On a cold Pennsylvania morning in 1973, with a few hundred dollars in my pocket, I placed an old mattress, a borrowed suitcase with all my clothes stuffed in it and my extra pair of army boots into the back of my old pickup truck, rolled down the hill and away from the old schoolhouse and my old life, popped the clutch and headed off into the unknown.
I was determined to be an artist in New York.
The sky was grey but clear and I had been having trouble with the engine overheating, but had replaced the radiator fan with one from a junkyard just the week before.
The old truck was running fine as I drove the 75 miles to the entrance of the Lincoln Tunnel, paid the toll and followed the other cars and trucks into a big gaping hole in the rocks.
Down under the river I went and all I had to guide me was a double white line and a sea of red tail lights.
Just as I thought I could make out the light at the end of the tunnel, suddenly all the red lights brightened and the cars and trucks slowed down– and then stopped.
I looked at the temperature gauge and it was past the halfway mark. I no longer had the benefit of the cold air rushing past my radiator.
As I sat there, I decided it might be prudent to shut off the engine until the traffic started back up again.
In a couple of minutes the red tail lights of the cars in front of me dimmed and the cars started to move forward.
I shifted into neutral and pressed the starter button on the dash.
I could hear the engine turn over but it would not start.
The car behind me started to honk his horn. Then the ones behind him began to blow theirs.
I looked in the rearview mirror and it looked like Christmas lights as far back as the eye could see.
Although the sign clearly said it was illegal to change lanes in the tunnel, cars and trucks began to pass me on the right and their drivers give me dirty looks.
I pressed the starter button a few more times and the truck finally started up and most of the horns stopped blowing.
As I slowly shifted into second, a guy on my right rolled down his window.
“You’d have to be a hick from the sticks to pull a stunt like THAT!”
Well, that’s not exactly what he said, but I think you get the idea.
I exited the tunnel into the cool crisp air and got my first glimpse of New York.
I had arrived!
And to a TUMULTUOUS welcome!
Crossing Greenwich Village on Bleeker Street, I pulled over and asked some guy on a bicycle how to get to Brooklyn.
“Just go over to Broadway and follow it all the way down. It’ll lead you right onto the Manhattan Bridge.”
After crossing the bridge into Brooklyn I stopped to ask further directions but didn’t see anybody on the street. Then, off to my left, I saw a guy walking in my direction.
“Hey Buddy—can you tell me how to get to Pratt Institute?”
He looked at me briefly and just kept walking.
Somehow I found my way to the campus and parked.
I went into the first office building inside the gate. There was a bulletin board. I saw a yellow index card with someone’s handwriting: APARTMENT FOR RENT/ NEAR PRATT $175 per month. CALL SAM and then a number.
I found a payphone, called the number and a gruff voice told me it’d meet in front of the building in fifteen minutes.
It was on a block of Brownstones only a short walk from the campus.
Sam was short and dumpy and had the butt of an unlit cigar wedged into the corner of his mouth that did the talking. He had a lot of keys on a keyring attached to his belt.
I followed him up the stone steps like a man on a scaffold follows his executioner on the way to his own hanging.
He unlocked the heavy glass and wooden door and we entered a dusty hallway that was illuminated by a single light bulb. There was a door down at the end and he unlocked it and we went inside into a large room with three or four tall dirty windows looking out onto a broken wooden fence and a trash-laden yard. The wind was making a bare tree limb rub up against one window and it made a plaintive sound against the glass.
Sam looked impatient and bored and said nothing as I walked around trying to get a “feel” for the place. There was an adjoining room off to one side with a sink, stove and refrigerator.
“Well…”? He asked, shifting the cigar butt to the other corner of his mouth.
“Okay, I guess I’ll take it,” I told him.
He said the rent was $175 payable in advance and held out his hand.
I reached into my back pocket and took out my wallet and handed him a hundred, a fifty, two twenties and a five. He quickly pocketed it.
He handed me two keys tied together with a bent paper clip and walked out leaving the door open behind him.
There was a tired old broom leaning against one wall so I took it and began to sweep and make a little pile of dust in the center of the room of dust, a gum wrapper and a crumpled cigarette pack.
As my back was turned to the open door as I swept a voice startled me.
“Just movin’ in?” asked an abnormally thin guy in his early 30’s who was leaning against the door jamb. He was wearing grey pants and a white sleeveless undershirt and held a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He looked like he hadn’t shaved in a long time and should’ve been at work somewhere at 3 oclock on a Monday afternoon.
“Yeah, just tryin’ to clean it up a little before I bring my stuff in.”
“Where are you coming from?, he asked.
“Moved here from Pennsylvania. I’m going to be a graduate student at Pratt…”
“Oh, I didn’t bother goin’ to college. Never finished high school, either.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I just kept sweeping.
He continued to stand in the doorway watching me sweep until he had finished his cigarette and then dropped it at his feet and stepped on it with one shoe to make sure it was out.
“Well, I guess I’ll see you around,” he said and turned and walked away.
Then I heard a door open and close and in a few minutes I heard a toilet flush as I walked over to close my door.I It was then that I realized that we would be sharing the same bathroom in the hall right outside my door.
It was late afternoon now and the apartment was beginning to get dark. There was a bare light bulb hanging from the center of the ceiling. It was off.
I looked around for a switch on the wall and couldn’t find one. It was then that I realized that I couldn’t spend even one night there.
I called Sam back and told him I’d changed my mind. The phone went silent for a few seconds and I wasn’t sure if he was still there. Then he told me to meet him in Mike’s Luncheonette diagonally across from the campus in a half hour.
When I walked into Mike’s I saw Sam seated in a booth off to one side drinking a cup of coffee. He finished his coffee and stood up as I approached him.
“I’m sorry, I can’t stay there.” I said apologetically.
“Gimme the key.”
I did as I was told.
He turned to walk out the door and I followed a step behind, “What about my money?”
Sam pushed open the door and walked back out into the cold.
I didn’t bother following him.