I visited Central Park on a mid–October autumn morning in 1986, right around the stock market crash. It was my first visit to NYC. I flew into JFK and endured a long subway ride, settling on a Persian rug covering a Ludlow Street floor, spending five days in Top Tony Delgado’s broken stove and naked light bulb railroad tenement. He sat across from me telling me a story about the woman next door who ODed on heroin, and how people from the building rummaged through her things. He held up several Chinese ruled notebooks; Top Tony showed up too late to get anything else interesting. He offered me one; in taking it, I was intrigued by the black plastic cover and the sewn binding. It felt like a real book. I decided to use the notebook while on my visit.
On my second full day in the big city, I wandered through the park to Belvedere Castle and sat at the top of a staircase looking over the Great Lawn with its brown grass, bare dirt patches and scattered, windblown trash. While smoking a cigarette, I watched a couple sitting below me.
They seemed like models in a fashion shoot. Dude wore a spotless navy pea coat—perfect hair—and he sat close to the woman, navy blue beret, heavy military surplus coat, and a pleated blue–black tartan skirt that looked out of the dry cleaning bag. She sat cross–legged, holding an unwrapped and opened gift box on her lap, the kind that held a picture frame. She stared down at it, her gaze lingering while he stared at her, discerning and gauging her reaction.
Truly, I thought these were models. This scene was too perfect. They were so Sears catalogue magnificently dressed that they were unreal to me, like the store mannequins I had watched get carried out of an Orchard Street clothing store when I walked through the Lower East Side earlier in the day.
I looked to see if there was a photographer or film crew. There were neither.
They kissed in a rather passionate, lingering embrace. It was a good gift, I supposed. The wrapping paper flew away, the wind taking it off toward the tree tops below. They did not notice. I turned and watched its progress until it fell to the ground, ambling like a slow walker across, until it came to rest against a park bench nearly out of sight.
I looked back to see them locked in a hug. I felt a little sad, remembering my ex-girlfriend. At that, I turned to leave, walking north, and spent the rest of the afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum.
That night, Top Tony played Nico’s Chelsea Girl, on his stereo. “Wrap Your Trouble in Dreams”
was ghostly—Top Tony again bragged of seeing her at Danceteria a few years ago, which inspired him to move to New York City two years later. He paid nothing for his apartment, but it was dirty, and the ancient bathtub was disgustingly rusted on the outside. He had a great job at a used bookstore in Greenwich Village, and his one–bedroom apartment was walled with books he had temporarily borrowed from the store. I had my doubts these were temporary, but I do not judge people.
Top Tony flipped the record over, and moved the needle to “It was a Pleasure Then.” Now, that was a song: dissonant strings by John Cale, and Nico with that Nordic spirit coalescing into a misty bog of impending dread. Again, this reminded me of my former girlfriend, our breakup freeing me up to make this trip alone, not just to get away from home and to clear my head of her, but to see if I liked the big city.
So far, I found what I liked: mannequin lovers in Central Park, dead junkie girls giving up Chinese notebooks, and me on a Persian rug listening to Nico. I didn't think I could do this back home. The problem was whether this mad adventure was only a mirage to lure me into hell. I was always a careful man, even as a boy. I took my time with decisions, particularly big ones. Top Tony made it sound too easy, until I asked if there was a job where he worked. He hesitated with his response, which was a hedging, since knowing Top Tony since forever, it meant a steel solid no.
I remained undecided on the notion of living there, and kept my options open as I tried to convince myself. I bought a few albums at Venus Records on St. Mark's Place, and several more LPs, and a stack of imported 45s at Midnight Records up on 23rd Street, all the while stepping over trash and piss trails, and dancing around the rats. New York was smelly, dirty, and loud. I loved it.
I found an Italian café on Bleecker Street in the Village, and I spent my remaining three mornings, after waking, writing in my dead junkie girl notebook, listening to Prefab Sprout on my Walkman. This all had a certain romance to it, like the pea jacket and tartan skirt with beret in the park, but I needed money, and I had a job back home, and none that I thought I could find here. It was not as if I was actually looking, but I felt utterly unprepared to live there. Top Tony always said don't stare at people on the subway—and I could not help but stare. They glowered back, chameleons amid the spray paint and markers in mad designs surrounding them.
On my last day in New York I said my goodbyes to Top Tony. I had walked him to his job, and with backpack on my shoulders I took the subway to return to Central Park. At Belvedere Castle there was no pea coat with a tartan skirt and beret, only trash flying in the wind, and it was a few degrees colder than the previous time I visited. I leaned against the abutment and stared at the city skyline beyond the autumn gray in this late morning of the big, big city. Not my town, never home, but those views allocated for now, and in the future I might change my mind. Several cigarettes later, I walked to the Columbus Circle station, train to the plane, flying home.