Chapter 3

 

I moved to New York City less than two months later. I arrived to find that Hart Property Management did not have an apartment ready for me as we had agreed — or not agreed, depending on who was interpreting the agreement.

“I don’t remember that you are to take possession today,” said the antagonized leasing agent for whom English was a second language and my rental agreement a third. Her name tag read Marna.

The office was located in Midtown, on the third floor of a soot-stained building with large plate glass windows. Stacks of paper covered Marna’s desk, which sat next to a water cooler in the middle of a large and otherwise empty room. Daylight from the windows spilled across the chipped linoleum tile floor and splashed against a wall bare and pock-marked where picture hooks had been. The space appeared to constitute the entire presence of the firm.

“We have found you the apartment but with still a hold over tenant,” she said after a struggle to dig out my paperwork. Attached to it was my uncashed deposit check. After further study, and with no degree of remorse, she slid her glasses to the end of her nose and looked at me.

“We have apartment for you. It is at the end of this month.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The tenant still has quiet enjoyment through end of this month.”

“But that’s in three weeks. I wrote on the application and rental agreement that I would be arriving today.”

“We do not deposit your check yet.”

“I understand, but I came …”

“We cannot deliver possession,” she said. “Would you like to take back your check?”

As I leaned over to put down my bags, the soft case of my guitar struck the water bottle on top of the cooler. Large bubbles gurgled up from the bottom.

Before I could say anything, Marna started reciting from memory a spiel about lease periods, maintenance of the premise, and the genuine good intentions of Hart Property Management. By the time she had finished, the burden of my short-term housing crisis was squarely back on me.

“Here,” she said, scribbling something down quickly. “Go to YMCA, Seventh Avenue and 28th Street. You rent a room by the day.”

She tore the address from the corner of a piece of paper and handed it to me.

“It shall be safe,” she said in her broken agreement-ese. “It is the safe Y.”

I grabbed my bags without saying anything. I left Marna and Hart Property Management — and their stacks of well-intentioned agreements — and did my best to maintain my optimism as I made my way down Broadway.

It was a clear, warm day. The sun shot between buildings, striping the streets. As I approached Times Square, I came upon a group of people gathered in a tight circle with their backs to me on the sidewalk close to the curb. They were engaged in something entertaining, and so I walked over and pushed my way in some to see what was going on.

A man in his thirties stood facing the crowd from behind a short stack of boxes close to the gutter. He was black and had a sparse and scruffy beard. He wore a red toboggan, dirty jeans, and a gray Adidas t-shirt with the letters peeling off. The boxes formed a table on which he had placed three playing cards face up: two jokers and the queen of hearts. I arrived just as he was showing the cards to the crowd and beginning his patter. He started throwing the cards face down from one side of the table to the next.

“Watch the lady. Keep y’eyes on the lady,” he said, occasionally turning over the queen of hearts for the crowd to see. He increased the speed with which he tossed the cards, but at no time was it difficult to follow the queen. I learned later the game is called Three Card Monte — and that I was its mark.

“Where’s the lady, now, where’s the lady?” the dealer yelled out. He stopped tossing the cards and began sliding them around face down on his cardboard box table. “Follow Miss Queen-a-hearts.”

When he finished, the cards laid beside each other face down. A man wearing a suit and carrying a brief case quickly placed a twenty-dollar bill on the table.

“Okay! Mr. Bidnessman places his bet!” said the dealer. “Just point to the queen-a-hearts, now. Queen-a-hearts. Show everybody how smart a bidnessman is.”

I knew the queen of hearts was the middle card; everyone knew the queen of hearts was the middle card. But this man chose the card on the left. A joker.

The crowd moaned. People stepped back in disappointment as the dealer took the man’s twenty.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” the dealer said to the crowd, laughing. “The man gets another chance. This is America, people! Shit, this man gets all the chances he wants! He’s just gotta pay for those chances. I mean, this is America, people!”

The crowd laughed, and the businessman put another twenty on the table, and as soon as the dealer began tossing the cards again, the crowd quickly contracted. In the process, I was jostled — bags and all — closer to the front of the table.

Again, the dealer lifted the queen of hearts frequently so that we would know where it was at all times. When he stopped and lined up the cards face down beside each other, the queen of hearts, we all knew, was on the right.

“Now, my man, make your money back. Show these people the queen-a-hearts.”

Again, the businessman chose the wrong card, and again the crowd moaned.

The guy beside me said quietly, “It’s the one on the right.”

He was a young white man wearing a sports jacket with the sleeves pushed up. He pointed to the card with a slight raise of his chin.

“Yeah, it’s pretty obvious,” I said.

“Point it out,” he whispered, nudging me with his elbow.

“What?”

“Call out which one it was and see if he gives you that twenty.” He raised his eye brows and shoulders as if to say, “What have you got to lose?”

I looked at the dealer.

“It’s this one,” I said, pointing to the card on the right.

The dealer flashed his bright, wide smile.

“Well, now. We got somebody who thinks he knows something,” he said. “Give this young man some room.”

The crowd circled behind me as the dealer used his hands and feet to position his stack of boxes more squarely in my direction.

“So, you think the queen-a-hearts is this one right here?” he said, touching the card I had pointed to.

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, all I can say is…” He flipped the card and it was indeed the queen of hearts. “…you won yourself a twenty-dollar bill.”

The crowd loved it. The dealer pulled from his pocket a large wad of twenties and peeled one off to hand to me. Just as I was about to take it, he pulled it back quickly.

“Now, hold on a minute,” he said. “I gotta see that you had twenty dollars to bet with in the first place. It’s only fair.”

I looked over my shoulder at the guy in the sports jacket, who nodded.

I reached into my front pocket where I had my own much smaller wad of twenties — two hundred dollars total — and peeled one off to show the dealer.

“Alright then,” he said. “Now since you a betting man, I’m going to assume you a gentle-man too. And since I didn’t know you and me was betting in the first place, you gotta give me a chance to win my money back, double or nothing.”

I looked over at the guy in the sports jacket. Another nod.

“Okay,” I said.

“Double or nothing,” said the dealer. “That’s forty dollars.”

He began tossing, occasionally showing us the queen of hearts.

When he stopped, I pointed to what I knew was the right card, and just as he was about to turn it over, the businessman pushed in.

“Eighty on this one!” he said, as he slapped four twenty-dollar bills onto what was certainly the wrong card.

“Awww, now,” said the dealer. “You messin’ up this young man’s game!”

“High bet,” said the businessman.

Some voices in the crowd expressed their disapproval over the businessman’s intrusion.

“Wait wait, now, folks,” said the dealer. “Those are the rules. We have to go with the high bet. Am I right?”

The crowd, in its collective wisdom of this thrilling street game, murmured its agreement.

The dealer flipped the card the businessman chose, and there was another loud moan. A joker. Then he flipped over the card I had pointed to, which was the queen of hearts.

“Oh my,” said the dealer. “You’d a taken my money.”

He looked over the table at me.

“Stakes are higher now,” he said to me. “It’s a eighty-dollar table. And you still owe me a chance to win my money back.”

“You’ve got this,” said the guy in the sports jacket, loudly enough for everyone to hear. There was a ripple of agreement from the crowd.

This would be the easiest eighty dollars I’d ever made.

“It’s a fresh bet,” said the dealer, pointing to my twenty-dollar bill, which remained on the table. “Our first bet plus eighty more keeps you at the table.”

Feeling pressure from the crowd gave me little chance to think through his logic. One more, I thought, and then I’ll be one my way. I put eighty more on the table, bringing the total pulled from my pocket to one hundred dollars.

The crowd tightened in around me. The dealer began tossing the cards again, slowly at first, occasionally showing the queen, and then more and more quickly, finally sliding them around face down as he had done before. I didn’t take my eyes off the queen, and when he finally stopped moving the cards around, I knew exactly which one it was.

“This one,” I said, pointing to the middle card.

The crowd moaned.

The dealer turned over my card. It was a joker.

Damn!” he said as he yanked all the cash off the table and folded it onto the large wad of twenty-dollar bills. “I thought you had this!” he said, stuffing the wad back into his pocket.

Just at that moment, two guys in track suits came running down the sidewalk.

Cops!” they yelled. “Cops! Cops!

These two young men had been on the lookout. When I turned back to the dealer, he had kicked his boxes between two parked cars and was dodging traffic halfway across Broadway.

“You better get out of here,” the guy in the sports jacket said to me as he hurried past.

I grabbed my bags, slung my guitar over my shoulder, and pretended to look in store windows as if I had nothing to do with any of those people. My heart was racing, and I feared at any second, I’d be tapped on the shoulder by a cop.

But when I turned slowly to look back at the scene where we had been gathered, there was no commotion, just the normal hubbub of Times Square. People walked hurriedly by as panhandlers called out for anything to spare. Petty crooks sidled up to strangers offering stolen electronics and small bags of weed. X-rated video stores and peep shows surrounded me, billboards hovered over me from the sides of buildings, and the ticker filled Times Square with headlines no one was reading.

I had no apartment, I had just given away half my cash, and I was in a sea of strangers. When I looked up, staring down at me from a billboard fifty feet tall was a male model in white Calvin Klein briefs. Remembering stories of the old Camel cigarette billboard that blew real smoke, and given how unexpectedly my day had gone, I hurried out from under him, unsure if at any moment he might piss all over me.

“There were no cops,” Nehemiah would say to me days later as he broke out in laughter over the phone. “It’s a scam — everyone there was in on it.” Including, he said, the young man in the sports jacket, the guys who yelled about the cops, and the businessman — the shill, as he’s known — who couldn’t pick the right card. “Welcome to New York City!

Sweat blotched my shirt by the time I finally arrived at the YMCA on 28th Street. Behind the clerk’s desk in the darkness of a pre-war lobby sat a man in his late twenties reading Interview. A tattoo of a dagger covered the inside of his forearm, and he wore small silver hooped earrings. He formed a discerning squint as I approached to ask about a room.

“Thirty-five a night, the bathroom and showers are at the end of the hall. You get a towel, and you get fresh ones down here, but don’t use too many. Strip your bed when you leave. There’s a lounge area upstairs, but it’s really gross. Most people just hang out in their rooms or go out. How many nights?”

The room was so small I had to turn sideways to close the door. I dropped my bags on the tiny bed and through the window saw the brick wall of the building next door. Below the window sat a small desk, and underneath it the radiator took up most of the leg room. The place looked suitable for the next three weeks, especially since I didn’t plan on spending much time there.

I locked the deadbolt on my way out, as I’d been warned to do, and my spirit felt refreshed when my feet hit the sidewalk. I took my first big step: I set out to find the renowned bulletin board at New York School of Sound.

 

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