December 3, 2011

Justin



I worked at the New York University publications bureau for a couple of years when I
was in school there. That’s where I developed a lasting fondness for the Optima typeface,
an elegant sans-serif font that was used for all of the university’s publications. The
bureau was a hotbed of gay copywriters and layout artists. There were summer lunch
breaks at Washington Square park and winter weekend parties in Brooklyn Heights. I
struck up a friendship with Justin, a talented photographer who owned a beautiful Pentax
SLR that I admired. He liked my Nikormat EL. We sometimes traded lenses.

Justin derived endless mirth from my pronunciation of kitsch, with a continental i, that I had
learned from my european boyfriend. “That’s so keech!” he’d exclaim, his fingers splayed
in front of him, spastically flapping, as if to shake off a contamination, when he saw some-
thing tacky.

We had this game where we’d walk around the Village, and cover up a portion of some
random sign with our hands, to reveal its hidden message. A STOP sign would
pronounce one of us “TOP.” There was something hilariously authoritative and deadpan
about these pronouncements, at least to two stoned sophomores. We’d approach an ad or
a set of directions and contemplate the possibilities. Manipulations could, with the help
of two hands and some well-placed fingers, get intense. The sign on the front door of my
condo for instance “If I’m not here, I’m at the beach,” could easily become “If I’m not
he, I’m the be-ach.” You catch the drift. Puns abounded.

We were meandering down 8th Street, in the general direction of Chez Madeline, an
immaculate and tiny counter with all of five stools, on Greenwich Avenue. Madeline
herself was the only help. You could get soup and a sandwich and coffee there for under
five dollars. It was a balmy summer day. Peter Allen, wearing a gorgeous yellow
flowered Hawaiian shirt, came walking up with some guy. “Hi Peter,” we said, as we
separated to let them pass. “Hi,” he said back, with a sweet smile. “I go to Rio,' rocks!”
said Justin, walking backwards, as they passed. Peter and the guy turned around. “Thank
you,” he said, walking backwards too. I took his picture, then we all turned away again.

“My next door neighbor plays that song incessantly,” I said. “It must be on a tape loop.
As soon as it ends it starts up again.”

“I like it.”

“I like it too. It hasn’t worn thin yet.”

When we got to Chez Madeline it was closed for the month of August. “Chez Madeline
will return in September,” said the sign on the door.

“Dammit!” I said. “I had a jones for her tarragon chicken salad in the worst way.”

“hez Mad,” said Justin with the sign.

“he will return...” I said back. Justin took a picture.

There was always Jane’s Patio, our default hangout on Bleecker. We were contemplating
our next destination when Justin looked across the street. Two punks were crossing in
our direction.

“Oh, shit!” said Justin. “It’s Rocky. Run!” And we took off down Greenwich, with
Rocky and his henchman in hot pursuit. We rounded Seventh Avenue and headed south.

“We should split up,” Justin panted, “I’ll meet you at Jane’s,” and he veered off down
Waverly Place. Not entirely persuaded of the wisdom of this tactic, I looked back and
saw whom I assumed was Rocky chase after him. Henchman was coming for me. I threw
the camera strap across my shoulder, moved the camera to the small of my back to
steady it, and took off west on Charles.

It occurred to me, of course, that whatever this was all about, was Justin’s problem. Why
couldn’t I just stop right there, turn around, and stand my ground. But then I looked
down Charles and there was nobody out on the street. I looked back at Henchman and
changed my mind.

I ducked down the stairs of a brownstone, and found myself in a long dim hallway and
what looked like a back yard, and daylight, at the end. Enclosed. No good. Henchman
was coming down the stairs. I swerved right, pushed through a big metal door and found
myself in a boiler room. I looked madly around. Across the room was a metal stairs that
led to a hatch that I assumed opened out onto the street. I leapt up the stairs and shoved
the double-doors of the hatch open just as Henchman charged into the boiler room,
slamming the big metal door against the wall. It all happened so fast. Thank heaven the
hatch wasn’t padlocked. I hauled out onto what turned out to be Hudson Street, traffic,
and pedestrians. I slowed down. I stopped. I turned around. Henchman emerged, looked
around, and assumed an almost comic nonchalance amid the staring faces. He walked up
to me, gave me a nasty shove, and walked away. “Hey asshole,” I said. When he turned
around I took his picture. “Coming to a Post Office near you,” I said, as the steam slowly
drifted out of his ears.



“Grilled cheese with tomato slices?” said Justin.

“What else?” I said.

We closed our menus and the waitress went to post our order.

“Well that was fun,” I said.

“I thought you’d enjoy it,” said Justin, with an obliging smile.

“Mind telling me what that was all about?”

“Oh Rocky just wanted his twenty dollars back.”

“What!”

“Well, he wanted to beat me up too, but he settled for getting his twenty dollars back.” 

“All that for twenty dollars?”

“Well that, and the fact that I sold him a chunk of hash that turned out to be cow dung.” 

“Oh,” I said. “Well that explains everything.” I rolled my eyes.

Justin took a sip of his iced tea. “You know Mark and Valerie, right?”

“With the restaurant?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

“So they’ve been to India a couple of times. To smuggle hash.”

“Really!”

“Yeah. Really. So after the first time, when they made this big score, they started
thinking of themselves as these big shot jet set hash smugglers. They had it packed in
spice containers and really did pull it off.”

None of this shocked me at the time. This was in the seventies, long before there was the
kind of terrorism that unnerves us today. Air travel was pretty free-wheeling. There was
no profiling, no drug-sniffing dogs, at least not in that venue, or significant security
checks, especially for an affluent couple of waspy globe-hopping restaurateurs sampling
international cuisine first-hand. I did wonder why they had risked it at all, though. They
had a successful restaurant. I kind of admired the audacity. Hash was cooler than weed.
Upscale. It had its mystique. But it still seemed a little twisted.

“They got lucky,” said Justin. “And they got lucky the next time.”

Our sandwiches came, Jane’s beloved grilled cheese and tomato dipped like croques in
eggs and grilled in butter. Served with sides of potato salad.

“I think I see where this is going...” I said.

“Yeah, so their luck finally ran out. Seems they dropped a bundle on their biggest score
yet, and it turned out to be nice little compact bricks of cow dung.”

Yeah. I said it. “Oh how keech!” complete with splayed fingers and flapping wrists,
which evoked a similar response from Justin. “Eeewwwww....” we said together, which
dissolved into the usual coda of laughter.

“So you sold Rocky cow dung?”

Justin took a bite of his sandwich. “I didn’t realize it at the time.” He chewed for a while.
“It was common knowledge around the scene that Mark and Valerie had made this big
score in India. They passed the hash around at the restaurant. A slice here, a chunk there.
I don’t even think they were in it for the money. They did sell some of it to their friends,
but it was mostly about the cachet of having it around.”

"Cachet," I intoned, raising an eyebrow and wagging my head.

"But of course."

“And everybody had the munchies, of course.”

“Ka-ching!”

We finished eating.

“So you sold Rocky cow dung.”

“Let’s go the pier,” said Justin. “I’ll tell you the rest of the story.”



The pier at the end of Christopher Street, being at the end of Christopher Street, was a
popular hangout, notwithstanding it being an outpost of the maritime vocational high
school. We threaded along the narrow sidewalk, brushing gingerly past the usual traffic. 
We ducked into Village Photo to pick up a couple rolls of Kodachrome. We hurried past
an alternative clothing emporium, whose ultrasonic burglar alarm, supposedly audible
only to dogs, Justin could hear, and which threatened to give him a seizure. We stopped
in front of a Baskin-Robbins. They were advertising a triple-scoop special. While Justin
contemplated the comestible possibilities, I contemplated the sign. With a judicious
placement of my splayed left hand, my right forearm, and a bit of elbow, I was able to
torture out

“POOP SPECIAL - Limited Time Only.”

I could see a head-lock gathering in Justin’s slowly inflating nostrils, suppressed grin,
and bugged-out eyes, and I took off down Christopher. He chased me all the way to the
pier, where we collapsed on a bench. Bracing myself for a noogie, I squeezed my eyes
shut, and scrunched up my shoulders. But the head-lock was the prelude to a kiss. On
the cheek. And an amiably dismissive little shove-off. I rocked sideways, and back, like
one of those big inflatable, self-righting toys. A few sunbathers, couples, and small
groups were scattered around. We watched a tug churning determinately down the
Hudson toward the harbor.

“Mark and Valerie wanted some shots of the restaurant,” Justin said. “It was early one
morning, and nobody was there except Mr. Sung, the dishwasher, in the kitchen.”

“I heard Mr. Sung was in love with you.”

Justin’s ears turned to stoplights. “Where’d you hear that?”

“Around.”

“It’s true,” said Justin, turning sheepish. “He stroked my forearm once. I later heard that
he thought, because it’s a bit hairy, it was a mark of beauty.” He covered his face, with
cupped hands, up to the eyes, like Stefan does on Saturday Night Live. But Justin would
never mock affection, including Mr. Sung’s, and didn’t.

“So you were at the restaurant...” I said, letting him off the hook.

“Yeah... I knew by then that Mark and Valerie had this hash thingy going, but I hadn’t
heard about the cow dung debacle. So anyway I was standing on a barstool to get a high
shot of the room when I noticed what looked a lot like some chunks of hashish down in
the pot of this huge philodendron. Hanging from the ceiling at the end the bar. By the
windows. ‘What an ingenious stash,’ I thought. Of course I realize now why they threw
it there, might as well use it for fertilizer. I grabbed a few pieces and put them in my
pocket.”

This drew a deep guffaw from me. A dog at the end of the pier started yelping
resonantly. Justin sat there with a go-ahead-and-laugh look.

“So you smoked it then? The cow dung?”

“I got high, actually. Or thought I did. But I remember thinking ‘This is really mellow
hash."

More laughter, and more dog yelps.

“But it didn’t seem to last very long.”

“You’re killin’ me!" Belly shaking, wiping tears from my eyes. "Killin’!”

“So when I ran into Rocky, I sold him a chunk for twenty dollars. He didn’t think it was
‘mellow’, at all, of course. He ripped me a new one on the phone. Then I started
avoiding his calls. It wasn’t long after that that I heard all about the cow dung twist, and
I started hoping to hell that Rocky never heard about it. But when I saw the look on his
face across the street... well, I knew the gig was up. But he settled for just getting his
money back.”

“Lucky you.”

“Really.” Justin lifted the Pentax to his eye, pointed it toward lower Manhattan, and took
a shot.

“How’d you get mixed up with a punk like that?”

Justin gave me a sideways glance and a rueful smile.

“Never mind,” I said.

We headed back up Christopher. What my friend Bill once called “New York light” was
slanting in from the west, and slotting down through the buildings. Our elongated
shadows preceded us on the sidewalk. We passed a stylish little restaurant, showing an
immaculately set table with a lovely little flower arrangement that inspired Justin to quip,
as if ordering from the menu “I’d like a bowl of flowers, please...” Divine, dressed in a
black turtleneck and jeans, all bald head and pencil eyebrows, came walking up with
some guy. “Hi Divine,” we said in unison, as we separated to let them pass. “Hi,” said
Divine, with a thrilling weary disdain. We let it go at that.






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