their greasy heads, counting out the beat. Luckily there were never enough boys, so I got to dance with the unpartnered girls a lot, Fred Astaire to their Ginger Rogers. I remembered holding them lightly, respectfully, temporarily self-assured, and maybe a little turned on.
I glance at the smooth face so close to mine, flex my fingers on a heavily padded shoulder. “You’re a girl dressed as a guy,” I say, wondering how I hadn’t known right away.
The lean cheek bunches. “And you are a girl dressed like a vaudeville act.” Ronnie pulls me in tight, lips against my ear. “I like variety,” she murmurs. “I’ve got closets full of beaded dresses, silk camiknickers, furs, the whole girly works. Come home with me and I’ll dress you in silk and satin, pin up your hair, paint your face, wrap pearls around your neck. And then”—a sigh fills my ear, soft and tantalizing—“I’ll take it all off.”
Her breath is warm, her voice like damp velvet. I shiver, my eyes on the couples gliding past, bright-eyed and flushed, absorbed in the music and each other. Ronnie’s lips move to my mouth, and somehow we’re still dancing as we kiss, slow, slow, quick-quick. It’s intense, trippy, like being higher than I’ve ever been in my life. This isn’t real, I think regretfully. It’s not happening. It’s too good to be true.
A shrill voice screams “RAID!” and the moment falls apart, kiss, music, everything all dissolving into screams and jostling, panicked bodies. My hand is cold, my body alone in space: Ronnie’s gone, vanished into the chaos. If she says goodbye, I don’t hear it.
Before I can even take it in, hard hands grab my arms from behind, spin me and shove me towards a clump of dressed-up, shouting dancers penned behind a grim blue wall of cops. I shut my eyes, think, This isn’t real, this isn’t happening—but I don’t really believe it.
Outside, it’s raining again, cold as an open fridge and lit like a gangster film. A rough hand boosts me up into the paddy wagon, and I collapse onto a long bench. Beside me, a guy in a tux is crying. A girl in a fringed dress reaches across me and pats his black wool knee. “We’ve been through this before, Betty. You know the drill. Keep your pecker up, and we’ll be home before dawn.”
“I know.” Betty pulls out a spotless handkerchief and blows moistly. “Thanks, doll. It’s just—I’m sick of this shit, Rose.”
“Yeah,” Rose says. “We all are.”
I think maybe I should move, let them sit together. But we’re packed in like sardines, the paddy wagon has started to sway and bump over the cobbles, and as soon as the door closes, everybody starts talking about the raid, even Betty. They talk like being busted is a familiar pain, like a bad hangover, the price they pay for letting it all hang out, even in a speakeasy. They complain about the cops and why they hadn’t given Miss Stevie the customary ten-minute warning. Has she missed a payment? Has the price of vice gone up? Is there a new Captain at the Precinct? Has somebody been getting on the old Captain’s tits?
They stop bitching when the paddy wagon stops. The door opens and we all climb out onto the sidewalk in front of a big Beaux Arts building with “Eighth Precinct Police Station” carved over the door. I don’t recognize either it or the block. It’s like I’m in some other city, some other world. I shuffle with the others into the front hall, which is painfully bright, high, and ugly. Shouts and sobs echo off the marble and plaster walls, hard and flat as punches.
“Name?” the desk sergeant barks as each prisoner faces him. “Address? Anybody you want to call? Fine’s fifty clams. You got the dough, the magistrate’s down the hall to the right.”
One by one, I hear them answer, Doris and Suzy, Betty and Rose, John and Reggie, Walt and Gene, of Greenwich Village, of Madison Avenue, of Washington Heights, of Westchester. Some of them—the ones with fifty bucks in their pockets—are escorted to the magistrate’s court for speedy processing. Bored-looking cops handcuff the others and hustle them off to the left and out of sight.
Finally, it’s my turn. I step up to the desk and mutter, “Ali Levine.”
The desk sergeant is plump, doughy, red-faced, right out of Central Casting, Grace would say. “Address?”
“I don’t live in New York,” which isn’t a lie, because I don’t, now.
“A comedian, eh? Har Har. Where you live, then?”
I shake my head. “Vagrant,” he says, scribbling. His blood-shot eyes weigh me up briefly, roll in disgust. “Mahoney,” he shouts, “Search this one.”
Mahoney steps forward—tall, beefy, bull-necked, freckled. “What for, Sarge?”
“Anything—dope, booze, somebody’s wallet. Freak like that, there’s got to be something.”
A shiver of panic goes through my bones, as Mahoney hustles me into a small room off the main corridor. There’s a window in the door and a table with a chair on either side of it, like a cafe of the damned. I clutch my jacket around me. Grace gave it to me for my birthday. It’s got purple and blue psychedelic flowers on the sleeves and back, a little wonky because she embroidered them herself. Sometimes, I sleep in it.
“Make it easy on yourself, pal,” Mahoney says. “Take it off and hand it over.”
It’s at this point that I realize some dumb-ass part of me has been hanging on to this isn’t happening, convinced that when the shit really hits the fan, I’ll wake up to a circle of concerned faces, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. But when Mahoney, impatient, yanks Grace’s jacket from my shoulders and turns out its empty pockets and I’m still there, pats down my bell-bottoms and I’m still there, grabs the hem of my shirt, and I’m helplessly, horribly, still there, I slap at his hands and yell: “Leave me the hell alone! What are you doing? I’m a girl, you pig!”
Mahoney isn’t impressed. “Sure you are, freak.” His fist smacks into the side of my mouth, cutting my lip, grabs my Indian cotton shirt in both meaty fists and rips. The cloth tears with a sharp zip. Mahoney lets go and I clutch the flapping rags around me, quivering and raw as a shucked oyster.
My jacket lands at my feet in a flowery heap. I look up uncertainly. Mahoney’s broad face has gone scarlet; his eyes are on the handcuffs he’s detaching from his belt. I bend, jaw throbbing, pick up the jacket, slide my arms into the sleeves, fumble at buttons that don’t want to button. I hardly even react when Mahoney snaps on the cuffs. He leads me, almost gently, down a long hall. This is happening, I think. I’m in jail. I don’t know what to do.
At the end of the hall is a metal door, which opens to Mahoney’s shout. The room beyond is a brightly lit chaos of iron bars, bodies, and noise, dominated by a drunk baritone singing “Danny Boy” off-key, punctuated by loud requests to shut it and/or fuck himself.
A grey-faced cop slams the door behind us. “Is that the last of ‘em?”
“It’s a Saturday night, Zeke. Whaddya think?”
Zeke gives a weary chuckle, reaches for the ring of keys dangling from his belt.
“It’s got tits,” Mahoney says helpfully. “I checked.”
“Wouldn’t want to make a mistake.” Zeke selects a key. “Not with this crowd.”
Mahoney shoves me inside and Zeke shuts the door with a clang and a click. I rub my sore wrists, aware of dozens of eyes on me, sizing me up, judging me.
A voice separates itself from the din. “Hey, kid! Siddown already—you’re making me nervous!”
I squat, draw up my knees, try to take up as little space as possible. “Not in front of the door,” the voice instructs wearily. “Whassa matter? You dumb or something?”
I scoot sideways and back, lean against the bars. My ears are hot, my face aches and stings. Someone says, “Poor little bunny,” as if they almost mean it. Across the cell, a woman begins to scream hoarsely that spiders are crawling on her face. I close my eyes. Chicken, I think, Wimp. Do something—the old, useless litany. But really, what can I do? My mother’s rules for young ladies don’t cover holding cells and women fighting with invisible spiders.
I know I’ve really hit bottom when I miss my mommy .
The screams fade into sobs and a woman’s voice, murmuring soothingly. I open my eyes. Women—maybe forty of them—are bunched on the wooden bench running along the dirty plaster wall, their faces stark in the harsh glare. The ones around the screaming woman are more Black than white. Some are wrapped in filthy coats; others sport ratty velvet wraps or headscarves and aprons. The Cooney’s crowd huddle away from the others, set apart by their bright dresses, their feathered headbands, their tuxes and shiny hair and patent leather dancing shoes. The vocalist has his arm around the piano player; two sequined girls are holding hands. At the end of the bench, shoulder pressed into the bars, I see a solitary figure slumped, elbows on knees, head drooping, waiting for the night to pass. The white shirt and brown arms belong to Sal, but it can’t be Sal, because Sal’s a guy, isn’t he? Not in Cooney’s, I think: not necessarily. And more to the point, not in the Eighth Precinct women’s holding cell.
Sal’s been nice to me. I imagine going up to him—or should I say her?—and saying something sympathetic. But what is there to say? “Hi”? “I’m sorry you got caught”? “I thought you were a guy”? No way, José! Probably Sal just wants to be left alone. Probably she—he seems more right, though—doesn’t want my sympathy or my thoughts or my company. Probably I should do what I always do, and keep my mouth shut.
Except that he saved me from Vinnie and the thugs when he didn’t have to. Except that he looks alone and sad. I know what that’s like.
I stand up, step over the woman who called me a poor little bunny. My heart is pounding, my jaw hurts like shit, my mouth is dry, but when I open it, words come out. “You shouldn’t be here,” I say. “None of you should be here. It’s not fair.”
The women on the bench smile sourly, tell me the world’s not fair, in case I hadn’t noticed, and would I sit down and shut up, people are trying to sleep here. Sal ignores me, like I was a pest like Ronnie. I don’t know why I keep talking, because I’ve already got my foot in my mouth, but I do. “I know it’s stupid, but I just wanted thank you, Sal, for letting me in and for the sandwich and everything. It was really nice of you, and I appreciate it.”
Sal sighs, fumbles in his pocket, pulls out a handful of loose change, selects a coin and holds it out. “Here’s a dime, kid. Now leave me alone.”
I put my hands in my jacket pockets and keep going. “I, I really admire you, Sal. I think you’re really brave—dressing like you do and working at Cooney’s and, yeah—” I trail off.
Sal gives a snort that might be a laugh. “Says the kid with the long hair and the striped clown pants.” He glares up at me. “You’re just an accident waiting to happen. Flowers on your jacket? You off your nut?’”
“Where I come from,” I say, “everybody dresses like this.”
The look Sal gives me is pure disgust. “You’re pulling my leg, right? You’re a queer bird, you know that, kid? I know you’re just trying to make me feel better, but really, I’m jake. Miss Stevie’ll be around tomorrow morning first thing and bail me out.” He takes in my swollen face, the torn wings of my shirt. His face softens. “Looks like you’re the one could use some cheering up. I tell you what. Lie down, get some shut-eye. I’ll make sure nobody messes with you. And take the damn dime: you might need to make a phone call.”
I take the coin, stuff it in my pocket, and crawl under the bench. The floor is cleaner than I expected, though no more comfortable. I’m still in jail, essentially broke, and lost in the past, but I feel oddly calm, even happy. I’ve got Sal on my side. Maybe he’ll get Miss Stevie to pay my fine, take me back to Cooney’s where all of this started, where maybe it can end, if I’m lucky.
But what if I’m not lucky? What if I’m stuck here in nineteen-twenty-whatever? Will anybody miss me? By which I mean will Grace miss me, because my parents will, I guess. I mean, they are my parents. And I’ll miss them, too, even my mother, who wants me to be normal. Except, what is normal anyway, in 1968, with the times a-changing and everybody talking about revolution? I’ll never know, if I get stuck here, never know what might change if I got up the nerve to march for something, switch my major, drop out, tell Grace I love her. On the other hand, if I’m here, I might dance with somebody—not Ronnie—cut my hair, get a job, save up for a tux or a mini-dress with sequins. In either case, I’ll grow up, learn who I am and what I want. I’ll live. Which is more than I was doing before all this happened.
Thinking about Grace makes me think about the two high school girls. The water is wide, all right—wider than ever. Suddenly, my heart hurts so much with missing her that I feel like I’m going to die. Softly, I begin to sing.
There is a ship, and she sails the sea;
She’s loaded deep as deep can be,
But not as deep as the love I’m in.
I know not if I sink or swim.
I’m sure I won’t sleep, and yet I must, because something like a switch flips in my mind, from drifting to knowing. The world smells of dust and concrete; a chilly breeze strokes my cheek. I hear traffic, chugging engines, clanking metal. Above me, male voices are wondering, loudly, who the hell I am and how the hell I got in. I open my eyes to a forest of boots and brown workpants. Turning my head brings a canopy of faces into view—black, brown, white—wearing identical bright-orange hard hats and expressions of concerned curiosity that explode into questions: Are you okay? How’d you get in? Don’t you know this is a construction site, ferchrissake?
Groggily, I push myself upright, rub my face, wince, explore my cheek and lip. They’re swollen, sore, and raw.
“Jeez, girl, what happened to you?” one guy says. “You get mugged or something?”
“Here,” says another, and a thermos cup of milky coffee appears in my hand.
I take a sip. It’s sweet, scalding hot, and strong enough to stand up on its own. “Um, I hate to sound like a bad movie, but where am I?”
An older man, black, heavy-set, squats down beside me. “Mercer, just off 4th. Listen, honey, are you sure you’re okay? You need medical attention? That lip looks pretty bad. Maybe we should call the campus police.”
There’s a new building going up on Mercer, I recall. NYU strikes again, tearing down beautiful old buildings and putting up boxy new ones. I shake my head. “No, I’m fine. Thanks, though.”
They help me up, gentle, uncertain that letting me go is the right thing to do, but impatient to get back to work. The older guy shows me out onto Mercer Street, shuts the chain link gate, and locks it. I stand on the side-walk, staring wide-eyed at yellow cabs passing and long-haired students of both sexes hurrying to class. Mostly, I can tell the boys from the girls, but not always. Suddenly, I wonder what Sal would think of 1968.
The shadows say it’s early morning, the leafless trees and brisk air says it’s early spring, but there’s nothing to tell me what day it is or whether the night I just lived through was real. It certainly felt real, feels real still, perhaps even more real remembering it than when I was going through it. Yet what evidence do I have? The torn shirt, the sore lip, the grime streaking the embroidered flowers on my jacket, could all be signs of a rough night that ended in a mugging. Which I don’t remember. But would I?
And then I realize I have to pee and should probably wash my face before I go back to my apartment and my roommate, check out the damage. The guard won’t let me into Loeb Student Center without an ID, so I duck into a busy diner, slip back to the bathroom, and lock myself in. My reflection looks even more grotty than usual—red-eyed, bruised, smeared with tears, snot, and grime. I grab a paper towel, wet it, press it to my lip. I feel like shit warmed over. If I had any money, I’d get a cup of coffee, some breakfast, maybe even call Grace and see if she’d come get me. Once more, hopelessly, I check my pockets.
A coin rolls into my fingers. I pull it out, lay it in my palm.
A Mercury head gazes off to the right, sharp and bright, “In God We Trust” engraved below the chin. It’s a dime, dated 1928. Sal’s dime. My payment for helping take delivery of a shipment of prohibited booze. My proof that last night happened, that I saw what I saw, did what I did, kissed who I kissed. I smooth it with my finger. It can buy me a cup of coffee, a banana or an apple at the corner shop, a small bag of potato chips, or a phone call. “You might want to make a phone call,” Sal said. Well, I do.
There’s a public phone by the restrooms, the wall around it scrawled with phone numbers and peace signs and physically improbable cocks. The dime slips into the slot, clunks, triggers a dial tone. I dial and the phone rings—once, twice. On the third ring, there’s a click.
“Hi,” I say.
“That better be you, Ali!” Grace’s voice is strained, furious. “Where the hell are you, man? Your roommate said you hadn’t been home all night! I’ve been flipping out here!”
My lip pulls painfully as I smile against the receiver. “Yes, it’s me. I’m really glad you’re home.”
“Where else do you think I’d be, shithead? I was worried, man! I was about to call your mother!”
“Oh, God, Grace! I’m so glad you didn’t.”
“Me, too.” Grace pauses. “You okay, man?”
“Yeah. Um. I’m at the Greek diner.” My pulse flutters. “Listen, Grace, could you meet me here? I could use some breakfast and I lost my wallet.”
“On my way,” Grace says.
“Wait—I need to tell you, just so you don’t freak when you see me: I’ve got a fat lip. And Grace?”
I love you, I think, but it’s not something to be said over the phone. “Never mind,” I say. “I’ll tell you when you get here.”
(Editors’ Note: Delia Sherman is interviewed by Julia Rios in this issue.)
© 2017 by Delia Sherman