“I’ve been thinking about us.”
On this occasion, the origin of these words was a slightly older woman, by 2 years, who initially thought I was a shooting star in a ground loop. She would end up being the second-most beautiful woman I would ever see naked, but not the last who would find cause to recite that five-word litany.
There is no real response to that line.
A guy can talk himself into lock-jaw trying to get a stay of execution from the “I’ve been thinking about us” sentence. But in truth, you can’t simply undo the way someone has started thinking. You can only “act” your way out of it through meritorious deeds of self-enslavement. And you can’t even begin the meritorious acts of enslavement until you are missed, which requires someone leaving and initiating the period of “no contact," and certainly “no sex.”
To a guy who is barely 20, this is a glum reality at 1am on Sunday morning. She wouldn’t even look at me as she said this, but buried her face deeper in a pillow. (We were in bed at the time.) Failing to look a guy in the eye when a red hot babe delivers this pronouncement generally means “I’ve been thinking about someone else,” or more emphatically, “I honked somebody else’s horn while you were out riding around today.” I got dressed without saying a word. I grabbed my helmet and jacket from a chair in the hall and went down to the street.
It was as humid as a Turkish bath and the damn seat on the Kawasaki H2 was slightly damp. Rutherford, New Jersey was one of the most affluent and beautiful towns in the Garden State, back in the mid-70’s. Every street was lined with stately elms, poplars, and oak trees, many of which were over a hundred years old. The center of town was The First Presbyterian Church, which looked like a stronghold of Henry VIII. Dim street lights in the heated summer mist added to the Hollywood set-like appearance of this community... But it all meant nothing to me in the forced virtue of post adolescent celibacy. The bike yinged (the sound of a big two-stroke street motorcycle) into life on the first kick. It occurred to me to ride around town for ten or fifteen minutes to see if anyone showed up after I left, but what would that prove? I headed east toward the lights of New York City on the horizon, and the smudge of reality that was Hudson County.
Above: The First Presbyterian Church in Rutherford, NJ. It was beautiful 36 years ago... And it is beautiful now. Photo from the internet.
The smart money would have been just to head back to my place and call it a bad end to an average day... But I never liked to crest the middle of a weekend on a sour note. My destination was the spittoon of humanity, a saloon in the “Heights” section of Jersey City. To say that Jersey City had “Heights” was like adding a balcony to an outhouse. Palisade Avenue had a view of Manhattan but it was like looking out from an Ingmar Bergman movie, and this gin-mill was the lounge for its cast of characters.
Above: Ernst Ingmar Bergman, 14 July 1918 – 30 July 2007) was a Swedish director, writer and producer for film, stage and television. His influential body of work dealt with bleakness and despair as well as comedy and hope. His major subjects were death, illness, betrayal, and insanity. Photo and text from Wikipedia.
Pulling up, I looked for a familiar Norton at the curb. It was conspicuous by its absence. Five desperate characters (who all had names like “Stitches, Fungus, Rattler, Blade, and Scummer) clung to the bar against the reality of closing time. Two ladies were also present. They reminded me of thoroughbreds that had been pulling heavy carts on uphill cobblestone roads for the last ten years. Jersey City had that effect on you.
“Hiya, Reep. I called closing time already,” said the bartender, a great guy named Vinnie. “But I’ll pour one anyway.”
“I’ll pass... Gimme six to go. Anybody seen Cretin tonight.” (For a complete description of "Cretin," please read this previous blog.)
The word on the street was that Cretin’s Norton had blown up or something and that he was in a rage over it. My response was that Cretin was usually in a rage anyway, generally over an issue of his own making. I straddled the bike again and headed north for a bit. The border between Jersey City and Union City is indistinguishable to the naked eye. Yet to a resident of each (in those pre-metrosexual days), these cities were as different as the atmosphere of Mars was to the vapor of Venus. Both were toxic but had distinctly different flavors. And the streets of both cities are odd at the border too. Named streets in Jersey City become numbers in Union City. Straight lines became a rabbit warren of diagonal streets at the Transfer Station (so named for long absent trolley lines). And the roadway fronting Manhattan was like a drain running down to the 14th Street Viaduct in Hoboken.
Above: The Old Yardley Soap Factory at the head of the 14th Street Viaduct, on the borderline of Jersey City, Union City, and Hoboken. Jersey City is to the left. Union City is to the right. And Hoboken is at the bottom of the viaduct. Cretin's place was to the right, at the top of the hill. Photo from the Internet.
The Kawasaki followed the drain from Jersey City to the viaduct, but instead of turning down into Hoboken, I headed up the other side, which was aptly named Manhattan Avenue. The architecture here at the time (1975) was structures built of brick and sided with vanilla-colored concrete. Not stucco, but smooth-sided concrete. Each building had flat, tar-paper roofs and a few had covered stoops. There was about six feet between structures and I found these as depressing as hell. Yet inside, every floor with an eastern exposure had an uninterrupted view of the New York City skyline. A house that was two stories high at the street, might have a foundation eight stories high at the back.
Above: The 14th Street Viaduct from the bottom. It terminates in Hoboken. This non-redundant steel structure is the preferred route of about 9 million cars, trucks, and buses every day. It is expected to be replaced soon, before it collapses (hopefully). Traffic will be backed up to the rings of Saturn during the years it will take to replace this structure. Photo from the Internet.
Cretin lived in a first-floor apartment in a four-family house, on an inclined street that made parking a motorcycle difficult. It was the kind of incline that would do justice to a city like San Francisco. You would just kill the engine in gear, put down the side stand, and park parallel to the curb, like a car. Since there were lots of cars parked about, finding an open space six to eight feet long was sometimes aggravating. There was no Norton at the curb here either and the lights were out in Cretin’s lair. But that meant nothing. I tucked the bike in a barely adequate spot, climbed the stoop and rapped on the front window with the bike’s key. Cretin wouldn’t answer the bell at night, nor the phone. But this routine of mine drove him crazy. He slept in that front room and the noise from my key would get him up like a shot. Since this was a four-family house, residents carried two keys. One for the hall door and the other for their individual apartment. Putting my face to the glass panel in the vestibule door, I could look through the gauzy curtain down the dimly-lit hall to see if another door opened.
Cretin stepped into the hall, stark naked, carrying a rife with a scope. He was as wiry as coiled copper cable on a spool, and had nothing to make excuses for. (He referred to his tool as the “12 gauge.”) While nothing he did surprised me, he had a way of pushing the envelope.
“Hey, Reep,” said Cretin. “Fucking broad throw you out of your own house again?”
I stepped inside and offered him a can from the still cold six-pack.
“Did I come at a bad time?” I asked. “Are you courting some woman in your own way again?”
“Fuck you,” he explained.
“Supposed I had been the cops?” I asked.
“Do you think I’d have opened the door if you were the cops?”
Cretin’s apartment was laid out in classic railroad room style, common to Hudson County structures of the ‘30s. (Each room was in a straight line, like a compartments in a train car, without a connecting hall.) From back to front, there was a living room/dining room, a kitchen (with a door to the outside hall), another room that closed off with sliding pocket doors that disappeared into the wall, and the front room, which was the bedroom, usually. The living room/dining room was huge, even by old apartment standards. It had six full-sized windows on Manhattan.
It was the kind of living room that could get guys like him and me laid in about 30 seconds. Or it could have been. Cretin filled it with 1940’s style Art Decco furniture that he meant to have reupholstered, but never did. The kitchen was littered with pizza boxes, two weeks of unwashed dishes in the sink, and a refrigerator that was breeding penicillin. The middle room was home to the Norton... At least that where the Norton was parked now. It was up on a cinder block with the carbs on the floor. The room smelled faintly of gas. The bedroom in front had the aroma of the lockers in Cupid’s gymnasium and looked like a flea market that had been car bombed.
The place was a raging shit house. (Oddly enough, the bathroom was immaculate. Cretin couldn’t take a dump unless conditions were perfect, apparently.)
“How did you get the Norton in here?”
“Scummer, Little Joey, and Jackie ‘The Glyp’ carried it up the stairs for me. I had it parked on the street and somebody fucked up all the carb settings.”
“What’s with the gun?” I finally asked.
I initially thought it was a .22. But casual inspection in the light revealed it to be an exquisite, high-velocity German pellet gun.
“There’s a squirrel living in the walls in the living room, and I’m gonna shoot it when it comes out again. I nearly had it couple of times earlier tonight.”
“You mean you have a rat in the walls,” I said.
“I don’t live anyplace where there are rats,” said Cretin. “It’s a fucking squirrel... The only rat in here is the one who walked in with six cans of beer and who will smoke fifty bucks of reefer before he leaves.”
It was then I noticed that the moulding on the wall, along the floor, had been punctured in about 40 places by high velocity German pellets. This was one of Cretin’s finest moments. This predated the age of cable TV, and I was nodding off on the tattered, museum piece sofa listening to the national anthem, as NBC signed off for the night. They were right at the point where the “bombs bursted in air,” when Cretin gave a shout and let fly with another barrage. Pellets slammed into the heavy plaster wall with a characteristic “pit-tonk,” marking the end of their trajectory with little plaster clouds.
I watched in awe as a mouse ran the length of the wall, defying the gunfire to rummage around in the kitchen.
We got Cretin’s bike back together again in the morning, and it was all I could do to keep him from riding it out the kitchen door and down the stairs. (He looked a little bit like Steve McQueen and liked to play the part.) A call to the bar mustered some of the same guys who’d dragged the Norton in, and they it got back out to the street again. A year later, Cretin fell victim to a woman who managed to love him for the way he was. She was one of the sweetest people I have ever met, and was utterly determined to give him the life she thought he deserved. Her plan was to start by reupholstering the ragged Art Decco chair he’d sat in that night he went mouse hunting. The furniture company picked it up and discovered there was a huge but vacant mouse nest in it.
That explained why Cretin could never see where the mice were hiding.
I recently returned to the scene of the above crime. The neighborhood has changed. Cretin’s apartment is now a co-op. It is listing for $600,000. I stood on the sidewalk and looked up at that front window. Cretin never owned a Harley... But he lived fast and died hard.
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