As a young boy, I lived in the Bronx in the mid-1980s during a time when it was infamous for its squalor, a third-world dilapidation captured in movies like Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver. I remember Travis Bickle, the movie’s psychotic anti-hero, boasting that he would take fares anywhere, “even The Bronx.” He considered The Bronx a place on the other side of all decency, and even as a child it didn’t escape me that his claim was meant as a boastful expression of daring.
As early as 7 years old, I wandered the neighborhood unsupervised, though warned never to relax my vigilance. I was largely raised by warnings, an unceasing sense of alarm in loco parentis. I tried very hard to master panoptic alertness without such omniscience seeming effortful—a laborious watchfulness is indistinguishable from fear, and it was better to walk the streets oblivious of danger than obviously terrified of it.
I never thought of myself as brave—most of my peers lived just as I did; we had no choice but to live and walk unaccompanied in a parlous place. Years later, after I attended college in a pastoral region of upstate New York, I came to fully appreciate just how hazardous my neighborhood was, and only then did I really learn to fear it. The version of myself who was a sophomore in college was far more moved by the risk of running late-night errand on those desolate streets than my 7-year-old self. By the time I was a full-grown man, what only retrospectively seemed like a virtue—a youthful courage—transmogrified into something else, a cynical wariness of strangers. Nevertheless, even as a child I was repulsed by the garish ugliness of my neighborhood, interred under a permanent topsoil of filth, and draped in graffiti, the tribalistic scribbles of angry disenfranchisement. Every pristine surface had to be polluted, every patch of virginal snow pissed upon.
Much of my meandering was the result of obligation rather than adventure—my father was accustomed to dispatching me on errands at all hours, typically for either cigarettes or alcohol, his two repulsively conventional and coarse addictions. (I would have preferred he squandered our meager savings on something peculiar, like 19th century keychains, or potato chips that resembled religious icons.) I resented these errands, especially since he seemed entirely indifferent to the risk to which they exposed me. If I objected, he bitterly accused me of cowardice, and sent me forth anyway. I learned not to object, and to even enjoy the manumission from our dreary apartment.
One night I was sent out for beer—I believe I was 9 years old—and as always given instructions to buy the cheapest on offer. My father was not a connoisseur of beer, or of anything; in fact, I think that fixes something central to his character, a sloppy indiscriminateness in all things. If necessary, he would downed vanilla extract in his tenacious pursuit of oblivion, he would have licked NyQuil off the heal of a vagrant’s shoe. Still, I always thought beer was all he drank until after he died—I was twenty-seven at the time—and I discovered a cardboard box of very cheap booze in the trunk of his car where a spare tire should have been. What did he do with that tire?
I headed to the local bodega—not once did they ever question this child with a ten dollar bill in his hand, nor did they seem to notice my embarrassment when I paid with some untidy combination of crumpled bills and loose change. At a very young age, I knew the comfortable relief of low expectations, the peculiar self-confidence that arises in response to underestimation. It was much later that I experienced the same low expectations as a mortifying condescension.
Only a few blocks from my apartment building, I heard a woman’s voice call out in a cloyingly friendly manner: “Hey little boy.” I almost placed an exclamation mark after that line, but it was less enthusiastic or forceful than cautious, a tender tone one adopts to reassure a frightened animal. My head snapped in the direction of the voice—to the left of me. I saw a woman crouching in front of a double-parked car—she had the posture of someone about to offer a treat to a dog. Directly behind her was the door to the back seat, opened as wide as mechanically possible.
She had blond hair that just barely reached the collar of her shirt. I can still see her face with an imperishable vividness. The remainder of my remembrance is less sure, more impressionistic, contaminated by the willful desire to summon more detail which inevitably permits the conjuring of it in the false name of memory. She wore a pair of jeans—they might have been acid-washed, a popular style at the time. I remember she wore white leather sneakers, but I cannot be sure of this. I remember her fingers adorned with rings, the ostentatious show of gaudy costume jewelry meant to ape wealth, but really the coarse plumage of poverty. I don’t remember the color or make of the car—only that it was a four-door sedan. The engine was running, and a man sat at the wheel. I remember nothing about the driver except the fact that he was a man—I recall this with absolute certainty even though he was looking away from me in the direction of the street, and never once moved. When I say absolute certainty I mean the kind of subjective self-assurance that I am incapable of doubting or of rendering rationally convincing to others.
I remember, with a lurid exactitude, the expression on her face. She was smiling, I know that for sure, and I can tell you that smile was meant to be confidence-inspiring, the smile of an adult who means a child no harm. But despite her performative intentions, I recall a different smile, one of expectancy, maybe lust. She seemed so still in that awkward position, so rigid it was like she was holding her breath. I am incapable of doubting this element of my remembrance, and any concession to skepticism would be purely academic, an epistemological asterisk, a dutiful intellectual formality.
I was never less than 10 yards away from this nameless woman, and never did she advance an inch in my direction. I must have halted in place for a sliver of time—a moment so brief it seems indivisible—but I recall it as cinematographically lucid, a snapshot of infinite clarity. I ran from that woman as fast as I could—I was 9 years old, and I knew with unchallengeable conviction that she meant me harm. I don’t know if this will make sense, but she has eyes weary from the weight of moral prohibition, a look of exhaustion from navigating societal constraint. By the time I arrived at the bodega, I was gasping greedily for air, glistening in sweat, my hands shuddery. The Arab man behind the counter—he logged so many hours in that spot he seemed under some peculiar sort of arrest—acknowledged my harried condition with a casual scrutiny. He didn’t ask me if I was OK, and I completed my absurd mission, and left the store with a six-pack of disreputably inexpensive beer. My chest ached from the extraordinary effort to hold back tears.
I took a strategically circuitous route home—I figured anything was better than retracing my steps. I mostly ran, equally anxious to avoid the menacing woman as I was to avoid angering my father with delay. I peered around every corner, a terrified, pitiful act of reconnaissance. When I finally made it to the front door of my building, I fumbled the keys clumsily, my anxiety for speed undermining any manual dexterity. I took the stairs to our third-floor apartment—I decided it was better not to be trapped in the elevator.
I let myself into the apartment, deposited the beer in the fridge minus one bottle, which I brought to my father, sunk deep in the recliner in the living room, the shabby throne fro which he ruled his squalid kingdom. His watery eyes were languorously fixed on the grotesque glow of the television set, a cynosure that hypnotically relieved him of every ambition. I set his bottle of beer down on the table beside him, along with the change from the purchase. His lips moved blowsily, and some brief, unintelligible noise crawled from his mouth like a feral animal just waking from a deep slumber.
Despite the bloodless relationship I suffered with my parents, I considered telling them of the danger I faced, a danger that might have continued to lurk outside. I was not bothered by any sense of duty to my fellow youngsters, or even motivated by a rational sense of security. I was not close to my parents—I do not believe they were capable of intimacy—but I burned to tell them nonetheless. To this day, I am unsure why I felt this way; however, I believe I needed, for the first time in my life, a genuine confidant, a responsible confessor, and there are only so many options for a nine-year-old boy. I seriously considered unburdening myself to my gym teacher; I was fond enough of him that I insisted my mother buy him a scarf for Christmas. I never told anyone.
For the next several months, I did my best to avoid leaving the apartment alone—a self-imposed hermitage out of terror. My father continued to enlist me in various errands about the neighborhood, but I began, in desperation, to feign illness, hoping that would finally trigger if not sympathy, some perfunctory sense of obligation. It is not easy for a 9-year-old boy to affect reclusiveness, especially when his principal custodians are indifferent to his fear. They finally took me to see a doctor, who cheerfully dispatched a clean bill of health. To this day, well into my forties, I think of that doctor only with violent contempt. I considered revealing the source of my reluctance to go outside, but finally decided it couldn’t help, and it seemed possible, even if inscrutably so, that such a disclosure could make my life worse.
I didn’t mind leaving the apartment with an adult escort, however; even my diminutive mother’s accompaniment deeply assuaged my anxieties. In my callow mind, this was still a world characterized by some sort of moral order—who would harm me while under the care of my mother? This made sense to me at the time out of a naive belief that the world at large must make sense—even the malevolence that preys upon children is governed by rules, chastened by decency. Nothing disadvantages the morally decent as much as this puerile presumption that others are similarly constrained which is why they are so feckless during an age of decadence. Anyway, my mother was less a guardian than a passport that permitted me to walk the streets inoculated from harassment.
Eventually, my paranoia waned, and I began to relax my perpetual guardedness, which for months felt like a white-knuckled fist in the pit of my stomach. I ventured outside more and more, and even regained some of the independence I had lost. Fear and anxiety—forms of expectation—are tightly wrapped skeins that must finally untwine. One can’t hold one’s breath permanently. I even began to venture outside of my own accord, and to again experience the weightless levity of an unhurried task, the facile amalgam of accomplishment and shiftlessness that paradoxically characterizes the minor errand.
I still thought of that nameless woman often, and even began to wonder if I misinterpreted her overture toward me—maybe her intentions were benign, or even tender. I remembered a strange encounter I had with another anonymous adult woman earlier in the same year. I was in the 4th grade, and dressed in my school uniform, a symbol of a solidarity I never experienced. (Do uniforms inspire harmony in prisoners?) We wore crisp white dress shirts, black trousers and shoes, and a green tie on which the school’s insignia was emblazoned in gold. We weren’t compelled to wear blazers, and our shirts could be short-sleeved, which makes me think some middling position in civil bureaucracy was the best our school masters hoped for us. It was a Franciscan academy, but not an affluent one—it catered to working class families with just enough money to avoid the public schools in the Bronx, which were generally holding pens for future delinquents.
We were at mass, and I dropped gracelessly to my knees on the prayer bench, which pulled out from the bottom of the pew in front of me like a slender sofa-bed. I leaned back and let my ass rest upon the edge of the pew behind me out of a listless boredom. Then I felt a pair of hands on my shoulders begin to adjust my back collar and the tie that escaped its protection. I never turned around—not even when we exited the pew a half hour later—but I knew those were a woman’s hands: the gentle nimbleness of the fingers, the delicacy with which they rectified my untidiness. I knew it was an adult, too—her hands moved with a self-assured authority one simply didn’t find in children. I remember her perfume with expressive, granular concreteness—it was floral but also chemical, like lilacs dipped in alcohol.
When she finished adjusting my collar, she smoothed out the back of my hair as well, but something about that service felt gratuitous, like she simply wasn’t ready for her duty to be discharged. One can sometimes sense an intention tangibly but vaguely, like the detection of a faint smell. It never occurred to me to object—I wasn’t accustomed to unsolicited affection, and however practical her purpose her touch felt like a caress. It’s very hard to be clear about this now—I remember this only from the perch of adulthood, of course—but there was something indefinably sensual about the way she touched me, even suggestively sexual. There was also a measure of sadness in her ministrations as well.
One afternoon, now largely unburdened of a prophylactic agoraphobia, I accompanied my mother to a local Hallmark store, an old-school gift shop which sold all kinds of miscellany from stationary to clocks. She wanted to pick up a birthday card for her sister. I was happy to help her find one—I know my mother’s taste in celebratory cards well—blandly impersonal and unabashedly sentimental. She never added a note to them; however, I was pleasantly surprised to find that she always read them carefully before buying, as if there was a clear distinction in the writing quality from one generic card to another. Happy birthday to my beloved sister. Oh yes, this is precisely what I mean.
As we approached the counter to buy the card, I saw her: the same shoulder length blond hair, the same eyes—I noticed (or remembered) now that they were blue. I stopped breathing for an instant—in times of crushing fear, we seem to be programmed to believe holding one’s breath makes one invisible. Behind the counter with her was a man who was clearly her partner or husband—was he the same man in the car that day? Then, our eyes met for an illimitable expanse of time—I was incapable at that moment, and I continue to be incapable now, to interpret her expression. Did she recognize me from that day? She smiled an anodyne, featureless smile that could have been an expression she reserved for customers, the ersatz friendliness of service, or something else. As I experienced it at the time, her gaze lingered too long on my face, long enough that it seemed the bearer of some deeper meaning. I held that gaze in return, but not as a challenge to her, but rather out of a desperate desire to interpret it.
My mother purchased her card, and as we exited the store, the still nameless woman said to her: “You have such a lovely little boy.” Given my first encounter with her, this seemed like a confession of covetousness to my mother, and to me, a barely concealed warning. I remember being relieved my mother paid in cash—otherwise, she would know our names, she would know where we live. We now had this advantage over her—we could find her if needed, but she could not so easily find us.
As we headed for the door, I walked right past the nameless woman, only a few feet away from her. And then I had the most peculiar experience, the slow unlocking of a memory hidden from view, one so painfully incremental I recognized I was remembering something before I could fix with clarity the thing remembered. It was as if I was seeing a blurred tableau before me coming into sharp relief but with the unhurried languor of geologic time. As the sensation materialized into something concretely familiar, I felt a rising tide of nausea in my throat, and the fetid taste of vomit on the back of my tongue. I could smell flowers and paint, so pungent it scorched my nostrils.
For many months after that fateful day, my fear returned redoubled in strength. If this mysterious woman works in a Hallmark store only a half dozen blocks from my apartment, it is reasonable to infer that she lives nearby. Even as a young boy, I understood that my neighborhood was dangerous, more dangerous than most, but I always believed those who threatened us came from afar, were malign interlopers, essentially barbarian invaders. I could no longer believe this soothing fiction, a considerable blow to my faith in everyday life, or what Jean Amery called a trust in the world. Of course, we have enemies, I knew this almost from the beginning. But now I knew that they could live next door. From that point on, I never saw our apartment as anything more than a box within which we locked ourselves as we slept. I’m unwilling to suggest that there are no real communities left in America, but I’m a 45-year-old man, and I’ve never seen one. The closest I’ve come was a racquetball league I joined in my late twenties.
I never returned to that Hallmark store, with or without my mother. It was situated on the busiest and most central shopping avenue, so it was impossible for me to avoid walking past it, and whenever I did I quickened my pace, and tried to steal a furtive glimpse through the front window of the counter. Sometimes, I saw her from behind, tending to customers. Once I saw her reading a newspaper when the shop was quiet; I wondered to myself what kind of stories caught her attention, and if the ones that typically moved my mother—anguished tales of senseless tragedy—moved her in the same way. Maybe they excited her in a way I could never understand. Maybe they inspired her.
About six months later, I was sent out to buy a lottery ticket—the voluntary tax enthusiastically paid by the otherwise hopeless, financial planning for the destitute—and I noticed the Hallmark store was closed, peculiar since it was the middle of the day. The iron security gate was down. When I got home I asked my mother about it—she always had an attentive ear for the neighborhood gossip—and she heard they had fallen into some financial trouble and closed for good. I could tell there was more, something she reticently withheld. Did you hear something else? Yes. Well, what was it? It was just gossip. I’d like to know. I saw her face disfigured in a way that resembled shame—she was straining to find the right words to convey something fathomless to her. Her lips did not move, but her eyes darted fretfully back and forth, as if intently scanning an invisible thesaurus. Then I saw the rigor of her countenance loosen, a slackening of her eyes, an unbinding I interpreted as permission to herself to give up finding the precisely correct description, to settle on the imperfect but familiar. They just weren’t good Christian people.
A decade later—I was 19 years old at the time—a sandwich shop now occupied that commercial space. I walked by it with my mother—age had deeply etched its cruel signature on her face, and while her wide-eyed expression could be mistaken for a youthful wonder, it was really a mask that concealed a gathering senility.
I was home from college for the winter break, and my mother remembered the store fondly and with some regret. She had entirely forgotten the circumstances of its closure. “It was so convenient to have that store nearby. Now I have to take a bus to find a decent holiday card. And the woman who owned the place was always so nice.”