Park Life

Rupert Thomson

I flew into JFK at the end of December 1984, and as soon as I saw the giant floodlit billboards stacking up in front of the Triborough Bridge the blood began to hiss and crackle in my veins. At that time, New York was my favourite place: it was everything a city should be – a volatile mix of edginess and possibility.

My father had died a few months before and I had inherited some money, but it wasn’t enough to live on. I knew I would have to find work quickly. At a New Year’s Eve party on the Upper West Side, a pretty blonde girl told me I should apply to a bookstore called the Strand. ‘They take all kinds of people,’ she said. I wasn’t sure whether or not this was a compliment – it didn’t sound like one – but I followed her advice, and within a few days I had a job. The pay was $125 a week.

Like most Strand employees, I started in the Review Books section, which was in the basement. Though winter gripped the city, it was hot and dusty down there, and I spent my first days sorting and shelving hardback editions of novels that had just been published. All kinds of people, the blonde girl had said, and now I understood what she meant: never in my life had I come across such an extravagant array of misfits, bohemians and would-be artists, which more than made up for the dismal salary and the dullness of the job. There was a thin-wristed, moon-pale DJ from Arkansas who spoke in a sardonic voice that made me think of Flannery O’Connor. There was a timid, bespectacled man who ate cake secretly in the downstairs toilet. There was a sweet-natured older man with shoulder-length grey hair, who smoked with great purpose despite his chronic emphysema. There was a winsome, bruised-looking transsexual by the name of Opal. And then there was Klaus, from Vienna. An ex-junkie and sometime lead guitarist, Klaus was the only other ‘European’ in the store. He was working illegally as I was – we were both using Social Security numbers that we had borrowed from close friends – and it wasn’t long before we were meeting for drinks, usually in the Holiday Lounge, a dive bar in the East Village. Later, we would go back to Klaus’s apartment, which was on 51st Street, between Seventh and Broadway, and which he shared with a six-foot-tall, black-eyed Venezuelan girl who stayed up all night doing coke. Klaus and I soon became so inseparable that people in-store started calling us ‘The Two Musketeers’.

It was everyone’s ambition to get out of Review Books, and when Klaus asked if I would be interested in the graveyard detail I jumped at the chance. Graveyard details worked like this. When people who owned books died in New York, a member of the family would often call the Strand and offer to sell the library as a job lot. The Strand would then send an assessor to the home of the deceased, and a price would be agreed. Some days later, two employees would be dispatched in the Strand van, and the books would be loaded into boxes and taken back to the store. The van was the same shade of red as the famous Strand T-shirt, and it was driven by Nelson, a former Hell’s Angel with a plaited ponytail that hung heavily between his shoulder blades. Gears clashing, he would slam through the Manhattan traffic while Klaus and I bounced around in the back on bound stacks of cardboard flats. Nelson had a gruff manner and most people were afraid of him – even the boss treated him with a respect that seemed out of proportion to his job – but something about us ‘Europeans’ seemed to entertain him.

One particular graveyard detail sticks in my mind, perhaps because we happened to go to an address on West 80th Street, only yards from the building where I was staying. As Klaus and I climbed the stairs to the sixth floor, we were accompanied by one of the dead woman’s relatives – a cousin, I think, or a nephew – and he explained that she had lived alone for many years, and that we shouldn’t be too surprised by what we found. I didn’t know it at the time, but the apartment I entered that afternoon was a classic example of syllogomania, or Diogenes syndrome, a condition common among the elderly who live on their own. They lose the ability to throw things away, and gradually the line between possessions and rubbish begins to blur. The narrow corridor that ran through the middle of the apartment was narrowed still further by the newspapers and plastic bags that had piled up on either side, almost to the ceiling. In the living room, several items of furniture had been buried completely; imprinted in the junk that had accumulated on the couch was the shape of the woman’s body, like a hare’s form. We had to guess where the bookshelves might be, and then burrow our way through to them. Later, the woman’s relative asked if we wanted to take anything from the apartment in exchange for all our hard work. I chose a large, framed black-and-white photograph of a gala night at the Waldorf-Astoria that had been taken the year I was born.

In late March, and possibly on Nelson’s say-so, Klaus and I were offered the job of running the Strand’s kiosk in Bryant Park. We accepted at once. This was before Giuliani sanitized – or rather, ruined – Times Square, and though Bryant Park was bounded in the east by the austere edifice of the New York Public Library, the poky strip clubs and fizzing neon signs of 42nd Street weren’t far away. From now on, we would be spending our days outdoors, in the vivid, grubby heart of the city.

Once we had punched in at the Strand at nine in the morning, we would load boxes of books into the back of the van – these were to replace the stock we had sold the day before – and then Nelson would drive us up to the park. The first hour was spent setting up – unlocking the kiosk, erecting the trestle tables, and laying out the books, spine uppermost. While one of us carried the tables out on to the paved area, the other would walk over to a diner on Sixth Avenue and bring back coffee and pumpernickel bagels with cream cheese. Most of the selling was accomplished between the hours of eleven and four, with peak activity occurring at lunchtime, when the office workers spilled out of high-rises like the Grace Building and strolled beneath the trees or perched on the smooth stone lip of the fountain. At the end of the day we would pack away the tables and the books, lock up the kiosk, and take the subway back to the store. If the weather was poor, we’d close early.

As the weeks went by, I began to realize that the park had its own unofficial and carefully calibrated infrastructure. The main business of the park was drugs, and the area was divided into four quadrants, each of which was patrolled by a different gang. Every gang had a captain. Usually black guys in their twenties or early thirties, they exuded an air of casual authority: this was their turf. Their underlings would loiter nearby, sometimes venturing out on to the sidewalk, sometimes hanging back, but always watching, circling. ‘Sense, sense’ was the perennial, muttered chant, sinsemilla being the drug of choice in Bryant Park, the female flowers of the cannabis plant glistening brownish-green inside their see-through plastic packets, like the crushed backs of cockroaches. But the dealers weren’t the only regular fixtures in the park. At right angles to our kiosk, and backing on to Sixth Avenue, were two other kiosks run by three brothers from New Jersey. They were a little older than us, in their mid-to late thirties – Roy, Nick and Jake, and a beautiful Puerto Rican friend of theirs, Maritza, who would eventually, and disastrously, marry Klaus and move to Vienna with him. Like us, the brothers traded in second-hand books, but they had also branched out into postcards, calendars and maps. Though cagey at first, they quickly became good friends, and would invite us to yard parties in Hoboken, where there would be beer and joints and music, and where Roy would invariably perform his notorious snake dance. Stationed opposite our kiosk was a guy called Billy who sold hot dogs, soft drinks and bags of potato chips out of a metallic silver cart. He had thick blond hair, and wore check shirts and jeans. He smoked a lot of pot, and his eyes were often sleepy and bloodshot. He came from Brooklyn. Though amiable enough, he didn’t exactly strike me as the sharpest tool in the box. Klaus thought Billy looked like an Austrian peasant, which was another way of saying the same thing.

In time we got to know most of the characters who passed through the park on a daily basis, but there was one who particularly intrigued us. He was in his forties, with a drooping moustache, and he wore aviator-style sunglasses with brown tinted lenses. He dressed in a denim jacket and jeans, both of which looked ever so slightly too new. A bulky key chain dangled from his brown leather belt. He reminded me of an extra from a bad seventies movie. He rarely bought anything, but he would look at our books most days, and his outfit meant that he never went unnoticed. We wondered who he was and what he was up to; we didn’t trust him. When we mentioned him to the brothers from Hoboken, they laughed so hard they almost fell off their upturned beer crates. The guy was an undercover detective, they told us, and his remit was to bust the drug gangs that operated in the area. As Roy said, he would have been less visible if he’d come dressed as a cop. Sometimes he would tip off the police by murmuring into a hidden mike, but even before the sirens could be heard, the black guys would be scattering in all directions, like beads from a broken necklace, and by the time the cop cars surged over the sidewalk and rocked to a halt by the fountain, the gangs would be long gone. There would be a lot of posturing and shoulder-shrugging on the part of the police, and then, after buying a few cans of soda from Billy, they would drive away again.

I had already noticed that Billy didn’t take any money from the dealers when he gave them soft drinks and potato chips, and I wondered if he was running some kind of tab, but then I happened to see one of the drug captains deftly drop a bag of sinsemilla into Billy’s cart. While traders were making fortunes in stocks and shares on Wall Street, I was witness to a revival of the medieval barter system in Bryant Park. Up until that moment, we had been buying our grass from the Venezuelan girl who Klaus shared an apartment with, but now an idea occurred to me.

‘Billy?’ I said one steamy afternoon in May, while Klaus and I were sitting by the fountain. ‘Do you like reading?’

‘Yeah,’ Billy said, ‘I read.’

I asked if he would consider trading some of his grass for a few of our books.

He nodded slowly. ‘That might work.’

‘So have we got anything,’ I said, ‘that you might be interested in?’

He glanced towards our tables, and a kind of slow-motion shudder passed across his face as a thought surfaced in his brain.

The Collected Hegel,’ he said, ‘in three volumes – I could go for that.’

I looked at Klaus, and we both burst out laughing.

‘Is that a problem?’ Billy said.

The three volumes, which were bound in green linen and tied with ribbon, were priced at something like $25, but the delicious way in which Billy had wrong-footed us meant that I didn’t even give it a second thought.

‘Billy,’ I said, ‘you’ve got a deal.’

This wasn’t the first time we had worked an angle – but then, according to the brothers from Hoboken, all Strand employees worked an angle, especially if they were sent to Bryant Park. There was a story – possibly apocryphal – that the guy who had run the kiosk a year or two earlier had stolen so many books during the course of the summer that when he had left the Strand in the fall he had opened a bookstore of his own. Klaus and I were less flagrant. Most customers required a receipt when they purchased a book, but if they failed to ask for a receipt we would choose not to issue one, and the lack of evidence for that particular sale meant that we could pocket the cash and act as though the book in question had never existed. Since Klaus and I were responsible for choosing the stock that travelled up to the park – we knew what sold and what didn’t – and since we were never asked to keep an inventory, there was no way of establishing if a book had gone missing. Once we had perfected our system, we were able to cream off roughly $150 each a week, thereby doubling our salaries.

At the same time, ironically, the management was delighted with our performance, since we were making so much money for the store – more than anyone had made in previous years. The fact that we were foreign, and spoke with exotic accents, worked to our advantage – we were popular with bookbuyers – but we took pride in our job as well, and we put a lot into it. For all our swagger, though, we felt vulnerable. Had you observed us for a couple of days, you would have noticed that nobody from the store came by to pick up our daily take. Equally, you would have realized that we didn’t leave it in the kiosk overnight. To anyone watching, then, it would have been obvious that when we walked to the corner of Sixth Avenue and 41st Street at the end of the working day and caught the subway to Union Square, we had the money on us. Even given the amount we were creaming off, we would generally clear at least $1,000 a day, and that was a lot of cash to be carrying about. Muggings were common in Times Square. We might be seriously hurt – or even killed. Not only were we being paid a pittance, but we were also being put at risk, and the management didn’t seem to realize. We began to think of the money we were skimming as danger money. We deserved it for getting on the subway every night. We’d earned it.

Remarkably enough, nothing ever happened, and when it was time for me to leave for Tokyo, where I had planned to spend a few months, I was sorry to go. The life of the park had become my life; I would miss the rituals, the banter and the small-time notoriety. Klaus and Maritza came to Newark to see me off. We had drinks in the airport. We took pictures. I was on standby that evening, but there were no seats left, and I ended up having to buy a first-class ticket to Los Angeles. I drank champagne all night and hardly slept.

Only about a week after arriving in Japan, I received a postcard from Klaus. He had been given a new colleague in the park – a real asshole, he said. He had decided not to tell the guy about our scam. As a result, he had to cream off double, his share as well as mine, otherwise the average daily take would jump for no apparent reason, and somebody might become suspicious. He was now making an extra $300 a week. He was thinking of moving downtown, maybe to Delancey Street. Getting an apartment of his own. He’d had enough of living with the Venezuelan girl.

The Agony of Intimacy