Postcards from the Edge or: New York State of Mind

(The picture above was taken at the White House Hotel.  I knew the resident who owned this picture: his entire cubicle was wallpapered with pictures of the Madonna).

I came to New York because I had nowhere else to go.

Growing up in Montrose, Pennsylvania the Village Voice was culture, wit, sophistication — everything Montrose wasn’t.  The Voice arrived at Corky’s Deli and Magazine Stand each week, sitting beside Sports Illustrated and Custom Vans like a shining beacon of something better. From the time I was 13 the Voice was my ticket to dreams of art I would never see, concerts I would never hear, friends I would never have.

Now it is late summer 1994: I am twenty-nine years old and awakening fitfully on a discarded sofa in upper Tribeca. The Voice is free in Manhattan now: so is the New York Press. I crumpled up half a dozen copies of each last night and stuffed them in my shirt against the chilly harbor wind. Two days ago someone stole my loading dock blanket while I was reading Tarot cards.  The scent of cooking oil wafts from the Chinese restaurant across the street and I realize I haven’t eaten since lunchtime yesterday.

Legba whispers “good morning” in my head.  The other voices rarely speak to me anymore. When they come they talk in the wordless language of body, with nagging dread and leering mockery and crushing despair. Legba speaks in full sentences, with a Caribbean lilt I will only later recognize as a Haitian accent. Legba also talks through the Tarot cards I brought with me along with $200 that was gone before the week was out.  With those cards I’ve been earning an existence, enough to keep me in a flophouse on a good day and fed on a mediocre one.

Yesterday barely qualified as a mediocre one: I’ve got $1.07 in my pocket.  That’s enough for coffee and a pastry at the convenience store, but I owe Legba a pack of peanut butter cups.  Fifty cents worth of candy and some change and he closes the gate so the other voices can’t get through. It’s a small price to pay, but it may mean reading hungry until I get a customer.

“¡Señor!”

When I look up a little Latino man is standing over me.  He holds out a bag.

“Here. You want this?”

A blueberry muffin and coffee.  With milk, no sugar.

“Thank you!” I say as he walks away smiling. “¡Gracias! God bless you!”

After I finish breakfast and smoke the blunt roach in my front pocket I head across the street for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.  I’m not even mildly surprised anymore. Since Legba showed up things like this happen regularly.  Other homeless people tell me similar stories: almost everybody in the street has witnessed the miraculous firsthand. Perhaps the Gods aid the poorest among us because They know no one else will.  Maybe They are less reticent about showing us Their presence because They know nobody will believe our stories anyway.

“Someday Legba will show you everything,” Legba tells me as I drop the candy at the crossroads and walk away without looking back.  He keeps saying that to me, but he says a lot of things. He tells me someday I will be a priest in Vodou, but of course that’s impossible. There are many Santeria houses that will accept White initiates, but Vodou is very much a Haitian thing. I’ve read all the easily available material on the subject — Deren, Metraux and Rigaud.  If I want to learn more I’d have to find somebody to teach me, and even the Village Voice doesn’t have Vodou Priests in the classifieds.  Maybe He is talking in metaphors or riddles. He does that often.

The fashionable lady in Washington Square Park interprets her cards as I lay them out.  Diamonds sparkle on her finger as she points to the Star and explains that shows blessings showering down upon her from the Divine Presence. “Smoke, smoke,” a rasta coos as he rides past on his bicycle.  A crusty girl by the fountain plays “Sweet Home Alabama” on her acoustic guitar: her dog lays patiently on her blanket beside the change cup.  When the fashionable lady is finished telling me her future she hands me a $20 bill. That will buy two nights’ rest at the White House on a Bowery cot with plywood dividers.  The Bowery address isn’t so stylish as my current Tribeca digs but it’s dry and warm and they have a shower: nobody will sit next to you for a reading if you stink.

“Namaste,” she says as the World Trade Center catches the morning sun like a glass mountain.  “That means ‘The divinity in me salutes the divinity in you.'”  I thank her and pocket my rent and wonder if her divinity ever bought her breakfast.

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