I was debating the merits of Smokey and The Bandit 2 versus the original with my Uber driver Bianca when I saw the New York City skyline in person for the very first time. My disappointment must have been visible on my face because she punched me in the arm and said, “New York Friggin’ City.”
“Aren’t you New Yorkers all supposed to be jaded and cool?”
“I’m from Michigan. Just moved here last week to be a writer.”
“Huh,” I said.
A year ago I would have been jealous of her. I would have rambled endlessly about my own Michigan background and my own writing dreams and my own writing projects. But right then I just hoped to god she wouldn’t ask me where I was from and what I was doing in the city.
“So this whole conversation, Smokey and the Bandit,” I continued. “It wasn’t ironic?”
“I know this may seem like a silly job for a writer, but who wants to be another cog at some shitty online magazine or get coffee for some bullshit publisher in Brooklyn, right?”
“Yeah. Sure. I get it.”
And I did. Or I used to. But I was a different person now. The jaded and cynical New Yorker I’d always dreamed of becoming without any of the fun experiences to back it up. Bianca continued rambling as I looked out my window at the passing sea of warehouses and bungalows and low-slung brick strip malls that could have passed for Detroit thirty years ago when people actually lived there.
I was beginning to believe we could make the entire drive from LaGuardia to my hotel without having the discussion I dreaded when Bianca turned to me and said, “Silly me, rambling on here like some sort of narcissist, and I haven’t even asked what you’re doing in the city.”
“Business,” I said, hoping to still get out without a full blown discussion.
She nodded and I thought I was clear until she slammed on the brakes and pulled a gun on me.
“This is your stop,” she said. “Leave your wallet in the glove box.”
“Phone too,” Bianca said.
“Come on,” I said. “I just got here and –”
“Glovebox, now, or it’ll be your body in the trunk.”
My options were limited, so it didn’t take long to run through the various scenarios, none of which turned out very well for me. I wanted to leave her with a witty retort or a twisty line, but I’d seen enough news reports to know how ugly these kinds of encounters could get in a second. So I just put my phone and wallet in the glovebox and got out of the car.
I waited until the car was well out of site before walking away. Maybe I was hoping it was all a joke and she would come back to me. Maybe I was still trying to process what had just happened to me. Or maybe I was just cooling off so I didn’t put the first person I saw into the hospital when I turned around.
When I finally calmed down enough not to kick everything in my path, I immediately looked for a café or coffee shop or some place that had a computer I could use. I found what I was looking for at a Mediterranean grocery store on the corner a block ahead of me, under a subway platform. The place smelled like bleach and garlic and the overhead fluorescent lights flickered on and off giving me the twitches, but the overall feeling of the place was still cozy. Like being in the basement pantry of a friend’s grandma.
The first thing I did was log onto my iTunes account and turned on the tracker for my phone so I would get updates on its location in my email until someone got smart and turned it off. I also filed a fraud report on my debit card so no one could use it. I had no credit cards and the only other thing of value in my wallet was a movie rewards card with a free popcorn combo loaded onto it.
When all of my business was settled out, I asked the cashier if there was a bathroom I could use. He nodded toward a door at the back of the store and, once again, I was surprised by the welcoming and clean nature of this store. I was still pissed and grossed out by my initial impression of New York City, but if everything else turned out to be as bright and welcoming as this restroom, I could see my opinion changing.
I locked the door, checked it twice, and then took my shoes off. The toilet seat was surprisingly comfortable but my joy was quickly squelched when I realized I was living up to my paranoid mother’s worst expectations and I would never, ever, live that down. In her long and rambling pre-trip lecture (this year by email instead of voicemail as I’ve been gradually bringing her into this century) she had recommended I keep my wallet in my front pocket so no one could pick pocket me (oops) and that I keep my wad of emergency cash in my shoe because muggers never ask anyone to take off their shoes to check for money. Any other time I would have ignored her and lectured her about how safe the city was and how she was just succumbing to the fear perpetuated by the stupid news media. But this whole trip to the city had rubbed me the wrong way from the very beginning so I did it and now I wasn’t sure if dealing with her knowing she was right was worth the comfort of having $100 immediately after being robbed.
I’d deal with that in the future. In the now I bought a falafel wrap and crossed my fingers that the clerk would take my sock money. He did, gave me my change with a smile, and I set off to find the guy who set me up and punch him in the throat.
* * *
Dutchy Kent was an asshole to me in high school, he was a worse asshole to me in college, and then out of nowhere he called me a few weeks ago and said he could make my dreams come true. You could see why my guard might be raised a bit in regard to his motives. But I was desperate to get out of Detroit, out of Michigan, and away from my ex-wife’s family who claimed they didn’t hold a grudge for me murdering her, but, again, I wasn’t exactly sold on their motivation.
He said he would arrange transportation for me from the airport to his theater but he didn’t so I had to find my own way. I should have gone with the traditional yellow cab, but I was trying to be more adventurous. Frankly I was trying to act more my own age and use apps for more stuff but despite my immaturity, it seemed I was still an ornery old man at heart.
I tried to use Air BnB for lodging but was creeped out almost immediately by the thought of sharing someone’s apartment with them and booked myself at a Comfort Inn nearby. Having failed that chance to be youthful and tech savvy, I tried again with Uber. I couldn’t get the app to download to my phone so when someone handed me a flyer with an Uber phone number on it I thought I was getting the best of both worlds. Turns out what I was getting was scammed. I wasn’t going to try again the third time. I hailed the first cab that I saw and gave him the name of the theater I was meeting Dutchy. He looked at me like I asked him to take me to the moon and shook his head no.
“Address. What address? Street name? Cross street?”
Bianca hadn’t asked me any of this because it didn’t matter. I felt like a moron for not realizing it but I also suddenly hated my cab driver for not being as easy to work with as Bianca from the fake Uber company had been.
“Long Island City Theater,” I said one more time. “This is Long Island City, right?”
“Street name. Cross street. Address.”
I shrugged and sunk into the seat. He picked up an old school cell phone and talked into it like a walkie-talkie. He had a rapid conversation in a language I would have felt racists trying to identify and the turned back to me and shook his head. I didn’t know what else to do so I gave him the address of the hotel instead and spent the rest of the ride debating whether to give him a bigger tip for dealing with me or stiffing him completely for being a pain in the ass.
The final cost of the ride, about $25, made the decision easier because all I had was twenties. I gave him two of them and was feeling pretty good about myself as I headed into the hotel. With the way my luck had been going I half expected the hotel clerk to pull a gun on me and take everything I had left, but he smiled nicely and told me I could have breakfast on the balcony while I waited for my room to be ready. I looked at the clock over his shoulder and realized that even though it felt like an entire day’s worth of misery had befallen me in the city, I’d barely been in town two hours and it wasn’t even 10am. I nodded at him politely and sat down at a table with a cup of surprisingly good hotel coffee and fell asleep almost immediately.
I was awoken some unknown amount of time later by a sharp poke behind me right ear and the grating sound of a voice I had hoped to avoid hearing until I was more rested.
“Jesus Christ,” Dutchy Kent said. “You sure are living the writer’s dream.”
When I looked up I saw his scraggly face hovering over mine and the desk clerk, who had seemed so supportive and friendly earlier, glaring at me suspiciously.
“He said he was waiting for you,” the clerk said. “Before I could—”
“Got Jeeves here running your security detail already,” Dutchy said. “Jesus, what a diva. Hope my production lives up to your lofty standards, Ms. Streisand.”
I tried to stand up, but my legs had fallen asleep and didn’t move with me. My knees smacked the underside of the table knocking my coffee on the floor and sending the clerk down to the floor to try and clean it up.
“Jesus,” Dutchy said again, reminding me that my mother had been one of the first people to see through Dutchy’s bullshit child star veneer to what he really was based on his continual insistence of taking the lord’s name in vain in such a casual manner.
“I’m sorry,” I said, grabbing a wad of napkins from the counter next to me, but not being in a position to be able to lean over and actually help. “Just charge whatever needs to be charged for the cleaning to my room.”
Dutchy snapped to attention at that and tugged on my arm, trying to pull me out from behind the table.
“Now hey there,” he said plastering on a twisted smile that was part panic and part patronizing effigy, “Let’s not go being all spendthrift with that room that has been so generously provided to you.”
“I booked the room myself, and paid for it with my card already,” I said. “It was the car from the airport to the theater you were going to pay for.”
The panic disappeared from his face as his eyebrows drooped back down and his cheeks deflated, but the patronizing smirk that had nixed his career as the loveable nerd sidekick on a famous Saturday morning teen soap remained.
“Yeah, about that, I heard you had quite the adventure.”
“I was mugged.”
“That tone, that’s perfect,” he said, still pulling on my arm. “Like you’re testing out the voice you’ll use to tell this thing at cocktail parties.”
“She pointed a fucking gun at me, asshole.”
“And you’ll drink free on that story for years. Shit, maybe we’ll add it to the script. Have you ever thought of being an actor? I mean we don’t want to add you to the show or anything, we’re a full union shop, but—”
“Can we just get out of here? I need to get out of here.”
He nodded and let go of my arm. I nodded sadly to the clerk who was still cleaning up my mess and followed Dutchy outside.
We stood on the sidewalk for several awkward moments until he raised his hands to the air and said, “Welcome to Long Island City bitches.”
I punched him in the side of the face and watched him fall into a puddle. He stumbled backward and fell on his ass and I waited for him to jump back up and hit me back. I needed him to hit me. I needed the release. I needed the excuse. I was also afraid that if he did hit me and I hit him back I wouldn’t be able to stop. But he stood up, wiped his pants off, and stuck his hand out for me to shake.
“Guess I deserved that,” he said.
That’s when I knew I was fucked.
* * *